Neil Giraldo: “As much as I loved Jeff Beck, I never wanted to be him. I wanted to be Pete Townshend. I wanted to be the writer. I wanted to play chords”

Neil Giraldo
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

At the start of our interview, Neil Giraldo wants to first talk about Jeff Beck, whom he calls his “top, number one influence,” beginning with the British legend’s time in the Yardbirds. 

“Early on, I heard the way Jeff attacked the instrument – it was like a compressor,” he says. “It’s not that it was loud, but it was right there, always. There are so many beautiful things about his playing. He started out playing one way, but he evolved into a whole other type of playing. That’s such a special thing to be able to grow like that, and he did it spectacularly. He could play a symphony with one string.”

Giraldo never got a chance to meet his idol, but he segues to an amusing anecdote involving Beck. “My good friend Seymour Duncan made pickups for me, and he made pickups for Jeff Beck,” he says. “He sent me some pickups, I put them in my Strat, and I called him and said, ‘I love them.’ 

“Then Seymour called me back and said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news.’ I was like, ‘Oh, shit,’ and he went, ‘The bad news is I sent you Jeff Beck’s pickups, and he got yours.’ I said, ‘But Seymour, I love these,’ and he said, ‘The good news is he’s not giving yours back.’ I didn’t have to give his back, either. I thought that was really funny.”

Giraldo likes to tell stories, and with 40-plus years as one of rock ’n’ roll’s top guitarists, writers and producers under his belt, he’s got a bunch of them. He’s been working on his memoir, which he says will unfold in two parts.

One half will be what he describes as “the playbook” in which he’ll detail the writing and recording of all of the records he’s been involved with; the second half will be “the story,” which will undoubtedly recount his personal and professional life with his wife of 41 years, superstar singer Pat Benatar (to whom he always refers as “Patricia”). 

“For Patricia and I to have had the kind of success we’ve had, so many things had to be aligned,” he says. “It almost sits on a metaphysical place. It’s truly remarkable.” 

Patricia has different feelings about it. I think of it this way: Anything that has words like ‘Hall of Fame’ in it is an honor, and you should respect that honor

In partnership with Benatar, Giraldo has sold more than 45 million records. The duo were nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, but they didn’t make the cut the following year. Their second time, however, was the charm, and last year the two were inducted into the Hall along with Dolly Parton, Judas Priest, Eminem, Eurythmics and others. 

Summing up his reaction to the recognition, he says, “Patricia has different feelings about it. I think of it this way: Anything that has words like ‘Hall of Fame’ in it is an honor, and you should respect that honor. 

“It’s interesting, though – I heard somebody once say, ‘I finally realized that rock ’n’ roll was important when that building was built,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you are so missing the point.’ The other thing is, I felt like I cut in line. Where’s Son House? Where’s Wynonie Harris? There are so many great, brilliant artists that I could mention.”

At 67, Giraldo is at a good place in his life. In addition to writing and producing, he’s working on a screenplay, and he serves as chairman of a spirits company he founded, Steel Bending Spirits LLC, which supports the music community and up-and-coming artists. 

On the heels of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, he and Benatar will hit the road later this year as special guests on Pink’s Summer Carnival tour, during which he’ll light up stages with the devastating licks and solos that have ruled radios since the late ’70s.

Guitar-hero worship is a funny thing. Based solely on his euphoric solo on Rick Springfield’s 1981 smash Jessie’s Girl, Giraldo should qualify as one of the all-time greats, yet year after year he’s rarely mentioned – make that never – on any guitar-centric “best” lists. Asked if he ever feels under-appreciated for his six-string abilities, he takes the high road. 

“I don’t feel any of that,” he says. “I was talking to Scott Kempner from the Del-Lords and the Dictators. He’s a true brother of mine. I said to him, ‘It’s interesting. I have all these favorite players, people like Roky Erickson, but nobody pays attention to any of them.’ And Scott said to me, ‘You know, you’re in that group too.’ 

“I said, ‘Don’t start that with me.’ And he goes, ‘No, no, it’s very important to be in that group. It’s a more important, exclusive club. You should be honored to be in that thing.’ After that, I thought, ‘It’s kind of cool to be in that group. Sure, why not?’

“As much as I loved Jeff Beck, I never wanted to be him,” he continues. “I wanted to be Pete Townshend. I wanted to be the writer. I wanted to play chords. I wanted to be the leader. And [with Benatar], I found my Roger Daltrey, so this is perfect. Truthfully.”

Before you hooked up with Pat Benatar, you played with Rick Derringer. How did your time with him prepare you for what would come next? 

“I can’t even tell you how much it prepared me. Rick auditioned over 200 players. I honestly didn’t think I’d get the gig. He taught me so much. I remember the first gig: I was used to playing in front of 300 people, sometimes 25 people. Now I’m playing in front of thousands. 

“After the gig, Rick comes out and goes, ‘What the hell happened?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘You sounded terrible.’ I went, ‘Rick, I was really nervous. I swear, I promise it’ll never happen again.’ And it never happened again.”

You had to learn fast.

“It’s the cymbal at your head, like Charlie Parker. It’s the moment where you go, ‘I get it.’ What I learned from Rick was invaluable. Had I not been with him, I probably wouldn’t have been prepared for what I was going to do next.”

What was your audition for Pat like?

“It wasn’t an audition; it was a meeting. Patricia signed a record deal and started a project, but it was a massive failure. It wasn’t anything like she wanted; she was looking for something completely different. Mike Chapman, who produced Rick Derringer’s record earlier, saw me playing in the band. He was called in to produce a few songs for Patricia, but there was no band, no nothing. 

