A member of the cutting-edge vanguard that made the Floyd Rose locking vibrato a huge part of ’80s rock guitar, Brad Gillis famously gashed two classics – a ’62 Strat and a ’71 Les Paul Custom – with early versions of the device. Guitarheads now might cringe at the thought, but the move cemented his place in the pantheon of axe gods.
Gillis’ band, Night Ranger, was a generational highlight of the genre, surging to prominence with a huge video on MTV followed by a full album’s worth of megahits. Its new disc, And The Band Played On (ATBPO for the sake of album art), brings all the hard-rock energy fans expect, with top-shelf melodies, intricate guitar jams, and lyrics worth memorizing.
The band is now in full touring mode, making up for lost time in the wake of cancelled tours in 2020. Our talk with Gillis was wedged between interviewers from Germany, Sweden, and Italy.
The band started writing songs for ATBPO right around the time the pandemic was gaining steam. Safe to say you couldn’t get together and record?
Right, but Jack (Blades, singer/bassist), Kelly (Keagy, drums), and I had plenty of ideas. After a few Zoom calls, we had the foundation for a new record. We came up with 16 or 17 songs, narrowed it down to a dozen, and started working on arrangements. Everybody has a home studio, so we passed files around and got to work.
It took a little longer than normal, but after five months we finished recording and started mixing with our producer buddy Anthony Focx. He went on to master the record, too.
Would you normally be in a room with Jack and Keri Kelli, hashing-out parts?
Yes, we did the last few records at Jack’s house. He had a great studio with all the outboard gear and everything you could imagine for amplifiers and guitars. But of course we’d bring our favorite equipment, as well.
Quite a change from the ’80s?
For sure. Back then, you’d push hard because of studio-time expense. Jeff Watson and I would sit in our hotel room and try to come up with a great harmonies and solos, then rush in and out of the studio. You didn’t get a second chance.
That said, I did have fun experimenting on the first three records, especially on the “Sister Christian” solo. I wanted to build my solo using long, sustained notes. I played in the control room with my amplifier in the big room, cranking it loud enough to get a great, natural sustained loop through the system.
In the ’80s, we spent a lot of money making records and shooting videos. We can achieve the same results today with home studios, and video costs are lower.
How did songs come together this time?
I brought in a lot of riffs and chord arrangements, and Keri did the same. Jack took a foothold on the lyrics with Kelly, and we’d pass files around, adding individual parts.
The album is full of the high-energy rockers fans expect from Night Ranger, along with a couple mellower turns.
Definitely. The first single, “Breakout,” is pure Night Ranger, with slamming guitar harmonies and Jack singing his butt off. Frontiers, our record company, felt that it had the signature Night Ranger sound.
You have to be pleased with the reception it’s getting.
It’s been exciting to get such great recognition and reviews. We had a lot fun playing “Bring It All Home To Me” live for the first time in Vegas. We’d already done “Breakout” several times live, which comes across very well.
We’ve enjoyed watching our record moving up the charts worldwide – especially in Europe & Japan.
How did you choose guitars for the album?
I had such a blast with this record because I had the luxury of time; I could record a solo and sleep on it. The next morning, if there was something I wanted to change, I’d go in and change it. Being a vintage-guitar collector able to record at home, I could choose which guitar fit best on a particular song. I had just bought a ’52 goldtop and decided to play it on a couple rhythm parts, just to get a different sound. Of course, I used my red ’62 Strat on several songs, along with my ’71 Les Paul Custom. On one of my favorite songs, “Can’t Afford a Hero,” I used a ’57 Strat running through a ’65 Deluxe Reverb to get that classic sound.
Where did you find that guitar?
We were doing a show in Anchorage four or five years ago, and the promoter turned me on to a mom-and-pop guitar store that was closing. I called, and the owner said, “I have a ’57 Strat in the rafters here. Do you want to come check it out?” And I said, “Yeaasss I do (laughs). What type of condition is it in?” He said, “It’s a six or seven, but all-original.” And I said, “I’ll be over tomorrow.”
