SIxTY SECONDS WITH...
...Paul Gilbert, for a track-by-track rundown on the new Mr Big album, Defying Gravity.
Open Your Eyes
GT: This big riffer features a very rich and warm distorted guitar. You know when to use space to make an arrangement sound bigger. But few bands have the chops to throw in fills that almost defy belief. Do the flashy ideas come during the riff making process or afterwards?
PG: I used a Marshall 1959SLP for the whole record. It’s a vintage style head with no master volume. I used the second channel, which is a little warmer than the first one. I had the volume around 3, which is really loud, but still clean. So most of the distortion came from pedals. I had a TC Electronic MojoMojo on most of the time, to give me my basic overdrive sound. For Open Your Eyes, I also used a Catalinbread Karma Suture… the germanium one. It’s a purplish pinkish colour. It responds really well when I pick single notes hard. It adds kind of a FWONK to the attack. For flashy stuff, I usually have some new things that I’m working on, and if I see a spot where they’ll work in the song, I’ll see if I can fit something in. The quick triplet line in Open Your Eyes, came from some jazzy stuff that I was working on to play over the V chord in a blues. In this case, I used it over the I.
GT: Why choose this song over the others to represent the whole album? There’s a lovely blend of flavours here; the staccatto F# ‘string quartet on one guitar’ intro, the big syncopated hits, the pounding rock 8ths, Beatles-y Mixolydian ‘Indian’ aspects with the vocal-guitar unison lines, the uplifting chord changes of D-E-F# that end the chorus. How did this song come about?
PG: It just felt the most like an album title. And it works well with visual ideas that we could use for the cover. We’ve been tuning down a half-step for the last few albums and tours, so I’m actually playing the song in G. That allows me to make the open-string drone. I’m not an expert on Indian music, but like any Beatles fan, I’ve heard the Indian style melodies on Within You, Without You, and Mixolydian melodies like Tomorrow Never Knows, and that instrumental line in Strawberry Fields. I had a really good curry one night when I was staying in LA to write with Billy and Pat, and the next morning, I came up with that odd-time melody. I sent the melody to Eric, and he wrote the whole song around it. It’s the first song that we recorded for the album, and I had a great time with all the Mixolydian soloing. There are lots of holes to fill!
Everybody Needs A Little Trouble
GT: This has a great swing 12/8 feel with thick riffing, pounding toms and a great blues-meets-shred solo. How much is improvised and how much is predetermined?
PG: This was the last song that we recorded, and we were up against the clock. I think the deadline worked in our favour, in that we had to rely on what came naturally to us. The solo was definitely improvised, but it helped that I’ve been working on my blues changes so much lately. I love playing shuffles, although I’m still easily confused by the language of time signatures. I usually just think of song references. Message Of Love by The Pretenders, Love Me Two Times by The Doors, School’s Out by Alice Cooper, even a metal song like Strong Arm Of The Law… Those are how I think of medium-tempo shuffles.
Damn I’m In Love Again
GT: The album’s first acoustic song with lots of upbeat strumming. The song’s in B; did you do any tuning changes or use a capo?
PG: I definitely played it in B. But I can’t remember if I tuned down to Bb.
Either way, yes, I did some tuning changes to get more jangle out of the chords. The first string is up a whole step (which gives me the 5th interval in relation to the key.) And I tuned the sixth string down a 4th (which gives me the root of the key.) I let those ring (plus the second string, which is also the root.) And then just move power chords around in between. The strings on acoustic are much thicker than I use on electric, and I quickly discovered that I didn’t have calluses for playing continuous power chords. So half-way through the session, I tuned the fourth string up a whole step. That way, I could use a different fingering to play the chord, and not destroy the remaining skin on my third finger.
Mean To Me
GT: This might be the album’s most intriguing riff, being so precise and fast with its double-time feel. It sounds double-tracked too. What’s
Cm-Bb-Ab going on with this progression? Also, explain how you got to the four-bar trade-offs with Billy Sheehan before you fly off for the full solo with screaming bends. It almost sounds that you used a in-tempo delay (like Albert Lee or Nuno Bettencourt) for your lines?
