Paul Gilbert: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Paul Gilbert Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of SKHMusic

An Interview with Paul Gilbert of Racer X and Mr. Big

Virtuoso guitarist Paul Gilbert’s career’s success as a recording and touring musician is only matched by his eternal gratitude for his place in the world.

Coming up in the ’80s “shred-era” as one of Mike Varney’s many discoveries, along with several other scene mates, Paul Gilbert was a hot ticket on the L.A. guitar scene. On the heels of forming the hyper-charged, technicolor burst of light Racer X, Gilbert’s legend grew amongst the masses.

While commercial success initially eluded him, over time, Gilbert found himself a critical darling with an aptitude for teaching, and songwriting, to go along with his once-in-a-lifetime licks. But before too long, it became apparent to Gilbert that Racer X wouldn’t pass the litmus test of the ’80s, leaving Gilbert to move on to his next venture.

As a member of a verifiable super group, Gilbert joined Billy Sheehan (bass), Eric Martin (vocals), and Pat Torpey (drums) in forming Mr. Big. The group provided an alternative to much of the hair metal populating the airwaves, adding its subtle form of rock which included touches of just about every genre one might think of it.

For Gilbert, success with Mr. Big was sweet. Still, his ever-creative mind and curious nature saw him wandering toward a solo career, long tours through Japan, and an electric grouping of instrumental guitar records rivaling anything, and everything released alongside it.

These days, Gilbert is all about gratitude. He’s as creative as ever, but most importantly, he’s thankful for his place in the world. With a guitar in hand, there’s no stopping Paul Gilbert. As for what the future holds, he’s not looking back and is careful not to look too far forward. Instead, Gilbert takes it in stride, focusing on the here and now to astounding results.

As he plots his next move, Paul Gilbert dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to discuss his rise from a teenage prodigy to a Sunset Strip staple, the future of Racer X, Mr. Big, and more.

Can you recount your earliest memories of the guitar in your life?

I was young; I was about 11 when I got my first guitar. I remember singing Steve Miller’s “Take the Money and Run.” That was great, three chords and a groove. And I do a lot of teaching now, and a lot of times, there is a missing element where people know their scales, but they’ve never played with a drummer for three minutes straight. So, I’m really fortunate I was able to play with a lot of bands when I was a kid.

How critical was being featured in Guitar Player Magazine at age 16 for your trajectory?

Oh, it was huge. It was pre-internet, so that was the only way to connect on a large scale. And Mike Varney was the author of that column, and Mike was great because he was both encouraging about the things he liked about my playing in my writing, but he was also very truthful and brutally honest about the things he didn’t like. It would take my breath away sometimes because Mike is hilarious, he’s got a good sense of humor, and he would say things like, “Is this a joke, or are you trying to be good? This is the worst song I’ve ever heard. It’s so bad. Are you just messing with me? And you’re gonna send me the real song next week?” [Laughs].

If anything, that must have given you a crash course in songwriting. 

Oh yeah, it was. Because Mike was very critical of my songwriting, I’m not joking when I say that he thought my songwriting was the worst thing he had ever heard. And on multiple occasions, I would try to send in another one, and he’d be like, “This even worse.” There was no holding back with his critique, but at the same time, he would always have something good to say, like, “It sucks, but your solos killer. You’re playing great, but your writing sucks.” And I’d hang up the phone, sit with it, and think, “Okay, well, I gotta figure out how to write and put some time into it.”

What do you feel was holding your songwriting back early on?

One of the reasons my writing sucked is the process wasn’t something I enjoyed. So, I had to push myself to do something I didn’t enjoy. It was hard for me to get through that, and still, I didn’t suddenly blossom into Paul McCartney; it’s been a very gradual road for me with writing. But I think finally, after decades, I’m starting to connect to the writer I want to be. But it’s been a very slow path, and I have Mike’s unfiltered critique to thank for getting me over that initial hump of doing some grunt work and doing a lot of writing, whether it’s bad or good. I had to get my hands dirty and get a lot of music rolling along before I got anywhere.

Walk me through the early years of Racer X.

Racer X was when I moved out to California. I went to school at the Guitar Institute of Technology, which is part of the Musicians Institute. And I’d also hooked up with an independent record producer named Mike Varney, and he had offered me an independent record deal. I was trying to put a band together for that and met a couple of guys at school, and Mike hooked me up with the singer Jeff Martin, which became Racer X. We did well locally in L.A. At the time, L.A. was really a musician town, so we were kind of a musician band, and everybody wanted to come to see us, and unfortunately, we didn’t really get to tour much outside of Los Angeles, but in L.A, we did great.

