Bay-area guitarist Brad Gillis has led something of a storied life. He was only 19 years old when he transitioned from playing guitar in his parents’ garage to playing in Rubicon, a funk band looking to add a rock element with a guitarist. The band experienced some success, released two albums in the late ’70s, and even played to 250,000 people at the famed Cal Jam II festival in March of ’78. After Rubicon reached terminal velocity in ’79, Gillis, along with drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy and vocalist/bassist Jack Blades assembled a rock outfit they called Ranger before being threatened with legal action by a country band called The Rangers. Adapting its name to match the last song on its completed first album, they added “Night” and set off down the road.
Fate intervened in the form of Ozzy Osbourne, the former Black Sabbath vocalist whose band lost guitarist Randy Rhoads in a tragic small-aircraft accident in March of 1982. Gillis was invited to audition, where he played a handful of Sabbath songs, unplugged on a solidbody! He was offered the gig and spent a year touring with the Prince of Darkness before going back the Bay to make a run with Night Ranger. The band’s first album, Dawn Patrol, was released in late ’82 and got immediate attention via a single and video for “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.” The momentum from it and other hit singles led to opening slots on tours with Black Sabbath and ZZ Top.
In January of ’84, the band released its second album, Midnight Madness, and scored more hits on the way to becoming one of the dominant rock acts of the mid/late ’80s. By ’89, Blades had left to join Damn Yankees with Styx alum Tommy Shaw and wild man Ted Nugent. Night Ranger carried on in various configurations through the ’90s before reuniting with all original members to record 1997’s Neverland. This summer it will release Hole In The Sun, and once again tour.
Gillis has been perpetually busy, even during down periods for the band. He runs a sound production studio, and several years ago joined the ranks of certifiable (in a good way!) guitar collector whose posse now numbers more than 100 instruments. We recently spoke with him about all of his goings-on.
How did you start playing guitar?
It was through a twist of fate on my eighth birthday. I wanted to play guitar so bad – I’d been playing drums and my parents couldn’t handle it (laughs), so dad said he’d buy me an electric guitar and amp if I took lessons. So we picked up a Kay guitar and amp for $150. I started taking lessons, then a friend of my brother’s came over and showed me seven or eight chords, and stuff like how to bar an E. I’d sit in my room and play all day, and one day realized I could play most of the songs on the radio. I learned a lot by ear, then quit lessons and had friends show me different licks and tricks. When Eddie Van Halen came along with his whammy bar and harmonics, I tried different ideas like pulling up on harmonics and banging the vibrato, and came up with a few sounds that I used on records to create my own style. It’s been a wonderful thing!
Who were your first guitar heroes?
Well, I was totally into Jimi Hendrix. He was very flamboyant, and I love that style. Then I got into Jeff Beck – totally into Blow by Blow – and then Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page just had this great rhythmic technique using two- and three-note chords. Listening to what he was doing definitely helped my rhythm playing. When I was just starting to really play, a friend showed me “Over The Hills and Far Away,” and that got me started.
How much of your playing shows those influences?
Well, I guess a lot of the rhythm styles I’ve come up with in Night Ranger. Hendrix, definitely in my whammy technique, then Van Halen, of course took it to the next level. Beck’s influence, I think, shows. But by the late ’70s I was trying to come up with my own style, trying to be different and stand out from the pack.
You first tasted stardom when you played in Rubicon, a funk-rock band based in the Bay area. What do you remember most about that band?
Well, playing Cal Jam II was huge. We were the only unknown band on a bill with Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Heart, Dave Mason, and Santana. On the drive down, I remember hearing on the radio this song by this new band called Van Halen, “Runnin’ With The Devil,” and it blew me away.
How did your career progress after Rubicon?
After it broke up, Ranger formed in 1980 with two lead singers – Jack Blades and Kelly Keagy – and two lead guitar players – Jeff Watson and I. We wanted to stretch out on guitar harmonies, and you could hear that on our first single in 1983, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.” It was great because we had two different guitar styles that came together to play harmonies.
While we were trying to get signed in ’82, I got the call to join Ozzy Osborne’s band. I toured for 10 or 11 months with Ozzy and then, right when the tour was over, Night Ranger got a deal. So I made a choice to leave Ozzy and go with Night Ranger, and it was just starting to sprout when MTV put us on heavy rotation, which led to being guest VJs and different MTV events.
