Paul Gilbert – The Korea Guitar Interview

Paul Gilbert has been melting faces with his distinctive style of guitar playing since 1986!  From Racer X’s first album Street Lethal to his current solo CD I Can Destroy, he has been continually evolving his sound and style.  The new album flat-out rocks.  Gilbert was kind enough to sit down with Korea Guitar to discuss everything from his beginnings to his teaching to his new CD.  Check him out on tour soon.  Enjoy! (I have transcribed most of the interview. If he played guitar while answering a question, I have included the audio.)  

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about when you first started out, but I do want to ask if you had a eureka moment that made you want to play the guitar?

Paul Gilbert: It wasn’t a eureka moment, it was more of a eureka life.  Initially, my parents had all the Beatles albums and I would stand in front of the mirror and just pretend to be performing, because I just loved that music.  I don’t really remember if I was playing air guitar or just dancing with my hands.  I was just a little kid so I didn’t really know what instrument was connected to each sound.  I wasn’t at that level yet.  I just liked the sound and I could sing along to it.  So, I just really loved the music a lot and one of my parents’ friends gave us a guitar.  And really, the eureka moment with that was when I was going to school and our music teacher explained the steps of the major scale as whole step-whole step-half step.  I think she played it on piano or something, and conceptually, I understood the numbers.  This was probably when I was in fourth grade.  I had my guitar at home.  I had no idea how to tune the guitar, but I just took the low E string and thought maybe these frets are what she was talking about and I just went…Oh that’s the sound.  It was the first time I was able to play something where my fingers and my ears matched up, and ever since then I started playing by ear.  I would just work out any riff.  The first riff I worked out was that Chicago song. (plays 25 or 6 to 4) and I must have played that for three months, it was the only thing I knew, but I would play it for an hour every day.

It’s funny, because although I had had some lessons earlier when I was six, I gave up almost immediately because the lessons were mostly all about reading music.  I’m still a horrible reader because it just seemed like the wrong way to approach music.  You know, why not use your ears rather than your eyes.  But anyway, my real start was doing that and because I did not have a teacher when I started playing a lot, I didn’t have any technical advice at all.  So my technique stayed in a very small area.  I only used one finger, my middle finger.  I only strummed up.  I don’t know why, and I only used the low E string on the guitar.  For many years after that, after I had lessons and learned to use the other fingers, I always looked back with regret and thought, oh man, If I’d only had a teacher I could have developed so much faster.  But now, I’m really glad that I did that, because I could learn what it felt like to have at least one small thing be at a really high level.  Because if you spend two years only playing with one finger,  that one finger gets really confident.  When I was 11 years old, I could only use one finger, but man,  I imagine I was almost at a pro level with one finger.  You still can’t do much, but what you can do has a really confident sound to it.  You feel good, you’re not worried about it, you just have a real confidence.  And the same thing with the upstrokes and just knowing that low E string.  So, as I began to expand and use the other fingers, I had that standard of confidence to aspire to.  And I must admit, when I teach now, and see up and coming guitar players, I don’t care if they know scales.  I don’t care if they know techniques.  I just want them to play one great sounding note.  That to me is the most satisfying thing, if they can just get one great sound out of the guitar.  It doesn’t need to be fast or complicated, it’s just one note with confidence means so much more.   And by total accident, just because I didn’t know anything else to do, that was what happened when I started to play guitar.

Do you remember when you decided that you wanted to make guitar playing your profession?

Photo credit: Tami Fukatami
Photo credit: Tami Fukatami

PG: Well, when you’re 5 years old, you don’t really have a realistic picture of what a career is.  But you have desire and you have love and you have excitement.  So, as a five year old kid, listening to my parents Beatles albums and starting to build my own record collection, you know, I didn’t have any money, but we would go to flea markets where you could get used things very cheap.  You could go through other people’s records that they were selling.  10 cents or 25 cents for a record.  So I picked up Are You Experienced by Hendrix, Axis…Bold As Love, Machine Head by Deep Purple really cheap.  Like a quarter or 50 cents.  And I’d bring those home and I started getting into Led Zeppelin.  This was my passion.  I loved it.  I listened to it all the time.  The older I got, the more I started to infuse that idea with “Hey, maybe I can pay rent with this!”  But I had no concept of how much it cost to rent an apartment (laughs).  That’s how I look at it.  It was all built on loving the music.

