Paul Gilbert gives us a track-by-track tour of his new Christmas album, ‘Twas

Paul Gilbert
(Image credit: The Players Club/Mascot Label Group)

The Ibanez shred king has recorded a Christmas album! And not just any Christmas album – ‘Twas is full of great chops and festive fun, with plenty of fresh ideas of how we can reinterpret material that engrained in our culture through the medium of pyrotechnic electric guitar and huge slide guitar melodies.

Here, we caught up with Paul Gilbert to talk chords, playing slide, what exactly makes a great Christmas song… and emu picking. Now come all ye faithful, grab yourself some eggnog and read on as he takes us track-by-track through ‘Twas.

  • This interview is taken from the new issue of Guitar Techniques, which also features lessons on how to play like the Chicago blues greats, as well as an in-depth Oz Noy video masterclass. It's available now from Magazines Direct.

’Twas was inspired by classic Christmas albums by the likes of Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald. What are your top Christmas albums?

“Stevie Wonder's Someday At Christmas and The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album are both records that I like a lot. When I was hunting for chords and arrangements, the Nat King Cole versions were my favourite overall. The arrangements are beautiful and sophisticated, and Nat's singing, tone, phrasing, and timing are fantastic. 

“I also discovered The Ventures' Christmas Album. Their surf guitar version of Sleigh Ride is so good. There's no way I could top that, so I took that song off my list. I also checked out Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Amy Grant, The Supremes, and Bing Crosby. It was a real style adventure!”

This album might present the most sophisticated harmonic contexts you’ve played in. What can a rock guitarist gain from being able to play these types of chords and solo over them?

“It's as much ear training as it is learning the notes on the fingerboard. The first step is just to find something that you like. Then you spend time listening, and some time seeing how things work in the musical context. My ear was opened up to jazz harmony by listening to music that was very structured.

The Melody Still Lingers On, by Chaka Khan, was something that I immediately liked. But as a rock player, just about every chord was a mystery to me. I looked up a jazz guitar teacher, and we went through it together. That was about 10 years ago, and I'm still slowly climbing the foothills of the jazz mountain. But you've got to start somewhere, and I really recommend doing it with a song that you like.”

Paul Gilbert gets into the Christmas spirit

(Image credit: Jason Quigley)

What was your setup for recording the album?

“I wanted to be loud enough to feel my guitar percussively and to get feedback-driven sustain. So I cut some holes in a Pignose amp, in order to mount it on a guitar stand. I had the speaker facing toward the floor, and I could keep it really close to my guitar, so I could get the feel of being loud, without actually being very loud. 

“The band and I tracked live in the same room, and I knew that my guitar would be leaking into the drum mics a bit, so that was a way to keep my overall volume down. At the same time, I plugged into a Marshall SV-20C. The Marshall has a 12" speaker and a much more full-range sound than the 5" speaker on the Pignose, so it was important to have the Marshall hooked up at all times. I set both amps clean, then used pedals for distortion. 

“I changed things up every song, but it was some combination of the JHS PG-14, the JHS Haunting Mids, the Supro Drive, the TC Electronic MojoMojo, and an Electro-Harmonix Hot Tubes Nano. I used quite a bit of the Fulltone Deja-Vibe, the Neo Instruments Mini Vent II Leslie simulator, the Catalinbread Callisto chorus, the Ibanez Flanger Mini, and my vintage A/DA Flanger.”

“And for delay and reverb, I used TC Electronic Alter Ego and Arena pedals. My wah-wah was a Dunlop Cry Baby Junior. I used an assortment of Ibanez guitars, and put slide magnets on all of them. I use a Jim Dunlop 318 Chromed Steel slide, as those work great sticking to a neodymium bar magnet.

“Some of my guitars have been professionally routed for the magnet, and it’s glued in, under the pickguard. But there is a simple way that works for any guitar. 

