Tony Higbee Of The Tom Keifer Band: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Tony Higbee Of The Tom Keifer Band Interview

Feature Photo courtesy of Tony Higbee

Tony Higbee of the Tom Keifer Band

Interview by Andrew Daly

Handling the licks of an icon like Jeff LaBar on a nightly basis can’t be easy. But no matter, current Tom Keifer Band six-stringer Tony Higbee does so with grace, flash, and oodles of style heaped over the proceedings like chocolate sauce on an ooey gooey sundae.

To that end, Higbee has been onboard for some time, making the tracks that Keifer and his band Cinderella made famous in the late-80s and early-90s his own while still managing to pay homage to the soul of the songs, which featured the licks of LaBar.

But make no mistake, Higbee is no tribute player, and he’s not up there mailing it in. Sure, he might be playing licks made famous by Cinderella all those years ago, but less we forget his immense chops heard across Keifer’s solo records, such as Rise, which have Higbee’s stamp all over them.

Be it through his showmanship, gorgeous arsenal of guitars, or his explosive tones bred through a range of workhorse meets mouthwatering amps, if you’re looking for a low-key guitar hero to hang your hopes and dreams on, Tony Higbee is it.

During a break from the road with Tom Kiefer, Tony Higbee dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into his origins on guitar, hooking up with Tom Keifer, the ins and outs of his rig, his opinion on the idea of hair metal, and more.

What first sparked your interest in the guitar?

It was really my dad. Not necessarily because he was a player, although he was always strumming on an acoustic and a bass player who had been around his local scene in central Illinois, his love of music, specifically rock music, was always being played around the house from the time I was born: Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and early REO Speedwagon.

I was basically obsessed from my earliest memories, and it never let up. To be fair, though, I actually started on my dad’s old Hagstrom/Sunn rig as a bass player at 11 and gigged as a bass player for years! I picked up guitar a little later in my teens, primarily for writing purposes, but from a “fun” standpoint, I was always drawn more to guitar. I had way more guitar heroes than bass heroes.

Truth be told, though, good bass players are way more in demand, and my phone was always ringing for those gigs! It wasn’t until the early 2000s when my younger brother Cody moved to Nashville shortly after I did, and we started a band together, that the switch to playing guitar live happened. He is a rock-solid bass player, and I was gonna step out and front the band.

Made all the sense in the world. Eventually, in the Nashville scene, I just got to be known as a “rock” guitar guy, which back then wasn’t nearly as common as it is these days with all the transplants moving there. For the most part, guitar is pretty much where I’ve hung my hat ever since!!

What early moments shaped you as an artist, and how do those affect you today?

A lot of the music in my childhood that my dad exposed me to probably had the most impact. I still feel massive nostalgia whenever I hear Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4, Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death, or Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark, Don, & Mel. He bought me my first stereo for my fourth birthday and gave me a stack of records just to keep me out of his! The first two albums he bought new for me were Billy Joel’s The Stranger and Elton John’s Greatest Hits Vol 2.

Clearly, he wanted me to play piano! That didn’t stick, but those songs and the writing certainly did. I love hard rock and metal, but I love well-crafted pop songs just as much. Come by my house on any given morning, and there’s a good chance you’re gonna hear COC followed by Jellyfish on the turntable! It’s all about the hook for me. A good song always wins, and those formative years living through my dad’s record collection are what got me where I am today!

How did you end up working with Tom Keifer?

Tom was actually the last member of Cinderella I got to know. My old band had done gigs with Eric [Brittingham] and Jeff’s [LaBar] side project, Naked Beggars. They later introduced me to Fred [Coury], who came and saw my band and was a big fan from day one. I’m pretty sure he planted the first seed with Tom. Later Tom was introduced to me by Fred, and I sold him a Tele.

In that conversation, he mentioned he was about to release a solo album and had the daunting task of assembling a band to tour it. I casually mentioned if he needed any help with that, to hit me up. Evidently, he walked out the door and immediately called a friend of his named Blair Daly to ask about me. It just so happened that Blair and I had met at a party at producer James Michael’s house months earlier.

