Paul Gilbert gives his guitar a voice

Playing music is – or at least should be – all about questioning yourself. And being famous the world over as one of the very best with one given instrument doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to learn or discover. Despite all his years of experience and his status as a guitar hero, Mr. Big’s guitarist Paul Gilbert (who also gives guitar lessons online) is still awed by his instrument and is not done exploring it from every angle. His new solo album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, mainly made up of covers, proves just that and is the result of an experiment: the guitarist was indeed trying to replicate the expressiveness of a singer’s voice with his instrument, which helped him rediscover it.

This is the main subject (but not the only one, since we also talked about Mr. Big) of the following interview, where we tried to understand the motivation behind this album and everything the project entails. Through his answers, Paul Gilbert could open the eyes – or rather the ears – of many a guitarist, or more generally, many a musician

« The more I teach, the more I really think that most guitar teaching is really pretty bad [laughs]. »

Radio Metal: You have a new solo album out called Stone Pushing Uphill and features no less than eight cover songs. How did this album end up as such? What was your idea?

Paul Gilbert (guitar) : My main Idea is just that I want to sound good. The first song I wrote was “Purple Without All The Red” which is sort of a quiet jazzy blues song and I liked it, but I thought: “I need something more powerful”. So I decided to inspire myself. I tried “Working For The Weekend”, a Loverboy song, and I had such a good time playing that, playing the vocal line and the guitar. I was just so happy about that, that I thought “I’m gonna try another one of those”, so I did “Back In The Saddle”. This was so much fun, I just kept going, I was just having such a good time. I found that if I’m having a good time, the music usually turns out pretty good. So finally, by the end of it, I started to think: “Ok, I’d better write a couple things myself”. That’s when I wrote “Shock Absorber” and I’ve worked on “Stone Pushing Uphill” for a while, also of course “Purple Without All The Red”. The first song that I wrote was the last song that I recorded for the album. Since I had enough rock, I could finally put one softer song on it and it fitted ok.

What do playing cover songs represent to you? Could this actually be a good way to learn more as a musician and artist?

That’s always been my teacher. That’s how I discovered music, by listening to it. Of course I have ideas in my head sometimes and I’ve written a lot of songs. But I’m always a fan, I love The Beatles, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and all the music that I grew up with, the music from the 60’s and 70’s. It’s very fun to play that stuff. And in a way, in rock music and pop music, people are expected to write their own music. That’s sort of unique because in other styles of music like classical music, no one expects great violin players to write their own music. They play Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, they play the classics, the music that everyone knows. The same thing in Jazz, a lot of jazz musicians just play the jazz standards: “Autumn Leaves”, “Take The A Train”, “Night In Tunisia”. I think in rock and pop people are much more expected to play original music and I like that too, but sometimes I really enjoy playing covers. Obviously in this album I did.

And what were the criteria to pick the songs?

I just had to enjoy them. And since I was playing the vocal line and the guitar, it helped to have melodies with a lot of movement. A song like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is perfect for that, because there are so much movement in the melody [he sings the melody]. It’s really moving so much… Actually one of my favorite songs by The Beatles is a song called “Help”, and that would be very difficult to cover because the melody [singing] “When I was younger, so much younger than today” That doesn’t move very much. Actually the chords move underneath the melody but the melody doesn’t move so much. The thing that makes it interesting is John Lennon’s vocal tone and the lyrics and how it works with the chords. But that would be much more challenging to make that works, because I don’t have words, I only have notes. So I intended to pick melodies that had a lot of motion.

You said about this album that you wanted to let your guitar sing. But is this actually why you’ve been putting your own vocals aside since Get Out Of My Yard – except for Vibrato that was half instrumental -, to try to do the singing with your guitar instead of with your voice?

