Artist Feature Friday: Paul Gilbert
“…I’ll tell you the advice that I’ve been giving to myself lately… and that is to learn melodies. I never really did that as a kid. I learned athletic blues licks and chunky rhythms, but I never tried to “sing” with the guitar. I’m really enjoying the discoveries that I’m making by doing this. In my life, I’ve learned a lot of Van Halen guitar parts, but now I’m really enjoying learning the David Lee Roth vocal parts on my guitar. I’ve learned a lot of Richie Blackmore guitar parts, but now I’m learning the Ronnie James Dio vocal lines.”
As GuitarOne Magazine’s “Top 10 Greatest Guitar Shredders of All Time”, Paul Brandon Gilbert is one of the most disciplined, well-versed guitarists that we have ever come across; and as we have come to learn, is not one to compromise on tone…making him a true TONEFREQ!!! We had the opportunity to interview the virtuoso guitarist from Carbondale, Illinois about his days with Racer X, his online rock guitar school ArtistWorks, and of course…TONE!
So sit back, relax, and enjoy this week’s Artist Feature Friday!
Here’s what Paul had to say.
Most 5 year-olds are more concerned with putting together puzzles, learning how to spell, etc. What exactly prompted you to pick up music at such a young age?
PG: My parents had most of the Beatles albums, and I loved that music. I played hours and hours of air-guitar to Beatles songs, before I ever played a real guitar. I actually wanted to be a singer more than anything, but I always felt limitations to my voice. The guitar seemed to let me do what I wanted, as long as I put in the practice time.
You have been extremely influential to a new wave of guitarists. Which guitarist/musician influenced your style/tone growing up?
PG: All the rock bands from the 70s and early 80s, and a lot of 60s pop. The Beatles really formed my taste for harmony and chords. But as a guitarist, I really liked Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Robin Trower, Pat Travers, and Frank Marino. There were so many others. I did a lot of listening. KISS, AC/DC, Cheap Trick… and also more complex stuff like Allan Holdsworth, Yngwie’s early records, E.L.P., Rush, and Todd Rundgren and Utopia.
We would love to hear about how you got your first big break into the music business!
PG: My path in the business has been in gradual steps, but each one has been exciting to me. I think one of my happiest days was when I sold out the Troubadour with Racer X. It was our third or fourth show, and we had put all our rent money into promoting it. It felt so good to walk into that club and have it be completely packed. That was the first time that I really felt that my dream was becoming a reality. I always knew that I would be a musician, but this was the first time that other people really responded to what I was doing. Plus, I could pay rent!
We’ve read that you actually sought out a record company exec, looking to play with Ozzy Osbourne. Could you tell us a little about how that all came about?
PG: Well, I was a big fan of Randy Rhoads. I saw him a couple times with Ozzy, and even went to a guitar clinic that he did in my hometown. After Randy’s tragic accident, I thought that Ozzy might be looking for a new guitarist, and I already knew a lot of the songs and was really into that style. I was living in a small town and had no connections to the music industry. The only person I could think to contact was Mike Varney. He had mentioned in an interview that he would respond to anyone who sent him a demo. So I thought I’d see what kind of response I would get. Mike liked my playing, but thought that Ozzy probably wouldn’t want a 15-year-old in his band.
“Technical Difficulties” is an amazing piece of work, showcasing scale runs, arpeggios, string skipping, as well as pitched harmonics. What particular guitar technique do you think makes that track?
PG: It is kind of a lick showcase, which is a little bit unfortunate. I wish I was a better writer and could sell a song because it had a good melody instead of being a display of alternate picking! But I’m working on it. And I’m proud to have written some melodic tunes like “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” with Mr. Big. If anything, for “Technical Difficulties,” I should thank Tommy Aldridge, because the accents of the main guitar part are very similar to Tommy’s drum solo. I didn’t set out to copy his drum solo, but I did listen to him a lot on my old Pat Travers bootleg cassettes. So the rhythms must have stuck in my ears.
Now, it really is unfortunate to read about your loss of hearing, especially knowing how involved you are with developing your guitar tone. Could you explain how you have been able to overcome that?
