Interview and Live Photos by Robert Cavuoto
Paul Gilbert and The Players Club will be releasing a new seasonal offering titled ‘TWAS on November 26th via Mascot Label Group. This is Paul’s 17th solo album features a dozen recordings, two of which are new and original compositions “Every Christmas Has Love” and “Three Strings for Christmas.”
Paul comes alive and cranks up the holiday spirit on ‘TWAS. Throughout the album, he takes listeners on a journey, expressing himself, and bending sound as well as the listeners’ minds. A gifted guitarist who’s playing never disappoints whether in Mr. Big, in his solo efforts, or on this holiday album. Never wanting to limit himself or be one-dimensional, Paul delivers his unique take on mixing rock, blues, with jazz flavors on this holiday album. There is just the perfect amount of blues bravado, shredding, and melodic solos to keep any of his fans happy, as his playing is always rich in technique and tone.
Gilbert formed a band of Portland, Oregon’s finest jazz and blues musicians for these sessions. The players are Dan Balmer (guitar), Clay Giberson (keyboards), Timmer Blakely (bass), and Jimi Bott (drums).
I had a highly entertaining and insightful conversation with Paul Gilbert about his new Christmas album, the creation of his Ibanez Fireman, and his take on Eddie Van Halen borrowing from his idea of using a drill. Be sure to listen to the audio to hear all the fun and listen to Paul playing some guitar while sharing some insightful stories about the creation of this album that is destined to be a Christmas classic!
Robert Cavuoto: What was the decision to do a Christmas album?
Paul Gilbert: It’s about melodies! I have really been into melodies as I was scared of them for the longest time. I only ever wanted to play chords to back up the singer, do a furious solo, and let the singer do the melodies. For this album, I used the slide as I have a magnet installed on my guitar, and it holds a chrome slide. I can switch off between the shreddy stuff then pull out the slide. Playing slide has also helped my melody playing even when I’m not using it because then you end up using your finger for the slide. It’s much more of a horizontal way of playing. It’s more the way a singer would sing. That is my new hobby, as I go through all my vocal melodies and get them down on guitar. Christmas music is a great way to do that. It was really fun to research and find versions of the songs that would work. The Nat King Cole recordings from the 40s or the 50 are so good. They have orchestral arrangements with background vocals; really sophisticated music going on in those arrangements. I found myself preparing for this in May, so by the time June and July came along, my head was swelling with Christmas music [laughing]. I would be walking down the street hear this in my head, but pretty sure it was still summer [laughing]. I think I was the only person with “Let it Snow” going on in my head. It was almost a rebellious feeling [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Recording the music so far in advance of the Christmas season, how did you get into the spirit to play with the passion of the season?
Paul Gilbert: Somehow, I think I enjoyed it more in the summer. I would be curious to see how it feels to me as we get closer to the holidays when the snow starts to fall and all the decorations go up. I research with every record I do. It was fun researching, finding music I’m interested in, and trying to get fluent with some elements of music that I want to use. In this case, it was based on the melodies. I knew I was in a little over my head with the chords. “The Christmas Song” has 2-5-1 chord progressions; it’s like a jazz hand. I know what they are, and if I see them in a chart, I can play them, but it’s not where I came from. I’m a Rock & Roll musician. I’m a little scared of 2-5-1’s, so I hired two jazz musicians to play in the band. I invited them over, told them I found this great Nat King Cole song and asked them to work on the charts while I push play and record [laughing]. It’s something I can probably do, but I put myself on a deadline; what they can do in 45 minutes would take me two days. If I had two days to spend, I would love to do it to educate myself and become better, but I had to get the record done. The record company told me I needed to finish it in July in order to press the vinyl! I was like, “Oh man!” I got it in late, but they still got it done.
Robert Cavuoto: Christmas is a hard deadline; the album is not as effective on January second!
Paul Gilbert: With another album, if you push it back, it’s not a big deal. You don’t want to come out with a Christmas album in February.
Robert Cavuoto: How much of the songs and solos were off the cuff and improvised while you were recording?
