Interview: Mr Big’s Paul Gilbert Defying Gravity With His Guitar

By Andrew Catania

There are many guitarists out there, but only a few manage to make a lasting impression especially in a very crowded market. That’s one of the many things that made Paul Gilbert shine, to begin with, as he is a true professional and a great performer which you will enjoy quite a bit. He is known for being excellent hard rock and heavy metal guitarist. He co-founded the Mr. Big band however he is also a member of Racer X, and he created a few albums with them as well.

Paul Gilbert was born on November 6, 1966, in Carbondale Illinois. However, his family moved to Greensburg Pennsylvania, and that’s where he was raised for most of his childhood. It’s important to note that Paul started to play music at the age of 5 and when he was 15 he had his band. The band was named Tau Zero, and he was touring the local clubs playing various types of music. Soon after that, he was featured in the magazine named Guitar Player with Yngwie Malmsteen.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

He contacted Mike Varney in 1981, and he asked to book a gig with Ozzy Osbourne which was already a megastar at that time. As you can imagine, Mike Varney didn’t think that a 15-year old would be ok to couple with a rock megastar. However, he did give the demo tape a try, and in the end, he was more than impressed with the stuff that he listened to. This led to a 3-year period in which they worked together on various musical projects.

Paul Gilbert moved to LA in 1984, and he started to attend the GIT there, a move that was followed by him being hired as a GIT instructor one year after that. He also recorded the Street Lethal record with Racer X very soon after that.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

The original lineup for Racer X which was created in 1985 included Juan Alderete, Paul Gilbert, Jeff Martin and Harry Gschoesser. The band had a lot of influence from Judas Priest at that time. Paul did work with them for three years, but he left in 1988. He did come back in 1996 after Mr. Big broke up.

Speaking of Mr. Big, he co-founded this band with Billy Sheehan, and they also added Eric Martin on vocals and Pat Torpey on drums. This made quite an unusual combination, and they did reach initial success in Japan. It was in 1991 when they got a lot of achievement with their Lean into It album. This was when they received an international stardom status, mainly thanks to the single-named To Be with You which granted them a number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

The music they played was very distinct and unique, something that still entices people up to this date. Thankfully, the style of Paul Gilbert did remain untouched, and you can easily see that nowadays in many of his projects.

The band did break up in 1996 due to personal differences that weren’t showcased to the public. This was the perfect time for Paul Gilbert to launch his solo career. As you can imagine, Mr. Big was reformed soon after that, but Paul already had a thriving career as a solo artist, so the band replaced him with Richie Kotzen. Mr. Big disbanded once again in 2002, yet Paul Gilbert did reunite with the original members in 2009 for a commemorative tour. They even created an album named What If which was released in 2010-2011, an album that was supported by a tour.

Aside from the Mr. Big projects, Paul Gilbert did work with Racer X many times. He did help them record the Technical Difficulties album in 1999, and he also collaborated with them on Superheroes, an album that was mixed by Bouillet.

Defying Gravity out on 7/21 via Frontiers Records

The band was very successful in Japan, and at that point, they performed to create a live DVD and CD at the request of Universal Japan. They ended up having their first live performance in around 13 years in front of a sold-out crowd in 2001, something that did impress most audiences.

The band finished recording the Getting Heavier album at Paul Gilbert’s house in Las Vegas. The tracks on this album were lighter, and this did upset some fans as they did expect a more conventional, heavier album instead of light tracks. The album did sell very well in Japan. In 2009 they had a massive NAMM show in California, and they performed with Andy Timmons. This is also when Paul Gilbert also had a solo set which was very successful.

Aside from working with Mr. Big and Racer X, Paul Gilbert did end up working with a broad range of other musical projects as well. In May 2003, he performed two different times with Yellow Matter Custard which was a Beatles cover band. They re-formed in February 2011 after many years of breaking up, but in the end, Paul Gilbert was not a part of that reunion. His performance impressed critics, but he did not resume working with YMC at all.

He collaborated with Mike Portnoy on that project, and they also worked on a Led Zeppelin tribute band which was named Hammer of the Gods. At that time, he toured Japan to support that band as well as his solo albums called Gilbert Hotel, Burning Organ and The Best of Paul Gilbert.

He also worked with Portnoy on two other projects named Cygnus and the Sea Monsters as well as Amazing Journey: A Tribute to The Who and he played three shows with the last band. The band destroyed all their equipment as an homage to the show, something that was quite common at that time.

Some of his other projects include an instrumental album released in 2008 which was called Silence Followed by a Deafening Roar; an album named the United States which was published with Freddie Nelson and some collaborations with Richie Kotzen, George Lynch, and many others. He also created two new albums named Fuzz Universe and Stone Pushing Uphill Man.  I spoke to Paul about Defying Gravity and his career.

