Paul Gilbert: “The hardest thing for me to do is to write a riff and then sing over it”

By Aman Khosla

In a world where technical prowess, proficiency, and complexity have become well-celebrated pillars of guitardom (no, unfortunately, that’s not a real word), Paul Gilbert lives on the top shelf. Known to most as the co-founder of Mr. Big, he has had a colorful and successful career thus far, also including his early affiliation with Shrapnel Records, Racer X and of course — 14 solo records, 2 EPs and 2 live albums of his own work. He has collaborated with several notable artists, been a part of Joe Satriani’s G3 experience and done too many cool side projects to keep track. Above and beyond, he has been a great educator — be it through private lessons or his online rock guitar school — something he still maintains. Known for his blazing speed and blues-rock tendencies, he has inspired an entirely new sub-genre of rock and metal guitar playing and has his own signature line of instruments with Ibanez. Told you — top shelf. So where does a guy like that go next? Well, right back to the heart of what excited him musically apparently — his new album ‘I Can Destroy’ is raw and rock’n’roll with a slight shift away from technicality and towards great songwriting, great performance and just good music. Arming himself with producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Iron Maiden, Mr. Big) and an incredible bunch of musicians for a band — Thomas Lang, Kevin Chown, Tony Spinner, and Freddie Nelson — he continues to evolve as an artist, and let me tell you — it rocks hard. Read on and you’ll find we had a great conversation, a lot of laughs and well, that Paul Gilbert and his son (…just read on, you’ll see what I mean) most certainly can destroy.

GC: Hello!

PG: Hello, good morning! How are you doing today?

GC: I’m good — how are you?

PG: I’m doing fantastic!

GC: Great! You’re in LA at the moment, right?

PG: I’m in Portland, Oregon — I moved!

GC: Oh, you moved? Wow, I see — how’s that going?

PG: It’s fantastic. It’s spring here so the city is exploding with flowers and trees, and it’s very different from living in the desert.

GC: Yeah I’m sure! What made you move?

PG: I wanna walk — (laughs).

GC: (Laughs) Yep, I understand clearly!

PG: The first track of my album is called ‘Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal’, so as you can tell, I’ve had enough of driving.

GC: (Laughs) I live in New York so there’s no chance of driving here — so I kind of know what you mean. Though I’m sure you’re in a much more beautiful place.

PG: Yeah, well I moved to a place where I can walk to everything — I hardly get in the car. It’s also just good for staying in shape because I’m a terrible exerciser. At least now when I get lunch now I’m walking somewhere and I get my exercise on the way back and forth.

GC: There you go! Fit it right in. So do you have a new studio setup there?

PG: Yeah — I basically just took over the first floor of the house, so I’m in it now! I’ve also got my video room back there where I do my online lessons and stuff — if I could turn the computer around you’d see all my gear all over.

GC: Oh that’s cool — sounds like a good setup. Do you do any of your stuff in-house then? I remember you’d said recently that your hearing is no good by this point, especially when it comes to mixing and stuff like that.

PG: Oh yeah — I don’t really want to be an engineer, that — that just wouldn’t be a good idea (laughs). But you know, for doing guitar overdubs or demos, or just writing stuff it’s nice to have recording available. And I do a lot of stuff where people will just send me a track and I’ll overdub a guitar on it — I’m not going to screw that up too bad you know? (laughs) if I had to mic up a drum kit it would be a different story!

GC: (Laughs) Yep! Well, I don’t work as well in the studio, I prefer to be in my own little cave when I’m playing. You must be used to both situations, though I’m sure you prefer one over the other?

PG: Well the thing about going to another studio is that you have to be prepared. And it’s good to be prepared, so it’s nice to have that pressure sometimes. The record I just did was like that where we went to the studio and the clock was just ticking and you’ve gotta get it done and so — anything you had prepared tends to go really well, and the rest of it, well you have to rely on your improvisational skills (laughs). At home, you can be completely unprepared and have sort of a more relaxed ability to put something together. For stuff that you don’t have to memorize — if I’m doing something for somebody else I’m not going to take that out on tour, so it’s nice to be able to skip that step of having to memorize something or play it as a complete performance. For my own stuff, chances are I’m going to tour with it so I don’t mind putting in the work to get it set in my memory.

