We’ve all been there; cruising along in the car, minding our business, soaking in cool guitar tunes when another driver does something… “impolite.” Even if you’re the laid-back type like Paul Gilbert, it can push you over the edge. One of his coping mechanisms is writing songs like “Everybody Use Your Goddam Turn Signal,” the lead track on his 17th solo album, I Can Destroy.
The disc has him looking well past road rage and other annoyances (“If we can’t unify voltage around the world, as a race, we’re screwed!” he laughs. “It doesn’t involve morality or religion or politics, but sure makes it difficult to tour with your favorite amp.”) while exuding the power of a crack team of rock-and-roll professionals – Tony Spinner and Freddie Nelson on guitar, Kevin Chown on bass, Thomas Lang on drums. It scores high for impassioned singing, stellar guitar tones, top-notch production, and killer guitar playing while supporting the many hues of the Gilbert musical lexicon.
“I couldn’t have written this music or these lyrics when I was a kid,” he said. “I needed time to live… to experience joy and anger and love – and frustration at people who don’t use their turn signals.”
You reunited with producer Kevin Shirley, who worked with you on Mr. Big’s What If album. How did that come about?
I’ve done a lot of solo records, and I usually produced them, but this time I thought it would be interesting to work with a professional (laughs). I’d worked with Kevin before and was really comfortable.
When I left Mr. Big to be a solo artist, I didn’t know how it was going to go, so I made records as inexpensively as I could. For this one, though, I was like, “I’m going to make the album as good as it could be.” I hired lots of musicians, a great producer, and said, “Let’s see what I can put together.” Hiring Freddie and Tony was my idea, but it was influenced by Kevin, because he doesn’t like to do overdubs or a lot of fixing. I wanted a band that would sound produced and complete as a live performance without having to go back and layer anything.
It was really nice to have two other guitar players and two guys who sing extremely well. It helped us sound big and full without having to use the studio to do it. We were all there, looking at each other, jamming away. It felt like a band.
Did any of the songs come from your backlog?
No, it’s all new stuff. I’ve used up pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I had to come up with new material. I wrote a lot of lyrics while confined to a van going from city to city on a clinic tour around Italy. I wrote a lot, came home, and put music to it.
When writing lyrics, do you shut down your musical side in an attempt to write something more meaningful?
No, there’s always a rhythmic aspect to it. I’m not just writing free verse. I’m feeling the pulse and the phrasing of the words. There might be a melody, but I don’t worry about it much. When I was a teenager, I expected songs to fall out of the sky, into my head – finished and complete. I thought if I was a good writer, the whole thing would come to me. A couple of times, if you get lucky, that will happen, but you can’t rely on it.
I remember the first time I read a book about songwriting; I was horrified because it sounded like so much work (laughs). And it really is. Most of the time, you have the seed of an idea – an inspiration – and you develop it. The trick is to make the process enjoyable, so you keep working on it.
Did you make demos before you brought it to the band?
I did one multi-track demo for a bonus song for the Japan release called “My Sugar” because its vocal harmonies were tricky and I knew it would save time in the studio. Otherwise, though, I didn’t do demos. The closest thing was a Quicktime video.
When I was younger, I’d make really involved demos and spend two days on the bass part (laughs). Now, I don’t really have the patience for that. I just want to get the chord map, lyrics, and then I trust the other musicians to arrange their parts. Tony kept saying, “What do you want me to play on this?” I’d say, “Whatever sounds good. Just pick something. You know the chords (laughs)!”
I Can Destroy has everything fans like about your music.
I liked making it and I liked that when it was done, it was easy for me to recall the melodies – there’s something to hum. That’s not always the case with my stuff. On one of the Racer X albums there’s an instrumental called “Catapult To Extinction.” It’s got blazing guitar and the band plays great, but it’s just really not a very memorable melody – it’s just licks thrown together. They’re the best licks I could come up with and it’s not all bad, but you don’t walk away from it humming.
Even though I’m plopped into the world of shred guitar, I’m still a fan of ’70s pop and The Beatles. It’s satisfying when I can create something hummable that can be played on kazoo as well as guitar.
How has becoming a family man affected your music?
The main influence is that I’m trying to introduce my young boy to music – this specific person. This isn’t 300 students, this is my boy. I know what he’s like and I have an idea of what he’ll accept (laughs). If I play him some complicated piece, he may not respond. He may not be ready for it, yet. So I think, “What’s really important? What’s the prime music he needs to know?”
I’ve been playing Elvis hits like “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock,” and Little Richard tunes like “Slippin’ And Slidin’.” The Kinks “All Day And All Of The Night,” and early Beatles stuff like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Eight Days A Week.” It’s been interesting to make a mix tape for him and see how that affects my choices. Normally, I might go, “Oh, he’s gotta hear AC/DC!” But no, he’s gotta hear Chuck Berry first. He needs to hear “Johnny B. Goode” and “No Particular Place To Go.” You need to have that before you have AC/DC. AC/DC re-shuffles the importance of rock and roll, to me.
