Gilby Clarke‘s 5 tips for guitar players: “You need to be unique. It’s all right to have influences but originality is what’s going to set you apart“

Gilby Clarke
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Spend five minutes in the company of Gilby Clarke talking vintage combos from Fender, Vox and Marshall and you might want to buy yourself a new guitar amplifier. Spend an hour and he'll have you moving out to Los Angeles to enjoy the amenable climate and make a fresh start in the rock 'n' roll capital of the world.

Clarke has been around. As a guitarist and producer, he has seen plenty of action in the studio and onstage. Yes, most famously, he was in Guns N' Roses – three years at the height of the craziness. Use Your Illusion, The Spaghetti Incident, can you imagine the things he saw? But he has played with all kinds of players, MC5, Heart, with stars such as Nancy Sinatra, Billy F Gibbons, and Steven Tyler. 

His new solo album, The Gospel Truth, is typically star studded. Hearing Clarke talking about it, it is as though LA is this little village, populated solely by rock stars. Clarke's Instagram feed only adds to the suspicion that you could be at Whole Foods, putting the squeeze on a cantaloupe to see if its ripe, and look! Right over there, Nikki Sixx is getting a dozen eggs and a litre of oat milk.

“It kind of is like that!“ says Clarke, joining us over Zoom. “Los Angeles is huge but the rock ’n’ roll community is fairly small. It’s like the people who are still doing it into their 50s are doing it for a reason. It’s not just business. There’s a love of it, too.“

Nikki Sixx and Clarke go way back, as in, way before Sixx was in Mötley Crüe. Naturally Clarke had him join a rotating cast of bassists on the new album. On drums you've got the likes of Kenny Aronoff [John Mellencamp/Chickenfoot], Matt Starr [Ace Frehley] and Stephen Perkins [Jane's Addiction]. 

With Clarke's Rolodex, you could easily populate a studio and get a project off the ground, but in keeping with this community vibe, all of these people are friends of the family. The wives, the kids, they all get along.

“Everybody who played on the record is actually a good friend,“ says Clarke. “A friend in the sense that you go out for dinner, you have drinks with them. We hang out all the time.“

I love bands like KISS and Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, but some of those songs were just partying and girls. Zeppelin was different

From a UK perspective, it is easy to take a romantic view of LA, just as it is easy to romanticise growing up in the States, in which those long, hot summer holidays are essentially just one extended scene from Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused. “Yeah! Very much so,“ says Clarke. “But with a lot harder drugs! [laughs]”

But that goes both ways. For US musicians of Clarke's era, the British music scene of the 60s and 70s remains a lodestar. If rock 'n' roll is a provocative art form that lets the imagination take flight, it's no surprise to learn that this is where Clarke drew much of his inspiration.

We'll get to his 5 tips for guitar players in a good time, but first let's unpack some of the influences behind his style, find out where that melodic sensibility came from, and hear just how a rock star living in LA avoids an addiction to buying vintage electric guitars.

You are sitting under four portraits of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Did the early British rock scene capture your imagination?

“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! It’s like when you listen to music and what you like is your taste... It is in you. You are attracted to what you are attracted to and you really can’t control it. I just started noticing that I really liked a lot of English music. Jimmy Page was always big – the Stones, the Beatles. There was something about it. 

“Later on, much later, I thought about it and it was the songwriting. It was the songs. Even in a rock ’n’ roll scene, they were deeper. I love bands like KISS and Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, but some of those songs were just partying and girls. Zeppelin was different. 

“I had wars with my friends back in those days – like Dazed And Confused! There were guys that, if you liked Zeppelin, you can’t like KISS. And if you liked KISS, you can’t like Zeppelin. They felt that they were so far apart. I was like, ‘Fuck that! I love Led Zeppelin and I love KISS.’ There are no rules with rock ’n’ roll, and I always find that a little bit entertaining that people have those kind of rules.”

