Having recently hooked up with Positive Grid for a limited edition signature run of its Spark Mini digital practice amp, Paul Gilbert has admitted that he had never heard of even heard of the super-compact guitar amp until he kept on hearing great tones from his students and wanted to know what it was.
Gilbert, the genial shred pioneer and electric guitar hero behind Racer X and Mr Big, has always been one of the most high-profile six-string teachers on the planet, often talking about how he, as the educator, learns just as much as his students, and he is not just talking about phrasing and technique – he’s talking gear.
Sitting down with Positive Grid's YouTube channel for an interview in which he talks tone, gear, and what the guitar can learn from the human voice, he confessed that the Spark was a new one for him. Furthermore, all that digital stuff? With smartphone apps to call up presets, and 21st-century features such as Smart Jam and Auto Chord, he was worried he didn’t have the “brain power” to get the hang of it.
“I was noticing that some of the students had really amazing guitar tone,” says Gilbert. “And I said, ‘What’s the gear? What are you using?’ And they said, ‘It’s a Spark.’ I said, ‘What’s a Spark!?’ [Laughs] And I looked it up, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m curious.’ But the thing is, I’ve got a tour coming up, I’m going to be on the road for a while, and I need a practice amp and I thought, ‘I want to check that out.’
“I was a little worried at first because I’ve got limited brain power. I didn’t grow up with apps. I grew up with knobs and physical things. I tried the app, and I figured it out immediately, so if I can do it, anyone can do it – and the tones were cool.”
Gilbert has just completed an epic reunion tour packing out enormodomes with Mr Big. If you’ve been following him on Instagram you would have got a sneak peak of his hotel room practice rig, and catch a sighting of his white Pearl finish Spark Mini ahead of its release.
The dragon design grille cloth? That’s a tie-in with Gilbert's The Dio Album, his instrumental tribute to the late, great Black Sabbath and Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio.
For that sort of thing, naturally Gilbert needed some go-to rock tones, maybe a few effects to sex things up and cleans for contrast. He ended up making up 13 presets – which Spark users can download to their amps – but somehow managed to avoid option paralysis.
“There was a lot of flexibility but not so much that I got confused,” he says. “I can get what I wanted right away. I could make some really cool presets that I loved, within 30 seconds I’m jamming and I forget about all this stuff and get to the music.”
He might be a neophyte to digital amp modelling tech but Gilbert is nothing if not a fast learner, and he left Positive Grid with a tone tip that’s essential for anyone who – like him – is recording ideas from his Spark Mini to an iPhone voice recorder on the fly. It might not be the most technically elegant but it works.
“Here’s the greatest discovery in the world for getting easy, quick tone,” explains Gilbert. “There might be some way you know with Bluetooth but I’m not that sophisticated. You got your computer or your phone. And you just put it close, in proximity, and no matter how horrible acoustically your room is, that becomes a non-issue because it’s just close enough to the mic where it’s like having your [Shure] 57 on the speaker. Put it nearby. There is no perfect science. You don’t have to have it exact.”
There you go. The close-mic principal works for all amps great and small. The Paul Gilbert Spark Mini is now sold out. But it’ll work just fine for the regular Spark Mini, which you can pick up for $229 – see Positive Grid for more.