Which guitars did you use on the record?
Because I had two other guitarists, there was a lot of guitar going on all the time, so I didn’t need a lot of variety – just something reliable and good. I used two Ibanez Fireman guitars – an FRM250MF flame-top I got at a Guitar Center after my original – which was sent to me from the factory when it first came out – was smashed beyond repair in an airplane. This one was identical and I was happy it felt just like my baby.
The other one was a custom shop Fireman with P-90s. It’s off-white and a little tricky to work with because it has real DiMarzio vintage-style P-90s, so they hum. They wired it so the middle switch position on the three-way is hum-canceling. I used it on “I Am Not The One Who Wants To Be With You.”
I also used my Ibanez PGM700, which is the violin-shaped one. It was a limited release in Japan back in the ’90s, and mine is set up for slide. I put a .014 high E string on it that becomes high D for slide tuning, and it has DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups, so it sounds pretty frightening. I also have a strange acoustic I bought it in a little shop near where I used to live in Japan. It’s by a luthier named Arnold M.J. Hennig. I don’t know who he is or where the guitar came from, but I really like it (Ed. Note: Hennig is a builder who recently retired as staff repairman at Elderly Instruments, in Lansing, Michigan.). It has a V-shaped neck that feels like an electric guitar, and it sounds great. I used it on “Love We Had.”
What was it like, working with Ibanez to develop the Fireman models?
They’re fantastic. I was surprised they made it, because it’s such an unusual guitar. To take one of their models, flip it upside-down, then cut a chunk out of it so you can get to the upper frets. But they liked it. The biggest development was going from the first one, which had a Cherry top and no pickguard, to the one with the pickguard. I spent a long time in Photoshop trying to figure how to give it a funky ’60s style. I gave it a symmetrical swirl with an upper horn and it turned out really good. The newest thing is a humbucker version using a zebra pattern on the coils, so the dark coil camouflages the black pickguard. It still looks like single-coils at first glance, but you have the thicker sound of the humbucker.
What amplifiers are you using?
The one I rely on most is a Marshall 2061X. It’s got four knobs and actually only needs two (laughs). It’s a two-channel amp – one has Volume and Tone, the other has Volume and Tone. If you daisy chain the channels, you get a little more gain. It doesn’t have a lot, so a modern rock sound requires an overdrive pedal, which works really well with it. You can plug in almost anything and it’s going to sound great.
I also used a Germino amp, which is like an amazing old Marshall except it’s new and more reliable. And, I recently got a Kemper Profiler, which can be wired to listen to your amp and replicate its sound. It’s pretty amazing. I did an A/B test and I was shocked at how accurate it was. I immediately made a profile of the Marshall 2061X. Once it’s in, you can add or subtract gain or tweak the EQ with different cabinets.
What’s on your pedal board?
That changes all the time depending on the set list and my whims. Most often, it’s the TC Electronic MojoMojo Overdrive, which sounds great. The Bass knob is great for thickening higher-string solos. For guitars with a more single-coil sound, it really takes away the harshness and makes it nice and warm. I also use the MXR Phase 90 a lot.
On the record, I used a couple of Way Huge pedals – a Red Llama Overdrive and a Saucy Box Overdrive. I used an MXR Distortion Plus because it’s always a good combo with a Marshall, and I have an Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress that you can hear on the title track; I use it to get that Van Halen thing.
Do things get more complicated when you tour with Mr. Big?
It can be tricky because I’m the only guitar player. Songs like “Just Take My Heart” have that clean, compressed ’80s sparkly/chorused sound. “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy” is this big, heavy, fuzzy, Mötley Crüe chunky thing. “Alive And Kickin’” has a bluesy Stevie Ray Vaughan thing. If I work hard, I can put together a pedal board that’ll get that out of a Marshall, but I’m kind of excited about trying the Kemper. You can dial in the exact sound and switch to it. If anything, I’ll be doing less pedal dancing.
You teach guitar at your Great Escape camp. What goes on when you meet students?
I try to listen, which is really helpful if I want to give useful advice (laughs). I’ve done a lot of teaching where I’m kinda showing off; “Hey, check this out!” And that’s alright because I hope I can inspire people that way, but as time goes on, I realize that if I really want to give somebody something valuable, I’ve got to listen to them. These camps give me a chance to do that and get a sense of what people are working on.
Really, I just want to inspire people, help them, give specific stuff to work on, offer philosophy, and have a good time. If a student’s brain gets too full of guitar, they can take a walk along the beach to chill out.
Will you tour in support of the new album?
In the fall, yes, I will tour Japan, Europe, and hopefully some places in the States. I also have a few shows with Mr. Big; we had an offer to do the Monsters Of Rock Cruise. But mostly I’m going to be doing my own tour this year.
This article originally appeared in VG August 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.