Is Paul Gilbert Shedding the Shred?

“When I was a kid, I wanted to write stuff that nobody could play but me,” says Paul Gilbert.
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“When I was a kid, I wanted to write stuff that nobody could play but me,” says Paul Gilbert. “I’d hear ‘I’m the One’ by Van Halen, and think, ‘Nobody else can play that.’ The athleticism really appealed to me. But if I’ve progressed at all, it’s that I’ve come to the point where I wish I could write stuff like [J.J. Cale’s] “Cocaine”—stuff anybody can play. As a songwriter, I see it’s really great if your song is strong enough that it can survive the performance of other people’s interpretations.”

That’s a surprising statement from someone who still identifies himself as a shredder. (“It’s the easiest way to market myself,” he says. “Corn Flakes is a cereal and I’m a shredder.”) Especially as Gilbert’s new album, I Can Destroy [The Orchard] proves he still loves to play blazing solos, and, in fact, at the close of the moshing, fist-pump-worthy title track, he treats your ears to a white-hot solo-shred cadenza. At the same time, the S-word has long made Gilbert cringe.

“It causes me pain because I think people who want to be shredders are in a completely different mindset than I am,” says Gilbert. “I’ll always remember when I started teaching at Musicians Institute, I was 18 years old and as shreddy as I’ll ever be in my life. But when students would ask me about the Mixolydian mode, I’d tell them it was like the melody in ‘Strawberry Fields’ because I figured everybody knew the Beatles. They’d be like, ‘What’s that song?’ It blew my mind that they didn’t know ‘Strawberry Fields.’”

Flash forward 30 years, and the guy who helped establish the shred guitar genre in 1986 with “Frenzy,” “Y.R.O.” (aka “Yngwie Rip-Off”), and other mind-boggling million-note displays of fretboard firepower on Racer X’s debut album has steadily shifted his focus to songs—playing them, singing them, learning new ones every day, and deconstructing the melodic and harmonic mechanisms that power them.

“Guitar is my radio,” says Gilbert. “Guitar is actually better than radio or digging into my CD collection or searching YouTube for a song, because with a guitar in my hands, any song I want to hear is there instantly. Not only do I get to hear the song right away, but I get to be a part of it. When you play a song, you connect to it deeply.”

This dedication to songcraft has translated into what may be the most singable, playable, and accessible solo album of Gilbert’s career. Produced by Kevin Shirley (Rush, Journey, Joe Bonamassa)—and featuring co-guitarists Freddie Nelson and Tony Spinner—I Can Destroy celebrates everything you love about trunk-rattling Camaro rock à la Pat Travers and Thin Lizzy, comedy rock à la Weezer and Fountains of Wayne, big-chorus blues à la George Thorogood and ZZ Top, big-hair chops à la Mr. Big (Gilbert’s platinum rock posse), and more.

You were one of the poster boys for West Coast shred in the ’80s, but, as the years go by, you seem to be continuously shedding the …

… Shedding the shred. I believe I did a lot of damage with my early instructional videos. I think that with the way I’m teaching now, I’m finally making up for it, but I really did some harm back then.

How so?

Let’s put it this way—I was trying to show off. Actually, people responded to it really well. Those are popular videos, and I still get compliments on them to this day. But, for one thing, an hour-long video can’t really deliver a balanced look at anything in terms of instruction. It’s impossible. So I focused on a particular part of the guitar style, and I think people unfortunately took that part as being everything—like, “If you can just play this one section of the scale really fast, that’s all you need to do.”

Of course, that’s not the way I actually said it, but I kind of apologized for it in the second video, because in meeting the new students who were coming to MI, I could already get a sense of the damage that was being done by it. So, to this day, I try to emphasize that you’ve got to get your strumming, chords, and vibrato together before you do anything else. I’ve kind of got a bee in my bonnet about this, because when I hear people say, “Oh, I’ll get to vibrato some day,” I’m like, “No, no, no. You’ve got to do it now. This is an emergency.”

What are your clinic tours like?

The way I do them now has changed—particularly as I really try to stay away from backing tracks. I feel like backing tracks are encouraging people to play in the mall. I remember when young pop idols started doing mall tours—like Tiffany. She’d be singing to the backing track, doing little dances, and it was so un-rock. So I’d rather sit there and stomp on a cardboard box than play to a backing track. It’s easy to play with a backing track, because they don’t make mistakes, and the song’s always going to be the same. It’s reliable, yes, but there’s something dead about it. The more I get into improvisation, the more I’d rather play with two bad musicians who are messing me up—which happens—than play to a track.

