FALL IN LOVE AGAIN WITH PAUL GILBERT: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Guitarist Paul Gilbert is a renaissance man, a master of performance, composition, rhetoric, and ahem playing guitar with a drill. He’s the creator of blinding shredgasms as part of Racer X (“Scarified”) and of one of history’s most charming singles in Mr. Big (“Green-Tinted Sixties Mind”). But as a self-proclaimed man on a mission, Gilbert’s passion is to put play back in guitar player through both his teaching (at GIT) and his riotous and bizarrely informative columns (in Guitar Player, Guitar World, Total Guitar, Total Fucking Guitar, and Guitar Out The Yingyang). Meanwhile, Gilbert and fellow Pittsburghian Freddie Nelson are responsible for United States, a scrappy, infectious melodic rock record that, if not for the mind-mangling fretwork, would be claimed happily by Cheap Trick, Jellyfish, U2, and Stone Temple Pilots as their own work.
After the jump, Gilbert speaks about Nelson, rocking the young people of Italy, Mr. Big’s conquest of Japan, plagiarizing L.A. Weekly, why not to study sight-reading, the joys of singing, and The Chicken Heart.
The first thing we should talk about is United States, your new record with Freddie Nelson.
I knew about Freddie for a long time, because he’s from the same place that I grew up in, around Pittsburgh, PA. When I was 17, I moved out to L.A. to go to guitar school, but all my friends who I’d played with in bands started telling me about Freddie, that he’s an amazing guitar player and the new hot guitar player coming up in Pittsburgh. I never got a chance to meet him and years went by. I went back a few years ago to hang out with my dad, and a friend of ours gave me this demo. I listened to it and it was really good. I asked ‘Who’s singing?’ and [was told] it was Freddie Nelson. ‘I thought he was a guitar player!’
My friend then said that he’s playing guitar, but he’s discovered that he also can sing. I thought it was really good. It planted the seed of an idea in my head. I’d done a couple instrumental records and thought it’d be cool to do a vocal record again. I thought, “Man, Freddie sings way better than I do. [laughs] So that’d be cool to get him to sing on it.” He also appealed to me because we’re from the same area. We’re about the same age and have the same sense of humor. It’s easier to work [with him] than to hold auditions and then who knows if we’ll have the same songwriting philosophy or what.
Did it turn out to be as easy as you’d expected to make the record?
Yeah, one of the trickiest things was just figuring out which direction to go. Like I said, Freddie really is a great guitar player. So we spent a week just having guitar jams and just trying to figure out what style we should go for. We could’ve gone a lot of different ways. Eventually, it just started coming out naturally. And even then, I think the record has diverse stuff. “The Last Rock N’ Roll Star” is pretty straight ahead heavy metal; you also have stuff like “Bad Times Good,” which is more like early ‘70s glam rock, kinda T-Rex; and a lot of stuff in between, like “Pulsar,” which is a Pat Travers-ish song.
I’m glad you mentioned those songs. I feel that “The Last Rock N’ Roll Star” has a Deep Purple charge to it, and like you said “Bad Times Good” has that stomping glam beat. In your opinion, how did all these styles emerge from you two?
I wish I knew! I think the songs just came out. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I find that the more I play music and the older I get, the less I’m able to see the divisions between styles of music. I know that when I was a teenager, divisions between different styles were really important to me. I was really into metal, and I was really not into Bob Seger, Tom Petty, or Fleetwood Mac, which were all over the radio back then. I don’t know what it is – nostalgia? – but the way I hear music is different now. I’m a lot more tolerant of different styles. You wouldn’t believe how much Johnny Cash I’ve listen to lately. It’s weird. I get a little frightened because a lot of the fans that listen to me probably are younger and maybe are into only metal. I hope I don’t piss them off! [laughs] But I genuinely like a lot of different things.
You’re known to the hardcore guitar community, but also to the mainstream rock audience through Mr. Big. I think it’s interesting that you do different kinds of records. Do you feel that intense, shreddy guitarists sometimes play over everybody’s heads? I’m kinda thinking of Steve Vai, who always seems way out there.
Do you think a record like United States ensures that Paul Gilbert is accessible and comprehensible as a guitarist?