What was the scene at Racer X’s early shows like?

Paul: Well, there was the pay-to-play system, which we couldn’t believe; we’re like, “What the fuck? We’re working; we have to pay you?” But that’s the way it was. But at about the third show, we started selling out. But I will never forget those early shows, like, we used to say, “Fu*k, man. I don’t know how we’ll pay rent if Nobody shows up.” I’m glad we got through that.

Describe the two-guitar dynamic between you and Bruce Bouillet.

The first album I did on my own, and then the sound was with Bruce Bouillet. When I started teaching at GIT, he was one of my students and immediately stood out. I was like, “Oh man; this guy can play.” So, I started showing him what I thought were my cutting-edge phrases and techniques, and he would come back the next week and have it nailed, playing it perfectly. And that really fucked with my head to where I was like, “Jeez, as long as you can play that, let’s try it in harmony. Keep playing that one; I’ll do the higher harmony.”

So, like I said, early on, it was just me, but Bruce was so good. We had such a good vibe that I decided to bring him into Racer X, and I thought, “Nobody’s doing this; there are amazing guitar players like Eddie Van Halen and Gary Moore, but they tend to be playing slower melodies, and they’re not like ripping and doing that stuff. We could be on to something here. Because, at the time, people weren’t doing it the way Bruce and I were, and I thought it would be special to have him in Racer X.

What’s funny is that I don’t know if I even asked the rest of the band; Bruce just joined. [Laughs]. He joined, or rather, I said he was in, and then I called the rest of the guys in the band and said, “We’ve got another guitar player now.” [Laughs]. But Bruce and I got along really well; we both played chess, and we’re both guitar nerds, so that was the start of that.

What are your retrospective memories of Racer X?

They’re all incredible; honestly, they are. Racer X was a really fun band. I remember at the time listening to a lot of this Japanese band called Loudness, and there was a German band called Accept, and those two bands were influential in what Racer X was writing and the sound we wanted to have. And, of course, Van Halen and The Beatles were huge for us, too. There was a melodic sense that I got from listening to them, and it was also the musicianship with those bands there that was ridiculous.

Describe the vibe of Racer X in a nutshell.

Well, I remember that we used to look forward to soundchecks because the opening band would come in and be waiting in the back of the room while we soundchecked. So, Scott Travis would get up there and test his drums out, and everybody in the back would be going like, “Oh, what’s going on? This drummer is unbelievable.” [Laughs]. And then Juan [Alderete] would get up and test out his bass, and everyone would go nuts again; they’d all say, “Oh man, the drummer and the bass player, unbelievable!” And then Bruce [Bouillet] and I would test out our amps, and everyone’s like, “What’s going on?” One by one, we got up and blew everyone away. So I’d say we were quite an intimidating soundcheck. [Laughs].

Can you recollect the formation of Mr. Big?

When we formed in ’88, I had no idea that we’d ever have any success. But I had been a huge fan of Billy Sheehan as he was in a band called Talas. When I was in Upstate NY, I used to sneak into the local clubs to see them all the time, and I just loved them. And, of course, Billy being with David Lee Roth was a big deal, and I guess, looking back, it gave us a lot of street cred. And I knew about Eric Martin’s stuff too, and he had some really good solo records that I was listening to.

Was the chemistry immediate?

So, I was already familiar with those guys, and with Billy and Eric, yeah, it was pretty immediate. But I didn’t know Pat Torpey. And while I didn’t know Pat, I knew we had great chemistry as soon as I played with him. We also had a great manager, Herbie Herbert, who just recently passed away. Herbie was a really important person in all our lives for the business side of it all, but also his philosophy of how to be serious about your career and then not do dumb things. We didn’t always follow that advice, but I can confidently say that Mr. Big would not have been what it was without Herbie.

Given the success of Mr. Big, what led to you breaking away to begin a solo career?

In Mr. Big, we were about establishing the band; we didn’t do many side projects or anything. And so, after eight years and many hard-fought battles, I got tired of it all. By the time the mid-90s rolled around – and I’m only speaking for myself – it was getting nuts. I was tired, and it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I didn’t feel creative, and there was too much conflict. I was like, “I gotta do something else. This is driving me crazy,” and I think if I hadn’t left, somebody else would have. Look, I love those guys, but we needed to break, so I got out.

