Following on from 2021's 'Warewolves of Portland', Paul Gilbert is back with an unashamed passion project. Celebrating the musical output of one of metal's greatest singers, 'The Dio Album' is an instrumental interpretation of some of his most well-known works. Taking in Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and of course, Dio itself, the project found the guitarist learning from the greats, from Ronnie to Geezer Butler; "I wanted the greatest guitar teacher in the world, and that, of course, is Ronnie James Dio", he tells us as we sit down for a chat over Zoom. Talking the new album, and plans for Mr. Big's farewell, we caught up with the maestro, Paul Gilbert. Man on the Silver Mountain; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Paul, how's things with you?
I'm doing really well because almost a month ago, I broke my hip and I had to have an emergency hip replacement. So I've got a titanium post in my leg now. For about two and a half weeks, I was in a fog of just being sore and not being able to get up be able to get down on the steps. After two and a half weeks, I just started to get stronger and feel better, and I graduated to a cane, and I can move around the house.
It sounds like you've had a rough ride!
I feel like I'm starting to feel like myself. It's been quite a journey, and it's going to be. I've never been a person who's been inspired to exercise, except for one thing; I'm really good and making sure I keep my calluses (on my fingers) in good shape, almost to the point of like, unhealthy panic! If I feel my skin getting soft on my fingers, it's like; "get me a guitar! I've got to bend!"
On a relevant note, I read an interview once with Vivian Campbell who said the one thing he refuses to do is the dishes, because he doesn't want his calluses compromised!
Yeah, I used to wear rubber gloves in the shower. I only needed one, like Michael Jackson! But anyway, that was my one physical thing that I was really, really strict and happy to do, but after this injury, I've got to get my whole self in shape. That's going to be interesting because I've been just a skinny, you know, the skinniest person in the world for quite a long time, and so to see if my body can handle getting strong, wow! I'll see. It'll be a first.
We're here to talk about your new album 'The Dio Album', and I'm guessing you've been inspired by his music all your life; how can you not with such an incredible catalogue?
You're correct. The first time I really took notice of Ronnie was a when [Black Sabbath's] 'Heaven and Hell' came out [in 1980]. I heard 'Neon Knights' on the radio, and I didn't know who it was. I was a Black Sabbath fan, but of course, I associated Black Sabbath with Ozzy, and it obviously wasn't Ozzy! So I was like; "who is this band man?! This singer?! I love it!", you know? That just, it all sounded new to me. So I tracked down the album and bought it and then realised, oh, it's this guy named Ronnie James Dio, and yeah, even though it was Black Sabbath, it felt like a brand new band. And I learned there's no way I can sing that stuff when I was a kid, so it was a combination of trying to find somebody who could sing like that, and then learn all the guitar parts.
So you wanted to be in a band that could do that material?
As time went on, a couple of years later, I joined a band that had a B3 [Hammond organ] player, and he wanted to do a lot of Rainbow because Rainbow had a lot of B3 organ. So yeah, we did a live version of 'Kill the King', and I think that was the main one we did. Then that led me to I bought the 'Rainbow Rising' album, and that was just killer. Then of course the solo stuff came out, and we all heard Vivian Campbell for the first time.
Were you a fan of Vivian Campbell?
Vivian was like, as Gary Moore was going more blues, Vivian sort of took the Gary Moore tradition and went further into metal. I could hear they have, like, some similar licks and phrases, but at the same time, Vivian had his own fingerprint, and certainly his own writing style. And I just love that stuff. When I first heard 'Stand Up and Shout', the opening track off the Dio album ['Holy Diver', 1983'], it just blew my mind; I couldn't believe that.
You've covered tracks that span Dio's career; was it difficult to choose which songs to do?
