Paul Gilbert’s Zooming us from his home in Portland, Oregon. He’s armed with his purple Ibanez Fireman (a guitar, not a euphemism), and as we speak he noodles away whenever the occasion arises. “After dinner my job is to wash the dishes, and I hate it! But yesterday I put Iron Maiden’s Killers on my headphones – hearing Wrathchild with Paul Di Anno just killin’ [Gilbert plays the riff and emulates Di Anno’s screaming delivery], and then the song Killers, y’know, the gallop [he performs a section perfectly]. I never had that much fun washing the dishes in my life!”
Gilbert’s 54 now, and on great form, his enthusiasm for his own album and the ten that changed his life is utterly infectious. For many he’ll forever be the Shrapnel-stable shredder behind uber-metallers Racer X, and the six-string powerhouse for supergroup Mr Big, but his latter-day albums show another side to him.
Due to lockdown restrictions Gilbert wound up playing bass and drums as well as guitar on his 16th solo album, Werewolves Of Portland. Overseen by producer Kevin Hahn at Portland’s Opal Studios, it follows on from his 2019 collection Behold Electric Guitar in being a highly melodic record; more tunes, less shred.
It’s sometimes daffy, and always eclectic – with funk, blues boogies and jazzy moments in the rocky mix. Gilbert’s fretboard flash is still absolutely present, but somehow sublimated – these days he plays the guitar the way, in another life, he might have sung. And his regular sublime use of slide only adds to the vocal quality of his lead lines.
Listen to the opener Hello North Dakota and you’ll hear a slightly Brian May/very Gilbert instrumental version of that state’s anthem; but if you watch the lyric video (opens in new tab) Gilbert’s singing his own lyrics as he plays: ‘As long as they don’t steal my guitar collection/Just take your burglary/A different direction from me/I don’t care one iota/Goodbye Portland, Hello North Dakota.’ Portland’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons this past year, the city laid low by a wave of rioting and crime, and he’s considering moving, possibly to North Dakota.
But Werewolves really isn’t a political tract. Gilbert can’t be getting on his soap box when drawing inspiration from his favourite local bakery (Argument About Pie), the Russian composer Shostakovich (Professorship At The Leningrad Conservatory and A Thunderous Ovation Shook The Columns), or giving Warren Zevon a knowing nod with the title track.
When he plays us a snippet of lovely mid-tempo tune Meaningful he sings along with more notional, unrecorded lyrics: “What makes me wanna get up in the morning/What makes me wanna tell my friends that they gotta see this/Like an upside down guitar from the guy in Kiss/Whoa!"
“Having lyrics just opens the door for me," says Gilbert. "The most satisfying thing about it is that it places a real importance on getting the note right. If you’re playing a fast thing and get a note wrong nobody really notices, but if you’re playing a melody and hit the wrong note, it’s a real blunder. Get it right and it feels wonderful.
"It’s like playing a game where the stakes are higher, there’s more to win and more to lose. And it’s a way for me to connect in a deeper way to the records we’re going to talk about as being important to me…”
Below, Paul Gilbert picks the 10 albums that changed his life.
The Beatles – Help! (1965)
“This was my first real ‘air guitar’ record, where I’d sit in front of the mirror and pretend to play the songs. There’s a lot of what I call the ‘naughty, Austin Powers chord’ – like in You’re Going To Lose That Girl – [he plays and sings] ‘If you don’t take her OUT tonight you’re gonna lose that girl’. When you hear that chord your eyebrows go up and it gives you the same feeling as when Austin Powers goes ‘Ah baby you’re so naughty!’
"It’s there in The Loving Spoonful too – ‘What a day for a DAYDREAM’ – Yeah, Baby! In 80s metal, which is where I sort of stepped into the industry, there was a real decline in the use of that naughty chord, and I missed it. Help! has lots of them, and it’s got my favourite Paul McCartney vocal of all time too. On The Night Before he’s got this scratchy voice, like he was out partying the night before. He still hits the notes, he’s got enough voice left to get the melody done, but his texture’s real scratchy.
"The whole album’s so cool. I had the American version, and half of it was the symphonic movie soundtrack stuff. When it came out on CD on Parlophone with all the other songs on it like Yesterday, Busy Miss Lizzy, I was like, ‘Man, what a gyp the American one was!’”
Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains The Same (1976)
“I spent a lot of time playing along to this one in front of the mirror too. It took a long time to get into because it had those long instrumental sections, and when I first saw the movie I was bored out of my mind – ‘Get to the song already! Let the singer come back to the stage!’ You had to invest some time in it, and when the band did come back in with the song it was such a relief, a release of tension.
