Although usually remembered as one of the “shredder” guys, Paul Gilbert openly said that attempting to play the virtuosic fast stuff isn’t always the best idea. Speaking to gear manufacturer Positive Grid recently, he expressed his concerns over how trying to play fast all the time comes with its “dangers.”
When reminded of how Jimmy Page never really played the “Heartbreaker” solo the same way twice and how playing fast or slow doesn’t matter as long as it’s “a cluster of notes acting as a vehicle for emotion,” Gilbert offered (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):
“That’s one of the dangers of the faster, trickier stuff — it’s so easy to get pulled away from the vibe because you’re like, ‘I just want to get it right. I just gotta metronome this for the next five years, and then maybe, meanwhile, it’s all the rock and roll.'”
“The force of the emotion has left the building long ago. That’s so precious, you gotta keep that at all costs.”
As Paul also added, this is an incredibly crucial part of rock music — kind of keeping it all DIY and. Sure — at the same time, one should keep the technically proficient part but it’s still about having personality in there. As he added:
“So to me, that’s the cool thing about the rock ‘n’ roll do-it-yourself method with a lot of my guitar heroes — if you hear Yngwie or Eddie Van Halen playing fast, they don’t play the same. It’s not like, ‘Okay, we both are doing exactly the same patterns.'”
“No, that’s the method. They’ve all got their own fingerprint and when they get to that level, whether their own physiology and their influences gave rise to this particular way of approaching the faster stuff. And the same thing when you hear Neal Schon [Journey] play fast, and it’s a whole different animal…”
“Or Gary Moore or Michael Schenker. There might be overlap here or there, but essentially, you’re gonna be able to spot who it is. To lay down a rule like, ‘Oh, it must be exactly…’ to me, that’s like crippling yourself. Just take what works and run with it.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Gilbert was also asked to explain whether there are any differences in his songwriting approach between his work in Mr. Big and his instrumental stuff. He replied:
“Well, if you write vocals first, everything goes smoothly if you build around your melody. And it’s the same thing with the instrumental, I’ve done it every which way.”
Nonetheless, it all still starts with a meaningful and memorable melody:
“But if I can start with a melody, then sometimes the melody will come from a lyric — I had a lyric I was just humming to myself this morning, the song is called ‘Meaningful.'”
Sharing more details about this song, he said:
“I was just thinking about, ‘When I get up in the morning, what am I excited about?’ And I was really excited that day about my Fireman guitar, like the upside-down Iceman, the Iceman I always think of as the Paul Stanley guitar — you know, the guy from KISS — and it reminds me of the upside-down version.”
“So my lyric was, ‘What gives life meaning? What makes me want to get up in the morning? What makes me want to tell my friends, ‘You’ve got to see this’, like the upside-down guitar from the guy in KISS?’ And then I put a melody [sings] ‘What gives life meaning? What makes me want to get up in the morning?'”
“And then you know, I don’t know if anybody wants to hear those lyrics, so I would figure out the melody on slide, then write some Beatle-y chords to it, and suddenly I’ve got a song.”
Nonetheless, be it instrumental or lyrical music, the approach is more or less the same in the end for Paul. There are some minor differences, as he explained:
“And the nice thing with instrumental is, if I run out of lyrics by the time the song has come to life melodically, I can sort of go like, ‘Okay, we’ll pull away the scaffolding and just let the melody go wherever it needs to go.'”
During the last decade or so, Paul Gilbert’s approach to guitar playing and writing music has changed significantly. Although a technically proficient “shredder,” he’s adopted a more old-school and down-to-earth approach to writing, even doing some outright blues stuff.
With that said, Gilbert has also addressed other “dangers” of the modern approach to guitar playing over the last few years. In a 2020 interview with Ultimate Guitar, he addressed young yet proficient social media guitar players and said:
“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].
“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.”
Photo: Lars Horstmann (GS2019 – Paul Gilbert)