Well, I love this stuff so much that it was tempting [to do more], but I knew it has to fit on a record. One of the things I did was, for example, I love 'Stargazer', 'Light in the Black', 'Gates of Babylon'; those songs are really tempting to cover, but the thing I realised is, those three in particular have these long instrumental sections, and I wanted to focus more on Dio's singing. So that's why, given a choice between like, 'Stargazer', or 'Man on the Silver Mountain'; 'Man on the Silver Mountain' has more singing to it, and the guitar solo is kind of short, so that helped me decide as I wanted to stick to stuff that really focused on the singing. I'm still going to have fun with the guitar parts, but my main thing that I'm going to point towards is Dio.
So the melody in his voice was what your focus was? I mean, he did work with some of the greatest guitar players in rock.
Well, I really wanted this to be a guitar lesson for me, and I wanted the greatest guitar teacher in the world, and that, of course, is Ronnie James Dio. Basically, when I grew up the style of guitarists that I was into, and then I wanted to emulate, didn't really play a lot of melodies. The players that I was into, they would back up the singer with some awesome, like chunky rhythm, and then when it was time for the guitar solo, they would just energise the song with some really wild, energetic playing, and then, and then it would go back to the singer. And it was the singer's job to do the melody. And there were still, during that era that I grew up, there were melodic guitar players, like when I listen to the Boston album, the guitar solos on that album are very melodic, and I love them, but I wasn't really inspired to learn that as a guitarist; that's not what got me excited.
So your focus was on the flash stuff back then?
I wanted to do the fiery stuff, but then later on as years went by, I realised my ability, my skill level at playing melodies was really embarrassingly low. Like, when I tried to play a melody, the result? I don't like it, I didn't know. And that further was another reason I didn't do it, because whenever I would try it, it would just be bad. I think the seed of trying to open that door was was touring with Joe Satriani in 2007. When I did, I was the opener of the G3 tour with Joe, and I would watch Joe's show and he stepped into the shoes of a singer; he would take on that role. He played the melody, and not only seeing him doing it, but seeing the audience response, and realising like; "everybody's okay with this?" You know, the audience is happy, and Joe's having a blast; I'm digging it.
Did that have a profound effect on your approach to playing?
That was like proof that this is not an impossible thing; that guitar can actually play a melody in the right hands, which I really didn't believe before before. I thought; "no, only singers can do that. Guitars, that's just not something that a guitar can do". So Joe kind of proved me wrong, and I started to take tentative steps in that direction. Like the next album I did, might have had one or two melodies, and then I just kept increasing as I started having more confidence, and becoming more successful to the point now where I just love it. It's funny, recently I did a guitar clinic and I gave some advice to my students, and I said; "next time that you want to buy a pedal; don't! instead, learn a melody", and I said; "that will make your sound grow more than the pedal". The pedal, you sort of expect to play the same licks and have it sound different; when you learn a melody, your licks get bigger. I mean, you could buy the pedal later, but learn a melody, and you'll be surprised with what that will do to you.
With Ronnie's melodies, with your playing I noticed you picked up on certain inflections that I never realised were there when listening to them before.
Both in the past and now, there's two sides of it. One is ear training to be able to hear those details and notice them, and that's kind of like your target. The other side of it is your touch on the instrument, and the part that you're physically connected to, and that's like your bow and arrow. So, you need both; if you only have the bow and arrow, but you don't have a target; that, to me is like freeform shred. We're just shooting arrows in the sky as fast as you can, and it's kind of impressive, but in the end, there's something really nice about just taking one arrow and, WHAP! Bullseye! You can only do that if you have a target. So the ear training part is to really know with a lot of detail, what you're shooting for.
That's a great way of looking at it.
Now that's something that doesn't happen overnight, and that's where I've relied on all the melodies that I've learned up until now. It's funny, I've got an online guitar school and every time I do a video lesson, they're put into the archives on the school, and every time I teach a melody, I use the word 'melody' in the title, so you can type in 'melody', and all the lessons with melodies come up. And the other day I did it because I was just curious, like; "how many melodies have I taught?", and it was hundreds! So I realised, I've spent some time with this. So that gives you some experience with it.
So that experience really informed 'The Dio Album'?
