The California aggregation known as Night Ranger came to prominence in popular music during the advent of MTV, but few realize the band existed earlier with a slightly different moniker. Guitarist Brad Gillis has also played with Ozzy Osbourne, and has been accumulating an admirable collection of vintage guitars to use in his recording projects, which are varied and include soundtracks for video games.
Gillis’ first love is live performance, however, and as he anticipated a summer 2001 tour that would take Night Ranger all over the U.S., Gillis was also eager to discuss his second solo album, Alligator. But we started with the band in which he made his first nationally released recordings, Rubicon, which also featured Night Ranger bassist Jack Blades (VG, May ’98).
Vintage Guitar: Since you’re from the East Bay area of California, one might wonder what influence another East Bay band, Tower of Power, had on Rubicon, since both bands had horns.
Brad Gillis: A lot! Rubicon was a funk rock band, and when they asked me to join they were looking for someone to add a rock and roll edge to the funk from their three-piece horn section. They were trying to bridge the gap between disco-funk and rock and roll in the mid ’70s. They saw me playing with a band called Arm & Hammer in a nightclub one night, and asked me to audition at Studio Instrument Rentals in San Francisco. They had tentatively given the gig to a friend of mine named Danny Chauncey(38 Special); we went to the same high school in Alameda, CA. They’d told him they had one more guitarist to audition.
Jack and I clicked immediately during my audition because we both like to jump around when playing. After I got done with the audition, Jerry Martini, who’d been the sax player with Sly & the Family Stone, said, “Alright, who’s gonna get the cassette back from Danny?” (chuckles). It was quite exciting to be able to go to Los Angeles to record Rubicon’s first album at age 19. I recall driving into Hollywood for the first time with my pickup truck full of music gear dreaming of the big time. I couldn’t believe I was doing my first record!
Earlier band experiences?
I started playing drums when I was about seven. My dad was in the Navy, and said he’d buy me an electric guitar and amplifier for my eighth birthday if I’d take lessons. So we went to a store at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, and he bought my first Kay guitar and amp for $150; back then, that was a lot of money! I took lessons for a few months, but I didn’t enjoy playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” I needed to rock! A friend of my brother showed me some chords and different inversions. I started to learn how to play lead guitar on the high E string, then went to the B, then to the G, so I was doing two- and three-string solos. I started listening to the radio every day, and whatever came on, I’d emulate. I realized that just about every song consisted of three chords!
When I was 10 years old, I started my first band – the Invaders. I played lead guitar and I was lead singer. We had a bass player, and a drummer who’d never played drums before, but his parents bought him a $600 Ludwig set (laughs). I played my middle school’s talent show when I was in the sixth grade; I sang “Gloria,” and I noticed the girls were screaming. It was a chance to step out from the other boys at my school and do something that girls seemed to appreciate. My dad encouraged me into pitching in little league baseball, but I had the “jammin’ fever.” I use to open up my garage and wail with my band ’til the police came. That’s one way to draw a crowd!
I went through different bands, and by the time I was a freshman in high school, I was in a band called Next; we played Friday night kegger parties. I played a lot of Jeff Beck and Blue Oyster Cult stuff, and I actually played at one of my high school senior proms. Everybody in the band was a senior except for me, and it was pretty overwhelming, because I had senior girls checkin’ me out! When I got out of high school, I jumped right into the club band circuit and played five nights a week. That’s where Rubicon picked me up.
What kinds of instruments did you use at the time?
My dad flew for an airline after retiring from the Navy, and when he was in Germany, he bought me a big, fat Höfner hollowbody, which I played for a few early years, and when he went back to Germany he got me a Höfner solidbody. Then I got into a Fender Mustang, and I started hotrodding guitars – taking them apart, sanding them down and refinishing them, putting custom pickups and parts in them, changing the tuners… modifying them to the hilt. My brother designed a Gillis Cordless system we installed, with effect switchin. I played my black ’68 Les Paul Custom through Rubicon.
