Whammy Bar Pyrotechnics

“Flames used to shoot out of my guitar,” says Brad Gillis. Yes, he’s speaking literally. “I found a finger-mounted flash pot at this magic shop in Seattle back in the ’80s, and I attached it to the back of my headstock. At Night Ranger shows, during ‘Eddie’s Comin’ Out Tonight,’ I’d lean back, let that thing go, and a big ball of fire would shoot in the air.”
Publish date:
Updated on

On the surface, such flashy guitar pyrotechnics might seem the perfect metaphor for the Brad Gillis guitar style. After all, when most people think of flashy ’80s guitar solos, it isn’t long before Gillis’ leads on “Sister Christian,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” and other Night Ranger hits start replaying in their minds.

The problem with this metaphor is that Gillis’ playing most certainly isn’t all flash.

As a quick visit to guitarplayertv.com (where you can watch video of this interview) will prove, the fierce tone and raw emotion with which Gillis delivers every note he plays are just two reminders that Gillis is actually one of the tastiest players ever to go crazy with the bar. It’s not overstating matters to say that when it comes to rock guitarists who have crafted a singular style around fulcrum-based tremolo systems (i.e., Fender or Floyd Rose trems) and defined the bar’s capabilities for generations to come, Gillis’ name deserves mention on the short list that includes Beck, Van Halen, and other undisputed titans of the tremolo.

Brad’s Main Squeeze

Before we, ahem, dive into some of Gillis’ famous whammy bar licks, let’s check out the guitar on which he’s delivered most of them over the years—the ’62 Stratocaster he used on every Night Ranger album, as well as with Ozzy Osbourne in the early ’80s (both on tour and on most of the live album Speak of the Devil) when he took over 6-string duties after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads. Why? Because floating trem setup has a crucial role in whether bar maneuvers sink or swim.

“This is my girl,” says Gillis, cradling the weathered, heavily modded Strat. “This is my Bubba; the guitar I got sanded down in a box back in 1978. I was into project guitars back then, so I had a body shop paint it with some leftover orange paint I had used on my Datsun 240Z. You can see the grey primer they used showing through in places. Then, I added an extra [22nd] fret. Around 1981, I installed a Floyd Rose locking tremolo system—the third one ever built, made by Floyd himself, in his garage. Eddie Van Halen got number one, Neal Schon got number two, and I got this one. I traded a Les Paul Custom for this Floyd and a fret job and it was well worth it.”

Gillis prefers original Floyds because they don’t have the one thing most locking-trem users couldn’t live without: fine tuners. “I have never needed them,” say Gillis. “I actually find they get in the way when I’m palm-muting the strings. And even without them, I stay in tune. When I put on a new set of strings, I just stretch ’em out really well—I bend ’em while going crazy with the bar for a few minutes—tune up, clamp the nut, and maybe repeat the process once or twice. Once I’ve done that, I can usually get through an entire set without having to retune.

“The other reason I like original handmade Floyds is that they’re a little tougher and more solid than the later ones—I think their steel was cast harder—so I’ve been searching and seizing original Floyds like mad. I now probably have five or six of the first ten units Floyd ever made. One of them is on my custom Paul Reed Smith 513, which I use all the time on tour. Another is on the black Les Paul I played on ‘Paranoid’ on Speak of the Devil.”

Springs, Strings & Things

Gillis’ locking-trem guitars and stock Stratocasters have two things in common: S.I.T. strings gauged .0105-.050 (“It took me a while to get used to these, because for years I used thinner [.009-.042] sets, but man, the tone’s that much fatter, and the harmonics are that much deeper”) and floating bridges.

“Springs have a lot to do with how a floating bridge behaves,” reminds Gillis. “You have to figure out how much sway you want the bridge to have. If the springs are too old and wimpy, or if you have too few of them, the guitar will warble. Warble can be cool, but not if it happens when you’re just playing normally or barely bump into your guitar. You have to figure out a happy medium, and that will involve deciding how many springs the guitar needs, and how much tension to create by tightening the claw that holds the springs in the back.”