GC: Yeah that makes a whole lot of sense. Well then let me ask you this — with tracking guitar, one of the reasons I like to work at home is that I’m practically improvising with myself and that’s how I come up with some of the parts. So I’m writing and recording at the same time almost and that’s how I come up with some of the parts. Do you work very segmented, where you sort of write the parts and then go in and play them, or do you enjoy that marriage of the two processes?

PG: It depends on how loose the song is. Lately, I’ve been trying and enjoying becoming more of an improviser. And with that, you can have just a skeleton of a song — just some basic chord changes and a groove, and you can go in and get some good musicians and three takes in it sounds like a record! But if I have a song where the parts have to be more worked out and it’s more structured — immediately songs are coming to mind, like ‘Enemies (In Jail)’ from my ‘Vibrato’ album. On that I had some parts that I really wanted to work out where the instruments, in a very specific place, would overlap (sings melodies), you know? And chances are that never would’ve happened if I’d have just had a basic chord structure and improvised. So it just depends on the kind of arrangement you’re going for in the song. But for this album I must admit I did a lot less structuring and a lot more of just trusting the band members and coming in and saying — ok this song’s got these five chords and the groove goes something like (sings), and then we’d count to four and do it and it just magically grows into something. If you’ve got great musicians that can be really nice because, well first of all — it saves you the time of having to come up with everything yourself. But also, your musicians feel better about it because they were able to contribute and put their own fingerprint on it rather than just learning a pre-written part. And it sounds maybe just a little bit different but probably better than what you expected it to be (laughs), so it’s really nice if you can write that way and you’re willing to take the risk to let it go somewhere that you might not have planned.

GC: Well I guess that’s part of the fun! Was it all tracked live and then you did overdubs?

PG: It was all live — I just overdubbed the vocals. I mean even when we were tracking I was singing, it’s just that I probably sing better when I don’t have to play the guitar, especially since the songs are new (laughs) —

GC: (Laughs) Oh I know — I understand!

PG: But yeah, all the guitar harmonies were all live and even with some texture overdubs — there was maybe one part where we overdubbed a cowbell or something, but it’s really extremely minimal overdubbing. The least we’ve ever done on any record that wasn’t actually a live record.

GC: Yeah you can hear it actually, and I think the whole record sounds really raw in the best possible way. It almost felt vintage — and I don’t mean to make any stylistic comparisons — but your guitar tone and some of the harmonies reminded me a bit of Ritchie Blackmore, not in an of themselves but just the way I felt. Reminded me of the feeling I got listening to Deep Purple as a kid —

PG: Ah that’s awesome. Well, the nice thing about the actual guitar tones and those sorts of things is, when you’ve got a bigger band — in this case, I had two other guitar players, Tony Spinner and Freddie Nelson, and actually they’re also really good singers so they could sing harmonies with me. So, with three guitars you don’t really need guitar effects, because the other guitars become the effects. They fill it up and make it sound like a produced, finished album — it sounds real. Whereas if I was playing with a three-piece and just guitar then I’d be going, I’ve got to put some reverb and delay and a harmonizer and — I need to fill this up somehow! So that worked out well. And again I know the style of production that Kevin Shirley does, which is — live. I mean you just don’t get a chance to do overdubs and fixes. Knowing that in advance I thought I’d better put a band together that can really sound complete with one performance.

GC: Yeah it definitely felt complete — and not to say that your previous work hasn’t felt so, but this record had an incredibly smooth, well put together vibe.

PG: Yeah well the last two records that I did — ‘Stone Pushing Uphill Man’ and the Mr. Big record called ‘…The Stories We Could Tell’, were both very much layered, overdubbed, and worked up from a click track into the production. And there are things in both those records that I really like, but the actual process of it is just a bit more tedious (laughs). Because when you can just do endless takes, sometimes you do — I remember doing the solo for a cover I was doing of an Elton John tune ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’, I must’ve done 70 guitar solos! Just going ah just give me one more, just give me one more! And with ‘I Can Destroy’ I tried to prepare as much as I could but there were some songs where I had the song together, I had my lyrics together — but the solo? Uhhhh (laughs). And so, before we’d play I’d think, ok, what can I play that I know is going to work, because I know if I screw it up Kevin might keep it! (laughs) So I have to go for the really reliable things that I know are gonna work. One of my favorites actually is a song called ‘One Woman Too Many’ and that solo was completely improvised. I broke the drill out for that one, so that was kinda fun!