Some might cringe when they read about the Floyd on a ’68 Les Paul…
The hardest part was having Stars Guitars in San Francisco rout the Gibson to install the Floyd Rose. They’d never done that before, but it turned out well. I was a hard player back then, and I wasn’t planning on holding onto it as long as I have; I just wanted a modified powerhouse Les Paul and Strat that did what I wanted. I had that Les Paul when I joined Rubicon, but the Floyd Rose came along a few years later.
In ’79, my brother’s friend gave me a beat up ’62 Strat, sanded down, in a box. It was all torn apart, but it’s the guitar I rebuilt and I’m still playing today – it’s my main red Strat, with a built-in Nady wireless and a very original Floyd Rose non-fine-tuner model. I had an auto body shop paint it red with leftover paint from my Datsun 240Z.
I traded a ’57 Strat for that Les Paul Custom. I like the solidity and fatness of Gibsons, and I still own it. I’ve installed a Nady wireless in it, too.
Reportedly, Rubicon and Mahogany Rush were among the last bands scheduled to play at California Jam 2 in ’78, because the promoters wanted lesser-known bands at the end to help thin out the crowd.
That was the biggest day of my life – helicopters and limousines! We had our first record, and here we were on the same bill with Santana, Ted Nugent, Heart, and Aerosmith! Rubicon had originally been booked to open the show. The crowd was so hyper, they decided to bump us to the end. We actually played after Aerosmith, then Mahogany Rush came on. There were 450,000 people there during the day, so we probably played for 250,000 or 300,000; huge crowd! We were on the Cal Jam 2 record, and they showed the live concert on TV. Rubicon was also on shows like “American Bandstand” and “Solid Gold.”
Did you go straight from Rubicon to Ozzy?
No. After Rubicon’s drummer, Greg Eckler, quit, we hired Kelly Keagy. Things started to wind down for that band, and Jack, Kelly, Jerry, and I decided to disband Rubicon and start a new project called Stereo, which was supposed to be kind of a new wave/Cars-type band with a sax player, but that didn’t fly. Jack’s roommate was (keyboard player) Alan Fitzgerald, and Jack, Kelly, and I decided to stay together and form a hard rock band with Fitz and another guitar player named Jeff Watson, who some of the other members had worked with before. When Jeff came to hear Stereo play, I thought it might be tough competition. But we got along great – we had two different styles, and we decided to complement each other’s playing, and we worked up a lot of harmony ideas. We wrote five songs the first day Ranger – that’s what we were called back then – got together and jammed.
We played a few shows with Sammy Hagar around California, and then Bill Graham Management got involved. We had a three-song demo, but we had trouble getting a record deal. I started another band called the Alameda All-Stars, and we did club gigs just so I could keep busy and keep my chops up while Ranger was trying to get a record deal.
I’d heard about the plane crash that killed Randy Rhoads, who I’d seen a few months earlier at a Day On The Green concert in Oakland, and got to thinking that Ozzy would probably be needing another guitar player soon. Preston Thrall, the brother of Pat Thrall (Pat Travers, Asia), offered to try to get me the gig with Ozzy after seeing me play at an Alameda All-Star Show. I got a call from Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife, early that Sunday morning, and when I talked with Ozzy, I started trembling on the phone; I couldn’t believe Ozzy was calling me! He gave me 19 songs to learn, and I was booked to fly to an audition on Tuesday, so I started calling friends to borrow their old Black Sabbath albums and any of Ozzy’s solo stuff so I could start learning the songs. I basically had Monday to prepare.
I flew to New York, and a limo driver took me to the Helmsley Palace in Manhattan. I got there at midnight, and nobody from the band was there, and there wasn’t a room reservation in my name! I had $150 in my pocket, and the room cost $135, so I sat in my room wondering when and if they were going to call. Later that night, Larry McNenny, the road manager, called when they got back from playing Madison Square Garden, and told me to come up to their penthouse to meet Ozzy.
At that time, Bernie Torme was filling in with Ozzy before they added a new permanent guitarist. I walked into a penthouse full of the media and press while there was a huge party going on, with a bunch of rock and roll longhairs. I asked Larry if all of those guys were auditioning for the gig, and he said “No, no. It’s just you! If you can’t cut it, we’ll find somebody else.” No pressure there (laughs)!
