Paul Gilbert Interview—The Voice of His Guitar
This interview was originally published in 2014. Absolutely mind blowing. He’s been absolutely mind-blowing on the fretboard since he was a teenager. That’s six-string voodoo child Paul Gilbert we’re talking about. In case you’re not familiar with the back story on the Mr. Big guitarist and multiple “Best Guitarist” award-winner, here’s a quick rundown: He […]
This interview was originally published in 2014.
Absolutely mind blowing. He’s been absolutely mind-blowing on the fretboard since he was a teenager. That’s six-string voodoo child Paul Gilbert we’re talking about. In case you’re not familiar with the back story on the Mr. Big guitarist and multiple “Best Guitarist” award-winner, here’s a quick rundown: He was written up in a 1981 issue of Guitar Player magazine when he was just 15, and became an instructor at the famed Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood when he was 19. Around that time the young virtuoso hooked up with talent scout extraordinaire Mike Varney, releasing the first of many albums with his band Racer X on Varney’s Shrapnel Records label.
By the late-’80s Gilbert had been tapped to join bass maverick Billy Sheehan’s new band, Mr. Big, along with drummer Pat Torpey, and singer/songwriter Eric Martin. The group gave Gilbert a capable shredder accomplice in Sheehan (ex of David Lee Roth’s band, and regular sidekick to Steve Vai ever since). But it also brought the then 20-something guitarist a shot of much-needed chart-topping success, particularly with Mr. Big’s “To Be With You,” the 1991 acoustic classic that went to Number One in the U.S, and charted in 20 other countries. The song was featured in the video game Rock Band 3, the smash hit musical “Rock of Ages,” and even in a recent Wendy’s commercial.
Gilbert left Mr. Big in 1997 and went on to reform Racer X, and eventually release numerous solo albums and instructional DVDs. He has recorded our toured with a who’s-who of the shredder world in various incarnations through the years, written columns for several guitar mags, and currently teaches one-on-one online guitar lessons through the Online Rock Guitar School with Paul Gilbert. Mr. Big reformed with the original members, including Gilbert, in 2009, and released What If… in 2011.
On his just released new solo record, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, Gilbert covers — no, re-creates — incredibly accurate renditions of rock classics ranging from Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” to Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle” with nothing more than guitar, bass, and drums — and that includes amazing interpretations of all the relevant lead and harmony vocal lines, not to mention piano and keyboard parts as well.
In this new exclusive interview, Guitar.com spoke with Gilbert about his excellent new solo album, the upcoming Mr. Big record, and his recent G4 Experience guitar camp with Joe Satriani, Andy Timmons, Mike Keneally, and Bruce Bouillet. Gilbert also surprised us with his multi-layered interests in capturing those voices in his head, his recent preoccupation with jazz clarinet, and mastering the kazoo.
Yes, the kazoo.
Guitar.com: How are you Paul?
Gilbert: I’m doing great.
Guitar.com: I’m enjoying the new album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, it’s a very cool thing.
Gilbert: Thank you very much.
Guitar.com: The guitar really does speak well as the vocalist on a lot of the songs you recorded.
Gilbert: Well, when you’ve got inspiration like, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” how can you go wrong?
Guitar.com: One of my favorite songs of all time, probably, is “Back in the Saddle,” which you covered.
Gilbert: Oh yeah.
Guitar.com: And man, you nailed Tyler’s voice. I can hear him singing those words as you play it.
Gilbert: Well thank you. Every singer is amazing, but Steven Tyler certainly is a standout. As a guitar player, a couple of small technical things: I had an old Ibanez guitar with a Fernandes Sustainer pickup in it, that allowed me to get this screaming feedback, because certainly Tyler’s screams on that tune are amazing. That made it a lot easier to make that happen. But he also does a lot of yodeling, where he’ll be singing in one range, and all the sudden one little high note will pop out.
And a lot of the Van Halen stuff that I learned when I was a kid [on guitar, where Eddie fingertapped one higher note than he was fretting], that was perfect. It was like… I never really put those two things together: Eddie Van Halen tapping one high note, and Steven Tyler going [sings the line “Back in the Saddle Again,” and adds a high, yodeling octave note at the end of the word “Again”], you know, the little yodels at the end.