It’s a risk saying, “Get me two local guys for the clinic,” because, sometimes, I’ll get two guys who are not into it, or they didn’t learn the songs that well, or they weren’t the best choice stylistically. But I don’t care, because when we do get something right, it’s so much more right. It’s worth the risk to have those moments where you’re going, “Yeah! I’m playing with two other human beings. We’re communicating. We’re listening to each other.” Backing tracks won’t listen to you, but at least with human beings, there’s a fighting chance they will.

You’ve been running your own music camp, the Great Guitar Escape, for three summers. What have you learned about creating a good guitar camp experience?

The main guy who organizes them for me always makes me read the reviews afterwards, and that has been helpful, because everybody writes their comments. I’m fortunate to get good reviews, but after the first year, I learned that people were really enjoying things I wouldn’t have expected them to—such as having breakfast with me. Maybe that’s because you can go on YouTube and hear me play, but, at breakfast, we can hang out and sort of find out who we are as people. I’d never really “practiced” breakfast before, and that’s not something I thought I could advertise, but, hey, I gotta eat, too. So I stand in line, get my bacon, sit down with everybody, and enjoy the human side of the camp.

As a teacher, what are your thoughts regarding the technique of today’s shredders?

Behold, the only thing faster than yourself—Gilbert with a Makita drill.

To me, the curse of the modern shredder is that all the motions are getting really small. This thing that’s supposed to be athletic and powerful and ripping your face off is starting to be created by tiny, teeny little sophisticated motions. It’s becoming so dainty. Of course, playing something dainty can be really useful if you follow it with something where you’re kicking the guitar’s ass. But if you’re dainty all the time, you get very far from the spirit of rock. I can’t do that.

It’s the cantankerous old man in me that sees young rock players and goes, “Kids these days! The thumb is not over the neck.” I’m not into that whole, “Ooh, I have to be careful that I don’t hit any of the other strings” way of playing. With the thumb over the neck, you don’t have to be careful. I’ve got a poster of Hendrix where his thumb is further over the neck than his fingers are from underneath. When I teach, I’m always encouraging people to just hit everything, and try muting the extra strings with the fretting hand. I could talk for an hour about this. Don’t get me started…

Many of the songs on I Can Destroy are easy to play and very addictive.

One of my favorites on the new album is the “Turn Signal” riff. I play it with two other guitar players—Tony and Freddie [see sidebar, “Paul Gilbert on his I Can Destroy Gear”]—and it took us a little while to sync up that little pinky bend on the A [the riff’s fifth note. Every guitar player is going to have a slightly different feel on a bend like that. So each time we do it, it gets better, because we’re listening to each other.

How did you get that “tick-tock” sound on the verse?

I was so happy coming up with that. Part of it is up/down strumming on the strings while I’m muting them with my fretting hand. But, for the main sound, we actually went out and miked up the turn signal on my wife’s Mini Cooper—which has the loudest turn signal I’ve ever heard. A long red light in that car with the turn signal on is excruciating for me. I wear hearing aids, and they make that thing a thousand times louder.

I also dig the slide riff on “Woman Stop.”

You know, I made a huge breakthrough with slide on that song. I found the right finger! I’d been playing slide with my third finger all my life, and sucking at slide all my life. But, one day, I put a slide on my second finger, because the only slide I had sitting around was this giant glass one that was too wobbly for my third finger. All of a sudden, my vibrato was better and everything was working. It’s subjective—everybody has a favorite slide finger.

Your songs often crack me up, because there’s usually some funny factor to them. For example, on I Can Destroy, you poke fun at your hit with Mr. Big, “To Be With You.”

Yeah. The new song is built around a lyric that goes, “I am not the one who wants to be with you”—the opposite sentiment of the original lyric. I definitely get a big grin on my face when I sing that line. I like to explore opposites. That’s my second anti-song, the first one being “I’m Not Addicted”—a play on Mr. Big’s “Addicted to That Rush.”

With music, it’s not so much that I want to be funny—it’s that I don’t want to be boring or predictable. If I’m going to be performing for people, or presenting songs to people on an album, I feel an obligation to be interesting. Maybe I feel that without the humor I’m not enough or something. I worry about being how I perceived Eric Clapton when I was a kid—which is that he’s great but also boring. I had read that Eddie Van Halen was a huge Clapton fan, and I’d only heard Clapton’s “Cocaine” riff—I hadn’t heard all the Cream stuff yet—and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re serious?” Of course, Clapton is indestructible. I don’t think he’d care about what I thought, because he’d be like, “I’m 10,000 times more famous than you, and I’ve had way more women, and I play better blues.”