"They did a great version of Whole Lotta Love and all the little blues things in there [noodles away in Page-like style] and it had a lot of shuffles [cue shuffly noodlage]. Led Zeppelin were always a heavy blues band, but I think you heard it really apparently on this album.
"Rock And Roll, Celebration Day, the title track with all the 12-string stuff – it was cool to hear a band without all the overdubs, it was just them playing within that limitation, although John Paul Jones had the keyboards and bass pedals and they could sound like five guys. It’s a great live album that meant a lot to me at the time. Then Van Halen came out…"
Van Halen – Van Halen (1978) Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush – Live (1978)
I got these two albums the same Christmas, 1978. Whatever they call it now – shred, whatever – back then it was just rip-your-face-off guitar playing, but still with a healthy dose of blues feel. Van Halen had Ice Cream Man [plays it, note-perfect], which was bluesy. Frank Marino had I’m A King Bee [plays it, with a rocker’s gurn] and also all these jazz lines.
"As much as I was enjoying the snarling-dog guitar that Eddie was doing and Frank’s super-powered athletic licks, harmonically they were both doing some sophisticated stuff too – they’d mix in blues and jazz, and it was nice to have that. By the time you get to the 80s a lot of that was left behind, but in the 70s a lot of the heavier, crazier musicians still had those elements, because their parents were jazz musicians. Eddie’s dad played clarinet.
"Alex [Van Halen]’s drumming was so open and live feeling – that real sloshy hi-hat; it reminded me of Ringo. A lot of the drumming on other albums around that time – Aerosmith’s Rocks, Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever or Cheap Trick’s Dream Police – all great, great records, but their production tended to be a lot more tame. [VH producer] Ted Templeman clearly told Alex to just go for it, to pretend it’s a gig.
"It certainly sounded like that, and that added excitement to the whole production because the musicians were a little more unleashed. I’d just started to play guitar a couple of years before those records came out and they blew my mind – ‘Holy Christ, what’s going on here?!’"
Rush – Hemispheres (1978)
“By the time Hemispheres came out I was able to play through that sort of stuff, and it was fun. I’d sit down with my pedalboard – my flanger, delay, wah-wah – and play the music, and play the pedals. Alex [Lifeson] had that great, swirly chorus sound on stuff – a nice clean sound for the arpeggios then heavier on songs like Circumstances [he rips into the main riff (flawlessly) and sings (slightly less so)].
"Geddy’s killin’, singing five octaves higher than anybody else. Neal [Peart] was the opposite of Alex Van Halen – he always had a very tight hi-hat, but the drummer in my band as a 14 year-old would play Van Halen songs like Neal. We’d tell him, ‘Man, play Rush like Rush but don’t bring that to the Van Halen stuff!’ This was the beginning of my exposure to prog. It was like a memorisation game – can you memorise all these parts and keep up as it goes along?
"With a Beatles song you hear it three times and it’s stuck in your head, it’s meant to be like a meme. Prog stuff is almost like, ‘I’m gonna throw in something tricky to put you off!’, so you had to study it enough to the point you can remember that wild part coming up. I love all that early Rush stuff, but Hemispheres really stood out. Plus it had that cool cover with the brain on it…”
Pat Travers Band – Live! Go For What You Know (1979)
“Pat Travers’ song on radio was Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights), this uptempo boogie blues. Even though the band are slamming and playing heavy they had that swing feel, it was close enough to jazz, and at first I was like, ‘Ah, I don’t know about this’, until the guitar solos came up.
"Pat Travers and [co-guitarist] Pat Thrall would trade off, and that really got my attention. There was a lot of funk on the record, but Tommy Aldridge was on the drums and it was heavy enough for me to give it a chance. Harmonically it was different to what you’d hear on, say, a Black Sabbath or Rainbow record. They had a song called Getting’ Betta, and it was almost disco.
"The first slogan I ever took to my heart was ‘Disco Sucks’, and that taught me later on to never get too attached to a slogan, ‘cos now I know it was wrong. Disco doesn’t suck – what was I thinking, it’s awesome!
"This album actually saved me from becoming an Yngwie [Malmsteen] clone. I could almost play like Yngwie then and it was exciting to, ‘cos he was great. Then once in a while I’d do a blues jam with my friend Bruce [Bouillet], the other guitar player in Racer X, and Bruce would sound so much better than me.