So I went, and there it was in it original tweed case. It was full of sweat and muck on the body and strings, but it was a diamond in the rough. I knew that once it was polished up it would be gorgeous. And it’s not a six or seven, it’s a 9.8! I set it up and floated the vibrato to move up and down.
I’ve been lucky to tour the country and connect with people like him in different areas to find vintage guitars. On the road, I go on Craigslist to see if anybody in that town is selling worthwhile vintage pieces. If I find one, I invite them to the show and have them bring the guitar, which I often end up taking home. I got a ’59 reissue Les Paul and very cool Gibson Flying V2 that way.
Does it have V-shaped pickups?
It does – the first-version pickups. It’s absolutely mint. Sounds great and plays well.
How did you choose amps?
I tried a few – Boogies and Marshalls, blackface Fenders, and I used plug-ins through the computer. I mixed guitar sounds with a Radial Injector rackmount unit with one input and six outputs. I might send one output to an amplifier and speaker cab, another direct, and another through my Boss GS-10, which has great sounds.
I tried different combinations of sounds and made sure everything was in-phase. To get the lead-guitar harmony sound at the front of “Breakout,” I ran a Boogie head through a Marshall cab with my Les Paul Custom. Every song was unique, and again, I had the luxury of time to fiddle around and get the sounds I wanted.
Did you talk with Keri about the guitars and amps he was using, and tweak your setup accordingly?
Most the time, for harmonies I’d use my Strat and he’d use his goldtop. Keri is such a great player and he came up with amazing solos, which was a kick in the butt. A little competition puts a fire under your ass.
How did you connect with him?
We brought Keri to fill in on a few shows years back, when Joel Hoekstra was off doing Trans Siberian Orchestra. He did such a great job that when Joel left to join Whitesnake, he was a natural for Night Ranger.
When Keri first started, he played every solo perfectly… but he wasn’t doing Jeff Watson’s eight-finger tapping technique for the lead solo in “(You Can Still) Rock in America.” We were getting ready to take a two-week break from the road one day and I asked him, “How cool would it be if you were to learn the eight-finger technique?” He looked at me and smiled, and said, “Yeah, okay.” Two weeks later at sound check, he came up to me smiling and said, “Hey, let’s do ‘Rock In America.’” Sure enough, we got to the solo and he turns toward me, playing the eight-finger bit. I was blown away. Thanks, Keri!
What will guitarheads see, comparing and contrasting you and Keri?
Two different styles, much like Joel and me, or Jeff and me. Those guys play with a more-intricate speed feel, and I play with more of a tasty blues feel with the whammy bar. The contrasts works well with Night Ranger. We bring it together in songs like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Eddie’s Comin’ Out Tonight,” and “Touch of Madness.”
Do you have a few personal favorites from the band’s catalog?
I still really enjoy playing “Touch of Madness,” “Rumors in the Air,” and “Eddie’s Comin’ Out Tonight.” We have the benefit of choosing songs from a 40-year career, and always play the big hits fans love to hear. But we also trade-out some songs to keep it exciting and the audience engaged. When you play a town twice in a year, you don’t want to repeat the same set.
You’ve expanded your guitar collection quite a bit since we talked more than 10 years ago. What are some of the highlight pieces in your collection now?
Well, that ’52 goldtop might be the best, but others include a Fender Custom Shop Marilyn Monroe Playboy Strat and a ’62 sunburst Strat. I bought all three at Guitar Showcase, in San Jose. Fender made 175 Playboy Strats; my buddy, Peter Kellett, has one of the prototypes that I borrowed and played for a while. When I found one for sale, I jumped on it. I like unusual and cool guitars, and mostly buy them only if they’re close to mint condition.
You’re working on new guitars with Peter, who’s known in the vintage-guitar community for making anodized-aluminum Tele and Strat bodies in the ’90s.
Yes, Peter has sold Fender hundreds of anodized pickguards. He also helped create their Harley-Davidson guitar. In 1994, Peter developed his own line of custom anodized aluminum artwork for guitars. Today, we’re reviving the Kellett line for market. The collection includes Strats with f holes, Les Pauls, and Tele bodies. We filled a few of the hollowbody models with spray-foam insulation to solidify the sound. At Peter’s house, we plugged in a dozen of these guitars to see how they fared. We ran them through Marshalls at high volume and discovered some had their own unique sound.
