A Conversation With Guitar Legend Paul Gilbert

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Paul Gilbert has been one of the most versatile, innovative and successful guitarists for nearly 40 years. From his early days in the metal band Racer X to his success with Mr. Big to his prolific solo career, Paul has always reinvented himself and astounded his audience. He has released his 16th solo record, Werewolves of Portland, and recently took some time to talk about it and look back on his career.

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On playing every instrument himself – Well, the very first solo record that I did, King of Clubs, back in the 90s, I tried to do that, but I fired my drummer, me. I tried to play drums. I practiced a lot, too. I spent like months practicing, and then I got in the studio and I started hear my performances. I went, “We got to get somebody who can really play in here”. So I had my doubts that now that I could do it, I didn’t practice this time I hadn’t practiced in years But I thought, “Man, I don’t know what else I’m going to do”, it just seems complicated to get people together with the masks and decide what to do. So I thought, “I’m just going to try it, get an engineer so I don’t have to do everything, and just keep my mind on the music”. We started with the easy song, the ballad because it was slow and that came together. Then we did a fast song next and a little worried, but I managed to do it. And after that we were on our way. So the drums were the main thing I was worried about and that ended up being so much fun. I was a blast. When I eventually do play these songs live, whoever’s playing drums is going to have such a good time. I’m jealous. Maybe I should hire a guitar player so I can play (drums). 1:09

On if he considered singing on the record –Well, in a way. “Argument About Pie”, which was kind of the single yeah, I’m proud of what I was able to create because I think it might be the first instrumental song that has a lyric video. I did want to get the lyrics across, I like them. That’s not always the case. Sometimes the lyrics are just kind of scaffolding to build the song. I look at them like, “Those aren’t worth anybody knowing about”. But “Argument About Pie” I like the words, I didn’t think I could sing it because just it’s, if nothing else, just a matter of range. I’ve got a lower voice. My voice is kind of like having the two bottom strings to work with. So if it fits on those like the highest note you can play, I can kind of get that, but I have to scream it out and it has severe limitations. You listen to any standard rock song from Steven Tyler Sing, I can get that falsetto, but then I something Mickey Mouse, because I don’t have that same instrument as he does. So I think the closest I’ve come to that was I thought like Freddy Nelson, who I’ve worked with before, he would sing. He does a really good job of kind of taking what I would like to sing but singing it with a real voice. So I’d love to have him sing “Argument About Pie” someday. The only problem is I only wrote one chorus So you just be singing the same thing three times. I’d have to figure it out and I kind of said everything I wanted to say. So I don’t know. I’d have to hire a poet to write two more sets of lyrics off it. It just sounds like a lot of work. 2:52

“Argument About Pie”

On keeping a sense of humor and levity to his music – It’s honest. It’s not like a checklist and I go, “Forgot to put the sense of humor in”. The humor is a funny thing and I don’t really know how to break it down. I don’t know how to explain humor other than sometimes people will think that because I will use it, they’ll try to put me in situations that they think will work for me I’m like, “no, that’s not the same”. My sense of humor is sort of something I hold on to, a very personal thing. The way that I might find something funny might not match up with somebody else. The video I did recently, they were trying to get me to do some toilet humor stuff. Some of that is funny, but I don’t know. I wasn’t really comfortable with that. It happens when it happens and I can’t really help it. 4:58

“Hello North Dakota”

On using Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich as an influence –His record company was Josef Stalin. It’s always funny to me. I think it was it was Todd Rundgren, I’m a huge Todd Rundgren fan, he was talking about the music business. He came up in the 60s when vinyl was the only thing there was and he had a great vinyl career and he was able to navigate a lot, he was on sort of the cutting edge of a lot of music industry changes. He’s one of the first guys to do a video. He was always doing computer things. I heard him talking about the business and he said, “People get this idea that the structure of the industry that was in the 70s was this golden age and we should just always have that”. Of course, it was wonderful. But if you take a larger view of musicians, even back, let’s say you go back three hundred years and I mean, I can’t remember exactly how old Bach or Mozart, Beethoven were, they couldn’t even record. They could write stuff down, but there was no recorded music. There were no record companies. Their record company was the king. I’m sure that it had its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Whatever era you live in, you’re going to have that. I know I lucked out, for example, Lean Into It, which was still right on the verge of vinyl days with Mr. Big. That was a big selling record and I didn’t write the hit. That was Eric Martin’s song. He wrote, “To Be With You”. But I actually wrote the most songs on the record. So I really benefited from that and that’s not fair at all. It didn’t sell because of my song. This sold because of Eric’s song. There are things where you luck out, you win the lottery and there are other things where you totally get (screwed). I released the record last year with Pledge Music and didn’t get paid anything because it was the company folded. You know, you just keep going. If Joseph Stalin’s your record company and he doesn’t like your song, so he’s going to send you to Siberia to a death camp, that’s bad. Then write your “Fifth Symphony” and it’s amazing. And everybody claps. And Josef likes you, and when the Germans surround the city he brings in some food. You don’t starve to death. Life is interesting. To me, looking at what Shostakovich had to endure or navigate, makes my little problems navigating just seem small. 6:57

