Mr. Big

An interview with guitarist Paul Gilbert
by Tina Hall
February 2011

Mr. Big - photo by William Hames

Mr. Big
photo by William Hames

Mr. Big was formed in 1988 by Eric Martin on vocals, Paul Gilbert on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass, and Pat Torpey on drums. Likely best known for their hit “To Be With You,” they have continued to provide solid rock sounds with a bluesy feel to the delight of their fans for well over 20 years. After a split in 2002, and reuniting in 2009, they released their newest album What if… in 2011. Immensely popular in Japan, Thailand, and South Korea, I recently sat down with Paul Gilbert to find out about the latest happenings with the band. Paul himself has been praised for his playing style being voted number four on the “Top 10 Greatest Guitar Shredders of All Time” on a list found in Guitar One magazine and has a spot on “Guitar World’s 50 Fastest Guitarists of All Time” list as well.

Maximum Ink: Can you tell us a little about your background? What were you like as kid growing up in Illinois?
Paul Gilbert: I was born in Illinois, but my family moved to Pennsylvania when I was around two, so most of memories are from there. Basically, I grew up in a rural area, and my parents were both pretty busy, so I was often bored until I found the guitar. Then there was always something to do. My uncle would visit sometimes, and he was (and still is) a great guitar player. He showed me a few basic things that really helped me out such as muting the strings with the palm of my hand, controlling feedback, how vibrato should sound, and the idea that I should practice all the time. I always loved music and listening to my parents records as much as I could. They had a lot of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as records by The Who and The Animals, and a lot of classical music too. My dad also had several blues records, such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.

MI: Who were your earliest influences?
PG: When I started buying my own records, I bought some Osmond Brother albums because they were on TV a lot at the time. There were actually some great rock songs on those records. My uncle turned me on to Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie with Mick Ronson on guitar, Iggy and The Stooges, and the MC5. But mostly I was into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Heart, Cheap Trick, Rush, Pat Travers, Frank Marino, Robin Trower. Also, early 80s metal like Def Leppard, Saxon, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and even some punk stuff like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Of course I got into guitar players like Michael Schenker, Allan Holdsworth, Akira Takasaki, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Gary Moore. Man, I can’t believe Gary Moore just passed away. He was so great, and his early stuff was metal.

MI: When did you first know you wanted to be a musician? What do you think you’d have become if not a guitarist?
PG: I spent about an hour trying to dig a hole in my mom’s garden to look for dinosaur bones. The shoveling was too difficult for me, so I’ve been a musician ever since.  If I hadn’t become a guitarist, I’d be a drummer. I love playing the drums, though I haven’t played in a while because they’re too loud. Now I just try to play my guitar while thinking about rhythm the same way a drummer might.

MI: What was it like to work with Racer X while still rather young?
PG: Well the first band I was in I was eleven years old. So by the time I formed Racer X, I already had seven or eight years of experience playing in bands. Overall, Racer X was great. I had such a good time in those days. We rehearsed so much, and we were ridiculously tight.

MI: What was it like to form Mr. Big after leaving there?
PG: I had always been a fan of Billy Sheehan, so it was really exciting to get a chance to jam with him. I had also been listening to Eric Martin’s solo records, and I loved his voice. I didn’t know Pat, but we got along right away. I’ve learned a lot about drumming from watching him. It was amazing to start playing in arenas and have hit records as well.

MI: Did you ever think Mr. Big would still be playing to fans in 2011?
PG: I tend to look ahead about three months into the future. Any more than that, and I get overwhelmed with possibilities. I know that Mr. Big will be playing for a lot of people in the next three months, so I’m excited about that. It makes me want to build my pedal board and start practicing.

MI: What did it feel like to release the new album? Does it feel good to be getting new material out there to the fans?
PG: I’m excited to have new songs to play on our tour. I still like playing the songs from our early records, but it’s good to have some new things to throw into the mix.

MI: Why do you think the band has such appeal in Asia?
PG: I’m just happy to have success anywhere. But I don’t feel that it’s something that I can control. All I can do is play my guitar and write songs. I can’t control how people respond to the music, so I don’t worry too much about marketing or theories about why we do well in certain countries. I just want to play my guitar.

MI: How do you feel about having been voted one of the “Top 10 Greatest Shredders of All Time” and getting a spot on “Guitar World’s 50 fastest guitarists of All Time?” Were you surprised to learn of those?
PG: I’m kind of out of touch with the magazines and the polls at this point. I used to get excited about them when I was a kid, but after a while I just couldn’t keep up with it anymore. Again, I’d rather just play my guitar the way I want to play. Also, I’ve spent such a long time being a fast guitar player that I get much more excited about other areas of music. A friend of mine sent me a link to a website about the min7flat5 chord, and my song “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” was mentioned in it. I was really excited about that. I hope I don’t seem smug or jaded. I’m really thankful that people notice my playing. I just hope they notice my songs too.

MI: How do you think things have most changed since you first started working in the industry? What has been the most important thing you have learned from all of this?
PG: Well, there’s this thing called “the Internet.” I guess the main change is I’m concentrating more on touring now. And that’s great. I really like playing live. I’ve learned a lot of stuff about the entertainment business, but I don’t think it affects what I do. I mean, I know that if I worked on the visual aspect of myself it would probably make me more successful. But I’m just not interested in that. I really like the music, and so far my career has been very satisfying based on that.

MI: Who do you consider to be the best living guitarists of our time?
PG: I like Eric Johnson a lot and Robin Trower. Frank Marino is still great. I saw Van Halen in the early days. Eddie was ridiculous back then, and he’s still quite good now. I like Joe Bonamassa too.

MI: What do you like to do in your spare time?
PG: I cook a lot at home. It’s a great break from road-food. Also, I can’t wait for the new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

MI: What one question has no one ever asked you in an interview do you most wish they would?
PG: “Would you like a 90-minute massage from my friends Lena and Yulia?” No one has ever asked me this.

MI: What projects are you looking forward to working on next?
PG: I’m doing a few Beatles tribute concerts with Mike Portnoy on drums. The bass player is Kasim Sulton. I’m a huge Utopia fan, so I’m really excited to play Beatles songs together. Neal Morse is playing in the band too, and he’s awesome as well. Then of course, I’ve got a lot of Mr. Big shows this summer. It’s always mind-blowing to play those giant venues in Japan, and this time we’re going to do some big festivals in Europe as well. It should be a blast.

MI: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
PG: Well, the news about Gary Moore is fresh in my mind. Please listen to his Corridors of Power record if you want to be blown away with some great guitar playing, singing, and songs. For me, I’m just glad to have some more chances to play good notes on my guitar. Rock and Roll.

(3135) Page Views

Mr. Big Online:

Mr. Big
CD: What If... Record Label: Frontiers Records
Purchase What If... on Amazon
Download What If... on Amazon