Paul Gilbert Interview: Master of Shred

The name Paul Gilbert conjures up images of death defying shred and an almost unmatched technical ferocity, yet there's much more to this most genial of guitarists than pure guitar wizardry. Whilst Paul is undoubtably one of the most fearsomely gifted guitarists ever to draw breath, he also combines an advanced compositional ability with a great pop sensibilty - quite simply the man is a great songwriter, something often ovelooked.

One of the few guitarists of his genre to genuinely achieve mainstream success - particularly with the Mr Big worldwide smash hit 'To Be With You' - Paul has also never stood still, as a cursory listen to his back catalogue will attest to. Versatile, humorous, melodic and thoughtful, these adjectives could apply equally to his personality as well as his playing - Paul is a true Guitar Hero and we at Alloutguitar applaud him!

My first encounter with Paul was back in the early days of shred when Guitar World ran a feature on a fresh faced teenager who'd lain waste to LA's hottest guitarists in the LA Guitar Wars competition. One to keep an eye on... and then, after months of seeing his purple Ibanez in adverts, by the time Racer X's debut 'Street Lethal' was released. Anticipation - but also scepticsm! - was high: after all, Malmsteen had decimated all barriers of what was thought possible as a rock guitarist - surely this guy couldn't be that special?

From the opening salvo in 'Frenzy' (Paul's unaccompanied guitar solo that opened up the album) through to the sheer intensity and outright riffage of the title track - via innumerable notes in between! - there was no doubt that the bar had been raised... again! Far more 'Rawk' than Malmsteen's cod classical stylings, Paul simply destroyed all in his path with an arguably unmatched to this day display of technical ferocity: ask (as I have done on many an occasion!) any world class rock/metal guitarist to name picking maestros (for example) and you can bet Gilbert will be on the list. But outside of his outrageous, inhuman picking ability there lies a great many technical innovations - not least his almost patented string skipped arpeggio technique (that for many players seems to have supplanted Yngwies ubiquitous sweep arpeggios as ther chosen arpeggio weapon) - as well as a sheer humanity to his playing.

There can be few rock/metal players who have not checked out Paul's ground breaking REH instruction videos - particularly those who grew up in the 80's: oustide of the still state of the art licks on display, what is very evident is that this is a regular good fun guy: not a po faced 'virtuoso', but a guy who'd be as good fun to hang out with in a bar as he is to watch on stage. And, a word for any fan of the new generation of shred heads like Matt Heafy, Herman Li or Synester Gates: Don't even think about it - Paul would have slayed those guys when he was 17... as for now, forget about it!

Alloutguitar spoke with Paul in November 2008 for this very revealing and in depth interview.

Early Days

Paul, lets do the intro stuff and get it out of the way: when and where were you born?

November 6th, 1966, in Carbondale, Illinois - but my family moved to Pennsylvania when I was very young, so I really grew up in Greensburg, PA.

What age did you start playing?

I took some guitar lessons when I was six, but I didn't like the teaching method (Mel Bay), so I quit. I started playing again when I was nine, this time teaching myself by ear. I've been playing ever since then. I have wanted to play guitar for as long as I can remember. I always loved the Beatles records that my parents had. That was my first inspiration.

Who were your initial influences?

All the records my parents had: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Who, Carole King, Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. My uncle was (and still is) a great guitarist, he was a great inspiration and he also encouraged me to listen to Jimi Hendrix, the MC5, Iggy and The Stooges, David Bowie (with Mick Ronson), The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols. I also loved the big rock bands and guitarists that were around when I was young, like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Heart, Van Halen, Rush, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Gary Moore, UFO, Cheap Trick, KISS, Pat Travers, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Ted Nugent, Triumph, and Def Leppard.

What albums and songs during this period were particularly influential?

Every Van Halen album with David Lee Roth was a guitar lesson to me. Robin Trower's 'Bridge of Sighs', Rush's 'Hemispheres', and Pat Travers' 'Go For What You Know' were all very important records to me.

What age did you start to get serious?

I have always been serious. But I started practicing consistently when I was nine. I forced myself to play for one hour every day. One hour was a long time, because I was a total beginner and didn't know how to play anything! Actually I taught myself some really simple guitar riffs like '25 to 6 to 4' by Chicago. I would play it over and over and over for an hour. That is a long time to play just one riff. I was a very serious kid!

You mentioned your first guitar lesson and not exactly enjoyong them! But - pre GIT - did you get any more?