Guns N' Roses

Gilby Clarke performs with Guns N' Roses at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, 1992. (Image credit: Pete Still/Redferns)

You’ve got this great melodic sensibility. Where does that come from?

“When I first started, I liked the bands who were popular, bands like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, KISS, Alice Cooper – even Foghat and Ted Nugent was happening when I first got into music. Then as I became a musician and started playing guitar, I wanted challenges. You want to pretend that you are really good. 

“Aas an American, I started listening to Rush and [prog supergroup] UK, things like that, and then, during that period, I actually had an English girlfriend, and she turned me on to the Clash. Man, I just went like … Oh my God!“

The Clash changed things?

“I was always a huge Beatles fan and Stones fan. I loved that early English rock music, but when I heard the Clash it just changed everything. To me, they were the perfect band. I loved the rawness of them, and from the Clash I went back and found bands like the New York Dolls. 

When I heard the Clash it just changed everything. To me, they were the perfect band

“I got into early Bowie, T. Rex and Mark Bolan. Mark Bolan was a huge influence for me because he had it all. He could write great songs. He could sing. And he had a great guitar tone. I have always tried to incorporate guitar-wise what I do in the music that I write, and Marc Bolan was a Les Paul and a Marshall. Even though he was on the pop side, he created a unique sound. That’s where it came from for me.“ 

“I loved the Pretenders when they first came out. Elvis Costello. Argh! Great songs. And great sounds. Then after a while I got back into rock because of the bands I was playing in. I rediscovered Judas Priest! [Laughs] I’m all over the place. I really am.”

Yes, but like you said: no rules. That era of rock produced some real iconoclasts.

“There are categories now. It’s not just rock, it’s classic rock, or it’s death rock, or it’s metal. There are so many categories for everything. You listen to a Queen album, like A Day At The Races, and you will hear everything. There’s pop, there’s heavy rock, there’s country, there’s everything in those records, and most of the bands of that time were doing things like that, 

“For me growing up, that was normal. When I made my first record, Pawnshop Guitars, I didn’t realise it but it was all over the map. There are rock songs on it, pop songs, some blues-influenced country songs on it. That was just what I liked.

“Some people knew me from Guns N’ Roses but they didn’t really understand that, when you listen to Guns N’ Roses, they were all over the map. They had a lot of different influences. Over the years, things have changed. You either conform and fit into a category or you really will have nowhere to go.“

Those big personalities would not conform, though. What have you learned from playing with some of the greats?

“I was talking about this the other day with someone. Granted, I have been a little bit lucky because I wasn’t just in one band my whole career. I’ve been in a couple of bands. I’ve played with a lot of different people, and even in the last 10 years, since Matt Sorum started Kings Of Chaos, that’s a whole new experience because we are basically an all-star band.

It is not just talent. You watch YouTube and you see a lot of good guitar players out there. What makes them unique? What makes someone want to pay money to watch you play?

“We have Billy Gibbons. We have Steven Tyler. We have Joe Elliot. Robin Zander… Glenn Hughes!  Being around a lot of people and some of the bigger stars really kind of grounded me. It made me realise that these people who have had those successes got there for a reason. It wasn’t luck and it wasn’t just talent. 

“Like I said, it renews your faith in it because we can all get a little down about the business side of it. You do have to play the game a little bit, and when doing those gigs, it really made me realise there are the good ones and the good ones are the great ones. Billy Gibbons and Steven Tyler, those are the great ones.”

Because they can show up and turn it on matter what?

“No, they are great all the time, with everything they do. It’s like we talk about, ‘Do you have it?’ They have the ‘it’ and like I said, you go through your life, and you’ve got your stars, your medium stars, but the big ones have 'it'. They have it all the time, whether it’s dinner time, lobby call or show time. In a weird way, they are the same person all the time because they have something unique.”

Sure, they embody it. They have the stuff.