PG: That’s a single guitar track, but Billy is playing some ferocious bass along with me, so that certainly makes it sound bigger. The inspiration for the riff itself came from Racer X and... Christina Aguilera. Christina has that song Genie In A Bottle. The drums are programmed, but they remind me of something that Scott Travis might have played when we were in Racer X together. Christina’s production softens the texture of the bass drums to fit with the pop tune, but compositionally, it’s quite… metal! I took that general groove, changed it around, and made it into a guitar part, with the low-string acting as the bass drums, chords adding snare-like stabs, and the open-string pull-offs acting like quick hi-hat moves. Also my chord changes are more typically rock… similar to a song like 25 or 6 to 4, or Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You. I did start the solo off using a delay pedal. The first time I heard the effect was on a Gamma song called Razor King. Later, I heard Pat Thrall, Pat Travers, Eddie Van Halen, and Yngwie use it. There’s some old Pink Floyd that has it too. And The Edge from U2. Another would be Alex Lifeson on Kid Gloves. And of course, my own tune The Echo Song, on my first instrumental record. It’s a good effect! The one trick that I did with this tune, was I turned the volume control on my guitar down to about 3 to clean up the sound. The tempo was so fast, that I had to make the notes as short
and tight as possible. If I had too much distortion, the harmonics would bleed over the edge of the note. So I cleaned up my sound to make the notes small enough to fit.
Nothing Bad (Bout Feeling Good)
GT: Your 12-string acoustic sounds great on this; standard tuning? Also, there’s a lovely 80s vibe here and the changes are great. As a band that first found fame in the 80s, are there typically 80s musical aspects that you embrace or avoid?
PG: It’s standard tuning, but everything down a half step. I did an overdub with harmonics, and I think I tuned a string differently in order to get the right notes, but I can’t remember which one. My vocabulary of chord changes really comes from 60s and 70s pop and rock. I grew up listening to The Beatles, so their songs really formed my sense of harmony. Later on, listening to 70s pop on the radio, I heard a lot of Elton John, ELO, Queen, Todd Rundgren, The Carpenters, and Badfinger. I also loved more blues-based 70s rock like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Robin Trower. Van Halen was a huge influence as well. In the late 80s when Mr Big came out, arena rock had already become a refined art form. The “Hey Hey Hey” chant from Van Halen’s Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love, was showing up in songs from many bands, as well as lots of sing-along “Whoa Oh” choruses. We had some of that in our song Addicted To That Rush. But the shorter answer is that we really don’t plan out our songs, or have particular rules or songwriting guidelines. We just try to let each song be itself, and see what happens. The closest thing to a songwriting rule that I try to follow is… “Write more fast songs.” Those are usually better live.
Forever And Back
GT: There’s a big Led Zeppelin vibe on this whole album as well as Who type references as here. How important are the big classic rock bands to you? Your solo is really melodic with a few speed bursts too; how do you go about making a really melodic solo?
PG: Sixties and 70s rock is always in me. The Lemon Twigs are my favourite new band… because they sound like they are from the 60s. I wish I had more favourite new bands, but it’s hard to discover new music, because I don’t know how to listen to music any more. There are too many options with computers, and iTunes has frustrated me so much that I refuse to turn it on ever again. In the end, I just listen to myself play guitar. The E chord that I learned when I was 11… still works! Sometimes I’ll listen to music on YouTube, but when it comes to collecting music like I did in the vinyl days, I haven’t found a satisfying replacement. As Jimi Hendrix says in Red House… “That’s all right. I’ve still got my guitar!” Speaking of which, I’m glad you dig the solo. Certainly it helps to having singing in mind when making melodies. I really wanted to be a singer before I wanted to be a guitar player. But my voice didn’t sound the way I hoped, and my guitar playing always seemed to move forward as a good rate, so I kept at it. I figure out lots of vocal melodies on my guitar these days, and it helps me to play more melodically. To give good expression to a melody, you often need techniques that you won’t find by practicing scales up and down. So I go straight to the source. Vocals. The most recent song I figured out was Save The Best For Last by Vanessa Williams. Awesome melody! And it taught me some great new fingerings.
She’s All Coming Back To Me Now
GT: This is almost a song of two halves; for the intro and verse, the octave rhythm and chord changes evoke grunge bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden. But the upbeat chorus is more 60s with the rotary guitars, descending bassline and chord inversions. What was the process to writing this?
