By Andrew Catania
Paul Gilbert is always a joy to speak with. A technical genius in every aspect of the word. We discussed his new Christmas album ‘Twas.
I like your creative ingenuity on this album.
PG: Oh, thank you. The first hurdle was the darn first two notes in Rudolph. You, know, “…it had a very shiny nose…” I thought I can’t play da da da da. There’s gotta be some other way to approach that. So I took the same tune and I did it in G and instead of doing it like this, I’m going to lose my license if I play that, I ended up playing the same notes on another string and then I could put some Gary Moore anger into it. That began…from there everything just started to roll.
What gave you the idea to do the Christmas album? Was it just something you’ve been wanting to do?
PG: Well, it was a little bit because I had nothing for the previous Christmas.
These days, as a musician you have to take more and more control over your own marketing and stuff. I remember before the record company was always going, “We got to get this out by Christmas” and I was like, “yeah, yeah, I’m a guitar player.” And last Christmas, I think because I was home and you’re not allowed to go anywhere and so I was in a different headspace and I realized that I don’t have anything ready… and this was like the time, you know, the school of salmon is swimming by and I have no hooks in the water. So I thought, well, this next Christmas look out I’ll have something ready. We can have Christmas, how about a Christmas album?
Maybe a few years before that I had, the thought had occurred to me that I really don’t like Christmas music anymore. I just heard it too much. Most are over 50 years old. That’s a long time and a lot of repetition. I thought I’m just tired of those songs. And so the challenge was to do them in such a way that, as a listener, I would be interested in them again. So, I started researching them and was looking for who does the best version of whatever. I really enjoyed the research. I found the Nat King Cole versions, which were great. Loretta Lynn’s version of Frosty the Snowman is killer and some of the songs I didn’t know that well so I was trying to find real straight-ahead versions. If you listen to Mariah Carey sing a Christmas song, she’s gonna have all these licks and so which part is her doing the lick, and which part is her doing the melody? And if you’re not that familiar with the tune, there’s no way to know. So, I found, which song was it? Oh, it was the one I did for a single, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. I found a version of Amy Grant doing that. She just sang it like textbook, no licks, like this is the melody, and did it really well. So, I could learn that from her. And then I had a Nat King Cole version with all these Jazz chords and so, this is all going on during the Summer and that was kind of fun. It was fun to be purposefully out of sync. Because I would be walking down the street, of course, the mask would be on and with all these Christmas songs going on in my head and really digging it and just going like, I know I am the only person walking down the street with Christmas songs in my head right now. Everyone else gets it in real-time.
So this is something you’ve probably had on your radar since we were all locked down last year and you guys were more locked down on the West Coast than we were.
PG: Yeah, I was thinking about it… it’s nice if it comes out before Christmas because that’s when people are thinking about it and shopping, but for this, I have to get it out, I can’t release it in February. That would be wrong.
It was funny because when I told the record company, they were kind of like, yeah, we need it. Can you finish it in July? I was like, maybe, but can I have ‘til August? And so, I think I turned in the record at the end of August so they were like, I don’t know if we’re gonna make it. It’s a tight deadline. I guess the vinyl factories need a lot of time in advance. I just got the vinyl yesterday. So, they made it in time.
I just saw your posting a little while ago, with your cats saying they approved the vinyl.
PG: (laughing) Yeah, they were giving it the sniff test. The other thing, is just Christmas songs tend to have real distinct melodies and that’s kind of been my musical mission is to be able to play melodies on the guitar which sounds like something simple but to do it where it doesn’t wreck the song because when I was a kid and I would hear instrumental versions of vocal songs, they would almost always ruin the song. Because a lot of it was muzak and you’d hear some cool song and then the flute would play the melody and you’re like the whole melody was just horrible. The flute can be a great instrument, but you can sort of telling that it’s a skinny musician and they sort of throw the music in front of them and they do their best but their heart’s not really in it or they didn’t have time to work it out and make it cool.
And the seed of that was probably planted when I did the G3 tour with Satriani and maybe that was the first time…because night after night I would go out and watch him play a bit and go, you know, this is alright. He sounds pretty good and people are digging it and I’m digging it too. And he was taking on the role of a singer and doing all this flashy stuff too, but his songs are songs and he’s playing guitar as a singer would sing. That planted a seed like maybe it would be okay…it’s possible not to ruin the song if you have an instrument do it. It’s a wonderful door to open because when you start playing vocal melodies all these elements of expression that just breathe life into the music. That’s been the best part.
