An Interview with Tom Gimbel of Foreigner: Playing Your Song

The band may age, but Foreigner’s songs never get old. Multi-instrumentalist Tom Gimbel should know. He’s been performing hits like “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Feels Like The First Time,” and “Cold As Ice,” night after night for 23 years to sold-out crowds. And it’s as fun now as it was the day Foreigner founder Mick Jones and former singer Lou Gramm asked him to join the band. Gimbel talks about performing with one of rock’s most successful acts and why Foreigner’s music still resonates, even with six-year-olds.

Band founder and guitarist Mick Jones is the only original member of Foreigner’s 1976 lineup, but you’ve been playing alongside him for a long time. How many years now?

Yeah, I first started with Mick in 1992. I’m no mathematician, but that’s over five years ago (laughs). It’s a couple of decades. And I can’t believe it went that fast. That’s how much fun it’s been.

Do you remember your first meeting with Foreigner?

I sure do. I tell this story because it wasn’t a story about an audition for music. They had seen me on some videos with Aerosmith so they felt confident in my musicianship but they were just really wondering what kind of person I was. ‘Cause you know when you go on the road with the band it’s like joining a family. You’re spending a lot of time together. Especially in those days it was on buses and we didn’t have cell phones or Internet or anything. And Mick cares about personalities. So my audition was really going out for dinner and drinks with those guys. I did some impersonations, told some jokes, and they thought I was funny so they said, “OK, you can come and join the band.”

Mick Jones and former singer Lou Gramm were an incredible songwriting team, turning out 10 multi-platinum albums and 16 Top 30 hits. What did you learn from them?

I continue to learn from Mick Jones every day. He’s that far beyond everyone else. Lou is a very spiritual kind of a gentle soul. He was very nurturing to everyone and the same with Mick…In the sax solo in “Urgent” you can go around and around. I’d go around two or three times and they would go, “Keep going.” They thought it was funny. They’d be laughing and I’d be turning red, huffing and puffing. I’m down on my knees just trying to do anything and they thought that was hysterical. Instead of trying to contain people in the band they always encouraged you to do more. And I thought that was pretty insightful. You know, the same with Aerosmith. This is what I learned from working with so many great people. The truly great ones are looking to get the most out of you. Not paint you into a corner.

So you got to grow and really belong.

Yeah. It was the same with Aerosmith. I couldn’t believe it. I never expected that. I thought Steven Tyler would be taskmaster (laughs). It was the complete opposite. Joey Kramer, the drummer, was saying, “Do you want to do a funky breakdown with you on your sax?” And I was like, “Yeah!”

What do you like about performing with Foreigner’s current lineup?

Oh, it’s unbelievable…These guys are so much fun to play with and hang around with. It’s a really rare chemistry when you get six or seven guys in this case that don’t fight, that don’t argue. It’s unheard of. Who knows? Maybe it’s because we’re all growing up a little bit. I can’t speak for myself but maybe they’re growing up a little bit (laughs). We just rock out so heavily. Chris Frazier on drums. Jeff Pilson on bass. Michael Bluestein on keyboards. And Bruce Watson rocks it on guitar, used to be in Rod Stewart’s band. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to play with so many incredible players and somehow Mick just finds them. He has a real sense of who’s great and who he wants to work with.

You’ve gotten to belt out some iconic saxophone parts in your career. When you played with Aerosmith, you had “Mama Kin” and “Same Old Song And Dance,” and of course with Foreigner, there’s “Urgent.” That’s got to make you feel like those hours practicing in basements paid off?

It’s so true. I say it sometimes when people say, “Hey, nice job on ‘Urgent.’” I say, “You have no idea how many hours in the basement it took.” But more than that, I feel good for my sisters and brother and family who had to put up with it. At least they didn’t have to suffer the sound for nothing.

I heard that Maynard Ferguson’s high notes inspired you early on and that you still practice your sax because “high notes don’t play themselves.” Can you talk about that?

Maynard Ferguson came to our high school and I saw him at clinics and he would talk to the audience and show them how he did circular breathing and then they would play “MacArthur Park” and shivers would just run up and down everyone’s spines. So that changed my life obviously. But the high notes, I heard in my head, and I started doing them on alto sax. And at the end of “MacArthur Park,” it just goes up through the harmonics and hits the super high one. And I always wanted to do that. Once I started doing it on alto sax I naturally started doing it on tenor sax later. It was just funny when Foreigner called I was like, “Oh hey, I’ve been waiting for this call.” You know? I had always sort of dreamed about that sax solo and always worked at it and thought it was the greatest rock sax solo ever recorded.

