I confess that as of a few months ago, I had never heard of Paul Gilbert. One of his videos popped up on my YouTube suggestions list and so clicked it. It was a short clip of him playing Bach on an electric guitar at a guitar clinic here in Kansas City a few years ago. I was impressed and explored more of his work, which goes back 25 years now with several pretty big time rock bands, Racer X and Mr. Big. As I have written many times, I love the intersection of musical worlds...in this case classical and rock. As I immersed myself in his interviews, tutorials and performances, it was obvious that Paul Gilbert is first, exceptionally talented, and second, a very humble, well adjusted artist...the kind of person you'd love to sit down with and have a cup of coffee and just talk about music. I was not able to coordinate a call with him, but he agreed to answer my questions via e-mail. Here you go.
1) Did you hear classical music growing up?
PG: Yeah. My parents had a lot classical albums and listened to classical radio stations. They also had almost all the Beatles records, and lots of Rolling Stones. My dad listened to blues, a lot as well. And my mom played Carole King records quite a bit.
2) If so, do you remember what piece of music or composers you first connected with?
PG: At first, I didn’t like classical music at all. I immediately connected to the Beatles, and I would endlessly play air guitar along with the “Help” and “Hard Day’s Night” albums. But my younger sister started taking ballet lessons, and one day she was dancing at home to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and it just hit me, that this was a great melody. I got my guitar and started figuring out how to play the main parts on guitar. That opened the door.
3) What is it about classical music that “grabs” you the most?
PG: I like different things about different pieces. When I first started paying attention to Bach keyboard inventions, it was just exciting to hear so many 16th notes! And they were played so cleanly. The music had an athletic appeal, but at the same time the melodic patterns were beautiful and interesting. It’s a challenge on any instrument to be able to crank out two minutes of accurate 16th notes, and learning Bach keyboard music is such a good place to work on this kind of thing.
After my initial fascination with faster playing, I also discovered pieces like Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. The first time I heard that was on my car radio. I had to pull the car over! It was some of the scariest, most dramatic, and most beautiful music I had ever heard. I wish I could play that one on guitar, but a big orchestra is really better suited to the task.
4) I have enjoyed seeing the videos of you on YouTube playing music of Bach, Haydn, and other classical composers on the electric guitar….very cool. This may seem like a silly question, but why are you playing classical music on electric guitar? (lol)
PG: Some of my motivation is like climbing a mountain… “Because it’s there.” I like to challenge myself to see if I can do it. And I always learn so much. The problem is that I can never remember the pieces. It’s just too much to mentally retain. Like many rock guitarists, my sight reading skills are horrible, so I have to rely on memory.
5) When you play Bach or Haydn, for example, is it well received?
PG: At guitar clinics, it’s fine. The audience is there to listen and learn, and not looking to “rock out” like at a concert. I’m actually doing a long medley of songs from my whole career on my current tour, and I play a couple classical sections in there. I think they work really well, but they are short, so the audience doesn’t get upset that they are not rocking out. At a rock show, I don’t think I’ve ever played a complete classical piece. Oh wait, I did attempt a Bach Cello Suite during my unaccompanied solo years ago in Japan. I got nervous about halfway through and screwed it up, but I’m glad to at least have tried it.
We also used to play ELP’s version of Aaron Copeland’s “Hoedown” with
Mr. Big. That had rock drums and worked really well.
Mr. Big. That had rock drums and worked really well.
6) I have talked to many professional musicians who have told me they don’t listen to music for enjoyment anymore…they want to get away from music since it’s what they do for a living. Do you still find time to listen to music for enjoyment? If so, is some of it classical music?
PG: I don’t listen to music as much as I used to. I have significant hearing loss, so I mainly like to listen to music when there’s not much background noise. Also, even though music is more portable now “in theory” because you can fit a zillion mp3s into a small device. There is something about music on computers that I don’t like. Maybe it’s just iTunes. I hate iTunes so much. I’ve been so frustrated just trying to do the simplest things with iTunes, that I finally decided, I will NEVER use it again for anything. It’s not easy to remove it from your computer. But I researched and got rid of it. I want it gone. Seriously, that @#$Q#$%$% program has traumatized me. Whew, sorry. I’ve got to calm myself down. But I think a lot of the reason I don’t listen to music is because of the interface on computers. I bought a turntable the other day, and LOVED the experience of it. I had sold most of my vinyl collection years ago, but I still had a few that I couldn’t part with… including J.C. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A. That one I played with all guitars on my “Flying Dog” album. I re-titled it “Gilberto Concerto,” and one of the sections in the middle was the inspiration for part of the Racer X instrumental “Scarified.”