What’s funny is that Get Out Of My Yard is almost the exact opposite of this new album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man. On Get Out Of My Yard I tried really hard not to play any melody. The reason is, when I was a kid there was a kind of music called musac. Musac is what you would hear in the elevators or in the background of restaurants, or if you go shopping your hear musac in the background. It’s the instrumental version of pop songs, usually played by a violin or a flute or something. It was horrible, it really ruined the song. And I got the idea that if you play a vocal melody on another instrument it destroys the song. For many years I believed that [Chuckles]. But more recently I’ve started to experiment with it. Of course there are great guitar player like Jeff Beck or recently Andy Timmons, or that old Beatles Sergent Pepper album with the melodies on guitar. So I started to change my idea, maybe it’s possible. So I started trying more and more. And the more I tried, the more I liked what I was doing with my guitar playing. When I was younger I tried to play guitar like a harpsichord. I would play very fast, almost like classical lines [singing lines], not so much vibrato. But with vocals it’s much more about the expression; it’s so many different techniques and it’s a different way of approaching the guitar. It took me a long time to really try it and really succeed with it. With Get Out Of My Yard I didn’t even try. It was like “no melodies!” and now it’s like “all melodies!”

Since you seem to be very attracted to the vocals and the vocal lines, why didn’t you actually choose to develop your own vocals instead of going instrumental?

My voice is pretty limited; I’ve sung a lot so I know my voice pretty well. It’s almost like having a guitar, but only with the lowest two strings. When there’s a high note, it’s just not there. I have a very limited vocal range and most pop and rock music have a higher vocal range. I tried but it’s so physically impossible for me. And with the guitar, it’s was so fun on this record. I could cover Steven Tyler, I could cover Sting, and people who sing really high. All the notes are there on my guitar. I never had to struggle to get a note. With my voice I couldn’t cover the songs unless I really changed the key, and they wouldn’t really feel the same. With the guitar those limitations are gone, while with my voice there’s a lot of limitations.

« The thing I found with students is that they really need to improve their ears the most. That’s what needs the most work, being able to listen. »

What does it take for a guitar player to get that expressivity that a voice can have?

A lot of listening. I pick songs that I’ve been listening to for a long time. And I really listen to the details and try to find ways to get them. It’s almost always difficult to do. An example would be “Working For The Weekend”, the chorus is just two notes [singing the chorus]: “Everybody’s working for the weekend”, with one other note at the end. But those two notes, if you just play them like a harpsichord [singing an harpsichord imitation of the melody], it’s terrible. The emotion is gone. It’s sounds very like a robot. You have to find ways the slide. I used a couple of different strings and each time I would play it, the texture would be a little different. I spent a day on those two notes, just exploring the guitar, trying to find the best way to play it. That really opens up the instrument to me; I wouldn’t have found it otherwise. Otherwise it’s just “Oh two notes, that’s not interesting”. But when you hear how vocal is treated, there’s so much more there. It’s really about listening first.

Do you take into account the way a singer breath?

When I was doing the Sting song, when I first played “Murder By Numbers”, the song by The Police, I was just playing it by memory. And then I went back and listened to the original, and I realized that my phrasing was very different from his. And the difference was: he was breathing! So I sort of listened to the spaces where you take a breath, and I would stop there. It really improved it. The same thing will happen if you learn lines that were played on a horn, or a clarinet or any instrument that requires breath. It’s great to learn with the guitar. And it’s difficult because rock or heavy metal players like me, we usually play really loud. And if we stop, a lot of time the guitar will feedback or make noise. So we try not to stop because otherwise there will be this noise. You kind of have to change the settings on your amp so that when you stop, there’s no big ugly [imitates feedback] and it’s not making lots of noise. It’s really a lot of adjustment.

Do you think that guitar should be learnt a little bit more like singing is learned rather than just the usual way with the theory and everything?