But that technique came in really handy. And the little sliding things, because he’s always going [sings, a la Tyler, and slides into a note]. Not just that, but the whole record is so different than the way guitar is usually taught. When people learn guitar they usually learn scales. And I’ve certainly put in my time doing that stuff, and I’ve had success with it, and people respond to it, but it’s really — the language that vocalists speak is a whole different vocabulary. I love that stuff, and it was really a great guitar lesson for me, making this record.
Guitar.com: The keyboard parts that you re-created for the Elton John tune, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” as well. That was very cool.
Gilbert: Yeah, the keyboard parts, and also the background harmonies. They’re real dense in that tune, the Eric Carmen tune “My Girl,” and the k.d. lang song “Wash Me Clean.” The production stuff on that was time consuming because I didn’t use keyboards. I built it all with guitars, and, instead of playing a chord, I’d play each note separately, kind of Brian May style.
Brian May sometimes does that where he layers guitar tracks. First of all I had to figure out what the chords were, and write everything down, and I can’t really read music well, so I was actually just writing letter names — “A, B, C#” — and made a little chart for myself and just played it one part at a time and put it all together. But at the end it sounded so nice. Thank goodness I had Elton to write that tune for me, because if I had to write it and play it, I don’t think I’d have enough brain.
Guitar.com: I hear ya. The one note at a time, Brian May technique — did you do that for a lot of the chords on this album?
Gilbert: You can kind of tell from the texture of them. If it’s something that’s more like a string section or a keyboard pad or vocal harmonies, then I did it like that. If it’s something that’s more percussive, like the James Brown tune “I Got The Feeling,” there I was trying to copy the horn part that was on the live version I was trying to play similar to. And the horns did these really percussive, rhythmic stabs [mimics James Brown-style, funk horn parts]. That wouldn’t be something where I’d be slowly building harmonies. That’s something I’ve got to play with percussion, a single guitar performance.
Guitar.com: And you created all of these backing tracks, most of it on guitar, and with the help of a couple drummers.
Gilbert: Yeah, Kenny Aronoff and Mike Portnoy played drums, and on the k.d. lang song I had a guy come in and play upright bass, and some percussion. But I played the bass on everything else, and of course the guitars I could sort of… sometimes they sound like guitars, sometimes they sound like vocals or horns or keyboards or whatever.
Guitar.com: It’s very cool. So this album came out a month ago in Japan, and just yesterday (August, 2014) in North America.
Gilbert: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Guitar.com: So are you going to get out and play some of these songs? I know you’ve got a Mr. Big thing coming up.
Gilbert: I went over to Japan and did a short promo tour, and played some of them there. It actually went a lot better than I expected because I was kind of scared, because, as with almost any record I end up playing things that I’ve never played before, which makes me happy, until I have to play them live, and I’m like, “Man, what did I do? How did I play that?”
Right now we’re right in the midst of Mr. Big recordings. Actually this next week I’m doing a thing called the G4 Experience. It’s a guitar camp with Joe Satriani, Andy Timmons, and Mike Keneally. And with that I’m doing a live set, and I’ll be doing some songs from the new album there, so amidst kind of a limited… they capped it off at like 180 students or something, because after that the camp is full, so it’s a relatively small audience. But at least I’ll get to play the songs a little bit. And I might do some touring next year, and if I do that, I’d love to play these songs live. They’re a lot of fun.
Guitar.com: The G4 Experience that you’re doing next week, that Cambria Pines area is beautiful. I lived in San Luis Obispo for awhile. Is this the first time that you’re doing this?
Gilbert: Two years previous I did my own camp called the Great Guitar Escape. I did those in upstate New York. And this time, actually the same guy who organized those put together this one with Joe Satriani. I was still involved in organizing it, because I don’t think Joe’s ever done one, and I had done a couple, so I had some ideas for what to do. But basically everybody’s kind of doing their own thing. We jam together, and we play together, but when we teach, we each have our own things that we want to show.
So yeah, I’ve done them. The thing that I’m excited about is, it’s so easy to communicate these days, with the internet, and I’ve got an online guitar school where I can teach people all over the world, so I want this to be something that is unique to the situation, where we’re actually there. We’re not communicating with people through computers, we’re actually human beings all in the same place. And to me the best thing you can do there is jam.