Racer X made an instant splash in the guitar community when Street Lethal debuted in 1986. What were the band’s early days like?

Within three shows, we were headlining the L.A. clubs, which was great. But it was expensive to do shows then, because you had to hire a road crew and you had to have the hair-spray girl. But it was all worth it. Just look at those photos!

Keep lighters away from that hair…

We did whatever we could think of to attract attention. We had inflatable Godzillas on stage. We’d open shows with six-foot inflatable sharks attacking the audience while the Jaws theme played. Our singer built a mic stand with a ladder attached to it. As the curtain rose, you’d just see the pole, and, all of a sudden, his feet would appear, and he’d be perched at the top of the mic stand like some insane bird. I also remember the sad moment when our drummer got this brand new white kit, and it turned out the paint didn’t respond to the black lights we used to make our guitars glow. It was a genuine disappointment, like, “Oh damn, it doesn’t glow. This is a disaster. I guess Warrant is going to get signed instead of us.” And that ended up happening.

We had triple-stacked guitar cabinets—most of which were custom made by Lee Jackson. I didn’t know then that many of the cabinets at rock shows were fake, so we plugged in all of our cabinets. Our poor bass player’s mantra was, “I can’t hear myself.” And then there was, of course, the drill with the picks attached for fast, tremolo-picking sounds. When you start playing guitar with a drill, everybody cracks up.

Your other signature drill sound is the drill revving. I think a lot of people might not realize that’s done purely microphonically.

Yes. You hold the drill motor next to your guitar pickup. It’s the same thing Eddie Van Halen did on “Poundcake.”

How did you feel when you saw EVH with his drill?

Obviously, it’s an unusual thing to do with the guitar, so I was waiting for the dream to end. I think I was so far off of Eddie’s radar that he didn’t realize someone else had done it. There are things I’ll lift from other artists because I want to promote them. For example, I always loved Pat Travers’ ending to “Hooked on Music,” which used some fourths-based chords in a cool way with the bass part. The orchestration is actually pretty sophisticated. Nobody seemed to love it as much as I did, so I lifted it, added a guitar melody to it, put it at the end of my song “Stone Pushing Uphill Man,” and waited for somebody to catch it. Nobody ever noticed. So I’m here today to say, “Listen to ‘Hooked on Music’ by Pat Travers!”

Everyone dreams of landing a number one hit song, as you did with Mr. Big in 1992, but I bet it can be overwhelming, too.

Well, what really helped is that we had great management, and they were very straightforward with us. I remember having a meeting on the bus, and our manager, Herbie Herbert, said, “Guys, this is great, this is wonderful, this is fantastic, and it is never going to happen to you again in your life. So get ready. We’re really going to make the most of it. You’re going to be on planes. We’re not going to cancel any shows, but we’re going to squeeze in Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show, MTV Spring Break, and everything else. You’re not going to sleep.”

Was there any kind of comedown after that?

The comedown really had nothing to do with that song. It had to do with music trends in America changing. It took me years to get big hair! It wasn’t easy. And, all of a sudden, it wasn’t cool anymore, and neither was the athletic style of playing we’d invested in. It’s like saving all this money—“Hey, I’ve got a million Rubles”—and suddenly the economy of Russia crashes and they’re valueless. Fortunately, we still did very well in Japan and Europe. America wasn’t that bad—we still did tours—but there started to be a real contrast between playing internationally and playing in the States.

It’s funny. It actually took me decades to get a more realistic view of my position in the world of guitar. For a while, I just sort of stuck my ostrich head into the very optimistic sand—there’s a metaphor—of what was going on in Japan, because this magazine over there, Young Guitar, would put me on the cover once or twice a year, and I’d win all the polls. I thought that was real. But I finally realized Young Guitar was just one little magazine in one little country. The rest of the world is really different. There’s quite a difference between the venues Clapton plays and the venues I play.

So, now, I’ve been properly put in my place, and I think I have a more sane view of my position of the world—which is just fine. When it comes down to it, I have a great time sitting around and learning “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, and teaching it to my students. The marimba player [Bo Wagner src="/Portals/0/056_gpr1016_coverstory-1.jpg" alt="" width="450" vspace="5" align="left" hspace="5" height="453"] is amazing!

You’ve always been very open and positive about your hearing issues. You even made isolation headphones look cool.

