An Interview with Paul Gilbert of Racer X & Mr. Big

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Image credit: Jason Quigley.

Paul Gilbert is a generational talent. There’s a reason why he’s on the top of many people’s lists for best guitar players out there.

Starting his career at a very young age after picking up a guitar at 11 years old, Paul was already giving lessons just years later as a recent graduate from GIT. Not too long after that, Racer X, and then Mr. Big was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Between Racer Xs Scarified and Technical Difficulties and Mr. Big’s To Be With You and Wild World, you can see Paul was just born to play.

Paul’s new seasonal offering later this month is a melodic fusion of Jazz, Rock, and Metal in the form of the Christmas album ‘Twas, featuring 13 classics, so be sure to check that out when you can!

Anthony:
Paul, how have you been?

Paul:
I’ve been good. All the fingers are attached, none of them are falling off, so…everything is good!

Anthony:
That’s great. So, let’s start out with your new Christmas album ‘Twas.

Paul:
It’s a thing. Look at that — a brand new album…it’s me on the back. Only red, green, and white guitars, oh I just lied, there’s a black one in here. I didn’t play that one, but you know Santa’s got the black boots. [Laughs].

Anthony:
You’ve got all the colors going! It comes out on November 26th, right?

Paul:
That sounds good. I’ll go with that.

Anthony:
And you played all Ibanez guitars for this one, didn’t you?

Paul:
I played all the instruments on the last one Werewolves in Portland, and this one, the Christmas album ‘Twas. I actually hired a band for that one, and I needed to hire a band ’cause some of the songs are tricky, some of them are almost like Jazz arrangements. ‘Cause I do a lot of research, I would find my favorite version and sometimes they would have a whole orchestra, choir, and all these wild chords, so I hired two Jazz musicians, Dan Balmer on guitar, and Clay Giberson on keyboards. And so, they’re the smart guys, they know all the tricky chords, so they get me through the hard songs, and then I also had a Blues rhythm section, so pretty earthy and cool grooves. It has Jimi Bott on the drums and Timmer Blakely on the bass. And then, really all I have to do is play the melody on to. We put that band together and did everything live in the studio. I got it done in about six days, with hardly any rehearsal. And it was frightening.

Anthony:
With someone of your caliber, I’m surprised that it was kind of frightening to you. You’ve been playing guitar since you were young. Your first band was 16, well, you were in Guitar Player Magazine at 16.

Paul:
I was younger than that, I was about 11 when I got my first guitar. I remember singing Steve Miller “Take the Money and Run”. That was great, three chords and a groove. And I do a lot of teaching now, and a lot of times…that’s a missing element — people know their scales, but they’ve never played with a drummer for three minutes straight. So, I’m really fortunate I was able to play with a lot of bands when I was a kid.

Anthony:
You started with Racer X early on in your career too.

Paul:
Yeah, Racer X was when I moved out to California. I went to school at GIT (Guitar Institute of Technology), which is part of the Musicians Institute, and I’d also hooked up with an independent record producer named Mike Varney, and he had offered me an independent record deal. I was trying to put a band together for that and met a couple of guys at school, and Mike hooked me up with the singer Jeff Martin, and that became Racer X. We did really well locally in L.A. At the time, L.A. was really a musician town, so we were kind of a musician band, and everybody wanted to come to see us, and unfortunately, we didn’t really get to tour much outside of Los Angeles, but in L.A, we did great.

Anthony:
You were selling out shows at the height of Racer X’s career.

Paul:
Thank goodness, ’cause there was the pay-to-play system, which we couldn’t believe it, we’re like, “What? We’re working, we have to pay you?” But that’s the way it was. But at about the third show, we started really selling out. So, that was…we’ll never forget those times…like if nobody shows up, I don’t know how we’re gonna pay rent. I’m glad we got through that. 

Anthony:
I’ve been listening to a lot of Racer X, and that stuff is just right down my alley. I’ve been getting a lot into that 80s Metal, Glam metal, and Hair Metal stuff.

