Guitar Aficionado

Brad Gillis: The Night Ranger Axman Rocks an Impressive Collection

From vintage LPs to Sixties Fenders, he's armed with an impressive collection of vintage axes
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This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Dean Gordon Guitars, the 50th anniversary of Martin's D-35 guitar, Jon Haber, James Hetfield's incredible Black Pearl Kustom car and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

Still Rockin' America

By Chris Gill | Photography by Gabriela Hasbun

Even the most casual guitar fan is likely familiar with the playing of Brad Gillis. As one of the two lead guitarists in Night Ranger, which sold 17 million albums during the Eighties, Gillis brought shredding, virtuoso soloing to the masses via a string of hits like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” and “Sister Christian” that were equally embraced by album-oriented FM stations, Top 40 radio, and MTV. Night Ranger’s music has also featured prominently in dozens of films, from Sixteen Candles to the chilling, climatic drug-deal-gone-wrong scene of Boogie Nights. Gillis is also well known for quite capably filling the shoes of the recently deceased Randy Rhoads on tour with Ozzy Osbourne in 1982 and his stunning renditions of Black Sabbath classics on Ozzy’s live Speak of the Devil album.

But people may actually be even more familiar with Gillis’s guitar playing than they realize. Over the past 15 years, he’s recorded hundreds of music themes regularly heard on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Fuse TV broadcasts as well as music for two best-selling Tiger Woods video games for EA Sports. While he still tours and records with Night Ranger, his broadcast music gig has become his “regular” job. “I love being at home, firing up my computer, and recording music all day,” Gillis explains. “I’ve been lucky to have the luxury of playing music my entire career.”

This new chapter of Gillis’s musical career rather fortuitously coincided with his newfound passion for vintage guitars, which he started collecting around the same time during the late Nineties. While Gillis is famous for his hot-rodded guitars, including a heavily modified 1962 Strat featuring the third Floyd Rose tremolo ever made and a black Seventies Les Paul Custom also sporting an early Floyd Rose unit, his growing vintage guitar and amp collection provide him a wider palette of tones to work with.

“I should have started collecting vintage guitars back in the Eighties,” Gillis says. “I got into it when a friend of mine, Robby Z, asked me to play on 10 songs on his record [2001’s I’m Your Man]. Robby is also a collector who owns a couple hundred vintage guitars. He told me that he’d give me a couple if I played on those songs, and when the album was done he gave me a 1953 Gibson ES-175 and a 1956 Les Paul Junior. Seeing his collection started my whole collecting fever. I’d go to all of the music stores in town when I was on the road, hit up pawnshops, and check Craigslist. My collection started growing from there. After 15 years, I’ve acquired about 130 guitars.”

Gillis’s passion for the guitar goes way back before then, however. Like many kids who were born in the Fifties, he was completely knocked out by the Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, but he aspired to become a drummer at first. “My parents got me a drum kit for Christmas when I was seven and a half,” he recalls. “They got tired of me banging on it every day, so for my eighth birthday I asked for an electric guitar. My dad was in the Navy, so he took me to the Alameda Naval Air Station commissary and bought me a Kay Vanguard 2 guitar and a Kay amplifier. My dad said that I had to take lessons, so I started taking lessons from this old gentleman who taught me things I really didn’t want to learn. I wanted to rock!”

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Gillis eventually learned to play a few chords from a friend of his older brother and started teaching himself to play by ear, copying songs that he heard on the radio. From there, he moved on to teaching himself to play lead. “At first I played everything on the high E string, going up and down the neck,” he says, laughing. “That Kay wasn’t much of a player, and I quickly realized that I needed a better guitar. Around my 12th birthday, my dad flew to Germany and bought me a Hofner guitar that was like a 335 copy. My brother and I went to the Alameda Penny Market, got a stall, and sold my Kay for $25. That was around 1970.”

Amazingly, Gillis was reunited with his old Kay more than four decades later. “I got a booth at the 2013 California World Guitar Show at the Marin Civic Center so I could sell and trade guitars,” he says. “I walked to the other side of the hall where Guitar Showcase had a large variety of guitars that they were selling. As I walked through their booth, I saw this Kay Vanguard 2. I asked Gary [Wineroth], who is one of the store’s owners, if I could check it out, and he said sure. I took it to my booth and called my sister, who sent me a photo of me playing my Kay when I was 12 years old. I immediately noticed that the wear on the knobs was the same, and the guitar I was holding had a small ding on the front that matched a ding on the guitar in the photo. At that moment, I had a chill in my bones as I realized it was my original guitar!

“I asked Gary about it,” he continues, “and he told me that he got it as a trade-in about 35 years before then. That guitar had sat in the back of his shop ever since. It basically was untouched from when I had sold it. Because people are starting to collect cheaper, eclectic guitars, he thought he’d bring it to the show and try to sell it. He sold it to me for half price, and I added it to my collection.”

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After playing the Hofner for a few years, Gillis’s taste eventually gravitated toward Fender Stratocasters. His first was a 1957 Strat that a friend allowed him to reclaim from a pawnshop. “I got my rhythm chops together and really learned to play lead with that guitar,” he says, “but it would never stay in tune, especially if I used the vibrato bar. I decided that I needed a more solid guitar. Another buddy of mine had a black 1971 Les Paul Custom, so I traded the ’57 Strat for that. That Les Paul is a powerhouse, and it sounded huge to me. I got myself a bigger amp and started playing heavy rock tunes. That finally got me going on my way.

“I played that guitar five nights a week in a funk rock band after I got out of high school,” Gillis continues. “That was my main guitar on the two Rubicon albums that I recorded along with Jack Blades back in the late Seventies. I also played that guitar on March 18, 1978—the biggest day of my career—at Cal Jam 2. That was a great day for me. I was only 20 years old, and we shared the stage with Heart, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Santana, and all these great bands.”

This is an excerpt from the all-new MARCH/APRIL 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For the rest of this story, plus features on Bob Seger, Dean Gordon Guitars, the 50th anniversary of Martin's D-35 guitar, Jon Haber, James Hetfield's incredible Black Pearl Kustom car and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at our online store.

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