I’ve done some teaching over the years and tell people that there are great ways to practice that make it fun. Play along with CDs, so you’re working on your pitch and your time at the same time. It’s not like sitting there doing the drudgery of scales or anything. It’s just find real music for me. As a woodwind player you have to exercise your embouchure. So it’s just putting hours on the clock to get that embouchure in shape and that’s the reason the high notes come out, hopefully. Without that they just don’t come out. You got nothing. And that would be bad (laughs)

What are your favorite Foreigner songs to play?

We’re having a ton of fun with “Long Way From Home.” I have a baritone sax now and I jump between the baritone and alto. I take the alto for the middle solo and I go back to baritone. It’s just a blast and it’s kind of a new thing for me to be able to play those super low notes and people get a kick out of it…We were doing an acoustic version in Germany of “Cold As Ice” and Mick came up with a line to play on the saxophone…And I’m just talking about the woodwind songs. The guitar songs are like power chords. Our drummer Chris Frazier just does the most amazing job on “Hot Blooded.” He set himself out to nail that song and he does this tremendous job. So that’s super fun to play on guitar. Not to mention “Juke Box Hero,” where you’re playing those power chords. You feel like you could knock down a wall with a guitar and amp.

Did you have a favorite Foreigner song before you joined the band?

I certainly loved “Urgent” because of the sax, but the one that resonated with me was “That Was Yesterday.” It’s so crazy. I remember one time I was moving, packing up my boxes, and I kept playing the song over and over and packing seriously and singing the words. I love the message of it. And that’s one of the things I learned from Mick. He really knows how to separate what’s important and what’s not in the big picture. You have to let go…It touches on an emotion that everyone has on some particular subject. It’s always great to look back at what was. It’s just a natural tendency. That’s how we review our lives and make decisions about how to continue forward. Constant review.

Is there a responsibility that comes with performing music that’s so much a part of people’s memories?

Definitely. We feel like we’re carrying the torch. Carrying the flame forward…The way Kelly Hansen sings the songs, he’s so spot on. It’s like a homerun hitter that just knocks it out of the park every night and because of that reason, people have these giant smiles on their faces and they sing along just the way they remember it, which is magnificent to be a part of. So that is just to the point you said earlier, “Is there a responsibility?” That’s the responsibility I felt on “Urgent,” hitting those notes. I had to do it the way it is on the record. That’s one of the only sax solos that everybody knows. I’m like, “OK, I gotta make it happen.”

What makes Foreigner’s songs endure?

I think it’s because they’re written with real heartfelt sentiment. Mick is an emotional writer so he writes about emotion. “I don’t know if I can take it again.” You know? So those kind of words, everyone can relate to I believe on some level and that’s what makes them stand the test of time. There are party songs too like “Double Vision.” I love it. It’s a combination. There’s rhythm. There are great guitar parts. Great guitar hooks. Super cool riffs. You were talking about favorite songs to play. I love playing “Double Vision” because the guitar part is so cool. And it doesn’t get old. Take it from me. I play these songs all the time (laughs). So there’s something magical there. As songwriters know, Mick obviously caught that much magic to have that many hit songs and we asked him how he did it and he won’t tell us.

How has Foreigner’s audience changed over the years?

It continues to evolve and grow. It’s one of the things that we marvel at. Different generations. We’ve got little kids on their parents’ shoulders rocking out at these outdoor shows. Last summer we did this tour with Styx and Don Felder, so we’re playing a lot of outdoor venues. And some of these kids that we see know all the words to the songs. It’s insane. There’s a little girl that comes out with her guitar and she thinks the words [to “Juke Box Hero”] are “Juice Box Hero.” Ya know? It’s crazy. It goes all the way up to our own generation and even people older than us. With the six-year-olds we’re very big. It’s a clean show. At one point we heard “Dirty White Bear” [for “Dirty White Boy”]. A lot of these kids are growing up now to this music courtesy of their parents who honestly probably learned from their parents and hopefully it goes on and on from there.


Foreigner performs at the Theatre At Westbury (Westbury, NY) on Feb. 12, Count Basie Theatre (Red Bank, NJ) on Feb. 16, Mayo Performing Arts Center (Morristown, NJ) on Feb. 17, and Capitol Theatre (Port Chester, NY) on Feb. 19. For more information, go to