Yes, you guys were all over MTV at the time.
And you know, we held “Sister Christian” off the first record and kept it for the second, Midnight Madness, because the label wanted it to take us over the top. After we released “(You Can Still) Rock In America” we were on MTV and opening for everybody from Sammy Hagar to ZZ Top and Cheap Trick. Then we released “Sister Christian” which drew heavy radio airplay all over the country and brought us headline status. I’ll never forget in 1984, cruising into La Crosse, Wisconsin, on our tour bus, looking up at the auditorium sign that said, “Night Ranger: Sold Out.” It was our first headline sold-out show, for 8,000 people. We were excited!
After “Sister Christian,” the record company released more ballads like “Sentimental Street” and “When You Close Your Eyes.” That led to a nice run from ’84 to ’89, and then things started getting soft, so we took a break, then re-formed in ’95.
What caused the band to split initially?
Well, the label wanted another ballad single, and after that you could see us losing our rock audience.
But really, it was a mixed blessing. It was great because we took a break, and Jack went on to do the Damn Yankees with Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw. And we all did solo projects. Gregg Allman sang two songs on my solo record, Gilrock Ranch, and we had a Top 20 single called “Honest To God.” Then in ’95, Night Ranger got a call from Mr. Udo, a famous promoter in Japan, who wanted us to do a record and tour. We jumped on it, did a CD called Neverland, and went to Japan. It went great and we came back and started touring the States again. We’ve managed to build it up in the past 13 years and now we’re still doing records and touring.
The band’s new album, Hole In the Sun has just been released in the States, but was released in Japan quite a while ago, right?
Yes, it was out there late last year, and then in Europe. We held off here to get the right deal, and went with VH1 Records. And it has gotten great reviews. We’re pretty excited to get it out there, and we’ve set up a nice tour through The William Morris Booking Agency and Doc McGhee Management.
You are starting with dates this spring in Japan, then back in the States for the summer…
Yes, and we just locked up shows with Boston, Styx, REO, and many more after we get back from Japan, and we’re headlining a bunch of festivals around the country..
What are the album’s high points from the perspective of guitar tones?
Well, we wanted to update our sound a bit, make it a little more modern – definitely with a more modern, raw drum sound and slammin’ guitars. I worked with many amps on the CD, but my Soldano Decatone through my ’62 Strat is my tone. We mixed it up using some computer software and my Boss GS-10. I also used some of my blackface Fender amps. We usually used Shure SM57s to mic the cabs.
And how about the playing?
The album starts with a bang, with the first two cuts where Jeff Watson and I are do a bunch of lead trade-offs and harmonies – classic Night Ranger. And we wanted to throw in some type of piano ballad for (drummer) Kelly Keagy to sing, sort of the same frame as “Sister Christian.” It’s called “There Is Life.” And there’s a real heavy tuned-down song I wrote called “White Knuckle Ride” where I took one of my old Les Pauls, put heavy-gauge SIT strings on it – .013, .018, .028, .038, .050, and .060 – started fiddling around down-tuned to C#, and came up with the riff..
That track is a great example of that modern sound. Is there a single on the album?
Well, VH1 Records is looking at two songs – “There Is Life” for a ballad, and the big rock anthem “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” which I think would be a good first heavy single. It’s got that big vibe where you can imagine it being played over the P.A. at a football game – big drum intro and heavy guitar riff.
So there are some exciting things that we’re definitely looking forward to playing live. We’ve already incorporated a few songs into the set and we’re going to bring some old Night Ranger B cuts we haven’t played for a while, especially for the Japan dates. We go over there a lot – this is probably the 15th time – and it’s always great.
And you recently played for the U.S. Armed Forces at Guantanamo Bay. What was that like?