Let’s jump ahead to this year.  Your new album, I Can Destroy is fantastic.  I love it.

PG: Thank you.

To me, it sounds really raw, really live.

PG: That’s cuz it’s raw and live.

Can you take us through the recording process, and who’s on it and how it all came together?

PG: Well, Kevin Shirley is the producer, and I worked with him once before on a Mr. Big record called What If and really had a great time with him.  It was fun and it was frightening because he loves first takes so much.  In these days of Pro Tools, the first take is what you do when you’re getting your tone together and you still have a thousand knobs to tweak.  You don’t even consider the first take.  With Kevin, it’s like “That’s it.  It’s done.”  What?  Usually I think about this for an hour before I even consider going for it.  That’s what I learned when we did the Mr. Big album.  But I loved the result of it.  It was a great record and it exceeded my expectations for how it sounded.  And it was fun to do it.

So, when I did my recent I Can Destroy solo album, I knew in advance that I wasn’t going to be doing a lot of overdubbing or any overdubbing.  I wasn’t going to be doing a lot of takes.  I might get three if I’m lucky.  That motivated me to put a good band together, cuz if it’s just me, a drummer and a bass player, I might need some overdubs for that to be fuller.  And I thought, I don’t know if I’m gonna have a chance to do that, so I better get a bigger band to have a fuller sound, not only for the guitars and instrumental parts, but also for the vocals.  So, I got Freddie Nelson and Tony Spinner, who not only play guitar really well, but they sing really well. (Kevin Chown on bass, and Thomas Lang on drums make up the rest of the band)  We did a lot of rehearsing, went in the studio and fortunately everything went fast and smooth and we actually were ahead of schedule so much that we started to run out of songs. (laughs)  So that was funny because suddenly I was in a position where we had recorded all the songs that I had prepared and we had a few more days.  I realized, ‘hey, tomorrow I have to have 2 songs ready.’  So I would go to stuff that was not quite finished, but was close.  I’d bring it in and I’d have the band come in an hour early before Kevin got there and we’d work it out real fast.  And that turned out be some of the best stuff.  There’s a tune called One Woman Too Many that’s got this real fast rhythm groove.

Nobody in the band had even heard the song.  I just said, ‘I’ve got this new idea.  It’s pretty simple.  It’s only got a few chords in it and there’s no change.’  That’s actually one of my favorite guitar solos on the record…completely improvised.  You know, I had no idea, there was no time to plan it out.  Sometimes it feels like the less you prepare the better it is.  That’s not always the case.  If it’s a complicated song with lots of parts, then you need more time.  But in general, it was just the right amount of panic.  (laughs) I can’t believe we got through that one.

So most of your solos are planned out before you record them?

Are you planning on touring to support I Can Destroy?

PG: Yeah, I’m gonna do some touring this year.  My manager’s putting that together.  I don’t know where I’m going yet, but hopefully as many places as possible.

Photo credit: James Chiang
Photo credit: James Chiang

Hopefully Korea!?

PG: Yeah.  Playing Korea is amazing.  The last few times we’ve been there, well every time we’ve been there, the audience is just so energetic and enthusiastic.  And a lot of times, during that part of the tour, the band is really exhausted.  You can’t take a two hour bus ride to Korea.  You have to fly.  That means an early morning, going to the airport and you’re exhausted.  A lot of times we’re going, “Oh, how are we gonna do it tonight.”  And then we get out there and the audience just goes crazy.   It gives us the energy to do a great show.  I always appreciate it.

I want to ask you a question that I asked Marty Friedman when I interviewed him for the site.  You spend a lot of time in Japan.  Why is Shred guitar, for lack of a better word, so popular in Japan?

PG: Well, you kind of have to ask them, but my own experience with music in Japan is that Mr. Big has been amazingly successful there.  Mr. Big has some elements of fast guitar, but to me, that band has a lot of other stuff.  We do ballads, we have a lot of vocal harmonies.  So, I don’t know if it’s just the shred element that’s selling the band.  In fact I don’t think it is.  I think people really like the songs of the band.  People have gotten to know the four members.  They know Eric Martin and Billy Sheehan and Pat Torpey and me, so it’s a lot deeper than just shred.

