The teacher turned pupil – and now Paul Gilbert is back with a solo album and a new-found appreciation of the meaning of sound. Interview by Martyn Casserly
You only need to be around Paul Gilbert for a few minutes to realise that this is a guy who genuinely loves music. His enthusiasm for it is evident in the way he speaks about the bands he listens to, the techniques he’s been working on, and his latest chord discoveries. It’s refreshing to meet someone who after nearly 30 years of playing professionally is still so fascinated by his chosen instrument and the potential that lies within it.
This inquisitive nature has paid off handsomely in his latest album, Vibrato, which incorporates a new found enthrallment with jazz and blues into the regular metal and technical rock staples of a Gilbert production. The genesis of this project was an environment in which Paul has long been a regular fixture – the classroom – but on this occasion he surrendered the role of teacher and instead became a student.
‘A couple of years ago I started taking guitar lessons again,’ begins Gilbert, ‘because I realised there were a bunch of songs that I really liked, and I had no idea what the chords were – and that to me is unacceptable. I contacted some teachers who know more chords than I do and I took these songs to them and said, “What’s going on here? You gotta help me get through this!” I came out the other end not with just a bunch of chords but also with good soloing concepts and all kinds of things. I really recommend taking lessons, regardless of how advanced you might be in a certain area. There’s always so much more to learn.’
As well as exploring new musical influences, Gilbert also adopted a rather unusual literary source for the lyrics to the opening track Enemies. ‘That was actually inspired by a book that I wrote when I was about four years old,’ he laughs. ‘I couldn’t spell or even write, so what I would do is draw pictures and ask my mom to write the text, which I’d dictate. I asked her about it recently, and she said “Well, you were very thorough about what you wanted…”
‘One of the things I’d written was “It’s happy when you get to ride in a racing car, and one of your bad, bad, bad, bad, bad enemies is in jail”. This made me think… firstly, how many enemies does a four-year old have? And second of all, the fact that it’s happy when misfortune falls on your enemies… that’s not really considered to be an admirable quality. It’s like a dark side of humanity – the four-year old unedited self!’
The song features a heavy-sounding main guitar part thickened up by an octave pedal which Gilbert spent some time researching. ‘I scoured the internet for what appeared to be the coolest octave pedal I could find. It’s made by FoxRox and it’s called an Octron. Actually I use the low octave on it, but the high octave is exceptional as well. To make it even bigger I ran that into two MXR Phase 90s sent out to two different amps, and put the speed knobs slightly different to each other so it gives it this big wide stereo effect. That whole song has only one guitar track, but it’s pretty huge.’
The main riff also has a vibrato part, but as Gilbert hasn’t used a whammy bar for years it required a trip to the Ibanez custom shop with one of his signature guitars.
Gilbert on stage at Marshall’s huge 50th Anniversary show at Wembley Arena September 2012
‘I like the feel of the stock Strat whammy bar,’ he explains, ‘and I’ve got a Robin Trower signature Strat that I was messing about with – I’m a huge Robin Trower fan – that had locking tuners on it. So I took a PGM401 guitar to Ibanez and they put some of their locking tuners on it, and the Wilkinson Gotoh bridge that’s on the Andy Timmons model. It’s awesome. It stays in tune great, it sounds great, but there’s no fine-tuners, no locking nut… it just has the feel of a stock tremolo. It was really inspirational.’
Another standout track on the new album is Put It On The Char, which sounds to us like the theme tune to a brilliant ’70s cop series that we definitely want to watch. ‘That song was a really good example of me enjoying writing for a change,’ says Paul, ‘and using some of those chords that I learned from working through these tunes. Probably the biggest one for expanding my chord vocabulary was Chaka Khan’s version of the jazz standard Night In Tunisia. I think she changed the title of it to The Melody Lingers On. I’m really not knowledgeable when it comes to jazz standards, but I’ve been listening to Chaka Khan since the ’80s. The chords in that song are amazing, whoever was the producer was just going crazy with them. Especially the last three – I actually had to figure them out again as I was learning them for the tour. I just get all squinty when I play those chords, I love them so much.’
