Fewer Frets Can Do More? Paul Gilbert Says So, Explaining Why 21 Frets Can Be Better Than 24

Guitar virtuoso Paul Gilbert recently sat down with Guitar World for an interview to discuss his new Ronnie James Dio tribute album. The record in question features Gilbert playing all of the vocal parts on guitar as well, meaning that he had an important job to pick the right guitars for the record.

And, interestingly enough, Gilbert explained how 21-fret guitars can actually do more than 24-fret ones. How, you might ask? Well, while discussing his work on this new album, he recalled how he used one of the old Ibanez Roadstar II guitars.

Saving My Dream Guitar - Ibanez Roadstar II

This particular one was made in 1983 and it comes with 21 frets. Explaining how this particular instrument was “perfect for the vocal stuff,” even though it seemed to have a high string action, he said:

“I was actually worried I wouldn’t be able to play the guitar. But because of the sustain and tone it was perfect for all the vocal stuff, especially as it has only 21 frets, which gave me more access to pick harmonics.”

He then got to the point of 21-fret vs. 24-fret guitars and added:

“It’s funny, because I have a good portion of metal fans, a lot of them would write comments like, ‘Dude, why aren’t you using 24 frets?’

Paul Gilbert - Heaven And Hell (The Dio Album)

“Of course, more frets means you have access to higher notes, but in a way, you can actually get higher notes with a 21-fret guitar because there are more pick harmonics you can squeeze out with your thumb and the side of your pick.”

He also added how this was all crucial to creating vowel-like sounds. Gilbert said:

“That’s how I ended up shaping notes to sound like vowels. When you’re copying a singer, you’re trying to make your guitar sound like lyrics: There are ‘eehs’ and ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’. For some reason, fewer frets means you can find these harmonics much easier.”

Paul Gilbert - Holy Diver (The Dio Album)

What Gilbert also touched upon is the issue of performing the most challenging guitar solo from Ronnie James Dio’s opus. And for him, it was Tony Iommi’s lead part from “Neon Knights,” coming from Black Sabbath’s 1980 album “Heaven and Hell.” He said of it:

“That’s a weird chord progression. It’s a heavy metal song that suddenly goes all major. Funnily enough it was never one of my favorite solos.”

“When I played it, I thought I’d just improvise and come up with my own thing that kept with the spirit of Tony’s lead. And I listened back thinking, ‘No, I don’t like what I’ve done.’ I had to follow Tony more closely because what he did was better.”

Paul Gilbert - Neon Knights (The Dio Album)

Paul Gilbert always had some pretty interesting pieces of advice to offer. And it’s usually stuff that you wouldn’t expect, at least not from him. For instance, a few years ago in an interview with Ultimate Guitar, Paul pointed out one thing that modern guitar players are not paying enough attention to. Asked about the modern trend of very virtuosic and technical guitar players, some of which are very young, Gilbert said:

“Well, I do a lot of teaching so I see those kids on YouTube and I see a trend that, to me, is really dangerous.

“I grew up idolizing Jimmy Page and Alex Lifeson and guys who wore their guitars really low. So I did too. All my garage bands as a teenager, I was playing a Les Paul and I had it down by my knees, and you develop a certain technique of how you hold your guitar when you do that.

Paul Gilbert - Blues For Rabbit (Behold Electric Guitar)

“I think a lot of people now are trying to fit into their little rectangle [on their computer screen], so their guitars keep getting higher and I see a lot of people holding their guitar like a classical guitar.

“If you’re a classical guitar player, that’s fine. I mean there’s really no rule — the only rule is having a good ear. You can make anything work if you’ve got a good ear.

“But if you want to have strong ’70s vibrato like Brian May, Uli Jon Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, of course – all the cast from back then, you have to hold the guitar a certain way with your thumb over [the neck].

Paul Gilbert - Kill The King (The Dio Album)

“Most of the cats I see these days have their thumb behind [the neck]… It’s kind of a funny arcane thing for me to get a bee in my bonnet about, but it is what it is. It’s probably nice for people with small hands.

“I have these great big hands, so I can still reach stuff even when my thumb is over. But my thing is, I always want to be vibrato-ready. I never want to land on a note and not be ready to shake it. To me, that’s just part of the dialect.

“It’s like when someone comes in and they can speak the language but their accent is different, it is what it is, it’s a different sound and a different feel.

Paul Gilbert: "Blues Vs Metal" (sub ITA)

“The most exciting day in my guitar career was when I learned how to do the Jimmy Page lick, *plays a part of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Heartbreaker’* you wouldn’t believe how many people cannot put vibrato on that E note – it’s unbelievably rare. I’m cetaceous about it.

“You know, I’m over 50. I’m self-aware enough to know that it’s OK – not everybody has to be Jimmy Page. Sometimes I wish that everybody was.”

Photo: Production Partner / Lars Horstmann (GS2019 – Paul Gilbert)


  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at Ultimate-Guitar.com, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor.