Monster guitar player Paul Gilbert is hosting the Great Guitar Escape from July 9th-13th at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, NY. He'll be teaching everyone from beginners to pros, something he's been doing since he was 18 and hired on as a teacher at Hollywood's Guitar Institute of Technology. There is nobody better suited to conduct this five-day retreat: Gilbert is a masterful player who blends speed, grace and fire in a style that has been the hallmark on numerous solo albums as well as the Mr. Big recordings. What makes Paul such a perfect teaching tool is that he loves the guitar as much as the people he's instructing. When you read about what the instrument means to him you can't help but be touched by his ardent devotion to the six-string. And if you're not moved by his passion, then his sense of humor ought to bring a smile to your face. Here Gilbert talks about giving lessons, taking lessons and life's lessons.
In the press release you mentioned a certain defining moment. What was that moment for you?
The first time that I watched my uncle play guitar. He was sitting just a few feet awayIt was much more captivating than even my favorite records because he was right there, making music, and shaking the air. A couple years later when I had started to play myself, he took a quick look at my struggling fingers, and said, Try putting your hand on the bridge to mute the strings. It will sound better that way. With those two sentences, he saved me years of frustration and put me on a path to sounding good. That's what I hope to do when I teachTo use my experience to help the students find what they need to improve quickly and start sounding better right away.
As you were learning the guitar, were there certain techniques or things that were difficult for you? Did it all come easily?
Technique absolutely did not come easily to me. I had to practice a lot. But I could feel the practice working, and I would get really excited about how I could sound in the future. I used to look forward to summer vacations from school, because I could put in full days of practicing. And again, my main motivation was that I could really feel that I was getting better. I think the only thing that did come easily was that I could hear rhythms. I remember playing the riff to Hey Bulldog by The Beatles, and none of my friends could play it. I must have been around 10 years old. It wasn't hard to play, technically. But the rhythm had a swing and some syncopations that were tricky if you couldn't hear them. I had listened to the song a lot growing up, so it felt natural to me. My friends could put their fingers in the right place, but they couldn't get the groove to flow. That was the first time that I felt like I pulled ahead. But there were always guys who were faster than me. I was must more patient, so I eventually became fast too.
Was there a moment in time after mastering some solo where you thought to yourself, I'm getting better?
The most exciting day of my guitar life was when I learned how to bend a string. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but I immediately recognized that it sounded like Jimmy Page's solo in the breakdown of Heartbreaker. And for the first time, my guitar playing sounded real to me. I still love bending strings so much. It gives the guitar a voice.
What is it you love about teaching?
Mostly, I'm just excited about all these guitar ideas that I have, and I want to show them to somebody. But I have gotten deeper and deeper into the art of teaching itself. I'm fortunate because I've had a lot of experience teaching one-on-one or with small groups of students. I learn so much if I can hear the students play. I immediately know where to focus, and what they need. That varies radically depending on the level and interests of the student, so I have to be ready with a wide range of information and ideas. It has truly improved and inspired me as a guitar player to teach these different levels of students. And in the end, we're all just musicians having a good time playing music and talking about music.
When you're creating videos and writing columns for Guitar Player and Premier Guitar, have you stumbled on new ideas and concepts? Things you've never played before?
Writing for a magazine forces me to do two things. First, I have to write down the musical examples. And really limits what I can teach. I am not a good sight-reader, and I sort of don't believe that anyone else is either. So I try to use examples that are relatively easy to read. The best way to do this is to make the rhythms and inflections simple. It's actually simpler to write out a Bach harpsichord concerto than it is to write out a blues guitar solo, so I tend to stay with classical things or phrases with very simple rhythms. The other thing that I have to do is to take my musical ideas and philosophies and put them into written form so they're entertaining and not tedious or rambling. This process helps me put my thoughts in order, and hopefully I end up smarter from it.
What made you want to create The Great Guitar Escape?
