I had the honour of interviewing preeminent shredder and musical chameleon, Paul Gilbert, on his new album, I Can Destroy, which is slated for release on May 27th. In this interview, he talks about composing, improvising, and going back to the blues. Thanks to Paul, Amanda Cagan, and Andrew King for making this interview possible! Visit Paul’s website and purchase I Can Destroy on iTunes.
I Can Destroy opens up with “Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal”, which features Freddie Nelson and Tony Spinner harmonizing with you on vocals and guitar. What made you decide to form a band with two other great singers and guitarists for this album?
Well, I thought if I really want to get people to use their turn signals, I need a good team (laughs). Actually, I knew I was going to work with producer Kevin Shirley for this album, who likes to track live and do minimal or zero overdubs. So I really felt it was my job to put together a band that was going to sound like a finished record with just one performance. Instead of having overdubs, I just had real human beings playing with me live. They do sing really well, so if there’s a high bridge, Tony would sing that part and both of them would help out with harmonies enormously. Also, it was inspiring for my songwriting because I knew I had the ability to do harmonies on vocals and guitar. So that made me write more melodically.
What can you teach us about writing harmonies?
I was fortunate enough to have a couple of years of music theory in high school and I went to GIT for a year. It was helpful to learn a little about diatonic harmony. When you do harmonies, usually you harmonize in diatonic thirds. But sometimes, if the main melody is playing the 5th of the scale, the third up is the 7th. Over a minor chord, the 7th is not a bad note, but a lot of the time in that case, you want to harmonize with the high octave instead. It’s just a difference in feel. It’s the difference between creating a minor chord and a minor 7th chord. They both work on paper, but they have a slightly different emotion to them.
Over a major chord, it’s an even bigger thing, because a major 7th is a very specific sound that you might not use in rock. So thirds are usually the answer to harmonizing, but they’re not always the answer. Sometimes, using the 4th is the answer. The other exception is when you harmonize a melody without thirds at all, but by singing or playing something that builds a chord, and then the melody happens on top of that without the harmonies moving. Sometimes, movement can be too distracting. So there are two ways to go: harmonies that move and ones that don’t move.
The track, “Gonna Make You Love Me”, is a real feel good seventies rock tune with a I-IV-V blues chord progression. How do you take classic chord progressions and make them interesting?
One of the first things that comes to mind is if you take a chord and you make it last longer or shorter than the listener expects. For example, in “Revolution” by The Beatles, which is also I-IV-V, the first chord changes to the next chord at an unexpected beat and it wakes up the listener. It poses a question to the listener and then the band resolves it. The same thing happens in “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. They stay on that C# chord for a long time and build up a lot of tension. That might seem like such a simple thing to do to stay on one chord, but they’re masters of playing with the expectations of the listener. When they finally do change chords, a release happens that’s extremely powerful. So how long you stay on a chord or using a pause can be amazing tools for making standard chord progressions cool.
I notice your songs in I Can Destroy often modulate to different keys. How would you teach someone to use modulation to keep their songwriting fresh?
A lot of it you get intuitively. You learn your cowboy chords and barre chords and a lot of it is just like any language. You don’t necessarily need to know music theory in order to do it. I don’t think The Beatles were talking thirds and fifths, but they knew a lot of songs. The same thing goes for me. Whenever I learned a new chord or even scale note in a song, I try be aware of the key centre and just ask, “How does this relate to the key centre?” Then, when I write a song in a different key, I can use that same trick.
For example, one chord that blew my mind was the first chord in The Beach Boys’ song “When I Grow Up to be a Man” (plays a Gb9 (#11) chord). I never bothered to learn what that chord was called. I just know how to find it, and I can look at it and know the intervals. The thing that was important to me to learn was how it related to the root chord, which was Ab. So the relationship was that chord was a whole step down from the key center. Then I’d ask myself if the root was major or minor, and in this case, it was Ab major. So now I know, whenever I’m in a major key, I can go down a whole step, play that chord, and it just might work. So when I’m doing a song in D major, I can play that chord (plays a Cb9 (#11) chord). I do actually use that chord on one of the songs on this album.
The track “Adventure and Trouble” is a good example of how you often switch grooves in your songs.