We had a few shows in Florida in January, with three days off between two of them. Ted Nugent had just played there a few months back, so we approached them. They picked us up in a Navy twin-prop and flew us to Guantanamo Bay. When we landed, we took a small boat to the admiral’s home for a nice welcoming dinner party and watched the NFL playoff game between the Packers and the Giants (laughs), then stayed in officer’s quarters. The next morning, they showed us around and took us to the detention camps, which was quite an experience. And then we went to the harbor, hopped on a Coast Guard Viper gun boat on the bay, with full-blown headgear – manning the 50-millimeter guns! Then we went to the border, where Guantanamo Bay meets Cuba. We talked with a few soldiers about the Cold War and the things that go on down there. It was a heavy experience. And we played a great show for about 3,000 troops. It was a very big day in my life.
For many years you’ve operated a sound-production studio called Liquid Hot Productions, where you’ve made music that has permeated our culture in very specific ways.
Yeah, I opened it with Jim Hawthorne back in the late ’90s and we started out doing the soundtrack for the Tiger Woods Playstation and Playstation 2 games. That led to different opportunities with ESPN, Fox Sports, Fuse, and other TV networks.
And where can this music be heard? Is it part of a theme to a particular show?
My music for ESPN has been used for “Sportscenter” and for the X-Games and a few worldwide applications – I did some flamenco and classical music they used for different countries. But basically it can be heard on “Sportscenter” as background, usually when they’re running highlights.
Is there any cross-influence between your work with Liquid Hot and your work with Night Ranger?
The pieces for ESPN and Fox Sports are driving rock, but the better stuff I keep to the side and try to use for Night Ranger. The Tiger Woods Playstation games used an eclectic mix, from orchestra to heavy metal (laughs)! The key is that Liquid Hot work keeps me constantly writing music. Jim is heavily into the orchestration end, but he’s got a funky side to him. So we collaborate well on different styles.
How did you decide to get into collecting guitars?
Well, right after the new millennium, stocks were plummeting, real estate skyrocketed, and I was thinking about another place to put my money. And I’d been thinking about getting different guitars for my ESPN work. I started researching and found information on a guitar collector in San Jose named Robby Z. After talking to him on the phone, he invited me to his house; I was amazed by what he had – in a glass display case were Strats – a ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, and ’58 – all in a row, and in beautiful condition. Then he had old Gibson L-5s and ’50s ES-175s. It was an amazing collection.
He was doing a CD and asked if I wanted to do some solos. So I played on quite a few cuts, and he ended up giving me a few guitars (laughs), like a ’47 Gibson ES-150 and a ’56 Les Paul Junior that was absolutely gorgeous. That got me goin’.
Then I started getting some really nice pieces to round out my collection. A ’52 goldtop, a mint ’68 Fender Telecaster in Pink Paisley. And then I did another CD with Robby, and he gave me a ’69 Blue Floral Tele for my collection. Then I started picking up old Strats; five or six years ago you could pick them up for $5,000 to $10,000. So I got a ’64, a ’65, and a ’67, all sunburst, plus a ’65 in Ice Blue Metallic and a ’63 in Olympic White.
Where were you getting them?
From Guitar Center, music stores, Craigslist, and on the road. I let people know I was into collecting, and they’d call when a piece came in. It’s great, looking at a dirty old Strat with fret gunk buildup, knowing when I take it home and do a number on it that it’s going to shine up real pretty (laughs)! That’s one of my favorite things!
Then I started going crazy on Gibson Modernes. I ended up buying four of them, all early-’80s, all Korina – three naturals and one black. Then I started getting into the Gibson ES-175s and have about four of those – two ’65s, one sunburst, and one blond. After that, I got into Martins. In 2004, I was on Craig’s List and there was a guy who lives near me who was selling quite a few Martins. I went to meet him, and it was Dave Casper, the former right end for the Oakland Raiders. Being a major Raider fan, it was not only great to meet him and see all the memorabilia around his office, but to see all these beautiful guitars. I ended up buying two D-45s from him an ’86 and a ’92 – and two Brazilian D-28s, a ’68, and the other one I think was a ’67. Then I started getting into Gibson acoustics and bought a nice Elvis Presley J-200 with his name inlaid on the fretboard. Then a J-200 Vine, which has all the abalone inlay throughout the headstock and down the fretboard. And then I started picking up more Les Pauls. Got a few nice reissues and an early-’80s sunburst.
Were you focusing on anything in particular, or just kicking back and letting these shops call you as stuff came in?
