Paul Gilbert is one of the great guitar heroes who need little introduction. Whether you first discovered his insane shredding mayhem in the speed metal band Racer X, his pop-music-that-totally-rocks work with super-group, Mr. Big, or any number of solo recordings and collaborative projects, there’s no denying Paul Gilbert’s role as an influencer of thousands of guitar players across a wide range of rock disciplines. He’s also a regular magazine columnist and instructor, spreading the gospel of guitar at every turn.
Ever thoughtful, funny, and forthcoming, we recently caught up with Paul to talk about Stone Pushing Uphill Man—his latest solo release, on which he’s reinterpreted a wide range of classic songs and ditched the lead vocalist, replacing that essential position with… his guitar! Of course, the conversation includes all sorts of random goodness, so allow me to direct the focus of your green-tinted, sixties mind here:
“Even though the guys in Rush were very welcoming,
I didn’t really know how to talk to them.”
MPc: Your love of classic rock is widely known by your fans, and we’ve all heard you perform—and sing—numerous classics. On Stone Pushing Uphill Man, why did you decide to forgo vocals when you’ve obviously got the talent to sing this material?
PG: I’ve wanted to be a singer since I was a little kid, but I always feel the limitations of my range and tone. With the guitar, all the high notes are easy! I can even hit those crazy Steven Tyler notes in “Back in the Saddle.” So the guitar opens a lot of possibilities. At the same time, my guitar vocabulary is more “scaley” than I’d like it to be. I’d like my guitar playing to be more melodic, so a great way to learn that style is to play vocal melodies.
MPc: Why this particular collection of songs?
PG: I looked for melodies with a lot of movement. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” has huge interval jumps in the melody, and this sounds really good on guitar. Also, I picked some bluesier melodies like, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” I’ve been working on my blues guitar playing a lot lately, and I wanted to see how a great singer approaches a blues melody. Paul McCartney sings some melodies that I wouldn’t have thought of. And they make fantastic guitar licks.
MPc: What was your greatest challenge in translating vocal parts to lead guitar?
PG: Mostly, it was just fun. I knew most of the songs by heart, so I didn’t have to do a lot of memorizing. But I did listen very closely to the original versions before I recorded them, to see if there were any details that I may have missed. The James Brown tune “I Got the Feelin’” may have been a little more challenging, because I didn’t know that song as well. I discovered it recently, and really liked it. But I had to study it a bit closer than the others. James Brown’s phrasing is stunning. He’s a funk genius.
MPc: For years, I’ve heard you talk about your signature Ibanez guitars, but I don’t feel like you’ve made as big a deal about your amplification. Tell us about your amp of choice these days, and how your tone has been evolving over the past decade or two, perhaps since… the days of the ADA MP-1. (laughs)
PG: I used a Marshall 2061x for a lot of the record, and a Fender Custom Vibrolux Reverb for some parts as well. Both of these amps are vintage-style, with no master volume, so I have to crank them up to get any distortion. I use a THD Hot Plate, so the volume can be controlled a bit. For recording, I use a Randall isolation cabinet with a couple of mics inside. I like simple tube amps with good tone. I use pedals if I need more distortion of other effects.
MPc: Any pedals you can’t live without? And what’s your feeling about overdrive and distortion? Get it from the amp or from a pedal?
PG: I love to mess around with pedals. It’s funny how many names there are for “distortion.” There is “overdrive,” “gain,” “saturation,” “fuzz,” and of course, “distortion.” I don’t worry about the names. I just plug in a pedal and see how it sounds, and how it makes the guitar respond. For this album, I used the MXR Distortion Plus a lot. Also, the TC Electronic Spark Booster and the Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone… that’s actually a compressor, but it can drive an amp to get distortion if you crank it up. I used an MXR Phase 90 for some things. And, some flangers for the backing tracks that I made: the ADA Flanger and an old Electro Harmonix Polyflange.
MPc: Tell us about your online rock guitar school. How did you get involved with that?
PG: It’s with a company called Artistworks. They invented a unique way to communicate with the students called “Video Exchange.” It works like this: A student will submit of video of their playing. It can be based on a lesson in my course that’s on the site, or it can be anything else that they want to work on. I watch the video, and make a video to respond and help them. These videos get paired together and are loaded on the site. Then anyone on the site can watch this Video Exchange and learn from it. So when I teach one student, I’m actually teaching everyone on the site. Since I started two years ago, I’ve made well over 2,000 of these videos. There is a “search” feature to help sort through the archives, and every week I load lots of new videos on the site. So it’s constantly growing. Most importantly, the students are really getting better, and I’m having a great time!
“I remember… being bored by all the long solos.”
MPc: Years ago, you toured as a support act for Rush. How did that interesting pairing come about?
PG: I think we were on the same record label at the time. And we had a really good manager, who had a lot of connections. And hopefully the guys in Rush liked us! (laughs) They are certainly heroes of mine, so I was thrilled to tour with them. I was so young then… I must have been 22. So even though the guys in Rush were very welcoming, I didn’t really know how to talk to them. I just felt like a fan, so I thought I’d just keep to myself and give them their privacy. But they were so cool. They even invited us onstage to jam with them every night. And that was the tour where I got a drill caught in my hair. Good times! (laughs)
MPc: We loved the album you did with vocalist Freddie Nelson, who may as well have been named Freddie Mercury with all those Queen-like performances. How did the United States album come about?
PG: Freddie is from the same area where I grew up, but I moved to L.A. as soon as I got out of high school, so I didn’t have a chance to meet him then. I just remember all of my friends telling me, “There’s this guy named Freddie who is an amazing guitar player and he’s a great singer too!” Years went by, and one of my friends played a demo of his band with Freddie singing on it. I thought it was fantastic, and so I contacted him, and we made that record. I like it a lot too. Freddie rules!
MPc: Something I found interesting about United States, besides the great classic rock songwriting, was that you didn’t take a big solo in every song. What are your thoughts about solos in rock songs in general?
PG: That would be true for most Mr. Big songs as well. And that’s really the formula of most vocal songs. That’s fine with me. I love vocal music. I grew up listening to The Beatles and Elton John, and I remember going to see Led Zeppelin’s movie “The Song Remains the Same,” and being bored by all the long solos. Of course, I eventually fell in love with that record, and did hours and hours of air guitar to it. So I like long solos too. It just depends on what fits the song.
MPc: Speaking of vocal albums, are there any plans for new material with Mr. Big? What are your next touring and studio plans?
PG: Mr. Big has a new album called, “The Stories We Could Tell…” We’re touring in Europe and Japan later this year, and maybe doing some shows next year as well.
MPc: Are there any new bands or artists you’re listening to these days? And, where do you find new inspiration?
PG: I like a guitar player named Kid Andersen a lot. He’s a traditional blues player and he just does everything right. I like Dirty Loops. They do an amazing cover of Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” But mostly, I’ve been listening to older music. I love a Nina Simone song called, “It Be’s That Way Sometimes.” And I’ve been listening to lots of Jimmy Hamilton jazz clarinet records. And, I go on YouTube and pull up videos of Gary Moore, Johnny Winter, and The Who. So much good stuff.
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