Paul:
It was a really fun band. It was…I remember at the time of listening to a lot of this Japanese band called Loudness, and there was a German band called Accept, and those two bands were really influential in what we were writing, and of course, Van Halen, and growing up with The Beatles, there was a melodic sense that I got from listening to them, and it was also just the musicianship with that band was ridiculous! We used to really look forward to soundcheck because the opening band would come in and be waiting in the back of the room while we soundcheck and first Scott Travis would get up there and test his drums out, and everybody in the back would be going like, “Oh, what’s going on, this drummer is unbelievable,” and then John would get up and test out his bass, “ Oh man the drummer AND the bass player, unbelievable!” And then Bruce and I would test out our amps and everyone’s like, “What’s going on?” One by one we got on…we were quite an intimidating soundcheck. [Laughs].

Paul with his custom Iba-Phone in Racer X 1987

Anthony:
You didn’t have too much commercial success with Racer X but made it big locally. You ended up going on to Mr. Big about in ‘88, correct?

Paul:
Yeah, Mr. Big was about ’88. I had been a really big fan of Billy Sheehan ’cause he was in a band called Talas. I used to sneak into the clubs and see them all the time, and of course, Billy being with David Lee Roth was a big deal. And I knew about Eric’s stuff too, and he had some really good solo records that I was listening to, so I was already familiar with those guys. I didn’t know Pat, but as soon as I played with him, he was great to play with. And the band also had a great manager, Herbie Herbert, who actually just recently passed away, and Herbie is a really important person in all our lives for the business and just his philosophy of how to be serious about your career, and then not do dumb things.

Anthony:
And then you went solo in around ‘97 with King of Clubs.

Paul:
After eight years with Mr. Big, we were really about establishing the band, we didn’t do very many side projects or anything, and so by the time the mid-90s rolled around, and I’ll just speak for myself, I was going nuts. I was like, “I gotta do something else. This is driving me crazy,” and I think if I hadn’t left somebody else would have. We needed to break, so I got out around then. And then we had become really big in Japan, and so pretty much my whole career for about the next five…maybe 10 years or so, I was really focused on Japan. I would record albums that were primarily released in Japan. I would tour primarily in Japan, and that was my career…I did really well over there, and I think the thing that broke me out of it was doing the G3 tour with Joe Satriani, and that was around 2006, 2007. I can’t remember exactly, but that sort of brought me back to playing in the States, and I did a solo tour in Europe, and it went way better than I expected. I had sort of given up on the rest of the world, I thought, “Well, this is just my fate, to be a Japanese musician,” and I thought, “I’ll take it. I like Japan. This is cool.” But it was wonderful to be welcomed back into my home country, and other places around the world, and ever since then, I’ve been playing everywhere.

Anthony:
I know we’re kind of jumping all over the place here, but what was it like going from the 80s, in the 90s, when there seemed to be a sudden genre change, I guess you could say, from all that Glam Metal to Grunge.

Paul:
Well, and just being a musician in the first place, you sort of have this expectation of at any time your career can just come to an end, you’re just lucky to have one in the first place. It’s really…your idea of like, “Okay, I’m gonna be a Rock Star for a living.” You know that this is a ridiculous idea and that it’s probably not gonna happen. It’s like, “Okay, well, I’m gonna play the lottery. Is my ticket gonna win or not?” And when it does, I think, “Okay, I’m gonna try it again tomorrow, am I gonna win?” Well, of course not. So I remember our manager, we had the song “To Be With You,” and it was a big hit. It was actually a number one hit, and I remember Herbie meeting with us and going like, “Well, this is never going to happen again for you guys. This is it It’s amazing it even happened once, but don’t make any purchases based on this happening all the time, it’s a freak of nature.” He wasn’t putting us down. He didn’t say It’s not gonna happen because you’re bad people, or you’re not good enough musicians, it’s just really unlikely. He could see the trends that were coming, whether it be in Rock music, the Grunge/Alternative, or whether it be in Pop music, Dance, Rap, and that kind of stuff. He was like, “Skinny, long hair guys playing guitars, why don’t we just go and play Japan for a couple of years, you guys.” To this day, I’m genuinely grateful to still have a guitar in my hands every day, that’s still what pays the bills and puts the food on the table, and whatever the gig is…it’s ever-changing. I think that’s kind of a good thing, you base your expectations on like, “I’m gonna need to be flexible,” it’s not like, “Oh, I deserve to be this, have a certain career that just stays the same all the time, ’cause that’s what I deserve.” No way. And anybody who thinks that is really setting himself up for disappointment, so that when a trend comes and goes, of course, I’m happy that I could have like two weeks of being famous. That was unbelievable.

