It’s been said that there are two types of rock fans: those that admit to having a favorite Night Ranger song and liars. From the band’s initial insurgence onto the AOR, Top 40, and MTV airwaves in the mid ’80s, they have been a reliable source of varied but consistently catchy melodic rock gems. Be it the hard driving kiss-off “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” the anthemic fretboard-burner “(You Can Still) Rock in America” the infectiously catchy “Growing Up in California” or the pinnacle of power ballads “Sister Christian,” the San Francisco quintet has always delivered the musical goods. While the hooky choruses have been irresistible bait for casual listeners, guitar aficionados are usually lured in by the tandem pyrotechnics of whammy bar maestro and founding member Brad Gillis and eight-finger tapping guru Joel Hoekstra.
Gillis and Hoekstra are joined in the current lineup by recently recruited keyboardist Eric Levy alongside original members Jack Blades on bass and vocals and Kelly Keagy on drums and vocals. The band has sold over 17 million records and has had songs featured in movies, TV shows, Broadway musicals, and both the Rock Band and Guitar Hero video game series. Night Ranger boasts an ever-growing worldwide fan base—including remarkably strong support in Japan, where Gillis and Hoekstra are lauded for their 6-string virtuosity—and play between 90-100 dates annually. Their current live show is a high-energy amalgamation of hits, deep tracks, new material, and a few popular songs from the band members’ other musical affiliations (Blades was a member of Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw in the early ’90s and Gillis was called into action to tour with Ozzy Osbourne after Randy Rhoads’ tragic death in 1982).
Heading into their fourth decade, Night Ranger are still, err, motorin’ in high gear with a new album entitled High Road [Frontier]. The 11 tracks on High Road keep them on course for their signature good-time melodic hard rock destination, but offer enough twists and turns—such as the bluesy “Don’t Live Here No More,” the countrified “Brothers,” and the acoustic instrumental tour de force “L.A. No Name”—to keep the ride interesting.
Night Ranger by day (from left)— Jack Blades, Joel Hoekstra, Brad Gillis, Kelly Keagy, and Eric Levy.
You both tend to favor pretty straightforward setups. What gear did you use to record High Road?
Gillis: I used a Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier and a Mark V, as well as some Hiwatts. My main guitars both in the studio and on the road are the Fernandes BG guitars, which are copies of my ’62 red Fender Stratocaster. Fernandes made 100 of them back in the mid ’80s and I got the first four or five. I retired my original Strat from road duty a few years back just to keep it out of harm’s way and it’s currently on display as part of a larger exhibit at the Carnegie Center for the Arts in Turlock, California. Jim Cara from Cara Guitars is building exact replicas of it. For High Road, I also brought back my 1970 Gibson Les Paul Custom with an original Floyd Rose. I’ve had that guitar since 1975 and I used it when I toured with Ozzy Osbourne in 1982. Believe it or not, I actually traded a ’57 Strat for that guitar. In terms of effects, I’m not really a big pedal guy. My sound is pretty much my guitar into my amp.
Hoekstra: With Night Ranger, I mostly use my ’57 reissue Gibson Les Paul goldtop. I also bring out my Atomic Guitar Works Les Paul copy with the American flag logo when we do “(You Can Still) Rock in America.” For amps, my workhorses are still the EVH 5150 III heads and cabinets. When the band recorded the title track of the new CD however, I was on the road with Trans- Siberian Orchestra, and wound up tracking my parts with an Avid Eleven Rack unit. For all the acoustics—both on stage and in the studio—Brad and I use Taylors exclusively, including 614ce and 914ce models, and an 854ce 12-string.
Brad, years back you pioneered an innovative approach to wireless that everyone in Night Ranger has since adopted.
Gillis: When the first Nady wireless systems came out, my brother Greg took one apart to see how it worked, then reverse-engineered my own wireless for me. We thought it would be cool to take the guts out of their shell and install them right into the guitar body itself. By doing it this way, there’s no pack on the strap to worry about, and no cord to plug in. You just turn on a switch on the back of the guitar and go. Both Joel’s and my guitars have the onboard wireless installation courtesy of Atomic Guitar Works.
One of the standout guitar moments on High Road and in your recent live shows is the instrumental acoustic duet “L.A. No Name.” How did that come together?
Gillis: That developed from a spontaneous jam between Joel and me. We kept throwing out ideas to each other and had a rough demo of the song together fairly quickly that we later polished up. This version was actually recorded a few years back and made available as a bonus track on the Japanese release of our last CD Somewhere in California. It got a positive response when we played it at the Taylor booth at the NAMM show and whenever we would play it in concert, so this time around we decided to make it available on both the European and American releases of High Road.
