Interview: Paul Gilbert on Mr Big's new album, What If...

Paul Gilbert wails on his Ibanez Fireman throughout Mr Big's What If... © James Chiang

Were somebody to have told guitarist Paul Gilbert in 1997, who had just quit the multi-platinum band Mr Big, that 14 years later he would be preparing to tour with the group, behind a new album no less, he jokes that he "would have said something unprintable" in response.

Just as quickly, he adds: "Then I would have thought that my joining or not joining Mr Big was less significant than the fact that somebody could look into the future 14 years. What about the stock market? Real estate prices? Had aliens visited the earth yet?

"The reality about 1997 was, I was very much in the mood to do my own thing," he continues. "Now I'm in the mood to do lots of things. And it feels good to be friends with the Mr Big guys again. We had some amazing experiences during our first eight years together, and it's nice to hang out and remember those good times."

That spirit of harmony comes through loud and clear on What If..., Mr Big's immensely satisfying new album. It's the first record of all-new material since the reunion of the four original members - Gilbert, bassist Billy Sheehan, singer Eric Martin and drummer Pat Torpey - back in early 2009. Produced by the hotter-than-hot Kevin Shirley (Rush, Iron Maiden, Joe Bonamassa), What If... is chock full of blazing rockers, big-time ballads and, as one might expect, mind-melting musicianship.

MusicRadar checked in with Paul Gilbert recently to speak about what has become one of the most pleasantly surprising reunions of late. Easygoing, witty and candid, the guitarist held forth on Mr Big and a variety of other topics: his gear, practice schedule, songwriting, Racer X, tinnitus and, perhaps most importantly, his thoughts on that dreaded term "hair metal."

When we last spoke, Mr Big were preparing to tour Japan. At the time, you were excited, but you weren't 100 percent sure if the group would record. I guess things worked well.

"Our reunion tour went great, but any rock 'n' roll tour has its Spinal Tap moments, and ours was no exception. The shows were all great, but things like travel, backstages, hotels and rental gear can all lead to stressful situations. Thankfully, we survived and were able to laugh off the daily craziness. In the end, I thought, If we can survive this, we can survive anything!"

Your career over the past decade has been largely a solo one, with instrumental albums being the prime focus. Have you had to make adjustments in your playing to being in a vocal-oriented band again?

"A rock band with vocals is what I always wanted to be a part of; in fact, it feels very natural for me. The instrumental stuff is a good challenge, and it keeps my fingers athletically tuned, but I'm totally happy to bang away on some chords, sing some harmonies and play some wailing blues solos after the second chorus."

Can you describe the changes in the individual members? How have they grown? Also, how is the Paul Gilbert in Mr Big today different from the Paul Gilbert in Mr Big circa 1995?

"In general, I think we're all easier to get along with. In the old days, we put all of our time and energy into the band, which is a good thing. But it got to the point where we needed some rest, sleep and time for ourselves. Maybe I should only speak for myself - that's what I needed. Anyway, there is no manic drive to make the band the biggest thing in the world now. We're truly fortunate to have some hits and have an audience that will still come to see us play. And we're just enjoying that.

"As a player, I think I've grown a lot, mainly in my ability to improvise with a blues-rock style. It's taken me about 30 years to recover from hearing Eruption, but I'm finally getting back to where I was going before Eddie Van Halen came along and made everyone want to follow him."

Obviously, tastes in music have changed considerably since the '90s. Did you have a different goal in mind when making the new record than previous albums? Where do you see the band fitting into the musical landscape of 2011?

"I really don't know much about modern rock music. This is part of the fun of growing older: being out of touch and not caring. Teenagers might not know The Beatles, and my revenge is to not know…come to think of it, I don't even know who I'm supposed to not know! Actually, I do like some of the new Katy Perry songs, but I've always liked pop music. I'm pickier with rock - if I'm not hearing Leslie West's vibrato, my attention span gets really short.

"Where does Mr Big fit in now? The only time I have any realistic sense of this is when we're on stage, playing music for people. When I think of the last show we did in Indonesia for 15,000 fans, I get a genuine feeling that we fit in. When we were writing the album, we were thinking back to great gigs and what kind of songs we could add to the show to make it even better. For us, it all revolves around playing live."

What made you decide to go with Kevin Shirley as producer? Were there other people on a shortlist?

