Gilby Clark

Rockin' with Swag
Rockin' with Swag

Gilby Clarke gained celebrity as a member of Guns N’ Roses. Best known for his blues-flavored riffs, Clarke has since successfully carved his own solo career with several albums – Pawnshop Guitars (1995), Hangover (1997), Rubber (1998), ’99 Live (2000) and Swag (2002) – and has a growing resume of production credits for his work with other bands (L.A. Guns, Dad’s Porno Mag, Beat Angels, Ball).

Additionally, Clarke’s Thursday night jam band recently released it’s debut album, Rock N Roll Music [V2 Records], under the name Col. Parker. He also served as producer on that project.

Clarke recently spoke to VG about his musical roots and brought us up to date on his latest solo record, Swag [Spitfire].

Vintage Guitar: What inspired you to start playing guitar, and who were your original influences?
Gilby Clarke: Well, what inspired me to play guitar and the players who were my original influences are very different.

When I was a young boy, many moons ago, I saw a poster of Jimi Hendrix. It was the Monterey Pop poster, where Hendrix had a white Strat and was wearing a blue outfit. I saw that and thought, “That’s what I want to do! I want to be a guitar player!” Then I started going out to see local bands in Cleveland, and hearing the guitars used to fascinate me.

So that’s what first got me into it. But I went through phases in what influenced me. I grew up in the ’70s, so I was listening to the kind of music that was happening back then. I was a big Mick Ronson fan because I loved David Bowie. I liked Kiss, too. The first concert I ever went to was Kiss, so I saw Ace Frehley live. I was also into Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page.

So guitarwise, that was the kind of stuff that influenced me most, and the players who influenced me then were Ace Frehley, Jimmy Page, and Mick Ronson.

For any player, as time goes by and you start learning more about music, you kind of find your niche. I’d started going back and getting into stuff like the Beatles and the Stones, and I really felt that my guitar playing was much more blues-based. So I started reading up on what influenced people like Jimmy Page and Keith Richards, and I kept coming up with Chuck Berry and B.B. King. So then you go back and listen to those players and stuff like that.

That’s kind of how my guitar playing had come along. You go back and listen to the players who influenced the people who influenced you.

Which players have influenced you most in recent years?
I honestly have to say it’s more of the local players. I do a couple of blues jam nights just for fun around Los Angeles, at the Baked Potato and sometimes at the Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard. There are a couple of guitar players that come around who are really good. One is Chuck Kavooris, who is the most amazing slide player, and the other is B.B. Chun King. These guys play in local blues bands. Chuck is the most amazing slide guitar player and in the last 10 years, I’ve definitely dug more into slide guitar after seeing him. Just watching these guys play has probably influenced me more than anyone who’s making records.

Have you had the opportunity to play with these guys, or just watch them perform?
I sit in with them. We’ve all gone to see each other’s jam bands so many times that we know each other’s routines. So when Chuck pulls out a slide, I don’t pull out my slide. There are lots of really cool blues songs we play together and we all know each other’s playing. It’s not a competition, so we all work together.

These guys are at such a great level, and I’ve seen some guys come up and try to blow them away, but they really can’t. Competition is good, and it can go both ways, but you just can’t show up these guys.

When we started the Thursday night jam at the Cat Club, it was me and Tracii Guns. When we play together, we bring out the best in each other, but we’re not trying to blow each other away. We do push each other, but we’re really just screwing around. Tracii has much more of a metal background, so he’ll go somewhere that will make me go into that kind of thing. Then I’ll stay on the bluesy slide and pull out a slide, so he’ll pull out a beer bottle and start playing along.

So it is cool to have competition – it definitely pushes your playing. It can be a lot of fun when you’re playing with people who are competitive in a respectful way.

