The man who didn’t want to be a star

By Sergio Ariza

The story of Tom Scholz can be summed up as the man who didn’t really want to be a rock star. After dazzling the planet with his excellent debut album which sold more than anyone had ever done on their first record, Scholz chose to keep his artistic independence over the afterglow of success, with a career in which he would only put out records when he felt like it. A genius of studio recording, with a Masters degree from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has a place among the great guitarists, thanks to his signature sound and his many technical inventions. 

Scholz led a band called Boston in the mid-70s that became ‘the next big thing’ according to Americans, or the great rock hope but never managed to best glory and success of his first feat. A perfectionist that always wanted inner peace rather than seek success for success itself. A perfectionist who approaches his music much like an engineer approaches his creations, and acknowledged that he only listened to his music, not others’, to keep it free of outside influences. The ‘engineer’ reference wasn’t just an analogy, for Scholz graduated with a Masters from MIT and was signed on at the ten emerging Polaroid to work in the company. It was while working there he spent a fortune (that he didn’t yet have) on building a recording studio in the basement of his place in Watertown, Massachusetts. Everything he  learned at MIT and at his company, he used to find that sound ringing in his head. It’s where he came up with the songs that brought him fame, among them Peace of Mind, a song that speaks of his stint at Polaroid and his little interest in climbing the corporate ladder. Something that shows in his character and leaves one thing clear, Scholz was never a ‘ladder climber’, neither in rock, nor the corporate world.    

In 1975, in the little free time his job al Polaroid spared him, he recorded demos that earned him a contract with Epic Records. He got help from singer Brad Delp, guitarist Barry Goudreau, bassman Fran Sheehan, and John ‘Sib’ Hashian on drums.  When they finally signed with Epic, the only remaining members were Scholz and Delp. The company asked if he would record the album in a professional studio with a professional producer and would make it sound the same as the demo. Scholz chose to ignore them and proceeded to record it in his studio at home, with his own equipment and asked for time off work at Polaroid to do so. Despite the suggestion of contracted producer John Boylan to use a hand-made Taylor acoustic guitar, worth thousands of dollars, he went for his a $100 Yamaha. Even so, there weren’t any problems between the two, and Boylan understood that Scholz knew what he wanted and knew very well how to get it. The only thing recorded outside his studio were Delp’s vocals, something the company never found out about.   

One who saw clearly that Scholz was going to try his luck in the world of rock was his boss at Polaroid. He took him under his arm, like a father, and told him that an adventure in the music world was fraught with risk, and that only “one in a million” make it. When they crossed paths 2 years later, Scholz smiled and told him, “well, somebody’s got to be the one”. 

The debut album of Boston was not just a success, it was a sensation! It sold more than 17 million copies worldwide and became the best-selling debut album of all time ( a record broken by Guns N’ Roses with Appetite for Destruction in 1987). From the first second you can see that on this record, the studio plays the part of another musician. The first track is More Than a Feeling, that starts with a fade-in of an acoustic arpeggio. And before you know it  you realise that something big is about to happen. It’s just the beginning of a song that is full of surprises, until it explodes with that riff that carries one of the most recognised chorus’ in rock history. Then there’s Brad Delp’s voice, with tonsils that can reach heights that make you think it’s been digitally touched, until you realise that we’re in 1976, and it will be decades before auto-tune is invented...and then the guitars, Scholz becomes one of those guitarists with a signature sound, with praise as well to his magic in the studio. Each vibrato and legato, every ‘bend’ have been dubbed and sound like a string section. In a song such as More Than a Feeling, Scholz tries to get that symphonic power of classical music which he loved so much, a type of Wagner where the guitar chords substitute a whole orchestra. 

The record has many other delights, beyond their most famous piece. The opener Foreplay/Long Time is pure progressive rock, but there are also touches of ‘power pop’, with hints of Cheap Trick, hard rock and incredible harmonies, as much vocally as on the guitar. The album could be something dreamt up by an engineer turned alchemist looking for the perfect formula for mass success and gets it, and did it ever: the record topped the charts for 132 weeks in the U.S.A.   

However, the lasting success would show that Scholz was in this for the music, not for success in itself. He got in charge of  everything in his studio again; composition, touch-ups, production eyeing every last detail, the author of More Than a Feeling got right to work on his second album.  After 2 years of their initial hit, Scholz brought the results over to Epic. What now seems like a short period of time between records, was then considered too long. Even so, Scholz wasn’t happy with it, and figured the company had pressured him to deliver something below his standard, especially the B side. In spite of everything, the record was a success and had two or three big hits, like the title A Man I’ll Never Be, or Feelin’ Satisfied, but the feud between artist and label had been sewn, and Scholz swore that he’d never again sign off to work until it met his satisfaction. His next effort didn’t come until 8 years later.   

During that time, his record label sued him, and this only served to delay things more. That was when he told the others in the band to look for other things. Guitarist Barry Goudreau released a solo record with the help of Delp and Hashian. It gave Scholz time to throw himself at his other passion, making musical equipment, which led to Rockman amplifiers in 1982 (they were  used, a year later, on one of the best-selling records of the decade, Hysteria by Def Leppard).    

After winning his legal troubles in court, he released his 3rd record in 1986: Third Stage, which includes Amanda, a ballad that reached the top of the charts. Then came 3 more records, Walk On in 1994, Corporate America, in 2002, and Life, Love & Hope,  in 2013. Records outside any trend, with the distinct Scholz sound on his ‘68 Les Paul Goldtop ( they were really two of the same) which Gibson would have a replica made of  with its Collector's Choice Tom Scholz 1968 Les Paul.  More recently Scholz claims that he was oblivious to what was happening  in the music world, and that he wouldn’t buy new music to avert their influence. So much so that when Nirvana became a world sensation with Smells Like Teen Spirit, and everyone saw the parallel between its riff and that of More Than a Feeling, he later stated that the only two things he had heard of the band were great, and it was an honour to be mentioned in the same sentence as them. Yet another example of his lack of interest in being considered a star.   

Over the years he has spent a lot of time with his charitable, social work foundation,  which has raised millions of dollars in the effort to end hunger, and to protect animal rights. With his pace of work, maybe there’s no new Boston record until 2023, but that can wait. He is a humble man, who, by his own rights, has a place among the greatest guitarists, with that signature sound, that nobody could really copy, self-made, with the help of technology as the magician/engineer he also is.