's new instrumental record, Fuzz Universe
, finds the insanely inventive and facile guitarist taking his playing, tones, and compositions to yet another level. The music here oozes and screams with sustain, echo, reverb, delay, wah, overdrive, and distortion those are the elements that make up the sounds on planet Gilbert. His playing has a mad grace and a sense of cohesion that began on the previous two solo records, Silence Followed By A Deafening Roar
and prior to that, Get Out Of My Backyard
He has been making records since age 19 so the challenge has been "to keep saying something new, or to say something that I said before but better.
" Gilbert accomplishes all of those things on Fuzz Universe and here he talks about how he accomplished that.
UG: You said you were listening to everything from Bulgarian female choir music to the Bee Gees. Was this for simple listening pleasure? Or was it part of the pre-ideas and inspiration?
The Bulgarian choir music was absolutely a pleasure to listen to. The harmonies are so beautiful and otherworldly. I wrote down some of the chord progressions that they used and tried to work it into my songs. I don't listen to the Bee Gees much now. They are already in my head from being on the radio so much in the 70s when I was a kid. But I didn't realize how interesting their chord changes were until I started playing through some of their songs. Barry Gibb knows what he's doing.
With a title like Fuzz Universe to work with, was the field wide open in terms of dialing in crazy Gilbert-esque tones?
I want to achieve a balance between clarity and excitement. Having a lot of distortion or fuzz adds a lot of harmonic excitement to the sound, but I have to play very accurately, or the string noise will become a mess. That's one of the biggest challenges of playing the electric guitar. I have to use my technique to retain the clarity of the notes. Having good gear helps too. I love my Ibanez Fireman and my Marshall amp.
Can you provide your definition of a fuzz universe?
It is the universe where all rock guitar players live. We all use distortion, overdrive, gain, saturation, or whatever you like to call it. I call it fuzz.
What was the first fuzz you ever heard? What was the first fuzz you ever had?
That's a good question. My parents gave me the first Jimi Hendrix album when I was five years old, so I heard some fuzz on Foxy Lady and Purple Haze. Paul McCartney had some fuzz on his bass on the Beatles song, Think For Yourself. I think the first fuzz to really blow me away was Mississippi Queen by Mountain, and then I heard Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and my fuzz addiction was permanent.
What are the greatest recorded fuzz moments for you on record?
Well, everyone knows about Black Sabbath so I'll try to think of some great fuzz that you might not have heard. There's an album called Blues Helping by the band Love Sculpture that has some amazing fuzz and guitar playing. I think that came out in the late 60s. The first album by the band Streets has an incredible guitar sound as well. That was a band with Mike Slamer on guitar, and Steve Walsh the singer from the band Kansas. It came out in the early 80s.
Did you want to create starting point sounds that were left of center?
I don't really know where center is for other people. For me, I guess the center is always the Beatles. That was my first inspiration for music. I wish I could sing and write songs like the Beatles did, but I'm better at playing the guitar, so my music tends to be heavier and have a lot more solos.
Did you consciously hook up pedals in weird signal chains looking for the ultimate fuzz tone?
"I want to achieve a balance between clarity and excitement."
I used two new overdrive pedals by a company called Majik Box. I love both pedals, so they are going to put them together and make it a signature pedal for me called the Fuzz Universe. It's a good name, I think. It should be available soon.
If you had to create this album with just a guitar and an amp, how different would it have been?
That is a frustrating thought. I love the whooshing sound of my MXR Phase 90. And many other pedals too. If I didn't have any pedals, I would probably just play blues.
Do the ears of the listener tune into the sounds of echoes and delays and sustains and distortion pedals as much as they do the actual music itself?
To me, they [sounds] are great. Many of my guitar heroes like Alex Lifeson, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Pat Travers, and Eddie Van Halen use similar sounds to the ones I'm using. I didn't think it was a big deal. I just thought it was some cool sounds. To me it is all part of the actual music.
And if they do, is that a good/bad thing?
I just like the sound. I feel like I'm being accused of moral irresponsibility for stepping on a phase shifter pedal. I wish more guitar players would step on a phase shifter now and then. Ha! Take that, moral police!
There's a real cohesion to Fuzz Universe. It really sounds like the same composer wrote all of these tracks. Can you sense that sort of identity as a writer really coming into focus on this album?
I've been making albums since I was 19 years old, so I've had many, many chances to say what I want to say with music. This isn't easy because I've said so much already. Fuzz Universe was actually a very difficult album for me to write. I worked really hard on it. But in the end, I love the way it sounds. I used a lot of new chord changes that I've never tried before. I was able to make some longer songs than I've ever written before. And I think my vibrato is better than it's ever been.
