Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big Talks His Longtime Relationship With All Guitars (INTERVIEW)

“I was a rocker when I was four,” guitarist Paul Gilbert once told Metal Edge Magazine back in 1989. After being hailed as a speed demon – a la Marty Friedman and Jason Becker – during his time in Racer X, Gilbert was fresh off the release of his first album with Mr Big. Alongside Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin and Pat Torpey, the band was just getting their feet wet with “Addicted To That Rush,” which was having airplay on MTV. With album #2, Lean Into It in 1991, they would explode with the ballad “To Be With You.” Two albums later, Gilbert was on a solo path while Mr Big broke up and reformed with current Winery Dogs frontman Richie Kotzen before another hiatus. Gilbert would rejoin up with his former bandmates in the 2000’s, do some touring and release two more albums. Mr Big is now back again with a bold new record this summer titled Defying Gravity.

Gilbert, during the early years, was making a name for himself as a guitar innovator. He could play fast, he could play groove and he could play melodic. He was also mastering the technical side of the instrument in new mind-blowing ways. His first solo albums came out in the late 1990’s, beginning with King Of Clubs. He has played on tribute albums to Jimi Hendrix, KISS and Iron Maiden; has added his chops to records by Todd Rundgren, Neal Morse and Glenn Hughes; toured with the G4 Experience with Joe Satriani; and conducts a multitude of workshops and camps for aspiring guitar players. He even plays drums.

In his earliest days, Gilbert had his own share of struggles with the guitar, but his determination was strong and before he hit double-digits in age, he was playing like a pro. He went to LA to study at the Guitar Institute Of Technology and by the time he was nineteen, he was releasing Street Lethal with Racer X.

With the July 21st release of Defying Gravity and a tour to support it, Gilbert is excited to be back together with his Mr Big bandmates making music. “I know that any ideas I bring into the studio have to go through our long-established band filter, which means the songs all have to rock, have melody and put a grin on the faces of all of my bandmates to make the final cut,” Gilbert explained upon the announcement of new material. And working with their early days producer Kevin Elson brought about new inspiration with a nod to their past. “He’s got so much experience, history and pedigree,” added drummer Torpey. “And he’s also a really good friend, so the vibe in the studio was perfect.”

Recorded in six days, the tunes range from all-out rockers to power ballads with a message; from “Everybody Needs A Little Trouble” to “Be Kind” to their wink and a nod homage to their big hair days on “1992.”

With another leg of their tour starting up on the 17th in Brazil, the band will be away from the States for most of the rest of the year. “After this interview we’ll be so popular that we’ll be able to play anywhere,” Gilbert joked. But what was he doing on a day at home in Portland before he kicks back into rock star mode? “I just got some new pedals in the mail and I’m ready to try them out,” he told me with a laugh. “Today is a pretty good day.”

So while Gilbert was anticipating an afternoon nerding over guitar equipment, I spoke to him about his favorite instrument, his new music and what he loves most about being in Mr Big.

How did the new Mr. Big record get started? Who set it in motion?

I don’t know if I can place the blame on one individual. Actually, our manager is the same guy that manages me and he also manages the Winery Dogs [which features Billy Sheehan], so he sort of juggles all of our schedules so we can get all these things done. I’d just finished up doing a solo tour and I think the Winery Dogs had finished up so it seemed like a good time for a Mr Big record. Of course, Eric does his stuff so we just had to coordinate everything. I think the main thing was just to find a producer who could not only musically help us organize everything but also just get our schedules together. And we thought of using Kevin Elson, who was the producer we used in the old days, and that worked out great.

I guess the very first thing we did was we just got together to do some writing. I flew down to LA, I live in Portland now but I flew down to LA to see Billy and Pat and we did some writing sessions. We wrote on our own a bit and then we got together for a little less than a week where we were all in the same room recording the songs and we did a little bit of overdubbing. I think there were two solos that I didn’t finish. I had to go back out on the road doing my own stuff and I pulled some all-nighters where I’d get back from the gig and set up my studio in my hotel room and do some Mr Big solos. Fortunately, I got most of it done live in the studio with the band. Then after we were done with the sessions, Eric worked on the vocals a bit, we mixed it and that was it. But the majority of it we got done together. It just makes it easier because you can tell if it’s working and you can make changes rather than, if you overdub everything, it just takes so long and by the time you realize something is not right it’s sort of too late to change it. When everybody is live, you can make adjustments quickly, just steer the vehicle in the right direction.

Since it was done so quickly, is that how you like to do things or do you prefer to noodle around a little bit longer in the studio?

