A conversation with Paul Gilbert

by Clay Howard

As a 40-year old male raised in North Carolina, my listening habits stand squarely in the music that was popular by Clay Howard when I was a kid — rock music. My tender young age also makes me more open to new music released by artists who were popular when I was younger, unlike radio, which virtually ignores artists over the age of 35 unless they are wearing cowboy hats, but that is a different story….

This open-minded approach to music leads me to numerous discoveries that are virtually ignored by a new generation. (Granted, I cannot name three top-10 singles today) One such discovery is the album United States by Paul Gilbert and Freddie Nelson. For those of you old enough to remember, Paul Gilbert was the lead guitarist for the influential metal band Racer X. He was also guitarist for a band that produced the number one single “To Be With You” — Mr. Big. Since that huge hit in 1991, Paul has released numerous albums, including two well–received guitar instrumental albums over the past three years. I had the privilege of discussing these releases and the new album, United States, with Paul recently. What follows are excerpts of that highly enjoyable conversation.

CH: Hey Paul. I wanted to talk to you about your new CD, United States, that came out a month or so back.

PG: Fantastic. CH: It is actually. A great rock album. Tight production, great songwriting with powerful guitars and vocals. Freddie Nelson, what a singer. PG: He’s awesome. His big secret is that he didn’t know he was a singer for a long time. He thought he was a guitar player, and he is, a very good one. I think what happened is he got frustrated with the singers in his own band and thought, “I’ll try this,” and it turned out good.

CH: It turned out great. How did it come about, the pairing of him and you?

PG: Over the years, in the solo period of my career, I have always thought about finding someone else to sing besides me. I thought about maybe bringing in someone from the same era as when I was in a big band, or maybe holding auditions. But when you collaborate you need to have some kind of connection. We grew up in the same little place, and I had heard of Freddie for years, because he was playing in other bands with guys I know. But I left that town when I was seventeen, so I just missed him. Actually I am still trying to figure out if I met him or not back then.

CH: So why now? What made now the time to do a record with Freddie?

PG: Well I had just done a couple of instrumental records. Those actually did great for me. Especially in America and Europe. When I did my first instrumental record, Get Out of My Yard, Joe Satriani took notice and asked me to do the G3 tour with him, and my career kind of took off. I was kind of joking that when I quit singing, my career took off…. But I still love music with vocals, so when I started thinking about going back to that, I thought that I had reached a new level with guitar and that if I went back to how I always do it — which is to do everything, I would not be able to keep that quality up. I thought it was the perfect time to find a collaborator, and Freddie was the perfect collaborator, co-producer, picking out photos for the album cover — everything. CH: The songwriting on the record, is that pretty much split equally?

PG: It is actually. Even though I ended up pretty much playing the guitars on the record, Freddie actually wrote a lot of the riffs. So his guitar playing presence is still felt.

CH: As far as influences on this record go, I hear a lot of ELO, Queen, all the great melodic stuff with huge hooks. PG: Thank you, that is what we like. You know, even though I wanted to primarily work with Freddie as a singer, he really encouraged me to sing a lot of the harmonies. I thought since he was such a strong singer that he should at least do half of them, but he insisted that I do it to add a different character, a different variety and texture between the voices. So all the harmonies are me, all the lead vocals are him — it’s a nice contrast. CH: You toured Japan already for this record….

PG: Yeah. That was a lot of fun. Japan really likes vocals. I have always had a lot of success in Japan, both with Mr. Big and with my own stuff. But as soon as I started doing my instrumental stuff, like I said, my career in Europe and America really went up, but in Japan it just stayed the same. Finally when I did this record with Freddie, it went up again, so that was good.

CH: I know you have the Mr. Big reunion tour in Japan, but do you have any plans to tour the United States record here in the States? PG: I’d love to…. I kind of leave that up to my manager, I just open my schedule and say here is when I am available…. Hopefully with Freddie, we can get some people out to rock.

CH: Well, based on the strength of the recording, that should not be a problem.

Thanks for chatting with me. PG: Thank you.

United States by Paul Gilbert and Freddie Nelson is out now on Mascot records on CD and is available digitally on iTunes. Be sure to visit Paul’s website at