Mr. ‘Jerry Lee Lewis of the guitar’ Paul Gilbert was about to come over to Holland to do some promotional work, but our initial interview got cancelled at the very last minute. Paul was staying over in Japan, so his record company promised he would give me a call at 3.00 p.m. to do a phone interview. Paul called me prompt at 3.00 p.m., taking the time to answer my questions in a very patient and friendly manner. It was a great experience for me to get the chance to talk one-one-one to a musician who inspired me alot over the years. (part of this interview was printed in the may 2001 issue of Music Maker)
:: So what are you doing in Japan?
“In Japan.. I am having a great time in a big city! (laughs). I had to get out of the suburbs, it was driving me nuts. I live in Las Vegas, or in the suburbs of Las Vegas and it’s a very nice place to live, very beautiful, very quiet, very normal. But it doesn’t really inspire Rock ‘n’ Roll so I had to take a break. I think I also needed a break as I was very busy doing two records last year in my studio there. So I just needed to get some new scenery and some new inspiration.”
:: Why do you choose to live in Las Vegas over a place like L.A. , with all the guitar players and the music happening there?
“Well, I lived in Los Angeles for about ten years and then there was a giant earthquake (laughter) so I decided to look at some other places. I might go back to L.A. sometime, I really like it, I like big cities in general, they’re exciting to me.”
:: So it’s Japan for now?
“Yeah, I’m gonna try to learn some Japanese, I’m having a great time, I got so many friends here. I’ve seen a million concerts. Ibanez guitars, which is the company that I endorse, lets me use their studio at their office. So every day I go down and write new songs and make demos. When I get back I’ll have enough stuff to start a new record. At the same time when I get back we might start doing some Racer X live shows, too.”
:: Have you ever been to Amsterdam?
“I have, it’s fantastic. Right now, I’m really enjoying my time in Japan, I love Japan, but also being in a foreign big city is amazing, I’m really inspired to try some other big cities in the future. It’s a great adventure to be able to go out and go to a place where there’s people speaking the language and there’s different culture, try all sorts of different food. So maybe it’ll be Amsterdam or some other big city in Europe.”
:: Maybe we can go back in time a little bit, can you tell me more what happened with Mr. Big?
“To me, the best period of Mr. Big was when we did the ‘Lean Into It’ album. I thought we had some really cool songs at that time and good chemistry in the band, for writing together. And certainly, we did some amazing tours. We got to go all over the world. But as time went on, we weren’t writing together as much, it was getting harder to get along. It just wasn’t an inspiring musical situation for me or for anybody. So I decided to leave and do my solo thing instead. And I had so much more fun doing that. Then I got a call from the Racer X guys, and I thought well, now that I’m a solo guy I really have the freedom to do anything. So if I want to do a project with another band, it’s not a problem and I don’t have to ask anybody. So I did that and that was fun, so now I’m trying sort of to do both things, solo albums and Racer X. I really enjoy both.”
:: They’re both pretty different animals, one is more of a pop thing, while the other one’s more classic rock oriented.
“At the same time, hopefully there’s enough people like me who like a lot of different kinds of music. And that’s why I enjoy doing both so much. I really enjoy playing crazy heavy metal guitar and I enjoy good pop melodies, lots of vocal harmonies. And actually, on my solo album, there’s plenty of crazy guitar too. If I’m playing on it, it’s kind of unavoidable. Some people might be more into the heavy stuff, other might be more into the pop stuff. In my case, it’s too bad, they get both!”
:: Were you still in touch with the Racer X guys during the Mr. Big days?
“Yeah, absolutely! When we were together in the ’80’s, we had a great time back then. To me, when I joined Mr. Big, it was a really hard decision. I knew that Mr. Big would be a great band and I knew that everybody was a great musician. But the guys in Racer X were all my best friends. I really enjoyed the music back then, too. It’s a hard decision to change over. At the same time, when I left Mr. Big, it was a very easy decision. But at that time I knew exactly what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.”
:: You have to write a lot of tunes for your own project and for Racer X. Do you use guitars or keyboards for composition?
” I’ll probably use the guitar more.I really like piano and it’s a great sounding instrument. But to me.. I’m a lot better guitar player, so if I’m writing I don’t have to think about playing and I have more freedom to think about new melodies and the lyrics and that sort of a thing. With the piano, I keep making mistakes (laughs) I have to start over a lot of times. But actually, if you look at ‘Alligator Farm’ songs like ‘Koto Girl’, I wrote that on piano, and ‘Rosalinda Told Me’ I wrote that on piano. I’m trying to think if there’s any other ones.. I think most of the other ones are guitar songs.”