On Gillis’ main Strat, that happy medium is four springs and a bridge set so that yanking up on the bar causes the low E string to rise as much as a perfect fourth in pitch—a crucial setup element for the guy who singlehandedly, um, raised the bar on up-trem licks. “When Eddie Van Halen came out, he was doing dive bombs. I decided to be a little different and pull up,” says Gillis, who keeps his tremolo arm tight enough that it doesn’t drift away when he lets go of it or flicks it to get his trademark warble sound. “My pinky’s always wrapped around that bar.”

Vocal Sounds

The problem with fretting-hand vibrato—vibrato such as that applied to the note in Ex. 1—is that pitch-wise, the vibrato has nowhere to go but up (sharp). True, players with strong, dry fretting fingers, can make some notes go down slightly in pitch by literally pushing the string toward the bridge, but if you’re bar-less, your best bet for a more vocal vibrato sound is to bend into the note from a half- or a whole-step below, hold the bent note, and then apply vibrato [Ex. 2].

“But even then, you’re usually only bending up to and down from that note,” says Gillis. “When you hit a single note and use a bar to do vibrato, it goes below and above the note [assuming your bridge is floating]. It allows you to roll around the note—to circle it—like a singer. Plus,” adds Gillis, turning up the volume on his guitar so his bridge-position Seymour Duncan JB humbucker can explode through his studio monitors as he plays Ex. 3, “bar vibrato just has that bite.”

The famous Brad Gillis flash starts to show up in slightly more advanced bar acrobatics such as Ex. 4. Here, Gillis performs an ordinary oblique “blues” bend by fretting the second string’s 15th-fret D with his 4th finger while bending the third string’s14th-fret A up a whole-step to B with his 3rd finger. Then, in the second half of the measure—while holding the bend—he pulls the bar up slowly. “It sounds cool,” says Gillis, “because the bar bends the strings different amounts. On my guitar, if I pull enough that the high note rises a whole-step to E, the lower note goes up a full minor third to D.”

Harmonics and Sustain

Though Gillis certainly came of age during the era of shred, he doesn’t play enough notes per measure to be labeled a shredder. (“I never was a speed player,” he admits.) If anything, the Gillis style is based around long, held notes, wide vibrato, soaring bends, and a rich, sustaining guitar sound.

“When you hit a note, especially a harmonic, if you don’t have enough sustain and distortion, it dies,” says Gillis, who gets massive sustain these days via a 100-watt Soldano Decatone head, a ’70s Marshall “basket-weave” 4x12 cabinet sporting well broken-in 25-watt Celestion Greenbacks, and the aforementioned Duncan humbucker. “The ‘Sister Christian’ solo was me playing in the control room with long cord out to my Boogie Mark IIC, which was cranked up in the live room and playing back through big, huge monitors in the control room, super loudly. I had a feedback loop going and was able to carry those notes.”

A good sustain test is to strike the two 9th-fret harmonics in Ex. 5 (“These work great in the key of B major,” says Gillis) and see how long you can get them to sing by applying some tasty bar vibrato. A better test would be scooping into the 12th-fret harmonic on the G string in Ex. 6 and trying to get that note to wail. An even tougher test may be Gillis’ “siren” lick in Ex 7.

“This one takes place entirely on the G string,” says Gillis. “Bring the bar down, pick the 12th-fret harmonic, scoop up into the note. Then, while the note is still ringing, touch the 5th fret so that harmonic sounds, and dive back down. Next, repeat the process, but using the 7th- and 3rd-fret harmonics. Fun!”