"The Pat Travers was the bluesiest album I had, so I went back and learned some of the solos, and I’d forgotten how cool it was. I got deeper into it, and that was the doorway for this heavy metal guy to understand what’s cool about blues and funk and jazz. It’s not pure any of that, but it’s a taste of it, just enough to get you interested, and that led me on a path I continue on to this day."
Frank Sinatra with Count Basie – It Might As Well Be Swing (1964)
"When most people talk about Frank Sinatra and Count Basie they’ll talk about Live At The Sands. That’s a good record certainly, but It Might As Well Be Swing, that’s the one. My friend [Racer X bassist] Juan Alderete played it for me at his house. He said, ‘Man, let’s check out my dad’s swing albums!’ Oh boy – bear in mind I’m this 19 year-old heavy metal fan.
"Anyway, the first track he played was Hello Dolly, and within three seconds, I’m won over. It was amazing. The grooves are so heavy and the band’s swingin’ so hard. Frank is killer, singing with the coolest timing, and the arrangements are super-sophisticated but not in a way that’s alienating.
"There’s a song called I Believe In You, it’s from a musical [Frank Loesser’s How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying] and the lyrics are hilarious – it’s this guy singing to himself in the mirror, complimenting himself [sings]: ‘You have the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth!’ The whole album’s great. It’s nice to be immediately won over to a style of music you wouldn’t think you’d like, and this record did that for me."
Loudness – Disillusion (1984)
“This is the metal record I was way into. In the late 80s Loudness started doing songs in English, but before that my room-mate got them on import for Japan. The riffs and solos on here are incredible, and the drumming – Munetaka Higuchi’s one of my favourite drummers ever.
"Disillusion was so heavy, but melodic too. Listen to the opening track, Crazy Doctor if you wanna get heavy metal chills with the hairs standing up on your arms. It’s so tough, it’s music that makes you feel you’re going to win life – like, ‘Life is a battle and I’m going to WIN!’ This was really influential on the early Racer X stuff. You can hear where I got, say, Into The Night (from Racer X’s Street Lethal LP).
Akira Takasaki is an amazing guitar player. I had the honour of meeting him – we did a guitar magazine cover together, neither of us was plugged in to an amp, and he was hitting the guitar so hard. And so do I. A lot of guys use the amp to make it loud – which you have to do – but he attacked the strings. Oh man, he’s the real deal. Loudness had a lot of great albums, but Disillusion is the one. Ten seconds in you’ll know you’ve found something good."
Todd Rundgren – Nearly Human (1989)
“Talk about albums that changed your life – this album and the tour did that for me. I was one of the chorus on the song I Love My Life. Todd wanted a gospel choir so they were rounding up as many people as possible and they called Eric (Martin, of Mr Big). Eric knew I was a fan so he asked if he could bring his buddy Paul.
"There’s a song on there called Hawking, inspired by Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist. I saw it as a combination of Beatles songs – it’s got the part of This Boy where John Lennon sings, ‘Until he sees you CRY-Y-Y-Y’, but Rundgren’s part is ‘Whenever I-I-I-I, I close my eyes’. It’s great on the album but when I saw him do it live in LA I never cried so hard in my life – it was embarrassing!
"I’d never been so moved by a musical performance, and I wondered why exactly. It wasn’t the guitar solo, but something else. It was the song, the melody, the dynamics – all the stuff that isn’t necessarily the guitar player’s job. And from then I wanted to know more about that, so that was a launchpoint of developing a real love and passion for songwriting, and I began to explore it.
"I really started getting into Pet Sounds, and all the post Sgt. Pepper pop records and trying to figure out what that was about. There are other great songs on here – Parallel Lines, The Waiting Game – it’s a really great record all the way through.”
Pursuit Of Happiness – Love Junk (1988)
“This was produced by Todd Rundgren, and the song Consciousness Raising As A Social Tool has got one of my favourite lyrics ever: ‘She went looking for a solution/To a problem that did not exist/She found an answer and she found some friends there/Conscious Raising As A Social Tool’.
Anybody who listens to my music knows I’ve got weird titles, and these didn’t come from being a Frank Zappa fan – they came more from being a Pursuit Of Happiness fan. Their hit was I’m An Adult Now, and I felt a real kinship with the lyrics of the lead singer, Moe Berg. He’s cynical, smart and funny, and not a great singer (which I could relate to), and the chords and vocal harmonies were great.
I’m not into music for the humour, that’s just the cherry on top, but I love this album. When I listen it takes me back to the summer of 1989 in LA – I had my first wonderful girlfriend, it was the beginnings of Mr Big. That record’s real time travel to me – I can smell the air…”