Interview by Mark Lacey
With a new solo instrumental album paying tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio, and Mr Big looking to play their first dates together since Pat Torpey’s death five years ago, 2023 is shaping up to be a busy year for guitar virtuoso, Paul Gilbert.
“When I heard ‘Neon Knights’, I didn’t know who it was. I just loved it and thought, man, I got to find out who this is. I never would have guessed that it was Black Sabbath because of the way Ronnie; his writing and singing style pushed the band into such a new emotional area; it sounded like a new band”.
ML: Ronnie James Dio is one of the most iconic artists in the rock and metal genre. So, it’s a pretty brave move on your part to take on his music, if you like. What was the catalyst for pulling this album together?
PG: Well, I’ve wanted to expand my abilities and expressiveness on the guitar, because as I grew up the players that I listened to, and the style that I was going after, was basically how to support a singer. So, I’m used to playing the chunky rhythm while the singer plays the melody on top. And then when it’s my turn to solo, I’m not going to do a melody. I’m going to do something crazy and energetic and try to light the room on fire with something athletic. And so, with those two styles, chunky back-up and crazy solos, I never learned to properly play a melody for decades. It started to become embarrassing.
I think that the thing that really opened the door was when I toured with Joe Satriani on the G3 tour around 2007, and seeing how Joe would basically handle the role of being the singer with his guitar and seeing how the audience responded to it. Before that, I always had this belief, like, oh, guitar shouldn’t do that. The singer is always going to be better suited to doing the melody. But when Joe did it, it worked. It was beautiful. Audience loved it. Joe sounded great. I’m watching it, digging it, too. And so, I started to reconsider my belief system, and I started to try it. On every album after that, I would try one or two more melodic things to the point when I started to realise, if I really want to learn to do this, I want to learn from the masters. And the masters are singers. Those are the people that tend to do melodies the most and the best.
So, I made a list of singers that I wanted to learn from, and the first name that I wrote down was Ronnie James Dio. I had actually already been teaching a lot of his melodies at my online school because I think not only is it good for me, but it’s good for my students. So, for example, the melody of ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’, I’d probably given that lesson 15 times. And every time that I gave the lesson, I got a little better at it, a little more confident, to the point where I started thinking, a whole album of this might really be fun, sound cool, plus, I’m just going to learn a tonne from the best guitar teacher in the world, Ronnie James Dio. That was really the main spark of it; just wanting to become fluent playing melodies on the guitar, which was not at all where I began. It’s a different goal. It’s really a new branch.
ML: Can you remember when you first encountered Ronnie James Dio’s music? A lot of the albums that you’ve taken songs from were written and recorded all around the time that you would have been a young teenager, I guess.
PG: Rainbow, like, the early stuff wasn’t really on the radio, so I didn’t know about that. But when ‘Heaven & Hell’ record came out, ‘Neon Knights’ was on the radio and I heard that, and I knew about Black Sabbath, but of course I was used to the voice of Ozzy. So, when I heard ‘Neon Knights’, I didn’t know who it was. I just loved it and I thought, man, I got to find out who this is. So, somehow, I tracked down the record and I was surprised, because to me, I never would have guessed that it was Black Sabbath because the way Ronnie; his writing style and his singing style pushed the band into such a new emotional area; it sounded like a new band. Anyway, that was an important record for me. I just listened to it a lot, loved it, learned a lot of the songs on guitar. Of course, I couldn’t sing this stuff, so I was trying to find a singer who could sing that high, but I did. I was in a band, we used to play ‘Heaven & Hell’ and ‘Children of the Sea’ and a lot of those songs.
And then later on I joined a band that had a B3 keyboard player and we used to do ‘Kill The King’ from the on-stage record, the live version. And then I started getting the Rainbow stuff. Every time you join a band, that’s when you hear the songs that aren’t on the radio because you go over to the keyboard player’s house and you’d be like, oh, check out the ‘Rainbow Rising’ album. That that was sort of like … we didn’t have Spotify back then. I didn’t have enough money to buy every record that I wanted. So that was one of the best things about joining a band is you get to sort of dive into the record collection of everybody who’s in the band. So ‘Rainbow Rising’ blew me away. I love that record. And of course, a couple of years after that, the Dio record came out and ‘Stand Up and Shout’. When that came on, it just blew me away. It was so exciting.
ML: Do you consider this to be one of your solo records or do you view this more as a kind of a tribute album to Ronnie James Dio?