And so I set up these massive jam sessions where I actually jam with everybody. And in order to do that, if you’ve got 180 people, that adds up. If you spend five minutes with everybody, that would be like 12 hours or something — I’d have to get a calculator to figure that out. So what I do is I organize it really well, and make it a relatively short amount of time that we play with each other. We form a line, and once the jam starts it doesn’t stop, and everybody comes in. I’ve got a guitar tech to help everybody get plugged in, and everybody gets a chance. I do that as much as I can, two or three times during the camp. That way, even if it’s short, everybody gets a couple tries at it.
And a lot of times not everybody comes up and jams. Some people would rather sit back and watch, and that allows me to go a little bit longer with the people that do jam. But it’s a blast. It really lights everybody up.
Guitar.com: So how do they do this? They step up and play a couple times around a song, and then you give them a little critique?
Gilbert: There’s not time for a critique. Basically what I do, the first lesson I sort of describe what to do, so I don’t just throw everybody into the fire. I talk about how to jam: You’ve got to pay attention to the music behind you, you’ve got to know when to stop, when to start, how to control your gear so you’re not making noise when the other guy is playing.
Once it starts, it’s just pure music. I play a couple bars, the other guy plays a couple bars. We go back and forth two or three times, and then they’re off and the next guy gets plugged in. And I think the good thing is, not only does everybody play, but they get to watch and listen to the other people play, and get to see who did well, who struggled, why they struggled or did well. Certainly you can learn something from explanations, but I think you learn a lot more from doing it. And the lessons you learn from doing things resonate more and stay with you.
Guitar.com: And during the course of this type of camp, during the course of the four days, do the four of you — you and Joe and Mike and Andy — split up in separate rooms and each take a group of people, and actually sit down and teach a certain topic for an hour? How does one of these extended guitar camps work?
Gilbert: All the teachers do seminars. This one, because it’s sold out, we ended up hiring a couple of other teachers: Bruce Bouillet from Racer X is going to come out and teach at this one as well. So during the whole day there’s seminars from all the teachers, and at night, all the teachers do a jam session. So Joe Satriani will be doing a set, I’ll be doing a set, Andy and Mike will be doing sets. And we’ll all be jamming with each other as well. And there’s gear there, so if the students want to jam they can.
One of the other things that — you sort of have to be there to feel this — but hanging out with a hundred or so guitar players, who are really into it, for any period of time, is really inspiring. Just to know that you’re not alone in your passion and your interest. I know that many musicians have the experience where they’re growing up learning to play, and the rest of the family is like, ‘What? You should be a dentist,” or “You should get a job at the auto mechanic place,” or something. And there’s nothing wrong with being a dentist, if that’s what you’re interested in, but if your passion is music, it’s not always easy to find support.
And just to be together with a bunch of like-minded people really fills up the spirit with “Yes, it’s OK. Yes, this is possible.” Whether I’m going to make this my life’s work, or if it’s just going to be something I enjoy during my extra hour every night, I’m not crazy. There’s other people who love this as well.’
Guitar.com: So you also have the online school, and it’s part of a larger company?
Gilbert: Yeah, it’s a company called Artist Works. They’ve got some amazing musicans. They’ve got Billy Cobham teaching drums, and John Patitucci teaching upright bass. They’ve got real heavy hitters from jazz, classical, and… They’ve got Nathan East teaching rock bass. He plays with Clapton. They’ve got really pro people doing this.
The thing that got me into this, I saw their jazz fingerstyle guy, a guy named Martin Taylor. They showed me some of his lessons, and I loved his course. His teaching was great. The lessons were really interesting. It made me want to learn from him. I’ve done a lot of teaching before in various forms, but I was interested in this. I’ve done it for about two years now, and it’s really enjoyable. And of course the teacher is always the one who learns the most, so I’ve benefitted from it a lot as well, as a player.
The way it works is I recorded a whole video course, which is always there. But the sort of living, breathing part of the school is that the students continuously send in videos. It can be anything, they can look at a lesson and show me how they did playing that lesson. Or they can ask me a question about anything, or they can do a performance so I can critique it, whatever they want. And then I do a video reply, and those two videos — the question video they sent in, and my answer video — get paired together and posted on the site. And even though my answer is directed at one individual, everybody on the site can watch it. So if I teach one student, in a way, I’m teaching 1,000 students.