Anthony:
So, you just gotta stay humble and do your thing.

Paul:
If anything, I’m happy that I was able to get into the kind of music world where I could teach. I’m known as a person who knows about the instrument and can talk about it. So, it’s funny, there’s the word “feel,” and I think a lot of the great players will say things like, “Oh, you just do work on your feel, you got to get a good feel.” It’s like…that’s 100% correct, but also 100% not helpful from a teaching standpoint. You can’t tell a person, “Go work on your feel.” It’s too general. You gotta be able to take it apart, “What is feel?” Let’s figure out what the first step is — what action do I take? And that’s something that I’ve got the temperament for like, “Okay, well, let’s tear it apart, let’s open up the hood, and see what’s under there.” I really enjoy figuring that stuff out and solving that problem.

Paul Gilbert, March 2021. Image credit: Jason Quigley.

Anthony:
As you mentioned a minute ago, you teach, you’re also a teacher now too.

Paul:
I’ve taught since I was a teenager, it was funny, I remember being at 15 years old playing gigs and people would come up afterward, “Dude, do you give lessons?” And I’d be like, “I don’t know? I’ve never given lessons I’ll try.” 10 bucks is 10 bucks, you know? So, I’ve been teaching since then. When I graduated from GIT, I started teaching there a lot, and not always to success. I didn’t just come out of the womb as a person who had to teach, so sometimes, I would teach a class and they’d go like, “You’re not right for this,” ’cause they take me out of the class, and have to put me back to private lessons or something. So, there’s a learning curve to it. I’m still learning.

Anthony:
That’s what I hear a lot — no matter how long someone’s been playing, they say they’re still learning.

Paul:
It has been something that I’m connected to, and I think I’ve been able to help people figure stuff out, and inspire people. So, that’s been a really nice element to it, and I’ve got an online school now, which during lockdown it was amazing ’cause I could do everything online. And as I said, It’s not live, which is actually better, you wouldn’t think so, you’d think Skype or Zoom would be the best thing, but it slows down the pace, and allows both the student and me to think about what we’re doing at a pace where it’s a better pace. So, the way the school’s set up is they send in a video, and I watch it, and I’ve got some time to think about it, rather than just my knee-jerk answer. I’ll do some research, I go like, “Okay, well, I know these songs would really help this person out if they played it,” and I kind of know it, but I gotta get it right. So, I’ll sit down and learn the song, and then show them to him, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it was live. So, their questions tend to be better ’cause they’re making a video, and It’s a different thing that doesn’t have to be live, and certainly there are probably advantages to that, but we really been able to get good, good stuff done. The system is called Video Exchange. The company’s called Artist Works.

Anthony:
That’s kind of how it is with these interviews…between doing live interviews and emailed ones, it’s kind of the same thing. I have time to think about my questions, and they’d have time to think about their answers for the other person send back vs doing these on the spot.

Paul:
Whenever I have a new album coming out, I always like to do a couple of text interviews first, just to sort out, “What do I really mean?”

Anthony:
It’s harder for some answers to come up on the spot.

Paul:
One of the things that has been useful about doing interviews is to keep an eye on when I don’t know the answer, and to be kind of willing to go like, “I don’t know,” and that’s a really useful life skill to be able to go rather than just open my mouth, ’cause I’m under the spotlight. It’s like — It’s okay. Sometimes, I go like, “I don’t know, I’ll go work on that, but I don’t have an answer for you now.”

Anthony:
So, let’s see, you were in Guitar Player magazine at age 16.

