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On Paul Gilbert's wickedly smart and deliriously entertaining new album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, the guitar virtuoso tackles eight cover tunes and pays homage to as many of his vocalist heroes – a diverse group, everyone from James Brown Reno to k.d. lang – by channeling their singing styles and personas through his axe.
It's an altogether impressive feat, brimming with real bravado, one in which Gilbert's craftsmanship, to say nothing of his pure musical joy, is remarkably sustained. But the funny thing is, the record didn't start out that way at all. "Actually, the first song that I wrote for the album was an original, Purple Without All the Red, but that song scared me," he says. "It was kind of a slow blues with some really unusual chords. I thought that if I kept going in that direction, I’d put my rock fans to sleep."
To shake things up, the guitarist recorded a version of the 1981 Loverboy hit Working For The Weekend, "and that got me rocking again," he says. “I did one cover, and I couldn’t stop. Finally, towards the end of recording, I felt better about putting my jazzy tune on the record, because it was a nice contrast to all the rock.” Two more originals round out the record, the madcap funk-rock romp Shock Absorber along with the set-closing title track, an extravagant blues/gospel benediction on which Gilbert's hallmark shred skills are counterbalanced by a boisterous, multi-tracked vocal choir that could stir the deadest of souls.
Gilbert sat down recently to talk to MusicRadar about the recording of Stone Pushing Uphill Man, and on the following pages he walks us through the album track-by-track. (You can order the album at iTunes, Amazon or Shrapnel Records.)
Your singing is terrific on the title track. Did you think at first about doing any – or all – of the songs vocally? What were the challenges of transposing the songs to strictly guitar melodies?
“That’s nice of you to say, and sometimes I surprise myself by singing well. But I also sometimes try to sing songs that are out of my range, and I screw them up. The title track, Stone Pushing Uphill Man, is nice and low, so I can relax and enjoying singing it. I actually wrote complete lyrics for another song on the record called Shock Absorber, but after singing it once, I decided to play the melody on guitar. It sounded much better to me, so that’s how it ended up.
“It was very challenging to play so many vocal melodies on guitar. A good vocalist tends to use a lot more expressive elements than guitar players typically do, or at least guitarists like me, who are known for all those scales going up and down. But that challenge is exactly what I wanted. I love the sound of bending, sliding, vibrato and dynamics, and squeezing harmonics out the strings and leaving space – trying to phrase like a vocalist. This album was an amazing guitar lesson for me.”
How does performing and recording cover tunes help stretch you as an artist? Some musicians try to shy away from covers.
“I learned to play guitar by playing cover tunes. Songs have always been my best teacher. I did go to a great music school for a year, and I learned the usual list of scales, arpeggios and chords. But that stuff makes a lot more sense to me when I hear how it’s used in a Beatles tune. I did a Beatles tune, Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, on this album. It’s basically a blues song, with Paul McCartney singing as dirty as he can.
"I’ve been working on my blues playing a lot for the last few years, but every phrase of this vocal line had something in it that I hadn’t played before. In the past, I’ve tried to play solos by ‘visualizing’ scale shapes. But now I can get inspiration by visualizing vocal styles. If I bring Paul McCartney to mind, it’s going to inspire me to play differently than if I think about James Brown. And both will inspire me to play differently than if I think about scale patterns.
“The thing that I realized is that my head is full of the vocal melodies that I grew up listening to. I can hum them easily, but I can’t play them easily. It requires a different approach to the guitar than what I usually play. But this is why I love it: Every time I learn a vocal line, my guitar playing expands so much. I want to connect my fingers with the melodies in my head. I can’t believe that it took me so long to finally start trying to do this.”
You've got two drumming heavyweights on the record: Mike Portnoy and Kenny Aronoff. Now, you've worked with Mike Portnoy before, but I've never heard you with Kenny until now. How would you describe their differences as players and how they approached the material?
“Mike just always sounds like he’s having fun, and I think that’s probably because he is. Mike and I are close in age, and we grew up listening to a lot of the same music, so I knew that he could appreciate the ‘seriousness’ of the Loverboy track, and the depth of Ringo’s drumming in a Beatles song. Mike struck a great balance between playing the original grooves and throwing in some lightning bolts of his own drumming style.
“This was the first time that I worked with Kenny, and he was fantastic. I threw radically contrasting styles and grooves at him, and he played each one with passion and authority. A song like Back In The Saddle requires some primitive ‘caveman’ grooves, while Murder By Numbers has sophisticated displaced accents. And a song like Eric Carmen’s My Girl is surprisingly demanding on a drummer. The parts are very specific, and it takes a master of shuffles to get the feel right. And then there’s the James Brown tune; that’s a tune that requires both speed and funk, and Kenny kept it all glued together. He also improvised really well with my already-recorded guitar solos, and made them sound like we were jamming together live.”
Were there any songs that you attempted but they just didn’t feel or sound right for whatever reason?
“There were a lot of songs that I would have liked to do. I worked up short versions of Fire And Ice by Pat Benetar, Long Live Rock And Roll by Rainbow, Tutti Frutti by Little Richard, Fly By Night by Rush and Running With The Devil by Van Halen. I love the part where David Lee Roth sings, ‘Goddammit woman, I ain’t lyin’ to you. I’m only gonna tell ya one taa-ime AHHHHHH AAAAHHHH!!!!’ Most of that line is just a single note, but Dave puts so much style into that thing. If I can make my guitar do that, I’ll have really accomplished something.
“The only song that I tried that I thought I should stay away from was Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna. I love the song, but even if I did it instrumentally, I think that people who know the lyrics might feel strange to have a guy singing it, even with a guitar. I mean, if I did an instrumental version of You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman, would it be OK? I guess if these are my problems, life is pretty good.”