Since I started two years ago, I’ve done about 2,200 videos now. So there’s a lot of content there, and fortunately there’s good ways to search through it and find the stuff you’re interested in. The best thing is, I’m having fun, and the students are really improving. It’s really a blast to see, if you look at one guy’s video that he sent in for the first time two years ago, look where he is now. There’s such a huge difference. It’s really a blast.
Guitar.com: I saw a jam video you put together where you were going back and forth with people. It was very cool.
Gilbert: Yeah, that was fun. We decided to try to do a video version of a jam. I set it up, when they sent in their video submissions, I could put them all in my computer in Pro Tools. So I had the backing track, and then them jamming, then a space for me, then another one jamming, then a space for me. So I could do it live. I could really feel what’s it’s like to jam with a bunch of people. It wasn’t like I had to stop and lose the feel of the thing. That was great that we could take something like that and actually make it feel very live.
Guitar.com: And you were doing a little call and response action with them that way as well.
Gilbert: That’s what a jam is!
Guitar.com: You said you’ve put up 2,200 videos. How much time do you put into this each week?
Gilbert: A lot! It’s partially teaching, but it’s also a great way — most of my guitar practicing comes from doing lessons, because not all their questions are simple ones. A lot of times they’ll be like, “How did you play that part in that Racer X song?” and I’ll be like, “Oh my goodness, I gotta go back and learn that thing!” So even though I might spend a half an hour or an hour preparing for a video sometimes — they don’t all take that much time — but I don’t mind because it keeps my hands in shape, it sort of keeps me sharp to have to keep up with their questions. And sometimes even the simpler questions are a challenge for me. But I always enjoy the challenge. I always learn something from it. And I just enjoy it because I get to hang out with guitar players all the time.
Guitar.com: I taught for a few years in a store, and I noticed that just sitting there with the guitar in my hand was practice, and it improved my playing quite a bit, because you’re always demonstrating something and you’re actually getting in a lot of practice that way, for hours and hours a day. Not to mention that the questions that are thrown at you make you have to really think musical concepts through in detail.
Gilbert: Yes! It’s funny because especially with the theory stuff — I studied theory at GIT — but sometimes I wonder, “Am I calling that the right thing?” or “When you write the name of a mode, do you capitalize the first letter?” I’m the teacher, I’m supposed to be right all the time, so I had to figure those things out.
Guitar.com: Right. I had those same thoughts when I was teaching. So in your own playing, you keep busy with a lot of recording projects, and with sitting in with a lot of people, and with doing all this teaching… Do you have time to just sit around and just play for the fun of it?
Gilbert: I still, absolutely, play for the fun of it. Almost all of the time it’s for the fun of it. Lately my own personal project has been to be able to sing with the guitar, and to be able to really connect what I hear in my head, to connect the things that I would play if all I had was a kazoo. And to be able to play the guitar with the same fluency. And you would think after playing guitar for nearly 40 years that I would be a better guitar player than I am a kazoo player…
Guitar.com: Are you saying you’re a shredder on kazoo?
Gilbert: Well that’s the thing: It’s not shredding. (laughs) It’s more melodic intention. If there’s a melody that you’re hearing, on the kazoo I can get it in the first take, every time, as long as it’s in my head. I’ve got to have something in my brain.
Guitar.com: And how often do you pick up a kazoo?
Gilbert: More often than you might think! (laughs) I use it as a teaching device as well, and it’s a great composing tool because suddenly your guitar habits are taken away, and you’re left with pure melodic intention, and you can discover what is really in your head. Am I playing from the fingers, from finger memory and visual shapes, or am I actually playing a melody that came from a whole different part of the brain: the musical part.
Actually that was my goal as a guitar player before I played guitar. When I was 8 years old I didn’t know how to play guitar, and I had melodies in my head, and I could sing them, but I couldn’t play them. And I thought the goal of guitar would be to learn how to connect those things.
And I forgot that goal, because of the distraction of learning the instrument. You have to go through a certain amount of scale learning and arpeggio learning and all the stuff. But I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to remember what I originally wanted to do, which was just to play what I heard in my head.
And in order to rediscover that I had to first find out, “Well, what is in my head?” Because my finger habits are so strong, that I have to somehow push those aside for a moment and find out what’s going on in here [points to his head]. Do I actually have anything in there? Is it empty or are there some ideas? And then if there are ideas, the kazoo allows me to bring them out immediately. There’s no way I’m going to hit the wrong fret on the kazoo, or get confused about a fingering. And so I can record that and then go back with the guitar and figure it out.