After struggling to teach myself for 2 years, I finally found a local guitar teacher who wasn't using those horrible Mel Bay sight-reading books. My new teacher encouraged me to keep learning by ear, but he gave me lots of useful musical tools like chords, scales, soloing techniques, and the idea of using neck diagram paper to help memorize scale shapes. I stayed with this teacher for about a year and a half, then briefly went to another teacher who had better technique. This newest teacher suddenly quit teaching, so I went back to teaching myself by learning songs from records. After I finished high school, I moved to Hollywood to attend GIT. It was a one-year course, and I learned so much about new techniques, ear training, music theory, and other musical styles.

Any pivotal teachers?

I had some great teachers at GIT. Keith Wyatt was probably my favorite. Recently I've taken some lessons from Barrett Tagliarino. I wanted to learn more about music theory, composition, and improvisation. He helped me a lot. I want to take more lessons from him when I get time.

You mentioned those early Mel Bay books - and understandably finding them frustrating (Note: for any new/young rock players reading this, keep an eye out for my own 'From Zero To Rock Hero... In Just 6 Weeks!' book coming out in 2009 through Harper Collins in the US and Apple Books in the UK: this adressess all those boring 'beginner books' problems!) - but when you realised you were becoming a real deal guitarist did you try again and learn how to read? After all, at any/all guitar schools being able to read is seen as the Holy Grail...

I've always learned by ear: I disliked my early Mel Bay reading lessons so much that I quit guitar for three years! I did read a lot of chord diagrams in the early days. I had a Beatles book, and I used the chord diagrams to help me learn a lot of those songs. And after going to GIT, I became pretty good at reading chord charts. But standard notation and even tablature is very difficult for me to sight read in 'real time'.

When did you realise that you were gifted above your peers?

There were always guitarists who were faster than me. If I had any advantage, it was my sense of rhythm and my musical ear. It took me a long time to train my fingers, but I could always feel the rhythm and melody of a song very naturally. I specifically remember learning the Beatles song 'Hey Bulldog' when I was about 10. It has a lot of syncopations in the rhythm, but I could easily feel the groove. I had a friend who could never 'hear' it. That was the first time I remember being 'different'. But, mostly I just practised more than the other musicians I knew: I practised all the time!

When did you start concentrating on technique? Can you remember any particular exercises that helped?

I didn't practice pure scales or arpeggios until I went to GIT. I had already played for eight years at that point and my style was mostly formed already. Practising pure technique certainly expanded my knowledge and gave me more musical tools, but the heart of my sound came from learning songs and jamming with my teenage bands.

Were you known as the local hot guitarist?

My early cover bands were never successful because we didn't want to play popular songs. We played lots of hard rock songs which was great for beer parties in our basement rehearsal room... but we would have had a lot more success if we learned some songs that girls could dance to! I think that the 15 people who came to the parties thought I was a good guitarist...!

When did you play your first gig - and can you remember the songs you played?

I played 'Cat Scratch Fever' by Ted Nugent at my sixth grade talent show. All the girls in my class came running up to me after I played, and excitedly asked if I could play some Bee Gees... 'Saturday Night Fever' was huge at the time! I hated disco, and didn't think that Bee Gees music even had any guitar in it. Thus began my animosity towards dance music. Actually I like some dance music now, but I think I would get bored really quickly if I had to play it.

When did you first play your first ‘professional' gig: i.e got paid for it? Can you remember how much?!

I think I made $5 for playing at a party when I was thirteen years old. The band and I didn't know very many songs, so we just played 'Johnny B. Goode' and 'Wipe Out' over and over again!

When did you realise that you might actually be able to have a career as a guitarist?

I always knew that I would never give up trying to be a professional guitarist, but the first time that I really felt sure of my success was with Racer X. We started doing shows in Los Angeles - and we were selling out clubs almost immediately. It felt great to play in a club that was totally packed with people who came just to see us.

What age was this - and how did your family react?

I was 19. My family was still living back in Pennsylvania, so they weren't coming to the shows, but they were always supportive of me. They like rock guitar!

Hitting LA

Paul famously headed west to what was in the mid 80's the mecca for hot rock guitar. I ask Paul how he got his first real break...

My first contact in the music business was Mike Varney. I sent him a cassette of my playing when I was 15 years old. I was hoping to get an audition with Ozzy Osbourne. Randy Rhoads had just died tragically in a plane crash, and he was a big guitar hero of mine, so I had learned a lot of his guitar parts. I knew that I would probably never get the gig, but I felt that I at least had to try. Mike liked my playing but thought I was too young to play with Ozzy. But he certainly helped me with good musical advice, and by being the producer of all the early Racer X albums.

When it happened, was it all you thought it might be?

I was excited about any success in the music business. Making the first Racer X album was very satisfying. I was a little disappointed that we weren't able to do any touring - but we had such good gigs in Los Angeles I was still happy.