:: What’s that guitar on ‘Godzilla’ on the Racer X ‘Superheroes’ album? It’s really low. Sounds like a 7 string or a baritone guitar.
“It’s a 6 string baritone, that’s right. It’s a great riff. I love the original Blue Oyster Cult version. But I think we did make it a little heavier by tuning it down. At the same time we made it low enough for Jeff to actually sing it up an octave. The guitars are heavier and the vocals are screamier, so it’s pretty intense.”
:: I’ve heard and read alot in the past how you developed your grueling picking technique. One thing I haven’t heard is how you maintain it? Do you have some daily exercises or do you have to play for a certain amount of time to get ready for a tour?
“I play all the time anyway, so there’s no real specific exercises to do. But I would say that the most important thing to really make it work is that I have to get into a real situation. By that I mean, you know, with the band, playing loud, standing up. It’s really a whole different energy level when you’re playing like that. You can be very comfortable and very good in a more controlled situation. But when you get out to the real world, it usually takes about maybe a week to adjust to it. It’s almost really hard to prepare for it, rather than just doing it. Actually, I had a live album called ‘Beehive Live’ and to me it was a miracle that it turned out well, because we recorded the first two shows of the tour. And usually any tour that I do, doesn’t start sounding good until about a week-and. Luckily we just rehearsed a bunch, we got lucky and it just came out great.”
:: You’re performing a lot in Japan, and less and less in the USA. How do you feel about the current state of the record industry in the US, the Guitar Mags, MTV and all?
” (loud laughter) It’s pretty funny! I don’t even know what to think. I think most of the new music I discover is not so much from the radio or from MTV, but from asking my musician friends and people that I know. Just saying, what are you listening to, and what’s cool. There’s is some good new stuff out there. I heard a new Lenny Kravitz song I really liked. Although he came out ten years ago, he’s not necessarely that new an artist. I think the stuff that Racer X does is hard.. A lot of people won’t take that seriously because it’s heavy metal. That’s too bad, it’s kind of silly making a judgement just because of the style. To me, in every kind of music, there’s good stuff.”
:: Then there’s the record companies that seem to concentrate on one kind of music: the stuff that’s hot at the moment. The big music magazines like Guitar World and Guitar Player that used to have some ‘real’ players in there, in the traditional sense of the word, now mainly focus on those ‘flavour of the month’ players. Young readers get to think Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins is the best guitar player in the world.
“(laughter) I mean, I imagine that it must be.. you know, the only reason it’s happening is because people are interested in Billy Corgan. So, although he may not have the best technique, he must be doing something that really communicates with people. You know, it’s confusing for me, because a lot of the stuff that’s popular, I don’t really understand. My musical taste is different and has always been different from what’s been popular. Sometimes we agree, one of my favorite bands of all time is the Beatles, they certainly were popular. But nowadays, there’s certainly a lot of bands that are huge that I just don’t understand. So.. I don’t know what to do. To me, the best thing to do is just try to find the bands I like and listen to them and tell people about them. In this interview, I’d like to mention ‘The Wildhearts’ and their singer, ‘Ginger’. Please check em out.”
:: American band?
“Actually, they’re from England.”
:: What’s you life like at home in Vegas, when you don’t have to tour? Do you spend a lot of time writing, playing..?
“This last year was completely insane and completely great! The albums that I’ve done in the past, when I was with Mr. Big, we would do a studio album every two years. This last year I made two albums in one year, so there’s a lot more creativity on my part, especially because in Mr. Big we would share in songwriting, so I wouldn’t have to write the whole album myself. Where with Alligator farm I wrote just about everything and with Racer X I wrote a lot of it. And of course, I’m producing both records and do the engineering for the Racer X records, it’s a lot of work. But at the same time it’s work that I really have fun doing. I think a lot of it, I probably couldn’t have done it if my sister hadn’t come out and started cooking for us (laughs) Thanks goodness she came out or we all would have starved! But it was amazing. I think the reason I was able to do I think was because I had these amazing dead lines from my Japanese record company, they kept saying ‘we want you to finnish the record by..’ and then they’d give me this date and I’d just think ‘ there’s no way I can do it by then. But then I started getting excited about it and I would just plan out how to do it and get it done. So I really learned a lot about how to make records faster. And I was surprised that I actually liked the results better. To me, having to get something done quickly, sort of speeds up your whole metabolism, it sort of makes you think faster. And I think it really adds an energy to the whole project.”
