Guitar Aficionado

Paul Gilbert Shares His Wild Collection of Custom Ibanez Axes

The virtuoso tells the stories behind some of his most unusual guitars.

This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Prince and his guitars, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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SEEK AND DESTROY: Paul Gilbert’s insatiable lust for all things guitar is only surpassed by his passion for sharing his gifts with other players.

By Chris Gill | Photos by Ty Milford

When you find yourself writing songs like ‘Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal,’ it’s a clue that you need to walk a little more and drive a little less,” Paul Gilbert says. Comfortably reclining in a chair in the studio inside his new home in Portland, Oregon, Gilbert seems like the usual affable, friendly, and humorous person he’s always been since he first came to prominence in the guitar community with the Hollywood shred metal band Racer X in the mid Eighties. However, that song title—from his new album, I Can Destroy—and a similar sentiment expressed as the title of his 2006 album, Get Out of My Yard, suggest Gilbert could be entering a grumpy-old-man phase.

Fortunately, he hasn’t turned into a cantankerous complainer; rather, the song title was inspired by one of the main reasons Gilbert wanted to leave behind the traffic-clogged, slow-moving “fast lane” lifestyle of his former Los Angeles home and settle in Portlandia. “I was spending too much time in my car in Los Angeles,” he explains. “So I moved to a place where I could walk to just about everything. I hardly ever get in the car now.”

While the pace of life may seem slower in Portland, the move made it easier for Gilbert to maintain and possibly even increase his industrious work schedule. Since leaving hard-rock supergroup Mr. Big in 1997, he’s released 14 solo albums, two live albums, and an EP. He’s also been productive as a guitar educator, posting a mind-boggling 4,000 videos on the ArtistWorks Video Exchange during the four years he’s been an instructor for the acclaimed online school. Gilbert recently hosted his third Great Guitar Escape, a week-long “camp” filled with guitar seminars, jams, and performances, held each summer in Cambria, California.

At a time when many guitar heroes seem embarrassed to even admit that they play the instrument, Gilbert is unapologetic about his love of guitar. This is most evident in the stunning solos prominently featured on his new album, even in the middle of well-crafted pop songs. “There’s certainly a fair share of widdly-widdly shredding on this record,” he admits. “I Can Destroy may not be an instrumental shred guitar album, but it’s not exactly a Dire Straits record either. I’m unusually blessed to have an audience that includes everyone from people who want to hear my athletic guitar stuff to fans who know me best for the hits I recorded with Mr. Big. I’m a people-pleasing person, so I want to make sure that everybody is happy.”

On most of his albums since 2009’s United States, Gilbert has worked with a second guitarist, either Freddie Nelson or Tony Spinner. On I Can Destroy, he decided to work with both. “They’re both around my age and grew up with Seventies-era rock,” Gilbert says. “The first thing I did for this album was hire Kevin Shirley as the producer. I’ve worked with him before, so I know the kind of energy that he likes to get and record. When you work with Kevin, the music really needs to work live, and you need to capture everything within a couple of takes, because he doesn’t like to do a lot of overdubs. Because of that, I put together a really good band that knows how to play live and listen to each other to make things come together quickly.”

Gilbert recorded most of the album with three of his Ibanez signature model guitars: two Fireman models and a violin-shaped PGM700. For several tracks, he dug into his deep collection of semihollow, archtop, and acoustic guitars, such as the Arnold Hennig steel-string flattop he played on “Love We Had” and the thinline hollowbody Ibanez ASF-180 he used for a cover of Ted Nugent’s “Great White Buffalo.” While his collection is constantly changing—he sold a bunch of his oddball Sixties Japanese guitars a few years ago, only to replace them more recently with jazz guitars and acoustics—one mainstay is his various Ibanez instruments, including Gilbert’s namesake models and prime examples from the Seventies.

���Ibanez has been great to me since I started working with them in 1987,” he says. “It’s one of the longest and best relationships I’ve had outside of my parents and sister. They’re great people who make great instruments.”

However, Gilbert’s enthusiasm for Ibanez instruments at one point overwhelmed the company’s designers and custom shop craftsmen. “For the new millennium, I was playing a show at the Tokyo Dome,” Gilbert recalls. “I had Ibanez make me this light-show guitar in the shape of the number 2000. After that, I called my friend at Ibanez to tell him about another idea I had, and he asked me to use a body style that already existed as a favor to him. Somehow that limitation made me really want to tweak the design. I really liked the Iceman, so I flipped the body shape over in Photoshop and added a cutaway at the treble bout. I loved the way it looked, and that design became the Fireman.

