Guitar maestro Paul Gilbert recently returned to the UK in support of his impressive 15th studio album Behold Electric Guitar.
And whilst the axeman extraordinaire may have left his Makita power drill back home in the US, he proved at the Riverside Newcastle that he’s no one-trick pony.
Now the versatile guitarist may not have a voice like Robert Plant, Ronnie James Dio or David Lee Roth for that matter. As a lead guitarist, he doesn’t need to. However, with this album and current run, Gilbert had an urge to play the role of a 70’s rock frontman. As the old saying goes if you can’t beat them join them.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Paul Gilbert before his show on Tyneside to talk about his latest solo album, his time with Mr Big and his plans going forward.
So first of all, you are currently out on tour across Europe. I think you’re like three or four days into the tour so far. How have things been going?
It’s going good, it’s a good band – I like the set. And, even though I fell on the sidewalk and kind of hurt my knees and my wrist – actually, I was worried about my wrist, because you need your wrist to play the guitar, but it’s feeling a lot better. And today I barely feel it at all. So I made it through the first four shows where it was kinda hurting and I think it’s back to full strength now.
So you are currently touring in support of your latest solo album, which is Behold Electric Guitar. Can you tell us a little bit about what your starting point musically was for that record?
Yeah, I started writing some songs where I would write lyrics – almost like a vocal song. And then, I would play all of the vocals with a guitar – often slide guitar, because I’ve been playing a lot more slide lately. And it was wonderful because when I use my singing voice, I have a pretty limited range and maybe not the best tone in the world – at least not my favourite. But when I played on guitar, I can hit any notes. And so, a lot of times, my original melody was maybe down an octave. And with the guitar, you can put it up an octave higher, which is sort of a nicer place for a melody to be. And then if I started to imagine more melodies that my voice couldn’t do, the guitar could always do it.
And that’s a simple concept in a way, but it is a different way of playing the guitar than what I’m used to. I didn’t grow up with melodic players. And with the bands that I grew up listening to, the singer would do the melody and then the guitar player would either be backing him up with some chords and then when it came time for the guitar solo, they’d just sort of rip and do like exciting blues riffs. I still love that stuff, but, I always felt like melody, that’s the singer’s job. And lately, it’s a different way of playing.
The core of the melody seems simpler because it’s not fast, but the slower you go, the more expressive you have to be. And I love that as I love expressive music, but on the instrument, you have to work to get that. You can’t just hit a note and say be expressive, you have to do something to it. And actually, all the teaching that I’ve done has helped me with that because that’s usually the biggest problem for students is – they just play a note, there is no expression. And as a teacher, I’ve got to figure out how to fix that and them. Then I can tell the lessons I give to them, I can turn it back on myself and go like, oh well, all these little details that I showed my students, I can use those tools too, and they help.
So, would you say that with this record that you were trying to showcase as many different styles of your repertoire as possible? Because when I listen to the album, I can hear blues and I can hear jazz, I can hear funky stuff, I can hear hard rock. Are you trying to kind of play without boundaries, so to speak?
Well, I just want to play the songs as they come to me. If anything, I probably try to steer towards rock just because I know people that are familiar with my work that might buy my record, they might want that. I don’t want it to go too far away from what I’ve done before. But I love blues so much and blues is kind of a room in the house of Jazz – they’re connected. And as you start to get into those, you realize they’re connected to rock too – to some extent. And so I’m just sort of connecting everything.
I mean actually, I get excited about like really arcane details of the music. Like I’ll find some little elements of jazz or a blues song and that tiny little thing, which, you know, I might be able to make it interesting in like a music class. I think in any art, you have your arcane part of it that’s interesting to the people that practice that art. And so, speaking to a general audience, I mean, even like I’ll drive my wife crazy – she’s a professional musician. But I’ll come up for dinner and be like, man, I just figured out this thing to do with the sixth interval. And then she’ll be like, will you quit. There’s nothing worse than hearing people talk about music theory. So, but I’ll get excited about those arcane details and then that might be a spark where a song will come from – some little discovery I’ll make.
I’m a big blues fan as well and I’ve got to say that Blues For Rabbit, that one hit the spot for me. As a hard rock guitarist, which blues guitarists or blues artist would you say has inspired your playing particularly?
Well, BB king. I found a video of him on YouTube where he had left a lot of holes. He played and then he would leave a little hole and then it let me use it as a jam track. And not only was there a hole but you know, BB just played. So I have to do something that’s stylistically appropriate and it just trained my ear. That and listening to my wife practice jazz piano, because she’s a classical player. But she took a bunch of jazz lessons and she’s methodical. So she’d come home with these flashcards and read all these jazz chords and I’d hear her practising. And like her practising was actually good ear training for me because I started to think like her jazz chords sound different than mine – because I learned a couple of jazz chords when I went to school, but I thought mine don’t sound like hers.
And then I went and I said, what is that you’re doing? And I realized certain things were different. And it’s wonderful when your ears are the first thing that notices it. A lot of times with the internet or with schooling, you’ll learn things visually first or intellectually first – like, oh these are the scales and this is that. But at some point, you have to know what it sounds like or you can’t use it effectively. And so that was a great lesson for me. It was like, I just started to hear this difference. And then when I found out what it was, I could put a label on it. And that way it helps me to find it on my instrument.
