Paul Gilbert Interview - The Shredmeister General

Paul Gilbert is synonymous with not only extreme technique, but also an irrepressible humour that crosses all musical boundaries; consequently he tends to be the shredder non shred fans love as well!

For this exclusive new Paul Gilbert Interview Mike Blackburn met up with Paul at a recent G3 show in Toronto.

A Little History

Paul first picked up the guitar at about age 5 in 1971, but it was not until the age of 10 or 11 that he started to take it seriously. (Some may say he still does not take it or himself too seriously and thank God for that)!! Growing up Paul listened to a massive variety of music, from The Beatles to Todd Rungren, 50s and 60s pop through to Rush and Black Sabbath. Personally, he was greatly influenced by his uncle Jimmy Kidd, a blues- rock player who introduced the budding guitarist young Paul to the joys of the blues and the old masters.

Paul worked on his playing to a massive degree, and after graduating high school headed west to LA to attend GIT. Clearly one of the most outstanding students they ever had, he also gained notoriety in LA by terrorizing the local hot guitar slinger and winning the ‘LA Guitar Wars’ competition many years below drinking age! In 1987 Paul graduated GIT and became their youngest teacher. During his time as a student, Paul formed the technical metal band Racer X. They strived to be the fastest and loudest band around. They succeeded! Unfortunately for Paul, his ears are still ringing from that aural onslaught today.

Paul Gilbert

Paul later quit to join a new band project featuring the awesome bass talent of Billy Sheehan. That project was called Mr. Big and featured Gilbert, Sheehan, Pat Torpey on drums and Eric Martin on vocals. The debut was pretty successful and the band played live all over the world, i.e. as an opener for Rush. Then, in 1991 their sophomore album "Lean Into It" became a genuine worldwide success and featured the mega hit ‘To Be With You’, which was No.1 in several countries.

With Mr. Big, Paul showed that he also was a great "band-guitarist", cutting back on the speed a bit, playing some quite melodic and tasteful leads. At this stage in Paul’s career, to see him really tear it up you had to see the band live.

In the mid 1990’s Paul quit to pursue a solo-career, and in 1998 released his first ‘real’ solo album "King of Clubs": this was an album filled with really cool pop- and rock-tunes, and chock full of great melodies. Paul continues to this day to produce astonishing solo work and has released several albums with the reformed Racer X. Recently he released his first purely instrumental work ‘Get Out Of My Yard’, and on the back of this garnered a slot in the much vaunted G3 lineup. Thus we find yours truly and the man himself talking life and guitars in his most spacious dressing room on the latest G3 tour.

Guitar Chat and Influences

I sit here with a boatload of questions; the good ones are mine – the not so good are the product of the other lads back home in the UK – where they cannot speak for themselves! So please indulge me!

Ha, ha…go right ahead – shoot!!!

Paul, do you remember that well known video of you being interviewed in a basement or something by a Japanese film crew? Vaguely…

Well one of the riffs you ripped out on that video was ‘Trilogy’ by YJM, an album that had not yet even hit the streets… How did you get your hands on that?

Because we were on the same Shrapnel label early on, I sometimes got promo copies of stuff ahead of time, but I do not remember if that was the case there.

You have had a lot of fun dressing up and playing as Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page and even Punky Meadows, who is next?

Well these are some of my heroes so I guess the next one – which is as yet unplanned – will be another hero too: it’s all in good fun, just like Halloween.

Tell us about the famous Hendrix CD you made with the band members from Ten Years After? One of my all time favourite Hendrix tributes by the way!

Paul Gilbert

I was just coming off tour, and was due to appear at a German festival that was supposed to have Albert Collins headlining. I got a call from the promoter telling me that Albert had cancelled, so would I like to do an hour show at the end of the concert? He even suggested some Hendrix tunes, as it was a jazz and blues festival. So, I said sure; went over and met the guys: we basically rehearsed for an hour and did the show.

Is your family a musical one? Did you grow up with music around you?

My uncle was, and still is, a great guitar player. As a youngster it was a great thrill to be able to see a real good guitar player close up. My parents were not musicians but loved music there were always Beatles, Stones or Who albums playing at my house. There were also a lot of old blues records kicking around too, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters etc.

So your uncle Jimmy Kidd is in fact the big influence, and so when did you first pick up the guitar?

I wanted to start from a very early age, I started with some lessons at six but they were horribly boring and I gave it up almost immediately, and then I started playing for fun, by ear when I was about nine. That is basically how I have continued until now!

When did you start to use a metronome?

Even more important than the metronome was that I started playing in bands that had drummers: drummers are actually ‘human metronomes’. My first band was when I was eleven and that band had a drummer.

Was reading important to you from the get go or when did you start to get serious about that?

I am still a horrible sight reader; I can use chord charts but that is about it ha, ha!

Does any particular lesson – or teacher – stick out as a defining moment?

My uncle gave me some great pointers… muting strings with my palm, for instance, was a huge revelation! I took a couple of years of lessons from some local unknown teachers and what I took away was not necessarily what great players they were, but what the guitar brought to each of them individually and the promise of what it could bring to me.