I had heard about the Full Moon ResortThey were having some music camps by respected guitarists like Dweezil Zappa. And even one of my biggest heroes, Todd Rundgren did a camp there recently. I met some people who had gone there, and they said it was a beautiful place with a great atmosphere for music. On the pure teaching side of things, I was excited to put together a group of musicians that I would want to learn from. Kid Andersen and Sam Coulson are two guys that I've been watching on YouTube. I love how they play, but also they are excellent at explaining what they do. Guthrie Govan and Tony MacAlpine are both established virtuosos, and I know it will be amazing to learn from them and to watch them perform. Scotty Johnson has played on my solo records and tours before and now he teaches at Berkeley. Besides having a mastery of rock and blues, he can play some mean jazz, and has valuable experience playing in the orchestra pit at Broadway shows. I also wanted feature a world-class bassist and drummer, so I contacted Kelly LeMieux, who has played bass with everyone from Dave Mustaine to Goldfinger to my solo band, and Rodney Holmes who has played drums with legends like Santana and Randy Brecker. I've also got Tom Size to mix our live shows and talk about the job of studio and live engineering. Tom has worked with everyone from Steve Vai to Joe Pass, and I've done tons of records with him manning the controls. I've also got the head of Ibanez's research center coming to talk about guitar maintenance and repair. It's such a concentrated ball of guitar knowledge and excitement that you might not be able to sleep for the next month, just wanting to play your guitar! That's my plan, anyway.
If I was a young guitarist and I wanted to play like Paul Gilbert, what are five elements I'd need to know?
I actually started with just three elements. I used my middle finger, the lowest string, and only upstrokesfor about two years. It was really slow-going, but I got pretty good at upstrokes, and that actually helped me a lot later on. Seriously, so much of my technique came from learning songs and playing in bands. If you learn a lot of Beatles, Led Zeppelin, early Van Halen, Rush, Pat Travers, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, U.F.O., KISS, Aerosmith, Ramones, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Spice Girls, Sex Pistols, and some Bach piano piecesThat will definitely put you on a similar road to the one I've traveled so far.
Your earliest lessons were a bit like pulling teeth?
My first guitar teacher tried to start me on guitar by teaching me how to read music. I think that is a really bad place to start. Reading or any visual method of learning is immediately removed from what music is. Music is sound
! To me, it's ridiculous to study the art of sound by looking
at it. Later on, when a student has a firm grip on making some music, it can be helpful to introduce music theory and reading as a way to organize their thinking. But I strongly believe that music should start with music
! For guitar, I think strumming some simple chords is the best way to get going. They're easy and they sound good. Man, I wish my teacher had just shown me some chords.
Did you hear a guitar player when you were very young and say, I want to play like him?
I was really impressed by good vibrato. My uncle's vibrato was always great, so I wanted to sound like him. His vibrato style was slow and widelike Mick Ralphs from Bad Company. If you listen to the break in Rock Steady where Mick plays that one great vibrato-ed note. That's what I was aiming for. Mick Ronson, Uli Roth, Michael Schenker, and Brian May all had something similar. And of course, I liked fast players like Eddie Van Halen and Gary Moore.
When you're teaching a semi-beginner, what are the most difficult elements for them to learn?
Alternate picking seemed impossible for years. I actually thought that I'd never be able to do it, so I didn't worry about it and just concentrated on developing more technique with my left hand. Finally, when I went to G.I.T. my picking just came together. Also the music theory that I learned there really helped me to understand songs that I couldn't pick out by ear before. I do love music theory, I just don't think it should be taught until you've learned some songs.
Your VIP Lessons in Southern California are sold out this coming January 14 and 15. Are there things every student wants to know from you? What are the three questions they always ask?
A lot of people are interested in fast picking. I've taught it so much that I have a lot of ways to break it down and explain it. It does require small and precise motions, plus a lot of coordination with the left hand, so it can take years before it gets comfortable and useful. I try to encourage students to work on things that they are ready to master right away. It is not fun to wait years before something sounds good. So I try to show them how they can take something that they can do already and expand on it. If you build on your strengths, you will always sound good. And you'll get to the tricky stuff sooner than you think.
