Paul Gilbert Traces the Evolution of His Lethal Lead Licks

The atomic bomb grew out of a single equation. The Grand Canyon was, arguably, carved by a single river. The world’s largest pearl started out as a single grain of sand. The great fire that consumed Chicago in 1871 was sparked by a single lantern (and a clumsy cow). So, then, could one of the most explosive lead guitar styles of all time have been ignited by a single ’70s metal lick? Well, if the style in question is that of the great Paul Gilbert, then yes.
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Sweet Moves

“Believe it or not, a lot of the fast stuff I do goes back to the little repeating lick Tony Iommi did at the end of ‘Sweet Leaf,’” says Gilbert, demonstrating the Iommism in Ex. 1. As you’re about to find out, Gilbert makes a compelling case that much of his lead guitar prowess—yes, even the terrifying lead lines he unleashed on the planet with Racer X in the mid ’80s, the turbo-charged testosterone-fueled arena rock riffs that put on top of the charts with Mr. Big around 1990, and the inspired, even humorous licks that made his recent solo album, Get Out of My Yard [Shrapnel], the most innovative “shred” record in years—grew like a magic beanstalk from that tiny Tony Iommi phrase.

“That pull-off is almost like my early DNA—a one-celled organism that has evolved into a more complex creature,” says Gilbert.

The first way the motif likely evolved was when Gilbert applied it to the blues scale [Ex. 2]. “This is pretty much the same rhythmic phrase and same picking and pull-off technique as the ‘Sweet Leaf’ move, but with a little wider stretch,” observes Gilbert, playing Ex. 3. It’s an obvious descendent of the Black Sabbath lick, though, at six notes per downbeat, it’s quite a bit faster. “To me, this doesn’t really feel like ‘sixes,’ and it’s not a triplet feel. As far as how to use a fast, flashy lick like this rhythmically, it’s very important to do it as fast as you can comfortably while always listening for the pulse. One of guitar players’ bad habits—myself included—is to find some bitchin’ lick and practice it by yourself with total disregard to tempo and rhythm and how it might fit in contextually with the band.”

Going to “11”

Gilbert adds that with moves like Ex. 3, it doesn’t really matter which note you choose as the downbeat, so long as you truly feel the riff’s pulse. “Some of these licks kind of fall apart when you slow them down,” he says. “Patterns that have 11 notes”—such as Examples 4 and 5—“can be really weird, because 11 is a weird number in music, one that normally sends you in some fusion-y direction. But at this tempo, 11’s work just fine over a simple rock groove.”

In yet another reminder that guitars, amps, and effects are only one factor in whether you have good tone or not, Gilbert points out the importance of rhythm’s role in making licks pop sonically. “If you want to play fast licks with weird note groupings randomly over the top of the groove, you can rely on the drummer to hold down the tempo for you. But in my experience mixing guitar solos on albums, if those licks aren’t locked in with the groove somehow, they’ll just turn into mush and need to be about twice as loud to even be heard in the mix. Play the lick in the groove, though, and it just sings through without you having to push that fader up, because it has a rhythmic channel to travel through.”

Dazzling Dismounts

“It’s also important to have a nice way to get out of these licks,” adds Gilbert, playing Ex. 6, which demonstrates three possible string-bending endings to a repeated quintuplet phrase.

While Gilbert is famous around the globe for his laser-precise, ray-gun fast picking, he actually uses legato phrasing more often than people realize. “Picking every note is really not the most useful way of playing for me,” says Gilbert. “To me, combining picking with hammers and pulls like this [Ex. 6] makes everything more organic, musical, useful, and easy to play. This has pull-offs in it, but also some picked notes—it’s not totally legato, it’s not totally picked. The key to this lick is actually the picking, because that jump from the third to the first string is the hardest part. To get better at that, you could almost just focus on that one repeating move [Ex. 7]. Similarly, to get better at this phrase [Ex. 8], you could simply practice its picking part on open strings [Ex. 9].

“The way I became comfortable with this stuff was by playing in bands for years when I was a teenager. Practicing these moves with a band is a lot more fun than sitting in a room by yourself with a guitar until you’re like, ‘Enough of this, I’m gonna go check my email.’ With a band, you can practice the same stuff for hours without getting bored. I was fortunate enough to be in bands from age 11 onward.”

For some killer cadenza fodder, try Ex. 10, Gilbert’s show-stopping 19-note offshoot of Ex. 8. Repeat and conquer!

Neck Paper

“To me, the art of playing fast is building on techniques you already have,” says Gilbert. Some woodshedders will be surprised to hear that when it comes to learning the fretboard, Gilbert doesn’t prescribe running scales so much as he encourages practicing the same phrase in different places on the neck—especially musical phrases that will be lyrical additions to your arsenal of tasteful lead licks. “There’s this Allman Brothers song with a really singable phrase. You only have to hear it a couple of times before you can play it. The trick, though, is to play that phrase in every possible position on the neck [Ex. 11]. You can switch octaves if you have to. This teaches you to find the notes wherever you are on the fretboard, which is a usefull skill in rock, because in rock there aren’t always a lot of chord changes. Rock is sort of the art of making static chords sound interesting.”