“The A&R person, Jeff Aldridge, called me and said, ‘Listen, can you please meet this person? She wants to put a band together. She needs a partner. Can you please meet her?’ I didn’t know that Jeff was going to be pitching me a girl. I went, ‘Oh, my God. How’s that going to work? This is just insane.’ 

“Then it dawned on me, and I went, ‘Pete Townshend. This is an opportunity.’ At my meeting with Patricia, I didn’t even bring a guitar. I sat at the piano, played stuff and talked to her about things.”

Musically, did she articulate what she was looking for? Did she have reference points?

“Yes. First of all, her reference is very schooled. She went to school every day, while I studied music on the streets. She liked all kinds of music. She liked Led Zeppelin. She liked the idea of powerful, guitar-driven music that she could sing over with lots of energy. But she didn’t know how to describe it to people. 

“When they heard her talk, they thought, ‘Why don’t you be more like Linda Ronstadt?’ That’s not what she wanted. She was looking for a partnership all along. She wanted to call it a band at that time, but it was already too late because it was established as a girl.”

I’ve never been a dweedler. What I would do is, I would take the last note of the vocal... I’d take whatever that powerful note was and tell a story with the melody

Within a very short time, your songs were all over the radio. Heartbreaker, Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Promises in the Dark and so many others. The solos were shreddy, but you could sing them.

“Correct. I’ve never been a dweedler. What I would do is, I would take the last note of the vocal. I’d either start on that note or start a fifth up, and I’d take whatever that powerful note was and tell a story with the melody. Then I would end the solo so that the vocal could pick up where my conversation left off. 

“Now, it’s not premeditated. I did it for [Benatar’s] Precious Time. They said, ‘What are we going to do in the solo section?’ I said, ‘Let’s just play 32 bars.’ And they go, ‘What are you going to do in 32 bars?’ I go, ‘I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.’ I would name the bars or measures, and I’d say, ‘Let’s do 16. Let’s do eight here.’ I knew how I was going to start, but in the middle, I had no idea. I just did it.

“The other thing is, I can’t play with a very distorted sound. I love articulation. I mute strings hard with my right hand, and I use very heavy strings. I really bite down. It’s all part of that Jeff Beck thing, even though he was more slinky. I take that same attack approach with the front end – heavy strings, heavy muting and articulation. If I don’t hear the articulation, I can’t play a solo cycle. I can’t connect the story.”

Even when writing and demoing a song, you wouldn’t sketch out a solo?

“I would stick to the beginning of it and the thought of where it’s going to go. I wouldn’t write a part out intentionally. The Precious Time solo was a funny one. I was having a tough time in my life. I was miserable and drank too much. I came into the studio and I had a bottle of vodka with me. 

I told the engineer, ‘Just punch me in – I’m only here for a couple takes. I’ve had a miserable night. I didn’t sleep. Hit record. I’m going to do it a couple times.’ I did it a couple of times and said, ‘That’s it. Goodbye.’ That was the solo to Precious Time.”

Just think – if you were happy that day, the solo would’ve been different.

“Correct. But the whole thing is, it was a sad song.”

A lot of people still don’t know you played the solo on Jessie’s Girl. Did that ever bother you?

“Not at all. My life was moving so fast then. I had the Number 1 record with Jessie’s Girl. I think Crimes of Passion was right up there. I was getting ready to do John Waite’s solo record. Ozzy asked me to produce his record. There were so many things going on – I didn’t even think twice about it. What bothered me was seeing David Bowie doing the solo Stevie Ray Vaughan played [on Let’s Dance], because his fingers weren’t even close. That bothered me more than Rick miming my solo.

“I’ll tell you something funny: I play with Rick on stage whenever we’re doing shows together. His guitar player would always say, 'Can you show me how to play this part?' And I’d go, 'Sure.' And as soon as I played the song, I’d always turn my back on the part. [Laughs]”

You’ve never been tied to one particular guitar. You never came out with a signature model.

“Probably because nobody asked me. If you see pictures of me from the early ’80s, I was playing Teles all the time. You can really bite down on a Tele. I have one I call my Muddy Waters Tele. It’s like an orange-red and it’s just nasty. When you play it, it’s nasty. I’ve played Stratocasters, obviously, and early on, B.C. Riches.

“When I joined Rick Derringer’s band, I had one SG and he goes, ‘That’s not going to do. You could play a B.C. Rich, but you can’t play a Mockingbird because that’s what I play.’ So I played a [B.C. Rich] Eagle. I’m playing Les Pauls now because of the heavy strings I use. The scale of the guitar is shorter. It’s easier to bend strings.” 

You and Pat are going to tour with Pink this summer. Obviously, she’s a big fan of you two. Are you familiar with her stuff?

“Sure. In fact, this is kind of funny. She had a drummer who’d been with her for a long time. I had him play on a holiday record I’m putting together. So when we saw Pink at the Rock Hall thing, I said to her, ‘Well, it’ll be nice to see… I can’t give you his name.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going to see him.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I guess there was a problem.’ I didn’t take it any further. He’s not in the band, obviously. But yes, Pink is tremendous. A tremendous, great singer.”

The Pink tour is mostly stadiums. You’re no stranger to outdoor shows. Do you ever have a hard time getting your sound right on stage?

“No, it’s not that hard. I don’t like pedals or effects. I used to use a harmonizer, early on, which was a stereo setup. I loved it because it was very clean. When I spoke to Mr. Eventide [engineer Tony Agnello], he told me the front end of that [H]949 [Harmonizer] sounded the way it did because a certain chip they used helped the front end of the sound. I liked that. Other than that, when I go out now, I have a little front-end mic pre and an amplifier and a delay. I really don’t need anything else. It’s all about playing.”

  • Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo are on tour across the U.S. this summer. See Benatar/Giraldo for dates and tickets.

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.