Behind the Curtain: Guitar Wisdom from Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big and Racer X

Behind the Curtain: Guitar Wisdom from Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big and Racer X

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say Paul Gilbert is obsessed with the sound of the electric guitar. Mad about it. Driven by it. A guitar freak. Absolutely addicted to it. Tone cold fever. The fact that he has called recent solo albums Fuzz Universe and Silence Followed by a Deafening Roar is simply further proof of his insane pursuit of the perfect guitar tone. Even his guitar picks depict tone pots and the word Tone is written boldly across them. From his time with Racer X when he was blazing up and down an Ibanez fretboard in overdriven bliss to the various Mr. Big and solo instrumental records, Gilbert has been transfixed by the kinds of sounds you could coax from six sires and a plank of wood.

I have interviewed Paul Gilbert several times dating all the way back to the Mr. Big days, but I had never met him. These were all phone conversations and though he never failed to amaze and amuse me with a quirky sense of humor and the ability to poke fun at himself, I wanted to see what the man was like in person.

That chance finally came about a year ago when I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Paul at his private recording space in North Hollywood. When I catch up to the six-string scientist, I am confronted by exactly the type of sonic laboratory I’d expect someone of Gilbert’s obsessive nature to be working in. The room is hidden deep inside an industrial complex in North Hollywood, an anonymous-looking building with no advertisements or banners on the exterior walls to reveal who or what is happening inside. The brick façade tells us nothing.

I drive down a long alley and park at the very rear. I check my bag for all the necessary gear—Sony Walkman Professional Stereo Cassette-Corder WM-D6C, double-AA Duracell batteries, and my computer printout of questions—and after verifying everything is there, I exit the car. I knock on the door and wait for Paul to answer. No Paul. I knock again and wait and still no one comes. There is a bit of frustration but Gilbert just doesn’t seem like the type of person who would schedule an interview and not show up so I tentatively push on the door. It opens. I thought I had been pounding on the guitarist’s private door but indeed as I walk in, I realize I am in a common lounge area. There is a couch in one corner and in front of it a table piled with recording magazines. A coffee maker sits in a corner.

There is a hallway lined with several doors. Paul hasn’t given me a room number and so I have no idea which one is his. Walking slowly down the corridor, I stop in front of the first door. I put my ear up to the flat surface to see if I can hear anything inside. There is nothing. The next two rooms are similarly silent. I come to the last door and can see that it is slightly ajar. Moving like a soldier in the brush, I stealthily move forward. The crack is wide enough that I can see inside and what I catch a glimpse of is a very tall, lean, lanky fellow moving about the room. Instantly, I know this is Paul Gilbert.

I know this because I’ve seen Paul play live several times and he is a very, very tall guy. What other 6’4” dude could it be tinkering inside a smallish, rehearsal/recording room on a beautiful and sunny day when everyone else is outside walking around and drinking coffee? I know I’ve got my man. I knock gently as I push open the door. Paul turns, sees me and walks over from what he is doing amidst some pile of guitar cables and stomp boxes. He extends his hand—all bony fingers—and says hello. As this is happening, I glance around the space and it tells me everything. The room is small and festooned with enough gear to wet the dreams of anybody who ever laid fingers across a fretboard. Lined up across the back wall are a pair  of half-stack Marshalls and against the right wall stand a phalanx of guitars—mainly Ibanezes—a squad of sonic soldiers dutifully awaiting commands from General Gilbert. There is a recording desk with racks full of high-end compressors, limiters, and pre-amps and strewn all about the room are pedalboards, boxes full of pedals, pedals lying on the floor and pedals stacked on top of each other like audio acrobats. Pedals on parade. Pedals to the metal. Puddles of pedals. There is enough gear here to do serious damage when a guitar is plugged into it all, and especially when the man on the other side of the stick possesses boundary-breaking technique and an off-the wall, outside the lines imagination capable of breathing life into anything he touches.

Paul Gilbert is that obsessed pedal pusher. He has had a lot of time to think about and experiment with guitar sounds. When he was 15 years old, he was already tearing up the local Greensburg, Pennsylvania club circuit with a cover band called Tau Zero while simultaneously playing in multiple other neighborhood groups. “The ultimate rock guitar sound has emotional vibrato, chunky rhythms, groovy riffs, face-melting solos and phase-shifted chords,” Gilbert will later tell me when we sit for our interview. “You have to have the ability to control the guitar when it’s clean or distorted. I use lots of string bending and I use my guitar as a voice. You have to have a good balance of clarity and fuzz.”