Which players influenced you most in developing your tone?
This is probably going to sound very strange, but I would probably have to say Ace Frehley. I read an article a gazillion years ago and he explained how he set his Marshall amp. I’ve got to tell you that to this day, I still set it exactly the same. I had always played a combination of three amps for recording and live, and it’s always been my 50-watt Marshall JCM800, my ’62 Fender Deluxe, and my Voxes. AC-30s were my main ones, but in the last few years, I picked up an AC-50 head and have been playing that out of a Marshall cabinet.

All of the amps pretty much sound the same, though. They’re very close, but the Voxes have more midrange and the Marshall’s got more guts. It’s just a matter of which guitar I play. I’m very natural. I don’t use anything in between, really, to change that tone. I have a couple of boxes, but they don’t stay on – they’re just used for color.

So back then, I got that Ace Frehley amp setup and I really haven’t changed it. All my knobs are set on 5 and the preamp is on 10.

Do you play through all three simultaneously?
I go back and forth. The one I use just depends on the night and the type of gig we’re playing, and how much room I have. I have two Marshall basketweave ’69 cabinets and the ultimate setup for me is a Marshall half-stack and an AC-50 half-stack, if I have room. It just depends. If I’m doing the “Gilby solo gig” I’ll usually bring a Marshall. If I’m doing more of a blues thing, I’ll usually just bring the Vox. And if I want to blast, I bring both.

Who influences you most as a songwriter?
Definitely John Lennon. One thing I’ve always admired about John Lennon is his simplicity. It’s amazing how he can take a simple word like “imagine” and make it the greatest song. He can say things in a song that have been said a million times, but he puts it the right way. He kills me. That, by far, is probably my best influence, songwriting-wise.

Tell us about the gear used on Swag and how you recorded the tracks.
I pretty much did things the same way that I’ve always done them. Guitarwise, it’s really simple, and there are my three main amps. I keep one of my basketweave cabinets mic’ed up all the time – 24/7 – for the last six years. I keep the heads in another room and switch between them, but keep the cabinet mic’ed up. I picked just one speaker and I use Shure SM57 and Sennheiser 409 mics together on the same speaker.

When I’m recording, I go between an API and the Neve A1073 mic pre. There are no compressors or anything in between. I just tweak the EQs a little on Neve or the API. It depends on the day and what I want. I place the mics are right next to each other on the middle of the speaker cone, straight on. The 409 has a little more bottom to it, and a 57 is a 57. It’s a pretty standard mic.

I use both of them just to get the whole speaker sound. I change tones by changing amps. On almost all my records, it will be a Marshall on one side and, when I double a part, the Vox and the Fender on the other side.

Which guitars did you use to record the tracks?
I have this ’91 Les Paul Classic that’s all burnt up. I’ve had it since it was new. And that’s pretty much my main Les Paul. I got this guitar for the GNR tour and it was just a brand new Les Paul Classic that was completely stock and tobacco sunburst. But I would never play it because it just looked too damn new. It was just too pretty, so I always just used my black Les Paul and my Tele. My tech, Elwood, would keep handing me the guitar and telling me that it sounds great and I should play it, but I never would.

So one day, he comes up to me with it and it looked like it had been in a fire. He just did this artistic work on it, where he kept lighting it on fire and putting it out. He burnt the pickup rings, the knobs – everything. When I first looked at it, my reaction was, “You son of a bitch! You burned my guitar!” But then it was, “Wow! That looks really cool.”

So I changed the pickup rings and the knobs, and just left the finish. But since then, it’s been my main Les Paul. I love that guitar and it’s stock – stock pickups, stock everything, except for the pickup rings and knobs. I also have a Zemaitis silver top guitar that Tony Zemaitis made for me a long time ago. That’s a really good solo guitar. It just sustains forever. That’s got Seymour Duncan ’59s in it.

And I have lots of Teles, but my main one is a stock ’68 Tele and I use it for clean stuff. I have a Gretsch Sparkle Jet that has sat in a five-string open G for 10 years, maybe even longer. That’s my main slide guitar and I used it for all the slide tracks. For acoustic stuff, I have a Martin ’71 D-35 and I have a Dobro, too, which I used on the Col. Parker record. I think that was pretty much it, as far as the guitars I used on this record. But those are the main guitars that sit in my studio.

