Paul Gilbert is best known for his work in the greatly successful band Mr. Big. However, Gilbert is also one of the leading guitar virtuosos out there, with some of the scariest technique known to man. Since parting ways with Mr. Big in 1996, he has reunited with his former metal band Racer X and launched a successful solo career as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Look out for his first all-instrumental album coming soon. For more info on Paul and his music, check out www.paulgilbert.com.
IC: What are your current projects?
PG: I’m starting work on my first all-instrumental guitar album. I think it’s something that people have wanted to hear from me for a long time, and finally I’m going to give it to them!
IC: How and when did you get started with playing the guitar?
PG: I took some lessons when I was 6, but the teacher was really boring. He made me buy the Mel Bay “Easy Way A” book and tried to teach me to read. I took about 6 lessons and quit. I started taking drum lessons then. It was the “Haskell Harr” drum method. More reading! I quit again. I finally started playing by ear when I was 9.
My technique was weird because I didn’t know what I was doing, but at least I could try to learn songs I liked. I did take some lessons a couple years later, and that really helped me learn the basic pentatonic scales, barre chords, and a couple of simple techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs. But mostly I learned from copying songs from records, playing with cover bands, and just spending a lot of time messing around with the guitar. Also, when I was 17 I went to G.I.T. in Hollywood. That was really helpful for learning to apply music theory to the guitar fingerboard. And I was really inspired by all the great teachers and students.
IC: Who were your influences when you were starting out? Have they changed over the years?
PG: My parents had a lot of Beatles and Stones records, plus a lot of classical stuff. My uncle turned me on to Hendrix and Bowie when I was really young. And I liked the music on TV, which at that time was the Osmond Brothers and The Jackson 5. Soon after that, I started getting into heavier bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Aerosmith, and Ted Nugent. Then Van Halen came out and changed everything!
IC: Could you give us a brief background of your career? What are some highlights and low points for you?
PG: My first band that made records was Racer X. We started in the mid-80’s in Los Angeles. It was a really exciting time. Everybody had giant hair, and it was cool to play fast, insane guitar. We became successful in the L.A. scene really quickly with no help from outside management, record labels, or anyone. It felt really good to have done it OURSELVES. Unfortunately, we never found a manager or record label that we liked, and the ones we liked didn’t like us!
So after a few years, I left the band to form Mr. Big with Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin, and Pat Torpey. Almost immediately we had a big record deal, a powerful manager, and a tour as the support band for RUSH. It was a lot of dreams coming true for me. And of course our second album “Lean Into It” had the #1 hit “To Be With You” on it, and that opened up so many doors to us, both in the states and internationally. Around the same time we were becoming HUGE in Japan.
There were always great things about Mr. Big, but eventually we weren’t getting along so well, and the fun had gone out of it, so I left to start a solo career and to try singing as well as guitar playing. I’ve been doing that for almost 10 years now.I released a ton of solo CDs as well as reunited Racer X to satisfy my continuing love for killer 80’s style heavy metal. During all of this I’ve done a lot of teaching both in guitar clinics and at private lessons at G.I.T. and Musician’s Institute in Japan. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with Ibanez guitars for 20 years and have them make my own signature model, the “PGM”.
IC: How did you become a member of Mr. Big? Could you tell us what eventually happened with the band?
PG: I had jammed with Billy Sheehan a few times, and when he left the David Lee Roth band, he called me to see if I wanted to form a band. I did! I mentioned some of our history in the last answer, but basically I left to do my solo albums, Richie Kotzen replaced me for a couple of albums and then the band decided to call it quits.
IC: I understand you were still involved with Racer X when you were asked to join Mr. Big. What was the transition like for you?
PG: It was really hard on a personal level because the guys in Racer X were my best friends. I felt really bad leaving them and fortunately they seem to have forgiven me because we are still great friends now! Musically, I just put really thick strings on my guitar so my vibrato wouldn’t be so crazy and I would play more melodically. I also started concentrating on songwriting a lot more. But this was something that I wanted to do anyway, and one of the reasons I felt good about joining a band like Mr. Big.
IC: Your picking hand is one of the strongest and most precise ones out there. How did you develop your picking technique? What do you do nowadays to maintain it?
PG: A lot students of mine want to learn how to pick fast, and usually they AREN’T READY. By this, I mean that the LEFT hand has to have the ability to lock up very accurately with the right hand. For the first 8 years that I played guitar, my fast playing was very left-hand driven. So adding the right hand in came very naturally… after having prepared the left hand for 8 years! Basically my best general advice is to avoid playing sloppy and out-of-synch. Use your ears, be patient, and practice a lot!
IC: What would a typical practice session be like for you when you were developing as a guitar player?
PG: I was always wanted to be in a band. When I was a kid, there weren’t drum machines and digital recorders, so if you wanted to sound like a rock band, you couldn’t assemble it with overdubs, you actually had to find musicians and PLAY TOGETHER AT THE SAME TIME. My band would rehearse 4 or 5 days a week, and this really was the best practice I could ever have. And it was a blast!
IC: Is there a particular area of your playing that you’re still working on?
PG: Lots of areas. I’m still not very good at sweep picking. I avoid it if possible, but occasionally the notes I want can only be played that way, so I have to try it. Also, I’m still discovering so many new places to put my fingers on the neck. With music, it’s an endless journey. Thank goodness! I love it.
IC: Can you tell us in detail what kind of equipment you use?
PG: An Ibanez guitar. New or old. A Laney amp. NEW. And whatever pedals seem like fun. Usually an ADA Flanger. I love Ernie Ball strings. 9’s on most of my guitars, and 10’s on my vintage Ibanez’s that have a slightly shorter scale. DiMarzio pickups. Tone Zones or PAF Pro’s on my newer Ibanez’s. DiMarzio PAF Classics on my vintage Ibanez’s. The DiMarzio cables sound really good. And lately I’ve been enjoying .73 Tortex picks. They are a lot thinner than I used in the past, but they allow me to dig in to the string a bit more.
IC: A great deal of your business now takes place in Japan. How do you feel about the current state of the industry in the US? How does this compare to Japan?
PG: I don’t have time to notice. I’m too busy cranking out the tunes! Japan is great, but I recently did some shows in Asia, South America, Europe, and the states, and those shows were great too!
IC: You have several excellent instructional videos available. Will there be any new ones coming out soon?
PG: I don’t have plans for any new ones at the moment. I still like the old ones, but I apologize for the hair styles and bad puns.
IC: Do you have plans for an upcoming US tour? Will you be doing any clinics this year?
PG: I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is I’ve got to kick ass on this instrumental record and make sure it’s listenable too. If you know what I mean…
IC: Any advice you could give to aspiring musicians here at Berklee College of Music?
PG: I wish I had time to go back to school! Just take advantage of where you are and learn everything you can. Organize your life to have as few distractions as possible and keep your hands moving on the guitar for hours every day. Play things that you LIKE, so that this experience is enjoyable and you want to keep doing it. Find other musicians to play with. Make recordings that I will want to listen to. Because then I can enjoy more music!