foreigner goes acoustic, tom shares their story
One day our manager said, “I’m going to book a show. You guys come out and do a whole acoustic set.” The show sold out. Standing ovation.” Mick Jones looks around and says, “I can’t believe this just happened. That’s almost a better response than we get from our electric show. What’s going on?” The manager said, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. You’re going to make an acoustic album!”
~ Tom Gimble
Tom Gimbel is a very funny, very talented multi-instrumentalist and a member of Foreigner for more than 20 years. You’ll see him on stage playing guitar, sax, keyboards and flute. We caught up with him in during the band’s 2016 tour that includes a number of acoustic dates. If you’re not already familiar, check out Foreigner’s Acoustique album that revisits the heart and inspiration of some of the band’s greatest hits (and they truly are).
TG I think this is a great story. I don’t know if you know the history of our acoustic act or our acoustic project being in Foreigner. We started going into radio stations. You know, you bring a couple acoustics and sing live on the mics. Then a radio station asked, “Would you do a promotion for us – music on stage with a few guitars. A few acoustics, sing a few songs?” Sure. You can see how it’s just growing incrementally.
Then, our manager said, “I’m going to book a show. You guys come out and do a whole set like that.” What happens? The show sold out. A standing ovation. Mick Jones is just looking around like, “I can’t believe this just happened. That’s almost a better response than we get from our electric show. What’s going on?” The manager said, “I’ll tell you what’s going on. You’re going to make an acoustic album.”
The first thing Mick Jones said, I will never forget it, is, “We’ve got to get a bunch of guitars. We’re going to need some Martins, some Taylors, some Guilds.” I couldn’t believe it. Everyone else was asking, “Where are we going to rehearse? What’s the set going to be?” He’s thinking, “We’re going to need a boatload of really cool guitars.”
AL On how audiences are responding to Foreigner’s acoustic shows
TG I think maybe it’s the fact that it’s different. It’s not a wailing electric guitar. There’s something organic about it that people really seem to be responding to.
AL Even though, your audience knows the songs, which is the biggest surprise for them in terms of the acoustic arrangement?
TG “Jukebox Hero” is always going to be one of the bigger songs of the night they experience in the acoustic realm. Same with “I Want To Know What Love Is.” I think in terms of the surprise, if we have a surprise up our sleeve, it’s “Cold As Ice” on acoustic guitar. Mick came up with this idea he plays a signature line on his guitar and he came up with a sax idea, so I play that. Jeff gets on acoustic bass and the whole thing just starts swinging and people get up and start dancing around. It’s a lot of fun.
AL Do you have a favorite in the set?
TG I don’t think so. I try to make whatever song we’re playing at the moment … I’d probably think of that as my favorite. I could really pour my heart and soul into any of these songs because we do so much harmonizing. When you’re singing, it makes it pretty easy to put emotion into it. You can close your eyes and think about a love lost or a love that is yet to be. You can get nostalgic. I really do. I get emotional when I’m singing and playing. It just happens automatically, probably from the training. I think it’s always happened, but when you go to school for music they teach you to play with as much feeling as possible. That’s what translates to the audience.
AL Do you feel more vulnerable performing acoustically?
TG We’re deep into the heart of this experiment, so this is a very timely discussion. Audiences are used to hearing the full rock sound. They want all the volume and the drums. When they hear the acoustic sound, they don’t necessarily know the difference. It’s almost like they hear the center. The lyrics, the chords, the singing. I call it the filet of Foreigner. You just hear the center cut, the chords, the melody, the strumming. The sound of Mick’s pick on his guitar. It’s all naked, completely. Initially, it could be a little bit more nerve-wracking, because there’s nowhere to hide. There’s no giant speakers, no drum set. The first few times might be a little bit more nerves. Once that’s gone, though, it’s just like velvet. We get relaxed. Mick starts telling stories about how he wrote the songs.
AL Do you write?
TG Am I a writer? I’ve done some songwriting. I’m not sure it’s my special talent, especially when you’re hanging around Mick Jones, Lou Gramm, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry. I think they have the gift for that. I tend to think that my special gift is performing.
AL You often play a cutaway on tour. Is that typical?