I told him I didn’t have any money, and Larry gave me five crisp $100 bills! Things were getting’ much better.
He introduced me to Ozzy, and Ozzy told me to go grab my guitar. I told him I didn’t have an amplifier, and he said, “It doesn’t matter.” So we went up to the bedroom of the penthouse; I sat on the bed and he sat on the floor, and we started off playing “Flying High Again.” After the guitar solo, he stood up and gave me a hug, then took me downstairs and announced he’d found a new guitar player!
I sat in my hotel room for a few days with a live tape that recorded a few months earlier with Randy Rhoads, to learn all of the segues. After five days of practicing during the day and watching Bernie Torme play with Ozzy at night, I told him I was ready. My first show was in Binghamton, New York, to a sold-out crowd of 6,000 people. I’d never played with the band before, and all I had was the soundcheck to rehearse – seven songs out of 19. I played fairly well, except for missing the change in “Revelation Mother Earth,” and Ozzy looked over at me as if to say, “You screwed up!” After that, each show became easier and about two weeks later, we did a live nationwide broadcast from Memphis and I started feeling more comfortable.
Were you with Osbourne when the infamous bat-biting incident occurred?
No, that came before I joined. There were some times when people would throw snakes and small animals onstage. One time, one of them got wrapped around Ozzy’s neck, and he freaked out! Security at the shows was confiscating all sorts of strange creatures at the venues!
You were in one of the first MTV concerts ever broadcast, and it featured some relatively-primitive laser effects, including a cross that floated out to center stage, then it inverted. What was that supposed to signify?
That was at Irvine Meadows, south of L.A. – quite a big show for me, too; we’d been on tour for months, so I was pretty much locked into the groove. There were laser bats on the side of the stage, but as for “The Cross,” that goes back to early Black Sabbath. I’ll let Ozzy tell you about that.
Was that the rebuilt Strat you were playing?
Yes, I’ve been using that guitar since 1980. When I played with Ozzy I used two Strats because some of the songs were tuned to E-flat. I’d bring my black Les Paul out at the end of the night for “Paranoid” and “Iron Man.”
Toward the end of the Ozzy gig, Ranger had finally gotten a record deal, and I wasn’t sure if Ozzy was going to keep me. The guys in Ranger were like brothers to me, and I didn’t feel like I was a band member with Ozzy; I felt more like a sideman. So I decided to roll the dice, and went back to Ranger. We were immediately signed by Bruce Bird at Boardwalk Records.
We recorded the album and had printed about 10,000 album jackets when we opened a copy of Billboard magazine and saw a two-page ad for a country band called “The Rangers.” We freaked out and came up with the Night Ranger name…and started over with the album jackets.
Two things closely associated with the band when it broke nationally; the first was the timing with the advent of MTV…
Yes, our early videos look pretty primitive these days, but MTV put a visual to our music. “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” wasn’t very fancy, done on a $10,000 budget – very cheap – but it got us recognition, then “Sister Christian” was released and pretty much blew things wide open. We saw our audiences grow from 3,000 to 10,000 in a matter of weeks. I’ll never forget our first sold-out show in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for 8,000 people!
…which brings up the second facet – power ballads.
I know, they’ve been associated with us for a long time, but we always knew we were a harder-rocking band. Songs like “You Can Still Rock In America,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” and “Touch of Madness” are examples. But after the release of Sister C., MCA records followed with too many power ballads and no rockers. Stuck in the corporate rut…
As the band went through changes – and more or less into hiatus – you released your first solo album, Gilrock Ranch, where all but two of the songs were instrumentals. There’s a “pointy” Hamer on the front cover.
That was used for a different look, because all of my pictures in the past only showed my ’62 Strat. I should’ve used my main Strat again, as it’s always been my favorite guitar. After attending the January NAMM show, I discovered Warrior Guitars. They have great craftsmanship, with exotic woods and fat tone. Soon, you should see me playing a Warrior guitar live – after they finish my custom B.G. model.
By the time Gilrock Ranch was released, you had done an instructional video…
I did one for Star Licks in the ’80s, and it did fairly well, then I did another for the Japanese. It’s not my cup of tea; I like playing live. I get off on the energy onstage. I never really gave guitar lessons either, only to friends.