“First wrap the magnet in some gaffer tape, to give it some cushion from the metal slide hitting it.

“Then put a strip of foamy double-sided tape on the bottom of the magnet. Stick the magnet on your guitar's lower horn, and you're good to go. It can be removed with a plastic knife, and a guitar pick, without damaging the finish of your guitar, in case you want to change the location, or take it off.

“I should also mention that I used Ernie Ball RPS .008s. Having light strings allows me to get my action up high, so my slide playing gets a clear tone, and my strings are easy to grab for bending. I also use a very light pick. It's a Tortex ‘The Wedge’ .50mm. I love the tones in that pick.”

How long did you spend sourcing songs for the album?

“I started thinking about it in late spring and early summer – I really enjoyed listening to lots of different versions to find my favourite songs and arrangements. I also wrote a couple of new songs in the process.”

You wear the slide on your second finger which is less common than the third and fourth fingers...

“My second finger is the biggest. It has a longer reach than the others, so I think it's easier to keep the slide flat on the strings. I use really light gauge strings, so I have to make sure I'm not getting fret buzz by pushing down too much on the high strings. It seems easier to control the angle and the pressure with my second finger.”

 1. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

This is a rollercoaster, stylistically, dynamically and tempo-wise, including some crazy tapping...

“I reharmonised the chords first, and the rest grew out of that. I was curious to see if the band would say, 'You are crazy!' But they seemed to like it. Most of the chords and progressions that I know came from The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Queen, and all the '70s pop hits that I grew up with. 

“I've also learned a lot of these songs on piano, and translated back and forth to guitar. My piano technique is primitive, so I can't play any licks. But if I know a song on guitar, I can usually play the chords on piano right away.

“An example would be Elton John's Tower Of Babel. The third chord is a Bb7/C. That's no big secret to a jazz player, but for me, growing up playing powerchords, it's fun to get some fluency with ‘grown up’ chords like that.”

Most of the chords and progressions that I know came from The Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Elton John, Queen, and all the 70s pop hits that I grew up with

“We recorded everything live in the same room. But I wasn't well-prepared for the solo. So after getting a good overall take of the song, I asked the band to just play the section with the guitar solo a few times. That way I could have more chances, without having to repeat the whole tune.

“Then, once I got a good solo, I could edit it into the song. We did very little rehearsal for anything, so there was a fair amount of panic going on in my head during a lot of the recording.”

2. Frosty the Snowman

There is a sense that you’re embracing varying dynamics, tempos and rhythmic feels more these days. Frosty has a dark Phrygian Dominant shred intro, a sad melodic statement, a swing 7/4 re-statement and a glam-rock re-statement. How did they all come about?

“What does one do with Frosty The Snowman? How do you make it your own? I was trying a bunch of different approaches, and then I thought it would be cool to combine them, and have the song be a journey through the various styles.

“Even though the styles are quite different, our ‘keeper’ performance was done in one take. And of course, it's always fun to play some Phrygian Dominant licks and fight those invisible pirates!”

3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

This features you playing the melody with a slide and a wah pedal. What different emotional elements do you attribute to such big timbral changes?

“My goal is to have the melody in my head, and then be able to improvise choices about sound as I go. The slide magnet really helps with this, as I can get the slide on and off easily and quickly. And of course, pedals just take a stomp to turn on and off. 

“I also wired my wah-wah in a loop switcher pedal, so I can easily turn it on and off. I've always struggled with the stock bypass switch, where you have to press down hard on the front of the wah-wah pedal. That's especially difficult when sitting down. Using the loop switcher takes the fear and guesswork out of it. My solo was way too long so I edited it down a bit.”

4. The Christmas Song

Give this track is a well-known Nat King Cole/Mel Tormé classic, what inspired your approach?

“My rock instincts usually have me on ‘10’, and hitting the strings hard. Dan [Balmer, second guitarist] suggested we keep the dynamics quieter, so we'd have some room to build.