How long did it take before you could make a living out of guitar playing?

After I graduated from GIT, I was asked to become an instructor there. I also gave private lessons at my apartment, as well as playing in Racer X - so I've been making a living with guitar since I was 18.

Looking back to your early days, which songs are you the most proud of from that period?

I like almost everything from the first two Racer X albums. One of my favorites is the opening riff from 'Blowing Up the Radio'. I'm not sure if I played it well enough for all the notes to come through clearly, but the composition is pretty cool. And the guitar solo called 'Frenzy' is insanely fast and intense.

Have you ever auditioned/been connected with any ‘big' bands that didn't happen (and you can tell us about!)?

I think there were some, but I can never remember because I didn't do them. I've been busy enough with Racer X, Mr. Big, and my solo albums.

What are the proudest moments of your career to date? And why?

I probably don't have an objective view of my own music. People who listen to my music often focus on the fast picking techniques. I've practised those techniques so much that they are very familiar sounding to me, so I don't get so excited about them - I get more excited about things that I'm not so good at! If I do a good blues solo, or sing a song without hitting any bad notes, I feel very good. I'm always proud of any good recordings. I like 'Green Tinted Sixties Mind' by Mr. Big. I like 'Children of the Grave' by Racer X. And I like 'Hurry Up' from my solo career. I'm also proud of the classical piano pieces that I've performed on guitar. I think 'G.V.R.O.' is pretty cool!

What's the biggest audience you've ever played to?

Mr. Big played a show in Brazil for 100,000 people. The energy was amazing. I have never felt more like a rock star than that day!

If there was one album that readers should buy to best reflect your playing which would it be?

My playing has changed and evolved, so I have to recommend three CDs: 'Street Lethal' by Racer X, 'Lean Into It' by Mr. Big, and 'Silence Followed by a Deafening Roar' from my solo career. Also, my newest CD with Freddie Nelson called 'United States' has some of my best song-based playing.

Technique and Influences

When do you think your physical playing technique was at it's highest?

I think my hands were physically strongest when I was between eighteen and twenty years old... but I think my technique is better now. Pure physical strength is only a small factor in playing the guitar. My knowledge of the fretboard, phrasing vocabulary, and musical wisdom is far beyond where I was as a teenager.

What band would you most like to join?

I would love to be the drummer for AC/DC. If I had to play guitar? I would like to play behind any singer that I like. So maybe Cheap Trick would be good. But again, my new album with Freddie Nelson is very satisfying in that regard. His singing is amazing, and we get along very well as equals, not just me as a new member of some pre-existing band.

Which 5 guitarists who, over the course of your career have influenced you the most - or simply five players who you particularly admire (and why?)

Jimmy Page, Edward Van Halen, Robin Trower, Pat Travers and Alex Lifeson - but there are so many more than this. But, all told, these five were very important to me, and still are. I learned so many songs from Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Rush, Robin Trower, and Pat Travers! I still work on their songs now. These guitar players make the guitar sound exactly how I want to hear it.

Are there any newer players who you really rate?

It hard to beat one's teenage heroes. I enjoy the playing of Eric Johnson, Ty Tabor, and Zakk Wylde. All those guys are new to me, but actually they've been around for a while. I haven't sat down and tried to figure out their songs. But I still do that with my teenage heroes. It's a never ending quest!

In your style of music when do you think was the golden period? Do you think the current musical climate is favourable to your particular style?

1964-1984. From the first Beatles album (in America) to the last Van Halen album with David Lee Roth. This period is my favorite purely because of my age. I'm sure that younger people feel the same passion for newer bands like Metallica or Green Day. It is silly for me to consider musical climates for my own playing. I feel a moral obligation to play the music I love, regardless of it's acceptance in pop culture. But things are good at the moment. YouTube has introduced my playing to a younger generation, and that seems to have helped my touring. I love to tour, so I am happy.

Without necessarily going into specifics, but what is your primary source of income: CD/Download sales? Touring? Clinics/Teaching/Other?

Everything! I work a lot, and sometimes I get paid for it - so thank you for your support!

Where is your strongest market? How well known are you in the following USA/Canada, UK, Mainland Europe, Australia, South America, Middle East, Eastern Europe, Russia?

I have never toured in India, Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica, or Africa. But I've been just about everywhere else! Japan was very good during the 90's for Mr. Big. But now I am doing pretty well everywhere. I think that the internet has helped promote me a lot. Thank you, YouTube!

If you could go out with a couple of other artists on a dream tour who would they be?

I really enjoyed playing on the G3 tour with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci. The audience was very welcoming to my band and my music.

Has the Internet helped your career or hindered it?