Paul Gilbert: None of us were very rehearsed. The good part of that is you are still enjoying the song and not tired of listening to it. The bad part is it was a really intense experience trying to get it right because the arrangements are pretty sophisticated. I remember with “Let it, Snow,” I came up with the chords for that. I had an augmented chord, 6th chords, and all these flash chords, so I couldn’t just play my Rock & Roll licks and have them work as I had to play over the changes. I didn’t have the time to rehearse it to the point I would like it, so; we just played through the song enough to record a version of the song. Once we had it, I would just run the solo part. I would say, “Give me four bars of those [laughing] plus five minutes to practice for it.” I would then run through the solo and edit in the best one in. So, there was hardly any rehearsal. We went over it, and let’s run it four times! Regarding improving, I would leave spots as the melody is set, yet I wanted to have something in the middle. I would go to Dan, the guitarist, a lot of times and ask how we can make the song longer. It’s just the melody three times with nothing else; you get tired of it as it doesn’t go anywhere. He came up with an idea of two chords, and we could jam over them. We then added a middle so when the melody returns, you’re happy to hear it again. As simple as the two major chords were as major sevenths, I wanted to play the ninth to be cool and had to work on it a bit as it probably went too long. I self-edited not to be good but to be shorter.
Robert Cavuoto: “Frosty the Snowman” is a real emotional roller-coaster. It starts off fast, dark, and ominous proceeds to make you happy, and they end off with a vibe of being strong and proud. What was the thought behind twisting around that classic?
Paul Gilbert: The songs with a more sophisticated chord arrangement I didn’t have to do much to them; they are already cool. You just have to copy Nat King Cole’s orchestra, and you have something to work with. With songs like Rudolph or Frosty, they are so simple that they lend themselves to a punk rock arrangement as the energy is different (listen to the audio to hear Paul play the punk version of Frosty). That would be my first idea of how to do that, but I wanted to bring in some sophistication to it somehow. I first thought to change the melody to minor, so every major note was changed to a minor. It gives it this very ominous and serious tone [laughing]. I took it back to major and still, have something surprise, so we did a 7-8 groove. Jimi is a blues drummer who has played with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and he never played 7-8 stuff in his life, so he asked me to play the groove on the drums so he could practice it overnight before recording. So, I did my best, Neil Peart, so he learned it and did it great! Then it went into a blues version. I took the melody and “bluesed” out. That was a hard one. Frosty was all done in one take with no fixes. I didn’t expect it, as I thought we would need a lot more work with that one.
Robert Cavuoto: What was the hardest song to change the approach, and which song lent itself to being the easiest to change?
Paul Gilbert: I think Rudolf was the most challenging to arrange, for the same reason as Frosty with as the chords were so simple that we had to do something to make it cool. The first thing was to get in with a groove. It’s syncopated with a bit of funk and reggae in there. You can also do it heavy with a Zeppelin vibe. The real challenge was with the melody. I love a lot of buoyant stuff, but I wanted to make it sound angry. The architecture of the lick is like Gary Moore’s playing the Rudolf notes (listen to the audio interview to hear Paul play it). It has a snarl like an angry dog [laughing]
Robert Cavuoto: You have some originals on the album like “Every Christmas has Love” how did that song come about and make you want to add to this album?
Paul Gilbert: The melody popped in my head. I love 70s AM Gold and Yacht Rock. I wrote that song around lyrics that helped me to find the melody and then play it. On “Three Strings for Christmas,” I used a double-neck micro guitar. The bottom neck has the six strings which I used for the melody. The top neck only has three strings that are tuned in octaves to play these furious licks. If you play only on the dots, it makes an A9 arpeggio. I had the lick and thought I had to write a song about the guitar. For Christmas, I want the other three [laughing]!
Robert Cavuoto: I understand you got a guitar at Christmas when you were a kid; what was it?