“Playing quietly can be scary for me, but the more I did it, the more I liked it. I need some combination of being loud, or being close to my amp's speaker. My Pignose contraption solved that. When I can get sustain from subtle feedback, I don't need to use as much distortion. 

“I had some kind of warbly pedal on for this for extra flavour. It was probably the Mini Vent II on the slow speed. Minor blues guitar licks are a sonic ‘leather jacket and blue jeans’, so the end is sort of me ripping off my tie and suit jacket, and saying, 'Look, I'm still a rocker!' And that works anywhere.”

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

There's a nice Immigrant Song rhythmic nod in the intro.

“Or Hold Her Tight by The Osmonds! Either way, it was really challenging to arrange Rudolph in a way where I could look forward to every section. It turned out to have a lot of parts, but I looked forward to them all. I spent a lot of time figuring out the rhythm guitar part behind the verse. 

“It's sort of reggae-funk-rock-soul. It creates a nice groove, but also leaves spaces for the melody. It's pretty embarrassing to get a note wrong in Rudolph, so I practised my landings a lot. For the quick patterns, I give credit to growing up without an iPhone, so every time I was bored, I would play guitar. 

“And having great heroes like Eddie Van Halen and my uncle Jimi. It's surprising how smoothly the tempo and rhythm changes happened. I thought we'd have to record Rudolph in sections and then edit it together. But after a little rehearsal, we started getting full takes that flowed really well. Since everyone in the band is a good reader, I made charts. I also made a demo video of me playing the arrangement, and sent it to everyone the night before.”

6. I Saw Three Ships

There’s a considerable degree of staccato slide playing here. How have you developed your slide playing as regards intonation, interval changes and note durations?

“The slide guitar challenge was to play low. I'm on the fourth and fifth strings, using 8-38 gauge strings. I have to play with a really accurate touch, in order to get low notes without fret buzz. I've also been holding the pick with two fingers and the thumb recently.

“I call it the ‘emu,’ as it looks a bit like a bird's beak. That technique helps to control the picking tone, the note length, and to mute string noise. And since I played the song so staccato, I wanted something loose to let it breathe at the end. And I love blues shuffles!”

7. Every Christmas Has Love / 8. Three Strings for Christmas

In the middle of the album are these two originals by you. How did they come about?

Every Christmas Has Love began with the working title, Let's Appropriate Love. I guess that someone somewhere has built the idea that we should only play music that can be traced to our genetic ancestors. Since my great-grandparents were mostly Polish and German this would have me playing waltzes on the accordion. 

“I'm sure there are some great waltzes on the accordion. But I'm sorry. The instrument and style that I love best was born with Jimi Hendrix, and players like him. I've heard that Jimi was pretty tall, so maybe I can squeeze into a genetic category that way.

“Or perhaps because we're both human. That could work! Anyway, my cynical self was thinking about what the best thing to ‘appropriate’ from Christmas would be.

I'm sure there are some great waltzes on the accordion. But I'm sorry. The instrument and style that I love best was born with Jimi Hendrix, and players like him

“I thought ‘love’ would be a good thing to take away. So I starting singing "Let's appropriate lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ove!" Then I thought that cynicism is probably leading the song in the wrong direction. So I changed it to Every Christmas Has Love, which works with the same melody. 

“Then I wrote more lyrics, and that gave me more of the melody to work with. I brought in my favourite ‘yacht rock’ chords, and I had a song. Of course, yacht rock chords aren't necessarily Hendrixy, but my songwriting heroes come from all over the place. Unashamed appropriation it is! Or is it just love? The latter, I think.”

Three Strings… features your ‘three E string’ double-neck guitar and some outrageous arpeggio shredding in the intro.

Three Strings For Christmas was built around that crazy lick. I've got three strings tuned to a low, mid, and high E. And I used an Ibanez miKro double-neck, which has really short scale necks. This allows me to do ridiculously wide stretches. I found that by coincidence, if I only put my fingers on the frets with the fret markers, it would spell out an A9 arpeggio. 