It’s something I do to prevent a song from getting sleepy. The one song where I did that most purposely on in I Can Destroy is “Love We Had”. The chorus is slow and I thought that listeners might fast forward to the next song. So in a way, I fast forwarded for them by making the verse faster, more like BTO’s “Let It Ride”. After doing that, I started hearing tempo changes in other songs where I never heard them before, like in Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me”. Actually, a band that did that all the time was Black Sabbath. They had a lot of really slow heavy parts and realized people would fall asleep if they kept it slow. They had to pick up the tempo somewhere in the song. Those guys were masters of tempo changes.
How does someone push themselves to become a better composer?
For me, you have to choose your battles. You pick the styles you’re interested in and you really tear them apart. I’ve learned so many songs from the styles I love. It might even have been detrimental to my career, because in a way, it’s made me so varied. If I only had stayed in metal, I’d probably have been more successful. But I love complex pop music so much, I learned so many Todd Rundgren, Elton John, The Carpenters, and Neil Sedaka songs. That’s what was on the radio when I was a kid.
One day, I heard “Martha My Dear” by The Beatles on the radio and it made me angry. I love that song, but if the song never existed and the idea for the song came to me in my head, it would be useless because it’s a piano song and I can’t play the piano. I would lose the song and that’s tragic. So I thought, “I’ve got to figure out a guitar version for the song”, and I did. So a lot of what I do is actually take songs that were written on other instruments, mostly piano, and try to get at least a map of it on guitar, so I don’t lose any songs.
You do a blues jam at the end of “I’m Not the One Who Wants to Be with You” and you cry out, “I just want the blues forever”. Then the next track is called, “Blues Just Saving My Life”. What transpired in recent years that got you to delve deeply into the blues?
I just wanted to be able to play what I heard in my head, and that was a humbling experience (laughs). I thought the blues would be a simple way to start since it’s just a I-IV-V basic blues progression. My usual solution as a shredder was to play the Mixolydian mode really fast over each chord. It worked in a way, but I tried to challenge myself to do the opposite. If I could only have two notes to play, what two would I pick over each chord as a melodic improviser? That crippled me both from a playing standpoint and an inner “melodic generator” standpoint. Playing only two notes per chord is a really hard assignment because it becomes monotonous really quickly. I was so bad at it, that it made me sort of angry, but I liked the sound and I wanted to pursue it.
That opened up the idea of emphasis. As a shredder, you don’t have to think about emphasizing notes too much. You just find the right scale and you’re just sort of playing all the notes so quickly that none of them is emphasized. But the slower you go, the more emphasis matters. I started to realize that it’s almost like having a box of crayons. You don’t always have to use each crayon equally. For a certain drawing you might need more green or purple. It took me three and a half decades to figure that out, but ever since I’ve been working on it, it’s been a joy to use the right colours (laughs).
It’s such a test for knowing your intervals.
In the end, when you’re really playing, hopefully you forget about all that stuff. Sometimes, intuitively, I come up with stuff that’s better or more advanced than I would from my music theory knowledge. For example, last night I was tearing apart one of my own songs called, “Enemies in Jail”. In the middle of it, I play a line over a minor chord that I came up with by humming. It has notes in it like the natural 6th that I would normally not play or emphasize over a minor chord. So I spent two hours last night messing around with how to take that and connect it to other things. I know the names of the intervals of that line in my head, but it’s going to get to the point where I don’t have to think about the intervals anymore. It just flows out because it’s a sound and I know what it feels like.
Did working on your blues playing lead you to discover certain blues records too?
What I listened to a lot was my own compilation of blues/jazz clarinet and saxophone players from the late fifties and early sixties. There’s a clarinet player named Jimmy Hamilton and a sax player named Johnny Hodges. I don’t really know anything about jazz, but I went to Wikipedia, got a big list of names, and went to YouTube and found my favourites. As soon as I heard Johnny Hodges, I knew this was the guy. I just love the way he bends notes. He’s a bender. His phrasing is so beautiful, and that’s what I wanted to learn. For fast stuff, listen to Artie Shaw. His arpeggios sound like sweep picking, except they’re so much more wicked, clean, fast, and effortless. If you want to get some arpeggios, check out some old Artie Shaw recordings. He just rips!
Do you sit down and try to pick up licks from their solos?
