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You get a ton of tones on “Olympic” alone—ringing, semi-clean intro licks, crunchy Vox-style rhythms, modulated arpeggios, milkshake-thick power chords, and then the phased, slippery leads and straight-ahead arpeggiated solos. In your pre-Mr. Big days, you were using an ADA MP-1 tube rack preamp, which had something like 128 presets. How do you approach tone selection now? Do you have a standard set of, say, 10 or 15 go-to tones, or do you just dial things up from scratch with each song?
I used the same amp and just a few guitars for almost the whole record. I mostly use pedals to change sounds. I saw Frank Marino play a club show a few years ago, and he had one of best guitar sounds I’ve heard in a long time. I used to listen to Mahogany Rush Live all the time when I was a kid, and Frank was legendary for having this giant pedalboard. I still love the way pedals sound in front of an amp, so that’s what I do. Some of my new pedal discoveries on this album were two overdrives by Majik Box. One is a Venom Boost, and the other one was a prototype with no name. I used them for the whole record, so they’re going to put them together into one box and make a new signature pedal for me called the Fuzz Universe. It’s a good name, I think!
I also used a HomeBrew Electronics UFO fuzz octave pedal, a HomeBrew THC chorus, a HomeBrew CPR compressor and Detox EQ for clean stuff, a Cry Baby 535Q wah, and, of course, the Phase 90 and Airplane Flanger. And lots of Velcro to hold it all together.
The beginning of “Blue Orpheus” sounds a bit like a Brian May tribute. Did you intend it that way? Also, the main verse guitar tones seem to have more of a fusion feel than I’ve heard in your past work. What was the inspiration there?
That’s a Todd Rundgren song that was originally all vocals. I tried to stay true to Todd’s arrangement, but I used guitars instead of voices. And I’m happy anytime I can sound like Brian May. The verse was challenging for me, because I wanted to use the cleanest sound possible but still have sustain. I ended up using my HomeBrew compressor as well as a Tube-Tech compressor after the mic preamp to get enough sustain to feel good.
“Will My Screen Door Stop Neptune” begins with a badass line that sounds a little like what Ralph Macchio’s character played in the duel at the end of Crossroads. And then you rip out some jaw-dropping muted licks that sound like they might be hybrid picked. Are you using your picking-hand fingers there at all, or is it all pick?
I’m not so familiar with that movie, but I’ve heard great things about it. My inspiration for this one is kind of unusual. I wanted to write a song with my favorite tempo. What is my favorite tempo? “Neon Knights” by Black Sabbath, with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, of course! So I listened to that song and tapped away at my drum machine to get a number for the tempo. Then I played some drums at that tempo, recorded it, and switched to guitar. I jammed along and came up with that riff. Then I listened to it and realized that my riff would sound better if the drums were played in half time. So, in the end, I discarded my tempo—or at least cut it in half—but I got a good riff out of it. And hopefully the spirit of Ronnie James Dio resides in the music just a little bit.
I think the muted licks you’re talking about are probably the augmented arpeggios—and I was hoping someone would notice those. Augmented is another great chord that the Beatles and ELO used to make pop songs. I never had a good fingering for playing them quickly, but the Bach violin piece I did on this record [“Bach Partita in Dm”] inspired some new arpeggio techniques that opened a lot of doors for me, including this one. It’s all picking, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, but the position shifts and stretches are an adventure.
The twangy rhythms on “Batter Up” sound a little like Bill Kirchen or another Tele master, while the lead sounds a bit Satriani-esque. What inspired that?
I was doing a clinic in Sicily and the audience demanded an encore. I had played all the songs I had prepared, so in a desperate attempt to entertain I went back onstage and did a drum solo. Someone caught it on video and posted it on YouTube [search for “Paul Gilbert concede il bis... sulla batteria!!!”]. When I watched it, I realized that this was the best drum solo I’ve ever done. So I wanted to write a song around it—sort of my own version of “Wipe Out.” In studio, I thought it would be better to let a real drummer take the solos, and Jeff Bowders did a stunning job. When I listen to the song now, though, I almost wish that I had shortened the arrangement and left out the guitar solos. My favorite part is the twangy guitar and the drums. I’m hoping to teach my drummer how to play the guitar part, and then I can do the drum solo live. I like playing guitar, but drums are more fun than anything.
What did you use for the Leslie-flavored chord stabs in “Mantra the Lawn”?
That was a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere pedal.
What’s your favorite guitar part on the new album—and why?
I really like “Fuzz Universe.” It’s very representative of the metal side of my guitar playing, but I think the song and playing are my best yet in that style. I love so many parts in “Olympic,” too: It has arpeggio ideas that I’ve never done before over a chord progression I’ve never done before. I think “Mantra the Lawn” has some of my best phrasing and vibrato, and “Will My Screen Door Stop Neptune” has a super-fast solo over chord changes where I nailed it in the first take. It’s actually the solo from the demo. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to play it that well again. I haven’t tried because I never did a second take!