Back in the blazing ’80s, it seemed
like so many long-haired kids with guitars
could play so damn fast that it was often
difficult to tell them apart. Mike Varney
saw something different in a 15-year-old
from Greensburg, PA, however, and wrote
about him in his Spotlight column in the
Feb. 1983 issue of GP, introducing Paul Gilbert
to the guitar universe. (Fact: Varney
also spotlighted an unknown Swedish guy
named Yngwie in the same issue.) In the
nearly three decades since, Gilbert has
continued to distance himself from the
shredding hordes. His sense of melody,
composition, and humor in his solos is
world class, and his chops and execution—
which have always been off the freaking
hook—just keep getting better. For the first
time in 13 years, Gilbert took a break from
cranking out solo albums and joined his
old bandmates in Mr. Big to record What
If... [Frontiers]. Despite his crazy schedule,
he was more than happy to talk tone,
chops, gear, and bongos.
How did you guys cut the basics for this album?
The basics are the album! Eric [Martin,
singer] even did his lead vocals live with
the band. I did my solos that way too.
We added an overdub here and there for
color, but it is absolutely the most “live”
album that I’ve ever done in the studio.
[Producer] Kevin Shirley did a great job
inspiring us to rock out.
Did you double your rhythms?
Sometimes Kevin would take a rhythm
part from another take and fly it in to make
a double. But I rarely played a double as
an overdub. Everything was cut with the
Were your solos planned out or improvised?
Right before we would do a take, I would
review the chord changes, and try to think
of some rhythmic patterns that lock into the
groove. But that’s basically just putting a few
tools into my tool kit, so when I get to the
solo I have some emergency places to go. To
put it simply, there was a lot of improvising.
With the turbo-shuffle rhythm and the phaser
on the lead tone, “American Beauty” has a definite
Van Halen vibe. Is that a conscious nod or is there
just some EVH in your DNA?
To me, those early Van Halen records
are old enough where I see them as kind of
“public domain.” Nobody does that sort of
thing anymore, and I miss it! That sound is
definitely a big part of my musical roots. I
just use it where I think it fits.
What’s the modulation effect at the beginning
of “Nobody Takes the Blame”?
That’s my old A/DA Flanger cranked up
to go semi-crazy. I love flangers. I also used
my Ibanez Airplane Flanger and a Fulltone
Choral Flange on the record.
Your unison lines with Billy Sheehan in “Still
Ain’t Enough for Me” are pretty crazy. How did
the two of you get on the same page to get that
You wouldn’t believe how quickly that kind
of thing comes together. It has to. If it’s not
easy to play, then it would be impossible to
play it so fast. We try to use patterns that both
of us can play with little or no rehearsal. It’s
more a matter of memorizing the new part.
The technique has to be there from the beginning.
That’s a great thing about having Billy
in the band. The technique is definitely there!
Did you change up your gear at all for the
making of What If…?
Not really. I used the same Marshall
combo that I’ve been using for the past few
albums. It’s a Vintage Modern 2x12. I crank
the Master Volume all the way up and run
it through a THD Hot Plate so I can control
the overall output while keeping the power
tubes on full blast. I used my Ibanez Fireman
with DiMarzio Injectors for most of the
record, along with a couple of Ibanez hollowbodies:
a Pat Metheny guitar with a bridge
pickup added, and a vintage 2630 Ibanez
Artist. That’s a semi-hollow that I got on
eBay, a really great sounding guitar. Plus an
Ibanez custom shop 12-string electric that I
had from the ’90s.
You’ve always been good at playing pentatonics
without making them sound like “normal” pentatonics.
What are some ways players can make a
common scale sound uncommon and fresh?
Rhythm is the key to everything. I recommend
trying to think like a bongo player.
Don’t even think about notes at first, just try
to create some rhythmic phrases that lock
into the groove and that make you smile or
get excited. Then add some notes. Often your
typical scale fingerings will not work with
the rhythm that you invented, and you’ll be
forced to invent different fingerings that allow
the rhythms to be accented in the right way.
This is the guaranteed escape hatch from the
prison of “widdly-widdly” guitar playing.
Since lots of guys have technique, what separates
inspiring shredders from shredders we
don’t care about?
It just proves that there are factors other
than technique that are required to make
music. It’s great to be able to play, but you
have to play something. When I was around 22,
I got really tired of listening to myself practice
scale sequences. The part of me that listens
to music gave a strong tap on the shoulder
to the part of me that plays music. I said to
myself, “You should really figure out where
you want to go with all this.” At that point
I started aggressively researching songwriting,
chord progressions, production techniques,
and lyric writing.
You donated a famous guitar for the Jason
Becker benefit a while ago that raised a truckload
of money for Jason. What can you say about
that guy’s music?
I wish there was more of it. It’s really overwhelming
to think about his situation and
how strong he must be in order to deal with
it. I’m glad that I could have the opportunity
to help out a little bit. I wasn’t able to make
it to the benefit concert, but I heard it was
amazing, emotional, and musical.
Who are the players you hear these days who
get a good sound or play interesting parts?
Guthrie Govan always comes to mind.
He can do some things that I’ve never heard
before. I always like Eric Johnson. The new
guitar player in Judas Priest, Richie Faulkner,
is fantastic. I just did some festivals with
them, and Richie was absolutely killer. There
are a couple of young guitar players that I’ve
seen on YouTube who I think are great. One
is Sam Coulson. His vibrato is stunning and
his fast stuff is face-melting. There’s also
a 16-year-old girl named Alicia who plays
really good blues.
How do you view and/or value these parts of
your playing: bends, vibrato, chops, note choice,
and sense of humor?
I think the underlying thing is love of
music. That’s what motivates everything
else. The life of a musician is often less than
glamorous, and I would imagine that many
potential musicians would run screaming if
they knew the amount of discomfort that
any touring musician is likely to endure. But
I love it! I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I
love playing and singing and thinking about
guitars. All the things like bends, and notes,
and chops are details, and I love the details
as well. But it really comes down to pure
love of music.