Neil Giraldo: My Career in Six Songs
Neil Giraldo looks back on an amazing career, from “Jessie’s Girl” to “Heartbreaker.”
Neil Giraldo has a peculiar way of pronouncing the word guitar. He calls the instrument a git-tar, with a hard emphasis on the first syllable.
One might think that he was raised amid the haystacks of Kornfield Kounty, the fictional town from TV’s Hee Haw, but the veteran guitarist, songwriter and producer actually hails from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.
“I’m Italian, so I’ve always pronounced it git-tar,” Giraldo explains. “Gui-tar always sounds so weird to me. I think I got it from my family.
"My parents came to the States from Sicily, so they spoke Italian, as did my grandparents. Maybe it’s from the way Italians say chitarra. I never really think about it 'till people point it out to me.”
Although Giraldo has performed with a variety of artists, including Rick Derringer, Jon Waite and Beth Hart, music fans know him best as the spitfire guitarist - and all-around musical partner - for his rock superstar wife, singer Pat Benatar. Their personal and professional association began in 1979, with the vocalist’s multi-Platinum debut, In the Heat of the Night, and continues to this day.
In fact, the couple now bill themselves Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo as a testament to their long-standing stability.
“I remember the first time I played for Patricia,” Giraldo says. “She was looking for a guitarist, somebody who would be a real partner for her. Now, the thing about me is, I like to play very aggressively. I attack the guitar, but I want it to fight me back.
“She had never heard somebody play like that, and I don’t know if she was prepared for what I do. After she heard me, she had no words. There was a reaction, but she didn’t really understand it. But she was like, ‘He’s in the band,’ and we clicked.”
Giraldo’s guitar solos - a potent blend of hook-filled melodicism and brawny razzle-dazzle - have been intrinsic to a boatload of classic rock hits. Interestingly, he reveals that guitar parts are often the last things he considers when writing or recording a song, and explains that band members - his wife, in particular - are always pushing him to play more.
“I play a lot of instruments, and I look at all of them as tools for constructing a song,” he says. “I especially love the piano, because it’s horizontal. You can do so much more on it when you’re writing.
“I hardly ever write on the guitar, so when we’re making a record, Patricia and people in the band are going, ‘More guitar! You’ve got to play more!’ But I don’t always hear a song that way. A lot of times, the guitar comes later.
“Of course, when I do play,” he adds, somewhat modestly, “I like to make it count for something.”
"Everything" – Rick Derringer's 'Guitars and Women' (1979)
“I wanted to include this song because I’m very proud of it, and because I think guitarists might appreciate the way I look at songs. This goes back to when I joined Rick’s band. We went on the road for 10 months, and when we finally went in to make a record, he had this song.
“I thought it was terrific, but I just didn’t hear a space for me to play guitar. But I thought it offered a lot of possibilities for me to play piano, which I love to do. Rick was fine with that: ‘It’s cool, Neil. Play piano.’
“To me, a song’s structure and how it sounds overall are the most important things, not how much guitar I can pile on a track. And when I played piano on this song, I made sure to steer clear of the guitar. You want to play just what the song needs but not collide with the other instruments. In the end, I think the song had the best treatment it could have.
“This album was produced by Todd Rundgren and Rick, and for me it was a real learning process. I was there every day, and I got to watch Todd work. I admired him immensely, and I picked up so much from him about how to produce a record. The whole experience was very valuable for my career.”
"We Live For Love" – Pat Benatar's 'In the Heat of the Night' (1979)
“This was the first song that I wrote for us, and it became a hit. We had two hits from the debut album: ‘Heartbreaker’ and this one. Obviously, I was very proud and excited about that, and from there I just kept writing.
“The guitar part to this song is pretty cool. I was using a Schaffer-Vega wireless system, which a lot of guys around this time were into. Eddie Van Halen was using it, and so was Angus Young. One of the great things about it was its front-end preamp.
“In the studio, you could just forget about the wireless aspect and use it like an effect for the tone from the front end. That’s what I did. I got that great front-end tone and put it through an Eventide Harmonizer and a delay.
“On the original version of this song, I do a digga-digga-digga part. It sounded great, but the label people thought it sounded a little happy. ‘Can you do something different?’ they asked. So I actually changed the guitar part for the song so it’s a little more boom-boom-boom, and that’s what was released on later pressings.