PG: This is one of Eric’s tunes, so I’m not sure how he put it together. But I really had fun playing it. I didn’t pay close attention to the popular rock bands in the 90s. But I was producing a band called The Szuters, and I think they snuck a lot of those “modern” sounds into my ears. If you get a chance, check out their song You’re The One. I think it was written about my ex-wife and me, when we were getting a divorce. It’s an emotional song for me to listen to, and I think that’s my piano on the recording. And great chords and melodies.
GT: When a riff song is as strong as this, is it you or Billy that tends to fuel it to completion? And how important is tempo to creating the best results? When the guitar bursts come in and the blazing solo, it really perks the ears up!
PG: I wrote this one. I’ve found myself using a simple, but effective way of writing riffs lately. That is, to repeat the first note or chord several times, before moving anywhere else. I do something similar on Open Your Eyes. And on my last solo album, on Everybody Use Your Goddamn Turn Signal. I was using the riff from Humble Pie’s Stone Cold Fever, as my soundcheck song on my last tour. So that may have planted a seed in my mind. And a song like Communication Breakdown is another great example. Tempo is something that I just choose by feel. I sometimes have students who are trying to get their licks to be faster, and they will tell me about the tempos that they are working on, and how they wish they could make the tempos faster. It makes me think of pants. If you are making pants, you shouldn’t really be trying to make the BIGGEST pants you can. You should be trying to make pants that FIT. I think about tempos the same way. They just have to fit the music.
Nothing At All
GT: Another great rock pounder with syncopated hits and a dash of funk! How much time is spent getting the unisons together with the rhythm section? There’s a great Univibe tone here; what did you use? With many of the songs on Defying Gravity it sounds like a lot of guitars were recorded. When do you know enough is enough? Is it ever the case of stereo thickness (lots of guitars) versus clarity of articulation (fewer guitars)?
PG: This is one of Eric’s songs. Eric writes with acoustic guitar, and he’s got a nice, loose groove with it. I tried to translate it to an overdriven electric guitar sound. I don’t remember how many double tracks I did, but it was fun to make the chorus sound so monumentally big. It reminds me a bit of Alex Lifeson’s layered chords. I try to use chord voicings with mostly roots and 5ths. Sometimes I can sneak in a 3rd or a sus2, but in general, it sounds better to use simpler chords when I use distortion. I used a Catalinbread Callisto chorus on this one. I also had a Voodoo Labs Micro Vibe, that I used on Defying Gravity, and a Supro Tremolo pedal that I may have used here and there.
Ab GT: This closing Major song has a bluesy 12/8 vibe with a dash of Beach Boys harmony. It features a variation of the popular I-III7-IVVI-V blues progression. You’ve mentioned in the past about using richer chords in your compositions. Do you think rock guitarists typically care more about riffs and solos than about the quality of chords they use? If so, what would you propose to further their playing vocabulary?
PG: Thanks for noticing my chords. I love the 60s and 70s pop hits that were on the radio when I was a kid. And many of those were obviously written by keyboard players. The piano is a friendlier instrument for chords than guitar. But I don’t want to limit my songwriting possibilities just because I happen to be a guitar player. So I spent a lot of time working out ‘campfire’ versions of all those songs. I wanted to have a working vocabulary of the chords that piano players use, so I could write in that style, if the inspiration hit me. I still do this now. When I heard that new Lemon Twigs song, I Wanna Prove to You, I had to grab my guitar and figure out what was going on. The voicings that the piano player is using are a pain on the guitar, but I could find something close, and it gave me a new sound to work with. As to what rock guitarists care about? That is the key to everything. We listen to the music that we care about. And if we love it enough, and keep working on it, it will become a fluent language. That is, until the Lemon Twigs write a new song, and then I’ll have more chords to learn. It never ends. Thank goodness!
IF YOU ARE MAKING PANTS, YOU SHOULDN’T BE TRYING TO MAKE THE ‘BIGGEST’ PANTS, BUT THE ‘BEST’ PANTS
Mr Big: Paul Gilbert (guitar), Pat Torpey (drums), Eric Martin (vocals), and Billy Sheehan (bass)