To this day, Gilbert not only explores the fretboard with his hands, but also with paper and pencil. “My first guitar teacher introduced me to neck paper—paper with a big diagram of the fretboard on it that you can write note patterns on,” says Gilbert. “I use it all the time to come up with playing patterns I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own. For instance, when I went to the Musicians Institute, I learned some music theory and I knew triads existed—I knew you could play an E minor triad [E-G-B, Ex. 12] as a chord [Ex. 13], as this sweeped arpeggio that everybody does [Ex. 14], or as a crazy open-string lick [Ex. 15]. But by writing E, G, and B all over the neck on paper, I came up with all kinds of new stuff, including this cool pattern [Ex. 16]. Here, I’m skipping every other note—I’m going, E, B, G, E, B, G, etc. It’s not that difficult to play physically, but it’s a lot of work for the brain to memorize all that position shifting. It ends up being all about playing these little two-note chords [Ex. 17].

“Once I had that pattern down, I wondered what would happen if I used it with more complex harmonies, so I applied it to E, G, C#, and D, which are the defining pitches in the E Dorian scale [Ex. 18]. There are tons more patterns that I haven’t worked out yet, because my brain can only digest so much at one time.”

The Über-Blues Scale

One reason Gilbert enjoyed learning music theory so much is that it allowed him to approach blues harmony (“which fits so well with the electric guitar”) in a more methodical way. Even his strange yet bluesy lick in Ex. 19 was worked out on paper long before he actually tried to play it. To generate the melodic pattern, Gilbert took the A Dorian mode, added the b5, and threw in “every other pitch great blues and blues-rock players like Pat Thrall were playing.” The resulting über-blues scale included every note except the b9 (Bb, in the key of A), the minor 6 (F), and the major 7 (G#). Gilbert then wrote all the scale’s notes on neck paper, but only where they appeared on the second and third strings, because he wanted to sound them using the picking/fingering pattern from a short motif [Ex. 20] he borrowed from Aaron Copeland’s 1942 ballet score, Rodeo. The result? Ex. 19. (Notice the Rodeo fingering in there, recurring every eight notes.)

Stealing Away

These days, it seems any band that can is coming out of retirement to do a nostalgia tour. But despite offers of huge cash guarantees (typically from Japanese promoters), Mr. Big won’t be regrouping any time soon. “We’d probably create more drama than music,” says Gilbert. “But I will be checking out the Van Halen reunion.” Then, as the sun begins to set over the city of Los Angeles sprawled out below his house in the hills, Hollywood’s resident guitar maniac plays a cool ascending pattern he wrote recently [Ex. 21]. The head-turning move is just another example of how quickly Paul Gilbert evolves the licks of his heroes.

“I came up with that lick after working on ‘Eruption’ the other day,” says Gilbert. “I was working on the part with all the cool open-string pull-offs Eddie does right before he goes into the whole two-handed tapping section that closes the song. After figuring it out, I thought, Well I’ve gotta steal that and somehow make it my own!”

Laugh a little and learn a lot by picking up a copy of Paul Gilbert’s new instructional DVD, Get Out of My Yard [Alfred], which details all the brilliant licks and tricks the guitar hero employs on his solo album of the same name.

Gilbert Gear

Guitars A Noah’s Ark-load of Ibanez solidbodies, hollowbodies, single- and double-neck PGM Paul Gilbert signature models (gotta love those fake f-holes! [right]), and more, including two “reverse” Icemen. (“I threw an image of the Iceman body into Photoshop, reversed it so the big cutaway was on top, added a second, smaller cutaway below, and emailed the jpeg to Ibanez. They built the guitar.”)

Amps Marshall Vintage Modern series combos. (“I normally go for about a Malcolm Young level of distortion and boost it from there using pedals.”)

FX Gilbert’s stompbox array is constantly changing. For this interview, his homemade pedalboard (which is sized to fit the small keyboard case in which it travels) featured Fulltone Soul-Bender and OCD distortion pedals, an Xotic AC-Booster, a vintage A/DA Flanger (“For crazy sounds, I crank up the flanger’s Enhance knob in the middle of licks using a Tone In Progress 3rd Hand mechanical expression pedal”), Electro-Harmonix Soul Preacher and Poly Flange pedals, and an MXR Phase 90.

Strings Ernie Ball RPS gauged .010-.046 for 243/4"-scale-length guitars, .009-.042 for Ibanez PGM Paul Gilbert and other 251/2"-scale-length models.

Cables Core One Bullet Coils

Headphones Direct Sound Extreme Isolation