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Guitarist Gary Pihl Recalls the Day Sammy Hagar Broke Up the Band: Exclusive Interview

Boston celebrated their 40th anniversary as a group last year. Guitarist Gary Pihl has been with them for a good chunk of that time — more than 30 years, with ties to the group that date back even further to the days when he played guitar for Sammy Hagar in the ’70s.

As Pihl noted in a conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock, his work with Boston leaves him with little idle time. Still, he recently released an album, After the Rain, with a new project called All 41 that includes bassist Robert Berry (3, Ambrosia), drummer Matt Starr (Ace Frehley, Mr. Big) and singer Terry Brock (Kansas). “As you can imagine, it’s a play on the Three Musketeers,” he says. “All for one and one for all.”

This is a pretty impressive lineup of folks that’s been assembled for this new group.
Frontiers Records wrote to me and asked if I would like to do an outside project, something else besides Boston, and I said, “Yes, what do you have in mind?” They started kicking around some names and they went through quite a few, trying to figure out who might be available. It came down to these other three guys, and once they got the lineup, I said, “Oh, that’s going to be great.” I’ve known Robert Berry for a long time. We’ve got a couple other projects — one is Alliance, which is the first album project we did together. Lately, we’ve got a charity band called December People that we do together. So [knowing Berry], I said, “I know I could work with him easily.” I had never met the other guys, but of course they’ve got quite a reputation of being terrific players. They were great to work with. We finally all got to meet in L.A. to do the video for “After the Rain.” As we were doing the video, we’re playing along with the track, but we’re actually playing. Matt has got real drums there and I’ve got my guitar, Robert’s got a bass and Terry is singing. We’re all singing the parts, and it’s like if you would have turned off the track, we would be playing. It felt very natural to us. We were saying at that time, “Gosh, it would be great if we could do some gigs with this band.” Because we know what we’re doing. We’ve got this together. So I hope that happens in the future. But of course, we’re all so busy with the other bands that we’re in, that it will be tough to try to arrange that.

Listen to All 41’s ‘Who Knows’

What was the creative process when it came to writing and recording this stuff?
That was one of my first questions when they asked me if I wanted to do this project. I said, “Okay, what’s the material?” They asked us all to submit songs. As it turned out, I had been working on a few. As a musician, you’re always working on something. So I said, “I’ve got a few that might fit.” Two of my songs ended up on the record, “Hero” and “Who Knows.” It was the same with Robert, a couple of his songs ended up on there. The rest were mostly written by multi-instrumentalist Alessandro Del Vecchio, from Italy. He had sent over demos of the songs and they were in good form. Actually, I asked him, “Geez, who is singing on this? This sounds pretty good.” He said, “Well, that’s me singing” and I was like, “Wow, you sound great!” There were good guitars and drum parts on there already. But of course, when I heard them, I said, “I assume you want me to put my own style into it.” Part of that was thinking, “Well, I don’t want to sound like Boston and I don’t want to sound like my old band, because I was in Sammy Hagar’s band for eight years. I don’t want to sound like Sammy Hagar’s guitar player anymore, you know, I did that. I want to come up with my own sound for this.” I definitely tried to come up with my own riffs and style and approach and tone for the guitar. I built a tube guitar amp to use on the record. One of my hobbies is tinkering around with electronics and all of that, so I built a tube amp to use on the record, because I wanted my absolute own sound. It doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever done before, because this is a brand new concoction that I’ve come up with that I get to use.

It sounds like you guys were kind of sending stuff around. It had to be pretty interesting as you make your contributions and you start hearing it all come together and turn into songs.
You’re exactly right. Unfortunately, we couldn’t all get together in one studio and just record it. After meeting the guys and jamming a little bit with them, that would have definitely been possible just to play these songs and just do it, almost a live recording. But that wasn’t quite possible. So we did send the tracks back and forth, and it’s such a wonderful thing that you can do that easily through email these days. The basic ideas were there and then, each time somebody adds their parts, the rest of us get excited, like, “Oh, wow, that’s a cool thing! Listen to what he did on this piece!” It certainly all inspired us to keep going and have the songs evolve over time as we sent them back and forth.

You’re a guy who has made a lot of records over the years with everybody in the studio. How much of an adjustment was it for you to start working in a different way?
I’ve done it both ways over the years. So luckily, it wasn’t brand new for me. But yeah, certainly back in the Sammy Hagar days, we would just all get in the studio and play. We would just play the tracks and Sammy would be singing, at least a work [vocal] track with us. For instance, the last Hagar album I did was VOA, which has “I Can’t Drive 55” on it. We just played the tracks. We would do two or three a day. Usually you’d do overdubs for solos or vocals or those kind of things. That whole album took us 12 days to record. It was practically a live-in-the-studio kind of thing. But over the years, I’ve done other records, both with Sammy and Boston. We didn’t have that luxury to have the whole band at one time, so I had to put my parts on after the fact. Drum tracks are done or at least a rhythm track you can play to, so I’ve certainly been used to that. It wasn’t new for me, so that was good.

Watch Sammy Hagar’s ‘I Can’t Drive 55′ Video

You mentioned Alliance earlier. I was bummed to miss the shows that the band played in St. Louis back in 2010.
It was two shows, and for us, we had made a few albums already, but never had a chance to perform live. When it all came together, I had the opportunity, and the other guys were available. The catalyst was Sammy Hagar, because we played at his club. We were talking about it and we asked Sammy if we could do it in his club someplace. Because we were originally thinking that it might be Tahoe, because the other guys live in California. We even talked about going to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We said, “Well, that might be fun to go down there and do that, and then, of course, we’d spend more time. We’d probably play there a week or something.” But he said, “You know, St. Louis was always a great town for the band.” I don’t know why. If I knew why, I’d be a genius, but for whatever reason, the Sammy Hagar band was always big in St. Louis. We used to headline the Checkerdome there. He said, “You guys should do it there — some of the old fans will come out and see it and it will be kind of fun.” To top it off, he said, “You know, my son Aaron has been singing with some other folks. Why don’t you ask him to sing with you guys for a special set of old Hagar stuff and Montrose.” And we were like, “Wow, that’s a great idea.” So what we did was we played our songs as Alliance and then said, “Hey, we’ve got a special guest in the audience, Aaron Hagar,” and Aaron came out and did Montrose songs and some Hagar songs with us. That was a trip too, to hear Sammy’s son interpreting those songs. That was a lot of fun.

Just looking back at the lineup of the Sammy Hagar band — you, David Lauser, Sammy and Bill Church, that was a heck of a band.
Of course it changed over time. When I first joined Sammy’s band, it was Chuck Ruff on the drums from the Edgar Winter Band. Alan Fitzgerald on keys, who went on to play in Night Ranger. Fitz played bass with Montrose. And then for a while, we had Denny Carmassi on the drums, from Montrose. So for one iteration of the band, it was all Montrose guys and me. Terrific players, and it was a great experience. People ask me, “What was it like working with Sammy Hagar?” And I say, “With Sammy, what you see is what you get.” You know, he’s always in a good mood. Great musician and a lot of fun to work with, and I had eight great years working in his band. We still keep in touch.

On paper, Sammy had three records that did really well in a row, the Standing Hampton album, Three Lock Box and VOA. How did it feel in the moment when you were making those records?
He was always optimistic. You know, like, “The next record’s going to be even better.” When I started, actually one of the first things we did was open up the end of Boston’s first tour. We were just an opening act except for a couple of places that we were known — San Francisco for one, and then Sammy’s home territory, San Bernardino, Southern California. Other than that, we were an opening act, because not that many people knew who Sammy Hagar was. But again, every year kept getting better and better. More people would know us and the records sold better and better. Those years were exactly that, it was like, “Wow, we’re playing bigger places and more people know about us. We’re getting more airplay.” As you can imagine, it was a sad day for us when Sammy came to us and said, “Oh guys, I hate to say this, but I got an offer I can’t refuse. The guys from Van Halen need a singer. You know, David Lee Roth has bowed out and they’ve asked me to do it.” And I said, “Boy, I just don’t see anyone could pass that up.” We had such a great band. We felt like we could hold our own with anybody. But hey, that’s life sometimes. We were certainly happy for Sammy, that he got such a wonderful opportunity, but of course, disappointed, because we thought we were just moving up every single year.

When I spoke to David Lauser in 2013, he mentioned that prior to the band’s final performance with Sammy at Farm Aid, Eddie Van Halen came to the studio and jammed with you guys.
Eddie’s a really friendly guy. And obviously one of the top players in the world, so I don’t feel too bad about being replaced by Eddie Van Halen, you know? [Laughs] But he was very gracious and friendly. We met him and we jammed, because we knew that was going to be the plan, that Sammy was going to join their band and that was our last gig together. Eddie was going to come out and jam at the show. So we knew how it was going to come down. But again, Eddie was very generous and a nice guy. You meet him and a half hour later when he’s leaving, he’s like hugging everybody, like we’re all best friends, you know? Of course, I got to see him many times when Sammy was in the band and same thing, he was friendly as can be. A real pleasure to know and a nice guy.

What was it like seeing him in that rehearsal atmosphere, playing up close?
He’s one of those guys that can’t play a wrong note. Everything he does, it just seems like magic to me, watching somebody that good. So yeah, that was really special. The rest of us work at it, but it just seems like he could play in his sleep and it would be fantastic.

Lauser was telling me that there were close to 30 songs demoed for the Standing Hampton album. That’s an incredible record, so the work paid off.
Yeah, Sammy was very prolific at the time. He had notebooks full of lyrics. We would jam on stuff. Sometimes at soundcheck, when we were on tour, he’d have some idea and we’d be jamming on it. Sometimes that would turn into a song and sometimes it wouldn’t. We’ve even done stuff in the middle of the set while we’re playing live. We’ll go into some riff that we were working on and just play it, see if the audience digs it or not. Very free form. A lot of creativity and it was sort of no holds barred. You know, let’s just do this. Because we felt very confident that we had some great fans that would listen to anything that we were going to do and let us know if they liked it or not. It was very liberating at that time to work that way, just to be so open. Like, “Hey, let’s try this, right now, tonight.”

You had the good fortune that as that gig with Sammy was evaporating, the opportunity comes along with Boston. What was it like coming into that camp?
Back in ‘77 when I joined Sammy’s band, almost one of the first gigs that we did was to open up the end of Boston’s first tour, which was a couple of weeks [of shows]. They liked us and we liked them and they said, “Hey, you guys should open the entire second tour.” That’s what we did, ‘78 through ‘79, all across the country. So I must have seen them a couple of hundred times. I was always the electronics geek in our band, the guy that would fix amps or cables or whatever needed to be done. And of course Tom Scholz was that same way in his band. We got to talking and he was nice enough to indulge me, because I would say, “Hey, what’s this box and how do you get that sound? What’s this over here? How do you do that?” He was nice enough to show me what he was inventing and what he was doing and all of that. We kept in touch over the years, and as a matter of fact, when he started his company, Rockman, he asked me to come to a NAMM show in L.A. to demonstrate some of his products. I was still in Sammy’s band at the time, but went to L.A. for Tom to demonstrate some of his stuff. When he heard that Sammy was going to join Van Halen, he called me up and he said, “Hey, I heard you’re out of a gig, I wondered if you’d come here and help me finish the Third Stage album.” There was one more song to be recorded called “I Think I Like It.” At that point, that’s all he was offering. I said, “Oh, absolutely, that would be a dream come true to play with Boston.” I left from our last gig with Sammy at Farm Aid, I flew directly from there to Boston, to start working with Tom. So I wasn’t out of work for a day and how lucky could a guy get? After a few weeks of working with him there, he said, “I think we work well together, why don’t you move back here, we’ll finish this album, we’ll maybe do some touring.” He didn’t even know if people would still care, because it had been a long time since the previous album. And [Scholz said], “We’ll work on the next album.

At that point, he said, “I figure it will take about four years to make.” I’m thinking, “Man, four years, wow.” Again, my last record with Sammy took us 12 days, and here’s a guy saying that it’s going to take four years. He also said, “I’d like you to help with the company, demonstrate products at the NAMM shows and things like that.” He knew that was one of my passions as well, electronics and guitar amps and stuff. I said absolutely. In essence, he was offering me a job for four years. So I moved the wife and kids back to Boston and have been there ever since.

Listen to Boston’s ‘I Think I Like It’

You have a lot of different things going on, being in the world of Boston. It seems to go far beyond the average person that’s in a band.
That’s it. We’ve got to be the only band in the world that plays amplifiers that we’ve built. There’s nobody that knows the gear better than me and Tom, because we built it. He had some other great engineers that worked at Scholz Research, [which is better known as] Rockman, that were also musicians as well. It was great working with those guys and tweaking that gear. When I got there, they were about to go to another NAMM show. Tom said, “Why don’t you come down to the office and listen to what we’ve got going? Let us know what you think. Listen to these products that we have, pre-amps, choruses and things like that.” I go down there, and Tom and the other engineers are sitting around and they’re playing this stuff and tweaking things. We were talking about it, how this sounds and it could be better if we did this. They were working on prototypes of this stuff and they’d say, “Okay, we’re going to make this change and then everybody get out the soldering irons and start changing components.” And so I go, “Look, I know how to solder, let me jump in and help ya.” So we’re all sitting around soldering this stuff and changing and making it work. So I just kept doing that. My other passion is photography, and so when they needed pictures of the products for magazine ads and things like that, I was like, “Well look, I know how to do that.” I just started doing all kinds of things there at the company and kind of worked my way up to VP of Operations. But he did sell it in ‘95. I’d worked there 10 years and then he sold the company to Dunlop. But we’re still using all of that same gear today that we built way back then.

It seems like you’re also kind of the musical director of the band these days.
Well, I certainly have seniority. [Laughs] By age, if not the experience. We have changed members over the years, so when it comes time to break in a new person, Tom and myself will get together with them. We’ve got some terrific musicians here with us. Tommy DeCarlo, the lead vocalist, he’s a great keyboard player as well, so we’ve got him playing keys on several songs. Tracy Ferrie, first from Stryper, on bass, Beth Cohen, who is a perfect keyboard player and a pretty good guitar player as well — she actually sang backup for us on the Corporate America album, so when Tom was looking for another person, I said, “You know, Beth Cohen, I think she plays guitar a bit, and I know she plays keys,” so we recruited her. Her other gig is with Barry Gibb, she’s done backup with him for many years. She does backup and then comes out and fronts the band when they do the Barbra Streisand song that Barry had written for Barbra, so she takes center stage on that one. So again, we have pro people. Then we have two drummers that trade off. Curly Smith, way back from Jo Jo Gunne and he’s played on all kinds of sessions, Rick Springfield and on and on and on. The other guy is Jeff Neal, who is a high school history teacher that Tom found up in Maine. Jeff is such a dedicated educator that he could certainly quit his day job, but he doesn’t want to. He says, “You know, i love working with these kids and I want to do this the rest of my life, and if you guys don’t mind, I’ll do the tour dates that I can in the summertime, once school is out.”

All the years that you’ve spent being in a band with Tom Scholz, what is that experience like? 
Somebody asked me to describe Tom in four words and I said, “Oh, man, four words?” Smartest guy I know. My mom is the smartest woman I know. She’s a member of Mensa, but Tom is the smartest guy I know. When they put together the list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All-Time, he’s always on there. He’s also on the list of 100 Greatest Keyboard Players of All-Time. There’s nobody else in the world that’s on both of those lists. Then you throw in 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All-Time, there’s always a couple of Boston songs, the fact that he designed the amplifiers that we’re using onstage … He’s a really special guy, and I’ve enjoyed my 40 years that I’ve known him and the 30-something [years] in the band.

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