And really making this album was a similar thing. All the melodies on that record were melodies that were already in my head. And one would think an experienced guitar player could just play whatever is in their head, but that’s not the case. My guitar vocabulary is very different than my melodic intention, much of the time. My goal is to change that, or to — I don’t want to get rid of my old style of playing — I just want to add to it. Because it’s really like a different language, and it’s a language I want to learn.
Guitar.com: Do you find from all your previous knowledge and use of modes and scales and all that stuff, where does that fit in with somebody singing a song like “Back in the Saddle” or “Working for the Weekend?” Are they sticking closer to a straight pentatonic blues scale most of the time, or where are they going?
Gilbert: Well, a scale is a group of notes, and there’s so much more to music than a note. And musicians who have great ears know that intuitively. A lot of times a great musician who is not school trained, but has a great feel, will use words like, “feel.” I remember one of the most frustrating criticisms I used to get, in the early Racer X days, they would say “He played really fast, but it doesn’t have any feel.” And I thought, “Well, you’ve got explain that better.” “Feel” is a really general term.
And from teaching, it has allowed me to realize what “feel” is. And it’s a combination of dynamics, and dynamics is huge. You wouldn’t believe how many guitar players do not use any dynamics. And it’s not just a big section of loud and then a big section of soft. It’s a constant up and down of different tones, different volumes, and space, and filling up stuff. It’s this contrast of whatever’s going on with other stuff, and it can happen very quickly. And it makes a huge difference. Just that alone can separate the amateurs from the pros.
The other thing is connecting things. Having the composition of the song where it’s not just like a list of licks thrown out that have no relation to each other. Each one, maybe the first one will establish the phrase, the second one is a slight variation, the third one takes the ending of the second one, and so they’re all connected to each other. It gives meaning to the phrase.
There’s so many of these things. “Working for the Weekend” has a two note chorus (sings chorus), but there’s little things in there. If you played that on a harpsichord — a harpsichord is an instrument that doesn’t have the ability to do vibrato or dynamics, no matter how hard you hit that key, it’s the same volume. If you played that on a harpsichord, it’s gonna sound really stiff. All the life and coolness is taken away from it. And a vocalist has easy access to the slides and dynamics and vibrato and all that stuff. Guitar can do it, but you really have to be ready for it. It absolutely takes certain kinds of techniques, and it’s very different than what you learn when you just play scales up and down.
Scales certainly have their place, if you’re playing the break from “The Trees” by Rush (sings melody). It’s a straight scale right there. But most of the time when you’re doing a solo, if you want the kind of expression that really has a little bit of a vocal quality to it, it’s the stuff in between the notes, and it’s the treatment and stylistic elements of how you treat those notes that really make it live.
Guitar.com: It would probably be a great exercise for any guitar player to sit down and really try to mimic the singers on their favorite songs.
Gilbert: Absolutely. And it’s fun! For me it is, anyway. I have much more vocal, in my melodic memory and my brain, what I can call up, I know many more vocal melodies than I do guitar melodies. That’s sort of what lives in my brain for being a music fan as a kid.
Guitar.com: What is going on with the next Mr. Big record? Are you done recording?
Gilbert: It’s actually being mixed right now. But we’re also doing this karaoke thing for Japan, where we’re recording a lot of our classic tunes, and it’s going to be made into some kind of 3D, surround, virtual, karaoke big production thing. I haven’t experienced it, but Japan is always on the leading edge of high-tech stuff. So I’m in the studio this week doing that. That’s actually a lot of fun: playing some of the old tunes. And I’m playing them better now than I did then, so it’s fun to have another chance.
Guitar.com: So the new Mr. Big album comes out in September, right?
Gilbert: I think so, yeah. Don’t quote me on that, that’s the sort of thing the label knows. They know the release dates; I know the guitar licks.
Guitar.com: And then I guess you have some dates in Japan…
Gilbert: And Europe as well.
Guitar.com: Yes, I see those European dates. And this all starts in October, going through November. So can we be looking for a U.S. tour after that?
Gilbert: That’s all up to the managers. We get a lot of emails with people asking us to play certain cities. It’s not really up to us. It’s up to the people who are balancing how much it costs to get there, and how big of a venue could we sell. They’re the ones who juggle the numbers and figure that out for us.
