||PAUL GILBERT TALKS CLARINETS, CHAKA KHAN, BRIAN MAY'S VIBRATO AND MUCH MORE
Ever since he burst onto the Mmetal scene thirty years ago, Paul Gilbert was soon racing for the title of the Mr Big of the New Wave of American Metal Shredders with a succession of fret-melting releases. Garnering mainstream success with the really Big band that followed empowered a richly diverse solo career that sees him return to London in support of his excellent latest solo release, 'I Can Destroy'.
MetalTalk's Andy Rawll caught up with Paul before the show to find out more. Read on for tales of clarinets, Chaka Khan, destructive tendencies, Pat Travers and Brian May's vibrato.
What inspired the latest selection of songs and the reversion to vocal and song-driven pieces rather than a selection of instrumentals and songs?
"Various things: one was having a really excellent producer in Kevin Shirley. From having worked with him before, I've never worked with a producer who is so insistent and such a purist about recording live and doing few or any overdubs.
"Then I thought I've got to put together a band as it's not going to be a situation where I can record to a click track and overdub everything later. Two people came to mind, my friends Freddie Nelson and Tony Spinner, who both sing really well, both fantastic singers and great guitar players. A particular sonic picture started to form where we had vocal harmonies and three guitar parts guitar and we could do it all live.
"I did most of the writing sessions with just Freddie and Tony sat down with three guitars and worked out all the harmonies. Later, we brought in Thomas Lang on drums and on bass was Kevin Chown who actually hadn't worked with before, but he was perfect. In the end, we did it really quickly because that what happens when you've got the right people."
So was there much preparation needed before you went to the studio to record the album?
"Well, we did some rehearsal, but the main thing that I needed to prepare was the general structure of the songs. As long as you know that you've got the basic map, it's not something when you've got to spend weeks and weeks learning our parts, because everyone plays them well already. For example, certain songs, like 'One Woman Too Many' needed barely any rehearsal at all. We just put it together in the studio about an hour before we recorded it and that turned out to be one of my favourite tracks."
One of the things I heard about is that you went on a bit of a jazz odyssey to expand your musical vocabulary?
"Well jazz means different things to different people. I'm not an expert, I didn't grow up listening to it, so my initial exposure was based the bands that were jazz-inspired. We'd be listening to Steely Dan on the radio and that would plant some of some of those chords in my ear. When I went to school a lot of the teachers were jazz players so it continued to open my ears to that type of sound, yet it's such a wide genre and there are so many eras of it.
"The thing that really made me get into it recently was I wanted to become a better blues guitar player and a better blue improviser. There's a lot of blues guitar players that I love but they tend to play like guitar players just because of the way that the instrument is laid out. Anybody that plays blues guitar can't help but pull from a certain vocabulary and it's a great sound and I love it, but I wanted to find out what else there was.
"I started researching and searching for material but a lot of the stuff was fast tempo and I didn't want that, I wanted to start slow. I'm a student of the stuff and I needed to go at a slower pace. I found these traditional horn and clarinet players from the 50s and 60s, Johnny Hodges from Duke Ellington's band was one of my favourites, who'd play these beautiful slow blues tunes. It wasn't like Coltrane with weird and crazy unusual notes, it was really just straight-ahead textbook blues melodies. They were different to the way that guitar players would play and that just opened up the way I saw the fingerboard.
"I would learn the melodies and think that's not where my fingers normally go at all. I had to revisualise in order to play this, but I can still use the stuff I had and that will still work in certain spots but it really allowed me to work through the chord changes a lot better as a musician. As a rock and Heavy Metal musician a lot of the music that I grew up with didn't really have any real changes. The chords were all in the same key centre, so you'd just learn one scale and blow through it and so long as you turn your ears one way while you're doing it, you're OK.
"With this stuff, you discover that the note that works for this chord doesn't work for the next chord and so you have to remap the fretboard as you go and make the transitions smooth so that it sounds like you're singing it. I really wish that I'd studied that a long time ago, but it really gives me a hobby now that I've really got my work cut out for it. It's so much fun, every day it gets a little better and a little more comfortable and it's just a joy to have that increased knowledge of my instrument."
In the early years were you aware or have appreciation of the guys that were more jazz and blues influenced, like Robben Ford and Eric Johnson?