It's helped my live career - but hindered my recording career... and everyone else's!

What are your plans for the new album?

I don't like to tell anyone my plans until I finish what I am doing!

What are your touring plans?

I'm finishing a 9-week European tour now. It's the longest tour I have ever done as a solo artist, with almost 60 shows! I'll be playing in Japan in early February. Please check my website for news of more shows coming up.

Talking playing for a while how proficient are you at music reading?

I am a rock guitarist, so I read music about as well as most classical musicians improvise over a blues progression! Reading is rarely required for my job - but listening is: so I do lots of that. I can read chord charts pretty well - that can be useful for learning new songs quickly, or giving myself a mental framework for improvising a solo.

Do you play any other instruments, and if so to what level?

I'm a good drummer, a good bassist - and I can confidently play chords on the piano. I just started practising the harmonica and I'm awful! Even my cat wants me to stop making horrible sounds on the harmonica! I also play the tamborine very well. Don't laugh, it's harder than it looks!!!

How much do you actually practise nowadays?

I don't play scales with a metronome. But I play guitar all the time. There are so many good notes and rhythms waiting to be discovered in my guitar, so I want to keep looking for them.

This will suprise the hordes of shred heads out there who consider nailing your licks at a peak metromome speed as an essential part of their trainINg...! surely you must have used one at some point, as you're inarguably one of the rhthmically tightest scale/arpeggio guitarists in history!

I used a metronome a lot when I was seventeen and eighteen years old - it really helped me build some of my picking techniques. But now, I mostly just bang my foot on the ground as a metronome nowadays!

What's your ability like at playing over ‘jazz' changes?

I can do it a little bit, but it's certainly not my strong point. But I'm interested in improving this skill and incorporating it into my music, so I've been taking some lessons to help myself get better.

Could you handle a country gig?

I like some Charlie Rich songs, but I'm not familiar with modern country music. Even if I had the techniques to play the music, I think there would be some culture clashes!

How about an extreme Metal gig?!

I like playing guitar in Racer X, which is definitely a metal band. But I'm not so familiar with newer metal styles. A lot of the newer things I've heard are very percussive with dissonant chords. I don't like dissonance so much, so I'd be happier playing more traditional metal.


What picks do you use?

Tortex .60mm.

What gauge strings do you use?

It depends on the guitar. I use 10-46 on my 24 ¾" scale guitars (Ibanez Fireman, Ibanez 2630, Ibanez Destroyer), and I use 9-42 on my 25 ½" scale guitars (Ibanez PGM, Ibanez RG).

What are your main guitars?

Ibanez Fireman, Ibanez PGM, Ibanez 2630 Artist, Ibanez Destroyer.

What effects/pedals do you use?

Korg Pitchblack Tuner, Keeley Loop, Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress Flanger, Keeley Nova Wah, H.B.E. THC Chorus, MXR Blue Box, MXR Phase 100, H.B.E. CPR Compressor, H.B.E. Detox EQ, H.B.E. Bajo Mos Booster. In that order.

What amps?

Marshall 2266C Vintage Modern combo, with a THD Hot Plate, so I can turn the amp all the way up and get the sound of the cranked power tubes at any volume.

What advice would you give to the next generation/readers of this interview?

Learn lots of songs. Pick easy ones that you can learn in ONE DAY or less. Do not accept string noise in your playing. Do not accept weak vibrato in your playing. It is much better to play something simple with confidence than to play something complicated with lots of string noise and uneven timing. Play with a drummer as much as possible. Record yourself and listen closely. Enjoy every note you play, and other people will too. Remember that guitar SOLOS can still have a rhythmic structure. Just because the notes are high doesn't mean you can discard your rhythmic obligations to the groove. Lock in with your drummer. Work on the ENDINGS of your solos so your endings tell your audience, "Here comes the end, get ready, it's right HERE." Give guitar lessons. It helps you clarify your knowledge by having to organize it to teach someone else. Learn how to count like a drummer. Ask a drummer what the "and of three" means. Then listen to AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" until you understand that the riff starts on the "and of three". Take lessons. Learn to recognize intervals by ear. Enjoy that there are so many interesting and helpful things to learn about music. Be glad that it never ends. Don't drink much alcohol, don't smoke at all, eat fresh fruit. Learn lots of songs... repeat!

What career path do you think you would have taken if you hadn't made it as a musician?

I was interested in dinosaurs when I was a kid, so I considered being a paleontologist, but I wasn't very good at digging, so I gave it up.

Finally, have you ever played Guitar Hero?!!!!

No! But I've heard that it's fun for non-guitar players: thank you for being interested in the minute details of my musical life!