You said you've gotten closer to the ultimate rock guitar sound. What is that? What is it that you've been hearing in your head that you've been striving for?
It's having emotional vibrato, chunky rhythms, groovy riffs, face-melting solos, phase-shifted chords, the ability to control the guitar when it's clean or distorted, lots of string bending, using my guitar as a voice, and having a good balance of clarity and fuzz.
How has that sound/style been more fully realized on Fuzz Universe than it was on Silence Followed By a Deafening Roar and Get Out of My Yard?
I love all my babies. But my newest baby contains the song Fuzz Universe and I think this will join my best instrumental songs like Scarified and Technical Difficulties. The other songs all have passion and all my brainpower squeezed in to them.
Talk about one of the new babies, Fuzz Universe.
Most of the songs began with a drum groove; this one began with a gallop. Sort of like We Rock by Dio. I played a basic drum part, and came up with lots of riffs to go with it. The problem was that I had too many riffs, and I liked all of them. So I worked hard to write an arrangement that would fit everything. In the end, I was very happy with the way it flows.
What about Olympic?
This song was inspired by watching the Olympics on TV. Sometimes I really don't like fast guitar playing, but after watching all those fast athletes, I thought that it's OK to [be] fast. This isn't my fastest song, but it's fast enough, and very challenging to play. I like the combination of melodies, clean picking, riffs, arpeggios, solos, screaming vibrato, and big chunky chords. It's sort of a guitar triathlon.
On Count Juan Chutrifo you've worked in some harmony guitars?
The harmony is actually with my wife playing organ. There is only one guitar track. The first two songs on the album are pretty long arrangements, so I wanted to give the listener something a little easy to digest here. There are still some unusual rhythmic divisions, but I think anyone can move their head to it, so it should feel good.
Why did you choose Bach's Partita in Dm? Is it one of your favorite pieces by that composer?
This Bach piece has so many good phrases in it. You can hear that I used a lot of them for my own songs on this record. I've performed this live a few times already, and it's nerve-racking. It's quite a difficult piece to play on guitar, but I'm hoping that my technique will improve because of it.
Blue Orpheus is Todd Rundgren's song from A Cappella where Todd uses voices to do all the instruments. What so intrigued you with this Rundgren song?
I'm a huge Todd Rundgren fan, so I wish I could cover all of his songs. Todd is a master of songwriting and arrangements. I enjoyed playing all his vocal parts on guitar and seeing how so many different parts can fit together. I wish I could write like this. But until I can, I'll have to keep covering Todd songs.
Will My Screen Door Stop Neptune has a bit of a Van Halen feel in the rhythm?
"That's one of the biggest challenges of playing the electric guitar. I have to use my technique to retain the clarity of the notes."
This song actually began with me trying to use the same groove as Neon Knights by Black Sabbath. But after I wrote the guitar riff, I thought it would sound better as a half-time groove. If there was any other influence, it was probably Help by The Beatles. And using some techniques that I learned in the Bach piece to make a crazy augmented arpeggio that I had never done before. But Van Halen is in my musical DNA, so everything I play probably has some Van Halen in it.
Propeller was a strange little tune with a nice organ solo by your wife, Emi.
I want all the people in my band to play the best music possible. That's good for the audience, and inspiring to me.
Will Craig Martini (bass) and Jeff Bowders (drums) come up with grooves that inspire you? Or do you show them the tunes and then they create the rhythmic patterns?
For this album, I played the drums and bass on the demos. But I let Jeff and Craig stylize the parts however they want. I only know three drum fills, so Jeff can always do more interesting things than I can.
Don't Rain on My Firewood has a bit of Jimi Hendrix wah in it?
I've always been clumsy with the wah wah pedal. I have very big feet. But I practiced a lot for this album, so I could finally make some wah wah sounds that I liked. Of course there is some Hendrix influence here, as well as Robin Trower, Pat Travers, and the Doors.
Plastic Dracula is another wah song. What is the fascination that guitar players have with the wah-wah?
Wah-wah gives the guitar a vocal dimension, and the melody of this song feels like singing to me. I really like the bass line in this song; it's similar to 25 or 6 to 4 [Chicago] which is the first song I ever learned on guitar. But I made the melody a little more complicated in a way that I like.
Blowtorch has a great rhythm groove. Have you become a better rhythm player over the years?