James and Blair had come to several East Side Gamblers shows, which was my band then. I had worked with James at his studio on a few projects, and Blair evidently told him I was the guy, and it snowballed from there. A couple of weeks later, we were playing a local gig, and people started coming up to the stage in between songs saying, “Hey man… Tom Keifer is here!”

You have to understand back then and still to some degree, a Tom Keifer sighting in Nashville was akin to a Sasquatch sighting. You know he’s around, but you never see him! I could make out his silhouette at the back of the stage. He was there checking the band and me out. He hit me up a week later; we got together at his place, played and sang some songs together, and got along fantastically!

From that point, I called Paul Simmons for drums, and he called Billy Mercer; we got together at my house for a jam, and with Tom bringing in Paul Taylor on keys, that was the band!

Can you recall the first gig?

As far as the first gig, it was at a club in Winston-Salem called Ziggy’s. Everyone was super amped and super nervous. I never drink before shows. I had a beer before I walked onstage. I actually had a near catastrophe that night. I was jumping out onto a speaker for about the third time to play a guitar solo, and I tripped over a cord.

I was heading straight for the crowd barrier in what felt like slow motion turning my body, knowing I was gonna break some ribs but trying to save my gold Les Paul Custom in the process. By some miracle, there was a dude on the railing of that show with arms like Popeye who caught me mid-air and threw me back on the stage like a rag doll! It was insane. To this day, I look twice before I jump [laughs].

How do you approach Jeff’s licks? Do you feel comfortable adding your style into the mix?

I approach Jeff’s licks with respect for a myriad of reasons. Jeff and I were always friendly. Truth be told, he was one of my biggest supporters when I started playing with Tom—nothing but kindness and positive things to say. I try to stay fairly true to his parts. Stylistically, I know there are things that I do naturally and without thought that is gonna add my flavor to those songs here and there.

But there are also things I really wanna nail cause they’re so signature and perfect. The first one that always springs to mind is “Coming Home.” It’s so singable, and the melody and note choices are flawless. You just don’t touch that. He’s on my mind every night when I play that one, and I usually look up at him to make sure he knows.

What’s your favorite song to play live, and why?

My favorite live song changes here and there. Right now, we are covering “With A Little Help From My Friends” in the encore, and it’s really powerful. I mean, really powerful! It’s one of the first songs we ever worked up in rehearsal as a band, and there’s a sentimentality to it for me. That first chorus hits like a freight train every night, and it sends a charge through the whole room.

Favorite Cinderella record, and why?

As far as Cinderella records, it depends on the week, but usually, it’s Long Cold Winter. I remember where I was the first time I heard it, and the bluesy element that crept into that record I felt is what separated them from a lot of schlock that was happening at that time. They had more going on musically than most, and that, to me, is where it became very apparent.

I will say, though, that most people sleep on Still Climbing. I mean, I did until I played with Tom. The grunge thing just killed that album before it ever had a chance, and I was well into my ’90s rock phase by that point, but Still Climbing has some of Tom’s strongest material. If you don’t know it, it’s worth a few spins for sure!

Would you change anything about your early records? How have you evolved as a guitarist?

My early records? I mean, I hate the way the vocals turned out on the second Caprice album, but I think that one went platinum in Paraguay at best, so no harm, no foul. [laughs]. As far as my guitar playing evolving, I’d like to think it still is. I love learning new stuff and having it trigger something creatively in me.

I just took a couple of lessons from Reb Beach on our tour this summer, and it was fantastic! Stylistically we definitely come from different places, but to get a peek into his thought process and approach to the instrument was truly a gift. It helped me understand where he comes from and opened a couple of doors to my playing going forward.

What sort of guitars do you work with in the studio?

When we went to the studio to make Rise, I had my main gold Les Paul Custom nicknamed “Jesse” after my little brother who built it for me over at Gibson Custom back in 2007, a ’59 Reissue ES335, a ’71 Les Paul Deluxe Goldtop with P90’s, a Custom Shop Fender Esquire, a killer parts Strat my best friend, David Munn assembled for me, and a 2007 ’59 Les Paul Reissue that is semi unremarkable to look at but may be the best tracking rhythm guitar I own.

And how about amps?

