Paul Gilbert of Mr. Big Interview: 10 Albums That Changed My Life

Paul Gilbert Interview

Feature Photo: Paul Gilbert by Sam Gehrke

With his signature Ibanez FRM in hand, Paul Gilbert is the affable six-string wizard who summons ghosts of Hendrix while propelling the instrument forward with each successive hammer-on accompanied by a crippling solo.

The Illinois native first shuttered into our collective consciousness by way of Mike Varney, who received a note from a then 15-year-old Gilbert asking for a gig with Ozzy Osbourne. And while that might have been a bold move laden with bravado for days, indeed, Gilbert backed it up through his screaming exploits with Racer X and the world-beating supergroup, Mr. Big.

In the years since Gilbert has continued to transcend, and with a guitar hand, truly, there are few better. His hyper-unique licks still scintillate, captivate, and eradicate those aged-old rock ‘n’ roll demons. Be it through his solo work or a recently reformed Mr. Big; few have altered the electric guitar in the same way that Paul Gilbert has.

As one can imagine, a player of Gilbert’s stature has many influences. To that end, Gilbert logged on with to run through 10 albums that changed his life.

# 10 -The Pat Travers Band – Live! Go For What You Know

The Pat Travers Band - Live! Go For What You Know

I heard “Boom Boom (Out Go the Lights)” on the radio, and when the dueling guitar solos of Pat Travers and Pat Thrall came in, I thought, “I’ve got to get this record.” The entire album had enough full-throttle energy to satisfy the metalhead in me. And at the same time, the songs opened my ears to funk, jazz, and blues elements. Years later, I found myself struggling in a blues jam with my bandmate, Bruce Bouillet. I was tired of my metal licks sounding wrong, so I revisited this album to get clues on how to play blues. That has been a big part of my musical journey ever since.

# 9 – Todd Rundgren – Nearly Human

Todd Rundgren - Nearly Human

I saw Todd and his large band on the Nearly Human Tour. When he performed the song “Hawking,” I cried, and cried, and cried some more. I was a bit embarrassed, so I tried not to look at anyone else. At the end of the song, I looked around, and everyone else was crying too. Guitar had always been my main focus when I went to see a concert, and Lyle Workman played beautifully. But I could tell that the force that had moved me so much was beyond the guitar playing. This was where I started to really take songwriting and singing more seriously. Motivated by loving what those arts can do. My guitar playing took a backseat role for many years as I explored what I could conjure as a writer and singer. In the end, I discovered that I’m probably better suited to focus on guitar. But I had to try! I should mention that I love the whole album, with the possible exception of the song that I sang. Maybe that should have been a clue!

# 8 – The Beatles – Help!

The stinging sadness in the title track hooked me on this album. And there is something about those naughty secondary dominant chords on “The Night Before” and “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” that is just one of my favorite sounds in the world. I had the American version of the album, so there were fewer Beatles songs and more orchestral stuff from the movie, but the few songs that were there had me playing air guitar in front of the mirror daily when I was five. This was the first album that I asked my parents to buy for me. They said, “Why can’t you just borrow our copy?” I thought, “That wouldn’t be very nice for you because I’ll never give it back!” They still trusted me with it.

# 7 – KISS, Alive!

There were no instructional videos when I was a kid, but there was this KISS record. The songs were cool but also simple enough that I had a fighting chance of figuring them out by ear. Ace Frehley’s guitar solos were textbook training for how to do proper rock bending and vibrato. And listening to Peter Criss’s drumming finally unlocked the mystery of how to play a rock beat. I did have a few guitar and drum lessons before this album, and I remember thinking, “Why didn’t my teachers just show me THIS stuff? THIS is how to play ROCK!” And Paul Stanley’s lyrics on “C’mon and Love Me” are still one of my favorite things in the world. I was a bit embarrassed to buy the album because I feared the condescending scowl of the cashier at the record store, so I gave my mom the money that I had saved up and had her buy it home in a brown bag.

