Paul Gilbert needs no introduction. To some he’s the greatest guitarist in the world, and to everyone else he’s one of the most dedicated, technically skilled, unpredictable and utterly charming guitarists of the last thirty years.
2009 saw Mr. Big reform, reuniting Gilbert with arguably the world’s most talented bassist, the jaw droppingly innovative Billy Sheehan. Drummer Pat Torpey and lead singer Eric Martin are no slouches either, and together they represent one of hard rocks most expansive and iconic outfits.
Guitar Planet caught up with Paul Gilbert in between dates on the Mr. Big tour, as the ever dedicated Gilbert was giving his “masterclass” at the revered Tech Music School in London. Naturally, enough, we started by asking about the Mr. Big reunion and Gilbert’s return to Europe.
Mr. Big returned in 2011 and that brought you to back to the European Festival circuit, how did it feel to be back together and facing some unconverted festival audiences?
I learned a lot from doing those shows. First of all, it’s amazing to play venues that are that big. It makes me want to physically project everything that I’m doing a lot more. I tend to play with much bigger motions on a big stage like that. And now, I can bring that same energy to the smaller stages. I just pretend that it’s “Sweden Rock” or “Hellfest.”
I like playing for new audiences too. I can’t be lazy. I’ve got to really play something that will grab them. It was a great experience, definitely.
It almost goes without saying that as a band you have incredible scope and technical skill, but how do you approach the creative process when each member is such a dynamic force in their own right; is it all about compromise and reigning yourself in, or do you just jam it out like everybody else?
I’ve got an unusual analogy for you. I want to play guitar and write songs like a big, imposing bouncer at a nightclub, who is also a really nice guy, and let’s you in without hassling you. In other words, the bouncer has to be powerful enough to stop… undesirables from coming in the club. But just because he’s powerful doesn’t mean that he has to intimidate and rough up every person that comes in.
I hope to do the same thing with my technique. If the situation calls for something “intimidating”, then I want to have the technique and power to make it happen. But I don’t need to be intimidating at every moment of every song. It wouldn’t make any sense to put a widdly-widdly solo in a song like “To Be With You.”
Anyway, I think everyone in Mr. Big is confident enough in their own playing to be able to make good musical choices without having to constantly reassert, “LOOK! I can play! LOOK! LOOK!” Plus, we all genuinely love songs. So the creative process is mostly, just us getting together, jamming out small pieces of music that catch our ear, and then assembling them into songs.
So much of twenty first century has been dominated by minimalism, particularly in the mainstream and especially in the guitar department, with band’s ditching big sprawling solos, in favour of more textured rhythm driven work and more contained fret work.
How do you feel about the state of guitar work in 21st century and, not to be melodramatic, but many commentators have suggested that the age of the iconic guitar heroes is over; would you agree and do you feel connected to today’s scene?
I don’t know much about contemporary rock artists. I know more about pop or vocal people. I love Melody Gardot. I even like Katy Perry and a few Lady Gaga songs that I’ve heard. And Amy Winehouse was great. Oh… and Eli “Paperboy” Reed. He’s awesome too. I do have a lot of contact with contemporary guitarists because I teach. Most of my students aren’t professionals, but they give me some idea of what is going on in the guitar world.
It’s the same as it ever was. There are some absolutely great guitarists out there, and there are some who are just beginning, and everything in between. In order for someone to be a true guitar hero, I think they need to do more than just play well. They have to present their playing in a great band with great songs and some unique visual aspect as well. That’s a lot to accomplish in any era. I can barely keep my hair combed. And I still wish that songwriting came more easily to me. But that’s just me. I hope the kids will make some music and hopefully have some guitar in it.
Throughout your career you’ve often been praised for not “just shredding” and having a great command of melody. Are you always conscious of structure and atmosphere when you’re working on new tracks or do you just have an innate ability to reign yourself in and go with the flow?
I try to learn as much as I can in terms of “brainy” music theory stuff. I pay attention to intervals and how they relate to chords. I try to make interesting rhythmic phrases by not only doing 16th notes, and breaking it up with syncopations, sustained notes, triplets, bends, and whatever else I can think of. But in the end, I have to rely on what sounds good and what makes me smile. It’s a balance of experience, knowledge, intuition, and just playing what I like.
It’s become a cliché to say you never know what you’re going to get from a Paul Gilbert album until you hear it, and while you obviously have your style, there are huge stylistic differences between Fuzz Universe, United States, Get Out Of My Yard and Space Ship One for example.
What drives you creatively, do certain sounds just capture you imagination and you run with it or have you got a big checklist of ideas left to explore?
Well, if I just could have been a Beatle, I would have kept doing that. But I don’t sing as well as they do, so I have to do something. Seriously, I just feel fortunate that I’ve lived long enough to put my stamp on so many different kinds of music. I like different kinds of music, so that’s why I play different kinds. In the case of instrumental guitar music… There, is a style that I don’t even like! But I decided to try it anyway, just to see how I could mold that particular lump of clay.
It certainly is kind of my listeners to give my experiments a chance. I know it would be a better marketing strategy to pick one style of music and build up a catalogue of only that. But I’m a musician, not a marketer, so I continue to make varied choices, just to follow my musical inspirations.
One of the biggest talking points in music today, across all genre lines, is modernity, more importantly it’s absence. Critics and concerned fans have been debating (more like arguing) whether music has stopped moving forward, if retrospection has replaced innovation, and whether that is a good or a bad thing.