Alongside the original compositions there are also covers of songs by Yes, Dave Brubeck and Muddy Waters, all of which helped fuel Gilbert’s renewed interest in jazz and blues.
‘Metal people tend to have the philosophy – I know I did – that blues is just like metal, but slower… but it’s not,’ he points out. ‘Having to play over a basic blues change – even a I, IV, V – the chord has notes that work for it and don’t work for the other ones. Of course you can play pentatonic, then bend, and kind of hope, but I got sick of myself doing that. I sat down and thought I’m going to methodically go through and figure out what are the best notes for the I chord, what are the ones for the IV chord, and the V chord… and why is that?
‘I think it was Robben Ford who used the term “informed”. He likes to have an informed note choice. I feel almost embarrassed about it. I’ve played for over three decades and it’s really only been recently that it’s occurred to me to figure out what the right notes are. In a way, being from the shred school of guitar players, you can get around that problem by whipping through a scale quickly, because as long as you choose the right scale all the notes are okay and if you land on one good one you’re fine. But the deeper you go, the more these seven notes in the scale start to be of different importance. The third becomes more powerful than the fourth, and each interval starts to have its own character. I really enjoy that, but it’s a whole different skill set. You have to come up with different fingerings, different ways of bending. It’s a whole different vocabulary and I love it but at first it’s actually quite intimidating to slow down.’
Fans of Paul’s blistering runs and finger-defying arpeggios shouldn’t abandon all hope, though. ‘I’m happy to play fast,’ Gilbert reassures us. ‘It’s an emotion that I like. The athleticism is a cool element of music, but it wears out its welcome after a while. I want to be able to have more than one dimension to my playing. Playing fast is one dimension, but it’s not the only dimension. I’ll put on an old Dio or Van Halen album and there’s a certain intensity about that volume and power that I don’t think you’ll get from listening to a Steely Dan song. But at the same time I love what you do get from a Steely Dan song – those interesting chords, the great composition, great harmonies – it’s just a different kind of emotion. The kind of emotions I crave now as a 45-year old are different from those I craved when I was 12. I’ve really enjoyed getting older. I’m just happy with where my path is going.’
One element that might be affecting Gilbert’s choice of musical direction is the revelation that years of playing high-volume metal in arenas around the world has had a debilitating effect on his body.
‘I’ve suffered a lot of high-end hearing loss,’ Paul notes. ‘The first place we really noticed that was with speech. If I decide to go to the bank and the teller is a woman – I say that because women’s voices tend to have higher frequencies – that can be really rough. I travel internationally a lot, so foreign languages can be really tough. But guitars are fine, I have the best hearing aid in the world – Marshall amps!’
The condition of Gilbert’s hearing is quite pronounced, meaning that if he wants to have a conversation with someone it needs to be in a quiet room with the person facing him. He isn’t interested in anyone’s sympathy, though, and takes a typically optimistic view of his situation.
‘If someone had told me when I was 16 years old you’re going to lose a lot of your hearing if you play this style of music, I would have had to say “You know what? I don’t care. I love this music so much I’ve gotta do it.” So I don’t spend much time regretting things, because I really have enjoyed what I’ve done. Now I’m trying to play music that has some more dynamics to it and maybe a little less fuzz, I think that’ll help.
‘In the ’90s there was a type of music that just never got quiet. One of my favourite bands in the world is the Wildhearts, and I spent countless hours cranking up a song called I Wanna Go Where The People Go in my car. That song is never quiet, it’s just walls of guitar going constantly, and I fashioned a lot of my own music after that style. I think being loud is okay, but it’s nice to have the kind of music where it comes down once in a while and has holes and spaces. That can not only save your hearing, but actually be good for the music. So that’s what I’m trying to do… save the remnants of my hearing by being more dynamic.’