Guitar.com: What is it with Japan and guitar music? It’s great that they are, but why do you think they’re so in love with guitar music?
Gilbert: Mr. Big in particular, that’s the thing I have the most experience with. We really noticed a radical change in direction in the early ’90s, when America sort of went grunge, and the hair bands were suddenly given the stamp of disapproval. Japan just kept on going, and we were allowed to keep our hair, and allowed to keep playing sort of optimistic, fun, loud rock.
So that was my experience with it. As far as guitar music, it’s interesting because when I left Mr. Big in the ’90s, I did a lot of albums that had a lot of guitar on them, but it was focused on my vocals and sort of more pop songs as well. And it did really well in Japan, but not that well anywhere else. So I only toured in Japan during those years.
And then finally, maybe about 10 years ago, I released my first instrumental guitar record, called Get Out of My Yard, and surprised me how well it did in Europe and the States. So I put together a European tour for that and it did great. And I went to Japan and it did all right, but I found that in Japan I could sense a little disappointment that I wasn’t singing as much. So I get the sense that it’s not necessarily guitar, it’s more Mr. Big (laughs).
When I go over to Japan and do instrumental stuff, or my own shows, I’ll play like a 1,000-seater. With Mr. Big we’ll play Budokan, and huge arenas. But in Europe if I do a solo show, I might play the same venue that Mr. Big does. So Japan has a really big difference between what Mr. Big has done. So I see that as the really biggest factors: that particular band just took off over there.
Guitar.com: Well, the reason that I ask that question is because, well, doesn’t Marty Friedman live over there?
Gilbert: Well, he speaks Japanese fluently.
Guitar.com: And he lives there, right?
Gilbert: Yeah. And if you can speak a language, it’s a really fun place to live. I tried living over there for a few years in hopes that the language was going to soak in. I was improving, but my improvement was so slow I decided time would be better spent playing guitar rather than studying this language for hours and seeing so little progress.
Guitar.com: But it seems to me that a lot of the more — I don’t want to use the word “shredder” too much — but a lot of the shredder and virtuoso type players seem to go over there and play more frequently. And also, years ago I did an interview with the Ventures…
Gilbert: Oh yeah, they do great over there.
Guitar.com: And they had explained to me that they are — and they laughed and said — “We’re big in Japan!” They said they were from the beginning, that the Japanese never let go and just love them over there. So that’s why I brought up the guitar thing with Japan. It’s interesting that you see the difference between your draw as a solo artist vs. Mr. Big. But Japanese music fans are very supportive of American rock culture, aren’t they?
Gilbert: Yeah, that sort of thing… I don’t really put much thought into it because it’s something that I feel that I have no control over. I put out good music, I put it out because I like it, and I hope people like it. But how they respond to it is completely up to them. If they like it, that’s great, I’m happy. If they don’t, I’m disappointed. But really in the end it’s not going to change what I do too much. I put my focus on sound and feel and try to put my fingers in the right place to make that happen.
Guitar.com: Besides the online guitar school stuff that you do, do you have any other new instructional materials coming out? DVDs? Books?
Gilbert: Actually I made one for this album that’s coming out in Japan. I’m not sure when it’s coming out. It should be relatively soon, I would guess. That’s the main one. I’m not sure if that one’s going to be released outside of Japan or not. I’ll have to ask my manager. That’s a good question. I’ll send him an email and find out.
Guitar.com: I noticed also you did some clinics and some performances recently in South America too.
Gilbert: Oh yeah, that was a blast.
Guitar.com: How does that work? You’re on stage and you have a translator there?
Gilbert: Yeah, there’s a translator. I’ve done clinics for a long time and I’m always trying different things. This time, instead of backing tracks, I took a stomp pedal. It’s just this little box — it’s basically a drum. It’s just a little box and you stomp on it and it makes a noise like a bass drum. And I took a loop pedal, a tc electronics Ditto Looper.
So I would record a little bass line, a rhythm guitar part, and then stomp along with and jam along with it. And that was my backing track. I can be very flexible. I can create whatever I want for that moment, if I was explaining a certain element of music I can demonstrate it right then by creating a loop. I really enjoyed it. Backing tracks have always felt a little cheesy. If you want the sound of a band, get a band (laughs).