Armed with that philosophy, Gilbert formed Racer X in 1985. Then just 19 years old, he mixed the twin heavy metal guitars reminiscent of Judas Priest with the neo-classical sturm und drang of Yngwie Malmsteen to create a collection of songs that stand to this day as examples of six-string speed, technique, and oh yes, tone. Guitar World even cited “Scarified” [from the second Racer X album, Second Heat] in their list of the Fifty Fastest Guitarists of All Time. As much as Paul was thankful for the mention, he wasn’t sure he deserved it. “I realize I can easily be working at Burger King and for me just being in the business at all is stunning good luck. Certainly to be mentioned with other great players is a huge honor but as far as ‘Scarified,’ it’s funny. The original studio recording was really all right but I was kinda unsatisfied with it ‘cause I didn’t think it was clean enough. I listened to a lot of Yngwie at that time and to me Yngwie was just the king of really, really spot-on, accurate playing. I thought ‘Scarified’ came out a little bit sloppier than what my standard was. So whenever I listen to it, it’s got a good vibe and it rocks but I wished I’d had time to hook up more takes and clean it up a little bit.”

Gilbert really is that type of reluctant hero. You will never see him on social media bashing anybody else much less talking about himself. As he wanders around his tone cave talking about the myriad pedals and how he gets his sounds, you notice a slightly nerdish quality about him but in the very coolest and most noble way. He is soft-spoken and dresses casually. He is tall and lanky and if you didn’t know any better, you might think he’s a basketball player or track athlete.

But when he picks up a guitar, a jolt of electricity seems to run through him and he is transformed into this animated figure. You watch his fingers splayed over the fretboard and you can’t help but sit there slack-jawed as he dances up and down the neck like a mouse on meth. It is hard to concentrate on what he’s saying because you are dazzled by long, thin fingers that look like tree branches scurrying across the frets at breakneck speeds.

Paul Gilbert is 49 and has been playing the guitar for over four decades. Yet he still delights in discovering new sounds and new ways of making his instrument sing. He is still amazed by it all. “Technique absolutely did not come easily to me,” he says. “I had to practice a lot but I could feel the practice working and I would get really excited about how I could sound in the future. I used to look forward to summer vacations from school, because I could put in full days of practicing. And again, my main motivation was that I could really feel that I was getting better. I think the only thing that did come easily was that I could hear rhythms. I remember playing the riff to ‘Hey Bulldog’ by the Beatles and none of my friends could play it. I must have been around 10 years old.

It wasn’t hard to play technically but the rhythm had a swing and some syncopations that were tricky if you couldn’t hear them. I had listened to the song a lot growing up so it felt natural to me. My friends could put their fingers in the right place but they couldn’t get the groove to flow. That was the first time that I felt like I pulled ahead. But there were always guys who were faster than me. I was must more patient, so I eventually became fast too. The most exciting day of my guitar life was when I learned how to bend a string. I can’t remember exactly how it happened but I immediately recognized that it sounded like Jimmy Page’s solo in the breakdown of ‘Heartbreaker.’ And for the first time, my guitar playing sounded real to me.”

When Paul is finished playing and talking, he sets his Ibanez Fireman in the rack. He walks me around the room and points to various pedals he really digs. He tells me this is actually where most of his upcoming solo album will be recorded—I Can Destroy—and that he has been working on riffs and various ideas.

The Marshalls are switched off and guitars set back in racks.  He locks the door behind him and tells me he is headed for lunch at the neighborhood Mexican restaurant. I ask him if I can buy him lunch and he vigorously accepts the invitation. As we walk down the street, it is hard to keep up with him.  We’re seated and the waitress brings over tortilla chips and salsa. Paul grabs a chip with an astonishingly long thumb and first finger and brings the morsel to his lips. The waitress returns and takes our order. She has seen Gilbert before—he comes here often—but doesn’t know who he is. Just a straight-looking cat dressed in t-shirt and jeans munching on some chips. Little does she know…

As we’re munching on delicious burritos and tacos, I ask him what makes his playing so special. What is the secret of Paul Gilbert? He finishes devouring a tortilla chip and tells me, “I actually started with just three elements: I used my middle finger, the lowest string, and only upstrokes for about two years. It was really slow-going, but I got pretty good at upstrokes and that actually helped me a lot later on. Seriously, so much of my technique came from learning songs and playing in bands. If you learn a lot of Beatles, Led Zeppelin, early Van Halen, Rush, Pat Travers, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, U.F.O., KISS, Aerosmith, Ramones, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Spice Girls, Sex Pistols, and some Bach piano pieces, that will definitely put you on a similar road to the one I’ve traveled so far.”

Even if you spent the next thousand years learning every Beatles, Zep and Van Halen riff ever recorded, you’d never sound like Paul Gilbert. The great guitar player is about so much more than just tone or technique. It is about imagination and insight and being able to draw outside the lines. It’s all about being able to draw your own picture and there is no greater artist playing today than Paul Gilbert. Maybe it’s the nerd in him, that guitar geek that can’t go a day without touching his instrument.

I don’t know what it is, but the string bean sitting across from me in a Mexican restaurant certainly does.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.