You’ve always pushed your sound in different directions but critics tend to suggest that, in terms of style and tone, you explore backwards as it were, rejuvenating and forwarding past sounds. Firstly, would agree with this view of your work, and secondly, do you feel driven to push boundaries and create something “new” or “modern”?
I think Katy Perry is modern. The editing on her voice is pretty amazing. And I’m not trying to be facetious or sarcastic. Modern editing has created recordings that are basically impossible for a human being to perform. I was curious to see how Katy manages those songs live, so I looked up some of her live stuff on YouTube, and she does as good a job as anyone could do… But live, it’s not the same as what was created with editing in the studio. And it’s not just auto-tune, it’s copying and pasting audio bits in a way that wouldn’t work with a real human being that has to breath in between phrases. There are probably other tricks going on as well. The result is something that I think is pretty cool. It’s sounds modern to me in the sense that I’ve never heard anything like it. But by it’s nature it’s going to be difficult to impossible to do live. But I suppose the same could be said of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
For my own stuff… I don’t really care what genre it’s put in. Well, maybe that’s not true. I get pretty excited if I get any acceptance from pop people. If the metal kids like my records, I’m certainly happy about it, but if Burt Bacharach gave me a songwriting compliment, I’d be pretty blown away. I think I’m going to have to write some better songs for that to happen… Anyway, as far as being modern or not… I don’t really think about it. My main goal is just to play good things on the guitar. I don’t really attach that to being old or new.
Everyone loves the insane innovations you bring to guitar music; whether it’s a mind boggling solos or the “human capo” you’ve always managed to capture our imagination and make our jaws drop, so I’ve got to ask, have you got any new tricks up your sleeve and is there any we should keep our eyes out for on your next tour?
I’m proud of those tricks… things like playing with the drill or the human capo. But those really are to get people’s attention. Maybe I am a marketer after all. I hope that my regular guitar playing could be enough satisfy an audience. I am still practicing all the time and coming up with new things. I tend to focus on pretty conservative ideas. In other words, I’m just working with notes that you find when you study music theory. But the adventure happens for me when I try to get these things to happen on a guitar. A lot of what I’m trying to play would be more typical of a piano, so it’s a challenge to make it work on guitar. The end result is a sound that I love, without using exploding sheep on fire to dazzle the audience.
So much of your career has been spent in Japan and Asia, do you feel an affinity for the culture and feel at home as guitarist in that part of the world or is it more a matter of commercial demand?
I imagine that everyone who travels picks up different experiences from it. Since I’m traveling as a musician, I am always focused on the show. It barely occurs to me to sight-see… I just want to practice my guitar so I can do a good show that night. But no matter how introverted I may be, I still have to eat something. And this is really where most of my cultural experiences have come from. And the food in Japan is so good… it’s ridiculous. It’s almost an obsession in the culture. If you turn on the TV in Japan, cooking and food are ubiquitous. There are science shows… about cooking. There are pop idols… eating things on TV. There are travel shows… about food around the world. I lived in Japan on and off for a couple of years, trying to learn the language. I really didn’t do very well, but I learned how to order in a restaurant!
You must have been asking about musical things… Mr. Big has always been very big in Japan for some reason. I’m certainly happy about that, but it’s nothing that I particularly aimed for. I hoped to have success everywhere! But where ever it happens, I’m happy to go, especially if the food is good.
We like to ask everyone this: What’s your favourite bit of musical gear in your collection and what’s the latest edition you’ve made?
I love my Ibanez Fireman. It resonates so well. I think there is really something special about the body shape. I’ve got a bunch of prototypes made over the last few years as well as factory samples from the new model, and every one of them has that beautiful sustain and resonance that just makes happy. There are just so many good sounding notes in that thing.
Besides that… my latest gear edition? Well, on this latest leg of the Mr. Big tour, I’ve been using Marshall DSL heads. Actually, we’ve been tour since April, and there have been a lot of festival shows where we just fly in and use rented gear. The rental gear that is available is limited, so I’ve had the chance to gig-test just about every model of Marshall there is… JCM800s, JCM900s, DSLs, the new Slash model, the Vintage Modern, and in America, I took my hand-wired 2061x on the road. There was something good about all of these, but the tone and feel of the DSL kind of stood out to me, so I’m using a pair of those on tour right now in Europe. And GAWD – they sound good.
I actually loved playing through my little 18 watt 2061x on the American tour; That amp has great tone. But the pair of 100 watt DSLs gives me about 10 times the power. My pants start blowing in the wind when I chunk on a power chord. And the tone is still clear as a bell. I guess that’s the newest.
A lot of our readers will be seeing Mr. Big in the next few weeks as you finish up in the UK and head over to the continent, what have you got in store for us and how are you finding the tour so far?
I can’t remember when I’ve been on tour for so long. The nice thing about it is that my performing muscles get really strong. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. I think the band is just really performing well because we’ve had a lot of practice. Every show has a good combination of super-tight rock tunes and improvised pieces where we can stretch out. It’s not Lady Gaga. There aren’t 16 costume changes or exploding penguins, but it’s a good rock band, playing and singing, and putting our naked souls out into the spotlight. Hopefully that’s good enough.
Thank you for your time, we really appreciate it, not only do our readers love your music, but they all unanimously think you’re a genuinely great guy.
Well, thank you. That’s very nice of them. I hope they all get a chance to tour around the world in a band someday.
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