What led you to focus so heavily on the Japanese market as a solo artist?

Well, the funny thing is, Mr. Big had gotten huge in Japan, and a lot of our success was centered around that. So, I focused a lot of the next 5 or 10 years of my career on continuing to cater to the Japanese audience. I would record albums that were primarily released in Japan. I would tour primarily in Japan, and that was my career. I did really well over there.

What broke you out of that routine and pushed you to pursue American audiences again?

I think the thing that broke me out was doing the G3 tour with Joe Satriani, which was around 2006 or 2007. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but that brought me back to playing in the States. And I did a solo tour in Europe, and it went way better than I expected because I had given up on the rest of the world; I thought, “Well, this is just my fate, to be a Japanese musician,” and I thought, “I’ll take it. I like Japan. This is cool.” But it was wonderful to be welcomed back into my home country and other places worldwide. And ever since then, I’ve been playing happily everywhere.

What are your retrospective memories of the infamous late-80s “shred era” of guitar?

It was very competitive. I think I knew I was lucky to be there, and I guess I knew I was good, but being in that era was intimidating. It was easy to second-guess yourself. I don’t think I was seriously thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna be a Rock Star for a living.” [Laughs]. I always felt that it was this ridiculous idea and was probably not going to happen. Being a rock star, or whatever you want to call it, is like saying to yourself, “Okay, well, I’m gonna play the lottery. Is my ticket gonna win or not?” That was basically how I viewed that whole era; one big lottery ticket, but I never felt I was going to win. I never assumed that. And for a long time, I wasn’t winning, and I remember with Mr. Big, we were nearing what we thought was the end, but I said, “Okay, I’m gonna try it again tomorrow. Am I gonna win?”

So, I remember Mr. Big had the song “To Be With You,” and we didn’t think anything of it, but suddenly, it was a big hit. It was actually a No.1 hit, and I remember Herbie meeting with us and going, “Well, this is never going to happen again for you guys. This is it. It’s amazing it even happened once, but don’t go making any purchases based on this happening all the time; it’s a freak of nature.” He wasn’t putting us down. He didn’t mean that it was not gonna happen because we were bad people or not good enough musicians; it’s just really unlikely. Herbie could see the trends coming, whether it be in rock music, grunge stuff, pop music, dance, rap, or that kind of stuff. Herbie knew what was coming and that we had won that one-time lotto.

So, he was like, “Look, skinny, long-haired guys playing guitars are not going to last here for much longer. Why don’t we go and play Japan for a couple of years?.” To this day, I’m genuinely grateful to still have a guitar in my hands every day because that’s still what pays the bills and puts the food on the table. It doesn’t matter what the gig is because it’s ever-changing, which is a good thing. To me, that’s good because it makes me base my expectations on like, “I’m gonna need to be flexible,” it’s not like, “Oh, I deserve to have a certain career that just stays the same all the time because I think that’s what I deserve.” No way. Anyone who thinks like that is setting themselves up for disappointment. So, my take on that era has nothing to do with the competition, although it was there. My take is about the survival aspect and the fact that I’m happy that I could have my two weeks of being famous because it was unbelievable.

Even with Pat Torpey being gone, the calls for a Mr. Big reunion will never cease. Is there a future for Mr. Big or Racer X?

I take everything in three to six-month periods, and the world is so unusual right now that I can’t predict anything. With the world’s weirdness, I will say it’s nice that I can be a multi-instrumentalist. It helps that I can sit in a room and make a record on my own, but I prefer to play with other people. But it’s wonderful to be able to do that.

As far as the other bands, I don’t know. I keep following my inspiration, and while it’s certainly nice to have a group of people you have a history with, there’s a flip side to that history, too. This said, you make a record with them, there’s gonna be interest, and that’s a certain sound, and that familiarity means something to a lot of people, even if it’s not breaking new ground. If I sit in a room with Juan from Racer X, if he plays bass and I play guitar, that sounds like Racer X.

And it’s the same thing with Billy from Mr. Big; if we get together and play the way we do, it will sound like Mr. Big no matter what we do. It’s nice to have that sound, that sonic fingerprint, but that doesn’t mean anything is happening. What it means is, I guess, there’s always potential and that it could happen. But will it happen? Honestly, I don’t know. Ask me again in six months. [Laughs].

Paul Gilbert Interview

Photo: courtesy of SKHMusic

Paul Gilbert: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022

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