:: Tell me about your singing. Is it something you have always done? I first heard your vocals in Mr. Big.
“I think the very first band I was ever in, I was probably about 11 years old, I remember singing Beatles songs back then and old Steve Miller songs, so it’s something I’ve always liked to do. I think for my solo albums, the biggest thing was just learning more about my voice and how to make it sound good.
:: Did you ever take any lessons to learn how to use and maintain your voice?
“Yeah, I took some lessons, but I think most of what I learned was not so much as a singer, but more as a producer. To really know about things like finding the right key for the song to make my voice sound the best. Knowing what vocal style I can sing..just a matter of trying a lot of different things and figuring out what works for my voice the best. As a teenager, all I listened to at that time was heavy metal. But I couldn’t really sing heavy metal, so I thought I couldn’t sing. But later on, I started getting back into the Beatles, to Elvis Costello and Cheap Ttrick and I realized that that kind of music is much easier to sing and I can actually…it sounds OK when I do that. So as long as I keep the vocal melodies more in the style of Cheap Trick or The Beatles, then I’m OK.”
:: Let’s talk guitar. What about your guitar setup? Same stuff, Laney amps?
“Yeah, it’s very simple. I use a Laney GH-100 L. Or a combo that’s called a VC-50. That’s both great. And I use a little 2 12″ cabinet that Laney makes and sometimes I’ll use some pedals. But most of the time it’s just straight in with a chord. I use Ibanez guitars, I have been using those for years. I think most of the new technology and equipment is more in the studio. I’m sort of becoming the recording engineer too. I just have a simple guitar setup, but the studio is much more complicated, that’s where all my concentration on the gear is!”
:: I have seen you play lots of different Ibanez guitars. Is there anything special you look for in a guitar?
“The thing that I really like about Ibanez guitars is they’re really easy to play. A lot of the really technical stuff I do, a lot of the fast things or a lot of the crazy techniques are really much easier to play on an Ibanez guitar. Just because the action is low and just all the parts are put together really well. Sound wise, I just look for something that resonates, although a lot of the sound comes from the amp as well. But if you pick a guitar and it has a nice resonation to it.. it’s almost hard to describe, the more time you spend playing guitar, the more you can just pick up a guitar and feel it.”
:: Your instructional videos are entertaining and educative at the same time. Do you have any plans for new videos? How many are there out there?
” I got three that I think are available everywhere. Then I did two more that are available in Japan. Which is a lot in the instructional video business! (laughs) I think that’s why I haven’t done one in a while. I think if I was gonna do one I would probably have to go back to GIT and spend some time teaching. Because to me, doing an instructional video.. it’s one thing to be able to play but to be able to communicate how to play is a whole other skill. I think that the reason that I was able to do it well on my videos was because I spent about two and a half years teaching at GIT. And I really learned how to teach things there, so..if I was gonna do another one, I really would have to go back. Living from all these tours and albums, I really haven’t had time. But I would like to, it would be fun. I enjoy teaching.”
:: The price for attending GIT really went up last years. Last time I walked through the school there were barely any students there.
“Well I guess it’s good because you can get the rehearsal rooms easier. (laughs) When I first put Racer X together we discovered that it was very expensive to rehearse in Los Angeles. I was a student at the time at GIT so we’d rehearse there. The school was crowded and you had to wait in line to sign up for the rooms. And maybe, if you did that, you could get one or two rehearsals in a week. And we wanted to rehearse every day so.. we would actually get up in the morning around six o’ clock to get to school before anybody else and get these rehearsal rooms before classes started. And when I look back at it now, I just can’t believe it. Most musician’s don’t like to get up early in the morning. For six months, we would get up every day at six in the morning to rehearse. It’s like being in the army!”
:: Do you have any touring plans? Can we catch you live in Europe sometime soon?
“Oh, I really hope so. When I get back from Japan we’re gonna start rehearsing and try to do some shows in the States. I know there’s some great festivals for hardrock and heavy metal in Europe during the summer. I hope for some of those and maybe do headlining shows in between. Just keep looking back at my website. The minute I know something, I’ll announce it.”