I was waiting to see what was available and picking anything up I felt I could use or was of vintage value. And I had my sights on different things; I started getting into 12-strings about a year ago. We recently did a show in Nashville, and I popped over to Gruhn’s Guitars and picked up a nice ’67 Gibson ES-335 12-string. Well that got me going, so of course, I had to buy a Rickenbacker 360/12. And then I bought a ’67 Mosrite 12-string. Lately, I’ve been getting into amplifiers. I found a nice ’65 Vox AC30 and an old HiWatt 100-watt head, an older Marshall MkII, and another trusty Soldano Decatone, which I use live and in the studio.
What got your started on old amps?
A friend of mine, Peter Kellett, collects guitars and amps. He also made anodized aluminum pickguards for Fender for years. A few summers ago I was at his place to record, and he had all these old beautiful Marshalls. He started fiddling around, plugging them in, I just didn’t realize the killer tone that some of these amps have. Then I plugged into his ’59 Fender Bassman, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful and fat it sounded, the natural compression. So I located and bought a ’59 Bassman through a guy here in the Bay area.
What sort of condition is it in?
It’s beautiful condition because it’s been re-tolexed. I went in and had all the tubes redone using NOS tubes, and bias set up perfectly so it’s ready to roll. One thing about my guitars and amps, I keep everything ready to play – fresh strings, tuned, and amps ready to fire.
You recently added guitar number 100 to your collection. When did it happen?
It happened right before Christmas. Actually, my 99th was a ’79 Stratocaster in Antigua. Then I held off because I wanted the Coronado to be my 100th. It’s in such good condition, it doesn’t even look real – it looks like a cartoon (laughs)! After I bought the Coronado II, I started getting into Coronados and found a guy five miles from me who was selling a ’67 Coronado II Wildwood. You gotta pay for the Wildwood, but it’s a beautiful, clean guitar… almost mint.
How’d you get into the Antigua finishes?
Well, I was at Robby Z’s house a few months ago, and he had Antiguas that totally blew me away. He said, “This is the next big thing, man.” So the next day I was looking to add the 100th guitar in my collection, and I bought the ’67 Coronado in Antiqua.
By the looks of the finish, it has never seen sunlight!
No, it has nice color and is just a dream to play. So now I’m in the market to buy Antigua Jazz and Precision basses… and a Tele, of course.
Are there a handful of favorites in your collection?
Well, my favorites right now are the Antiqua Coronado II, the Paisley Tele, a sunburst ’57 Strat with a ’63 V-shaped neck that plays wonderfully. I had a Nady wireless in that one – with no routing! I have quite a few guitars with built-in Nady systems, including my red ’62 Strat. My black Les Paul with the Floyd Rose, and the ’65 Stratocaster in Ice Blue Metallic, and a few Jacksons. My buddies Rich Bandoni and Anthony Woo have been installing wireless transmitters in my guitars for years.
My new favorite guitar is a PRS 513 custom-built for me. After doing a few NAMM shows and jamming at PRS parties, I asked Paul Smith if he could put a Floyd Rose vibrato on a PRS. I sent him an original Floyd and a Nady transmitter, and they built me this beautiful blue 513. It’s one of my road guitars.
Speaking of road guitars, is the black Les Paul with the Floyd Rose the same one seen on the live Ozzy videos back in the day?
Yes, I had three guitars on the road with Ozzy. One was my red ’62 Strat, one was a pieced-together Strat with a Floyd on it. Then there was the Les Paul Custom, which I took to Star’s Guitars in San Francisco years ago to mount the Floyd Rose. That was scary for me and them, because they had never done it (laughs)! So after some detailed carving and placement, I had them route behind the bridge because I had to be able to pull and push the bar. It was a slammin’ Les Paul, with great tone. I played my red Strat or the other Strat during the show, and for the encore – we played “Iron Man” and “Paranoid” – I brought out the Les Paul.
Which pickups are in it?
They’re stock, I never changed them.
How about the red guitar?
The red Strat has a Duncan JB in the bridge, an original ’62 in the middle, and a stacked Duncan in the neck position.
How long have those been in that guitar?
Quite a long time. I was using a PJ Marx pickup back in the ’80s. That was pretty hot, almost a little too hot. I switched it out with a JB quite a few years back and got a little more control over the tone. My live rig is outstanding! I run my Soldano through a couple old HiWatt cabinets with Fane speakers. I’ve got great tone, live – I just plug in and go.