The best sustain test, though, is one that is also a test of your bar-intonation abilities, and it comes in the form of the two-measure lick in Ex. 8. Pick only the first pitch (the D harmonic at the 7th fret of the third string) and use the bar to bend your way through the rest of the lick’s notes. Play this none-too-serious example reasonably in tune and you may, like Gillis, burst out laughing (he really cracks himself up with this one), because an annoyingly catchy melody from a famous cat food commercial will fill the air.

Ghostly Noises

To get absolutely scary with bar wiggle, press the vibrato arm way down, hit a harmonic, and, while ascending very slowly, jiggle the bar in a spastic but controlled manner to effect a creepy, quivering vibrato throughout your gradual ascent. “That’s my horror sound,” says Gillis. “It’s a fine art [laughs]. I do that kind of thing on ‘Touch of Madness.’ Back in the early ’80s, when Ronnie James Dio did the ‘Stars’ song and video for charity, he had Yngwie Malmsteen, George Lynch, Vivian Campbell, and all these other monster players there, and everybody was trading off little four- or eight-bar solos. There I was with all these great guitarists around me doing their thing, and I thought, ‘How am I possibly going to stand out?’ So I did a whole solo using only the bar, doing that horror/‘Madness’ stuff.”

It worked. Spin the song, and it is obvious when ol’ Gilrock leaps into the mix.

Multiple Harmonics

The quick way to double or triple your harmonic pleasure is to, of course, play two or three harmonics simultaneously, as Gillis does regularly with the trio of harmonics that recur in “(You Can Still) Rock in America” [Ex. 9]. “Make sure when you pick these, you don’t mute them. Let ’em wail together. I love multiple harmonics. It’s good to figure out which harmonics work in which keys. Here are some that work well in E [Ex. 10]. I like to use the bar on those same harmonics to pull them down at the 7th fret and up at the 3rd fret [Ex. 11].”

Flick That Stick

“Trem gurgle,” “bar warble”—whatever you call it, it’s a weird sound, and if you’ve listened to much Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, or Brad Gillis, you’ve certainly heard the fluttery texture. A must-know sonic kill stroke for any bar ninja, the freaky timbre is easy to generate on most floating-bridge tremolo systems. Just sound a note by hammering it or pulling off to it while flicking the tip of the bar once with your picking hand. (You may find that a karate chop to the guitar body generates gurgle just as effectively.) Your guitar will briefly sound similar to a person singing through a mouthful of Listerine. One of the most famous examples of this gargly sound effect is when Gillis’ applies it to each note in the quarter-note triplets he plays at the end of his solo on “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me”—triplets like the ones that start in the second half of the first complete measure of Ex. 12.

“Pull off to the first note of the warble section to get it going,” advises Gillis, who sounds all the other warble notes via slurs (pulls or hammers) as well. “To end the solo, I scoop into the harmonic at the 3rd fret of the G string and put some major wiggle”—i.e., insanely wide vibrato—“on it using the bar. It was really great to hear other people emulating the bar flicker move throughout the years. I’ve heard a lot of big players playing it. Bar vibrato has got its own thing. And I’ve kind of been able to establish my own style using the bar. People hear these sounds and think it’s me. Hopefully it is. Ha!”

A True “FrankenStrat”

Repurposed from a paper milling machine and installed on the face of Brad Gillis’ ’62 Fender Stratocaster is a small brass plaque that appropriately cautions: The sound level of this unit at the operator’s ears could reach 100dBa, therefore safety ear protection may be required. Most guitarists wouldn’t dare drill into a vintage Strat to attach a small novelty item such as this, but Gillis’ main squeeze has undergone more surgery than the Bride of Frankenstein. First of all, like several of Gillis’ guitars—including his flagship touring machine, his custom-built Paul Reed Smith 513—Gillis’ beloved Strat has cavities routed into its heavy ash body for an onboard Nady UB-4 wireless transmitter (which broadcasts to a Nady UHF-4 receiver) and dual
9-volt batteries. The huge scar that wraps around much of the Strat’s backside is a painful reminder of bygone eras—decades when wireless gear often employed low frequencies and, consequently, Gillis’ Strat required long antennae embedded in the body.