“Werewolves of Portland”

On first using a power drill for Lean Into ItWell, it was pretty noisy because the engine of of the drill or the motor would get close to the pickup. When Van Halen did it later on, that’s the main thing he did, which was which is really a cool sound, arguably better than the than the picks spinning around. But it was just an exaggeration. I started doing that in the Racer X days and any notice that we got in any interview that we did, it was always the same thing, like, “Oh, you guys play so fast. It’s all speed and speed that”. I always felt there was an element of it, but I felt we had more to offer than than just playing as fast as we can all the time. So to me, the speed thing was a little overemphasized. I thought, well, if we’re going to overemphasize it, let’s really overemphasize it. Putting the picks on the end of the drill was just taking taking that idea to its ridiculous end. But when we did it, the audience would light up, everybody would smile, and that’s always good. So when I joined Mr. Big, I brought that idea into Mr. Big and Billy (Sheehan) and I did it together. Again, the result is like kind of something a little bit noisy, but everybody cracks up. The problem is I always forget that that’s something that I did. I really should take more advantage of it because it’s almost like Angus Young shows up to the gig and he forgot to wear shorts. Angus, what are you doing with long pants? Not having the drill is it’s kind of like Angus was forgetting the shorts or something. But I don’t really feel bonded to it in a musical way. So I think that’s why I don’t remember that I do it, because it’s it’s more of a performance thing. Please, before the next tour, call me up and remind me to go bring a drill. It’s heavy, so then I got to worry about the airport. They’re going to overcharge me for the suitcase. So that’s the other thing. 10:27

“Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy”

On if the success of “To Be With You” surprised him – Well, as soon as we heard “To Be With You”, we all really liked it. There was unanimous fondness of the song and the melody. I think that that surprised Eric because I think I think Eric couldn’t get it out of his head that Billy and I were metal musicians, even though we tried everything. Billy and I are constantly strumming Beatles songs and doing things from a pop world and Billy knew all the R&B, soul bass parts, but somehow Eric was like, “They’re metal. They’re never going to like a melodic ballad”. But Eric did know that I was Beatles fan, so he played that for me in the car one day, he goes, “I got a song I wrote, it’s kind of Beatley”, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I just heard it once, his demo of it. I actually initially just called him up and went, “Eric, that demo, the kind of Beatley demo you sent me, can you send that to me? I just want to hear it again”. It was just a fan of the song. Then it was my job in those days to make the rehearsal cassettes for everybody. I had the dubbing deck, so I’d record rehearsal and make copies so we could remember the songs. I just snuck that on at the end and my phone started ringing at the end of the day, everybody’s like, “what’s that song at the end of the tape? That’s a great song”. So Eric was like, “I can’t believe you guys want to do that. I thought you’re metal guys”. So we did it and we were a little worried because we did want to be perceived as a loud, powerful, high-energy rock band. So we’re a little worried that that fans might go, “Oh, they’ve gone soft”, but we really believed in the song. That was outweighed by the love of the tune. With what becomes a hit, you never know. You talk to any musician. Paul Simon going, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, he never thought that would be a hit. So I don’t even get into that. I just put it out there and walk away, and then wait for somebody to tell me something. 13:00

“To Be With You”

On the chemistry in Mr. Big –We definitely had our share of drama and strife. But I think we all connected musically because we’d like a lot of the same stuff. As much as Billy and I had one foot in metal, we grew up with the Beatles and with the Motown catalog and hard rock that had a lot of heavy blues influence to it. I mean, half a Led Zeppelin is blues songs louder. At soundcheck, we’d always just play cover songs and everybody would know them with like zero rehearsal. We just dove and start playing Bad Company, Led Zeppelin or, Beatles or whatever was. That was also how I was able to relate because I was a lot younger than everybody. It was difficult for me because at rehearsal when we’d take a break and everybody would start talking about stuff, it was like, “Man, I don’t I don’t know what I’m doing with these grown-ups” because their experiences were so beyond mine. I was just out of high school almost. So I just felt like this little kid hanging out with the grown-up table. Eventually, as time went on, I was able to relate a little bit. But the music was the way that I could gain respect and connect. I grew up with my parents’ record collection so I was always on the same page musically as they were. So that was it was all through music. 15:57

On future plans – Well, the first thing I’ve got is a guitar camp called the Great Guitar Escape, which was it was supposed to happen last year. We had to postpone it. It’s looking like it’s going to happen. I’ve just been sort of keeping an eye on it. But the promoter’s gung ho and all the staff, I hate to call them staff, it’s some legendary musicians, Eric Gales, Tony Macalpine, they’re really, really awesome people, George Lynch. I hesitate to put them in the “staff” category but we’re all working together on it and everybody’s into it. I’ve got my first shot, I’m sort of aiming at that and seeing how that goes and just keeping an eye on the world. At the same time, it’s been nice to be in my own bed. I’ve been on tour for 30 years, something like that. So to be able to be home and not have to be in airports all the time, it’s been pretty nice. I have an online guitar school. So I’ve been I’ve been busier than ever keeping up with all the students there, I enjoy it. It’s really as connected as you can be with video. That’s been amazing. 18:25

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