I am still amazed that up until about a year ago, if you were local to Easton, Pennsylvania you could still get a $50/hour private lesson from Greg Howe.

Hey, if you were local to Hollywood, California you could still get a lesson from me at the Musician’s Institute!

Paul Gilbert

So during those formative years which guitar players influenced you the most?

Firstly and foremost Jimmy Page: I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan. Then, a couple of years later, the first Van Halen record came out… Then there was the live Frank Marino album, early Rush like ‘Hemispheres’ and ‘Moving Pictures’. Early Def Leppard, AC/DC, Journey and Kiss. Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith and Heart… Basically all the big rock bands that were around at the time. Also, the heavier bands from the late 60’s early 70’s like Mountain, Queen, Black Sabbath – hey, I even liked some punk stuff like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones! Ozzy with Randy Rhoads, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Gary Moore, Yngwie and Michael Schenker..

Jesus just a few, eh?! You mentioned Frank Marino: did you catch his show in California last year, and if so what did you think?

Yup, I did and it was the very first time I’ve ever seen him – and it was really awesome, just great!

So, if your first real band was at 11, when was your first real gig?

With the first band we did a talent show, but my initial gigs…often I’d end up at a party and get thrown in with new band members I’d never met before, usually older than me. They’d show me the three chords to some song like, say, ‘Gloria’ and we would just jam that out for half an hour. Then we’d play ‘Johnny B Goode’ for a half hour – and then repeat ‘Gloria’… followed by ‘Johnny B Goode’ in a different key! But, I must say, it was great experience to play jam tunes with people you did not even know and then get a second chance to make it better.

When was the first realization that hey this could be a career, there might be something here?

I always wanted to do it. The first time I felt in my heart that I had a fighting chance was once I had formed Racer X. We had done our first record, and of course we all thought it and us were going to be huge… then reality set in! We were, of course, on an indie label and were not going to be the Beatles overnight. The first two gigs we played were not well attended, but the word got around. I remember driving to the third gig with all my gear thinking ‘If we don’t get going soon I will not be able to pay rent!’ Then we arrived at the club and I could not even get to the dressing room it was so packed! I remember thinking this is sooo good!

Paul Gilbert

Do you recall the circumstances when you first heard Yngwie – and what was your immediate reaction?

When I was 15, I sent a tape to Mike Varney. Mike liked my playing and called me back and gave me both encouragement and pretty harsh criticism about my songwriting. At the same time, he would play me over the phone his other new discoveries. The first time he called he played me Shawn Lane which devastated my mind. The next time he played me the first tape he had received from Yngwie. When I heard Yngwie, even before Steeler, I had never before heard anybody pick like that. Being a fan of rock I had not really listened to Al DiMeola, or the other technically gifted fusion/jazz players, so the percussive attack of Yngwie’s pick was really cool to hear and got me thinking:: how did you get that attack and sound anyway? When you listen to the early Racer X stuff you can hear that I immediately started working on that stuff.

Did Yngwie also inspire you to develop sweep picking?

Not really, I had no idea it really existed until I got to GIT and saw people using it there. There was not a lot of sweeping on the YJM demos I heard.

The Move To LA and the (Mr)Big Time

How old were you when you first made the move to California?

I moved to California when I was 17. I was just out of high school and I went to attend GIT.

Were any of the instructors there able to teach you anything – or were you in fact teaching them?

I actually learned a lot at the school: I knew basically nothing about musical theory, and how in fact to apply it to rock guitar. I knew even less about other styles and so I just soaked it all in. I started teaching immediately upon graduation – which was really great because it saved me from having to get a job at Burger King! Technique wise, I came to the school fairly cutting edge; but as far as knowing about music – outside of rock guitar technique – had a _lot _ to learn.

You arrived in LA at a very exciting time for – for want of a better description – ‘Shred Guitar’ – did you get to check out loads of great of players?

Actually, the good bands I already knew and had their albums from when I was back home in Pennsylvania. What were becoming real big at that time were bands like Poison and Warrant – glam metal – guys that could barely play… but had crazy looking pants! I was stunned that these bands, and not the bands I thought were musically great were actually making it. The LA bands I liked – like Ratt, Dokken and Great White – had already made it. They were using LA as a home base but by this point were actually out there touring the world.

Paul Gilbert

So how did you connect with the Racer X guys and what is it like to be tearing it up with Bruce (Bouillet) again?

I met most of the guys at school (GIT) as they were also students there. We basically found Jeff Martin (Editors Note: vocals and latterly drums in Jake E Lee’s band Badlands) through Mike Varney. Once our original drummer failed to get his visa renewed and returned to Austria, I remembered seeing Scott Travis in a video from another vocalist we’d auditioned and thinking he was awesome – we called him up and luckily we got him in the band!

Did the most famous guys in the early Shrapnel days ever get to hang together and jam at all??

Occasionally, because we were all using the same studio so we might meet there. Really I just hung out with the guys in Racer X: those guys were the best of friends then – and still are to this day. That’s why it’s so great to be with Bruce again: as he is first and foremost a best friend. Of course he has always been involved even during most of my solo career stuff.

