KISS and music

Many of you have read about my time on the road with KISS and other bands.  I've done a number of interviews, and of course there are the chapters in Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Switched On.

You may have seen my rock and roll photo gallery on Facebook

I started doing sound for local and regional bands.  I got my start working with Fat, Clean Living, Roomful of Blues and James Montgomery.  We played in local bars and at colleges around New England and then the Northeast.

From those bands I moved onto doing sound for shows with regional bands like Orleans, the Fabulous Rhinestones, Bonnie Raitt, and Taj Mahal.

I build crossovers, limiters and other custom single processing components for individual musicians, bands and sound companies.  By the late 1970s I was working as the American engineer for Britannia Row, the sound company Pink Floyd had spun off to rent their surplus gear when they were not on tour.

I had the opportunity to work with lots of national tours at that time.

My 21st birthday came riding the ferry to Cornerbrook, Newfoundland up in Canada.  I was working the sound system for April Wine on their First Glance tour, which was one of their first albums to garner attention in both Canada and the United States.

I'd met the guys from KISS when they came to our New York studios to rent a monitor system.  One thing led to another and I ended up designing a number of special effects and special effects guitars for them. That process is described in Look Me in the Eye.

The tour pass photo on the right is me, circa 1979.  People called me Ampie because I designed the amplifiers.  My little brother accompanied me to shows and he was Baby Ampie, which he did not particularly appreciate.

We made a number of guitars for KISS.  There were a series of smoking guitars made from Gibson Les Paul Customs in sunburst and black.  Back in the day Ace fired them during the guitar solo in 2000 Man, but he later changed the act to use them on other songs.

The iconic light guitars were made for Ace's hit New York Groove.  We did several of those plus a laser guitar and special effects for the other stage instruments - Gene's Battle Axe bass, Paul's Broken Mirror Ibanez and others.

The first light guitar was built from a Les Paul TV, a vintage guitar from the late 1950s. Later guitars were built on newer Custom bodies. The Custom had a curved front where the TV was flat, but it didn't matter as we machined both flat when we cut into the face for the circuit board.  We put almost 1,000 incandescent lamps in each, and you could feel the heat sweep with the lights when they ran.

The lights were powered by a Ni-Cad battery pack and the music was transmitted via a Shaeffer Vega wireless rig so the whole thing was cable free.   There was a special XLR-type plug in back to connect a battery charger between sets.

Ace came on stage playing this guitar while facing back in the corner of the stage.  The audience could see something flashing but could not tell what.  He'd walk out backward, turn round, and they would just go wild.

I describe that scene in the opening passage of my book BE DIFFERENTWe built all KISS's custom guitars in Massachusetts but I had to go on the road to fine tune their development.  I was on the road for all the KISS tours of 78-82 and then the shows with Ace as Frehley's Comet after that.  Here I am working on another of the light guitars, on the road in some hotel:

If you look close you'll see we added a layer of baltic birch plywood to the back of that guitar to thicken it.  That was to allow even more lights (for big halls) and microprocessor control.  

I personally designed all the special effects guitars KISS played in those years.  I also created a fair bit of the electronics they played through.  That included the light guitars below, the smoking guitars, the rocket guitars and the laser guitar for 1979, among many.

Most of the guitar amplifiers I worked on were vacuum tube designs.  We hotrodded and modified heads from Fender, Marshall, and Sunn. Guitar stacks on stage back then were 100-150 watts on a small stage, and up to 400-600 watts on a big arena stage. For KISS we had a stack of seven Sunn Coliseum bass amps, 2,000 watts in total.

The amplifiers I worked on for house sound systems were all solid state, both transistor and MOSFET designs.  I had worked on high power amps for sonar and other applications and we brought that technology into concert amps; it's now common.

Long Island luthier Steve Carr did the fretwork and tuning to make our creations play.  He also did the metallic body finishes and the custom inlays. Later he claimed to have done all the design and work, which was untrue, but by then I had left the music business so I didn't pay any attention.

I designed the electronics.  My then-girlfriend, later-wife Mary Robison did the assembly. My friend Jim Boughton did the mechanical engineering and fabrication.  