Peter got his start anodizing parts for the Patriot missile, and has an anodized American flag and NASA logo on the Mars Rover. So not only is he nationwide, he’s intergalactic (laughs).
We’re going to start marketing them soon.
You’ve recently acquired three vintage sunburst Strats – two two-tones and one three-tone.
I’ve got three years covered; the ’57 and ’58 are two-tone with maple necks, the ’59 is a three-tone with a rosewood board and is absolutely mint.
What’s the story with the Elvis Presley Gibson Jumbo?
That’s a re-creation Gibson made in tribute to a guitar Elvis used back in the day. They made 250 of them. I got it years back from a buddy who would find guitars and call when he got something rare and eclectic. When that came out, I jumped on it right away. It’s absolutely mint and sounds great. It’s one of the staples in my collection.
What’s the story with the Olympic White Strat with the Oakland Raiders sticker?
That’s a ’79 I did a number on (laughs). I added an original Floyd Rose, a built-in wireless, and a 22nd fret. It’s a great player with a fat neck; great as a live guitar when I play locally. I don’t take it on the road.
Which guitars do go on the road with you?
My road guitars are the replicas of my red ’62 Strat and a couple signature copies that Fernandes built in the ’80s.
All of my live guitars have built-in wireless transmitters, which I’ve been using for decades. I never liked having a cord coming out of my guitar or wearing a transmitter on my strap. Early on in Night Ranger, I’d have my brother, an electronics whiz, rout the guitar bodies and put in Nady transmitters. We’re doing the same with Shure wireless units now and they sound a lot more true.
Which acoustic did you use on the album?
I used a Taylor 816ce. I have quite a few custom Taylors that sound amazing whether I mic it up or use their internal pickup. Mixing them together gives a fantastic sound.
What are some of your favorite amps?
I have an old red 800 Marshall that has that “brown sound” – smooth and fat and hairy. I’ve had that amp for decades. My collection of Fender amps has grown, too. My favorite is a ’59 Bassman that has a natural compression that sounds awesome. I found that one locally in the Bay Area quite a few years back.
You have a couple records in the works outside of Night Ranger.
I just finished my solo record with Gary Moon singing on most of it and Derek Sherinian on keyboards. I concentrated on strong songs and lyrics with Gary’s vocals.
Gary jumped into Night Ranger in the early ’90s, when Jack joined The Damn Yankees with Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent. We recorded Feeding Off the Mojo in ’95 that featured Gary’s fantastic, original-sounding voice.
I hit him up a few years back for my solo project. We’d work intently in my home studio to get the best out of his vocals. He kicks ass; when he sings low, he’s got girth, and when he screams, you can’t compare him to anyone. He’s one of those voices that stands alone. Almost everything, including drums, was recorded here in my house and it’ll be released in the next few months.
I also did an album for Frontier Records with Alessandro Del Vecchio producing and playing keyboards, Billy Sheehan playing bass, Renan Zonta on lead vocals, and David Huff on drums. It’s pretty heavy in a few sections, but very melodic.
For more than 20 years, you’ve been creating music for video games and TV sports programming.
Yes, I’m still busy with TV music on the side. I’ve done more than 400 tracks for ESPN and Fox Sports. I also did a flamenco track for “The Price is Right.” TV has been a fun and lucrative side gig. Lately, though, the focus is Night Ranger. I’ve also been remodeling my house. I’m building a soundproof studio that’s almost ready to paint, then carpet. That’s been a major project the last few months.
Seen far and wide on tour with Ozzy Osbourne in the early ’80s and on most Night Ranger albums, videos, and tours until its retirement in the late ’90s, Brad Gillis’ ’62 Stratocaster is one of the highest-profile axes in hard rock. Here are its most notable elements.
• The third Floyd Rose vibrato unit, made in Rose‘s garage.
• Notched on/off switch activates Shure wireless transmitter mounted in the control cavity.
• Toggle switches; one once activated a Sustainiac that was built into the guitar.
• Pushbutton for wireless effects switching. “My brother designed a transmitter 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 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 is a groove carved 1/4″ deep.
This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.