I listened to Mr. Big a couple of days ago this new album, Congratulations, sounds good. What excites you most about the new album, that’s coming out?

Paul:  Ohhhh my goodness. Well, I like the songs, the melodies are hummable, the rifts are hummable, and I like the guitar playing, I like the singing, the bass playing, I love the drumming. It was fun to work with Kevin Elson, that was a fun part of the process, to work with him again. And we get to play some new songs on the road. So all the things we want, and that, we did it at all. We all have other parties we do besides Mr. Big, and our schedules don’t always match up and at the end of if we only had about a week to record it. So I was delighted that that turned out to work out to our benefit because there was good energy in getting it done quickly, there was no time to mess it up.

Now you only had six days to record the entire record?

Paul: Yes.

Did you have anything written before you went into the studio?

Paul:  Oh definitely, pretty much everything. Well, I shouldn’t say that, but we had most of it written. There was a couple, I know a couple of my songs, that I had just the smallest pieces of, but it was so exciting to see how a song would go from just basic, you know some lyrics and a basic arrangement into a full sound in a Mr. Big Production. That it was inspiring for the first couple of days that I thought “man I’ve got a couple of little ideas, if I finished this before breakfast, I could bring this in, and it could turn into a finished tune. So a couple of my songs Be Kind  & Mean to Me were both songs that I finished up before breakfast on day 3 [ahahaah], and they turned out well.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

Who does the songwriting? Is it a collaborated effort?

Paul:  Yeah, everybody writes, and even it’s a song that one person wrote, we still put our musical fingerprints on it, and that’s nice. I mean in the end, it’s still going to sound like Mr. Big.

Speaking of music, how would you describe Defying Gravity regarding its sound and how it relates to previous Mr. Big albums?

Paul:  Oh my goodness. I don’t know if I’ve even thought about that. The thing to me that is most stable element is the members of the band. It’s Eric Martin’s voice, the way he sings and the quality of his voice, there’s nothing like it. As soon as he starts singing a song, you’re halfway there; it’s a Mr. Big song. And then, of course, Billy (Sheehan) is one of the most recognizable bass players in Rock, I think. Although he’s known for being able to play very sophisticated, complicated things, even if he plays something simple, just the tone in his hands, you can tell that’s it’s him you know that it’s him and I hopefully have a recognizable way of play guitar. Pat(Torpey) on this record, you see he has Parkinson’s disease. So his physical strength is much less than it was so we used our touring drummer to come in and play the sessions. But Pat was still there, basically as a drum producer and just to make sure that the drums sounded like they would if Pat had played them. Also Pat is an essential part of the vocal sound of Mr. Big, we always do a lot of harmonies and just a part of the decision-making process. During any album, there’s always so many decisions to be made about not only the drums, but which songs to pick, how the arrangements should go, so I was really happy Pat could be there for that, that’s an important part of being in the band.

How is Pat doing? Is he getting any better? Is he kind of stable?

Paul: He will know more specifics than I will, but from the outside, it seems like he’s doing. You know, he was in good spirits, and high energy and was an active force in making the record.

You guys are all collaborative effort in writing, how did you approach the writing of this album, personally?

Paul: Oh I just try to have fun, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was all fun songs. I mean it can be a sad song or a serious song. But I want the process to be something that I enjoy, and that’s a relatively new thing for me to learn. I used to think that songwriting was a hard, effort & work and you have to sort of wrinkle your eyebrows just to get it done. And more recently I’ve learned the philosophy that anytime you start not enjoying the process, that just means that you have to change something to make sure that you are enjoying it, to make sure you’re keeping it moving forward because with songwriting you can get stuck. The trick is as soon as you find yourself getting stuck or getting bored with it or not enjoying it, you have to take the song in a different direction so that you will enjoy it. That’s what I try to do, to always make it, so I’m excited about where the song is going, and I find if I enjoy the process, I usually enjoy the result.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

What is more important to you, speed on the solo or the melody?

