When Gus G. got the gig with Ozzy in 2009, he was already a seasoned vet with loads of gigs and recordings under his belt—most notably with his own melodic metal band, Firewind. (Fun fact: Gus named the band after an Uli Jon Roth Electric Sun album.) After being anointed by His Ozzness, it would have been easy for him ride that gig into the sunset, secure in the knowledge that his name would forever be on a short list alongside Tony Iommi, Randy Rhoads, and Zakk Wylde.
But, apparently, that wasn’t enough for the ambitious Mr. G., because he continued to release records with Firewind and tour all over the place. He also collaborated on signature guitars, amps, and effects, and obviously spent a fair amount of time in the woodshed.
The fruits of all that labor can be heard on his debut solo record, I Am the Fire [Century Media], a deep, powerful collection of tunes that draws more on hard rock influences than the metal he is associated with. The album features guest spots by bassists Billy Sheehan and Dave Ellefson, and includes vocalists Jeff Scott Soto, Mats Levan, and Steel Panther’s Michael Starr, among others. Fresh off a triumphant European tour with Marty Friedman, Gus explained what made I Am the Fire burn.
So, why do a solo record now?
It was a series of events that led me to do this. Everybody has always asked, “When are you going to do a solo record?” I was always a band guy, though. I’ve always been a member of Firewind and all the other bands in the early stages of my career, and then obviously with Ozzy. There was never any time to do a solo album. But Firewind did seven studio albums in ten years, and we did a lot of touring in 2013, so it seemed like a good time to take a break. At the same time, Ozzy was busy with Black Sabbath for the past couple of years. Then, I was coming up with all these ideas that were more on the hard rock side, rather than heavy metal or prog metal. All those things coincided and made me think, “It’s now or never.”
This record does have a more classic rock vibe than, say, a Firewind record.
I grew up on classic rock—not just heavy metal. I asked myself what I wanted to do if this was going to be a solo record. Should I do a full instrumental album? I thought that was a pretty boring thing to do. I didn’t really know how it was going to turn out, to be honest. It was like starting from scratch, and I kind of went along song by song. I had this new project, it was fresh and exciting, but, at the same time, I knew I had to create a new style. Of course, it’s going to be me, but it has to be something that is not too similar to Firewind. Otherwise, what’s the point? I always liked classic rock, I had all these ideas, and this is what it ended up sounding like.
Another difference is all the guest musicians you have on the record. Let’s start with the bass players. How did they wind up on your tracks?
Jay Ruston, who mixed my album, played a key role in this project, and he brought in a lot of the guests. Actually, I originally set out to play all the bass parts myself, because I love playing bass. Whenever I create songs in my home studio, I play the bass, and I always do it on the Firewind demos.
In fact, I had already recorded the bass for the song Dave Ellefson played on, “Vengeance.” But, during the mixing stages of the album, Jay hit me up and said, “Do you want to do a solo for Dave Ellefson’s project?” Dave did this record with Frank Bello from Anthrax called Altitudes & Attitude. I said, “Yeah, of course. I love those guys.” He said, “What do you want in return?” I said, “Can you ask Ellefson to play bass on one of my songs?”
Billy Sheehan played on “Terrified.” I was in a very Yngwie/Racer X kind of mood when I created that, and that’s why I named the song “Terrified”—it was like my tribute to the Racer X song “Scarified.” The other bass player is Marty O’Brien, who I also met through Jay Ruston. He’s a super nice guy and a great bass player. All the rest of the bass is me.
Did you rely on your normal, go-to gear for this record?
Yeah. For the most part, I used the same rig I use with Ozzy and Firewind—my signature ESP guitars and my signature Blackstar Blackfire amp. I also used another Blackstar head—the HT-100—which has a bit more midrange. My amp is a little brighter, so I think the combination of that sound and the more midrange tone worked well on the record. On some of the tracks, I also used a Marshall JCM 2000 head. I still use the same strings I’ve been using for ten years or so—Elixirs, gauged .010 through .056, and tuned down a whole-step. I have a signature BBE pedal based on the Green Screamer— we call it the G Screamer—that I use as a booster for leads.
This album has some of your most melodic playing on it. I get a Michael Schenker vibe off a lot of your lines. Like Schenker, you seem to have a knack for playing memorable, hummable melodies.
Thanks for the compliment. Schenker is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. What I like about him is he would jam on a pentatonic scale, playing all these bluesy licks, and then he would turn it into this dramatic melody all of a sudden, and it would just take my breath away. He always played the exact right notes for the solo, and I tried to keep that in mind as a reference point: What would Michael Schenker do?
In addition to the great melodies, there are also a lot of really exciting, high-energy passages. You’ve always had amazing chops, but it seems like you’re getting better and better. Do you have to practice really hard to be able to cut solos like we hear on this record, or does that just come naturally to you?
When it came to the more melodic, soulful parts, I think I played the most mature stuff I’ve done so far. When it came to the technical stuff, I think I played the most technically demanding guitar parts I’ve ever played. I had to go back and practice those instrumentals in order to do them live. I really pushed myself as a guitar player. And since there was no producer around—I was producing this myself—I wanted to see what the next level for me as a guitar player was. I needed to come up with something really cool—not just melodically, but technically, as well. I made sure if I was going to do all that crazy shred stuff, it had to have a meaning and be memorable.
Part of what makes it memorable is your vibrato and your tone. How important are those to what you do?
I actually think vibrato is the most important thing in a guitar player’s style. That’s what really defines your sound and your soul as a guitarist, because your vibrato is yours. You can steal somebody’s licks, and twist them and turn them around, and people can kind of find out where you took stuff from. But the vibrato—that’s something personal. I’ve always loved guitar players with great vibrato. Look at Yngwie, Schenker, and Gary Moore—all those guys are so unique.
Tone is another thing that really comes from the guitar player. It’s like an inner thing. Of course, having great gear helps. But a great guitarist can create a good tone no matter what kind of amp or guitar they use. You have to be able to sound good even through a little crappy 5-watt amp that sounds like a mosquito. You have to be able to sound like yourself through any rig.
What are your touring plans for this record?
I just finished a tour with Marty Friedman. We did a co-headlining tour across Europe, and it was fantastic. His new album, Inferno, is just insane. The guy absolutely raised the bar for heavy-metal guitar with it. It’s like a new standard. And it’s great to hear him working with Jason Becker again. “Horrors” is a great track they did together. We’re hoping we can bring that show to America.
How do you challenge yourself as a guitarist these days?
It comes from practicing. I have guitars all over my house, and I play all the time. When I get in the zone, I try to push myself and be creative and come up with new ways of playing. Sometimes, you play something that makes you go, “I’m going to use that somewhere,” and you keep it. Before you know it, you’ve filled that little bag of licks and tricks. One day, you open it up and you’ve got like ten new ideas in there. That’s what keeps me going.