Soon after I got my new turntable, I wanted to get some more records. So I went to a local record shop and bought an armful of records. As I was driving away from the store, I got the weirdest feeling. I realized, “I just paid money for music.” How odd! I’m used to ripping it from YouTube videos, and then listening to it with The Amazing Slow Downer, so I can figure out sections that I’m interested in. But that’s not listening for enjoyment. For that, I know it’s a cliché, but I prefer vinyl.
7) I heard Steve Vai say that he had all of Gustav Mahler’s music on his playlist. He worked with Frank Zappa of course, who was very much into classical music. Along with Vai, do other musicians you work with or whom you are friends with, also listen to classical music?
PG: Well, my wife studied classical piano since she was three years old. Once in a while she’ll tackle some Rachmaninoff. Billy Sheehan, who plays bass in Mr. Big, likes a lot of classical stuff, and has worked out pieces before. We were driving in his car the other day, and he had a classical radio station on. Yngwie Malmsteen is the rock guitarist who is probably most associated with playing with a classical style. I love a lot of his early stuff. It’s both face-melting and beautiful.
8) In your travels and touring, do you feel today’s younger generations are open to the idea of classical music?
PG: Sure! Everybody gets excited about those 16th notes. When you’re first learning to play an instrument, technique is something that everyone wants, and classical music is a great place to develop it.
9) I recently interviewed Matt Palmer, a well-known classical guitarist. As a youngster, he started out as a metal “shredder” a la Randy Rhoads, but heard a Christopher Parkening CD as a teenager and was transformed by the sounds he heard. He switched to classical guitar, went to college to study and now has PhD in classical guitar, as well as a career. How about you? …do you play classical guitar, or do you want to? You obviously have the chops to play whatever you want!
PG: When I play classical music, I’m really still using a rock “grip” on the guitar and the sort of vibrato that you hear from blues and rs. A big part of playing rock guitar is controlling the potential noise that can happen when you use a loud, overdriven guitar sound. When I play one note, I’m working hard to control the other five strings, so they don’t ring, or feedback, or create other noises. I use very specific techniques to do this, and it requires that I hold the guitar and shape my hands very differently than what you see in traditional classical guitar. These rock techniques are so important for how I play that it hard to make the jump into playing traditional classical guitar. Even if all those noises are a non-issue, I still have the fear that the guitar could start howling and making noise. So if someone puts a classical guitar in my hands, I’m still going to play it like a rock guitar. That really doesn’t do justice to the instrument, and because the strings are made of different material my usual vibrato and bending don’t work very well. Mostly, it feels like all my superpowers are gone! So I tend to stick to electric.
10) Have you been to a symphony concert recently?
PG: No, not for a long time. With my hearing loss, I don’t go and see live music as much as I used to. I did see a classical pianist years ago that I really enjoyed. The ad for the show was something like, “His playing will make you cry in three notes.” And of course… he did.
11) If you were stranded on a desert island (but could still listen to music) what 3 classical composers’ music would you want to have with you? And why?
PG: Well, Bach is the obvious one. Bach isn’t necessarily my favorite composer to listen to now, but as a musical resource, it’s just such good stuff. If I some need melodic or rhythmic patterns to work on, I can always find some good ideas by figuring out a Bach piece. For listening, I might bring Scarlatti. His keyboard music isn’t as “heavy” as Bach’s music can be. If I wanted to put something on while cooking and eating dinner, Scarlatti could be good. And there are some ferocious licks in there too. Finally, I’d pick Silvius Weiss. He played and composed for the lute, and to my ear is similar to Bach, but still has his own flavor. Also, the lute is similar to guitar, but as an acoustic instrument, I prefer that way the lute resonates.
Here is Paul's website if you want to learn more about him:
Here is a video of him playing Bach on electric guitar:
And as Paul referred to in Question 6 above, here is "Scarified." I'm not sure what's up with the orange spacesuits, but the you can clearly hear the classical influences of Johann Christian Bach. And like I told you above, he is a brilliant rock guitarist.