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching lately and the more I teach, the more I really think that most guitar teaching is really pretty bad [laughs]. People put a lot of emphasis on running scales, of course scales are useful, but they are not the most important thing. A lot of the things that are really important are difficult to see. For example, changing the volume of a note by how hard you play. It’s very difficult to see that. It’s easy to hear it; it’s easy to feel it. But if you had to write it down, it would be tedious. Really, it’s easy to listen to those things. And a lot of students that are new to the instrument, they’re human beings – we’re all human beings so we like to look at things. But the thing I found with students is that they really need to improve their ears the most. That’s what needs the most work, being able to listen and being: “Oh, I can hear that note is loud there and quiet there”. And then you can figured out how to play it. While most of students are “Oh, I’ll just play the scales as fast as I can” and it goes nowhere. Come to my online school and I will help you.

The only song that you’re singing on is the closing title track and it actually has a gospel feel. Was that to kind of counter balance the rest of the album that is guitar driven?

Well, I never really planned it out in advance; I just write the songs and hope they fit together. It’s funny because I wasn’t brought up with gospel music, so I don’t really know that much about it. But as I’ve gone through my musical life, once in a while I’ll find something that has a gospel influence. And I really like it. It’s related to blues and it’s related to jazz. It’s very passionate; it has a lot of harmony and vocals. There’s some great stuff there. I think a lot of it comes from listening to artists that related to that. Like, I was listen to Nina Simone, who’s sort of a jazz/blues artist. I was listening to BB King. It’s funny: BB King has an album where he doesn’t play guitar and that’s a gospel album. He’s the lead vocalist but he doesn’t play any guitar at all. That’s very interesting that he did that – a BB King album with no guitar. So I was listening to that as well. There are others like Todd Rundgren that sometimes has some gospel elements in his music. I’m still a beginner in that style but I really enjoy it.

So, you’ve been inspired by vocals in your guitar playing, but are there other instruments that you’ve been inspired by?

Oh, absolutely! I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz clarinet. When I was a teenager I wouldn’t believe that I would ever say that, because, when I was a teenager, I was just a hundred percent rock and metal. But I was thinking about Eddie Van Halen, who’s one of my biggest heroes, and Eddie Van Halen’s dad was a jazz clarinet player. I’m sure that when Eddie was growing up he heard his dad playing and practicing, and a lot of that sound got into his ears. When I listen Eddie play, I hear elements of jazz in his phrasing, even his note choice. He plays some kind of sophisticated stuff. And I thought, sometimes, if you want to really learn about someone’s style, instead of listening to them, you listen to whom the listened to. So I thought “I’m gonna check out some jazz clarinet” and I did some research and found Jimmy Hamilton, my favorite clarinet player actually. He only made like two albums, but I listen to those all the time. Actually I stole one of his lines at the end of the song “Shock Absorber” [singing the line]. That’s a total Jimmy Hamilton clarinet line. And there are some guys, when I listen to them, even though it’s jazz, a lot of time they are playing blues, but it’s more sophisticated, they know their notes. That’s really interesting to hear how a clarinet player will play blues compared to how a guitar player will play blues. They’ve got different phrases, different notes also. It’s really good stuff.

« That’s always a nice surprise when reality is actually better than your imagination. That puts a big smile on my face. »

You’ve got two drummers on the album: Mike Portnoy and Kenny Aronoff. Why having two drummers and how did you choose which one was going to play which song?

Well, I wasn’t sure of who was gonna play. I thought about Mike because I worked with him before and we did a lot of live stuff together but we never recorded. I knew he would have fun with simple stuff. Mike of course can do very complex things. But we really are of similar age and I knew he grew up with a lot of the music that I grew up with, and I knew he was a Beatles fan. I think that some drummers, when they hear “Why Don’t We Do It On The Road” by the Beatles, they think: “Oh, so simple…” But I knew that Mike would understand it and he would love it. So he played great on that. And “Working For The Week-End”, again, is a very simple drum beat, but I knew that for Mike generation, he would really understand why I love that song and he would do a great job with it. Mike was on the road a lot, so he only had time to do a couple of tunes, so also I got Kenny Aronoff, who’s an amazing drummer of all styles, he’s played with so many different musicians. And that was so useful, because I had him play a lot of different styles: everything from Aerosmith to The Police, Eric Carmen pop songs, really different styles of drumming and he just played everything great.

