Paul Gilbert

 

Groupology

  • Racer X
  • Mr. Big
  • Paul Gilbert

 

Cretaceous

Watch Paul Gilbert in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Famous For: Ridiculous chops. Lightning speed, incredible versatility. Playing keyboard virtuoso parts (Wakeman, Emerson) on guitar. A pretty good singing voice. Enormous height (he is 6’4"). Being one of the genre’s great instructors — Paul is incredibly humble, gracious, and has a great sense of humor that comes out in both his personality and in his music.  One of the defining players of the Shred genre, Gilbert’s all-around musicality is evident in his ability to write wonderful pop songs, which undoubtedly comes from incredible reverence for The Beatles and many other great pop artists and songwriters.  Paul is also the ultimate fanboy who’s devotion is evident by the numerous cover bands he play in with drummer Mike Portnoy, including Yellow Matter Custard (Beatles), Amazing Journey (The Who), Cygnus and The Sea Monsters (Rush), Hammer Of the Gods (Zep). In these bands, Paul even dresses the part. Immensely fun stuff!

Infamous For: Looking geeky wearing headphones on stage. Paul Gilbert is not really infamous, for anything. By all accounts, the man is a total mensch! Paul might be the only lead guitarist you would want to take home to meet your Mom.  Having built his reputation as a shred god in his teens, the middle-aged Paul Gilbert is no longer interested in putting out pure shred albums anymore. Nothing approaching ALD, he still loves playing mind-bending licks at warp speed and will always do so (he understands what his fans want), but he does so these days in the context of well-written songs that span scope of pop and rock.

Influences

Obvious: Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, Kim Mitchell, Tony Iommi, Alex Lifeson, Ritchie Blackmore, Frank Marino, Pat Travers, Gary Moore, Michael Schenker, both Judas Priest guitarists, Akira Takasaki, Jimi Hendrix, Ace Frehley.  

Not-so-obvious: George Harrison, Johnny Ramone, Robin Trower, Steve Clarke, Todd Rundgren, Rick Nielsen. Gilbert has a voracious musical curiosity and his musical and songwriting influences go way beyond just guitarists. There are too many to list, but if you search YouTube, you’ll find him playing everything from Carole King and Burt Bacharach, to Bach.  

Strengths

Chops chops chops chops and more chops, lamb chops, pork chops, all the chops.  There is absolutely nothing that Paul Gilbert cannot play on a guitar.  He knows every chord scale and mode like a computer. His technical facility is beyond belief, his alternate picking technique is perhaps unrivaled.  Paul Gilbert is a picking machine, par excellence.  

Musicianship.  The reason why I, Amy Douglas, non guitarist am writing this profile, is because it became so glaringly obvious to me, that being a great musician is far more important to Paul than just being a great guitarist.  His adorable, geek-out interviews where he describes his love and zeal for overall musicianship is not only heartwarming, but also engaging and informative. This trait is part of what makes him an incredible instructor. Paul has really put in the work, not only on his instrument, but also with what is between his ears. He prioritized being a fully-formed, wonderfully well-rounded musician over being just a shred god.  In many interviews he describes learning piano driven songs with hip harmonic motion — on guitar — to add more notches to his incredible musicianship belt. He talks lovingly about Neil Sedaka’s Laughter In The Rain, the work of Carole King, and his unyielding love of all things Beatles.  Any Gilbert fan who has heard his versions of the game changing Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 Finale, and Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo A La Turk can attest to his musical scope. His version of Yes’ Roundabout is jaw-dropping, as he flawlessly executes not only Steve Howe’s parts, but Rick Wakeman’s as well! And Jon Anderson’s for that matter.  Who else could do this? And while he knows his fans are primarily technique-loving guitarists, and he has to throw in the obligatory doses of flash, Paul still tries to plays what’s right and tasteful for the song. A great example of this, is the sweet little solo on the Mr. Big classic, To Be With You. This level of taste became more pronounced as Paul matured.

Songwriting/Composition.  Welcome to my absolutely favorite thing about Paul Gilbert, and no, not just because he wrote a song called Amy is Amazing (written about his wife, Emii).  Paul, is a fantastic songwriter and composer. The brain that gave us Scarified also gave us the hilarious love song, I Am Satan (Paul was born November 6th, 1966).  Whether in Racer X, Mr. Big, or on his own, Paul has shown incredible songwriting prowess  of both of instrumental guitar music that satisfies the lovers of his technical wizardry, but also pop songs that are as bonafide as anyone’s. Gilbert’s pop and rock songs tend to lean more progression-based than riff-based, à la Dave Meniketti’s work with Y&T.  

Paul frequently uses composition and songwriting as a way to pay homage to his heroes, on any given album, you can hear his love letters to his heroes. You want to hear that Cheap Trick/Green Day influence? It's all over the whole Space Ship One album -- even on tracks like Interaction -- which is a riff-heavy metal fest, but the chorus vocals are one gigantic pop hook -- and a great pop hook at that! Also check out Suicide Lover from Burning Organ which is a veritable pop/rock masterpiece. Vibrato’s Bivalve Blues is a tongue in-cheek homage to Zep’s Since I’ve Been Loving You. His recent release, I Can Destroy takes you on a wide stylistic ride of influences from punky pop, acoustic ballads, to the Lizzy-esque One Woman Too Many, and even some blues.  