With YouTube and all the guitar instruction available online, do you think modern players progress faster? Are they better at a younger age?
I've given lessons all over the world and I've met some fantastic players. I think the biggest factor to progressing on guitar is to simultaneously develop your fingers and ears. YouTube allows you to look
at players, which can give you some insight, but the real progress is going to happen for the players who listen a lot and listen hard.
Back in the day, you were kind of limited to the guitars you could choose from. With so many really good guitars available for relatively little money today, do you think this access to reliable instruments has accelerated the learning curve for new players?
The amount of time and effort that it takes to buy
a guitar is so tiny compared to the amount of time and effort that it takes to learn to play
it, that I don't think the price of instruments has much effect on the world's artistic output. But I'm happy if more people have access to trying a guitar. It's a great way to add happiness to your life.
Chris Broderick is involved in the Skolnick & Broderick Winter Guitar Retreat. He said it's more difficult for guitarists to distinguish themselves today because there are more of them and because there's so much more exposure that you're probably less likely to hear about them. Do you agree? Why?
HmmI hope that my own playing will be noticed by someone, but really my main goals are just to sound good, to keep improving and to have a good time. There are parts of my playing that I feel are passionate mine
, but they aren't only
mine. I've borrowed all the good stuff from the music that I grew up listening to. It all just ends up as my personal greatest hits of guitar, and hopefully comes out every time I shake a note around. I have no control at all about how other people will respond to that, so I don't bother to worry about it too much. Also, I've been pretty fortunate in the music industry. A lot of musicians have noticed what I've played, so maybe I don't have an objective view of how hard the struggle can be. I am thankful though. I do have gratitude!
Your iPOD is going to mysteriously delete all the music in it. If you had to choose one CD to represent each of the following to remain, what would that CD be and why?
*The guitarist with the greatest vibrato.
I always like to listen to Robin Trower. It's impossible to pick one person as the greatest, because there is so much cool guitar playing out there, but something about Robin's vibrato connects with me in a deep way. The obvious album to pick is Bridge of Sighs, but I'm going to say Victims of the Fury because he gets to the point so quickly. The first 15 seconds of the song Jack and Jill gets me making guitar-faces and wanting to play like he does.
*The best rhythm guitar.
I'm going to go with Van Halen II. The song Outta Love Again is crushing metal and super funky at the same time. And the solo - even though it's a solo and in a high register - has amazing rhythmic structure. If James Brown's feet could play guitar, it would sound like Eddie Van Halen on that tune.
*The guitarist with the best sense of harmonic composition.
In general, that's not really a strong point for rock guitar players. Piano players tend to beat us up when it comes to chords. Or jazz guitarists have us outmatched too. I like guys like Eric Johnson and Allan Holdsworth. And Todd Rundgren has written some great things, but he plays both guitar and piano and I have a feeling that his more chordy stuff comes from the piano. I'll have to give this category to the Beatles, because their early hits were very guitar-driven and the chords and melodies we're still complex and beautiful. I'll pick the Hard Day's Night album, if only because it has the song, If I Fell. The chords and melody in the intro are so stunningand it's all guitar.
*The most amazing guitar tone.
I've lost some of my high-end in my hearing, that I probably can't tell anymore. I do love Eric Johnson's guitar sound on a song called Texas on his newest album. So I'll go with that one.
How significant has it been designing the Ibanez PGM and Fireman guitars in terms of the evolution of your playing?
Most of the PGMs are basically Ibanez RG guitars with some painted f-holes and the electronics simplified and moved around a little. I really liked the RG guitars when I tried them in the late 80s, and I was amazed at how successful my PGM guitars became with just a few simple modifications to the RG. Over the years, I built up a quite a collection of PGMs, and I found that certain ones always sounded the best in the studio. I wondered why. I wondered if it was just a happy accident of the tree that wood came from, or was there some specific feature that was giving me my favorite tone. After a lot of research, I came up with the theory that a thick neck joint is a huge factor for making a guitar resonate and sustain well. This was around the time that I got the idea to flip an Ibanez Iceman upside down, so my early Fireman prototypes had really beefy neckjoints and necks. And result was great. I loved the tone. Since then, Ibanez and I have worked to find the perfect balance of neck thickness and playability, and the newest Fireman production model has the perfect neck that we found. It's really an awesome guitar. If you love good sounding, resonating notes, you'll really enjoy playing the Fireman.