On another subject, you were the first one to Leave Mr. Big back in 1997 before the band’s break-up. And now you’ve been back with the band in 2009 and a second album is coming out. So how’s everything with the band? What makes things better now for you with Mr. Big compared to when you left?

I think we can take breaks in between. When the band was first together, we really wanted to establish the band, so we hardly did any outside project; it was just like, Mr. Big only. It’s almost like if you only eat one kind of food every day. Everyday steak and potatoes, it’s great, it’s really delicious but after eight years you’re like: “I wanna eat something else!” [Chuckles] I think we have more variety in our lives, we’ve got other things we’re doing. So when we go back and play with Mr. Big we really enjoy it and it feels fresh to us. We know each other better, we’re all unusual people in our own way, but we know it. We get along fantastic now; we’re really having a good time.

With your work around vocals, whether it’s with your own voice but also on guitar, would you say that you now have a better interaction with Eric Martin in Mr. Big?

Yeah maybe, certainly, I respect any singer who has to go out on the road and tour. A lot of this is very stressful; at least it was for me, because you’re really depending on your body. With guitar playing, your fingers are always there. I never had trouble with my hands. I’ve got to make sure my calluses stay in shape and you can always put lighter strings on. But when you sing, if you get a little cold, you get a little sick, you drink too much beer or you get tired, the next day you wake up and your voice is gone. It’s like waking up and your guitar is gone. It’s really scary. So I respect Eric and any singer who goes on the road. It’s a lot of pressure to have to go out and sing every night. Eric’s incredible; he did such a great job on this last album. He has such a great tone and a great musical sense, I really liked working with him and listening to him.

I was more talking about a musical interaction actually, and the fact that maybe you better articulate your guitar lines between the rhythm section and the vocals…

Oh, let’s see… I think that from playing vocals on the guitar, it just makes me listen differently. And that’s really important; I think most musicians at the beginning think a lot about their technique. For a guitar player, you mostly think about your fingers: “What are my fingers doing?” And you look at your neck: “where are the frets? » It’s a lot of visual things. But I think, the more that I learn, the more that I play, the more I really get deep into listening and hearing things. This album helped me a lot with that and I think I’m a better listener than I have been. That’s always good.

In Mr. Big you have Billy Sheehan who’s one of those rare bass players that can actually catch up with what a guitar virtuoso can do. What’s your musical relationship with him?

We have a lot of fun. Billy’s a great improviser as well. In fact, that’s in a way his main thing. He learned to play by playing live gigs and having to be spontaneous in the moment. So, one of my favorite things to do in a Mr. Big show, if we have a time where we can trade off and have a kind of conversation, it’s so interesting to see how he will respond to the things I play on the guitar, and I love responding to the things he plays on bass. He’s one of the most unique musicians that I know. Of course he plays the bass, but any musician, I think, tries to go beyond their instrument. It rather becomes notes, rhythms and dynamics, and those things. It’s just like: “Oh I happen to play the guitar, I happen to play the bass…” But really we’re just dealing with music and emotions, and Billy is a master of that.

« When you teach, the teacher always learns the most. I’m the student that gets the most benefit at my school. »

There is a song on he knew Mr. Big album called « I Forget To Breathe » has a Jimi Hendrix vibe with this « Purple Haze » type riff. Is that you’re love for Jimi Hendrix that expresses itself?

Oh, of course! For every guitar player it’s an obligation to listen to Hendrix. And it’s a good obligation. There’s a lot of guitar players that sort of came from the Hendrix school that were big influences on me. One of them is Robin Trower, and I love Robin Trower’s guitar playing so much. He reminds me of Hendrix but in a way that is a little bit more refined. You know, Hendrix was inventing these things; a lot of it was experimentation. Robin Trower is a little cleaner, a little bit more focused, but still has the feel. Another guy that I love is Frank Morino and also Pat Travers, they are like three post-Hendrix influences: Robin Trower, Frank Morino and Pat Travers. Those four guitar players, those three post-Hendrix, were huge influences on me.