I don’t know if I care. Well, the one thing that it makes me think of is when I titled it, I titled it ‘The Dio album’, which sort of infers that this is the only one. And I think more accurately, I probably should have called it ‘A Dio album’ to leave room because I think other people should be allowed to do one too. Who am I to say, oh, this is ‘the Dio album’. I would love to hear Andy Timmons to do his take on it, or Joe Satriani …. or anybody else …. the field is open. I want to extend a hand of welcome to anybody else who wants to do a Dio album, and I’ll change my title to ‘A Dio Album’ instead.
ML: Are you teasing us there with a follow up then? This one covers the period from 1975 to 1984, and of course, Ronnie James Dio was recording right up until the year before his death in 2010. He put out a great album with Heaven & Hell in 2009.
PG: Well, I can’t help but be attached to my own nostalgia, and I think the music that anybody hears when they’re a teenager holds a special place with you … just depending on what your generation is, and what you grew up listening to. That’s always going to have a little more importance. It’s a really subjective thing, you know, but I’m aware of that. So, I’m always going to gravitate towards the stuff that I heard when I was twelve or the albums that I was into when I was sixteen. So, it’s going to be harder for me to pay close attention to the stuff that came later just because of that.
ML: How much did Richie Blackmore, Tony Iommi and Vivian Campbell, the three guitar players who worked closest with Ronnie, influence you as a young player?
PG: All of them, a lot. Initially Tony Iommi, mainly because his guitar parts were a little more accessible. To me the Blackmore stuff was harder for me to play. It was more bluesy. Like, if you hear a Deep Purple song like ‘Lazy’, that’s fairly sophisticated. That’s sophisticated blues playing. And that was way above my skill set as a twelve-year-old. But as a twelve-year-old, I could get my hands around ‘Iron Man’. I knew a power cord and I could work out what the notes were. So, the Black Sabbath stuff was my first physical connection of those three players. And even the solos, like that little riff at the end of ‘Sweet Leaf’, the looping riff, that was a really important solo for me to learn. And even a lot of my more complex stuff now still has ‘Sweet Leaf’ at the core of it. So much of my technique was built on those Tony Iommi solos that I learned when I was twelve.
Now, later on, I did finally have enough sophistication in my technique and my ears where I could start to connect to some of the Blackmore stuff. And of course, the Vivian Campbell stuff came out later, and by the time that came out, I was probably sixteen or seventeen, so I had a bit more facility, and my ear was better. Now, having said that, there’s still Vivian Campbell stuff that if I had to play it the way he does, I can’t. I don’t have that. I didn’t develop my skill, and my technique in that direction. He’s got this Gary Moore lick. It’s like a major 7th Arpeggio. Both him and Gary Moore can do that blindingly fast. I can’t do that that way. I had to work out a different way of fingering. I can get the notes, but it’s not the same. It’s interesting to have those kinds of problems to solve because I think every guitar player that plays fast, kind of finds their own path to doing it, and I did the best I could.
ML: Looking back into your history, before you did Racer X, you famously wrote to Mike Varney at Shrapnel Records and asked about playing with Ozzy. Is that right? That would have been around the time Ozzy had left Black Sabbath, with Ronnie replacing him.
PG: Well, that was after Randy Rhodes passed away. I was a huge Randy Rhodes fan. I was already playing a lot of those riffs in my band, and I was fifteen years old, and I still have recordings of myself at that time. My abilities were narrow, but within that narrow range, I really had a lot of authority. I couldn’t play jazz or blues or anything, but in this narrow range, I had something to say, and I was aware of that.
When Randy passed away, I was like, you know what? In terms of playing, I could probably cover that stuff or a lot of it, and wouldn’t it be amazing if I could fill his shoes? But I’m fifteen years old, living in rural Pennsylvania, no connections in the business at all. And I thought, it’s really unlikely, this is going to happen, but if I don’t try, I’m always going to regret it. So, I thought, okay, well, what can I do? I had a subscription to Guitar Player magazine, and Mike Varney had done an article where he said that he promised to respond to anyone who sent him a recording of their playing. And I thought, well, Mike lives in California. Maybe he knows everybody. He’s got a record label. I had no concept of the difference between an indie label and a major label. So, to me it was just the only thing I could think of. It was just a desperate move.