When you were on the G3 tour, did your eyes open at all about Satriani’s playing? Like you said he could play just all kinds of different stuff. Did you incorporate any of that into any of your solo albums since then?
PG: I would say it’s more like, that..after seeing him. That certain things were okay that before I had kind of written off. Like I’m never going to do that and one of those things was long solos. I grew up listening to the Beatles, and even a band like Van Halen, as awesome as Eddie is, the solos were short. Most of the lead is the vocal and then Eddie would do really cool rhythms and then he could do this 8 bar solo and then a short solo. He didn’t get any of these long solos and that’s what always troubled me about a lot of this fusion stuff because it’s just like man, this thing is just going on and on and on…
But with Joe…we did a jam at the end and it was the three of us, Joe, John Petrucci and myself and Joe was really good at setting up the structure, you know, because you have to have some sort of structure to jam over and I think he was doing like the Joe Cocker version of With a Little Help From My Friends, you know. I don’t know what key it in, 6/8 thing, and we’d come out and do that like forever and I guess one of the reasons I had doubts about it originally was because of my experience seeing the NAAM show jams. This was like, I started going to NAAM shows in the mid-80s and so this was like the peak of heavy metal and heavy metal people don’t really jam, you know. You sort of get tight with your band and it wasn’t an era of jamming so what would happen is everyone would go out and play rhythm guitar at full volume. You know, 7 guitar players, and they all going and then you couldn’t hear the solo and whoever was playing the solo didn’t really have any stuff ready because it wasn’t there. They would shine if they rehearsed with the band, that’s the way they do it in metal. So I thought that’s just a bunch of noise and unprepared people. But once I got into Blues and heard how Joe handled it, I realized that if you play with some dynamics and you don’t play rhythm guitar full, but with the volume turned down a bit so you can hear the solo, and you actually listen to each other and just wait until it’s your turn, and try to connect, you start doing this thing that actually turns into something really cool. And the audience responds great and having done it at the end, I was like maybe long jams can be okay if they’re done right.
Getting away from like your Racer X days, I know I talked to you about this before, a few years ago, was it easier for you to transition away from your roots to more of the Blues based that you are doing now? Did you just get tired of doing that kind of repertoire?
PG: I’m in this evolutional phase where I started to feel more like a singer with my guitar. Blues has been a vehicle for that because there is certainly more than one structure to a Blues thing. There’s the classic 12 bar, you know, going through the three chords everybody goes through, And just having spent time with that starting to hear what I play and other than going through the finger patterns and see what comes out and having my hands drive, that’s been maybe the biggest thing. Like, where’s the music coming from primarily? Is it coming from what my hands have practiced or is it coming from what I hear in my head? You can’t really separate either, 100 percent. It’s always going to be a mix of the two. You can aim towards more of one than the other and hopefully, I’ve always had pretty good instincts and I was paying attention with my ears. It wasn’t like I wasn’t listening at all. But a lot of the Racer X stuff was more of let me let my hand run around and I’ll just sort of listening hopefully with some good instincts. And certainly, I am proud of a lot of that music. But now, once I put down the guitar again, I ask, okay what’s in here, (pointing to head) what do I hear? I’m not going to play until I hear something. So that forces you to explore in a different way. Sometimes the answer is I don’t hear anything. There’s nothing there. And I have to wait or just keep listening to the music more and wait until something pops in and just sort of exercise that muscle of listening to that inner melodic generator. And then, what comes out I’m like can I find it, you know? And it’s wonderful when you can’t because that means you’re learning something that is an honest musical thing that comes from inside you and the fact that you haven’t learned it yet gives you a great opportunity to play something that is really genuine. The only problem is if that happens to you when you’re on stage you don’t have time to work it out. But that’s sort of my job as a practicer now is to listen and build the physical vocabulary that can connect to what’s in here.
In terms of your Christmas album… you’ve got the course that you teach and you’re doing that guitar teaching, are you enjoying being a teacher now too?
