The Thunder Behind the Trans Siberian Orchestra
A rare, in-depth interview with one of Rock’s greatest guitar heroes

Among session musicians in the tri-State area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) the name Al Pitrelli is synonymous with one of the best, most versatile and accessible guitar players around. The seasoned veteran has played guitar for a myriad of bands with a spectrum as diverse as thrash metal to funk to melodic interpretations. His cv reads more like your local record store than any specific genre. In Metal we have, Alice Cooper, Dee Snider’s Widowmaker, Savatage and Megadeth. Crossing over into Melodic Rock we have Asia, Michael Bolton and Joe Lynn Turner (Rainbow). Under Diva we have Taylor Dayne, Lita Ford, Kathy Troccli, Expose and Doro – and that’s just the majors.

After a year of global touring, recording and session writing, what does the “in demand” guitarist do for the holidays? Pitrelli, his wife and twelve of his closest friends travel the West coast bringing good will and merriment to all under the banner of the Trans Siberian Orchestra. “This all started in 1995 with me and Paul O’ Neil sitting at his kitchen table in New York City,” says Pitrelli over the phone from Wichita, Kansas where TSO is playing to a packed Kansas Coliseum. “He said to me, ‘I want to seamlessly marry a symphony and a rock band - and we're going to sell millions of records.’ I thought he was trippin’ but I told him to count me in.”

Pitrelli hails from Long Island where he got his start in the local clubs as far back as 1980. “Tommy Faresse [a primary singer in TSO] and John O Riley [drummer for TSO] and I go back to the early ‘80s playing covers in bars on Long Island,” says Pitrelli. “Back then everybody cut their teeth in the bars. From 1975 to 1982 the tri-State club scene was the place to be. There was a local newspaper called ‘Goodtimes’ which was as thick as the New York Times. You could play seven nights a week in clubs that held a thousand people. Bands had huge sound systems, trucks, road crews, and light shows. These were cover bands that were coming in like rock stars.”

“The scene was huge – there was the Glam scene, Southern Rock, Heavy Metal, whatever you got into. For a kid like me, you join a band and play seven nights a week. That’s where I met Tommy who was out singing Zeppelin every night. We got together and did a mix of Zeppelin, Humble Pie, Bad Company, Robin Trower, Pat Travers, Johnny Winter, Rick Derringer – all the cool stuff. Then we’d go from Rock to Motown – Tommy would do some Stevie Wonder and early soul stuff. Man, he was killer. That’s why I got him in TSO, his voice is the perfect fit.”

“Years went by and we learned how to play in time and in tune and think on the fly. I went off to college for a couple semesters, came home and got a gig with Michael Bolton. This was when Bolton was more like Sammy Hagar and less like Engelbert Humperdinck. Bruce Kulick was playing for him and when he joined Kiss I stepped in. Several years later Steve Vai recommended me to replace him in David Lee Roth’s band. I flew out to play with Dave. Roth didn’t make a decision right away so Greg Bissonette was impressed enough to recommend me to Alice Cooper as his Music Director. That was 1988 or ’89. It was the Trashes The World “World Tour” I went a couple of times around the globe with Alice.”

Over the years Pitrelli has also developed a friendship with Rainbow/Deep Purple vocalist Joe Lynn Turner. “He’s a guinea from Jersey and I’m a guinea from New York,” says Pitrelli with a laugh. The two started writing together and developed a working relationship that has lasted nearly 15 years and half a dozen records. This year he and Turner released “JLT” a crisp slab of textured AOR along the lines of Journey, but with a deeper soulful voice. “One thing I’m very proud of is that I’ve played with some very talented singers. I’m grateful I’ve had that opportunity. One of my favorite singers is Paul Rodgers. I love his voice. Joe is like Paul but ten years younger. Historically it was Paul Rodgers starting out with Free then moving to Bad Company. Then came Steve Marriott with Humble Pie, Lou Gramm (Foreigner) and Joe Lynn Turner - white guys that sang like old black men.”

Pitrelli also has a knack for working with top female singers. “ Joe and I wrote a song for Lita Ford [Little Too Early; Dangerous Curves] in 1991. Then I played on Kathy Troccoli’s Pure Attraction record. Expose was in ‘92, Taylor Dayne in ’92 and ’93 - then I started working with Asia, no female lead in that band. I did a couple records and a couple tours over five years with them. The greatest part about Asia was being in the studio with Steve Howe and Carl Palmer. That was historical for me. But, man did we play some bizarre places in Romania, Japan, Greece…”

“One day I get a call from ‘Paul O’Neil who was working on a Savatage record called Dead Winter Dead. It was the first time I’d been exposed to a rock opera and this one was a passionate story about the bombing in Yugoslavia. I had played Belgrade in 1989 with Cooper and I remember seeing the building we performed in a couple months later reduced to rubble due to intense bombing. That hit home to me so when I met O’Neil five years later I immediately related to his story. He had this track called 'Christmas Eve Sarajevo'. I thought the track was really powerful but was afraid no one would really get it. We re-did it and put it on the first TSO record - that and 'Carol Of The Bells' are the most emotional parts of the show.”

The guitarist remains passionate about what he and his band do for the holidays. “I never wanted to be a rock star, I just wanted to be a working guitar player,” says Pitrelli. “We have a good time during our live show and it feels good to be a part of something that’s becoming a Christmas tradition. It’s a legacy that my children can look back and say, ‘Daddy was pretty cool.’ That’s all that counts to me.”

So does the axe-man miss spending the holidays at home? “My wife is the piano player in this band. The Godfather of my three children is our tour manager - and we have our two Boston terriers traveling with us, so it’s nothing but fun. That’s not to mention everybody else in the band that has become like family. It’s like a touring bunch of goombas. I have to be honest - everybody in this band is an incredible musician. I’m the grunt of the bunch. You watch these guys play every night and they make it look so easy. I get to tell a couple jokes in between songs and play guitar. It’s a perfect gig. Just the look on peoples faces is worth it to me.”

Earlier this year Pitrelli and his wife Jane Mangini combined forces to produce their own unique motif entitled O’2L. The record is a mixture of eclectic rhythms and diverse arrangements sometimes coming close to new age while maintaining a mainstream edge. When the subject of this release came up Pitrelli cleared his throat and told us the story. “I met Jane back in 1999. She is a jingle composer in New York City and hired me to play guitar. The first day we met, I came barging into the studio – a scrub with long hair and a Marlboro in a red flannel shirt. I think she was scared to death. I started playing and we were soon working really well together. At the end of the first TSO tour in 1999, I went back for the Beacon show in New York. We decided then we needed to figure out what were going to do. We got through the holidays and that’s when I got the call from Megadeth to do a set of tours and records. We got married between tours.”

Pitrelli praises the record describing his wife as an “amazing talent” then goes on to say, “She had all these great songs that she’d been working on between writing TV commercials. In the jingle world, they give you an assignment at 10am in the morning and by 12pm you better be doing over dubs, by 1pm someone should be ready to sing it, by 3pm it’s mixed and by 5 it’s gone to the client to be on the air the next day. With that kind of pressure you learn how to write fluently in many different styles. That’s what we had here. I sent a demo copy to GRP Records. Mark Wexler (who also manages Joe Lynn Turner) loved it. He was impressed that she was not only a beautiful, talented composer but already accomplished in her own right. We got a budget together, worked out the details, mixed the record at Skyline studios in the famous “Steely Dan” room and put the record out. It’s doing terrific!”

Peak Records, or Tran Siberian Orchestra