Paul Gilbert is a big favourite around these parts. His early work with Racer X lifted the bar for electric guitar as a spectacle. He then applied that virtuosity for the big rock melodies of Mr Big, before reinventing himself as a solo instrumentalist who found his voice through a metal slide.
This is the man of the tasselled leather jacket and the matching tasselled Ibanez signature guitar, who literally uses a Makita drill on his guitar because, well, why not. What we are saying is Gilbert is not a man lacking in what we might call style.
But appearing on the latest episode of Rick Beato’s YouTube show, Gilbert confessed that when it comes to guitar style he doesn’t have one. Or at least if he has one then it is one that’s all over the map, drawn between too extremes; shred and soft-pop.
Gilbert said he was on tour in Germany White Lion German interviewer asked him why he had no style? Eddie Van Halen, Vivian Campbell, Yngwie, they all had a style. Where was his? Gilbert has a theory. “I wanted to prove that I was a good person by being able to play with the level of control that a classical musician would have,” he said. “Suit-wearing, upstanding…”
And he wanted to do that without all the incidental noise that comes with high-volume overdriven guitar.
“I’ve always loved Jimmy Page,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything. [plays a burst of Zeppelin]. Don’t clean that up. It’s good as it is! It gets the point across. It feels right. But I didn’t want that to be me because I wanted to make sure that you could put it under the microscope and go, ‘Look, every note is clean!’ And in a way, that personal mission of mine took away a lot of what would have been style. Everything is so in its right place that all the little things that come from struggle [aren’t there].”
Gilbert uses Page as the exemplar of a player whose style was developed by throwing himself into the material, and the incidental sounds that would arise from that energy, the sound of Page reaching for notes he perhaps had not yet thought of until fretting them made his playing so recognisably his. Speaking to MusicRadar in 2019, Gilbert likened Page to Picasso.
“How he played with the band was astounding,” Gilbert told us. “It was loose, and occasionally people might say the playing was sloppy but, man, he got the point across. In the same way that you’d look at a Picasso. Those things that Picasso is famous for, he is not trying to draw or paint photographically. That’s not the goal, and what Jimmy Page was creating, it wasn’t that either.”
Randy Rhoads was another player who played on the edge and became a hero to Gilbert. That it sounded like Rhoads was operating on the outer limits of his abilities only added to the drama.
“Technically, he was always just one step away from it falling apart,” said Gilbert. “But what we would play would have so much intention, and his compositions were so cool, and his note choice was so cool that technical, barely making it added such a nice drama to it all.”
But Gilbert told Beato he wanted something different from his relationship with the instrument.
“If I couldn’t play it perfectly then I wouldn’t play it, and so that’s my excuse for not having any style,” he said. “Of course, style was never something I set out to have. I just wanted to play well. I just wanted to play the things that I liked. I copied everyone. I still do. So I think that’s where it ends up coming from, and my style is probably perpetually confused because I love Burt Bacharach just as much as I love Yngwie. Can I fit those two things together? I don’t know.
“Last thing that I put on heavy rotation was Loretta Lynn’s early albums. What’s the song? Woman Of The World, man, that melody! I get chills and tears just thinking how great she sings that. So that and then I’ll be playing Little Savage by Yngwie.
But if that’s not a playing style – reworking classic vocal melodies on slide guitar then pairing it with turbo shred – then what is? Or is Gilbert right in his thinking, that much of what we call style comes from pushing towards our limitations, when a player's reach exceeds their grasp?
Either way, you can hear Gilbert's style in action on his latest release, The Dio Album, which reworks classic Ronnie James Dio tracks as guitar instrumentals. And you can check out Gilbert’s full interview with Beato above and subscribe to Rick Beato's channel at YouTube.