“I'm playing so quickly, and with really small frets, so it's challenging for my fingers to get into the right places. But having a lick that's only ‘on the dots’ helped a lot. I wrote lyrics for this one as well, and played the melody on guitar. I describe it as a sort of a country-style Viva Las Vegas, which is not my usual style at all. But sometimes a song writes itself.”

9. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This is perhaps the most nostalgic Christmas song of them all, and you perform it with a laid-back feel that evokes a singer like Frank Sinatra. Are singers the ideal source of inspiration for performing melodies?

“I listened to the Barbra Streisand version of this song a lot. My crazy tapping intro is actually me trying to replicate her orchestral intro, Van Halen style. Her vocal phrasing is fantastic. She makes use of space just as much as notes, which is something that really challenges my ‘play loud and fast all the time’ instincts. 

“I wanted the very last note to have a lot of sustain, so I quickly slipped my slide on, just for that note, and grabbed all the other strings with my picking hand to keep them from making noise.

“I was so connected to the music when I was performing it that my eyes were tearing up. I don't think that ever happened to me before during a recording session, so that's really a personal breakthrough. And thanks to the 1966 Barbra Streisand for giving me something to aim for!”

10. We Wish You a Merry Christmas

This has a lot of dynamic and rhythmic changes, almost like a mini Broadway musical.

“I took a couple of my favourite blues-rock riffs that I had written as lessons for my students at ArtistWorks online school, and interspersed them with the We Wish You melody. This was one of the easier songs for me to perform, as the feel is essentially blues-rock, so I was back on familiar ground. 

“I finished the arrangement about five minutes before we recorded it, but I had been thinking about it for a while. I tried to find a way to get the melody across, while inserting enough new stuff to give the listener some surprises.”

11. Silver Bells

This might be the most bluesy performance on the album as regards your timing, licks and phrasing. What is it about the blues that appeals to you? 

“Since I've taught it so much, I know a lot about the individual elements that help to make it feel right. For example, it's important to bend or slide into the 3rd. Why is this important? Maths doesn't seem to give me an answer. So I look to my eyebrows and my mouth instead.

“If I play an unbent major 3rd interval, I can keep a pretty straight face. But if I bend the minor 3rd into the major 3rd, my eyebrows furrow, and my mouth squinches downward. If I slide from the major 2nd into the major 3rd, my eyebrows go up, and my mouth goes into a slight smile. I love a good Bach invention, but I don't get these particular emotions from a harpsichord.

“What do the blues emotions say? One of my favourites is, 'As torn up as I am, I just gotta shake my head and laugh. I'll be all right, 'cause I still got my gui-tar!'”

12. Winter Wonderland

You have a lovely chirp/pinch harmonic edge to many of the notes you play here...

“My ‘emu’ pick-holding method and using a thin pick certainly helped pull different tones out of the string. Mostly I'm just searching the string for tones using my ear and instincts. But if there is a particular harmonic that I'm looking for, I can just move my pick horizontally until I find it. Then I'll make a mental note of where that spot is. 

“The locations of the harmonics move, in relation to what note is being fretted. So there isn't one magic spot. You have to follow where the fretting hand is going, and use your ears.”

  • ‘Twas is out now via The Players Club.

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Jason Sidwell

Jason Sidwell (BA Hons, MA, ALCM) is editor of Guitar Techniques and senior tuition editor for Guitarist who has written and edited over 20,000 articles since 1998. As an educator he is an advisor/guest tutor for UK music academies/examining institutions, a director for the International Guitar Foundation (IGF), author of How to Play Guitar Step by Step (Dorling Kindersley) and extensive tutorials for The Guardian and Observer newspapers. Outside of journalism, he is a busy classical guitarist, performs regularly for theatre productions and has a broad cliental for studio work.