Then we come to Mr. Big: your success is quite remarkable when you consider it was right in the middle of the dreaded ‘Grunge’ era…

Initially I was just really excited to be in a band with Billy Sheehan: I was a huge Talas fan. I’d also heard Eric’s voice…! But what ultimately surprised me was the lack of volume shredding and excitement: I’d expected more! I was so much younger and less experienced than the other guys that I did not grab the bull by the horns and so was basically a follower for what Mr. Big became. Ultimately, to me the band was a bit of a disappointment never really reaching the excitement level I had anticipated despite the commercial success. After Racer X – where every millisecond of free space was to be filled with some humongous musical excess – Mr. Big was, in reality, pretty tame! The first album sounded to me like a lot like Bryan Adams filler material, although I think the second album had some really great songs.

Since 1988 you have also become very well known in guitar circles for your REH instructional videos. These – more than any other similar products out there – showed that while it’s great to be technically proficient you also need to have some fun with it and not take yourself too seriously…any more on the horizon?

I just finished another: the ‘Get Out of My Yard’ instructional video; and they’re-releasing my earlier ones too.

Paul Gilbert

Any fond memories from the NAMM shows you have attended?

The first one was great, as an unknown I was able to walk around anonymously and check out all the gear. Of course, with Ibanez having the great roster of artists
They’re always able to whip up an awesome show: most recently it was Vai, Satriani, Timmons, Li, Macalpine and a few more.

With the reunited Racer X albums where’s been the best market? Of course there is always Japan, but how did those records do in the US? I really have no idea.

What do you reckon is the next big break through for guitar players?

I think it’s more in the home recording and computer area: Pro Tools is a huge thing. I am fairly avante garde and embrace a lot of the new technology; but at the end of the day you still have to know how to play the guitar, write a song and play it with real musicians so that it sounds good, don’t you?

What was your very first endorsement deal?

It had to be Ibanez… No, actually, it was with Wayne Charvel; at that point he’d just sold his name to Jackson. He made me one guitar – an Epiphone copy – and then got a job with BC Rich, and so they made me a Mockingbird. I played it although it was uncomfortable. Wayne then moved to Gibson and I was worried with all of his moving around, because I believed that if you actually endorse something you ought to really endorse and use the product.

An at that point I got into Ibanez guitars…

Senor Gilberto Today

When you are not touring, how much time on an average day do you spend actually playing the guitar?

Lately a lot; I have been doing a lot of teaching and, of course, I had to hone up for this last solo record. I just love it, playing guitar all day! When I teach there is very little talk and a lot of playing.

You were a frequent guest when G3 were in town on the previous tours, so how did your fulltime involvement this time around come about?

I finally had enough solo material appropriate for the tour: most of my older work was vocal oriented but this type of material works for a G3 type of tour so Joe just asked – and of course I said ‘Yes’ in a heartbeat!

Do you spend a lot of time in Japan?

Sometimes I am there for months at a time, but I still in fact live in LA.

Marty Friedman is full time in Japan now right?

Yes, but his Japanese is awesome!

Are there any newer guys that you like out there?

I hardly listen to any new music because my ears are so bad; I did like The Darkness album, I like The Wildhearts, Harem Scarem…

Are you at all adept at playing over Jazz changes and reading stave?

Actually I started taking guitar lessons trying to help that. I am better than I have ever been – but still far from being good enough!

What is your biggest weakness as a player, a thing you’d like to improve?

Since I am a rock player, jazz is incredibly challenging as the architecture of the music is so incredibly different. Whereas rock is one key for three minutes, in jazz you play one key per bar. The stuff just keeps coming at you, and in a hurry too.

How do you think your playing nowadays compares to the late 80’s?

I have a much greater vocabulary now when it comes to phrasing. A wider vocabulary is great and I really enjoy that. It allows a lot more expression on the instrument.

What is your next project?

The instrumental album was very hard; but I really enjoyed the process and the end result, and so I want to do another of those. Also, watching Joe and John really gets you an idea of how much a great instrumental tune can move an audience. I want to write more of those tunes.

What is your recording rig and how does it vary from you touring gear?

It has gotten smaller and smaller; a little Pro Tools rig and a drum rig. On stage I use Laney’s and my Ibanez’, and I’ve put together my own pedal board using mostly vintage effects and sounds.

What string gauges and plectrums are you using these days?

Gauge depends on the guitar. Most of my newer Ibanez’s are a longer scale length so I use 9-42 for that. My older guitars are shorter scale length so I use 10 – 46 on those. These days I am using picks that are virtually half the gauge of the ones I traditionally used. I am using Tortex .06 MM.

What are your proudest recorded moment to this point in your career?

I really love ‘Get Out Of My Yard’ – it’s a great representation of where I am as a player right now. For great songs I best like ‘Burning Organ’.

Which one song best encapsulates Paul Gilbert’s guitar style?

Maybe ‘Superheroes’ by Racer X…

Any favorite solos?

I really like the solo on ‘Into the Night’ from Racer X.

And finally, what label will you be working with on your next solo album?

Probably Shrapnel again…