Photo credit: Neil Zlozower

If I was going to look at it from a shred standpoint, I would look at my instrumental albums that I’ve done.  And those, really, have done just as well in Europe or America  as they have in Japan  That kind of evens it out a bit more.  So, from my own experience, it’s not that Japan likes shred more, it’s that Japan likes Mr. Big more. (laughs) Which I also can’t explain.  I have a different view on it, but I have to say, I am influenced obviously if people respond to something you do really well, it encourages you to do more of it.  But at the same time, my own musical desires are so strong that I do a lot of stuff that I probably should not do if I was a smart advertising record company business person.

In the 90s, I really wanted to be a pop musician.  I was making these albums where I was trying to be a pop singer.  A lot of my early solos were a lot more pop than they were metal.   I’d still throw in some fast solos.  I threw in enough fast solos where no pop person would take me seriously.  But I also wasn’t metal enough to be put in the…well actually people did put me in the metal category, which was sort of odd.  I’ve done so many things.  Now I’m into blues and jazz.  I get into these different things.  Again going back to being a kid, I just love music so I’m always interested in some element of music.  And it’s not necessarily what my fans want to hear from me at all.  I kind of have to apologize to them, but at the same time, if I’m a fan of someone, I want them to do what they want to do, you know?  That’s why I like them.  I don’t want them to come and say, ‘Here is a song I hate.’  I still like everything I’ve done, but I always want to expand more, not just for the sake of expansion, but because I’m always curious about music.

Is shred a bad word?

PG: My intuition says yes. (laughs)  That’s not because it’s a bad word, that’s because I’m old.  When I was a kid, shred was not a word that had anything to do with music.  It was something you would do with paper.  (laughs)  It’s hard to give up what existed when you were a kid.  You know, when I was a kid, Led Zeppelin was a heavy metal band and now they’re a bluesy rock band.  How people view them has changed, even though the music hasn’t changed at all.  It’s the same  music, but the label has changed because of what’s happened around it.

I guess the reason that I’m scared of shred, is because it’s a term that was sort of put on me that was a new term.  The people that I was influenced by were Van Halen, and I guess people call him a shredder too.  I mean who knows.

I definitely wanted to play fast and I think that athletic quality was exciting, but I didn’t want to do it at the expense of the song.  I’ve always been a fan of pop music and I grew up with 70s radio, where they’re playing….

And also, I don’t have a magical pop voice.   As much as I love that music, I’m just not going to get that far because I don’t have the tools to really sell it.  In a way, that’s just a challenge I have to face every day.  Some of the things that I really love, I’ll probably never be as good at as some other things that I do.  You know, I really wish I could be a great pop singer, but being stuck as a fast guitar player isn’t such a bad thing either.

As a Canadian, I have to ask about Kim Mitchell.  On your Wikipedia page, Kim is listed as an influence.  What was it about his playing that you loved and were influenced by?

PG: Well, very specifically, when he was in Max Webster, there was a song called In The World Of Giants.

Also, Billy Sheehan played with him in Max Webster didn’t he?

PG: I think Billy jammed with him a little bit.  I don’t think it was for a long period of time.  Billy is a huge Kim Mitchell fan as well.  I know they’d be great together.

I want to talk about a couple of the projects you’ve got going right now.  One is the Great Guitar Escape.

PG: Oh yeah, that’s a guitar camp.  We’ve done a couple of these before.  I’m the typical guitar player, where I like to do things by myself.(laughs)  I’m not the most social person in the world.  So, at first I kind of fear these things because it is really social.  You get together with a lot of people, you spend time with them, whether it’s playing or eating breakfast of whatever.  And man, I had such a great time.  It was a nice surprise how much I enjoyed doing these things.  The more I do them, the more I tend to open up and just try to get as close as possible to everybody there.  It’s just a week of hanging out and playing music and becoming friends with everybody.  It’s just a blast.

And of course, it’s not just me.  I get a lot of incredible musicians along to teach with me.  Every time I get a different mix of people.  This time I’ve got Andy Timmins, Bruce Bouillet, from Racer X, and actually, for the backup band I’ve got Dave Ellefson from Megadeth and Megadeth’s new guitar player, Kiko Loureiro who played in Angra as well, and Bumblefoot who played in Guns N Roses for years and is just an amazing solo artist.  We’ll have some incredible jam sessions as well.

Great and you also have your Online Guitar Rock School.  How’s that going?