For a while, Gillis’ main ride had an additional transmitter onboard. “My brother was into electronics, so he put a wireless switching system in my guitar that could turn my lead channel, delay, or chorus off or on from anywhere on stage,” says Gillis, who typically tours with the 513, a Fernandes Brad Gillis model, and a red Fender Strat customized by Brad Kelley to resemble his now-retired ’62 Strat. “The big steel switch on the ’62 is a locking aircraft switch that turns on the Nady. The smaller switches were used to control a Sustainiac Sustainer I had installed—I’ll probably use them again for something else soon. There’s also a small Sabine tuner mounted above the pickups.”

Unlike many locking trem users, though, Gillis has not installed one of those little screw-on hex-wrench holders on the back of the guitar’s headstock. “I do keep a wrench there, but it stays attached by Velcro,” says Gillis. “I’d never drill into this guitar [laughs].”

Ménage à Treize

Brad Gillis’ typical week involves writing and producing music in his home studio for ESPN and other clients, doing fly-away dates with Night Ranger on weekends, and spending his free moments—and free dollars—on craigslist.org expanding his vast collection of guitars, a 6-string harem that has recently reached 100 instruments. We caught the Northern California guitar hero in his living room rolling around on the carpet with 13 of his favorite fretted mistresses. Shown here (clockwise from left) are a two-tone sunburst 1957 Fender Stratocaster, a ’90s reissue Gibson Elvis Presley model J-200, a ’70s Gibson Les Paul Custom (“creamed out from white to yellow—loving it”), a 1982 Gibson Flying V (“It’s a’58/’59-era Korina reissue”), a 1952 Gibson ES-175D, a 1967 Fender Coronado II Antigua (“My 100th guitar!”), a late-’60s Gibson Les Paul Custom with built-in wireless and original Floyd Rose (“I played it all through high school, with Rubicon, and at the end of each Ozzy show”), an ice-blue-metallic 1965 Fender Stratocaster with built-in wireless, a 1965 three-tone sunburst Stratocaster, a 1986 Rickenbacker 360, a 1968 pink paisley Fender Telecaster, a three-bolt 1970 Fender Stratocaster Antigua, and (held) Gillis’ multi-platinum hit maker, his war-torn 1962 Fender Stratocaster.

New PRS, Old Floyd

Gillis’ custom Paul Reed Smith 513 has an original Floyd Rose tremolo system (note the lack of fine tuners) and custom routing that allows the bridge to float parallel to the body. All 513s have both 5-way and 3-way selectors that allow the guitar to achieve 13 different sounds with five single-coil pickups. The switch nearest the tone control activates an onboard Nady wireless transmitter.

Where’s Jeff?

As Night Ranger fans would expect, the band’s forthcoming album, Hole in the Sun [VH1 Classic Records] features plenty of lead guitar from Jeff Watson, the explosive axslinger whose innovative, pianistic solos perfectly complemented the lyrical leads of Brad Gillis and helped the duo earn a reputation as one of the most fearsome 6-string tag teams of the ’80s and beyond. (It also helped Watson and Gillis land the cover of GP in December 1984.) Watson can also be seen on the big screen in his first film role—he plays a musician in the 2007 Disney hit Enchanted. One place you won’t find Watson, though, is on tour with Night Ranger, who currently have either Joel Hoekstra or Reb Beach captaining Watson’s side of the stage.

“It took a while to get used to having somebody else standing next to me doing twin harmonies, because Jeff was my partner in crime for so many years,” says Gillis, who, like Watson and the rest the band, isn’t willing to say much publicly about Watson’s recent departure. “The split has been really tough.”

After speaking with both camps, the lesson appears to be the typical one bands learn when they allow themselves to become fractured to this degree: No matter what the final outcome is, no one profits from the situation except the attorneys involved.