Night Ranger regrouped in the mid ’90s for the Neverland album.
We got a call to record a CD and tour Japan, so we decided things could work again. We got together at Jack’s house, and the first song we played was “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.” We all looked at each other, smiled, and said, “Hey, man. We still got it!”
So we recorded the Neverland CD and went to Japan, then decided to start touring the States again, to see how well we could do. The first summer tour in 96′ was okay. Each year, things got better and now we’re mainly doing spring and summer festivals, mostly on weekends, and we’re kickin’ butt. That leaves us to do our own projects the rest of the year.
I just started a company called Liquid Hot Music Production, with musician/producer Jim Hawthorne. We record music for different applications and work with new guitar sounds and song ideas for future material.
Your second solo album, Alligator, was released last year…
Yeah…in Japan, and recently in 22 countries in Europe. I’m probably going to go to Europe for promotion. It’s available on my website, bradgillis.com, and features Gary Moon on bass and vocals; he played with a new version of Night Ranger while Blades was occupied with Damn Yankees. Alligator is the reverse of Gilrock Ranch in that there’s only one instrumental track.
Gilrock Ranch featured eight instrumental tracks and two vocal songs by Gregg Allman. With Alligator, I wanted to write more songs that could hopefully get airplay, and Gary’s such a great singer. Also, in this day and age, instrumentals aren’t very popular. It took several years to put it together; Gary sang seven songs, and I sing two.
You’ve been building a collection of vintage instruments recently. Details?
I was trying to start out with one of each different model, so I could get that “sound.” If I want that Telecaster sound, I have a ’69 Floral Blue Tele through a ’66 Super Reverb. My collection has evolved from that old Les Paul and red Strat, plus a few Hamers and Jacksons, to a ’56 blond Strat, a ’63 and a ’65 sunburst Strat, a mint ’56 Les Paul Junior, a mint ’47 ES-150 and a ’70 ES-175. I’ve got a couple of reissue fat-neck ’59 Les Pauls. Why let money sit in the bank, when you can invest in guitars? I can use them in my work, and I can write ‘em off (laughs)!
As for amps, I stick with Soldanos; they give me a warm, fat sound, and I use them both in the studio and live. My three-channel Decatone is perfect and versatile. I’ve been using SIT strings (.009 through .046) and with the way I wang the tremolo, they are the best for staying in tune.
And you’ve been recording music for video games.
I’ve been producing quite a few people in the studio, and I did some guitar solos for my good buddy Robby Z’s new CD; he’s major collector of vintage guitars, and I acquired some great instruments from him. A bass player we brought in for Robby’s sessions named Danny Pisano, who worked for Electronic Arts, which designs all of the software for Sony’s Playstation sports games. I told him I’d loved to get involved, and I ended up doing seven songs for the Tiger Woods Playstation 1 Golf game, and they liked it so much they had Jim Hawthorne and I record all the music for the Tiger Woods Playstation 2. Right now, we’re working on more game and TV projects.
We record everything big-guns. We’re using big, loud amps, grand pianos and Hammond B3s, and real drummers with a mixture of sampled drums, recording digital and 24-track, 2″ analog formats.
Night Ranger has booked many festivals for the Spring and Summer, and we’re all looking forward to getting back out there on the road. We’re mainly doing weekends, and I spend the weekdays on other music projects. People have been hiring me through my website to play solos on their CDs, and usually send me an ADAT to do my wild wammy guitar solos. I just finished Ozzy and Van Halen tribute CDs that were just released, and I’ve working on a new solo record.
But out of all the projects I’m involved with, nothing beats playing a live Night Ranger show in front of thousands of people!
For all of his desire to be a “stage animal” guitarist more than anything else, Brad Gillis has the experience and wherewithal to adapt to new dimensions. Such “flexibility” is the mark of a true professional. But Night Ranger’s playing enough to satisfy Gillis’ performing jones. He’s been a pro for some time, and it shows…and he’s still enjoying the ride.
Photo courtesy of Brad Gillis.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.