On the fast track

He never intended to become one of the fastest guitar players, but Paul Gilbert is one of the swiftest strummers in the business.

Paul Gilbert (photo credit: Courtesy)
Paul Gilbert
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Paul Gilbert never intended to become one of the world’s fastest guitar players. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania and practicing for hours every day, Gilbert’s only aim was to sound good to himself.
“As a teenager, I had a lot of friends who played faster than me because it really wasn’t a priority,” said the 46- year-old musician last week from Vienna, where he was touring with his four-piece band. “Mainly, I wanted to play well; I wanted every note to be played beautifully. And if it was just my hands moving fast, it didn’t make it beautiful, it made it ugly and messy.
So I really had to develop control, and it took years before I could successfully play fast. It was really much more a tortoise than a hare process.”
Today, thanks to 25 years of recordings and countless shows with American rock/pop/metal bands Racer X and Mr. Big, as well his own eclectic solo material, Gilbert is perennially perched amid contemporary metal gunslingers like Stevie Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen and Eddie Van Halen as the genre’s fastest, whether he’s tackling rock, metal, blues, progressive, funk, jazz or classical.
Gilbert, who when he’s not performing conducts a guitar summer camp workshop in upstate New York, tells his students to forget about speed.
“It should be the last thing on their list,” he said. “I really want them to have control of the instrument first.
Otherwise, what is it they’re trying to do – play fast? The notes have to have a good tone and be locked into the rhythm. Playing fast well is something that’s great fun – playing fast sloppily is not.”
Gilbert learned his own lesson well, learning the instrument’s rudiments in order to play the licks to The Beatles’ songs he heard on his parents’ stereo.
Even more inspiring were the occasional visits by his uncle, an accomplished blues guitarist, who would show him some tricks and then disappear until his next visit.
“He’d come in once in a while, blow my mind and then be off again,” he said, adding that hearing heavier bands that featured guitar more prominently like Led Zeppelin and Van Halen prompted him to start his own band.
“I was trying to form a band as a teenager. There were some great musicians around, but it was hard to get them to show up. I don’t think than anyone took the idea of having a career as a musician seriously where I was from. So it was really nice to move to LA when I was 18 and discover that there were people who were much more dedicated to the idea,” he said.
At 18, Gilbert attended a music academy in Los Angeles and within a year was teaching at the institution.
“That was partially because I played well and partially because they needed teachers who could play rock.
It started as a jazz and fusion school, but in the mid-1980s hard rock was getting more accepted as an art form and they desperately needed teachers,” he said.
Gilbert’s first brush with fame arrived via the LA-based Racer X and later (along with former David Lee Roth guitarist Billy Sheehan) as part of Mr. Big, which hit the top of the charts in the early 1990s. While both bands have reunited sporadically and Gilbert maintains excellent ties with his former band mates, the main purpose of both projects was to allow the guitarist to follow his own muse in the ensuing years.
“Racer X’s style is very rooted in heavy metal, and Mr. Big is based on what happens when the four of us get together to make it sound like Mr. Big but with my own music. I try a lot of different things, and it’s stylistically grown much broader than I what I do with the other bands,” he said. “It’s a bit more work leading the band, but it also tends to be more relaxing. I don’t necessarily crave being the leader, but I crave someone being the leader. Sometimes having a leader is much easier than having a democracy with four people deciding.”
Challenging Gilbert’s benevolent dictatorship is the inclusion in the band of his wife – classically trained keyboardist Emi Gilbert. But he joked that there hasn’t been any disciplinarian action required.
“She’s a great musician. We do a jam onstage, where we trade phrases back and forth. And the phrases I play are not simple, they’re fairly challenging. And it’s amazing how she can hear them and instantly throw them back at me,” he said.
Paul Gilbert and his band will perform their eclectic set in Tel Aviv on April 12 at Reading 3. The following evening, Gilbert will hold a master class at Comfort 13.