"He's a legend! I love the Black Crowes record [By Your Side, 1999] that he did. He did some great stuff with Aerosmith. Plus, Joe Bonamassa is one of my new favorite guitar players, and Kevin has worked with him a lot. The only other guy that I've thought of working with is Richard Carpenter, but that would be if I did my own pop record with lots of strings. And I don't know if he'd want to work with the likes of me."

Kevin doesn't spend a lot of time laboring over albums; he likes to capture a song's vibe quickly and move on. How did he work with the band and help shape songs and performances?

"Kevin was perfect for getting a rock record to feel good. He quickly made me realize that I'd better be ready to perform because there weren't going to be many fixes or overdubs. I hope that the rest of my musical life continues to go in this direction. I'd rather play than edit."

What was the writing and demoing process for this album?

"I have a studio with Pro Tools, some little amps and an electronic drum kit. Every drummer who comes in hates the electronic drums; I, on the other hand, love them. I can get good sounds without having to deal with soundproofing and volume issues. But I can understand how a real instrument must be more satisfying to play.

"Billy, Pat and I wrote a lot of riffs together. Eric lives up in San Francisco, so he brought some tunes down. By the end, we had an insane amount of riffs - over a hundred, I think. We managed to squeeze the best ones into about 20 songs, and then picked our favorites from there."

The musicians in Mr Big are virtuosos on their chosen instruments, but do you ever feel as though you have to hold back the chops to play your material?

"Not at all. It's funny: When we did the tour in 2009, we somehow decided that there should be a drum solo, bass solo and guitar solo. I had no idea what to do! I haven't thought about playing an unaccompanied solo in a long time.

"I prefer playing in songs where I have a tempo, groove and harmonic map to hang on to. I ended up just banging my foot on the ground and trying to play something that the audience could groove along to. Sometimes it worked. Probably all those teenage years of playing as fast as I could helped out somewhat. Now I've got to do it again this year. I'll try to come up with something listenable and maybe even good."

For the most part, What If... comprises rockers, but a couple of cuts, Stranger In My Life and All The Way Up, could be described as 'power ballads.' Do you bristle at such terminology?

"I just got back from doing 40 shows on my own in Europe in the winter, so I'm just happy to be warm, sleeping in my own bed and not surviving on chocolate and pizza. If my worst problem is having someone call one of our slow tunes a 'power ballad,' then I truly have a pretty good life.

"I guess my biggest question is this: Is Led Zeppelin's Kashmir a power ballad? Seriously, though, I think the only musical term that's ever put a bee in my bonnet is 'shred.' I tried to peddle the term 'Terrifying Guitar' to the world, but it just didn't stick. Now we've got shred. But hey, at least I'm warm!"

Are there any tunes where you found yourself referencing your heroes or influences? In the song As Far As I Can See, I hear a little bit of Leslie West in your playing.

"Man, if people can hear Leslie West in my playing, I am so happy! I was flipping through radio stations the other day, and I heard the end of a song that I didn't recognize, but the guitar playing was perfect. I thought, Who is this guy? Finally, somebody's getting it right.

"The song ended, and the DJ said it was Theme For An Imaginary Western by Mountain. Leslie sounded so good on that stuff. Of course, Mississippi Queen is a textbook of cool vibrato and phrasing. But did I purposefully go after anyone's licks or sound on the Mr Big record? Not that I can remember. My guitar playing is definitely a big stew of my influences…everybody from 1964 to 1984, with some classical music thrown in."

I love your solo in the song All The Way Up. It's incredibly melodic and vibrant. Tell me, am I hearing two guitars that are overdubbed during that section?

"I played an electric 12-string for that whole tune, including the solo, so I couldn't bend much. I had to stay with more ringing chords. I never really worked out a solo - I just improvised something each time, and Kevin put the good pieces together. Actually, I think I played something similar to Zakk Wylde's lick at the end of Mama I'm Coming Home. But that's similar to Hendrix's lick at the end of Angel. I wonder where Hendrix got it."

Regarding what I said about keeping your instrumental prowess in check, you and Billy are doing anything but on the song Around The World. How long did it take to work out such fast, unison parts? And do you think you'll be able to pull that number off live?

"We worked that out on the morning of the session. We came into the studio about an hour before the other guys and put it together. It should be easy live, because we'll actually have time to rehearse it!

"The whole trick with the faster things is to use techniques that we can both already play. We might arrange things in a new way, or we may have to memorize some new shapes, but the techniques themselves don't need to be taken home and woodshedded for three months. I do the same thing in my solo band: If anything requires more than about two minutes of practice to get the technique, then I will look for another way of making the part work. Everything has to be easy, or it's not going to groove and sound good."