With this album, I really went line by line. I didn't necessarily have to. I've heard the songs a lot, and I have a sense of instinct of how they go, and I could have just done it by memory. In a way there would have been advantages to that; it wouldn't have been exactly like Ronnie, but it would have had a flow to it because I would have just been following my instincts. But I wouldn't have learned it as much that way, and like I said, I really wanted this to be a lesson for me. So I instead of just pouring out what I had, I thought; "now I want to learn from Ronnie, I'm willing to go line by line, and really listen and get deeper in both training my ear, and also figuring out how to squeeze it out of the guitar". And there was such a wealth of stuff. There's no way I could retain it all, and that was kind of depressing realising; "I just travelled this amazing journey and there's no way I'm going to remember all of it". I hope that 2% of it stuck.
Obviously, we have to talk about the solos. What was it like stepping into the shoes of Campbell, Blackmore, and Iommi?
Well, with those I took more liberties. I didn't go line by line, probably just because I couldn't. I think every every guitar player who plays fast, does it their own way. It's not like there's one road to playing fast and everybody follows that road - not at all - everybody has their own physical connection and finds their own patterns. So for me to try to fit into somebody else's pants, I know I'm not going to fit. So, again, I've listened to the songs since I was a teenager, so there's certain melodic parts to the solos that have stuck with me, and it to me, if it's melodic part, I'm going to try to stick to that somewhat, but if it's the part where they're kind of going crazy, and it's more about the energy, then I feel I've got some license to just do that with my own patterns and wear the pants that fit me. So, there's a balance of that.
What was it like tackling guitarists with three very unique styles?
I would say with the three guitar players a lot of that had for me to do with how old I was when I heard them. The first one of them that I heard, or that I tried to figure was Richie Blackmore, because I actually heard Richie Blackmore when I was really young. I bought the 'Machine Head' album when I was like, seven or something, but I was too young to attempt it. I hadn't even started playing guitar yet, so that to me, was just like all magic.
Do you remember when you first heard Tony Iommi?
When I heard Black Sabbath, I was about 11 or 12, and my teacher showed me the two or three note power cord, and suddenly, I could play some of it. I could play 'Iron Man' and 'Paranoid' and some of the really basic riffs. I could actually play them, and that was kind of my first connection where I could really start playing some of the songs. Still, Blackmore was beyond my abilities at that point, but I remember when I was 12, I found a drummer, and I would go over to his house every night, and we would just jam the six Black Sabbath songs that I kind of knew over and over and over again. Then I started to learn a couple of those solos like 'Sweet Leaf', and that little 'Sweet Leaf' lick, that's like, at the core of anything complicated that I do. Now, if I take a look at it, at the very center of it, it's 'Sweet Leaf'. That's still where it came from, and it wasn't because it was the best - I mean, I love it - but it was all I could do. You just sort of grab on to whatever you can.
What do you remember about learning Richie Blackmore's parts when you were young?
It was years later before I could really get a grip on any of the Blackmore stuff. I remember learning 'Maybe I'm a Leo' or 'Lazy', and those were some pretty sophisticated blues, you know? You listen to 'Lazy', and man, his blues playing in that is like, top level. As a teenager, there's no way; I didn't have that skill set at all until I got into GIT and started to work out some of the stuff. That came much later just because I wasn't ready for it. It was above what I could hear and above what I could play.
And Vivian Campbell?
The Vivian stuff, again, some of the rhythms I could kind of work out, but the solos, you know, when anybody plays fast, it's like; "okay, that's that's their thing; I might be able to grab a lick here or there", but overall, I just figured everybody kind of finds their way. You've got to make your own path for that stuff.
Before we started, we were chatting about the bass playing in the Dio solo material, which tends to be forgotten in among the amazing guitar and vocal work.