# 6 – Van Halen – Van Halen II

All the David Lee Roth-era Van Halen records were monuments of excellence to me. But Van Halen II hit me at just the right age. For years, I used the stretchy tapping part in “Spanish Fly” as my left-hand warm-up. But there were so many musical elements to savor. The tight rhythm parts in “Outta Love Again” and “Beautiful Girls,” the boogie riffing in “Bottoms Up,” the super mean bends and spur of the moment fills in “D.O.A.,” the back and forth high stabs and chunky low notes to pull clarity out of complex chords in “Light Up the Sky,” the tasteful tapping and beautiful rhythm guitar in “You’re No Good,” and the inventive tapping in “Dance the Night Away” and “Women in Love.” I still have my original vinyl copy that I bought the day the album came out. That piece of plastic is important to me.

#5 – The Carpenters, The Singles 1969-1973

Soft rock was frowned upon by my dad while I was growing up. Anything “smooth” was inherently suspect. Rock ‘n’ roll should not color carefully inside the lines. But the melodies, the chords, and Karen’s perfectly controlled vibrato were so appealing to me that somehow I acquired this record, and I would sneak listens whenever my dad was out of the house. My least favorite moment is the universally lauded guitar solo in “Goodbye To Love.” The composition of the solo is a nice piece of homework, but it’s too buzzy, too busy, and just a bit out of tune (sharp) to my ear. Could I have done better? Probably not. I think the solution would be to not have a guitar there. A clarinet, perhaps? I want my Carpenters smooth.

# 4 – Queen – Live Killers

As a kid, I loved every Queen hit that was played on the radio. But it was too risky to buy one of their albums, as I sensed that the styles of the deeper album cuts were too diverse, and I’d end up paying money to listen to songs that had a banjo in them. Live Killers contained the word “Killers,” which promised a large percentage of rock. So this was the first Queen album that I bought, and sure enough, Brian May’s fantastic guitar player was loud and proud. I even liked the acoustic moments in “’39” and “Love of My Life.” Nice acoustic strumming… and no banjo.

Freddie Mercury shined throughout, and the stripped-down vocal harmonies made me aware of the importance of Roger Taylor’s falsetto. Brian May’s use of echo in his solo in “Brighton Rock” was also an inspiration as well, and when I got my first delay pedal (a Memory Man Deluxe), I tried to replicate Brian’s live harmonies. My favorite song: “Let Me Entertain You.”

# 3 – Rush – Hemispheres

Rush albums always took a few (or more) listens to understand. But the investment always turned out to be worth it. I would sit on the edge of my bed, with my pedalboard in front of me, and play along with Side 1, making sure to manipulate my flanger, volume, and distortion to match Alex Lifeson’s guitar parts. Even though I lived in a small town, I found at least two drummers who could handle the Neil Peart parts. But it was impossible to find a Geddy. So, my basement bands would pound away at instrumental versions of these songs in hopes of finding someone who could reach those high notes.

# 2 – Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains the Same

Sonically and visually, Jimmy Page was such a beacon to follow. I put in countless hours of air guitar in front of the mirror while blasting this record through my Sears/Fisher stereo. I learned the concept of “jamming” from the extended instrumental sections. And I gained the instinct of how the guitar equivalent of wide brush strokes is often more effective than meticulous work with a small brush. Jimmy Page can be sloppy when viewed through a microscope. But viewed at an audience-to-stage distance, he is a brilliant star. Zeppelin certainly wasn’t shy about borrowing from lesser-known blues records, and this has kept the lawyers busy bringing cash and credit to the rightful creators. But as a listener, I love Zeppelin’s supercharged versions of the gems they found. They may not have invented the wheel, but they certainly hooked it up to a powerful engine.

# 1 – Jimi Hendrix –War Heroes

My guitar hero uncle, Jimi Kidd, insisted I buy this Hendrix album when I was around six. He thought that I would like “Three Little Bears” since the title is kid-friendly. But the searing riff that opens the instrumental, “Midnight,” is what got me excited about the album. The flanging-in-the-mix that happens later in the tune taught me to love swirly and warbly guitar sounds. This started my journey to listening to albums by Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Peter Frampton, Pat Travers, and Rush.

“Beginnings” is still one of my favorite instrumental songs of all time, with variations on a theme that reminds me of what Beethoven would write if he played electric guitar. In my guitar teaching experience, if I want to reveal the core musical abilities of a student, I have them play the opening riff from “Highway Chile.” After two bars, I’ve got a good idea of what kind of work we need to do. All the important stuff is there.

Dont miss our other interview with Paul Gilbert

Paul Gilbert: The Interview

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