Paul Gilbert

“I’m happy to let all of the guitar players know that I’ve stopped singing,” jokes Paul Gilbert, whose recent albums have flaunted the 40-year-old guitarist’s affection for power pop nearly as much as his love for frighteningly virtuosic rock guitar. But on his new, all-instrumental release, Get Out of My Yard [Shrapnel], Gilbert goes straight for the 6-string jugular.

“It drives me crazy that I love both types of music, but it’s not easy to mix the two,” he explains. “So I thought it was time to stop scorning the genre of shred, and see what I could do with it.”

What was your biggest guitar epiphany?

The year I spent at Musician’s Institute when I was 17. Although I had some lessons when I was a kid, I was primarily learning by ear from records. I had taken theory courses in high school, but they may as well have been math classes, because MI taught me music theory as it applied to the guitar. To suddenly have that knowledge system in place was eye opening, because I was definitely running into walls with my development. It sounds silly, but, as a kid, you feel like you know everything, because you know everything [laughs]. But when you’re opened up to a world of new ideas and concepts, the guitar seems endless. To this day, I have good aftershocks from one year at MI.

What’s an example of something you learned that opened doors for you?

Playing triads over simple chord progressions. By aiming for the 1, 3, 5, and occasionally the 7, I was learning what notes tend to be the melodically stronger ones. It’s a simple concept, but it was hugely important in slowing me down and making me play more melodically. This was back when I played as fast as I possibly could, and as long as I was playing through the correct scale shapes, it wasn’t a big deal, because you don’t land on any one note long enough. But as I tried to start phrasing more musically, it became helpful to know where the good notes were [laughs]. And from a technical standpoint, my chops improved because studying triads caused me to refinger a lot of things. The shapes I was used to—and could play very fast—were suddenly out the window.

Are you picky about fingerings?

Extremely! The fingerings you choose greatly impact your ability to get across a certain set of notes quickly. So many guitar players’ secrets are hidden in the fingerings they use, because they’re the key to figuring out how they move around the neck.

Over the years, you’ve done a lot of clinics and teaching. Are you currently teaching?

Yeah. I taught eight students yesterday at MI. It’s fun, and it puts my brain into guitarland. And the students are good that I’m a lot less likely to rest on my laurels.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as a teacher?

The challenge of being a teacher is finding the level of the student, and then giving them material that’s new and interesting, but not so out of reach that they’re going to give up on it. MI prefers that I do seminars in front of a big group, but I dig private lessons so I can hear the person, and know where to begin. I start every lesson with a ten-minute jam, and I make them easy—easy grooves, easy keys, easy tempos—and take it from there. I don’t want to intimidate anyone, because it’s as much fun teaching a beginner as an advanced player. Sometimes, it’s more fun teaching a beginner, because it takes me back to when I was learning a D chord.

What’s the difference between a student in 1986 and 2006?

A lot of young players who are into shred now are really good at it, but they came to it directly, bypassing guys like Mick Ralphs, Mick Ronson, and Brian May. When I started playing, the first Van Halen record wasn’t even out yet, so when I turned on the radio to hear some hot guitar, I heard Jimmy Page, Aerosmith, Bad Company, and Ted Nugent. If I did some research, I might have dug up, say, Uli Jon Roth, but early Scorpions was certainly not on the radio, and there was no Internet, so guys my age had no choice but to listen to the old-school players. So when I see these young guys just blazing, it’s like seeing a kid who somehow got up on the roof of a house without a ladder.

Do you see this as a positive or a negative?

Neither. They’re so young that you can’t expect them to know every player that came before them. But if a student is passionate about any style of music, I want them to go as far into it as they can. For example, I love that wide, ’70s rock vibrato, so when I jam with students, I do a lot of it to try to open their ears to it. If they like it, they'll do it themselves.

Your sound has cleaned up over the years, with more string detail and less gain, and Get Out of My Yard really illustrates that evolution.

What I love about distortion is that it increases the sustain and resonance of your guitar. But if you use too much, you lose the pick attack, and your sound gets mushy. The main appeal of fast picking is the percussive, popsicle-stick-in the-spokes kind of sound, so I’ve been using semi-hollow guitars, because they sustain and resonate more than a solidbody. That allows me to back off the distortion on the amp without losing the big rock feel. My current favorites are a ’79 Ibanez Artist 2630 that I got on eBay, and a new Ibanez AS103NT. I plugged those guitars into a Laney GH 100L—the amp I’ve been using for ten years—for Get Out of My Yard. For effects, I mainly used a lot of MXR Phase 90, and an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress.

How can a player’s “pick attack” affect his tone and technique?

The angle of the pick to the string affects two things: the tone of the actual attack, and how easily the pick slides across the string. If your pick is perfectly flush with the strings, and you try to play fast, it doesn’t work very well because the pick gets caught up in the string, and you won’t be able to play as accurately. On the other hand, if you angle your pick 45 degrees or more, the sound becomes more like a nice staccato cello, and the pick slides easily across the strings. The best way to experience this is to slowly alternate pick your open low-E string, and listen to the attack as you change the angle of the pick. A great example of this technique is the middle of Van Halen’s “Light Up the Sky.” Right after the drum solo, you can hear Eddie’s guitar sound almost exactly like a cello as he lightly picks the low E. It’s beautiful. Training your ears to know this sound is more important than anything else. Once you know the sound, your fingers can follow.

Your sense of humor manages to come through your playing no matter what you’re doing.

I’ve always loved metal guitar, but some of the posturing that came along with it was just funny. Seeing Ritchie Blackmore frowning onstage, and looking like he’d rather be doing anything else other than being up there playing guitar made no sense to me. That’s why when Van Halen came out, not only did Eddie’s playing hit me, but his whole attitude resonated with me. When I saw them as a kid, it looked like there were no four guys on the planet having more fun than them, and I wanted to get as close to that vibe as possible. That was way more appealing to me than a group of guys pouting and looking miserable. I mean, it’s hard to be bitter when your job is playing guitar! I’m lucky. I haven’t had a non-musical job since I had to mow my parent’s lawn.