It’s been close to 30 years so my memory may not serve me correctly, but somewhere in the vicinity of the spring of 1989 I got to see and meet Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert. Why do you care? “Paul who? The Mr. Big dude? Yeah, so what?” Will you please let me finish? Thank you. So in the spring of 1989 my guitar teacher heard that Paul Gilbert was doing a guitar clinic at the now defunct Music Spectrum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Spectrum was the who’s who or what’s what of local music stores. Neal Peart got kits from this place(check some of the late 70s/early 80s Rush albums for the liner notes “thank yous” to MS.) Gilbert was touring the country doing clinics at various music stores for Ibanez, and my guitar teacher Tim Bushong had the forethought to load a few of his in-training guitar slingers into his car and drive us 50 minutes to see Gilbert do some shredding. My older brother at the time was taking lessons from Tim as well, so it turned into a big brother/little brother bonding experience.
So to give you a little history into Paul Gilbert. Gilbert was from a small suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born in 1966, and by the time he was 15 years old he’d sent a tape to Shrapnel Records owner Mike Varney about auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne. Varney was blown away by the 15 year old from Pennsylvania. Gilbert moved to Los Angeles and attended GIT(Guitar Institute of Technology) and by the time he was 19 he was an instructor there. Soon after he joined the metal band Racer X and put out some premier shred albums. But in 1989 he left Racer X and formed Mr. Big with Billy Sheehan, Eric Martin, and Pat Torpey.
I owned one Racer X cassette. Second Heat was the one Gilbert album in my collection, and to be honest it was just okay. His playing was out of this world good, but musically it just wasn’t my thing. It was too heavy for its own good, in my opinion. Most of the Shrapnel Records roster was like that. Guys that grew up on Eddie Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and most of the AOR-ready rock we hear on classic rock stations now, but in order to show off the speed and neoclassical riffs the band pumped up the metal. When I’d read that Gilbert was in a new band with David Lee Roth’s bassist Billy Sheehan I was pretty excited to hear what they would do.
So on a Thursday evening my brother and I headed to Fort Wayne with our guitar teacher, along with a couple other students, to Music Spectrum to see Paul Gilbert in the flesh and hear some virtuosic guitar playing and mentoring. We arrived and the place was packed. There wasn’t any open carpet anywhere in the place. Mulleted teens and men alike(even a few guitar-slinging chicks if I remember correctly) filled the place to its capacity. Gilbert had a stool set up in the front, along with a 4-track cassette recorder and some PA speakers. I didn’t know what to expect from the guy, really. I guessed by the looks of him he was maybe my brother’s age(he’s actually a year older than my brother, born in 1966), but I’d never seen any interviews with him. After an introduction and some energetic clapping Gilbert walked to the front with his Ibanez guitar and so began the clinic.
Now I can’t remember specifics, so I’ll hit some highlights:
Gilbert played some pretty eye-popping licks for us all to guffaw at. There was a portion of “Name That Tune” where Paul displayed his array of music history knowledge. During this part my brother yelled out and correctly guessed The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear”, to which Gilbert was impressed. Gilbert also previewed a track from the debut Mr. Big album which hadn’t been released yet. With the 4-track cassette player, he played the backing tracks to “Addicted To That Rush” and perfectly followed along with the rest of the band trapped in the confines of the multi-track recorder. I believe there was a Q&A as well, but I can’t quite recall(a lot has happened in 30 years.) It ended with everyone getting in line so they could personally meet Gilbert and get his autograph. I brought along that copy of Second Heat and Paul kindly signed it. One of Tim’s other students brought his Ibanez guitar and Gilbert signed the back of the guitar neck. I thought that was kind of ridiculous, but whatever.
I walked away from that guitar clinic a fan of not only Paul Gilbert’s guitar playing, but of Paul Gilbert the dude. He came across like someone my brother might’ve hung out with and brought over to the house to listen to tunes with. The guy was as relaxed sitting in a room playing and chatting in front of a room full of hungry wanna-be guitar heroes as he would’ve been had he been chatting in a living room with a couple friends, strumming on his six-string. There was no pretentious, “I’m better than you” attitude coming from this guy at all, yet he’d earned it by being one of the best guitarists in the world at the time.
I went on to buy that first Mr. Big album and thought it was a great mix of superior pop hooks, prodigious playing, and pristine metal-lite that could be played loudly in one’s bedroom or on a family trip in the car without any strange looks from the parental units. The guitar/bass combo of Gilbert and Sheehan was a force to be reckoned with. Pat Torpey was a great drummer in his own right, while singer Eric Martin had the perfect mix of sweet and gruff in his voice as to pull off both great pop melodies and the come hither swagger needed to be a proper late-80s rock outfit. I bought their 1991 follow up Lean Into It as well and that one topped the debut. It had the acoustic singalong “To Be With You” on it, but the highlights were “Green Tinted Sixties Mind” and the hefty “Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy(The Electric Drill Song). That album made Mr. Big a household name(sort of), and I played that album for the most of junior and senior year.
And then that was it…for me, at least.
Seattle took over and I discovered The Kinks, Procol Harum, and Brit pop. The urge to be a guitar slinger was tampered by the urge to be a songwriter. The Shrapnel Records cassettes I’d amassed were designated to an old shoe box, along with those late-80s hard rock cassettes. CDs were in and so was a new era of music for me.
But I never forgot about Paul Gilbert. Despite changing tastes over the years, I’ve always liked Gilbert and his playing. I’d look into what he was doing every once in a while, but it wasn’t until last year that I’d really starting digging into my guitar slinger past and found a treasure trove of Paul Gilbert videos on Youtube. For the past 30 years Paul Gilbert has never stopped making music or doing guitar clinics. In the many that I’ve watched, these videos show a guy that’s never stopped loving playing for people. He seems to still be that 17-year old kid from the suburbs of Pittsburgh playing UFO covers in his room, or excitedly playing his guitar with an electric drill. He still has that urge to share and show others what he’s learned. He still comes across as a dude coming by the house to listen to records and jam in the basement. I love that.
I think one of my favorite videos that I’ve discovered is of Gilbert on a Japanese game show where guitarists name a band and another guitarist has to name the guitar player in that band and then play a portion of one of their songs in that guitarist’s style. It was Paul Gilbert, Marty Friedman, and a Japanese guitar player. Gilbert pretty much ruled the game. To me it shows just how much Paul Gilbert loves music in general.
I won’t be on a buying spree for Mr. Big and Paul Gilbert albums(at least not yet.) But it’s great I can jump into the wayback machine while watching his instructional videos or live performances and be reminded once again how much I like the guy. And you should check out his most recent album, Stone Pushing Uphill Man. It’s mostly instrumental cover versions of some of his favorite songs. It’s pretty great. His cover of The Police’s “Murder By Numbers” is particularly awesome.