One of the tracks which I love on the record is Let That Battery Die. It’s just really like you were saying about conveying emotion in your playing. And it’s such an emotive piece. It’s just a very beautiful piece, where there is some stunning playing throughout. I was just wondering, what were you thinking about in particular when you were composing this song to put yourself that into that sort of mindset.
I wrote that during a writing session for Mr Big when we did the last studio album that we did. I flew to LA for a couple of days to write with Pat and Billy. And I like to bring something, I don’t want to just be unprepared. So I was in my hotel room just coming up with stuff. And I think that the initial seed of that was the song Friday On My Mind. And I thought maybe I could do my own like I can take that sort of general rhythmic idea, but then make the chords different and do my own thing with it. And then, so I wrote it on guitar and then I had the keyboards, and piano do it. And then, the vocal, actually came from a lyric and I had lyrics for that whole beginning. And, with Mr Big, we messed around with a little bit. We never ended up finishing it. And then when I started playing it with slide, it just wrote itself. The end of it flowed and the whole thing made sense.
Having seen you perform with Mr Big many times over the years, one of the points in the set I always enjoyed was the Drill Song. I just wondered how did that whole idea of playing the drill come about? And did you ever experiment with any of the power tools?
Well, we bought a juicer, or I should say it’s a masticator for this tour. And we were making some carrot juice yesterday and we said hey, maybe we can bring this out on stage. But yeah, the drill was just sort of like humorous self-mockery because, at the time I started doing it back in Racer X in like the mid-eighties. And you know, that was my first band where I started to have a career.
And so for the first time people are noticing me and writing reviews of the albums everybody said the same thing – it’s so fast and all anybody could talk about was how fast it went. And that wasn’t the only thing that I was trying to get across. And I felt a little like, you know, can’t you notice the other stuff too? And so I just was motivated to kind of make fun of the whole fast thing. And the drill was a way to exaggerate that to the point of ridiculousness. And genuinely, we’d get people smiling. You would bring it out at a show and everybody just started cracking up.
It introduces an element of danger to the playing as well. I mean, was there ever any close calls with the drill?
Well, I got it caught in my hair. That’s a well-known story, but I have short hair now, so that’s no longer an issue.
I mean your stage partnership with Billy Sheehan, it’s the best guitar-based partnership I’ve ever seen play live. And I just remember the last time watching you guys and my jaw dropped. What was it like playing with Billy on the road and do you miss performing together these days?
It’s almost too easy. Like with Racer X, we would work on stuff and rehearse for a long, long time. With Mr Big when we put together Addicted To That Rush, kind of, you know, the showpiece. And I dunno if it took us more than 10 minutes. It was like I just had this little thing and it just felt like shouldn’t we be working hard? But a lot of the best things go that way. When something is flowing, that’s an indication that you’re probably on the right track.
Did you ever get tired of performing hits like To Be With You?
If the song is melodic, I tend to like it. It’s hard to get tired of melody. I would get tired of this stuff that was less melodic, like Addicted To That Rush, for example, that’s more of a slightly bluesy rock tune where, you know, Whoa, is the melody. It’s not the most outstanding melody in the world you know, it is what it is. But, To Be With You or Just Take My Heart those are much more stronger melodies and really as time went on with Mr Big, for me, the most rewarding part of performing the Mr Big were the harmony vocals – that was wonderful. We put acoustic guitars on and the four of us singing together was something we didn’t plan on initially, but as we did it, we’re like, man, everybody can sing. It sounded pretty good. And that was nice because I always loved bands where everybody sings.
In terms of your musical taste, what are your listening to when you are kicking back at home?
Sometimes classical music, I’ll put on the Beethoven Song that goes – you know the second piano concerto I can’t remember which one, – maybe the third? The other thing I put on – I got on a King’s X binge. I sort of rediscovered them and I’ve been listening to them a lot of lately. Like I was researching, it’s so easy to research, now that you Google anything. So I Googled like 100 best singers. Because I’ve been playing vocals on my guitar so much and I thought maybe there’s some great singer, that I’ve sort of forgotten about. And of course, you know, with all the rock singers were familiar, I know Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant. And then there were also like rock singers that weren’t rock at all, you know, the almost awesome singer from Turkey. And it was cool, but stylistically really different.
But there was one and it was the one woman, her name is Sandy Denny. And she sang on the Battle of Evermore – the Led Zeppelin track. And I knew that song, but I didn’t know her name and I looked her up on Wikipedia. She had a really dramatic life. She used to like throw herself on the ground to get attention and she ended up killing herself or something – but she released three albums. A lot of the amazing singers don’t write. You know, it’s like Whitney Houston – I don’t think she was a writer. You know they get writers and she just sings it, which is admirable anyway. But Sandy I think she was like a classically trained piano player, she was a real musician and I went back and listened to some of her stuff. It was cool and kind of folky. But as much as folk can, it had teeth – and so that was a new discovery. I like discovering things that I haven’t heard before as well.
We’re quickly approaching the end of 2019. Have you got the next 12 months mapped out? Do you know what’s on the cards?
Not at all. I know I’m doing a camp. Every couple of years, I do a camp called the Great Guitar Escape – I think I’m doing one of those in the summertime of 2020. That will be around the New York area I think. Besides that, I’m going to probably do a new record because it’ll be time. I’ve got a five-year-old boy, so I like to stay home a bit, to make sure he knows who his papa is.
Behold Electric Guitar by Paul Gilbert is out now via Mascot Label Group
Words & Photos by Adam Kennedy