Paul Gilbert is a musical chameleon. A glorious shapeshifter, able to morph into whatever style he wants from punk to prog, there is no genre Paul will not shine in.  He is as at home playing something by the Ramones as he is playing something by Dream Theater, though I suspect he’s having more fun with the Ramones!  I’m pretty sure if he were asked to play on a country album, he’d morph into James Burton.  If he were asked to play on a Mahavishnu Orchestra tribute album, he’d be flawless. What makes this all the more gobsmacking is that he makes it all looks so effortless.  What we said of John Petrucci holds true for Paul Gilbert as well: guitars are his bitch! But of course, it is a great testament to his inquisitive, ever-seeking nature, that he is always challenging himself to broaden his scope.  I mean, he played Blue Rondo A La FUCKING Turk!  I wouldn’t be surprised if when next we hear an album from Paul, if there isn’t something like Balinese Drum Music on it!  He’ll do that flawlessly as well.  

Teaching. It would have been enough for Paul to just be this huge, lovable, Muppet with absolute insane skills, but as we said before, Paul Gilbert is a mensch, and a giver, plain and simple.   He’s written countless instructional columns in guitar magazines, but more importantly, Paul was one of the most important pioneers of video guitar lessons. His Intense Rock series remains an earthshaking benchmark that taught a million kids how to begin shredding, and undoubtedly influenced some of today’s best online video instructors like Troy Grady and Ben Higgins, among others.  But unlike a lot of star guitarists who did one lame video to cash in and never did another (I’m talking to you, Iommi!), Gilbert’s passion for teaching has never waned. YouTube contains tons of Paul Gilbert videos teaching various lessons which you can watch till your heart’s content for free. And if that weren’t enough, Paul still gives teaching seminars, and more recently has created the Paul Gilbert Online Rock Guitar School, where you can, as the site says: Learn something new from Paul Gilbert every day! New videos are posted every week, to directly answer the students' questions. When you send in your own "Video Exchange," Paul will listen to your playing, and reply with a video to give you advice and also new phrases to work on. Since the school's opening in 2012, Paul has replied to the students with nearly 2000 Video Exchanges! Paul’s instructional videos are so fun to watch, that even non-guitarists like myself can glean things from them.

Sense of humor. Apparent in all of his interviews, Paul’s sense of humor definitely spills over in to his music. Songs with titles like Enemies in Jail, I am Satan, Get Out of My Yard, Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal, Will My Screen Door Stop Neptune are indicative. Some of these are instrumentals, but when such songs have lyrics, they’re even funnier.    

Enthusiasm. Just watch him in any interview, he is not only happy to be there, but he is ecstatic to talk music, talk about his heroes, talk about everything music.  A Paul Gilbert interview gives so much more to his audience than the average guy.  The Brits call this VFM — Value For Money.  Paul is gracious, charming, genuinely humble and again, very funny.  He also speaks Japanese!  What can’t this man do?  Paul always leaves his audience with something more, something deep and valuable.  

Singing. While he’s not Meniketti, Sykes, or Norum vocally, Paul sings quite well.  Whether fronting his own bands and playing his own material, or providing backup vocals for Yellow Matter Custard, Paul is a a good singer and his voice adds a great deal of character to his solo work.  

Weaknesses

I really struggled to find some. Whatever Paul Gilbert’s weaknesses are in no way detract from the overall genius of his guitar work, nor the enjoyment of his musical output.  These are the only things I could come up with.

Memorability. While the world is his oyster in terms his technically ability, his solos are not particularly memorable, other than for the obvious stun factor.  This stems in part from wanting to give his original fanbase what they want to hear, which is Super Fingers.  So like all players who play ungodly fast stuff, when Paul shreds through solos without injecting some dynamic contrast (i.e. slow with fast, or melodies with shred runs), his solos just aren’t that sticky. There are some exceptions like the one in Space Ship One, and the one on Vibrato (which Paul composed on a kazoo) but you can’t usually hum a Gilbert solo the way you might with a Randy Rhoads solo.  Of course, if you’re a devotee of shred guitar, none of this bothers you at all!  But it’s worth noting that Paul’s solos in his poppier compositions — in ballads, for example — when he isn’t worried about shredding, he’s as tasty as anyone. His solos in To Be With You, and My Religion are good examples.  

Riff-oriented songs. Sure Paul certainly can write a tasty riff — like Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal, but he’s not really known for being a hooky riff-writing machine ala Iommi, Blackmore, or even Hoffmann and the guys in Maiden and Priest.    