After Ace left KISS he played with John Regan (Peter Frampton's long time bassist) Anton Fig, Richie Scarlett and others, and I was connected to them through him

Here I am recently with master luthier Jim Cara, who has followed in the custom guitar tradition.  Check out his story here.

The original KISS guitars are now valuable collector pieces.  Over the years many of them were sold off and I've lost track of them.  in 2011 Ace called me up and asked if we were up for rebuilding the original light guitar, which had not worked in many years.  By then my son was 21, and his mom was interested in doing that project with him. I went down to New York and picked it up from his manager.

Work progressed slowly, and partway through the job, Mary was diagnosed with cancer.  She died and the project was finished up between my son and my old friend Bob Jeffway - one of the engineers I worked with at Milton Bradley.  We rebuilt the car with original technology, seeking out vintage incandescent light bulbs and other period correct pieces.  One concession to modernity was the batteries - we fitted new style battery packs and doubled the run time as compared to the original.

Here's Ace playing that guitar for the first time in 30 years to a sellout crowd - 5,000 people - at the Big E in 2015.  The next photo shows all of us in the bus after the show.  The fellow in the suit is my old friend Gene Cassidy, president of the Big E Fair.


Unknown said…
What an exciting life you've lead and are still!

I have been out of the field (Speech-language Pathologist) and not working with persons with autism for about 8 years.

I'm ashamed to say I had not heard of you or your books.

I am enjoying your website and intend to share the KISS story and photos with some of my local musician friends, as well as some die-hard KISS and guitar fans!

Thank you for sharing yourself with all of us!

Betty M
Unknown said…
What an exciting life you've lead and are still!

I have been out of the field (Speech-language Pathologist) and not working with persons with autism for about 8 years.

I'm ashamed to say I had not heard of you or your books.

I am enjoying your website and intend to share the KISS story and photos with some of my local musician friends, as well as some die-hard KISS and guitar fans!

Thank you for sharing yourself with all of us!