"I really hadn't listened to that type of music very much. The first place where my ears tended to notice it was on the legendary live album 'Go For What You Know' with Pat Travers and Pat Thrall. It was a heavy, loud and intense record, including Tommy Aldridge on drums who of course went on to play with Ozzy and the guitar playing was sophisticated harmonically in the blues kind of way. A lot of what Pat Thrall was doing had some fusion elements in it and when I worked some of that out and I was like, 'wow that's different from what I'd play in an Iron Maiden song'. I mean I love the Iron Maiden stuff too, but it's just different notes and I didn't know the notes that Pat Thrall was playing, so I had to work them out.
"That was how it began for me and it just seems that there were certain jazz tunes that caught my ear over the years. There was a unbelievable remake of the song 'Night In Tunisia', retitled 'Melody Still Lingers On' that Chaka Khan sang upon. It's not improvised at all, it's very worked out in a kind of Steely Dan style, but with really sophisticated jazz chords. I actually started taking lessons again because my ear couldn't pick out what was going on. It was so cool to take the music apart and look under the hood and I was just at the level that I couldn't quite do it yet, but I did understand it and started to get into it, so that was really fun."
Tell me about the title 'I Can Destroy' - for me there's almost a contradiction there because you're far from someone that destroys, you're all about growth and learning and expanding knowledge, yet the title of the lead track is about destruction?
"The title came from something completely unmusical. I'm a new father and at the time my boy was about a year old and anything that I would give to him, he would just rip it apart. I thought, it's not because he's angry or even that he wants things to be destroyed, he's just trying to figure out what it is. It's just his way of researching, but at the same time he is ripping stuff up and there's something that goes with the spirit of rock'n'roll about that. Going way back to Pete Townshend smashing guitars, there's a certain amount of anger in rock'n'roll that I like, in a way that I miss when I hear traditional jazz. It's just that anger and cranking your amp up to eleven, so I always liked that element and I think that the album title expresses that."
On the album, I think it must be a bonus track, you've got a Ted Nugent cover, 'Great White Buffalo'. How did that come about?
"Well, it's a song about buffalo. I think it might be the only one. It's just got a great guitar riff. It's real chunky and chugga-chugga-chugga and he plays it better than me. I did my best but Ted's version is still the best one. His technique on it is amazing. I don't know how he gets it to be so chunky. It really is an amazing guitar performance, but hopefully my version will lead some people to listen to his and there's a combination of my genuine love for the sound he's getting out of his guitar and my amusement that there's a rock song about the buffalo."
The other thing I love about you as a musician is the fact that the fun and the joy that you exude. I reckon you're almost working on a trilogy of anti-songs, starting with 'I'm Not Addicted' and 'I'm Not The One (That Wants To Be With You)'.
"I'd glad you picked out 'I'm Not Addicted' and you found the other anti-song. You can have fun with the anti-theme, 'I Am Not The Walrus'. Actually, I love both of those original songs. 'To Be With You', I genuinely enjoy it every time, I enjoy the singing it, the solo's cool, the chord changes are great, being a Beatles fan.
I just love the twist in that. I was thinking you have 'Get Out Of My Yard' but for me you're not a 'get out of my yard' kind of guy. You're more 'come into my yard'?
"That's my default setting, but like anyone you get your ups and your downs and there's things you'll get frustrated about and when you do you write songs like 'Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal'. So it's nice to have an art form where you can express anything."
I also get the sense that you've got a strong desire to share your knowledge and your experience through the guitar camps and the online schools. How are those going and what's planned?
"Well I really want rock guitar to survive and the way that a lot of modern, athletic rock players play is not the direction that I like in terms of the basic voice of the guitar. From the era when I grew up in the 60s and 70s, it was all about what Hendrix came up with, where he's got a really strong vibrato and he's basically a blues guy that cranked up his amp and got a distortion pedal and learnt how to harness the feedback machine. If you just set the guitar down on a stand and put the volume up with that rig it just turns into a fire-breathing noise monster and you have to do an enormous amount of technique just to not make any sound and play one note and not have all the other five strings feedback and make horrible noises.
"That's what I grew up doing. I wanted to have vibrato like Brian May and Mick Ralphs and Mike Ronson and Jimmy Page and Ace Frehley and Gary Moore - the guys that could really shake a string around with authority and that to me was almost everything. That was the sound of a professional, that was the voice of the guitar and because I'd loved it so much I just kept practicing and then I got into the fast thing and Eddie Van Halen came out, who by the way also has a stunning vibrato.
"However, from about 1985 that approach started to become less important in certain kinds of metal; Metallica was more about this percussive rhythm than it was about having this beautiful vibrato like Brian May. That's great if the thing that you desire is to have this chunky percussive sound, where it's almost like drums but with a note attached to it. It's really not a right or a wrong, it's just very subjective because if you grow up in a particular era, you will tend to love what was around when you were thirteen-years-old.
