ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 19, 1992
By Steve Newton
Some recording artists come off as self-absorbed types whose only musical interest involves what they’re doing. They claim not to listen to anybody else’s tunes, lest their precious art be influenced away from its predestined place in history.
But sometimes you come across an open-minded recording artist who is, first and foremost, a fan of music. Guitarist Paul Gilbert, whose band Mr. Big recently enjoyed a stay at the top of the Billboard singles chart, is one such fellow. He loves all kinds of rock ’n’ rollers and will check them out whenever possible, even if it means scrounging rides from strangers in Vancouver clubs.
“One time I had a day off in Vancouver,” explains Gilbert, “and I found out that Pat Travers was playing at a club about an hour away. So I tried to figure out a way to get there, ’cause I didn’t have a car or anything. It was the day before our show, so I just walked down to the club where we were gonna play, sort of hoping that someone would recognize me, and finally somebody came up and said, ‘Hey Paul, we’re comin’ tomorrow, what’s happenin’?’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you guys doing? Do you like Pat Travers?’ So we ended up going down and seeing him. I got to meet him, too, which is really cool.”
Then there’s the time that Mr. Big scored the opening spot on a tour with Rush and, try as he might, Gilbert couldn’t hold back his appreciation for singer/bassist Geddy Lee.
“The very first day of the tour, I walked into the catering room where everybody was eating and I saw Geddy, who was just sitting there eatin’ some dinner, minding his own business. And before we had gotten there that day I thought to myself, ‘I’ve gotta be cool; I don’t want to bug these guys. They’re big and famous and I’m sure people are buggin’ them all the time.’ But as soon as I saw Geddy, I had to, like, run over and go, ‘Geddy, it’s so great to meet you! You’re so great!’ I mean, I completely alienated him for a month there.”
Although Gilbert might seem like the ultimate wide-eyed fawner over rock stars, he’s been attracting a lot of attention himself lately, particularly among rock guitar aficionados. When he was only 17, he moved to L.A. from Greensburgh, Pennsylvania, won the L.A. Guitar Wars, and began studying at the Guitar Institute of Technology, where such ace players as Frank Gambale were teaching.
“It was weird, though,” says Gilbert of the G.I.T. training, “because I was somewhat shy. I always felt that I wasn’t really ready to go in and play with the teachers yet, I wasn’t good enough, which was completely stupid on my part—it didn’t matter whether I was good enough, I should have gone in and just learned what I could. So I really kept to myself a lot, but the main thing I did there as far as meeting people was forming the band Racer X. It really got me off the ground.”
While with Racer X, Gilbert came up with his not-quite-patented practice of playing guitar with a Makita cordless drill, as heard on the opening number of Mr. Big’s latest album, Lean Into It.
“Actually, that started out of desperation,” chuckles Gilbert. “We were sort of a popular local L.A. band, and we’d always play the same clubs, and the same people would come to see us. So we thought, ‘Boy, we gotta do something to keep these people entertained, or they’re gonna get bored.’ So we made a specially designed drill bit that almost looks like a little propeller—it’s got three guitar picks on the end, and they’re just sort of screwed and glued on there, and you pull the trigger of the drill and the picks spin around and can play the guitar with it.
“It’s basically incredible comedy,” adds Gilbert. “And on certain nights, I’ve got it stuck in my hair. There’s some amazing technical difficulties you’d never think can occur when you play with drills.”
However, it’s the song without the drill, “To Be With You”, that’s now causing all the fuss on the charts, even though the song wasn’t initially earmarked by the band as a single.
“There was a radio station in Lincoln, Nebraska that started playing the song, completely on their own, before we decided to release it as a single,” says Gilbert. “Then we started selling a lot of records, and the station got a lot of requests for it, so we thought, ‘Well, if it works there, maybe it’ll work some other place.’ So we tried and, boy, it sure did.”
The huge success of “To Be With You” has catapulted Mr. Big into the big time, and the history of its youngest member’s all-time fave band just adds sweetness to the glory.
“I always think back,” says Gilbert, “and, to me, the ultimate situation is George Harrison. I mean, he was the youngest guy in the Beatles, and in 1964 or ’5, when they were at the peak of their career, he was 22 or something. So I’m not complainin’. Number one single at 25. I can deal with that.”