TG Pretty much. I think it’s kind of cool, because even though you lose a little bit of sound in the cutaway, when you’re playing in an ensemble, you don’t necessarily want the biggest, broadest, richest sound, because the sound man is going to be trying to blend you with the other instruments. 9 times out of 10 you know they’re taking out mid-range, they’re taking out bass. The fact that there’s less of that at the source almost makes their job easier.
AL How do you get that great sound on stage?
TG We’re really excited about the new pickup systems that we put in. We went through a lot of research and talked to just about everyone we could from James Taylor on down, just to find out what they’re using. The Eagles, et cetera. The one we came up with was called The Trance System. We’re giving our sound man 2 channels from each acoustic. The pickup is split between the first 3 strings and the second 3 strings. The sound man likes it, which is rare because they don’t like anything!
AL Are the acoustic shows physically less taxing?
TG Possibly because you’re not standing up. A Les Paul strapped with a belt pack on it … those things are heavy and you’re running around the stage with this 20-pound lead anchor around you, sweating. You come off the stage, you need towels. You got to change your clothes. You got to take a shower. Maybe not so much in the acoustic world. We kind of sit there and strum and play and sing. I’ll get the chance to get out of my chair, grab the sax and dance around a little bit. I would say that’s the big difference is just that you’re not drenched in sweat after an acoustic show, unless you’re playing Cuba.
AL On taking piano lessons at a young age
TG Along the way, of course, I learned the piano. My mom made me take piano lessons. We were talking about parents back in those days. It wasn’t that they were trying to be caring or trying to nurture their development. They were looking for places to drop us off! That’s how I got stuck playing the piano. She said, “You’re all three going. I’m dropping you off.” I had to sit there and wait while my sisters took lessons, too. My parents were at the club. They were mixing up cocktails, loving life, getting rid of these kids! That’s why I had a lot of lessons growing up.
AL How many acoustic guitars do you keep today?
TG Oh, boy. It’s one of those where you have to count them. I’m not really sure because there’s a bunch of them on the road. Let’s see – probably right around seven. For some reason, seven is always where I stop. It’s like a magic number. I’m pretty sure I have seven saxophones and seven acoustic guitars. At least seven. Of course, there’s the vintage drum set collection….
AL How many acoustic guitars do you tour with?
TG We do share a lot. I have a Martin acoustic bass that I play. A Martin-12 and I think just about three 6 strings.
AL Do you have one you refer to as your go-to guitar?
TG Yeah, the cutaway. It came with a good pickup system and a built-in tuner. It’s a nice little guitar. You probably know the model line. It’s not super high-priced or anything. When you’re on the road, sitting in trucks, and just 2 degrees (We were just in New York). Those guitars are sitting out there in trucks, so it’s got to be a pretty sturdy guitar to handle that.
AL So, who are your own acoustic heroes?
TG Led Zeppelin – Some of their biggest songs were those acoustic ones. I was watching that concert from Madison Square garden going, “I can’t believe it! They’re like unplugged back in 1971. I mentioned Johnny Cash. Even Elvis was known for holding his acoustic guitar, so when I wanted to be like Elvis I stood up there with my acoustic guitar…Ian Anderson with his Martin and the capo on the third fret … That’s a huge deal of their sound….James Taylor is everyone’s favorite acoustic guy. What he can do with one guitar and one voice … Oh, my goodness.
AL If you could see one acoustic show this year, who would it be?
TG How about Paul McCartney playing “Yesterday” on his Martin? I would take the acoustic section of the Paul McCartney show… and in parentheses I’ll take the acoustic portion of The Who show also. If I had a choice, I would pick a PeteTownsend solo acoustic show also as a top choice. He does occasionally do shows as a solo artist with just him and his acoustic guitar.
AL On a changing world and audience reaction to Foreigner’s acoustic shows
TGYeah, the world does change. It probably caught us a little bit off guard. We’ve done, I want to say maybe a hundred acoustic shows. It was an initial surprise. There’s always going to be an element of that because you’ve been an electric band your whole life. There’s always that acoustic element that’s been alive and well in the backdrop, in the background. The acoustic world has always remained alive and well. Now for us, we sort of come full circle with this acoustic tour. The response has been magnificent. And the music is great.
We’ve got rock musicians that love the acoustic world. What’s not to love?