Paul:
That was obviously way pre-internet, so yeah, that was the only way to connect on a large scale, and Mike Varney was the author of that column, and Mike was great because he was both encouraging about the things that he liked about my playing in my writing, but he was also very truthful and brutally honest about the things he didn’t like. And it’d take my breath away sometimes ’cause Mike’s really funny, he’s got a good sense of humor, but he would say things like, “Is this a joke, or, are you trying to be good. This is like this is the worst song I’ve ever heard. It’s so bad. Are you just messing with me? And you’re gonna send me the real song next week?” So, he really was critical of my songwriting, he just thought it was the worst thing he ever heard in his life, and on multiple occasions, I would try to send in another one and he’d be like, “This even worse.” There was no holding back with his critique, but at the same time, he would always have something good to say, he would say like, “Yeah, but your solos killer. You’re playing great, but your writing sucks.” And I hang up the phone and sit with that and think like, “Okay, well, I gotta figure out how to write and put some time into it.” One of the reasons my writing sucked is the process wasn’t something I enjoyed, and so I had to push myself to do something that I didn’t enjoy very much. And I kinda get through that and still, I didn’t suddenly blossom into Paul McCartney, it’s been a very gradual road for me with writing, and I think finally after decades…I’m studying to connect to the writer that I want to be. But it’s been a very slow path, and I really have Mike’s unfiltered critique to thank for getting me over that initial hump of just like doing some grunt work, and doing a lot of just…writing and writing and writing and writing, whether it’s bad or good, just sort of getting your hands dirty, and get a lot of music rolling along.

Paul Gilbert, March 2021. Image credit: Jason Quigley.

Anthony:
I’d imagine you need both sides of that critique to be able to move along and grow as an artist. You can’t just hear positivity all the time if something’s bad you gotta know it.

Paul:
You gotta strike out a lot to get a hit.

Anthony:
Who are some favorites you’ve gotten to play with? Have you got to meet any of your favorite artists on the road or on tour?

Paul:
Yeah, that’s been wonderful. With Mr. Big, we started opening up for bigger bands. We opened up for Rush, which was huge. We opened up for Bryan Adams, Aerosmith, and Scorpions. Let’s see…one of my favorites is Cheap Trick, they would let me sit in on the encore, and let me play with them a little bit. I think it was like the fourth time ’cause they tour a lot. So, they called and said “We’re coming through town again,” and I said, “This time, instead of playing guitar can I play the drums?” And they let me. I love playing drums as a hobbyist. I played drums on my last Werewolves of Portland album, but they let me do it, and to play drums with Cheap Trick, was one of the most fun amazing experiences I ever had. And that was actually something I had to do with Mr. Big, we used to switch instruments at the end of the night, and I was probably the most accomplished drummer besides the drummer. So, I’d be the drummer. Those are big shows, to play drums, like in an arena and you really you got some responsibility, you gotta keep a certain amount of physical stamina, and I’m not muscly, I’m not in shape. I’ve never really been an exerciser, so when I was younger, it was fairly easy ’cause you’re young, you’re strong, but I remember the last couple tours I was getting my late 40s and 50s, I’m going, “I don’t know if I’m gonna make it to the end.” So, it was interesting to play an instrument that’s much more physically demanding versus the guitar. There’s a famous Dire Straits lyric, “Maybe get a blister on your little finger,” that’s about what it is you do, you don’t have to really work in terms of the physical part of it, but drums is a whole nother deal.

Image credit: Jason Quigley.

Anthony:
With Racer X you had two lead guitars, right?

Paul:
The first album I did on my own, and then Bruce Bouillet. When I first started teaching at GIT, he was one of my students and he immediately stood out. I was like, “Oh man, this guy can play.” So, I started showing him what I thought were my cutting edge phrases and techniques, and he would come back the next week and have it nailed, just be playing it perfectly. I’m going like “Jeez, as long as you can play that let’s just try it in harmony keep playing that one, I’ll do the higher harmony.” And I thought like, “Nobody’s doing this, there are amazing guitar players — Van Halen and Gary Moore are great guitar players, but the great guitar teams are great, but they tend to be playing slower melodies and they’re not like ripping and doing that stuff, and I thought, I’ve never heard anybody do this.” I don’t know if I even asked the rest of the band…he just like…joined, and then I kind of called the rest of the guys in the band and said, “We’ve got another guitar player now.” And so, Bruce and I got along really well. We both played chess, and we’re both guitar nerds, so that was the start of that and do a lot of the harmonies.