In some situations it’s just logistically — there’s not time for that, or it’s too expensive, or something. So I’ve certainly put in my time with backing tracks. A loop is a similar thing, but at least it’s fresh: I made it right then, and I made it for that moment. So I really had fun. And one of my biggest messages, as a teacher, is stomping with your foot to keep time.
That’s probably the biggest weakness that I see in my students: their ability to communicate time or rhythmic division in a really strong way. The first thing is just counting to four, just going “One, two, three, four, Unnhhhhh!” And communicating where one is. That’s huge! And hardly anybody does that. So I try to teach by example in everything I play. Count to four. Stomp the foot. Communicate that tempo. It’s so important.
Guitar.com: With what you’re saying about backing tracks, and I understand how you feel, but if you’re going to go over and play this new album in concert, how are you going to deal with all the layers you put on there, and all the cool guitar parts mimicking Elton John and all that?
Gilbert: Well that could be done with a string pad. I just sort of wanted those to show that it could be done. But a good keyboard player with a string pad is going to get a similar sound to that.
Guitar.com: When you did go play some of these songs in Japan…
Gilbert: And then I did use backing tracks, because it was last minute: “Oh, can you go to Japan next week?”
Guitar.com: Right, but if you do it again you’ll bring a band?
Gilbert: Yeah, definitely.
Guitar.com: So next week when you’re doing this in the G4 Experience clinic, how are you going to do that?
Gilbert: That’s actually with a band. That’s with Jeff Bowders and Craig Martini, who both played on my Fuzz Universe record. We’ll have, essentially, no rehearsals, so it will be interesting to see how it goes. But we’ve played a lot together before, and we know each other, so it will be fine.
Guitar.com: It sounds like a lot of fun. I’m seeing that Jimi Hendrix poster behind you. I have that same poster some place buried away in my garage.
Gilbert: Oh, you’ve got to put it up!
Guitar.com: Yeah, well actually I’m getting ready to move, so maybe now is the time. I know you’ve done some recordings of some Hendrix material before. Is he still a big influence on you?
Gilbert: He’s a huge influence, but recently I’ve been kind of more into jazz. The thing with Hendrix is that he played the guitar like a kazoo, in the best possible way. You could tell what he played was really connected to what he was hearing, at least that’s my sense of it. And so that element of his playing is so nice to listen to. That’s why I think a lot of people, when they first hear Hendrix, if their ear is trained to modern music and they’re used to stuff that has been Pro Tooled, and has been edited and fixed so it’s perfect — the Hendrix stuff, especially since a lot of stuff was released after he passed away, you might go like, “Ahhh, there’s all these mistakes,” or “there’s all this sloppy stuff…”
But to me, that would be like criticizing a Picasso painting because it doesn’t look like a photograph. Hendrix was really able to communicate what he was feeling and what he was hearing, and that’s what makes him so powerful. Besides that he actually did have amazing technique, and unbelievable tone.
I heard “Voodoo Child” the other day on the radio, and — the radio compresses all the songs so they’re the same volume — but somehow his guitar sounded about 100 times louder than every other guitar on every other song on the radio. So he was really able to communicate every important part of music. That’s the great thing. And he looked cool.
Guitar.com: So what kind of jazz stuff are you listening to?
Gilbert: A lot of jazz clarinet. The thing about the clarinet is, probably my biggest guitar influence, over my lifetime, going back to when I started, was Eddie Van Halen. And sometimes if you really want to get into someone’s style, you don’t listen to them, you listen to the people they listened to. And Eddie Van Halen’s dad was a jazz clarinet player, and I thought, “Man, I bet Eddie grew up hearing all kinds of jazz clarinet just from being around his dad.” So I thought, “I’m going to check some out.” And it’s easy to research these days, you just do a Google search for “best jazz clarinetists,” a bunch of names come up, you go to YouTube and listen to each one and pick your favorite.
And my favorite was a guy named Jimmy Hamilton who I’d never even heard of before. I think he played a lot with other people [Editor’s note: Hamilton played with Duke Ellington for 25 years], but he only had a couple albums on his own. So I bought those on iTunes and picked out my favorite of that, and made sort of my mix tape of Jimmy Hamilton, and put it in my car, and just listened to it over and over.