“It’s hard! It’s really hard to be successful. So many things come into it. It is not just talent. You watch YouTube and you see a lot of good guitar players out there. What makes them unique? What makes someone want to pay money to watch you play? That’s the hard stuff, y’know.”

It’s one thing to catch someone’s attention while they are eating lunch, quite another to inspire them to change their career, which is what the greats do.

“Yeah. When I was in high school, I did an experiment. They actually had a guitar class at my high school, which was so great, and of course I signed up because I had already played in a bands, played some school dances and things like that. I had been playing for a couple of years, but when I got to that class I noticed that there were a lot of really good guitar players. 

“I had been playing for a couple of years, but when I got to that class I noticed that there were a lot of really good guitar players. There were a lot of guys who could do stuff that I couldn’t do. They were really flying up and down the neck. But I realised that they were flying up and down the neck while they were sitting down! [Laughs] Do that with a Les Paul around your knees and play up and down like that!“

Yes, there is some distance between playing well and performing well. Let's talk gear. Is LA still a good place buy gear?

“Guitar Center is still there. There are a lot of boutiques. I have a great store – Imperial Vintage – which is within walking distance from my house, and they have great guitars. I have already bought a couple of guitars from them. So, yes, there is. You do have to know where to go, but the community is definitely still there.”

Gilby Clarke and Nancy Sinatra

(Image credit: Jon Kopaloff/WireImage)

Are you a collector?

“No I’m not. I’m really not. I have some nice ones but, to be honest, I never thought about being a collector, ever. I think when you start playing guitar you have your dream guitar that you’ve always wanted, whether it was because Jimmy Page played it, or Ace Frehley, whatever, so that’s all I have done over the years. I’ve acquired stuff that I like. 

“I have bought a couple as investments. I actually bought a ’59 Strat a long time ago even though I am not a Strat guy at all. I bought one as an investment for when it was time for my daughter to go to college. But I am definitely not a collector.”

One of your go-to guitars has been the MIJ Telecaster, which is a fantastic guitar – we perennially underrate the Japanese build quality which rivals anywhere in the world.

“Yeah! What was interesting about that guitar was I bought it because I didn’t want to take my ’68 on the road with me. Even though my ’68 was a little bit beat up, and it wasn’t all original, I know what happens to guitars on the road, so I went to buy one cheap, a 300, 400-dollar guitar that I could beat up on the road. I got lucky. I got a mid-80s Made In Japan Telecaster and it is one of the best Telecasters I own. That thing plays great. It sounds great. It feels great. I got lucky.”

The best guitars always have a certain amount of kismet to them.

“The good guitars find you. Even my main recording black Les Paul, I bought that when I worked at a gas station. [Laughs] Literally! Someone sold it to me while I was working at a gas station. That guitar found me. They have a way.”

1. Be original

“I think this is the most important thing. Originality, if you look at all the greats, the Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, they are all playing a six-string guitar and an amplifier, but when you hear them you know that it is them. People always say, ‘It is in the fingers.’ It is in the fingers, but it’s them. You need to be unique. It’s all right to have influences. It’s okay to use your influences but originality is what’s going to set you apart.

Look at Johnny Thunders. You can say he is not the best guitar player but, man, you know it’s Johnny Thunders when you hear him on record. That is hard

“Now, if you just want to be a guitar player who wants to play in a club on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s nothing wrong with that. Absolutely! That’s a wonderful thing to do. But if you want to play the part of the professional and – once again – have people pay to hear you play, see you play, you really need some originality. Good, bad or whatever… You don’t have to be the best guitar player in the world. You don’t have to be the worst. You have to be unique.

“Look at Johnny Thunders. You can say he is not the best guitar player but, man, you know it’s Johnny Thunders when you hear him on record. That is hard. It’s okay to have influences. Jimi Hendrix had influences. Jimmy Page had influences. Actually, I think you just need the name Jimmy to be successful! [Laughs]”

2. Don't overdo the gain

“I have noticed, especially over the last 10 years, how much saturation people use in their amps. A lot of guys who I really love and respect use so much saturation on their amps. But when I listen to all the classic records that I like, they really weren’t that saturated. They had a cleaner sound. That has always been my tip; I still go for that. And I hate to say it, but it is that classic rock guitar sound. That’s the sound I like. It’s cleaner.