PG: I just do whatever I can. My hearing loss has been very gradual and happened over decades, so I didn’t really notice it happening. Music really isn’t a big problem. I can still hear pitches, and I can always crank up my amp… although I try to keep it as low as possible. I used to go see live music and sit in with bands, and I really can’t do that much any more. The hardest thing is speech. Recently, I got a set of really good hearing aids. It’s nice to be able to talk to people again! It’s not like my hearing is perfect with them, but it’s much better than feeling like I’m trapped inside a giant pillow. Overall, I just try to listen to music as quietly as possible, to preserve what I’ve got left. It has influenced my musical taste. I listen to a lot of jazz clarinet now. But keep in mind that Eddie Van Halen’s dad was a jazz clarinetist, so Eddie must have listened to a lot of that as well. I’m hoping that the music will have a similar effect on me.
Obviously, your headphones are critical for your live set. How would you describe their impact on you overall tone (live/studio)?
PG: With my headphones, I’m hearing a very direct sound from my amp. I’m not hearing all the reflections from the acoustics of the venue. This is usually very good, because many rock venues are not really designed for sound, and can have too much reverb. I wish I could let everyone in the audience hear my mix. It sounds great!
We’re sure that this may vary, but how would you describe your writing process?
PG: I get my deadline from the record company. Then I procrastinate and play lots of guitar and do some music research. Then I panic, and start to organize the musicians, studios, and try to write something good. After a week or two of writing lousy songs, I start to come up with good things. I wish that writing came easier to me. It’s much more natural for me to be a player and an improviser. I can spend countless joyful hours just noodling around on my guitar. But I do love songs, and sometimes the only way to get them is to write them!
What kind of amps are you currently using?
PG: I mostly use a Marshall Vintage Modern 2×12 combo. It has simple controls but a very versatile tone. I’ve done a lot of albums and tours with that amp.
As you can tell, we have become pretty familiar with your work, including your live set up. Does your studio set up vary much from your live set up?
PG: My live set up is much louder than my studio set up. For the studio I usually use an isolation cabinet with one 12” speaker in it. I plug a variety of amps into that… depending on the song, and plug in whatever pedals I need. The cabinet keeps the sound in, so I can even have it in the control room and still keep things pretty quiet. For a tour, I build the gear around the setlist, which is mostly just picking out the right pedals. And I want my guitar to be as loud as the drummer so I need more speakers. For my solo tour, I usually use a couple of Marshall Vintage Modern 2 x 12 combos, and that is loud enough.
Do you have a specific mic setup you like to use when you are recording guitars? Any specific microphones?
PG: I put the mic right in front of the speaker. It’s very simple. An SM57 is fine. If I want to sound better, I know that I have to play better.
Would you say that your playing style has evolved since your early year with Racer X?
PG: Oh my goodness. The answer is yes. I have so many sounds that I want to make with my guitar. I wish I had ten years to practice privately so I could develop my playing more between records. After nearly 40 years of playing guitar, I’m finally starting to discover what I want to sound like, and it’s going to take some work to get there. I’m excited! I get closer every day.
Aside from your BOSS tuner, which pedal would you not be able to live without?
PG: Well, lately I’ve been using one of those Korg clip-on headstock tuners. So that’s given me an extra space on the pedalboard. Which pedal? Again, it depends on the song, the guitar, and the amp. Some pedals that I use a lot are the Majik Box Fuzz Universe, the MXR Distortion Plus, the Empress Effects ParaEQ, the Fulltone Deja-Vibe, the H.B.E. Bajo Mos, the Pigtronix Philosopher’s Tone, and the TC Electronic Ditto Looper. I do have to say that the Ditto Looper has been a life changer. I love making a rhythm part and just jamming and jamming along with it. It’s great having a tireless rhythm guitar player, so I can solo endlessly.
Tell us about how you got the idea about using a power drill in your live set.
PG: That’s from back in the Racer X days. We were just trying to make the show exciting. Picks on the end of drill, was one way to do it. But keep that thing away from your hair.
You have one of the more recognizable guitars in the industry. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with Ibanez and the creation of your signature guitar?