I have a vintage Marshall head that was modified by Lee Jackson. I plugged it in, and the sound inspired me to play this riff. After recording for an hour, the amp started to smell like crme brulee, and white smoke began to pour out of the front. I've seen some chefs use a blowtorch to make crme brulee, so that inspired the title. I'm proud of the 5/4 lydian melody at the beginning. It's very mathematical.
Mantra the Lawn has a cool give-and-take with keyboards.
The organ sound is actually another guitar track. I used a Hughes and Kettner Rotosphere pedal to imitate the sound of a Leslie speaker. Emi was busy that day, so I just played it with guitar.
Is that the A Hard Day's Night chord at the end of song?
That is my favorite chord, so I use it as much as possible. I end Fuzz Universe with the same chord, but in a different key. Long live the 7sus4 chord.
Batter Up has a cool tremolo tone ala Link Wray.
I wanted to make my own version of Wipe Out. It was really written around the drums. When I listen to it now, I wish I would have made it a little shorter and used only the rhythm guitar and not the solos. Maybe I'll do the live version that way. I love the spring reverb.
You don't like working with a second guitarist on your solo albums why?
I have worked with second and even third guitarists on my solo albums: Flying Dog, Alligator Farm, Beehive Live, Raw Blues Power, and Acoustic Samurai. On those albums, we recorded very live even in the studio, so it was great to have more guitars to give the music a produced sound. On my recent instrumental albums, I have been on a very tight schedule, so I didn't have time to rehearse the song for a live recording. This means that I have to do more overdubs, and if I do this, it's easy to play all the guitars myself.
Was the Ibanez/Marshall rig your main setup? Pull out any other wild/different guitars? Amps?
I used my Ibanez Fireman guitars for most of the album. And a Marshall Vintage Modern running into a THD Hot Plate.
Any feelings on Les Paul's passing? Ever meet him?
My first electric guitar was a Les Paul, so his invention is part of my DNA. He will always be a legend, and I'm very thankful for what he did.
What has it been like playing with Mr. Big? Is there a new album in the works?
It's been fantastic. I'm happy that Eric, Billy, Pat, and I can play together again and be friends again. We'll be working on a new album soon.
Any more tribute albums down the road?
I've been learning a lot of Johnny Cash songs, so that might be fun. But I have no definite plans.
Have you talked to Mike Portnoy about doing the Avenged Sevenfold gig replacing the Rev?
"For me, I guess the center is always the Beatles. That was my first inspiration for music."
I haven't talked to Mike in a while. I'm sure he's playing great drums.
Any more Guitar Generation tours lined up with Richie Kotzen and George Lynch?
I don't have time right now, but I hope I can do more shows like that in the future.
Could you provide a few words on the United States album with Freddie Nelson?
Every time I hear that record, I like it. Freddie sings great and writes great songs.
You've been experiencing some tinnitus? You're in good company Brian Wilson was deaf in one ear.
I can still hear my guitar, but when people talk quietly I don't have a chance. Don't forget Beethoven.
Describe three things about your playing that you've never revealed before.
I've done so many instructional DVDs and lessons, that I think I've revealed everything.
If you could jam with any rhythm section dead or alive who would you choose?
I would love to be the drummer for AC/DC. If I have to play guitar, then I'm very happy with all the rhythm sections that I have.
If you could have been any guitar player in any band at any point in time, who would you have been?
I wish I could have been a Beatle. But I'm too tall, and I don't like to smoke.
Which of your heroes have you met? Have they lived up to expectations?
I've met many of my heroes. They are just people who play music. I don't expect them to be magical or mystical. But I'm always impressed by people who can sing higher than I can. I remember being backstage with Bryan Adams, and he could hit the high notes in any Beatles song so easily. I am very jealous of that.
If you could only use two effects for the rest of your life, what would they be?
That's an impossible question. If I could only use two for this tour, it would be my Fuzz Universe pedal by Majik Box, and my MXR script Phase 90. And a tuner.
Who would you have rather met: Jimi Hendrix or Mick Ronson? Why?
I can meet both of them every time I listen to their music. They are both very cool.
If you listened to 100 different fuzz sounds, could you pick out your own?
I could feel my own.
What is the one thing about your playing that everybody always gets wrong?
I've seen several people playing Fuzz Universe on YouTube already. Most people do a pretty good job of playing the fast riff, but they get the chords wrong. They are close, but no one has it exactly yet. And the exact chord is pretty cool. I'll play it live. Come to the show and you can learn it!
Interview by Steven Rosen