And actually I stole one of his lines. At the end of my song “Shock Absorber,” at the very end of the song, I hit a note that is very unexpected. I bend the major sixth to the major seventh, and I just sit on that major seventh, which sort of just makes you go “Ahhhhhhh!” because it’s a note that rock guitar players rarely use. And then after that I do the Jimmy Hamilton line, which is like, (sings line). And it’s such a cool line, and it’s just stuff that, when I hear it, I immediately respond to it, and I’m like, “That’s great!” but I have no idea how to play it.
I had to sit down and work that thing out because it’s coming from this different language that I’m not familiar with. And just the way clarinet players — they have to breathe, and there’s spaces in between things. And man, when they start going for it, when a clarinet player plays an arpeggio, it’s so smooth, and beautiful, and every note is clear, and just the attack of the notes has such a nice tone to it, and it just gives you a vision of what to shoot for.
Because when guitar players play arpeggios, they’ll do sweep picking, which — there have been little moments in history when sweep picking has worked. Like on the first couple Yngwie records, and Frank Gambale has some good stuff. But in general it just sounds annoying. Whenever I do it, it just makes me cringe. But to hear someone do a similar note choice, but with such great texture, it raises the bar. It makes me shoot for something a little higher.
Guitar.com: Is most of your interest in jazz more about single note soloing, or are you also digging into rhythm playing and chord voicings?
Gilbert: Some of the chords are beyond me. But some of the stuff, my ear will hook on to. And if it does I try to figure it out. I took a couple lessons from jazz guitar players in order to learn songs that I loved, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to figure out what was going on. One of them was Chaka Khan’s cover of the jazz standard “Night in Tunisia,” and it’s a traditional jazz song, but her cover of it was recorded in the early ’80s, so it has early ’80s production, a lot of synthesizer. But the chords, it’s like Steely Dan on steroids. It’s just really cool outside stuff the whole way through. And very worked out. It’s definitely not improvised, it’s very much composed. And the chords are just stunning. And having just dipped my toe into that, I learned a lot.
And also on this record I did “Murder By Numbers” by the Police, which has some great chords. The second chord is like an F-sus over A or something — there might be another way to explain that chord. And also the minor chords in that — I don’t know what voicing Andy Summers was using, but it sounded to me like he kept leaving out the fifth, and just — not playing a sharp or a flat fifth — but not having it as part of the voicing.
And that small little detail, to me, made it sound right. If I just play the straight minor 7th chord, something is just not mean enough about it. Something’s not sharp enough, and sharp as in a knife, not as in a note being a half-step higher. But man, you take that fifth out and it just cuts. It almost gives it the feel of a Hendrix chord, a dominant sharp nine, but somehow that’s a little jazzy because it’s got the major third. It’s interesting, the things you find when you start going deep. And I can only get deep into stuff that I love. I still have yet to hear — most of the jazz standards I just don’t like that much, as a listener.
I’ve never been interested in “Autumn Leaves” or “Take the A Train.” Those aren’t my favorite tunes. But I have favorite tunes in the jazz realm. And those I get all excited about and try to get into the details.
Guitar.com: “Night in Tunisia” is certainly an excellent tune.
Gilbert: Have you heard Chaka’s version?
Guitar.com: I don’t know that I have, but my son was playing piano in his jazz band a couple years ago, and I made him a recording of like 13 different versions back to back. Chaka’s might have been in there.
Gilbert: (laughs) You’ve got to hear her version, it’ll blow your mind. It’s so good.
Guitar.com: I’m not a real knowledgeable jazz player, but I was trying to figure out a fingerstyle version of that tune. So it’s cool that you brought up that song. So, I recently did a video interview with Eric Martin and we discussed what you have coming up with Mr. Big.
Gilbert: Eric, by the way, his guitar playing is getting really good. He’s been doing all these one-man shows, so he doesn’t have me to back him up on those shows. His vibrato is getting strong. He uses like .012s, so he’s got insanely strong fingers. His vibrato is like, wow, he’s got the real thing happening. It’s really nice to hear him.
Guitar.com: Yeah, I saw him do a solo acoustic gig this summer. It was cool. But when we sat down to talk on camera, he didn’t want to admit to being much of a guitar player. Anyway, thank you so much for your time, and we’ll speak with you again soon!
Gilbert: Thanks Adam!
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