When writing and rehearsing, did you hammer away at the songs so they were "studio ready," or did you just get the skeletons of the tunes together in order to keep them fresh?

"I always wish I had time to rehearse like I did in the old Racer X days. We rehearsed for about a year before doing the first record, Street Lethal, and I remember cutting all the rhythm tracks and doubling them in about four hours. I think I had to stop twice to fix some minor blunders. All the rest was just playing without stopping or thinking. That was a blast!

"The biggest shock to me about becoming a 'professional' musician is how little time there is to rehearse. You just have to jump in and play as well as you can for records, tours, sessions or whatever it is. I actually enjoy the adventure of it now. I guess that's the idea of freshness. Sometimes the first few performances have some magic mixed in with the blunders."

In 1997, you left Mr Big. What was the story there? Also, were there certain conditions you set in order for you to participate in a reunion, or were you pretty content in the knowledge that the band members had matured, including yourself, to the point where everybody was on the same page?

"After 14 years, I found myself forgetting the problems and remembering the cool parts of Mr Big. I want to keep it that way, so I don't purposefully drudge up whatever there might be to drudge up.

"I absolutely have a condition for our reunion: have a good time! There are things that the four of us can do as Mr Big that we cannot do on our own. We can sell out the Budokan in Tokyo together. We can't do it as solo artists. There is a lot of power in being in a band with all the original members and having some hits to play. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to share that with Eric, Billy and Pat."

When you got back together, how long did it take for you to feel like real band again?

"About five seconds into our first rehearsal. Singing and playing, at least for me, is the way that I can communicate the most naturally, honestly and emotionally with anyone. I think the other guys probably feel the same way. Playing music is a great way of bringing people together. And it works quickly!"

Last year you put out the solo record Fuzz Universe, and you were quoted as saying it was "a giant step closer to the ultimate rock guitar sound and playing of my dreams." Would you say something similar about the new Mr Big record?

"I keep tweaking those knobs, and I keep liking it more. I was at my studio today, still trying new tone experiments. I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse, but I love the constant exploration for the most satisfying tone. It's not just how it sounds, but also how it feels to the player. Different tones inspire different directions of playing. I'm still giddy that you thought I played something that sounded like Leslie West, so I hope I'm heading in a good tone direction."

On the other hand, regarding tone - like guitar playing itself - do you feel as though there is no end point? That it's all one big journey and that the idea of "perfection" is simply an ideal?

"Maybe it's a bit like food. Even if it's great, you might have a taste for something different the next day."

Years ago, Racer X were dubbed "speed metal," and Mr Big got saddled with that wonderful term "hair metal." Do these labels rub you the wrong way? Do you care? You've already indicated that you're not thrilled at being called a "shredder."

Mr Big do the big hair thing in 1993. (left to right) Gilbert, Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin and Pat Torpey. © TRAPPER FRANK/CORBIS SYGMA

"I never liked the 'speed metal' title, just because a lot of the bands that were considered speed metal were harmonically so different from Racer X. I associate speed metal with a lot of jarring, dissonant chord progressions…a lot of half-step and flat five moves, and really no trace of Beatles influence.

"Racer X had some fast songs, and the guitar solos certainly had some fast moments, but I put a lot of work into the chord progressions as well. The bridge of Into The Night was very much influenced by the Cheap Trick ballad If You Want My Love. The opening riff of Street Lethal has chords that I learned from Todd Rundgren's piano ballad, Can We Still Be Friends. The riff in Blowing Up The Radio was influenced by Paul McCartney's Too Many People. It wasn't just arbitrary, percussive chords being tossed around - there was some good notes, I thought.

"The hair metal thing is funny to me. It took me so long to get my hair like that. And I really wanted it! Finally, I got my perm really working, and then, almost overnight, it wasn't cool anymore. I'm kind of thankful to the grungy '90s bands for making it OK to have disheveled hair. That big hair was way too much work, and I'd rather put the time into playing guitar.

"I have a vision of what a typical shredder is, and I hope I'm not that. Sometimes I feel like an actor who has only done action movies with cars chases, explosions and gunfights, and I just want to be taken seriously for my dramatic roles. [laughs] But this is such a good problem to have. I'm really lucky that people listen to anything that I do."