GC: Yeah that was great! My girlfriend walked by while I was listening to that bit and she went, what was that? Haven’t heard that for a while —

PG: Yeah that one’s funny because — with Mr. Big when we worked with Kevin Shirley, we did one song per day. That was sort of the work rate. When we did my record I figured it would be the same thing — but we’d go to the studio, get a few takes of one song and Kevin goes, that’s great, let’s do another one, and I’m like …ok (laughs). We ended up cutting two songs a day, and so — I ran out of songs! The way we’d booked the studio time we had six days of recording and then we’d planned to take a month and a half off where I could write the rest of the album and then do another six days at the end. So I thought, well great, I’ll prepare six songs for the first bit, but we had those done in three days! And all of a sudden it’s like, I’ve got three days and I’ve got my whole band here in the studio and I’m out of songs! (laughs) —

GC: (Laughs) Wow, so then —

PG: Well, fortunately, I wasn’t really out of songs, I was just out of songs that we had rehearsed (laughs). So I had some other stuff kinda ready and ‘One Woman Too Many’ is an example of a song where I showed up at the studio and you know — called the band guys and said, come an hour early! So we got there and I said, I’ve got this song, you’ve never heard it before but it’s relatively simple, it’s just got a few chords, and so we worked it up and it turned out to be one of my favorite tracks!

GC: That’s incredible —

PG: Yeah, I mean I’ve really got to give credit to the band — they were great enough to be able to handle when I threw stuff like that at them.

GC: Yeah, the band sounds solid. And I guess as you said earlier because it was done this way, it was clear that they were a bigger part of the musical picture. Running off of that — I wanted to ask you about theory and being cerebral about music when you’re working by yourself or with there musicians. Lately, I’ve been thinking more along the lines of theory as a reverse engineering tool — A language you use to communicate what you’re thinking or to explain an idea you had. Since you’ve been known to be a very proficient and technical musician, I was curious as to what your approach was to this stuff — do you think of it that way, or does theory sometimes inspire you? What role does it play for you?

PG: Well I didn’t really grow up knowing anything about music theory. So I just played. I learned a billion songs without really knowing the names of things. I mean I knew the names of the notes — I knew what a D was and I sort of knew the names of chords, but I didn’t know the meaning. I knew a D7 but I didn’t know why it was a D7. And so I went to school, and suddenly I learned all these things. The biggest thing was why chords are named what they’re named, and then how they can relate to each other in a key. And then further on to things like modulation, how to change keys in the middle of a song and that sort of thing. But all my theory is related to what I hear, so — growing up with the Beatles my best theory lesson was going through the Beatles songs and analyzing them. Starting initially with diatonic harmony and going well, here there and everywhere — that’s the I chord, the II chord, the III chord, the IV chord, but then wait — there’s a II-V-I in another key, and the I is minor! So it gives you a way to label stuff that you already know. But if I couldn’t listen to something and all I had was the maths in order to deduce a song, I’d be in trouble. I mean it would severely limit me because I’d just be scared, you know? I’d have to give it the listening test. But — to maybe more accurately answer your question, if there’s a style of music or something that I really don’t know or I haven’t done yet and my ear really doesn’t know what to do, sometimes I’ll use music theory to make an educated guess. So for example, when I started getting into the blues — blues actually ended up being a much more sophisticated style of music than I thought it was going to be —

GC: — yeah it really is!