Well, after seeing the recent Ronnie James Dio movie ['Dio: Dreamers Never Die'], if I understood it right, Ronnie wrote all those songs on a bass. Before he put the band together, he's just like, in his garage, trying to figure out what to do after Rainbow and Sabbath, and he just, somehow wrote all those tunes. So that's where they started their life. I learned so much about 'the song within the song' because the bass parts aren't necessarily just, you know, the guitar part or an octave lower. A lot of times, they're doing something that is way smarter and cleverer, that I never would have thought of.
Of course, you can't talk about the bass without mentioning Geezer Butler.
Whenever I hear those parts, man, those guys are geniuses. The Geezer Butler stuff, he aims toward the middle range, which really surprised me because you think like, Black Sabbath; go low, it's gonna be heavy, a little lower-res heavy, right? No! Geezer always goes to the middle E, not the low E; in 'Heaven and Hell', when it goes to A, he goes up to like the twelfth fret, not the low A. Every time, I'm like; "what?!", but it works. It's the right sound, it's the right choice. It's sort of scary to know that if I had been the bass player, I would have made the wrong choice, again and again. It's wonderful to learn from the genius; Geezer Butler gives the surprising, right answer.
Did any other of the bass players jump out to you?
One of the most surprising was Craig Gruber, the bass player of early Rainbow. On 'Man on the Silver Mountain', it's like a disco part. And I'm learning it going; "really?! This sounds like 'Funky Town!", but it works perfectly. After I learned that, I felt like every demo that I did on my own songs, it'd be like; "well, let me try that Craig Gruber part. Like, "that's the part!" It's like the most useful bass part I ever learned in my life. A really good one.
Was there ever a point in your career where you could or would have joined the Dio band?
Well, I was always in a band. I was in Mr. Big, I was in Racer X, and by the time I was doing solo stuff, I wasn't really playing metal anymore. And maybe I didn't have the right hair or who knows what, or wasn't living in L.A. I mean, I'm just thinking of excuses, but, man, I would have loved to play with Ronnie. In fact, I remember when he passed away that was, besides just missing him, I remember feeling a little a little regret like; "man, I never got a chance to play with him". That would have been so cool. So, you know, maybe doing this album is a chance to get a little bit close to that dream.
Before you go, I have to ask about the farewell tour that Mr. Big has announced; how do you feel to be wrapping the band up after all these years?
Oh, to me, it feels really right. This, to me, the idea is to take all our energy and just pour it into doing it right, one last time. And I'm excited to do the whole 'Lean Into It' record because that's something we've never done. And I love that we have Nick D’Virgilio playing drums. I was able to jam with him about a year ago at Sweetwater where he does a lot of the drum demos, and he reminded me of Pat [late Mr. Big drummer Pat Torpey]; just a super solid groove, the ability to do the more complex stuff if we need it, and also, he's a lead singer. That was a big part of what Pat brought as well; he was like our most powerful part of our vocal harmonies. Plus he's just a cool, guy, so I'm really glad we have Nick along for this final tour.
Have you any plans to record any new material, like a new album, or even some new tracks?
Well we've got the first shows in July, and August, and I'm going to take a break from shows until 2024. So in that time, you know, we've got some time! So it's possible. I think we're going to take a serious look at that. Nothing's booked yet, but I think we're all pointing towards that idea.
Finally, have you any plans to play some live shows behind the release of 'The Dio Album'?
Well, I've got one I'm going to do in about six weeks' time. I'm going to take a trip to Sweetwater - a big music emporium store, shipping place in America - and I'll jam with Nick again, most likely. I had that booked before, and I think I'll be strong enough to do it. Besides that, I'm going to rest up and really just focus on preparing for the Mr. Big tour. I want to come up with an '80s-style shred guitar solo because, Billy [Sheehan]'s bass solo, he's always working on that. I rarely work on unaccompanied guitar solos - it just hasn't been my world - but I think it's time to do the '80s-style, no rhythm, just going crazy shredding guitar solo, you know, like Nigel Tufnell; "my solo is my trademark", you know?! I think I've got to come up with one of those.
Paul Gilbert's 'The Dio Album' is out now, via Mascot Group.