PG: That keeps me busy.  I’ve done almost 4000 video lessons and every day I do more and more.  They’re all on there.  When you join you get immediate access to everything.  It’s cheaper if you join for a long period of time.  If you get a year’s subscription, you get a better deal.  But even if you join for three months, you still get access to everything.  These videos are basically me communicating to the specific students, to answer their questions or comment on what I see or hear in their playing, but when I make that video, everyone gets to see it.  So I’m teaching one person specifically, but everyone can learn from it.

There’s also a 16 hour guitar course that I put on there.  The nice thing about it is, although there is just a monstrous amount of material, it’s easy to search through it.  There are search features, so if you’re interested in a certain kind of technique, like if you want to learn about picking, just type in ’picking’ and all the picking lessons will come up and they’re labelled and you can find what you want.

I think the most significant thing is that it really is a living, breathing school.  It’s not just something that I made and leave alone.  Every day, I put new content, listening to the players and responding to them, so it’s alive.

And this school is for everyone from beginner to advanced players?

PG: Yeah, that’s the thing.  Because I can respond to the individual people, I’m flexible.  If they’re beginning I can help them.  If they’re advance I can help too, so there are all levels.

I have some questions from Korea Guitar readers now.  The first is from Karl Mischler, who is a great guitar player in Daejeon, South Korea.  He wants to know your thoughts on 7 and 8 string guitars.  Do you use them and what do you think the future of these instruments will be?

Karl also wants to know if you’ve had any “WOW”” moments in the last little while, while you’ve been practicing.

The next question is from Nolan Reilly, also from Daejeon and also a great player.  He wants to know what your go-to pre-gig meal is?

Van Walker wants to know:  What’s the funniest story you can tell about Billy Sheehan or Mr. Big that won’t get anyone fired, divorced or arrested?

Photo credit: Tami Fukatami
Photo credit: Tami Fukatami

PG: Oh man, Billy’s a much better story teller than I am.  Instantly, the best story I was involved in was getting the drill caught in my hair.  I just wish that cell phone cameras had been around back then.  It would have been a great Youtube video.  I don’t know.  I spent so much time on the road with those guys that it’s just a blur of memories.  When I think of Mr. Big, the first thing I think of is not necessarily the funny things, but the amazingly big staging.  I just think of walking on stage in these giant arenas going ‘Wow, we’re playing here.  This is amazing!’  So I guess the thing that makes me laugh is having your childhood dreams  come true, which is just amazing.  My dreams were very unrealistic.  When I told people that I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid, a lot of people would go ‘OK, yeah’.  A lot of raised eyebrows.  So, to be able to actually do it makes me smile and laugh.

The next question is from Dave Reffett, who actually does clinics around the world.

PG: We’ve got all-star questioners here.

Yeah it’s not bad.  He wants to know why you don’t do any Racer X stuff live anymore.

PG: Often I do Scarified, which is an instrumental.  Racer X was primarily a vocal band.  There are some instrumentals.  Scarified was one of our better known songs, but most of the songs have vocals and if I’m doing my solo band, I just can’t sing that stuff.  It’s too high.

Photo credit: James Chiang

Also, I’ve really kind of changed.  It was more chunky stuff.  And chunky guitar playing isn’t as interesting to me as it used to be.  If it’s done well, I still like it but I don’t crave it like I used to.  When I was 18 years old, I could sit and chunk everyday and be happy.  But these days, I listen to jazz saxophone and I’ve been listening to Loretta Lynn, the country singer because of how beautiful her melodies are.  As the decades pass, my tastes kind of go all over the place.

This one is from Louis McDonald.  He’s a guitar teacher at School of Rock in Ottawa, Canada.  He wants to ask:  When you were teaching at GIT, what were the most common problems students would have?

One more question from Louis, who are the new hotshot guitarists that impress you?

PG: There probably are a lot, but I haven’t really paid attention to guitar players since about 1985.  I mean to me, Eric Johnson and Ty Tabor are new guitar players, and I’m really impressed with both of them.  But I just love Johnny Hodges, who was the sax player for Duke Ellington.  He just played so beautifully.  Actually, for shred stuff, Artie Shaw, who was a clarinet player, if you want to hear something that sound like a sweep arpeggio but is way cleaner and way more controlled, check out some Artie Shaw records.  He’s unbelievable.

Excellent.  Thanks so much for this.  All the best with the new album, the tour and hopefully we’ll see you in Korea very soon.

PG: Thank you very much.  감사합니다(Thank you in Korean)


Official website:



Paul Gilbert Discography: Click here



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