Paul: Well, hopefully sometimes they can be the same thing. I would say at the beginning, a lot of the songs began as a lyric, because Mr. Big is very much a vocal band you know I had to lyric 1992 before I had anything, the same thing with Be Kind, those were songs that began as lyric. But it can also start as a riff. Open Your Eyes began as a guitar riff and then later I came up with the lyrics for that one. Certainly, Mean to Me was a guitar riff, well actually that was drum part first, then I tried to make it into a guitar part and then gave it some lyrics on top of that and then, I’m trying to think of the other song that I wrote. Let me look. Oh, Nothing Bad About Feeling Good, in a way that was a lyric song as well, it was just the first part of the verse. I Know Who You Love, was another lyric I had then I tried to fit the melody to it. So really the guitar soloist is often the very last thing I’ll come up with. It’s something that I usually almost have to panic to finish because that’s when we’re running out of time and we’re like “oh yeah the solo.” As a songwriter, it’s a very different way of thinking that being a lead guitarist, it’s an entirely different art. For songwriting I’m thinking about the lyrics, the arrangement, the chords and the melody and then at the very end, I get to put on my guitar hat and be a guitar player.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

How do you find the balance between your songwriting and guitar soloing and which is more emotional for you and which is harder for you?

Paul:  We just want them to work together. As a soloist, it still notes, and it’s rhythms so sometimes I’ll get musical ideas, and as I explore soloing, I’ll come up with a phrase that might work as part of a song. For example, in the song Open Your Eyes there’s a line that Billy and I came up with (musical note) and it’s a Jazzy line, it’s almost like a dominant 13 or something. I don’t use the route of it; I try to skip over the way, which is a very Jazz thing to do. I wouldn’t have known to do that without studying soloing, and it just became sort of a melody that we used in the song. So that’s where the two can kind of crossover, but a lot of times when I’m doing the song I have to make the decision you know, is this going to be improvised or is it going to be a set melody that’s important for the way the song works. And I just take that case-by-case, depending on how it’s feeling.

Are you going to do two months run and then take a break and then are you going to do your solo projects?

Two months this year is pretty much all Mr. Big stuff. I think I have a camp coming up where it’s two days with Joe Satriani’s G4 Camp, that’s a little thing I’m doing on my own. But, most of the rest of this year I’m doing with Mr. Big. I mean earlier this year I went to South America, I did a European clinic tour on my own, but from now on, the rest of the year is all Mr. Big.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

Are you doing your online teaching? 

Paul: That’s been going about five years, so I’ve done a lot of videos for that, about Five Thousand videos even more. So I’m very active with that; that keeps me quite busy. Any spare time I have goes into that, and I enjoy it. The teacher is always the person that learns the most because I feel an obligation to know what I’m talking about. You know, sometimes the questions I get from the student, at times I know the answers and sometimes I’ve got to research it. So I’ve learned an enormous amount about music & guitar playing from that experience.

Now, are you still offering VIP lessons or is that something you’ve stopped?

Paul: I usually do that with my solo tours, and with Mr. Big, it doesn’t make as much sense because you know, part of the VIP thing is coming in to see the sound check, and I think with Mr. Big we might still be doing that. When I do the VIP tours I do a guitar lesson with it and with Mr. Big is more just a few sound check and meet the band, get a photo and maybe get some goodies. So that’s the difference. When I do mine on my own, people sit down with guitars and spend an hour jamming.

From the day you were featured in Mike Varney’s article, which I still have, by the way, Racer X & Mr. Big and all that, how have you evolved as a musician, as a songwriter, as a guitarist?

Paul: That was when I was Fifteen years old I think, and so it’s been a long time. I’ve explored a lot, I’ve learned a lot of songs, and I’ve learned what you have to do to make a song work. At that time my guitar style was based on the songs I was hearing. I was playing a lot of UFO and Rush and Van Halen and Triumph and even Punk stuff like Ramones and Sex Pistols and Robin Trower, I mean those were the artists I was copying, so my style was reflecting that. As time has gone on, I’ve expanded the music that I’m interested in and the music I’ve learned. Sometimes I’ll learn it to perform it, but sometimes I just hear it for my enjoyment. And so like in my Twenties I got into I would call sophisticated Pop music. Stuff like Todd Rundgren and kind of Pep sounds and Beach Boys era, indeed the Beatles and rediscovering that. So that was a big thing, getting into the way piano players write and trying to get those chords to work on a guitar. Then in my Thirties, I got into Punk Pop. I was into the Wild Hearts, a great band from England, and Green Day and I wanted to be a singer and I found that with kind of music you didn’t have to be like an opera, heavy metal Geoff Tate style singer to be able to have this sort of voice in order to do that kind of music. So that was appealing to me as a solo artist, and I should mention Cheap Trick which is also another sort of pioneers of Pop Punk.

Aren’t you a big Beatles fan?

Paul: yeah, so that was earlier on. More recently I’ve gotten into Blues and also the Jazz players from the 50s & 60s that play Blues, but with a Jazz sophistication. It’s still music that a guitar could play but they know stuff that guitar players don’t know. So I listen to a lot of saxophone players and clarinet players and that kind of thing, to get new ideas.

