Paul Gilbert Discusses Mr. Big's New Album and His Improving Improvisational Skills

(Image credit: William Hames)

The call went out: It was time for a new Mr. Big album.

And with that, original members Eric Martin (vocals), Paul Gilbert (guitars), Billy Sheehan (bass) and Pat Torpey (drums)—along with Matt Starr (drums)—convened in a Los Angeles recording studio. In a matter of six days, the band’s ninth original studio album, Defying Gravity. was born.

Produced by Kevin Elson, who’s worked with Mr. Big on their classic albums from the Eighties and Nineties, Defying Gravity features inspired songwriting, virtuostic musicianship and most importantly, tasty fretwork. In fact, most of Gilbert’s solos were tracked live with the band, showcasing the development of his improvisational skills in both melodic and face-melting ferocity.

I recently spoke with Gilbert about Defying Gravity (which will be released July 7), gear and the upcoming G4 Experience.

Where did the idea for Defying Gravity begin?
We really wanted to do a new album and tour, and it was just a matter of coordinating our schedules. Back in the early days, Mr. Big was the only thing any of us did. Now that we all have different solo projects and bands that we play in, it’s a bit trickier to coordinate. We wound up having six golden days where everyone was free.

On the last album [The Stories We Could Tell], we did a lot overdubs and later realized the best way for us to work is live in the studio. There was a good energy and it was quick enough where we didn’t overthink things. It put us in a good state of mind and we had such an enjoyable time.

Did your approach to guitar change much for this album?
I’ve been working on my improvisational skills, and I think that’s something that’s starting to show on this record. When you record an album in six days, you don’t have time to work out a lot of stuff. So a lot of the solos were improvised. But it’s not necessarily about flashy licks. It’s also about harmonically locking in and playing the right note at the right time. I think I was able to do that more than ever before.

What was it like working with Kevin Elson again?
It was fantastic. We had so many good memories of working with him on those four classic albums. Kevin has a great ear and is very mellow, but he’s also very supportive. Because we worked so quickly, a lot of times we didn’t even have time for demos. So when you brought a song to the band you had to do a buskers version for the first time in front of everyone. It can be scary because you’re thinking, “What are they going to think?” But at the end, everyone said let’s work on it. So it went from that raw, one-man band version to a complete track within a few hours.

Let’s discuss a few tracks from Defying Gravity, beginning with “1992."
That was one of my songs that started out as a title. I had that phrase and was obviously thinking of the time in our history when we had the number-1 single with “To Be with You” and took off internationally. It was an amazing time and the song grew out of that seed of the title. For the music, I realized that on the last tour I did, my sound check song was a Humble Pie song called “Stone Cold Fever." The riff starts with an E chord over and over, and whenever I checked my amp, that was my riff.

Philosophically, I think riffs that start with E repeating itself are almost guaranteed to be great [laughs]. I have two riffs that are different but have the general philosophy of let’s just do a lot of E before we go anywhere else; “1992” is one of those, and “Open Your Eyes” is another one.

“Defying Gravity.”
That’s an interesting one. I think it’s a 5/4 melody. Time signatures are one of the areas of musical knowledge I’ve been working on. It’s an odd time melody I came up with, and I sent it over to Eric who really made a song out of it. It’s a great mixolydian exercise. That’s a fun sound to play with.

“Damn I’m In Love Again."
That’s a song that Billy brought in. He had been working with a bunch of songwriters and we all immediately loved it. The guitar challenge with that song was that the original demo was sung by a Swedish girl who had a really high voice. The big, jangly riff relies on the open strings, so we had to find a key we could use to make it happen.

The original demo was in E and I wanted to put it in B. I found a way to retune the guitar by tuning the first string up to an F#, (which is the fifth of B, and tuning the low E down to a B, which is the root. Then I used the other four strings in the middle to form the chords. I got that big low end and nice sparkly high end on the outer strings, and it made it playable and kept the spirit of the jangly kind of sound.

What are Mr. Big’s touring plans like?
We’re going to start a new tour of the world. We’ll start in America and do a month in the States and then it’s off to South America and Mexico. Then we’ll go to Japan and I think there’s some dates in Indonesia, China and Thailand. We’ll end the year by going to Europe.

Has your setup changed much over the years?
The biggest change is that when I was really young, I’d always try to get a hot-rodded amp and get all the distortion from the amp. More recently, I’ve been setting my amps clean and using pedals to get the distortion. On this album, I used Catalinbread Karma Suture for some Sixties fuzz sound and my TC Electronic MojoMojo for the more straight-ahead rock. I also used a Voodoo Lab Micro Vibe on “Defying Gravity.”

My basic setup is my Ibanez Fireman guitars and for pedals, the TC Electronic MojoMojo is the mainstay of my board, along with a Catalinbread Calissto Chorus. For Marshalls, I prefer the ones with as few knobs as possible. On the album, I used 1959 SLP 100-watt reissue. I like the bass channel on it. It’s still very trebly but a little bit warmer.

You’re going to be a part of Joe Satriani’s G4 Experience this summer. What can you tell me about it?
I had worked with Joe before on the G3 Tour, but this time we’re taking over the camping ground and turning it into guitar heaven. One of the things I like to do is to try to jam with everybody. It’s an event where I have my guitar tech help to get people plugged in, and once it starts it does not stop. I’ll end up jamming with 100 people in the space of 90 minutes. It’s pretty intense because everyone is bringing their best playing.

I enjoy it so much because you can always do a Q&A, but for me, the best question and answer is to communicate with music. To actually play together and listen to each other. Then after I hear everyone play, I’ll have a much better idea of what it is I should be talking about.

What satisfies you the most about Defying Gravity and this phase of Mr. Big’s career?
It worked. We got a bunch of new songs that I like, and that’s always a great vehicle to go out and tour, which is exactly what we’re going to do. I feel my improvising took a couple of steps forward with this album, and I’m also happy there aren’t many overdubs. Overall, the record is very live, with a single guitar track through most of it. I love it when that works!

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.

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James Wood

James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.