I like to do things quickly now, as in the old days, cause I had never really been in the studio when I was younger and it was sort of a fascinating new thing. I remember when digital started happening and it became less expensive to record at home, then I think everybody wanted to try it. So you’d spend months and months making an album and I’m glad I got to go through that process and see what it’s like, but in the end, it really comes out better when you play live rock & roll. The music is kind of built for that. Sometimes it’s nice making demos in the studio cause you can put together the harmony parts and you sort of use it as a writing tool. But for actual performance, it’s fun to just play.

What do you think is the biggest difference between this record and the very first record Mr. Big made?

Let’s see, well, the songs are different (laughs). But our producer is the same and the band is the same. Of course we have Matt Starr helping us out on drums a bit because Pat has some physical challenges now but Pat is still very much involved, not only on drums but also with singing. He’s always been our main harmony vocalist. When I think of differences between records, usually there is the, did we do it live or overdub it kind of thing; but besides that it’s just the songs themselves. I guess where we are as players as well. I think I’m really a different guitar player than I was in 1989. Actually, I like the way I sound now a lot more and I think I enjoy it more now. Back then I was doing my best. I think I was able to play some good things but after playing for decades and decades, I just feel I have more intention. I play what I hear more than what I see.

How do your fingers feel after that many years?

They feel great. The only problem I had was when we were doing the video for the song “Defying Gravity.” I was playing kind of an odd shaped guitar and I banged my hand on it by accident. I didn’t really notice it then but by the time we were finishing up the video my hand really started to hurt. I ended up going to the hospital and putting it into a splint. One of the doctors said I needed to get surgery. I was really worried about it. I went to get a second opinion and by this time a couple of days had gone by and my hand was feeling much better and I was being careful with it. I said, man, it doesn’t hurt anymore and I think it’s going to be okay. But I went to another doctor and he took x-rays and he said, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Go play.” And fortunately he’s been right. It has been better. It was a scare but fortunately it was only a few days in a splint and now I’m better.

Do you think it’s been your ears that have taken the biggest toll from the music that you play?

Oh yeah, my ears are terrible. But the surprising thing is that I still hear music really well. In fact, I think I hear the details of music better than I ever have. But it’s my equipment that’s damaged (laughs). My brain is better and that is actually the most important thing. If I have to listen to speech, it’s hard. If I had to figure out lyrics, that’d be rough. But hearing notes and chords and that sort of thing and just being more connected with my instrument, I think I’m actually better than before.

What can you tell us about the song “Mean To Me” which has some really interesting guitar parts in there.

The original inspiration for it was actually a Christina Aguilera song that I heard, “Genie In A Bottle.” The drum programming on her song reminded me of heavy metal, reminded me of when I used to play with Scott Travis in Racer X and he’d do these amazing double-bass patterns that were really complicated and cool. And to me, her drum programming almost sounded like that. And that surprised me cause you don’t usually hear heavy metal drumming in a pop song but that’s the way it struck me. So almost as a joke I started playing that song in my guitar clinics and I would say, like, “Look, you can take this drum pattern and sort of make it into a heavy metal guitar riff.” Then I realized although it may be humorous, it’s actually really cool. So I changed the notes to make my own song. I didn’t want to steal her chords and I may have changed the rhythm too but I sort of used that general idea of playing like a fast drum part but on the guitar, where the kick drum becomes something you play on the low string and then the snare drum and the cymbals become the high stabs and you sort of create more of a drum part on the guitar.

“Be Kind” has a universal message to it

“Be Kind” is a tune that I wrote and it was inspired by a lot of things but mostly as I get older I’m kind of more aware of things besides myself (laughs). Noticing the struggles that other people have in their lives, and also my own life now that I’ve been alive this long, I occasionally have difficulties as well. I don’t feel as indestructible as I did when I was twenty-two. So it makes me put myself in other people’s shoes and also where people understand what it might feel like in my shoes, if I’m down. So that’s the message of that song, to just sort of understand how other people feel. And at least for me, that was hard to do when I was younger. It’s easier to do now that I’ve had a lot of experiences and been all over the world and have had more time to live. And that was what I tried to put into a tune.

Are you playing the acoustic on “Damn, I’m In Love Again”?

Yeah, I had such a good time playing acoustic on that song. First of all, I love the song. Mr Big has a lot of complicated playing, and I enjoy that as well, but it’s nice with a song like that where I just don’t have to think about, worry about, solos or getting some complicated part right. I can just enjoy the music, listen to Eric sing. The question I get a lot is, do I feel like playing “To Be With You.” I love playing “To Be With You.” I love playing ballads. Actually, one of my favorite parts of being in Mr Big is the singing. I joined as the guitar player but one of the things I look forward to is when we all sing together and do harmonies together; and also I love hearing Eric sing and he sings that one great.

