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Paul Gilbert interview: the beauty of melody, clean living, and coke-head mice

Paul Gilbert
(Image credit: Jason Quigley)

Interviewing Paul Gilbert is a bit like trying to catch Tigger, mid-bounce. But with Gilbert it’s the guitar that he’s wired to. Instrument in hand, his fingers are never far from the wizardry he’s honed since the 80s with Racer X, Mr. Big, G3, on 16 solo albums, from a busy teaching career and more. 

“I’m very well-suited for the apocalypse!” the now 54-year-old declares cheerfully as he reflects on a stay-at-home year, in which his online guitar school has thrived. 

He also played and recorded all the instruments for his new album, Werewolves Of Portland, a joyous cocktail of from-the-heart melody and jaw-dropping guitar playing, and glide-off-the-tongue titles such as Argument About Pie and Professorship At The Leningrad Conservatory.

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Are you a workaholic, or just a guy who’s addicted to playing? 

The first metaphor that comes to my mind is a horrible one. They do experiments with mice where they give them cocaine, and the mouse keeps pressing the cocaine button. I’ve never tried cocaine, but music can be like that. If I have a process, and it keeps rewarding me with the pleasure of music, and people smiling at me when I perform, putting food on the table, I’m gonna keep pressing that button. For every success I have there’s a whole roomful of failure. The trick is not to be stopped by that. 

Anyone who thinks of you as a shredder will be surprised by the flavours on Werewolves Of Portland (The Beatles, Queen, The Who…) 

Well obviously by doing an instrumental record there’s this hole where a singer used to be. The way I was trained as a guitar player as a kid, you back up the singer [guitar], and he sings his thing over there. And so, especially with slide guitar, I started to learn vocal lines. It’s nice to have different voices to play with. If it’s only guitar, or only voice, it’s not as fun as the conversation between the two. 

Do you sing for pleasure? 

Like, around the house? Well, a lot of the melodies were written while I was washing the dishes. I can’t play guitar while washing the dishes, but I can think, and I can hum. I found if I could do it all in my head, and hold the melody in complete silence, then it was a strong melody. 

With the songs I’ve written recently, they’re much more hummable, and there’s a real power to that. But not everything has to be hummed. I like stuff once in a while that goes [plays crazy-fast guitar] that creates an energy. I allow myself those once in a while as a contrast.

How do you feel about the current generation of YouTube guitarists (for example twelve-year-olds tapping at a million miles an hour)? 

I think what it comes down to is physical pain that you have to go through to get callouses in a certain part of your finger. As a teacher I have to untangle this so often I can’t believe it. The thing that’s really hard to get by is [that] it’s gonna hurt for a while. 

I think people who never play loud, with a drummer, don’t reach that point where they don’t care about pain. Once you get over that hump and you’ve got that callous, it doesn’t hurt any more and a lot of things fall into place. 

How have you found the experience of being a clean-living guy in an industry where so many people aren’t? 

If I was only in Mr. Big, and we only had tours playing the hits, I would need to start drinking a lot more, because a lot of my energy and creative juice happens cos I’m always trying new stuff. Some musicians are really full of talent and ability, and just have to play the same stuff. To be the Eagles and be: “Okay, here we go, Hotel California one more time…” Sometimes you’re crippling yourself with alcohol just to make it interesting. 

Mr. Big’s worldwide hit single To Be With You in 1992 made the band massive briefly. What was that like? 

It was wonderful, and it also felt completely out of my control! It felt like it had been given to me, and at the same time could be taken away at a whim. I remember the two weeks that To Be With You was a hit, our audience changed to twelve-year-old girls. And then that two weeks was over, and it was like a door slammed and it was guys with jean jackets again. We wrote the song, we played the song, but how people respond to it is in their hands. You can’t predict that.

The fame lasted longer in Japan, though, and the band played stadiums there.

The good thing was it was just there. We would do these tours where we couldn’t leave the hotel cos it was surrounded by fans, and we had to sneak through the kitchen at the train station so we wouldn’t get chased. It was really what you’d imagine, the Beatlemania thing. Then I would get home to Las Vegas and nobody cared, we could barely do a club tour. I could go to the grocery store, no problem. 

Lockdown has seen a lot of at-home creativity. You like making things (pedal boards, the animated video for Argument About Pie…). Have you tried anything new? 

I had so much fun playing drums. I did get a little drum set over here. But my main hobby, if I get the time, is melodies. The last one I learnt was a K.D. Lang song. I could do that all day. As a singer I would never want to practise, because it would wear my voice out, and I would get worse every time. With guitar nothing gets worn out, especially with melody. The more you do it, the deeper you get and the more beautiful it becomes. 

Your father was a potter. What did you learn about being an artist from him? 

My first fantasy about being paid for making something came because one day the gallery owner came – the gallery would pick out pots they wanted and my dad would sell them. Some of these hippo piggy banks that I’d made were sitting on the shelf, and they said: “We’d like a couple of them.” I think I made eight dollars. But sometimes the meaning is that someone likes what you did enough to give you something. I think any human being wants to be seen, and wants someone to look at what you did and say: “Oh, I like that.”

Werewolves Of Portland is out on June 4 via Mascot/The Players Club.

Polly Glass

Classic Rock features editor Polly is an all-round editor, organiser and writer of regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage). Loves cooking, southern rock, Steven Wilson, and reading about unusual people.