"I was thirteen in 1980, so that's when that Pat Travers record came out and that's when the second or third Van Halen album came out and AC/DC and early Metal like Iron Maiden. Those guys have great vibrato and really had a beautiful voice on their guitar, also Judas Priest, fantastic vibrato. It was just, to me, starting in the early 80s and continuing, there was a big fork in the road where I started to get less and less into what was going on in Metal and more and more into pop music and chords and more sophisticated chords, chords that had more than a root and fifth in them. When I say sophisticated, that doesn't mean that music has to be sophisticated. I still love the Ramones and there are no solos, it's just following what you like."
I think that first time that I saw you play solo was around the time of 'King Of Clubs' in 1998. I'd heard great things about it and what struck me, and I was very familiar with your playing, was to hear the diversity of the material, the song-based structure and the fun aspect, particularly when I came to see you on the associated tour. That was an eye opener.
"Well at that time, I was trying to figure out who I was as a singer and to be able to sing a whole set live. At the time, I was really excited because the ADAT had just come out so you could overdub all day in your home studio. I could punch-in vocals all day, three notes at a time, and sample something that wasn't real and even then all I was still not as good as Robin Zander on a bad day."
You weren't creating the bulldog rhapsody or anything?
"No, but I wanted to be Robin Zander, I wanted to be Elvis Costello and I had to try, so that was my attempt, which is not the worst thing in the world. Since then I've just discovered much more about the instrument of my voice. Everyone's got a unique voice and you just have to sing with it enough where you realise what it will do, what it won't do and where not to go and it's nice to know my limitations a little more now."
Coming right up to date with this tour, how's the tour been going? I understand that there's the three of you playing on this tour?
"Yes, it's fantastic, we worked out a medley of over thirty songs and its spans my whole career. It starts with the first Racer X album, goes all the way until now and covers something from just about every record and I chose the stuff in terms of interesting guitar. It's all instrumental, and so if there was one interesting guitar riff from a record, that's the one I'd pick.
"It's unbelievably challenging to play because it's forty minutes of really the most demanding of guitar playing of the last thirty years of my career and I don't get through it without making a least a couple of clams, but we've played it enough now where it's pretty close, we're pretty close to getting it right and it's intense. Sometimes, I don't know if it's too much for the audience, like 'I can't take it anymore!' because it really is about forty minutes of non-stop music.
"After that we play a lot of the new material. The band is great. Thomas Lang is a ridiculous player and Kevin, the bass player on the record has another gig, so he wasn't able to make it and he recommended Pete Griffin - no he's not the Family Guy, he's his own Pete Griffin, the bass player."
In terms of your set-up, you've got your fingers, your callouses, your strings, beyond that what the essential part of your rig that really complements your sound?
"The essential part is to have a tone that hopefully I can crank-up a little that won't be painful. I've spent a lot of time working on turning down the treble and turning up the bass, so that the high string is not so piercing that it's going to take your head off. Besides that, having a pedal where I can choose between having so much distortion where I can use a lighter touch for the faster stuff and then being able to turn that off and having the balance of enough distortion to rock, but clean enough that I can actually stop and leave the volume control on the guitar up and not howl and feedback.
"As an improviser, it actually gives me the option to stop and for the longest time I never did that, as I would always have so much distortion that stopping was not an option. If you did it would just howl and scream. That's really nice and again it comes listening to the blues where you do pause - that's a great luxury to have that and you got to find that spot where you can still rock out and sustain, but you have that option of stopping."
So in terms of this tour cycle, I'm aware that 'I Can Destroy' came out in Japan first and came out to wider territories more recently so are you already thinking about what comes next and what ideas have you got?
"I don't think about it that much, the main thing that I do is just overall try to become a better musician so that whatever comes next, I'm ready for it. To me the thing I'm absolutely passionate about is becoming a better improviser and to become an improviser it's helpful to choose your battles both harmonically and rhythmically. You think what kind of grooves am I going to be playing to, what type of dynamics, is it going to be loud, is it going to be soft and what's going on harmonically?
"Is it Iron Maiden type stuff when it's all natural minor or is it blues where you get more dominant seventh chords or are there changes? Those are the kind of things and I love all that stuff. In general, I choose a few battles, every day I'm figuring out new ways to get around the fretboard both harmonically and rhythmically and every night there's a lot of improvisation, so that's a great help."
Paul Gilbert Bigs It Up At The Garage
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