Paul Gilbert on his new album “I Can Destroy,” his Great Guitar Escape 3.0, New York City, and more

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Photo by James Chiang

Photo by James Chiang
Photo by James Chiang

There are many notable guitar heroes in the world, but absolutely none like Paul Gilbert. Paul first achieved critical acclaim as the guitarist of neoclassically-influenced metal band Racer X, then commercial success as the axeman of Mr. Big. While Mr. Big is primarily known in the States for the international #1 hit “To Be With You,” the quartet has released eight albums, five of them gold or platinum-selling in Japan. After Mr. Big’s first hiatus in 1996, Paul began a solo career and has since released 17 solo albums. Yes, 17 of them. The albums have ranged from instrumental guitar-shredding — often with funny song titles — to straight-up, song-driven power-pop. On the latest solo effort, 2016’s I Can Destroy, Paul is back on lead vocals, delivering a mix of riff-heavy hard rock and humor-tinged, hooky, pop-influenced songs.

Beyond I Can Destroy, Paul also has another edition of his Great Guitar Escape camp on the books. The third edition of his popular summer camp, Paul Gilbert’s Great Guitar Escape 3.0 takes place between July 25 and 29 at the Cambria Pines Lodge in Cambria, California. One does not need to be a virtuoso guitarist to attend and participate, as it’s intended to be a fun hang for the 75 campers in attendance. However, those looking to tune up their skills will not only be able to hang with and learn from Paul himself, but also members — past and present — of Megadeth, Guns N’ Roses, and Danger Danger. More info on the event can be found at www.greatguitarescape.com.

Paul kindly spoke to Downtown about his past, present and future. The future is said to include more activity from Mr. Big, yet also more camps and more solo recordings; as an aside, I forgot to ask if another Racer X reunion was in the cards. Paul can be visited online at www.paulgilbert.com and visited on Twitter via @PaulGilbertRock.

Photo by James Chiang
Photo by James Chiang

On your new album, you sing, which comes after a few albums where you weren’t singing. What prompted that change?

Paul Gilbert: Even if I’m not singing on recent albums, I’m still singing at my live shows, and at home, so I’m always ready to step up to the mic when the mood strikes. I wrote a lot of lyrics while I was traveling in Italy recently, so that helped me get started with the writing the new songs. I grew up listening to mostly vocal music, so that’s the format that comes most naturally to me. I should also mention that I had a lot of help from two other great singers on the album, Tony Spinner and Freddie Nelson. They’re playing guitar with me too, so we could play and sing lots of harmonies.

You are widely-known as a virtuoso guitarist. Is it ever difficult to come up with songs that have challenging guitar parts?

PG: I used to enjoy the idea that my guitar parts were so complicated that no one else could play them. I’ve kind of changed my philosophy around, where I’d love to write guitar riffs that are playable by anybody. Then the song would be more likely to survive the test of time. I’ve got really long fingers, so I can’t help but use them to play things that stretch out a bit. But Tony and Freddie played along with me really well, so I think these songs might have a better chance to last, compared to the insanely-complicated stuff that I’ve done before.

I heard a rumor that you played drums with Cheap Trick once. Is that true?

PG: That is true. Bun E. Carlos was nice enough to let me sit behind his kit and rock with the band on “He’s A Whore.” That was a great moment of my life. I love Cheap Trick, and I love Bun E. Carlos’s drumming.

Drums and guitar aside, do you play any other instruments?

PG: I play piano, just chords, but I know a lot of chords. Bass, of course. And kazoo. Never underestimate the kazoo. And I’ve played some pretty mean tambourine and bongos on my records before.

Speaking of guitar, what can you tell me about your upcoming Great Guitar Escape? Does a person have to be a serious guitar player to attend?

PG: I think anyone who is interested in guitar would really enjoy the camp and get inspiration. But if you’ve got some years into playing guitar, you’re going to be able to jam with me, and get deeper into the seminars. I’ve got a pretty amazing lineup of players to help me perform and teach. Andy Timmons, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Kiko Loureiro and Dave Ellefson from Megadeth, and Mimi Fox. Plus some teachers from Musicians Institute to do even more teaching. And besides all the teaching, jamming, and performing, it’s just fun to hang out with everyone throughout the week.

Is there any possibility of an East Coast version of the Great Guitar Escape coming in the future?

PG: I did my first two Great Guitar Escape camps at Full Moon Resort in upstate New York. It was really nice there, so I’d be happy to go back. We’re just doing it this year in Cambria, California for a change. I’ve been there before, and it’s a beautiful resort, right by the beach. I’m looking forward to it!

Do you still have a guitar institute in Japan?

PG: I was the honorary dean of MI Japan for a few years. I enjoyed it a lot. I hope to go back some time.

Photo by James Chiang
Photo by James Chiang

What’s ahead for you after the Great Guitar Escape has wrapped? Any plans for U.S. touring?

PG: Yeah, I’ve got shows with my own band in Japan and Europe, and some clinics in Mexico. Early next year, I should be doing some shows in the States with my own band. I’m excited to rock!

What do you remember about the first gig you ever played in New York?

PG: Wow, that must have been on the first Mr. Big tour back in 1989. I think Ace Frehley was in the audience, so that blew my mind. I’m a big fan of Ace’s playing on the first two KISS live albums.

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Big live at B.B. Kings a few years back. Is there any chance Mr. Big touring the States again or making another album? Or is your song on the new album a sly hint of not being with the band anymore?

PG: We’re going to do a few shows this year. We don’t have recording plans at the moment, but that can always happen. I think the guys will smile and laugh when they hear “I’m Not The One (Who Wants To Be With You).” They know my sense of humor.

Are you involved with any tribute acts at the moment? I ask because I recall you playing with a Who tribute band alongside Billy Sheehan and Gary Cherone a while back…

PG: I’m always learning cover songs, just for my own enjoyment and to improve on guitar. I did a bunch of tribute shows with Mike Portnoy. We did shows with music from The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and The Who. That was the one with Billy and Gary.

When not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your free time?

PG: I recently became a father, so I play acoustic guitar for my son while he chases me around the living room. It’s a pretty good game. I must have played 10 songs for him today. I’ve got to put a strap on my guitar. It’s not easy to hold it, play it, and run around at the same time!

Who is the best artist our readers may not know about?

PG: Robin Trower, Frank Marino, and Pat Travers were all big influences on me. I think everyone should check them out. I also really like Kid Andersen. He’s a new blues player, but he plays like the old cats.

Finally, Paul, any last words for the kids?

PG: Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal! And if you play guitar, make sure to check out my online Rock Guitar School at Artistworks.