I do a lot of what I consider to be unusual shows. I’ve been touring a lot more lately. Actually not so much my solo shows, but when I do clinics the venue is really unpredictable. If you do shows, it’s at a club or a theater. But for clinics, you sometimes end up playing in restaurants or hotel lobbies. Some of the gigs are normal, but there are a lot of odd ones too.
The other day, I did a clinic in Italy and it was outside, in … what would you call it … a square [located] between all these restaurants and shops. So the audience consisted of people who actually came to see the clinic – guitar heads. Also, there were a lot of other [pauses] normal people, like little kids in the front row that never would’ve come to a clinic normally. And there were old people – 60- and 70-year old people. A real mix of people. So I come out and start playing my usual guitar stuff, but I’m looking at this nine-year old girl in the front row and she’s dancing! And I’m thinking [laughs], ‘How am I gonna keep this going?’ My music isn’t dance music.
It’s just my nature to want to please the audience. So I started trying to play in a way where everybody will like it. That really takes me out of that narrow niche and forces me to want to expand what I’m doing a little more. Of course, I could probably be Hannah Montana and the nine-year old would still get bored. But actually they seemed to dig it, so it went great. I keep that memory in my head when I’m writing or playing music.
I miss the days when I was growing up and great guitar playing had a wider appeal. The best guitar players were often in huge bands. I went to see Van Halen play in arenas again and again when I was a kid. Now it’s little more niche-ified. You’ve got a guy like Guthrie Govan, who’s an amazing guitar player, but he’s only known to other guitar players. If I can have anything to do with turning that around and [grandly] bringing guitar back to the people, that’d be great.
As you see, only guitar people know him. His name is Guthrie Govan. He’s all over Youtube. He’s just a stunning guitar player.
Can we talk about Mr. Big, which is back on the scene and doing shows in 2009? Does it ever freak you out how huge Mr. Big is to some people? Specifically Japanese people?
Yeah, man. It’s really odd going from playing 500- and 1,000-seat venues to 10,000- or even 15,000-seat venues. It does take some getting used to. Even though there are so many people, I’m further away from them because of the big security pits. I’m further away from the band, too. Sometimes I miss being on a tiny stage, just stuck next to the band where you don’t even need monitors because you can just feel the closeness of all the musicians.
The best part for me is being reunited with Billy [Sheenan, bass], Pat [Torpey, drums], and Eric [Martin, vocals]. When I left the band, we’d been pretty dysfunctional. I’d given up hope of us being together again. I thought “That’s it. We can’t work, so…” Time went by and we’ve now all got our heads in the right place. Our priority now is making music and having a good time with it – and being friends again. The music’s been getting better and better. The Japan tour was great, but we just did this show in Indonesia that was stunning. I can’t wait to go to Europe, [for which] we leave in a couple days. It should be a blast.
That’s awesome. Do you feel like you’ve gotten a second chance with Mr. Big, an opportunity to maybe improve things with which you’d been dissatisfied in the past?
One thing I was excited about was my own playing. I love what we did in the old days, but one of the ingredients of Mr. Big is the blues-rock sound. When I joined I was just coming out of Racer X, so I was very, very metal. I was able to adapt pretty quickly, but [since then] my vocabulary in the blues-rock idiom has expanded enormously. I’m excited to apply that to Mr. Big. I’ve got a lot more stuff that works in the style of the band.
What I don’t think I appreciated before, but really appreciate now, is the vocals. Eric’s always been great. But as for the background vocals, we just fell into them. Pat’s a great singer. Billy and I sing a lot. The three- and four-part harmonies that we do live are a blast! I feel singing is a healthy thing to do as a human being. Your body is the instrument and you’re actually resonating from the inside out. If I can rehearse with a band or just ride around singing in my car, I’m a much better balanced, happy individual than if I don’t sing. It keeps me sane as a human being, and there’s a lot of [singing] in Mr. Big. I’m really glad to have another opportunity to do that.
Would you say there’s that same therapeutic quality in the tribute projects you’ve joined? It must feel great to join a team of crack musicians for a night of Led Zeppelin or Rush classics.