PG: Yeah, it’s really just jazz but with not as many chords. And the chords themselves can be tricky, especially the V chord — the V chord can be a lot of different things. They’re also not necessarily just individual chords, they’re in context. So it might be the V chord but it’s going to the I and you might start playing something that leads into the I or that works against the I, and it can get tricky. So what I did was — I would sort of go chord by chord. I’d say, ok, this is the chord I’m playing and I’d come up with an arpeggio that has those same notes in it. So that would work and it would give me a sound, but then I’d go back and listen to those traditional blues guys and realize, that’s not what they’re doing! I’ve got a sound that works, I like it, it has a certain flavor — but it’s not the same flavor that these guys have, and I’d go and listen to a bunch of them and just wonder. Just last night I was listening to a harmonica solo by the J. Geils Band called ‘Whammer Jammer’ — it was just a ferocious blues boogie-woogie (sings and taps), and he does some stuff in there that’s just fun to analyze if you know some music theory because there’ll be a note here and there that might not be ‘correct’ — but when you hear it you go, sounds great! And it’s nice to make a little mental note that it’s ok to use that kind of a note if you do it in that context, and if you put the other factors around it, you can squeeze it in. So it’s just a way of labeling things that your ear likes.

GC: Yeah that’s really nice to hear. Because a lot of kids that I went to music school with — you start here (pointing to the ear), and you get stuck in here (pointing to the head) —

PG: (Laughs) yeah —

GC: And many people don’t break out, back to the ear.

PG: Well I’m not a classical composer, so that might be a completely different world. If you’re doing film scores or something and you get really fluent at writing — I’m as far as you can get from being fluent at writing! I’m a horrible sight reader — I mean I know how to do it and I can sort of push my way through, I know the notes on the staff but it’s not a language I have any fluency with.

GC: Oh yeah, I’m so with you. Give me a page and I’ll freeze! But I think it’s sort of a necessity thing — I feel like people who sight read well have to do it a lot.

PG: That, and also the things that make guitar playing cool would be tedious to notate and be impractical to read. It’s almost like a voice where you’ve got vibrato and sliding, and the difference between a picked note and a pulled-off note, dynamic things and so on. For an instrument like a harpsichord where the instrument itself forbids dynamics (laughs), and there are no vibrato options and it’s just like, the note is the note — for that, reading makes a lot more sense because what you’re reading on the page is actually not that far off from what you’re playing. I saw a great YouTube interview with Barney Kessel — from the ’50s, you know, he’s one of the original ferocious jazz guys and he was talking about written music. And he said, ‘when you see something written, that’s not what you’re going to play’. He said, ‘that’s just the general structure of the melody, and it’s your job to take that and embellish it’. So even if you still play those exact notes, you’ve got to add the elements of expression and so on — and so I was happy to hear that (laughs) —

GC: Well he said it so — yeah! (Laughs) So on that same sort of wavelength of talking about theory and stuff, does that approach of yours translate over to the technical side of things? Well firstly — do you use Pro Tools at home? Is that the kind of set up you have?

PG: (Laughs) Boy we had a battle a month ago — I updated my computer and —

GC: Oh man I see red flags already! (Laughs) —

PG: — Worst decision of my life (laughs) —

GC: (Laughs) Yeah I’m running my computer on the old OS, Lion —

PG: Don’t ever change!

GC: All my friends keep asking if I’ve updated yet and I just cut them off — ‘nope, nope’ (laughs) But see my system is the most stable because I haven’t updated.

PG: (Laughs) Yup!

GC: But anyway — what I wanted to ask was, well it’s sort of like being able to do 70 takes of a guitar solo — there is so much capability with editing these days and it seems commonplace to do things like fix or quantize drums to the point where it seems like it’s not just to correct mistakes or bad takes, but more of a stylistic choice. How do you feel about the ‘edit’ side of things, post having played this raw, beautiful thing?

PG: Well I have some edit tricks that I love. I didn’t really do any of them when I did the last album, but for example — I did a song called ‘The Curse of Castle Dragon’ on the ‘Get Out Of My Yard’ record — and it has these really fast picked runs that I can do, but they really require a lot of practice to get it right. And I was in writing mode and I thought, I’ve got to get this thing done today, I don’t have time to metronome it for two weeks, so what I would do was — I’d put on the click track, and then I’d play the first section of the lick over and over again until I got a good one. Then I’d take that and put it in. And then you take the next segment and play it over and over again and put it in and so on, but live I’ve got time to rehearse it and actually play it. Then, of course, all my students are like, hey can you play that? And I’m like, oh geez (laughs). But with that sort of thing, I want to get away from it more and more — in a way it takes some of the fun out of performing live because you’re so worried about making a mistake. It’s much more enjoyable when you can just play. Then it’s not this thing about — oh I’ve gotta this exact scale perfect — and even though I’m sort of known for that kind of style it’s something that I’m happily drifting away from (laughs). I don’t want a live performance to be like a math test, you know? I want to have it be a conversation — you can pause, you can say uh, you can be yourself.