PG: Man, I love Ibanez. I’ve been using their guitars for over 25 years, and it’s one of the best relationships I’ve had in my life. My current signature model is called the “Fireman.” It’s an unusual shape… It’s actually their Iceman model, turned upside down, and then contoured to make it comfortable. I came up with the idea just as an experiment, but it turned out to be such a great sounding instrument. I play it every day. It’s got a nice thick neck, a lot of wood in the body, DiMarzio pickups, tall frets for easy bending and vibrato, and the controls are out of the way so I can rock and play hard.
What do you look for when it comes to guitar tone?
PG: It would be a lot easier to get great guitar tone if the guitar only had one string. Since it has six strings, the trick is to find a balance. I want a tone that makes the high E string sound punchy and thick, and not harsh, and still have clarity on the lower strings. I tend to use a couple pedals so I can vary the amount of distortion. I don’t want to have full-blast distortion all the time. I like to be able to stop and not have the guitar feedback and howl. Most of all, the tone has to work for the song.
Do you find that a particular wood combination for the neck and body of the guitar create a better tone compared to others?
PG: I like lightweight guitars. My Fireman has a large body and a thick neck, and this seems to influence the resonance in a really good way. But I ask Ibanez to choose lighter pieces of wood, so it’s still comfortable to stand up for a two-hour show.
I think it’s very admirable that you are sharing your talent through your online guitar education. Can you tell us a little about your ArtistWorks involvement?
PG: I really like teaching. I’ve been doing it a long time, and I feel that I’m a much more effective teacher now than I’ve ever been. I enjoy getting to know my students who have joined the online school. I hear them play quite often, and it’s amazing to hear how quickly they are improving. My goal is give everyone maximum control of the guitar and really make their playing musical and indestructible. And just keep everyone motivated and excited about playing. My students really keep me excited about playing. I love going to my school every day and living in a world of pure guitar. Artistworks has built a great platform for me to listen and watch the students, and I’m on the site daily, teaching, answering questions, and listening to the students play. I think that anyone who joins will be amazed at what is waiting for them. I’ve made over 1500 video lessons for the students… not just general lessons, but lessons specifically for the people at the school. Every student at the school can watch all the videos… both the student videos where they play and ask a question, and all my video responses. These are called Video Exchanges, and they are all archived on the site. You can search through these by typing in a word like, “picking,” and all the picking videos come up. And of course, anyone who joins can send a video to me directly, and then get an answer to any question, or just a critique of their playing. I actually don’t “critique” very much. I usually respond with a musical phrase that will teach the student what I think will help them. Of course I explain the techniques in detail, but I try to keep as much music and playing going on as possible. And I should mention that there is an extensive rock guitar course that goes from total beginner to extremely advanced techniques. I spent months preparing the course, and I think it is valuable on its own, but really the most exciting thing about the school is the interaction that I have with the individual students.
What would be one piece of advice you would like to pass on to aspiring musicians?
PG: I could write an encyclopedia of advice! I’ve been teaching at my online school, so I interact with guitarists every day. It’s helpful to me, because I can give advice to individuals. Everyone is different, so my advice is different too. But I’ll tell you the advice that I’ve been giving to myself lately… and that is to learn melodies. I never really did that as a kid. I learned athletic blues licks and chunky rhythms, but I never tried to “sing” with the guitar. I’m really enjoying the discoveries that I’m making by doing this. In my life, I’ve learned a lot of Van Halen guitar parts, but now I’m really enjoying learning the David Lee Roth vocal parts on my guitar. I’ve learned a lot of Richie Blackmore guitar parts, but now I’m learning the Ronnie James Dio vocal lines. The way a great vocalist phrases is often very different than the way guitarists play. And I want some of that melody and style that vocalists have. It opens up a whole new world on the guitar.
If you could have dinner with one musician, dead or alive, who would it be?
PG: I’d be interested to meet any musician from an era when their music was not recorded or written down. I mean… We are able to experience Bach and Haydn because their music was preserved through writing… and it’s fantastic stuff. But hundreds or thousands of years ago, there must have been people making great music that was never preserved. What kind of melodies were the Egyptians making? What was Aristotle’s favorite melody? When ancient cultures were drawing antelopes on the walls of caves, were they singing a tune? I’d love to hear some of that over dinner.
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