Do you use your GMP guitars in the studio?
I don’t really do much recording with my GMPs. They’re more my live guitars. My Les Paul is just my Les Paul. It just sits in my studio and sometimes I play it live. But every time I have to do some recording, I just grab it.

Which guitars do you take on tour?
If I were to go on tour today, I’d definitely take one of my Les Paul Classics. I actually have a few of them and the one I use is just kind of based on which one I haven’t played in a while. I try to change them up a little bit. I’d definitely take my Gretsch Sparkle Jet. Then I’d also take one of my Telecasters. I have a ’68 and I have a ’58 Esquire, and I have two Japanese Teles that were made in the late ’80s. Then I go back and forth between my backup for my main humbucking guitar, which is probably my Les Paul, and that’s usually a GMP Pawnshop Special.

What I play live really just depends on my mood. If we’re doing a rock gig, sometimes I’ll bring out the V and if I’m doing the blues gig, I’ll use the Les Paul or my Zemaitis or something else.

How are your guitars set up?
I just recently switched to Ernie Ball RPS .011s. I was going through a phase where I had .011s on all Gibsons and I kept .010s on Fenders. But now I have .011s on everything. On the Sparkle Jet, I take a set of .011s, but take out the .011 and use the rest of the set, since I have it strung as a five-string The strings are really heavy on that guitar, but I never bend. It’s all just chordal open G and slide stuff.

What kind of picks are you using now?
I just switched picks, too; I use extra heavy picks in the rounded-triangle shape.

What type of slide do you use and which finger do you use it on?
I use a glass slide and it’s just a regular medium-size. I use it on my ring finger most of the time, but sometimes I put in on my pinky. There are actually a couple of songs where I alternate and I take it on and off between my ring and my pinky finger. It’s just because certain chords are harder to make when you’re using a slide. So I’ll put it on my pinky if I’m just doing accents and not really playing the whole song with a slide, so I can use my ring finger more to play guitar.

Which stompboxes do you usually use in your live setup? And which did you use on the record?
I always use the same ones. The latest, greatest creation is white Boss tuner pedal, the TU-2. I love that thing! I just can’t believe that I can step on a pedal and actually tune a guitar and see it. I don’t know what took so long to come up with it. That’s my favorite new box.

My fuzz pedal is a Marshall Blues Breaker. I’ve collected about six of them, since they stopped making them. So I always keep one in the studio and one for live. For a wah, I just use a regular standard Crybaby pedal and every now and then I’ll pull out an MXR Phase 90, but that’s pretty much it.

My little pedalboard is just the tuner, the fuzz pedal, and the wah wah. That’s what I used on the record, along with the Phase 90. I don’t really use chorus anymore, but I used to use it a lot. I have an old MXR Blue Box that I love and I’ve used that quite a bit. I didn’t use it that much on this record though, but I used it on my last few records. And I always use slap delay on my solos. I used the Pro Tools Echoplex stuff for that.

Did you record the album into Pro Tools, or record onto tape?
I recorded everything in Pro Tools and never touched tape. Last year, I made two albums where I went to tape and then dumped it into Pro Tools. Then I did one record that had to be done really fast and I just it directly on Pro Tools and I loved it. Sure, there’s a little punch missing, but man I hate tape hiss!

So after I did those two records, I’ve stopped going to tape and now I’ve just gone straight into Pro Tools. I’m very old-school and into analog, but with the right preamp and the right players playing the right instruments, I personally don’t think you can hear it anymore.

I have this argument all the time with friends about tape vs. Pro Tools. I tell them that they can spend all the money on tape and I’ll stick to Pro Tools. I think Pro Tools has come a long way. It’s pretty amazing.

What do you think of modeling amps?
When I got my Line 6 Pod, I loved it once I dialed it in. I used it for awhile, then got over it. I probably don’t record with it anymore because I have every single amp they modeled, sitting in my room.