PG: I love teaching. It’s nice because it gives me things to work on and problems to solve that I may not have thought about otherwise. It kind of shifts what I might think is important to other areas that I might have thought were important. It’s funny, what I’m going to call the art of being able to count a band in. Being like, okay, what’s the tune, we’ll do, let’s say, Let It, Snow. That one I did with the guitar but if you just had to count it in with your mouth… I meant the first song on the first Beatle album…One, two, three, four…(playing) That’s something people really struggle with which I never would have thought of. A lot of time I don’t think it’s because they don’t have the ability, it’s just not what they’re interested in. I mean, because playing in a band, takes some doing, especially… I mean, you got to get people, space, gear, and schedule it and as a teenager, I did that a lot. I really made the effort and played in bands. And so I developed those skills that you get from having to connect with the other musicians, to be able to count in a song. To me, it’s like second nature, but to players who are hobbyists or bedroom players, they’ve never counted in a band. And if they can’t do it, it’s my fault because I’m the teacher. Anything that they can’t do, I get the blame. I’m supposed to help them, you know. So its interesting to kind of look through and I think why is it hard and lots of time, its trickier than I thought. There is some sophistication in something that looks so simple. Then I’ve got to break it down and figure out how to do it so that it’s simple. I mean, that’s just one example. There’s a lot to things that I wouldn’t have thought were challenging or sophisticated and when you realize it is, I got to go back and reevaluate it more. And I go like, wow, I’m going to spend a lot of time…When I write my next song, I’m going to put more of a focus on that simple part that I didn’t realize isn’t as simple as I thought.
Your Christmas album is coming out, you have your guitar teaching course; have you looked at what 2022 is going to be looking like for you?
PG: I’ve got tentatively looking at doing some shows, you know, end of the world permits. Let’s see… I’ve been fortunate to have an online school because it keeps me busy. I upload five videos a day, including Christmas. Every day I’ve got stuff going on there. So that always keeps me connected, thinking about music and playing and just revved up all the time. So if I didn’t have that, I might be a little more motivated to get out there and get on the road because I would be like, I’ve got to do something or else feel disconnected, But I’ve had that to keep things sort of going home. After doing Portland, where we put all the instruments together. I got a little drum kit and play a lot of drums and record it so I have an album’s worth of stuff already it’s just not really focused, it’s just me having fun. But I’ve found that me having fun is sometimes more listenable than me trying hard. So I’ve been looking at that and wondering what would be an album where I’m not really paying attention and just having a good time. I love playing drums and the one I have, the heads, they don’t make much sound, — I think they’re called silencer heads or something – and they’re really bouncy and so all the double stroke licks that Pat Torpey taught me — cuz I could never do the double strokes – I am now the double stroke king! I can go like crazy. That’s been really fun. So that’s been kind of my morning thing. I can sort of rationalizing that I did get some exercise.
Have you thought about doing any collaborations with anybody or is your schedule just too full?
PG: In a way, this Christmas album was a collaboration because I hired a jazz guitar player and a jazz keyboard player and a Blues bass player and drummer and that was a really good decision because the suggestions they made were so good that I kept thinking thank goodness they suggested because the way I would have gone about it wouldn’t have been nearly as cool as what they came up with…so that was a cool collaboration. Besides that…I’m not…today I was listening to some Buck Owens, who’s like one of the guys on Hee-Haw and I hadn’t really paid attention to his music before but it was almost kind of like a Country Western version of the Everly Brothers where there was a real pronounced two-part harmony going the whole time and I was also listening to the Everly Brothers singing…they’ve got a crunchy record I was listening to and they’ve got such a good sound and it reminded me of when I played with Andy Timmons. He came to a show on the last tour I did when we played through Dallas and we did We Can Work It Out, the Beatles song. We did it instrumentally, where…because John and Paul sing that together and when we did the bridge, and it’s the harmony, and so we played that, and I think I did the slide and Andy did the other part and it sounded so killer! And normally, when Andy…when players like Andy and I get together, it’s like let’s jam and we’re going a million miles an hour. But to just have a simple melody like that and we played our harmony, it had such a good feel to it. In a way, I’d love to find – I don’t know, it could be Andrew or anybody who—could have that Everly Brother/Buck Owens version of the guitar or Lennon/McCartney and have that sort of real melodies that are full of intention. I mean that’s not full of licks, it’s more here is the melody and when you do that, you’re naked you know because you don’t have all the vibrato, slides, that you know brings it to life. And everybody has their own way of doing that. Andy and I seem to have a real nice mix when…it worked well, is what I’m saying.