And so, I made a cassette of my playing, sent it to Mike in the post, it took three days to get there. Mike called me up immediately, which was extremely exciting to me, and I was just thrilled beyond measure that a person from California was calling me up, giving me a positive response to my playing. And Mike was serious about it. He was like, hey, I’ve got connections. But he said, let me ask you some questions first. And he’s like, what do you look like? Because that was a consideration. And I said, yeah, I’ve got long hair, I’m skinny and tall. And Mike’s like, OK, cool. He said, well, are you addicted to drugs or do you drink a lot? And I’m like, no, I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. And Mike’s, OK, well, what kind of gear do you have? I got a Marshall half stack and flying V. And Mike’s like, okay, well, everything sounds pretty cool. By the way, how old are you? And I said, oh, fifteen. And Mike’s like, Ozzy’s not going to want to have a fifteen-year-old in the band. But then Mike said, well, I’ll tell you what, I am interested in working with you. So put a band together, send me some recordings, and I’ll put you on my label. That wasn’t what I intended, but it was something I was still incredibly excited about. And that happened. That was Racer X.
ML: Life could have taken a different path if you were older, and had joined Ozzy’s band at that time. You’ve been recognised amongst your musician peers, and worldwide audiences for your technical playing style and the creative voice of your instrument. Much better than being labelled as the next wingman in Ozzy’s band surely?
PG: When I look at the players that played with Ozzy or played with Dio, I think from a technical standpoint, I could have done a perfectly good job of covering any of the music. I think where I would have fallen short is with the writing. I don’t think I had the abilities as a writer that those other players did. Either that or I think my writing style wouldn’t have gone in the right direction. Now, maybe if I had been able to collaborate, maybe they would have steered me in the right direction, but left to my own devices, I don’t think I was writing what would have been right for that. So, for the good of the music, I’m glad they didn’t pick me.
ML: People have often described you as one of the best shredders of all time on the guitar. How do you feel about that description, as obviously there is so much more to your playing than just the pure speed?
PG: Well, what a great problem. To be able to live my dream as being a guitar player, anything else is just a detail. But the fast part of it? I think when I look at the fast guitar players everybody kind of has their own way of doing it. And that’s been I think the interesting thing to me. I think the word shred comes from division. You’re dividing time into very small pieces. You’re shredding up time, and the way that different players find the solutions to make that happen …. I don’t think anybody does it the same way. And so, to me it’s not necessarily about just how fast you go, but it’s how you solve that problem. How do you still retain clarity? Or how do you make note choices that you like? Or maybe more importantly, how do you create a smoothness and a relaxed physical approach where it doesn’t feel nervous or uncomfortable? That, to me, was like a great discovery about a player like Van Halen. He would make compromises in note choice in order to improve the performance. He’d play the same frets across the fretboard, where if you analyse, you go, oh, maybe that’s a wrong note or that’s a wrong note, but it’s fast enough where those specific pitches really goes by so quick, the pitch itself doesn’t even register. But the flow and the physical ease, and his ability to be relaxed as he plays it, that’s the beautiful part. That’s what I like and what I hope I can draw out of myself. And where if I see somebody who’s stiff and everything’s correct but it doesn’t feel relaxed, that’s what I try to steer away from. I want to keep that relaxed feel and have it be something that’s as easy to do for the player as playing just a three chord riff. And that’s the secret. Everybody finds their way to do that in a different way.
ML: You come from a handful of mainstream rock bands that have had a UK number one, obviously, with Mr Big and ‘To Be With You’, but that song is quite different in feel to much of the rest of the songs on that amazing album ‘Lean into it’. How has the legacy and success of that song been a help or hindrance to you as a musician?
PG: 100% help. I wish we had more ‘To be with you’s. That’s one of my favourites. As Mr Big evolved, and my initial vision of the band, I was excited to play with Billy. I thought we’d be spending the whole time doing unison, two handed stuff like we did with ‘Addicted to that Rush’. That was where I expected the band to go. The thing that was a really nice surprise was that everybody was a pretty good singer. I knew Eric was a good singer, but the rest of us could start doing harmonies and have that really be a unique sound of the band, and having the harmonies where even if we only had an acoustic guitar, we could have this wall of vocals as part of the sound. That to me, became one of the most rewarding things about Mr Big. Whether it was an acoustic song or an electric song, a song like ‘Green-Tinted Sixties Mind’ is still a loud electric song, but we’ve got these soaring harmonies on the top. Singing with other human beings is one of the most rewarding experiences. That’s a really primal way of connecting. And sometimes the primitive is the most powerful.
ML: When Mr Big played your last London show in 2017, Pat Torpey was still able to come out and sing on stage, although he didn’t have the strength to come out and play the drums. His vocal contribution was a huge part of your sound.
PG: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I’m so happy to have Nick Di’Virgilio doing our tour this time. He’s a lead singer and besides being able to do a great job with the drums, that’s really important part of the sound of Mr Big.
ML: Before we talk about Mr Big, do you expect to be able to play any live shows that allow you to perform the new Dio album?