That’s kind of you to say. I used to wear headphones a lot, but I kind of gave up on that. I’ve had hearing aids for two or three years now. I use small Phonak ones that don’t block the ear canal, so I can combine them with what’s left of my hearing. They’re great, but when I say “great,” it doesn’t mean you’re going to put them in and go, “Wow, everything sounds great now”—at least not if your ears are pretty destroyed, like mine. As your hearing doctor will tell you, your brain will have to get used to the hearing aids, because, at first, they seem trebly and harsh, and if somebody drops a fork on the ground, you just about jump out of your hair. And then a couple months go by and you get used to it.

In the studio, if I have to wear headphones to hear the click track or whatever, I’ll usually just put the headphones right over my hearing aids—mostly because I don’t want to take them out and lose them. If I’m doing a lengthy live show, though, I just wear earplugs, without the hearing aids, and crank up the wedge monitor. Still, I tell drummers that if there’s a section that breaks down to just hi-hat, I’m unreliable. We once went so far as having a TV screen for me to keep an eye on the hi-hat during the intro to [Mr. Big’s] “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind.” But that didn’t work because I just couldn’t hear it. Finally, I just said to the drummer, “Why don’t you follow me?” Since that day, it has been perfect. Now, I’ve got a wonderful excuse to be the time dictator.

You’re so positive about even the toughest things in life. Where did you get this damn positive attitude from?

Maybe it comes from my dad, who would remind me how life could be. He would say things like, “Imagine living in a time before Novocain.” Think about that. You get a little cavity, you go to the dentist, they’re going drill through your tooth, and it’s going to be the most hellacious thing in the world. My dad had an appreciation for the modern world and growing up in Western civilization. Often I’ll think, “I could have been in some horrible Russian war and sent off to freeze to death in a Siberian prison camp, yet here I am with an electric guitar in my hands talking about vibrato. This is so great.”

Happiness is all about expectations. I’ve discovered that whenever I get unhappy it’s because I expect something, and when that something doesn’t happen, I get pissed off. For instance, maybe I think I’m going to be the one to soundcheck first, and when it doesn’t work out that way, I get bent out of shape. Why did I get bent out of shape over something so trivial? It was because of my expectations. So I set my expectations nice and low, and that keeps me happy most of the time.

Paul Gilbert on His I Can Destroy Gear

I Can Destroy’s three-headed guitar monster—Gilbert

“I brought two Ibanez Paul Gilbert Signature FRM-series Fireman guitars into the studio,” details Gilbert. “One was an FRM250 with DiMarzio Air Classic humbuckers in the bridge and neck positions, and the other was fitted with DiMarzio P90s custom-wound for me by Steve Blucher. The Fireman guitars have a 24¾” scale, so I’ll often string them up with an Ernie Ball RPS set, gauged .009-.042. I might use .008-.038 sets if my calluses are getting worn down—although, when I’m on the road, I might go heavier because I’m beating the guitar harder. I actually have a Fireman with .007s on it! A friend of mine at Dunlop gave me a Billy Gibbons Reverend Willy .007-.038 set to try. It’s horrible for fast picking, because as soon as you pick a note, the whole string just sort of wobbles. But for playing slower stuff—for vibrato—it’s a party. I use thin Dunlop .50mm Tortex picks. I should say that I did play with a heavy pick for a long time, and I got a lot of stuff sounding good with it. But I like a thin pick now, because you really have to hit hard to drive the guitar with it, and that feels good. You can just beat away on the guitar and have a wonderful time.

“My main amps were a Marshall 2061X hand-wired 20-watt head and a Germino Lead 55. The Germino is a nice alternative to searching around for a vintage Marshall,” he says, “because the circuit is the same as an old Marshall, but you know it’s going to be reliable, and the tubes are new. The main cabinet was a Marshall 1960TV 4x12. It’s a little bit taller than regular 1960 cabs. I don’t know if it sounds different, but it looks really cool.

“Stompboxes included an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress, a script-lettering MXR Phase 90, a Way Huge Red Llama, a Way Huge Saucy Box, and an MXR Distortion + for solos and for some fills. Having extra distortion makes it so I don’t have to pick quite as hard. I can lighten up my touch a bit, and not have to work so hard during hammer-ons and pull-offs. It just makes the guitar more sensitive—which also means you must have good string muting. The rhythmic revving sounds on ‘One Woman Too Many’ were from a Makita power drill.

“Perhaps my favorite ‘effect,’ however, was having co-guitarists Freddie Nelson and Tony Spinner playing parts along with me on the album. When you’re tripling parts—or playing in harmony with two other guitar players—you don’t really need a lot of stuff on your guitar, because it already has extra texture.”