Pat Torpey has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. What were your thoughts when you learned about that? Eric Martin actually told us you guys had been thinking about breaking up…

Well, on the last tour, three years ago, Pat had been complaining about his leg: “Oh man, I’m trying to do this thing with my foot on the bass drum and it just won’t do it!” And he was really frustrated about it. We couldn’t tell so much because he would always find a way: he played with his other foot and in the end his drumming was fantastic. But he was really upset about it, he was just like: “Man, I don’t know what’s going on!” He was going to see doctors and they couldn’t tell what was going on. After that there was a few years where we weren’t playing together and when we decided to get together again, Pat said: “Oh man, it’s really gotten worse”, and we didn’t know how much worse. We all got together and we realized that the disease started to be more dramatic. Fortunately, I think this album – because he did contribute, he did play – because we were together and he was working on something, it cheered him up a lot. His mood at the beginning of it and his mood now are completely different. He’s in such better spirit. With that disease, of course you can take some medication, maybe that helps, but I think the most important thing is his spirit. He’s doing much better now and we help to keep that up as much as possible.

You’ve been kind of nicknamed the Young Dude and watching you playing live you do look like a young boy having fun. Have you kept a sort of juvenile spirit, in a good way?

[Chuckles] Rock’n’roll is a music that does that to you. Any music sort of gives you good energy. I don’t know, I don’t think about it so much. When I think back over my own life, I know that I’ve changed since I was a teenager or since I was in my twenties, but I just always find something new to enjoy. I think, if someone said that you have to keep listening to the music that you listened to when you were fifteen years old and that’s the only thing you could play, that would be very disappointing to me. I really love listening to new things and exploring new things. That’s why now I love listening to jazz clarinet. When I was fifteen, I wouldn’t have been interested. When I was fifteen I wanted to listen to Van Halen, Judas Priest and Saxon. Then, when I was in my twenties I was listening to the Beach Boys, The Beatles and Tod Rundgren. In my thirties I was listening to the Wild Hearts, the Black Crows and Green Day. And now I’m listening to jazz clarinets and BB King and all kinds of different stuff. I think in my life I’ll always find new music to listen to. I don’t know if it’s age specific, because I’m sure there are teenagers who love to listen to jazz and there’s probably guys that are fourty years old who love to listen to metal. It’s not so much age; it’s more just variety and just looking for different things.

In the live setting, just by looking at your face playing guitar, you actually seem to still get genuinely amazed by what comes out of your guitar. Is this what happens?

I was thinking about that because, like I said, a lot of time when you’re improvising you’re trying to play what you hear in your head. And I realized the other day that, when I play the guitar, it’s actually better than what I hear in my head. [Chuckles] Because I’ve trained my hands to do nice vibrato and a lot of things that take what I hear in my head and improve it. That’s always a nice surprise when reality is actually better than your imagination. That puts a big smile on my face.

I guess you’re going to tour as a solo artist. What is going to be your live band?

Oh, I’m not sure. Right now we have the Mr. Big tour coming up in October and November. And after that… I actually just had my first child; I had a son about a week ago. So I have a week old baby in my house now. I may stay home and try to teach him to speak English and a little bit of how to play guitar. And also I always keep really busy with my online guitar school. I’ve had that for about two years and I have students from all over the world. I’m really having a good time there. That actually helps me so much as a musician as well. When you teach, the teacher always learns the most. I’m the student that gets the most benefit at my school.

Interview conducted by phone on September, 1st 2014 by Spaceman.
Transcription : Mariane Monin.
Introduction : Spaceman.

Paul Gilbert official website: www.paulgilbert.com

Bonus, Paul Gilbert having a blast with a double bass :

Bonus 2, Paul Gilbert having a blast with a mandolin :

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