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Paul Gilbert's Big Shred

February 14, 2012
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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 drums.

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 performance?

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.

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