Did you start on an acoustic?

I always wanted to play electric but I couldn’t afford one when I was young. The only guitar I had for two years was an acoustic and I didn’t really play it acoustic style, and I still am not. I don’t really have special techniques for acoustic. I just sort of play electric on acoustic, with the exception of basic strumming. I don’t do a lot of finger-picking or that kind of thing. If I had to be like in a bluegrass band, I’d get kicked out immediately. They would never have me (laughs).

How would you describe your relationship with the acoustic guitar?

I really enjoy it. I probably enjoy it more than I ever had just because I think my melodic playing has become better and I don’t have to rely on playing fast quite as much. You know, it’s hard to play really fast on an acoustic guitar and also single notes don’t sound as good. The more notes you play, the louder it is, so your chord knowledge has to be better and that’s happened. If I need to play chords now I’m better at it than when I was twenty-two. But physically it’s a lot more demanding. It has a wrapped G string, which is frustrating because you can’t bend it. And that’s probably the biggest thing, not being able to bend the G string. It’s always sort of painful for me because I love bending so much.

When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the most difficult thing to get the hang of?

At the beginning, everything was difficult (laughs). At the beginning, you’re a total beginner so you don’t know how to do anything. I remember, one of the first things you learn is the power chord. It’s a two-note chord, you only need two fingers for it, it’s pretty easy to play, and it’s really useful. Once you learn it, you can play Black Sabbath, Ramones, all kinds of stuff, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest; it’s a really useful kind of chord. My uncle showed me the riff to “Whole Lotta Love,” the Led Zeppelin song, and it has a power chord in it, so that I could do; but then the other two notes looked like a power chord but it was kind of upside down, the shape of it on the guitar, and my fingers weren’t used to that. I remember really struggling, my fingers were used to this one shape and I have to flip it upside down. I mean, that’s a really basic thing but when you’re starting out, things like that, you really have to practice that.

You mentioned all the harmonies and singing with Mr Big, does that come from your love for the Beatles?

Yes, I think I really wanted to be a singer before I wanted to be a guitar player and I just didn’t like my voice that much. And I had nice long fingers so the guitar eventually became easy. When we formed, I don’t know if it was something we were really thinking about but we sort of just discovered as we played that everybody could sing. We sounded good singing our harmonies together. I remember when we did Lean Into It and we played the song “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind” for our manager and he looked at us and he said, “What are you guys going to do live? How are you going to pull this off?” And we said, “Well, we’ll sing it.” And he said, “You guys can’t sing like this.” And we said, “Yes, we can. That’s us.” He didn’t even believe us (laughs). But fortunately we proved to him that we could actually sing.

Tell us about your #1 guitar?

Oh that’s really changing all the time. I don’t know if I wear them out or I’m just interested in what guitars will inspire. Depending on how a guitar is set up and how it feels and how it sounds, it will really inspire you to play differently and to adapt to it different ways. I think the main thing I’ve discovered is that I just like big necks. I think they just sound good and they sustain better and they resonate more. I designed a guitar on Photoshop. At the time I called it a Reverse Iceman because it was an Ibanez Iceman that was upside down. The fan actually wrote to me after they saw me playing it and said, “You should call it the Fireman, cause fire is the opposite of ice.” I thought that was great and now it’s called the Fireman.

When they designed it, I wasn’t really specific about exactly how big it should be. I just said, make the neck big, like a vintage guitar, and they did, they made it really big and I loved it. It sounded great and they ended up making it a production model. Fans will bring it in for me to sign and I pick it up and play a few notes, and it just seems like that big neck is the secret. It could be the body shape too because the body has a lot of wood on it. It’s a big body and the headstock is big. I’m a tall person, I’m 6’3, so it fits me. It’s nice to have a guitar to scale for a person of my size.

I understand that you play drums. Does that help or have any influence on your guitar playing?

I play drums a lot. Whenever I was in bands as a teenager, as soon as the rehearsal was over and the drummer would leave, I would stay longer and hop on his drum kit and play. So over the years I’ve played a lot and I love it. I think I never really realized until I started teaching how important having the instincts for rhythm really is. I’d never really thought about it because that is something that always came naturally to me, on any instrument. I just felt the rhythm. I didn’t have to think about it. When I have students who don’t feel it, it’s my job as a teacher to figure out how to get them to be able to feel rhythm, to play rhythm and to communicate it through their guitars. Certainly drums are an instrument where rhythm is the main thing but it’s in everything. You can’t really get by without it no matter what instrument you play. I really think it comes from the body – being able to nod your head in time or to stomp your foot on the ground or clap, or to just hit something, hit the desk with your hand. It just comes from being able to move your body. It’s much harder to feel rhythm if you can’t move.