Some of it I will. It’s humbling. Guitar and clarinet are different instruments, and you get what you can from it. It can inspire fingerings you wouldn’t have thought of, but in the end, he’s really pushing the limits of his own instrument. Somethings I can do, and it absolutely improves me as a musician, but I can’t do everything.
Does it take a lot for you to maintain your chops or is it just natural at this point?
My first thought is that I don’t really care about it (laughs). It’s sort of a horrible thing to say, but the thing I do care about maintaining are my calluses for bending and vibrato. If I feel my calluses getting soft, I panic. I feel like the world is coming to an end if I don’t have hard calluses because that to me is such an important part of how I express myself on the instrument. When I play fast stuff, eventually, I have to hit that last note and I have to make it speak. I don’t want it to sound “wanky”. I want it to sound beautiful and I don’t want to fear the bend. If you’ve got soft calluses, you’ll hesitate to go for it, and I never want to have that hesitation. I want to put my full force on that bend and not fear it because it’s going to hurt. But no matter how your calluses are, playing a sweaty gig will eat right through them. Callus maintenance to me is number one.
For the faster stuff, where I really need to have control of smaller motions, there are exercises I’ll do for that, but they’re not as interesting to me. They were really interesting to me when I was younger, because it was stuff I had never done before. A crazy metaphor I thought of the other day is vibrato and bending are like wearing clothes and all the other stuff is leaving the house and going somewhere. You can go to a fancy restaurant and it’s a wonderful experience, but if you’ve forgotten your clothes, it sort of ruins it. So having calluses is like putting on clothes. After that’s together, I can leave the house and do whatever I need to do.
Is it just a matter of playing a few hours a day?
It’s just playing a lot and playing with some force. That can be hard to summon on your own. The kind of force I’ll play with when I’m playing with someone else, is going to be stronger than when I’m playing with myself. I’m used to it as I’ve been playing with other people since I was 11 years old. But for a lot of players that spend all their time playing in their bedroom, it can be shocking when they turn their amp up to drum set volume and have to get used to controlling distortion and feedback while locking with a drummer. It’s the difference between swimming in a swimming pool and swimming in the ocean. When those waves hit you, it’s a whole different story.
Were the solos on I Can Destroy mostly improvised?
Yeah. The only one I really had to plan out was the one in the bonus track for Japan. It’s a funny tune, because there are a lot of modulations. It was beyond me to improvise. The changes were too rough, so for that one I had to work out a little bit. The only other thing I worked out was the very first solo in “Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal”. I just wanted something I could rely on, so I didn’t have to get scared. I wanted the first solo to rip and not have to think that fast in the key of F#. But everything else was pretty much as it happened.
I interviewed your friend and guitarist Andy Timmons recently, and he said he jams with the iReal Book app for an hour before turning on his computer. What kind of work do you do to keep your improvisational chops up these days?
Oh man. I’m jealous. I’m jealous of Andy for working on those jazz tunes as they’re really sophisticated. I work a lot with I-IV-V. In a way, I’m trying to get my boogie shuffle together. I do “Slippin’ and Sliddin'” by Little Richard and improvise over that going along with the changes. That’s a quick one and it’s swinging. It’s challenging because there’s not much time to breathe. I just have fun with that or I slow it down a little bit.
There are little mental tricks you can do that are helpful. One of the biggest ones is to repeat a note before you go to the next one. When you do that, you start bringing other elements of expression to your playing like short and long. That sounds simple on paper, but from having done so much teaching, playing the same note short and then long is one of the most challenging things for any guitar player to do. That’s because everyone spends so much time doing everything the same. When we practice scales, we play all the notes with the same length. It sounds simple, but to jumble note lengths and make it feel right can really open up new doors.
The other thing of course, is loud and soft. Which again, sounds really simple on paper, but if I want to create a swing groove, I wouldn’t play all the notes at the same volume. If I did, the music would get really stiff. Playing swing develops that and you can certainly carry that technique over to things that aren’t swinging.
In general, I don’t know if I would even call it work. Most of my work is teaching at my online school but when I get a second to spare, I’ll just sit back and play my boogie blues, try to nail the changes, do some good short and long, some good loud and soft, and I’m happy.
Hal Rodriguez is a published writer, musician, and music transcriber who has done work for premier guitarists like Oz Noy and Derryl Gabel. He can be contacted at email@example.com and followed on instagram @halromuso.