“So if you have one of the first versions of the album, you’ve got digga-digga-digga, and if you have a later version you’ve got boom-boom-boom.”
"Heartbreaker" – Pat Benatar's 'In the Heat of the Night' (1979)
“I like this one because it goes against the grain. In normal song structure, you have verse, chorus, another verse, chorus, middle-eight, solo; you come back, do a verse, chorus… whatever.
“I chose not to do the solo until the end because I wanted to build up this tension. It’s like I’m coming after you. When I finally get to the solo, it’s really powerful. The whole thing ends up feeling more orchestral.
“People ask me if I can tell when a song is going to be a hit, and the answer is ‘not always.’ However, with ‘We Live for Love’ and ‘Heartbreaker,’ I could tell. I absolutely knew they were hits. At first, the record company tried releasing different songs, and that didn’t work.
“They tried ‘I Need a Lover’ and ‘If You Think You Know How to Love Me,’ and neither one hit. By this time, they were getting desperate, but ‘Heartbreaker’ scared them. Too much guitar. We were in a strange time with radio. Disco was on its way out, but it was hanging in there.
“The feeling was that rock songs with too much guitar wouldn’t get traction. The label wanted me to cut out the guitar stuff, but I was like, ‘No way. This is the song. It is what it is.’ Thankfully, a station in Seattle was brave enough to play it, and from there it spread throughout the country. I left the guitar in and it worked.”
"Jessie's Girl" – Rick Springfield's 'Working Class Dog' (1981)
“I met Rick and I loved the demo he had. It was similar to the song you know, but it didn’t swing very much. It was a little stiff - more like an Eagles thing. But you could tell it was a great song. It just needed a little something.
“So when we went to cut the track, that’s what was in my head. You can hear it in the beginning of the guitar part, the little boom-boom-boom-boom-boom intro. It had more of a swing. I cut it with Mike Baird, the drummer, and then I played bass on it. And Rick did a little keyboard part on it, and he sang on it, and next came a section for me to play a solo.
“People looked at me: ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’ What I did was something I like to do: I take the last note of the vocals and start there, and from that I kind of know where I’m going to end. But I don’t know what the middle will be until I start playing.
“That’s how that one went. And people love that solo! It’s a great song all around. Occasionally, I’ll get up onstage with Rick and play it. He’ll always say, ‘Nobody understands some of those things inside the solo like you.’”
“Promises in the Dark” – Pat Benatar's 'Precious Time' (1981)
“I wrote this song on piano with [producer/engineer] Keith Olsen. We went to rehearse it, and I was playing piano, but when the drums kicked in, I kept thinking that it was too slow.
“It was stagnant; something needed to happen. I went to put guitar on it and I thought, Let me change the pace of this, something more uptempo. But then I got a great idea: 'What would Pete Townshend do?' That’s always a good place to go to.
“Pete would always play three-note chords that worked as riffs. So I wrote this cool riff that comes at the end of each chorus, and it served as a release. It worked like a charm - really exciting, rhythmic and rocking.
“So once again, the song started on the piano, but I had to come up with the right approach to transfer it to the guitar. And I never could have done it if I didn’t think, 'What would Pete Townshend do?'”
“Precious Time” – Pat Benatar's 'Precious Time' (1981)
“Bill Steinberg wrote a really great song here. I love the feel of it, the minor-ninth chords. I did it differently from how Billy wrote it. I always seem to do that, even with something I really like. Maybe I just get bored or something, but I wind up taking things apart and putting them back together in weird ways. Most of the time, it works.
“With this song, we had a middle section for a solo, and I told the band, ‘Okay, gimme 64 bars to do something.’ They were like, ‘What? 64 bars? That’s a lot!’ I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I needed that much space. It just felt right to me.
“The funny thing was, on the day I had to do the solo, I was in a terrible mood. I wasn’t sleeping, things were rough in my life at the time. I was just in a really bad place.
“I went to the studio with a bottle of bourbon and said to the engineer, Chris Minto, ‘Roll it!’ I had a beginning and an end worked out with these long tape delays, but other than that I didn’t have anything in mind. I don’t even remember playing it.
“I just did it and said, ‘Okay, fuck it. I’m outta here!’ and I left. The next day, Chris said, ‘Holy shit! I don’t know how you did it, but it works.’ He was shocked. To this day, it’s probably my favorite solo. I guess the mood I was in helped me capture the moment and connect with the song.”
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Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.