“I was aiming for a Sixties-style, funky import guitar look,” he continues, “but it ended up being a really nice instrument. It feels and sounds great. I’ve played other Fireman guitars that people have brought to clinics, and they always resonate nicely and consistently sound good. I’m hoping that players of other styles of music will play it. I’d really love to see Vince Gill play country on one. It works for any genre of music.”

Gilbert’s approach to guitar design could be considered similar to his approach to songwriting—he takes something familiar, flips it over and turns it into something new. Instead of chasing trends like some guitar heroes have recently done in misguided attempts to stay relevant, he is unrepentant about his love for late-Sixties and Seventies rock. In fact, his love of those styles of music is his primary motivation for being a dedicated and fastidious instructor.

“When I’m gone, I want this music to still exist,” Gilbert says. “If an asteroid were ever to hit the earth, I’d want the Beatles catalog to be preserved. Put it on a satellite and send it into space. To me it’s such an important work of humanity. Of course, there’s so much other great music and art. What happened in the late Sixties and Seventies with Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eddie Van Halen left a very big mark in guitar playing. Today, players are going somewhere else, but I really don’t want what happened in the late Sixties and Seventies to be lost. I want to put that in somebody else’s hands so they can carry that torch. Everybody has an expiration date, but I want the music to carry on, regardless. When I teach it, there’s a greater chance that those styles of music will live on.”

Kikusui Sake Ibanez Custom Shop Fireman
“When you see all the sake bottles at a Japanese grocery store, the Kikusui bottles always stand out. I thought that the bottle was really beautiful, so I decided to make a guitar inspired by it. We used the bottle caps as control knobs and incorporated the same graphic designs throughout. It’s one of my few guitars that doesn’t have a scratch on it. It’s so beautiful that I’m scared to take it on the road. If I scratched it I think that I would cry.”

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Ibanez PGM700
“This has the fake f-holes that I came up with in 1991 to differentiate my first Ibanez signature model [the PGM100] from Steve Vai’s JEM, which had the same body style. Even though the f-holes are not real, they took the look in a different direction than the usual pointy Strat. F-holes make me think of jazz, because you see f-holes on jazz guitars, and violins have f-holes, so I think of classical music too. The PGM700 was released as a limited production model in Japan in the Nineties. The violin-shaped body is inspired by Paul McCartney’s Hofner bass.”

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Ibanez Pat Metheny PM100
Gilbert’s PM100 is a modified variant with an extra humbucker at the bridge, a three-way pickup selector in the volume control position, and a master volume at the tone control position. “Real hollowbody guitars are feedback monsters. The guys at the Ibanez custom shop taught me George Benson’s trick of using clear packing tape to cover the f-holes. The tape holds the sound waves inside and keeps the guitar’s top from vibrating too much. Then you can really rock out and use lots of distortion.”

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Ibanez 2457
“That’s basically a copy of a Gibson ES-355. It might have had a whammy bar on it at one time but now it has a trapeze tailpiece. It’s an awesome guitar. I remember being in Japan and thinking it would be nice to own a vintage ES-355, but they’re, like, $12,000 dollars. I got this for less than $1,000, and it plays great, sounds great, and it’s my brand.”

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Ibanez AS103
“I used this guitar for a short tour that I did with Yellow Matter Custard, a Beatles tribute band featuring Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Kasim Sulton, and myself. I wanted the guitar to look similar to John Lennon’s mid-Sixties Epiphone, so the Ibanez custom shop made a special pickguard with a big letter I, installed gold top-hat knobs, and made other small changes to the plastic hardware to get it looking closer to Lennon’s guitar. The original shell fretboard inlays were quite ornate, so I covered them with tape to give the markers a simpler appearance.”

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Ibanez 2630
“The 2630 is one of the best-sounding guitars I own. The neck is just the right amount of baseball-bat thickness, and it plays great. This is from the late Seventies, when Ibanez started entirely making their own designs.”

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Ibanez ASF-180
“Ibanez sometimes produces guitars just for the Japanese market, so I keep an eye on their Japanese website. This model looks like a semihollow body style, but it’s actually fully hollow. The overall weight is shockingly light. It sounds great when I play the chunky riff from Ted Nugent’s ‘Great White Buffalo’ on it.”

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Gibson ES-330
“This Sixties Gibson is very easy to play due to the skinny nut width. The original tuners were starting to crumble, so I had new ones installed. The P90s are a little hard to use with distortion because of the single-coil hum, but when the amp is set clean it’s still a nice punchy tone.”

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This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar This is a feature from the September/October 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on Prince and his guitars, the story behind Creedence Clearwater Revival’s breakthrough year, a visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and much more., and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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