But I do think they’re amazing. The one thing it does miss is that compression you have with a tube amp. I really play off of that tube compression – that little “clink” that you can’t really detect. But when I hit a bar chord, it sounds amazing.

Tracii Guns switched to all Line 6 stuff and it’s the best he’s ever sounded.

Tell us about your guitar and amp collection. Which are your favorites?
I’d say my favorite guitar – the one I’d take to the grave – would be my Zemaitis silver top. Ever since I’d seen Ron Wood play when I was a kid, I had to have that guitar.

I actually have four Zemaitis guitars now – a silver top, a pearl-and-abalone top, and two acoustics. I have a D-hole one and a heart-hole one. The electrics were custom made, but my wife actually bought the two acoustics as birthday and Christmas presents.

I don’t really have any “old” Les Pauls, although I’ve had a few in my day. I’ve narrowed it down to the ones that I like – three Les Paul 1960 Classics, a Standard, a Custom, a ’91 Junior, and ’59 and ’60 single-cutaway Melody Makers, which I love.

Do you maintain any sort of a practice routine?
Not a regular one. I play guitar every day unless I’m on a vacation and didn’t bring a guitar. Otherwise, I’m surrounded by it. There’s a guitar in my living room, and the studio’s out back. We keep our regular Thursday night gig, so I always have one night a week when I get to stand onstage and play in front of my amp.

What tips would you offer on becoming a better songwriter?
Write, write, write and don’t ever give up on a song. For every song you create, try to see it through. You’d be surprised at how sometimes a song you wrote a long time ago will work for you later. I wrote in 1985 that showed up on a record in 2002! You don’t know what’s going to happen. Try to archive them, but always try to finish what you start.

What are you listening to these days?
I think it’s pretty much the same old things I always listen to. But every now and then there’s a new band I dig. As a matter of fact, I like that band Lit. The music is pure pop, but it’s good. They have a good attitude.

I’ll tell you, music doesn’t really turn me off so much about new bands as does their attitude – in the way that they play their music or when they’re interviewed on MTV. And when a band like Lit comes out that plays good pop songs and they have a positive attitude, I’m all for it.

I like Sum 41. I kind of like their attitude! Sometimes I’ll see something on MTV or MTV2 that I’ll think is pretty damn cool. You know what, I think Britney’s pretty cute and her songs are pretty pop. I’ve got no problem with it. They’re not trying to rewrite the Beatles or anything. But you know, their songs are pretty catchy and I think it’s kind of cool.

What do you think of the way record labels market new bands? Does it hurt a band’s chances if they try to show what they’re truly capable of?
Well, they’re not really letting bands develop or find their own sound. That happened to me back in the ’80s. My band, Kill For Thrills, got a major label record deal and we only had seven songs! We got the deal because of Guns N’ Roses, Poison, and all the local bands that had come out and had huge hit albums. Labels were just sucking up everything in L.A. that was rock. My band broke up by the time the record came out just because we were underdeveloped. We didn’t even know each other. We hadn’t even written a whole album.

And I think that’s what is happening now, but some of the bands are a little more focused and know a little more about the business than we did back then. But bands need to develop. Even if their first album’s a hit, they need to grow. Let them make their third album a clunker, because you never know what that fourth or fifth can be.

Look at the bands we grew up with, and how they developed as they got to know each other. Much of their best music was in their later records. These days, you get your one hit single and if the second one flops, you’re gone. Also, I think that a lot of these bands – even though they are having hit records the first time out – it wouldn’t be bad for them to have made an independent record first, and gone out on the road and suffered a little bit. You know, that developed some pretty good character in a lot of my friends. Fifteen years later, they’re still doing it, and strangely enough, bands like L.A. Guns, and all the ’80s bands, are doing better club business than bands with million-selling records out now. It’s pretty damn amazing!

For more info on Clarke, check out his website,

Gilby Clarke with his Zemaitis metal-front courtesy of Gilby Clarke.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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