Jumping subjects a bit, Mr. Big's What If
album is the first time you've recorded with them since the Hey Man
record back in 1996. Through all the various projects you've been involved in during those intervening 14 yearsCDs, DVD's, instructional projects, et aldid you return as a different player?
I was still me, only more so. I knew a lot more about blues phrasing. It's funny how rock players sometimes think that blues is simpler than rock. The more I've gotten into blues, I've found that although rock can be faster and louder, blues can have more advanced harmony and the notes tend to be treated with a more sophisticated touch. Getting deeper into the blues has opened up so many doors for me. I didn't get to use that much of it on What If which actually used more of my metal and pop vocabulary. But I've got more blues stuff ready if anyone ever needs it.
Are there riffs/solos on What If that you wouldn't have played back on the Hey Man album? How much have you changed as a player?
was a very intuitive album. We recorded it so quickly that there really wasn't time to think or judge things. I like that process! There are times when it's good to think and judge, like when I'm practicing or rehearsing. But the final steps of performing and recording tend to come out better if they are live and immediate. Kevin Shirley our producer made sure to get that from us. He barely ever gave me a second take. And I was happy that way. I like the result. It sounds real.
Mr. Big has always been known for the rockers like Undertow but also for the ballads ala All the Way Up. Do you approach a loud vs. soft song in a different way? Do you bring in different techniques/approaches/tones when you're switching styles?
That's what pedals and a guitar collection are for! And of course I try to play the right style for the song. That's my job, when it comes right down to it. I am happily employed by the song.
If you could step back for a moment, how would you characterize your playing on What If?
It's me, having a good time, on some new Mr. Big tunes. It's a starting place for the ultimate goal which is to play the songs in the live show. And hopefully some of those bend strings will catch your ear and make you feel something.
What was that like working with Kevin Shirley on the album?
He insisted that we rock, and accepted no substitutes. He left us alone if we were making progress. He would come in and give us a hand if we got stuck on something. I absolutely enjoyed the process and the result. I hope I can work with him again.
In closing, some what if' questions:
What if you were going up in space and there was only room for five CDs on the carousel. What would you bring? Why?
The Beatles' Help
because I love it. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Trilogy
because there are still a bunch of licks and chords that I need to steal from that record. Joe Pass Virtuoso
because I'm listening to it right now and he's just sounding awesome. Rachmaninov piano preludes, because my wife has been playing them lately and they are so beautifulI'm guessing that there's no room for a piano in space. And lastmaybe some Bach harpsichord music so I'll always have something to learn, and Rachmaninov is too difficult to play on guitar.
What if aliens from another planet landed. They were making a mix tape of the greatest guitar players in the galaxy and they wanted you to give them three Paul Gilbert tracks. What would you give them? Why?
I've still got to write those. My own listening tastes and standards have really changed in the last couple years. I'm still happy with a lot of my recorded performances. But I think my writing and arranging have so much room to grow, and actually my playing does too. The best is yet to come. The aliens must wait.
The Mayans have predicted that the end of the world is happening in 2012 (let's hope it doesn't). If you were writing the legacy of your achievements, what would you say? What do you think you brought to the electric guitar that wasn't there before you played it?
It would nice to have a legacy of achievements. But I'm too busy to organize or count them. I'm not entirely satisfied with what I've done so far, so I've got to get a guitar in my hands, and try to play something good. So much of it is just enjoying the process. I just like to tinker around with the guitar. If the result ends of being an impressive legacy of achievements, that certainly would be nice. But really, I just like to bend the notes, look for good-sounding places to put my fingers, and imagine how it will all fit together with the other musicians, in the context of a song. I just want to play my guitarin 2013 and beyond.
Interview by Steven Rosen