Have you been trying to shred away that Shred term with your playing, you know, trying to expand on that? When people think of Paul Gilbert, they don’t just think of you as Shredder now because you’ve got so many different styles of playing.

Paul: Well I think what happened is if a guitar magazine took a list of people who are considered to be Shredders, a lot of them would be very different from me in what they’re trying to do, and the techniques they use are different from mine. My methods are based on 70s Rock guitar players. The way that my hand, the hand position I use is similar to what you would see from the guys that played in the 70s. Brian May and Robin Trower and Mick Ronson, and players like that, and Jimi Hendrix, players that tend to have their thumb way over the top of the neck when they play, Jimmy Page. Those were the guys that formed my voice on the guitar, and that voice is related to that way of holding the instrument. It tends to be keeping it lower because that works well for having your thumb over the top of the neck.  Where a lot of the new Shredders wear their guitars up really high and have their thumbs behind the neck, more of a classical style, which to me works ideal for a traditional, conventional type of guitar but is really weak in terms of hand vibrato and actually sort of severs the Blues style from guitar playing. You can get a traditional Blues sound that way, and that classic Blues sound is so important to me even if I’m playing fast I want to have that as part of my voice. So I think that majority of people that are in the Shred category are more of that modern, wearing the guitar up high and having the thumb behind the neck style, which that’s not me. I feel different from that in the way I play. And it’s funny I didn’t know what it was at first, but I learned about that from teaching and seeing, slowing training my eye to look for that. I felt something was different, but I didn’t know what it was. Now I know very precisely that oh, they are holding the guitar differently, they’re playing with a different part of their hand. That kind of technique just doesn’t allow you to get the kind of bending and vibrato that you need; you know to sounds like Brian May or Robin Trower the heroes that I had growing up. So I feel much more like a 70s Rock guitar player more than a Shredder, just because of that.

What musician would you like to work with that you haven’t?

Paul: Oh let’s see, actually anybody who just jams Blues. I would love to jam Blues with Angus Young, I would like to jam Blues with Robin Trower, and the reason I say I would love to jam Blues is, that’s the kind of music where jamming where works. There are Heavy Metal musicians that I admire enormously, but that’s not a style that really lends itself to jamming. Heavy Metal you’re loud all the time, and you’re fast all the time, and there’s not as much room for conversation. Things tend to be worked out, and the goal is to sort of have this military tightness you know, when you see like 300 Chinese military guys all moving the same way, that’s almost like what Heavy Metal should be. You’ve rehearsed, and you got it perfect, and it’s beautiful, but it’s not a place where you’re going to improvise and suddenly just be at the moment and do your own thing.  And that’s what Blues opens the door for; you can take your time, you can relax a little bit, you can be quiet or loud, you’ve got a lot more space for improvisation, there’s not this panic that you’ve got to do it correctly or a particular set way. And so that’s why when it comes to playing with other people, that style is so welcoming, it’s part of the nature of it. I was listening to Saxton the other day, and I love those early Saxton, Heavy Metal Songs, but I wouldn’t think of that as a jam. I would think of that as you learn the song exactly the way it is, you play it correctly, don’t mess with it you know. It’s almost like learning classical music.

I was watching a NAMM video from this past January where you and John Petrucci and Steve Lukather were all at Earnie Ball booth, and that right there would have been a great G3 tour.  I mean you’ve got different styles. You’ve got Steve; you’ve got yours, you’ve got Petrucci’s. Regarding 2017, Are you going to be doing your camp as you did back a couple of years ago?

Paul:  I’m not making the Great Guitar Escape this year, I’m a guest at Joe Satriani’s  G4. Which is basically, that’s not a tour; it’s a camp, G3 is the tour. I’m excited about it because of course, it’s always fun to play with Joe, but the other guys that are the featured artists are  Phil Collen from Def Leppard, and Warren DeMartini from Ratt and those guys are kind of from my era like I was telling you about. They are still like 70s Rock guys, they were made famous in the 80s, but they are from the same place that I’m from musically, and they’re also guys from bands. I like that. They play with vocalists, and I feel a strong connection to what they do.

Your solo record came out last year. Do you have anything you’re thinking about in 2018, putting another one out?

Paul:  Oh well, I haven’t thought about it yet, I probably will you know, I do as much as I can. It might be some solo stuff or some Mr. Big or even Racer X, I never quite know what. I usually think about three months ahead. When it gets to October, I’ll start thinking about January.

Mr. Big’s Defying Gravity will be out on July 21, 2017.

Please check out Paul’s links:

Rock Guitar Lessons with Paul Gilbert

Paul Gilbert Signature Series Guitars From Ibanez

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