PG: I don’t know if I’ll have time, because I really want to steer my effort into preparing for the Mr Big tour. Billy always does a bass solo and to me, it’s like eighties style. It’s like just shredding, going crazy, like Van Halen’s Eruption on bass. And I’ve really steered away from that in the last couple of decades. I’ve wanted to play with more structure, more blues, more aiming towards a song. And I don’t really focus my time and energy towards just free form going crazy. But I thought, for this tour I’m going to try it! I’m going to go back to 1983 and remember Randy Rhodes, Van Halen, Gary Moore, Akira Takasaki, all my heroes, they had their unaccompanied, just going crazy, no rules guitar solos. And I thought that would be an interesting assignment to give myself, see if I can conjure one of those again. But it’s not something I’m going to be able to do quickly. I want to like it. If I just go out and go like, OK, I’m just going to play fast mindlessly, I could. But that was the thing. Although it was full of fireworks, there were still melodies in there and still these planned out moments. So that’s the thing. That’s a little project that I want to put some time into.
ML: You’ve already announced your first run of dates with Mr Big for July and August throughout Asia, and of course Mr Big has got a great affiliation with Japan in particular. You’ve put out lots of live recordings from there; the ‘Raw like Sushi’ albums, ‘Live in Budokan’ etc, so you must be looking forward to going back to Asia and playing those dates?
PG: Well, my memories of Japan, they’re almost unbelievable. It’s probably good from a mental health that that didn’t happen everywhere because it was unusual, like not being able to walk outside of your hotel because of being surrounded by fans. That little taste of, like, Beatlemania. In a way it was a dream come true. In another way it was just really an unusual way to live. I remember we would do those tours and we’d come back to the States and be normal people. Nobody’s given us any special treatment. If you go to the NAMM show, people know who you are. But besides that, I had no problem going to the grocery store unnoticed. But that was an interesting experience. I guess the last time we toured there one thing I remember that really surprised me. I go on stage and I got the sense that people in the audience were looking at my clothes. And that was so unusual because usually when I play, everybody’s looking at my fingers. I’ve become accustomed to that. And instead I went to Japan and people are like, oh, what kind of outfit is he wearing. And I’m like, man, I should have put more thought into it. This time I got to make sure I’m wearing something cool, because it was almost embarrassing.
ML: Are you expecting to record some new Mr Big songs before or around this tour? This might be an opportunity to put out some new music and celebrate the end of an amazing era.
PG: We’ve got a block of time, because we’ll tour for about a month and then we’re going to take a break from touring until 2024. We haven’t made any definite plans yet, nothing’s booked, but with that block of time, I like that idea. I think we’re going to take it one step at a time and do the tour, and then at that point, we’ll sort of go like, okay, what are we going to do? Should we get in the studio? I think it’s likely.
ML: When you get together to write a new Mr Big album, do you think you’ll look to replicate your classic sound or will you experiment? Obviously, you’ll have a different drummer on this album so it’ll be a different experience.
PG: When I think about Mr Big, I want to write songs for Eric. Regardless of all the stuff that Billy and I do, I think it’s a band, it’s a vocal band. To me, the primary thing is, what songs are right for Eric to sing. That could go in different directions. But to me, if it works with Eric’s voice, it’s a Mr Big song, and then whatever Billy and I play, we’ll push it further into something that has the Mr Big flavour. It’s like, is this something that Eric’s going to be comfortable with, that’s going to suit the tone and the style that he has? And I love his voice. To me, that’s a challenge that I always like.
ML: What plans do you have for the launch of this album? Do you still celebrate the launch of every new album or would just be another day of the week for you?
PG: I’ve been releasing singles and the obvious singles are like the ones that people know the best. The first single released, ‘Holy Diver’, is probably the most popular Dio song. But I must admit, I’m excited about the release of the album because I think some of my best performances were the lesser known songs. I’m really proud of how ‘Kill the king’ turned out. I think that was one of my most blazing guitar solos. I was able to replicate the B3 parts by using guitar. I just love the way that turned out. I did the live version and so I’m really excited to get some feedback on that. Not everybody knows that song, but I think people who do are going to really dig it. Or a song like ‘Country Girl’ or ‘Lady Evil’, just the deep album cuts on the Heaven & Hell record. And those two, to me, both turned out really cool. And also ‘Last In Line’. I think that was one where my ability to connect to Dio’s vocal part; I really had some magical moments, and I kind of played better than I thought I could on that one.
Check out the Gilbert’s single Holy Diver, below:
For more information about Paul Gilbert and his new album ‘The Dio Album’:
For more information about Mr Big and their 2023/24 tour dates: