Looking back with Boston’s Gary Pihl6/1/2016
Bands go through lineup changes all the time. Whether it is through one musician leaving and another taking his or her place, or a lineup expansion, the longer an act continues to work, the greater the chances are of needing a new face along the way.
But it is the rare act that finds itself changing pieces at the absolute pinnacle of its success. That, however, is exactly where guitarist Gary Pihl found himself when Boston came calling in 1985.
Boston’s first two albums — 1976’s self-titled release and the ’78 follow-up, “Don’t Look Back” — had gone platinum a combined 24 times and been responsible for five Top 40 singles. When it came time to record 1986’s “Third Stage,” founding guitarist Tom Scholz was looking not only to add a guitarist to round out Boston’s sound, but also a working partner in his company, Scholz Research & Development (SR&D), makers of the Rockman amplifier. Pihl had the talent and technical know-how to fit both bills.
“As you can imagine, that was a thrill for me,” Pihl (pronounced “Peel”) said in a phone interview. “As Andy Warhol said, ‘You’re only entitled to 15 minutes of fame.’ Even though Boston had had all that success, your odds are certainly against repeating that. We’ve seen that happen too many times, where bands are successful for a long time, and suddenly nobody knows about them.”
Boston was not destined to be another statistic. “Third Stage” would go on to be certified quadruple platinum and produce the band’s only No. 1 single, “Amanda.” Pihl’s contribution to the album — already six years in the making when he signed on — was limited to one song. But that began a relationship that has continued to this day.
Before playing with Boston, Pihl had been a part of the band’s first two tours, playing with opening act Sammy Hagar. When he was asked to join, Pihl admits the differences between the two acts required some adjustent.
“It was sort of a different mindset and style of playing,” he explained. “In Boston, the guitar harmonies are such a big part of it. Where Sammy was, ‘Let’s turn it up to 10 and rock. Do what you want with those solos.’ In Boston, it’s more, ‘There’s a solo on the record that’s perfectly written, and you have to play it perfectly on stage.’ It’s a much more technical approach.”
Musician and SR&D tech are not the only hats Pihl wears, however. Boston has become known for being an intensely hands-on band. While Scholz has produced or co-produced every album Boston has made, it is Pihl who handles all of the house prep and stage set-up, coordinating crews and even line checking everything personally.
“I think it goes back to being in your high school band,” he said. “Where you’re not only going to play these parts, but then someone’s got to load up the van and drive to the next gig. We’ve got some great crew people, and it’s a real collaboration with them. But because Tom designed the amplifiers, and I worked at his company, there’s nobody who knows that equipment quite as well as we do.”
Now, as Boston gets ready to start its fifth decade of performing, Pihl says none of it has gotten old for any of them. From the writing of new music to the playing of old standards to the set-up and tear-down of each show, Pihl would not have things any other way.
“There’s no better feeling than being on stage,” he said. “I still get choked up sometimes when people sing along with stuff. That’s a great feeling. I want to do that forever.” CV