Who was the first real rock star you ever met?

That was probably Oz Fox from Stryper. When I first moved to LA, I was at a party and he was there. I actually wasn’t that familiar with them but I recognized him and talked to him a little bit. I remember asking him about his hair. You know, this was 1984 or 1985 and you had to have big hair then and I didn’t have big hair. I had small hair and I really wanted to know how he got his hair that big. And he told me. He said, “You condition the ends.” That helped. I started conditioning the ends and a few years later I had big hair too (laughs). It was a big thing back then.

For you, since you have all this music and some of it quite complicated, has any of your compositions been hard to transfer to the live stage?

The hardest ones are if you do too many overdubs. On my second solo album [Flying Dog], I did a Johann Christian Bach concerto [“Gilberto Concerto”] and I played all the instruments on guitar – I played the violin part, the harpsicord part, the cello part, the viola part. I remember I did a tour in Korea and the promoter pulled me aside and he was like, “People really want to hear you do that concerto.” And I said, “Well, that was a studio thing. It’s impossible to do it live.” And he was really mad at me. He was like, “We brought you over here expecting you to play your album and you’re not going to play that?” And I said, “It’s all overdubs.” I just sort of did it as a challenge to see if I could do it in the studio but I would need at least six guitar players and probably a year of practice cause it was just something I did in the studio. So that’s the toughest thing, is if you do too many overdubs it’s not something you can really do live.

What impresses you the most about Billy Sheehan?

Oh my goodness, he’s really physically powerful. He’s older than I am. I used to go see him when I was a teenager. I’d sneak into clubs and go watch him. The bass guitar, everything’s bigger about it. The strings are bigger, the neck is bigger and it takes more physical force to play it and Billy is a very forceful player. He doesn’t play with a light attack. He really plays hard. And to see what he does every night, I’m just blown away that he’s able to maintain that level of energy. I don’t think I can. But he’s got a unique voice on the instrument. Even when he’s playing something simple, you can still hear his hands, the way he squeezes a note out really has a unique sound to it.

I think he’s gotten better with age

And hopefully I have too (laughs)

Who came up with the song “1992” on the new album?

That’s actually my song and I came up with the title first, you know, thinking about getting ready for that Mr Big album and I was thinking about our glory days. I love it cause it’s the story of what we went through back then. It was an amazing time for us. It’s got lots of harmonies, which I like, plus I get the chance to do lots of flashy guitar stuff. It’s got a heavy groove. It was fun writing the lyrics and sort of remembering both the good and the bad and where we are now.

When you guys came out with Mr Big, did you feel any fan expectations, cause you had been in Racer X and Billy was coming off of David Lee Roth’s solo band?

Well, back then, there was no internet so the only way you’d really get a direct reaction from people about your music was at the shows. I remember being really excited, thinking, oh man, we’re going to go onstage and they’re going to love us! (laughs) And sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. At our own shows, of course, we were playing to people that came to see us so we’d always do well there. But we also did a lot of supporting other bands. We did about a year and a half on the road with the band Rush and whenever you’re the support band, the people, they don’t necessarily want to see you. They want to see the headliner. And Rush is definitely a band where fans are really into them. So that was a challenging tour. I was really happy to be on it but every night we’d go out and there’d be a lot of people crossing their arms and looking at us like, I don’t know, I hope Rush comes on soon (laughs). But by the end of our set, we’d have won them over and I think that was really good for us to play for people that maybe hadn’t heard the band before, didn’t know who we were, and we had to work extra hard to win them over.

It also made me realize that I thought we needed songs that were more sort of instantly catchy. It made me want to write in a more pop direction, even though I guess Rush is a progressive rock band. But somehow I felt that we needed to do more harmonies and more melodies and that happened on Lean Into It. We had “To Be With You,” “Just Take My Heart,” “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind,” and those songs really took us to another level.

Does Pat play the entire show with you guys?

We have Matt with us to do what Billy describes as “the heavy lifting.” Pat has got physical challenges now so Pat plays on like a percussion kit for most of the show and if he’s feeling up to it, he’ll get on the big kit and play. He’s always up there at least one song. And of course his singing is important too cause he’s always the main harmony voice in the band. So it’s great we can have him for all these things. He’s on the road with us and part of the band as he should be.


Group photo by William Hames

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