On every Guns N’ Roses recording I used by brown Fender Deluxe and that was it

“It’s not clean but I’m just not over-saturated, and the reality is I can get my sound on Marshall, I can get it on a Fender. I have done a whole tour using a Fender Bassman through Marshall cabinets. I have a brown Fender Deluxe. On every Guns N’ Roses recording I used by brown Fender Deluxe and that was it. I never used a Vox or a Marshall. 

“On my records, if you are listening to the new record, pretty much that whole new record is a Marshall on the left and an AC30 on the right, and I just switch guitars. I never, ever double with the same guitar and the same amp; I always have one amp on one side, one on the other. I don’t like tripling. I’m too lazy for stuff like that! [Laughs]“

3. Choose pedals to complement your guitar and amp

“For solos I usually use my brown ’62 brown Deluxe. Now, I will use a clean gain with it. I have these pedals called the Electro-Harmonix Soul Food and I really love that pedal. What I love about that pedal is that it doesn’t change the sound of the amp, it just gives you a little more sustain. Maybe a little more saturation. 

“I like the new SoloDallas Schaffer Replica pedal and it is fantastic. I love ‘em! It is I use it on Marshalls. I don’t love it on the Vox but on Marshalls, since I don’t use a lot of bass, it gives me a little more lower midrange harmonics. I don’t even use it that much. I just have it on a little bit but, man! The whole record has that on the Marshall side. I absolutely love that pedal. 

“It’s all tube amps. I’ve never used any Kempers or Fractals. I really don’t know how to use those things! [Laughs] It was all real, live amps on the whole record.“

4. Play for the song

“I like when the bass is an instrument. There was no one better than the Beatles, the way they use the bass as an instrument. So when you listen to my records, the bass is never really doing what the guitar is doing. It’s always doing something different, even on the Rock N’ Roll Is Getting Louder, the bass is the riff. The bass is the groove and the guitars are accenting what the bass is doing. I try to do more with less.

“At this point in our lives, no one is trying to prove anything. We are playing for the song. Do you know who Pete Thomas is, the drummer from Elvis Costello’s band? I gotta tell you, my wife would say I am a very impatient person, therefore when I am tracking it is usually one or two takes. And these guys are so good, they don’t need more than two takes. 

“[But] I was doing a record, many many years ago. It was a Nancy Sinatra record and Pete Thomas was playing drums, and we kept playing the song, like 20 times, and I gotta admit, I was getting a little frustrated because I had my part. But Pete was listening to the song. He was listening to my part. He was listening to the bass part, to the vocal. 

“He really taught me a lesson. He really sat in it, and really thought out that drum part until it was the right drum part. He didn’t just go, ‘Boom-pah boom-boom pah!’ He found that part, and it was a process he had to go through, and once I did that, I have slowed down a little bit and tried to enjoy the process.“

5. Listen to your surroundings

“I think with guitar players, one of the most important things is to listen to your surroundings. I have seen so many guitar players, because they have that confidence, just go in like a bull in a China shop… ‘Here’s me. I’m playing on 10.’ 

“But they are not listening to their surroundings. They are maybe in a smaller club, where a smaller amp would work better. I think it is really important to listen to your surroundings. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer 50-watts over 100-watts, because 100-watts is too loud. Even in the Guns N’ Roses days, 100-watts was too loud. 

“Are you playing with another guitar player? Are you playing with a keyboard player? You have to give the people around you the same respect that you command. I think that is a really important tip. Listen to your surroundings.”

  • Gilby Clarke's The Gospel Truth is out now via Golden Robot.
Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.