As far as amps, I use a Bogner Helios 100, Bogner Shiva Anniversary with EL34s, and a Hime Amplification Filmosound Resto-Mod combo that he made for me literally out of an old film projector tube amp. That amp is actually all the leads I played on that record and a few rhythms. It sounded massive mic’d up!! And the Bogner amps have been the cornerstone of my tone for 20 years. He really makes amazing-sounding, durable, road-worthy amps! And all the cabs are Bogner 4x12s loaded with Celestion Greenbacks.

What moment or moments from your time with Tom stand out most to you?

That’s tough to say. There are moments almost daily. He’s just a really good guy who’s very passionate about making and playing music. He treats everyone in the band like family. He’s generous. He’s funny. He leaves everything on the stage nightly. He really just sets a good example and makes you, as a bandmate, want to always strive to be the best version of yourself both onstage and off.

Does making music in a low attention span world frustrate you?

I wouldn’t say it frustrates me. I think it’s a little sad, though, that people miss the opportunity to listen to an entire album, hear an artist’s completed thoughts, and generally just miss the journey a good album can take you on. And it was more than just that. The excitement of standing in line for an album release at midnight was amazing. Just as much as waiting in line overnight to get tickets to see your favorite bands!

Now you gotta fight through scalper sites and bots to get a ticket at all, much less a good seat for a reasonable price. These events fueled excitement and camaraderie among fans that seem to be lost on us now. I hope it changes. I’m hopeful about the resurgence in physical media sales. Now if we can just get the whole ticket thing under control, we’ll be heading back in the right direction.

Do you think the current ’80s rock resurgence is sustainable? What’s fueling it?

I think guitar rock, in general, is making a resurgence, and the ’80s were definitely a high point. Furthermore, the song always wins, and that era is loaded with classic, catchy, well-written songs. Younger people are discovering music now because, quite frankly, it’s a niche that’s being underserved. There are some great active rock bands out there now, but there are also a lot of middle-of-the-road bands with very little personality who feel fairly interchangeable to me.

You have to remember that ’70s, ’80s, and a lot of ’90s rock bands have all kinds of personality, have their own unique sound, and have great songs. That really connects with people, and that’s what kids are latching on to. I’ve seen more teenagers and people in their early 20s in the crowd on this tour than ever. Sometimes they get dressed up, they know every word of every song, and if they have anything to say about it, rock and roll isn’t going anywhere!

Do you feel hair metal is a derogatory term?

Yep [laughs]. I mean… let’s be honest, no one calls ’90s rock “flannel rock.” And no one calls early 2000s active rock “baggy pants PRS/Rectifier rock!” Were there some questionable fashion decisions for a few years? Maybe but honestly, it was more of a ’70s glam rock resurgence and look where we’re at now. It’s starting to happen again.

Just look at The Struts, Maneskin, and Starcrawler; they’re all cranking up the flashy image, but the music still does the talking. There will always be trends in both fashion and sound as it pertains to popular music, but at the end of the day, we really just need to recognize what’s good and what isn’t. Let the cream rise to the top. There were some truly killer rock bands who made some great albums that got left for dead by their respective labels.

Bands that were more than capable of changing, growing, and adapting with the times and the production values. Cinderella, Tesla, Extreme, Saigon Kick, and I could go on. Warrant made the best album of their career with Dog Eat Dog and got nothing for it! If the “hair metal” tag hadn’t been dropped on these bands and the mass purge of anything ’80s by the labels they’d made so much money for, I think we’d have seen a different outcome for a lot of them.

What’s next in all lanes?

Finish this tour with Tom that runs thru August 18th, ending at the Ryman in Nashville, another weekend out west with him in September, then home until the end of October, where I’ll be getting back out for about six weeks with Brother Cane celebrating the 30th anniversary of the debut album! We’ll have Jarred James Nichols in tow for most of those dates, and Orianthi will be jumping on a few also! Should be a hell of a time! Not to mention I feel like there may be new music on the horizon for both. Exciting times! We’ll see what the future holds.

Tony Higbee Of The Tom Keifer Band Interview

Feature Photo courtesy of Tony Higbee

Tony Higbee Of The Tom Keifer Band: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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