Hoekstra: Brad and I both love to sit on the couch and mess around on acoustics for fun and a lot of cool stuff comes from just jamming. We wrote all the music for “I’m Coming Home” off the new record that way as well.
Is “Let’s just jam and see what happens” your general approach to writing?
Hoekstra: A lot of times, yes. I think people might be surprised how much of our music is written around guitar riffs.
Gillis: As a result of that approach, our songs tend to have more complex forms than the average I-IV-V pop or rock song. It’s not uncommon for us to have an A, B, and C section before we even get to the chorus. “Knock Knock Never Stop” from High Road is a great example. The intro starts with Joel playing this funk-rock riff, then I add some scratchy sixteenth-note octaves. Next there’s a verse, a melodic pre-chorus, and finally the big chorus. There are five distinct musical ideas in the first 1:15 of the song.
Do you generally track your guitar parts together?
Gillis: Usually just Jack, Kelly, and I record the basics, and then we bring Joel and Eric in. Because we recorded at Jack’s home studio, we had the luxury of taking our time for this record.
Who’s playing slide guitar on “Brothers”?
Hoekstra: That’s me on one of Brad’s old Gibson hollowbodies in standard tuning. That song has Jack’s Beatle influence all over it and is really a bit of a departure for us stylistically.
Is that guitar or keyboard during the intro of “Don’t Live Here Anymore”?
Gillis: That’s me doing volume knob swells with a dotted-eighth-note rhythmic delay effect on the guitar. It’s similar to a part I played on the song “Rumors in the Air” from 1983’s Midnight Madness album.
Joel, talk about the eight-finger tapping in the intro of “St. Bartholomew’s”?
Hoekstra: We were working on demos at Brad’s place. He set up a drum machine loop and that was something I played over it off the cuff. It’s essentially an F# blues scale using hammer-ons and pull-offs with my fretting hand, interspersed with tapped notes an octave higher via my picking hand. I was fortunate to learn the eight-finger tapping technique at an early age from a great teacher named T.J. Helmerich, and that style of playing is just something that comes pretty naturally to me now.
Brad, you’ve always been highly regarded for your whammy bar technique. How do you get that chaotic warble-y sound like in the solo to “High Road”?
Gillis: When I first got a Floyd Rose on my Strat back in the early ’80s, I changed the tension on the floating bridge from five springs down to three. One day I accidentally banged it against something and it made this fast fluttering “brr-rrr-rrr” sound. I eventually discovered that by hitting the bar and causing the whole tremolo to shake, I could make the sound—which has unofficially become known as the “cricket” sound— pretty much at will. I first incorporated in the “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” solo, and it’s since become part of my signature style and something other guitarists have picked up on as well.
Aside from Night Ranger, you’re both pretty busy with other projects as well.
Gillis: I produce a lot of music for TV, including ESPN, Fox Sports, and Monday Night Football, and I did the music for Tiger Woods’ PlayStation Games as well. I’m also in the middle of finishing up a new solo record, although I’ve been taking my time with that due to Night Ranger’s busy schedule.
Hoekstra: I’m still playing eight shows a week at Rock of Ages when I’m home and will be heading out on tour with Trans- Siberian Orchestra this November through December. I also have a new side project with bassist Tony Franklin and drummer Todd Vinceguerra called VHF and we just released our first EP entitled Very High Frequency. It’s psychedelic instrumental rock. I have a second side project happening as well, once again with Tony Franklin on bass, along with Vinny Appice on drums and Russell Allen on vocals. I’ve also been getting my feet wet in the television scene lately, writing and recording for shows like Duck Dynasty and The Wahlburgers.
It was one of your many other gigs that actually got you your job in Night Ranger, right?
Hoekstra: I used to play in the World Stage house band with Survivor’s Jim Peterik at the annual shows he produced where many great artists would come and perform their hits. Kelly Keagy was a regular there, so he and I had already worked together on a yearly basis for about five or six years before I even joined the band. When Night Ranger was looking for someone to fill in for interim guitarist Reb Beach on short notice, he gave me a call because he knew I was familiar with the material and could handle the eight-finger tapping parts that [original Night Ranger guitarist] Jeff Watson was known for. The band was flying back from Japan at the time so my first gig was on a few days’ preparation with no audition or rehearsal. It was a bit like jumping out of a plane and not knowing if your parachute was going to open. Thankfully it did.
Gillis: Joel flew in that night, sound-checked with us, then played the gig flawlessly. That was his “audition”! It was a relief for me when he joined as a permanent member because he’s one of the most professional and easy-going guitarists I’ve ever worked with. Seven years later, we’re best buds, we’re making records, we’re playing 100 shows a year, and we’re having a blast.