Paul Gilbert: It was a Les Paul Custom! It was amazing. My first guitar was a Stella acoustic. It was a great starter guitar because it was short-scale. It was nice to start off with acoustic because you didn’t have to worry about knobs and feedback. I wanted an electric, and I knew nothing about them outside of the Led Zeppelin movie and that Jimmy Page had a Gibson. I didn’t know what kind it was. My Uncle was visiting around Christmas time and looked in the local paper and saw a Gibson Les Paul for $300. I saved up $150 from mowing the lawn and birthdays, and my parents said they would kick in the other half, but it was my whole budget for Christmas. My parents said, “You can’t have any GI Joes, Legos, or Stretch Armstrong.” It would be my first Christmas without any toys, so it’s was up to me to decide on a bunch of toys or the guitar. It was a big decision, like a rite of passage into adulthood. I can take the kid toys or this grown-up toy. So I went for the Gibson. Gibson’s are hard guitars to bend strings on. It looked cool, sounded great, and was built well. It was amazing. I didn’t have an amp, so I plugged into my cassette player and cranked it up. The UV meter was pinned. It had horrible buzzy distortion, but it was exciting and electric.
Robert Cavuoto: What color was it, and do you still have it?
Paul Gilbert: It was Sunburst, and I gave it to Mike Varney. I needed to get to the studio to record the second Racer X album, and I didn’t have a car. Mike told me to sell him the Les Paul, and I could use the money to buy a car. I was like, okay. After that, I tried to buy it back from him, and he was like, “No way!” [Laughing] I have nothing but gratitude for what he did for my career.
Robert Cavuoto: You have been using on stage the Ibanez Fireman; it’s the flip on the Iceman. Did you come up with that idea?
Paul Gilbert: I learned how to use photoshop a little bit when I started with Ibanez. It was the year 2000, and I asked my contact at Ibanez to make me a 2000 light show guitar. The body was in the shape of the 2000, and it had a battery pack to control the lights. It was for this big show at the Tokyo Dome with all these TV stars from Japan. It was a bit of work to make that guitar. So for my signature guitar, my contact at Ibanez told me to pick a shape that they have back in the shop [laughing]. I think he was a little exasperated from the 2000 guitar. I thought about it and felt the Iceman was so cool, but it had limitations, so I had to mess with it somehow. I thought to flip it upside down; then, of course, you need a cutaway. That was easy to do in photoshop. I sent him the photo, thinking there was no way he was going to do this. He thought it was cool and said he would build it. They are a real guitar company, so when I got it, they put contours in and made the neck joint correct. The real instrument was great. I sort of did it as a prank, but it really turned into a nice instrument. The next one they made was the Corina one which was beautiful.
Robert Cavuoto: You came up with the idea of using a drill on the guitar, and then Eddie Van Halen borrowed from it. What were you’re feeling about that?
Paul Gilbert: I thought I was dreaming. It was so odd. Any contact with Eddie was odd as he was such a hero of mind. He was a kind of superhuman to me as a kid. I saw every Van Halen show from 1979 to 1984 in Pennsylvania. I was the kid in the audience with the binoculars watching his fingers. He was such a star. So having any kind of association was like speaking to a spirit from another world. I don’t think I was on his radar. I don’t think he was reading a guitar magazine and said, “Paul is using a drill; I’ll use it too!” I think he just had one in his studio and decided to make some noise. I think it was sort of a coincidence but an unusual one. I was shocked and wonderful that I can be associated with the guy in any way.
Robert Cavuoto: Are you working on a new solo album?
Paul Gilbert: I probably have an album’s worth of stuff now. I have been playing a lot of drums and doing the Christmas album. I got a little better at engineering and ProTools even though I wasn’t the engineer. I would bring the tracks back, do the edits, bring it to Jimi for drums, and bring up the mix. It was just faster. I could do it in the morning at 5:00 am and have it ready for him. I got a lot better at ProTools. In the past, I would get bogged down with everything; now, I am fluent at ProTool, so I have been doing all these demos where I play everything, and it’s fun. Sometimes I just jam without a goal in mind other than having fun. From there, I’ll see how good that turns out.
PAUL GILBERT AND THE PLAYERS CLUB / MASCOT LABEL GROUP ANNOUNCE
GLOBAL RELEASE OF ‘TWAS ON CD AND DIGITALLY NOVEMBER 26,
WITH LP TO FOLLOW ON DECEMBER 10
Amongst the dozen seasonal recordings, two are new compositions penned by Gilbert
View Video For “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9Ks9XvBDz0
Pre-Order Here: https://smarturl.it/PaulGilbert-Xmas