You've been most candid about your tinnitus and hearing loss. How significant is it? How does it affect your musicianship? Can you detect tone as accurately as you would like? Is there anything that can be done to reverse or improve your condition, or is it simply a matter of protecting the hearing that you still have?

"The most difficult thing for me to hear is speech. I can't wait for someone to invent subtitle glasses, so I can read what other people are saying. I can still hear people who have been around me for a while. They know to talk a little louder than normal, to get my attention first, and to speak while facing me. When people do this, I almost forget about my hearing loss. But new people are difficult for me. They can mumble, whisper, talk while facing the other way, or from another room, or while background noise is going on - which means I don't have a chance of understanding them. It really cuts down on my social options. And being a guitar player, I've always been a bit of an outcast to begin with. But reading books is wonderful, and e-mail is great - I can understand everything!

"For music, I have to be careful about mixing high-frequency instruments like shakers, tambourines or hi-hats. I just can't hear them anymore. But mostly, I'm OK with music. I actually feel that my ability to hear music is better than it's ever been. I'm more aware of the details of pitch, harmony and rhythm, and these are the important things.

"There may be some medical things to help hearing loss, but they still seem like they're in the primitive stages. I'd rather wait a bit to see if something better is invented. In the meantime, I try to protect my ears with earplugs or headphones. And I just invented the 'drummer-cam.' This is just a small video camera which feeds into a monitor screen right in front of me. That way I can see the drummer all the time and get visual cues without having to crank up the hi-hat to painful levels in my audio monitors."

On the subject of tinnitus, any advice you have for musicians, particularly younger players?

"My best advice is to play music with dynamics. There is a lot of rock music that is loud all the time. The snare is being hit as hard as possible, the guitars are distorted and being played as loud as possible, and it never comes down. It's wonderful stuff, but your ears will fare a lot better with music with more spaces and holes. Plus, dynamics are a powerful and emotional musical tool. I need to take my own advice with this one."

What kind of practice routine have you been sticking to lately?

As you can tell, Paul is crazy about his Ibanez PGM doubleneck. (Gotta love those f-holes!)

"I've done a lot of touring in the last few years. This is the best practice I could hope for. I also started doing VIP lessons in the afternoon at all my solo shows. This gives me a chance to jam with the students, which is really valuable for all of us. So, basically, I wake up, make some tea, go into the venue and jam with the students and talk about guitar things. After that, I soundcheck, warm up for the show, then play on stage for two hours. If I'm lucky, there's some dinner in there somewhere, but mostly I get to play a lot, and almost all of it is in a definite tempo, groove and key.

"I'm incredibly thankful to everyone who makes this very musical situation possible for me - especially my crew, for taking care of the gear and making it work in every possible environment. At the end of it, I'm left with two monolithic words that describe what I want to practice: tempo and endings. Any phrase that I play has to fit into a tempo, and then I need to find ways to gracefully get out of it. Tempo and endings! Tempo and endings! I'm very passionate about these matters."

What kinds of guitars did you use on What If... ? Was the Ibanez Fireman your main instrument of choice? Any other makes and models, and if so, on which songs?

"I really love my Fireman. The neck on it is quite thick. It takes a little getting used to at first, but the tone and sustain are so good that I think I've become addicted to it. It made me realize that the B string is my favorite string. On the Fireman, the B string resonates so well. I used that guitar a lot.

"I also brought my Pat Metheny guitar to the studio. It's a big hollowbody, so I thought it would be fun to try through a cranked-up Marshall. I used my Custom Shop PGM 12-string on All The Way Up. And I used my vintage Ibanez Artist semi-hollowbody on some overdubs. I bought that guitar on eBay. It's got a pretty thick neck too, and just awesome tone."

What kinds of amps and effects did you use? Also, did Kevin Shirley have any gear suggestions that you took him up on?

"I used a Marshall Vintage Modern 2x12 combo for the whole record. I ran it through a THD Hot Plate, so I could crank up the power tubes and keep the volume at a reasonable level. For pedals, I used my new Fuzz Universe a lot - it's made by Majik Box. I also used an MXR Phase 90, an Ibanez Airplane Flanger, an H.B.E. Detox EQ and CPR compressor, a Fulltone Choral Flange and my old ADA flanger.

"Kevin seemed happy with the tones. His suggestions were more about song arrangements and making sure that the performances had good energy. He would sometimes say, 'Now, play it in anger!' In the end, music is a medium to broadcast emotions, and Kevin would not let us forget that."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.