Anthony:
You’re mainly focusing on your solo career now? Or do you see any future with Racer X or Mr. Big at all?

Paul:
I take it In three to six month time periods, and the world is so unusual right now with the lockdowns and everything that I can’t predict anything. So, I’m kind of waiting for that to end. And it certainly…it’s nice that I have the ability to be a multi-instrumentalist, so if I really need to lock down, I can sit in a room and make a record on my own, but I prefer to play with other people. It’s nice to have different flavors of musicians to work with, this Christmas album, ‘Twas, was a group I’ve never played with before. The bass player, Timmer Blakely, I’ve recorded with before, but everybody else I’ve never recorded with before. They all brought things in that I wouldn’t have thought of, and took the music to a new place. That’s wonderful to be able to do that. And as far as the other bands, I don’t know, just sort of following your inspiration, and it’s certainly nice to have a group of people that you have a history with, ’cause you know if you make a record with them, there’s gonna be interest, and that’s a certain sound, if I just sit in a room with Juan Alderete from Racer X, he plays bass and I play guitar, that by itself sounds like Racer X, just the sound that we have when we play in A chord, it’s like “The Racer X A chord.” That’s cool. To have that fingerprint.

Anthony:
I watched the video for “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings” for the new album ‘Twas, and it looks like everybody just got together very well. It blended seamlessly.

Paul:
It was nice to have people that knew about the sophisticated chords ’cause it doesn’t sound that complicated as it goes by, ’cause your ear tends to follow the melody and the melody is pretty simple, but you try playing it. The stuff that they had to go through…actually, I wish I had had the time to do it all myself ’cause I would have learned a lot, but I was in more of the producer’s role where I’m just going like, “Okay, here’s this.” for “Hark!” It was the Nat King Cole version, and a full orchestra and choir, and I brought those guys over and said, “Listen to this and let’s work out the details.” With complicated music, I don’t necessarily want it to be a complicated experience listening to it. I don’t want you to go away from listening to it thinking like, “Oh, I’m really smart from having navigated through this complicated thing.” I wanted to roll by smoothly, but at the same time, it’s a different sound than if I had played like a Punk Rock version, or just sort of used my Rock ‘N’ Roll vocabulary to play through it, there’s some sophisticated stuff going on.

Anthony:
What’s next? Do you see yourself playing with something the Trans-Siberian Orchestra any time soon?

Paul:
I’ve heard that name. I’m not familiar with what they do. I think if I had a passion…I got a couple of different passions right now, one of them is great vocal duos where they sing in harmony a lot, like the Everly Brothers, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, and of course, Lennon or McCartney. And possibly doing that kind of thing with guitar ’cause I did some things with Andy Timmins, a really good guitar player out of Texas, and we had some jam sessions where we just played melodies together. He’s got a great voice on the guitar, and I’m working on mine, it was just nice to sort of do what the Everly Brothers did, or what Lennon and McCartney did, but on guitar, and then that’s something that’s exciting to me. The other thing is, I’ve kind of rekindled my love of Ted Nugent, and just obviously a lot of what he’s done politically has overshadowed his music, but I was a big fan of his music in the 70s. The first song I ever played on stage was “Cat Scratch Fever.” I’ve always loved “Great White Buffalo,” and he has a certain joy, and wild rocker energy that I was digging a lot of bands from Detroit had that like the J. Geils Band or Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. It’s just like a certain obligation, and I think Detroit bands or the MC5 were just like Rock ‘N’ Roll — the spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll was really important to them. And it’s like, “No ballads!” We’re on 11 all the time. We’re gonna rock your face off, and that’s our life. And I like that about Ted’s old stuff.

Paul Gilbert, March 2021. Image credit: Jason Quigley.

Interested in learning more about Paul Gilbert? Check out the link below:

Dig this? Check out the full archives of A.M. Radio, by Anthony Montalbano, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/a-m-radio-archives/

About Post Author

Anthony Montalbano

Anthony Montalbano grew up in New York and North Carolina. Anthony is a baker by day and a contributor to the Vinyl Writer cause by night. With a passion for podcasts, Pop Punk, video games, and more, Anthony brings a unique and fresh perspective to the team. Anthony's column is a catch-all for the things he loves most, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
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