Tone

For as long as it has mattered, Gilbert has been an Ibanez guy, he even has a sticker-covered Dino Ibanez RG750 (could it be?).  His relationship with Ibanez has produced several signature Paul Gilbert models including the PGM signature series with the F-holes, and more recently the Ibanez Fireman — which is sort of an upside-down Ibanez Iceman. Paul has them in both single coil and humbucker versions and variations.  Beyond that, even Paul’s acoustic and semi-acoustic guitars are Ibanez. They’ve been loyal to him and he’s been loyal to them.

For amplifiers, Gilbert used A/DA MP-1 preamps in his early career, before switching to Laneys.  More recently he has used Marshall Vintage Moderns and the Marshall JMD501 along with the Vintage Moderns. There is ample video evidence of stereo rigs!  Frankly, I don’t necessarily hear much tonal difference regardless of the amps he uses.  

For effects, Paul uses all the phasers, flangers, digital delays, wahs, boosts, choruses, and all the classic effect pedals you’d expect a guy of his stature to use.  None of them seem particularly signature to his sound, the way, say, a half cocked wah pedal is signature to Michael Schenker or a Boss Chorus is signature to Alex Lifeson.  Unlike his allegiance to Ibanez, Paul likes trying new pedals and is constantly swapping pedals in and out of his live rig. One signature Gilbert trademark is the use of a cordless drill with three or four picks mounted on the end of it, which he used most famously on the Mr. Big track, Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy.

Paul’s gear choices add up to a tone that is clear (not overly gainy), satisfying, and effective, but not all that distinctive. The truth is that for all the mind-blowing guitar work, Paul Gilbert doesn’t really have one recognizable signature tone.  His tonal choices don’t enhance the most characteristic elements his guitar style in the way, for example, John Sykes or Zakk Wylde get sonic distinctiveness out of their Les Pauls.  

 

Guitar Style

While Paul can ape anyone’s style, his own style on recorded output remains very entrenched in rock. His rhythm style has been influenced by everyone from Johnny Ramone and Pete Townshend, to all the Dino greats.  As mentioned earlier, his rhythm style really isn’t characterized by memorable, hooky riffs. Paul’s rhythmic strength is using interesting chords in compositionally rich progressions.  And because Paul is a master of harmony and theory, his rhythm work uses loads of chord voicings and inversions taken from classical and jazz. He uses these flourishes to make his rock compositions more interesting. A good example is on Olympic.

Paul plays some acoustic guitar and mostly strums in a folk style. He is not particularly known for finger style guitar work, though songs like G.V.R.O. show a classical facility, Good Man shows some Beatle-esque acoustic work and of course, there’s To Be With You. Paul doesn’t have a traditional fingerpicking style, but rather a self-invented hodge-podge of thumb and first finger picking, somewhat like McCartney's fingerstyle on Blackbird, though much of it sounds like it might has well have been a flat pick. It is sort of similar to some of Jeff Beck’s pickless right-hand style on a Strat. So while Glibert’s style doesn’t yield anything like Steve Howe’s or Jimmy Page’s acoustic work, when Paul wants to, he can fake the funk, because he’s Paul Gilbert and as stated earlier, guitars are his bitch.  

Of course, what Paul Gilbert is most known for is his lead guitar prowess. As a lead technician, Gilbert has few peers. Paul is a tall man. His hands are large, his fingers long, and reach is ridiculous. Anything you can do on guitar, he can do better. He can do anything better than you. Yes he can. The most distinctive characteristic of Gilbert’s lead style is a ridiculous alternate picking facility that knows no bounds. In particular he is known for three note-per string, six-note repeating patterns performed at blistering speeds. Like Yngwie, Paul was an early proponent of downward pick slanting — a technique that when combined with patterns that end on an upstroke — facilitates alternate picking speed ergonomically and efficiently across strings. These concepts are THE vital key to shred guitar style — the code that video teacher Troy Grady would later crack in his famous video series. Like Yngwie, Paul was also an early arpeggio god. And while he can make them sound very Bach/Yngiwie/neo-classical as on Spaceship One and Scarified, perhaps more characteristic of Paul’s style are string-skipping arpeggios that he links together across octaves. At blistering speeds, this makes them sound more like runs than arpeggios.  He also does some tapping. He so doesn’t need to.  Paul’s shred style can be heard on just about every track he’s ever recorded, but a few great examples include Frenzy, Scarified, Bliss, Get Out of My Yard, and Silence Followed by a Deafening Roar. But pick any track, strap in, and hang on as he blazes through lines most of us could only dream of playing.  

Vibrato:

Gilbert’s finger vibrato is quick to medium. Not particularly distinctive. Though his intonation is of course, perfect.   

Recommended listening

Racer X

  • Street Lethal - V V V 
  • Second Heat - V V Vv

Mr. Big

  • Mr Big - V V V V
  • Lean Into It - V V V V

Paul Gilbert

  • Burning Organ - V V V V V
  • Spaceship One - V V V Vv
  • Vibrato - V V V Vv
  • I Can Destroy - V V V V V

 

Profile by Amy Douglas. Copyright DRG ©2018 All rights reserved.

Paul Gilbert in Action