Betty M
Allison said…
Dear Mr. Robinson, Thank you for sharing your experiences with the world. I read Be Different two years ago when our son was diagnosed, and I read Look Me in the Eye last month. I was simultaneously reading Neil Young's autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. I am curious if you and Mr. Young have ever had contact since you have many overlapping interests - audio technology, automobiles, walking in the woods, children with challenges. Are you aware of each other? If not , I think you should read each others' works. See where that takes you. Best wishes. Allison
Allison said…
Dear Mr. Robinson,
Thanks for responding to my comment. Neil Young and his wife established the Bridge School for children who can't communicate, but it isn't aimed at children w/autism. Their son has cerebral palsy. I was just struck by the number of similarities in your mutual interests. He is a very creative fellow, like you, and perhaps on spectrum without knowing it himself. I will send a letter to his publisher to tell him about your books. No way of knowing if he will ever get my communication, but if you have the time to read his autobiography, I think you will find it interesting. The energy you are putting into assisting the autism community is amazing. I thank you very much for it! Our son is at Auburn School in Baltimore and they are building a wonderful curriculum for kids with social challenges. Allison
Unknown said…
Hey I love your story I am going to share it with my brother who is also on the spectrum he injoys rock music and plays the electric guitar I was reading you book at the library but its a must have so I am going to by it
Boe said…
My son is 20,he was diagnosed in his junior year only because I figured it out on my own. He is officially diagnosed. He loves music, and is a major muscle car buff. He is also called a grammar nerd. If he has an interest in it, it knows more than anyone wants to know about it. He needs help, but I don't know how to. He needs a mentor, but there aren't any around. I am so happy about your experience. I wish he could meet you. He calls himself retarded. He is so good at what he does and has a heart of gold. I don't know what direction to send him. I'm so excited to read your information. Thank you for sharing your life, He refuses to read anything because he thinks he is retarded. :(((((
thanks so much, Boe
Boe said…
My son loves music, knows everyting about them. He loves muscle cars. He is 20, but is not sure what to do. He needs help and direction. I wish he could meet you. You sound so much like him. He does not want anyone to know he has asper. because he thinks he is retarded. He is also called a grammar natzi. He is trying to get a band together, with no avail. thanks for sharing your life. were just lost on what to do. I pray a lot.
dsds said…
This is a fantastic website, could you be interested in going through an interview concerning just how you made it? You can visit my site.
Anonymous said…
Hello, while I'm not an 'idiot savant, or aka RainMan jokingly, my mom encouraged reading of your book as when I lost an assembly job of 16 years, and no prospects in the recession of 2008, I found out I was wrongly misdiagnosed and had Asbergers as well, took a bit of testing to do in that time, but had assumed it was ADD and shyness as well as difficulty with math, though very keen interest in electronics, music and arts. KISS inspired me as a child born in summer of '66! I'm on Facebook with my given name, Bill
Jen Myers said…
Hi John Elder! My husband and I were just talking about your guitar magic. I couldn't remember if you ever worked with Queen. Glad I could find this post-- I love the pictures. Take care.
John Robison said…
Hi Jennifer . . . No, I never worked with Queen.
Unknown said…
Keep swearing I'm gonna get and read your books but can't seem to bring myself to read a lot. Live on ssi with I thought a aspbergers diagnosis but it's for aspbergets/autismish behavior. Happen to be a kiss fan and I'm a green tinted albino black alien from the planet no sambvka :/
Robby's Mom said…
After my son was diagnosed being on the spectrum I read your book Look Me In The Eye for hope. What you gave me was so much more. I laughed so hard. I read the part about your fake Satanic killing to my husband.He then requested me to read the whole book out loud (while he was restoring a car).We too live in a rural area of Pennsylvania and if my son ever does anything as crazy as your pranks. I will have his bail money in one hand and champagne in the other. You have touched our family's heart and our funny bone.Look Me In The Eye is my favorite book.Thank -you for being you.
Unknown said…
I'm trying this again--my best friend's oldest son has Asperger. He is also fascinated with guitars. The world would be a boring place without you and your brother. I've been binge-reading both you guys' books while I've been working out, and your stories have been keeping me sane. This year, I lost a job that I loved, and my Mom has been diagnosed with cancer. So I'm glad you guys are here.
Unknown said…
Hi Mr Robison
A little while ago I bought a second hand ROBISON brand Les Paul and was wondering if you or your family have anything to do with the company ?
Just curious
Many thanks
Keith Hughes
Unknown said…
Loved the book. Read it ~5 years ago and remember the part about some has passed/crashed you smile because it wasn't the people you cared about so you were glad it wasn't them and they ridiculed you about it. Many children were diagnosed with your insights !
Unknown said…
Hi Mr. Robinson, as a school assignment, I had the wonderful opportunity to read you book, and a part of the book I became really intrigued with. Your time around musical instruments and electronics has really inspired me to take part in my own musical creations. I had a project in mind that I would be curious as to your input if you had any. I was thinking about using an electric guitar with individual pickups that output 6 individual signals to my computer, and then with a little coding magic, I could transfer each individual string's sound into its own speaker or even take it a step further and have each plucked string correlate to a burst of flames through one of six openings through a propane contraption similar to the one found here.

This would cause very dramatic audible and visual creations that can awe an observer constantly, and I guess my question to you would be a) Whether or not it is plausible as a 16 year old with limited knowledge and money to do, as well as b) if transferring individual sounds of a guitar separately is even possible, especially to then have it outputted to both a speaker and arduino based contraption that will release and ignite the pressurised propane.

Any input would be greatly appreciated and I hope to hear from you, thanks,
Peyton Schroeder
DHS in Dekalb, Illinois
Unknown said…
Hi John, thank you for all your help you gave me with the Arabian Nights discotheque in Chicopee Massachusetts during the latter part of the 1970s. Your expertise and help with the sound system and they lighting show was invaluable. Never forget it. Thanks again.
Naif Makol
Unknown said…
Hello John. I was curious if a custom Ace Frehley model would be available to be purchased? It's my all time favorite guitar and would be a wonderful addition to my collection. Thank you!


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