Is the Gibson Elvis Presley J-200 a Custom Shop guitar?
Yep, they made 150 of them. I’ve been getting into acoustics and even mandolin lately. I have a nice Ovation mando with a wireless installed (laughs)!
Are you going to start chasing vintage mandolins?
I’ve been looking into vintage mandolins, haven’t really found anything yet.
But are you looking for anything in particular, collection-wise?
The only thing I’m really missing is a nice old Gibson SG. I haven’t owned one since I was 15, so I’m in the market for a ’60s Standard or maybe a three-pickup Custom.
How many guitars do you take on the road now?
I only take three. Since we do a lot of flying, a lot of times I just take one.
If you’re taking just one guitar to a gig, it’s the red Strat, right?
Well, I retired the red one a while back. I don’t like the security at airports because you can’t lock cases anymore. I envision going to the baggage claim and opening an empty case. So I had to retire it. I use it at home and take it out to do local gigs. So I’ve been playing a Fernandez Brad Gillis model and a Fender BG replica that my buddy Brad Kelley built for me. The two Strats and my PRS 513 are my main live guitars now.
Have you replaced any parts on it over the years?
I never had to replace anything except the frets and one original Floyd bridge piece that broke. At one of our shows in Japan last year I met a man who came up to our van with an original Floyd in his hand and wanted to give it to me. It’s the one I sent to Paul Smith to use on my PRS.
Is it getting tough to find original Floyd Rose setups?
Not really. I have four or five at home and whenever I see one on Craig’s List or elsewhere online, I’ll pick it up. The original Floyds are the best because they are more case-hardened and don’t have fine-tuners; I never liked fine-tuners, they always got in my way when I’d palm on the bridge. And there’s two types of Floyd Roses – the original with the larger Allen nut, and the newer ones with a smaller nut. I collect the older ones.
Does the Les Paul have any special custom wiring?
Actually, I just wired the Tone knob from both pickups to one knob only and used the fourth knob as my wireless off/on button. That way I wasn’t doing any routing into the front of the body.
It’s a master Tone.
Yeah, I just didn’t want to rout it into the front… though it’s not like the Floyd Rose wasn’t much routing, anyway (laughs). But it’s got stock electronics.
Any other projects in the works?
I’ve been producing and mixing a 16-year-old girl named Grace Leer who took top 20 on American Idol Juniors when she was 11. She sings “The Star Spangled Banner” at many San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, and Golden State Warrior games. Her record should be out later this year. Night Ranger just finished mixing a live CD recorded in Japan with Reb Beach (VG, May ’08) and me on guitars. And I’m finishing 10 hard rock songs for ESPN.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.
There Is Life – Night Ranger
OZZY Osbourme – Brad Gillis & Tommy Aldridge Solo 1982
Brad Gillis’ 1962 Fender Stratocaster
Seen far and wide on tour with Ozzy Osbourne in the early 1980s and on most Night Ranger albums, videos, and tours until its retirement in the late ’90s, Brad Gillis’ 1962 Fender Stratocaster is one of the highest-profile axes in hard rock. Here are its most notable elements.
“First-generation” Floyd Rose vibrato
Notched aircraft on/off switch activates Nady wireless transmitter mounted in control cavity.
Toggle switches; one once activated a Sustainiac that was built into the guitar.
Pushbutton for wireless effects switching. “My brother designed a system where I was able to switch effects through my guitar. I could be at the opposite side of the stage, hit the button, and turn on my lead channel or activate a chorus or delay.”
The third button has since been converted to a light, and the wireless switching removed. “The transmitter was too close to the pickup and if I wasn’t playing, it would make a bunch of noise when pushed.”
The neck was painted black in 1981 with an original Fender logo, and a 22nd fret was added.
Custom Gotoh tuners
Recessed Jim Dunlop strap locks
Miscellaneous stickers and (in Gillis’ words) “dumb stuff.”
Gillis’ playing style and use of Dunlop stainless steel picks helped create noticeable marks near the neck/body joint.
Buckle wear on the back is drastic. In one section, it has carved a groove that runs a 1/4″ deep.