GC: Do you feel like that’s where you’re at now, and you had, at one time, that sort of competitive speed mentality? Or do you feel that this is something you’ve always wanted and tried to align to musically?

PG: Well I think my ear is a lot better now. I mean my hearing is horrible (laughs), but my actual ability to perceive what I’m hearing is way different from when I was 20 years old. I think then I was playing things, but really not listening with the same accuracy as I do now. So in a way, I’m a lot more critical about my own playing now and if there’s something that I really can’t do consistently then it’s sort of like — well I don’t even want to do it! (Laughs), I want everything I play to really have a beauty to it, and so I tend to steer towards things that I’m able to have that control with. That’s not necessarily slower, it’s just things that happened to be comfortable for my particular technique — so I sort of go through and find the things that, stylistically, really feel like home to me.

GC: Yeah, I think that’s a better way to embrace the things that are natural to you anyway.

PG: I mean I still search around for things, and I still push my comfort zone — it’s more about looking back up the process. What pieces can I really keep?

GC: Well it’s not like you’re going to stop growing — it just seems like a shift of focus. I think on this record specifically, I felt really strong focus on songwriting and your singing — your voice was really strong on this album too and it seems to have a new flavor to it. How do you think your singing has changed over the years?

PG: Well thank you. The songs are sort of written around the lyrics and the vocals, so when you do that it often turns out better (laughs). The hardest thing for me to do is to write a riff and then sing over it — for that, you’ve gotta be a real lead singer! Just about everything started with a lyric and then figuring out how to turn it into a melody and then picking up the guitar. So that’s just a problem solver — it makes the writing easier, it makes the singing easier, and the most flexible part of me as a musician is the guitar playing, so I can bend and shift to fit what my voice is doing. It works much better than the other way around.

GC: Yeah that makes sense. And I’m sure that plays a part in with the music ends up sounding like — the orientation of your inspiration is bound to shape the type of thing that you’re going to end up with. And actually — that’s reminded me that I wanted to ask you — what it’s like being a father? Has that changed the way you make music or influenced and inspired you in any way?

PG: It’s made me become really aware of time (laughs) because now the idea of watching a two-hour movie — there’s no way! Five years from now I’ll watch a movie when there’s time! Now everything is very structured, and my wife is very structured with the schedule. And so — when I get some free time with the guitar it’s like, oh my god I can play! (Laughs).

GC: (Laughs) That’s great, well at least you can cherish those moments!

PG: (Laughs) Yeah, and not only that — the other thing that just eats up a lot of time is my online school. And I love everything that I do — I love being a father, I love my son, I love my students and I love playing, but I remember back to being 25 years old playing with Mr. Big, and that was it! You’d go on the road and you have the whole day free, two weeks off in between the legs — that was amazing. That doesn’t exist anymore (laughs).

GC: Yeah, but you get a lot more output in a lot of different ways now — there’s a lot of interesting outlets for inspiration.

PG: Yeah! I’m always inspired and — actually, the title of the album was inspired by my son, watching him crush up paper cups trying to figure out what a paper cup is! That was his way to experience the world — can I destroy it? And it wasn’t because he was angry or destructive, it’s just — what is this, can it go upside down, can I eat it? It was interesting to watch him destroy things. The parallel I thought of sometimes is at CERN — the big atom smasher in Switzerland. It’s obviously much more sophisticated, but physicists are trying to figure out what the particles are inside an atom so they smash it open and look at the pieces! That’s what humans do sometimes — in order to find stuff out you gotta take it apart and smash it to pieces!

Wise words — check out how Paul smashes things to pieces on his awesome new release, ‘I Can Destroy’. Told you — Paul Gibert and his son most certainly can destroy.

Click Here To Purchase a copy of “I Can Destroy”

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