Well, Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater puts all those together. First, we did a Beatles tribute. One of the reasons I wanted to do it – I looked forward to working with Mike, of course – but he’d gotten Neal Morse, the lead vocalist of Spock’s Beard. I was a huge fan, so this would be a cool way to meet Neal and jam with him. And I love the Beatles, who were one of my big inspirations to become a musician. We went on to do [projects] for The Who, Zeppelin, and Rush; on The Who one, Billy Sheehan played bass, which was one of the early sparks of reuniting Mr. Big. Billy and I had a great time [playing together again]. It got me thinking in a Mr. Big direction.
More recently, with all the clinics I’ve been doing, I made a conscious decision to never play with backing tracks again. [It comes] from seeing so many people sitting down and playing with backing tracks, [thereby] taking guitar playing in a direction I’d rather not see it go: the nerdy bedroom guitar player.
[laughs] I’ve tried to turn that around at least in my little world. So, when I do clinics, I send a list of songs and request that [the promoter] finds a bass player and drummer locally to jam with me. Man, what a blast. I pick relatively easy songs; I don’t know who the players will be, so I don’t make them play “Scarified” or any technically difficult stuff. I pick some copy songs that still leave me a window to go crazy on guitar, but won’t leave the bass player and drummer totally stressed. [laughs] We have very little rehearsal – just a sound check and that’s it. That’s been going so great! I love that.
Sometimes I wish that rock music was like classical music. When you’re a classical musician, you don’t write your own stuff. You go back and play Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven – all the great classical music. I pine for that in rock ‘n roll. If I could go back and play Rush, Beatles, The Who, and Led Zeppelin, I’d have a great time doing that. Eventually, I’d get sick of it and want to play my own stuff. But sometimes it’s really fun.
Somewhere that I learned the connection between classical music and rock guitar is in your columns in Guitar Player back in the day.
How do you approach writing columns and lessons? I set out to learn guitar from them but instead was inspired by your writing to be a journalist. Weird.
[laughs] Oh, that particular column, I really didn’t know what to do. Because of that, I didn’t want to do it. The editor of Guitar Player at the time was Joe Gore. He was the guy who was contacting me to get me to do the column. I told him that I didn’t know what to do and that it seemed like a lot of work. He just said “Well, just send in some music and I’ll write the text. You can approve it.” I tried that; I sent him some music and he wrote up some stuff about it. Seeing what he did gave me an idea for the format. So I asked to rewrite it in my own words. After that, I always basically wrote everything. The hard thing was to have a totally blank page. After Joe wrote one of them, I could see the structure he was using and insert my own words. I just needed some place to begin.
And a lot of the humor was irreverent. I remember one called The Infallible World of Real Astrology. I think I’d watched an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos where he was ripping into astrology. So I got inspired and picked up an L.A. Weekly, found the astrology page, and just … what do you call it when you just steal something … plagiarized it.
I just took the first couple lines and added my own irreverent stuff on top of it. My humor came from my dad’s reading a lot of Gary Larson’s Far Side comics and being a heavy metal musician, which I’ve always thought is a really funny job.
That irreverence helps the student keep perspective and have fun. Like when you wrote about dressing up as Punky Meadows and its connection to a Bill Cosby bit –
Oh yeah. The chick in Heart.
I tell that story at a lot of parties. Thanks for that.
And thanks to Nancy Wilson, the chick in Heart.
So what I’m saying is that I don’t think you get enough credit for your column.
When I was six, I took guitar lessons. They were so boring that I quit guitar. I’m on this mission to have that happen as little as possible. I think I have some pent-up anger for that teacher. The guy basically told me to go buy a Mel Bay book so we could go through it. Oh and we started with sight-reading, which is like teaching an infant English starting with the alphabet, instead of sounding it out. Nobody learns to read before learning how to speak. To me, music is very similar to language. To teach reading first, it’s just painful. Some people have the stamina, or have been forced by their parents, so they persevere. I’m a supporter of the ear-player, and learning to read notes later. Because it’s a painful starting point.
Just quitting the instrument that I love so much, only to pick up where I left off years later, makes me try to understand the motivational part of teaching. It’s not just giving information, it’s a matter of monitoring the student to really make sure that they’re excited about the material. Otherwise, it’s useless.
Anso DF is a former music journalist who doesn’t appreciate Kerry King just playing around with everybody’s emotions on daily metal column Hipsters Out Of Metal!