Up Close and Personal with Guitarist Neil Giraldo

Although he is nearing the half-century mark, Cleveland-born Neil Giraldo hasn’t lost even one tiny molecule of his celebrated intensity and swagger. The chugging, churning onslaught of guitar that helped propel his musical and life partner Pat Benatar toward mega-hit status in 1979 and beyond remains unbowed in the new millennium. This is a man who loves to play and who loves to play hard. In honor of his birthday today, we’ve decided to feature an exclusive interview with the legend, as published in Guitar Player Presents 50 Unsung Heroes of the Guitar. Enjoy!

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What’s your main guitar at the moment?
I use GMP guitars. I don’t have a Spyder model or anything like that, but they’ve made a few different guitars for me. I usually ask for P-90 pickups, but I have some humbucker models for live shows. You know, onstage with lighting rigs and dimmer racks and everything—well, P-90s aren’t really happy with some of that kind of stuff. But normally, I go for P-90 models, and that’s usually what I record with. I also ask for a Bigsby and locking tuners.

What about amplifiers?
Onstage, I use a Line 6 Pod and a Line 6 Flextone combo. I like the two devices working together, because the Pod reacts a couple of milliseconds after you attack the note, which actually helps fatten up the sound a bit more. For effects, I go with the onboard models. I don’t use any pedals. In the studio, I may use my Marshall combo. I crank the Master Volume and keep Volume at about 12 o’clock. If I need to drive the amp a little bit more, I stick in a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 to drive the front end a little harder. I don’t use it as a distortion pedal—just as a preamp.

What about strings?
I use D’Addario strings. I go with .012–.058, sometimes .060. Pretty thick. I go with the highest G I can get that isn’t wound, and I tune to Eb. If I do tune to E, I’ll swap out the high stings for a .011 set, but I’ll keep the heavy gauges on the low strings, because I like to hit the low strings pretty hard, and I don’t want them to go out of tune.

To me, one of the most identifiable aspects of your style is your slightly snickered rhythm-guitar approach. It seems that you like to push and pull the groove and sometimes throw surprises into your rhythmic accents. Where did that come from?
I don’t know, but I’m glad you picked up on it, because I love to play rhythm guitar more than anything. I love rhythm so much. I think it has to do with the fact that I’m a frustrated drummer. When I was a kid, I would play drums to Simon and Garfunkel records because they never really had any drums on them, and I would try to find a way to get inside the rhythms they did.

Another odd thing is that I could never figure out parts from records exactly the way they were played. I’d get, say, a Yardbirds song, and I could sort of learn it, but I’d end up putting my own spin—my own little parts—into the mix until it really didn’t sound much like the parts on the record.

So you weren’t exactly the best cat to pick for a cover band, then?
No—I was terrible [laughs]. When I was playing in local bands when I was a kid, people didn’t want me in their groups because they were looking for someone who could play straighter. There would always have to be another guitar player in the band who would play the correct parts. It’s goofy, but I guess I was never interested to do things the “right” way. I’d be thinking. “You know, I think they should have played this part instead.”

How do you conceptualize a groove for a song?
I think of the rhythm, the drums, the tempo, the swing, or the “roll,” as I call it. But, again, I don’t think about it too much. I just do it. And, you know, on all the records I’ve ever done, I’ve always kept the guitar and drums going down together at once. I would never, ever overdub my rhythm guitar. I’d have to play live with the drums to get my parts to work together.

Who are some of your favorite rhythm guitarists?
Pete Townshend—definitely. I also love Jimi Hendrix. When I would listen to his stuff on vinyl, I would skip over the solos because I didn’t care about them. Give me any song on Axis: Bold as Love. Listen to that rhythm stuff!

You have a very aggressive rock-guitar sound, but it never seems to get in your lead singer’s way.
Yeah. I don’t know how to explain that. I don’t know why that happens [laughs].

Honestly, I don’t know. I know that if I start thinking about it, I’ll f**k up. I know that for a fact. I also know that I hate to be a selfish player. I hate to be a selfish producer or arranger. I don’t like saying, “Hey, look at me! Look what I can do.”

What I’m trying to create in arrangements is the song people want to hear. People want to hear the song, and they want to hear the singer. My job is to make sure it feels great, and that it’s going right to their blood, and that it’s going to rip their heart out.

From a guitar standpoint, what’s the most important thing to ensuring a song rips someone’s heart out when they hear it?
Your playing should really start accelerating so that when you listen to the end of the song, it sounds like the end of the song is coming. It shouldn’t sound like the beginning. What worries me, with all the recording tools that people have, is that they will take a part they like—something that feels good—and paste it throughout the whole song. That’s the part of the guitar thing you have to be really, really careful about. You shouldn’t miss the idea that the end of the song should really be a little quicker and more intense than the beginning. The intensity level should be changing, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that. It’s about doing whatever it takes to move people and keep them involved in the song from start to finish.

Speaking of intensity, you haven’t lost any fire from when I first saw you onstage back in 1980. Many players tend to cool off a bit with time. How have you kept up the enthusiasm and the energy?
I think, mainly, it was a change I made in my life. I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, drinking way too much Irish whiskey, and just living that lifestyle. You know—doing stuff to way too much excess. I finally said to myself, “Wait a second. I have children, and I’m getting too old for this. I’ve got to look hard at what I’m doing here. I’ve got to take care of myself.” So I started a serious physical routine that I thought I’d never be able to do. I went from being able to run 20 feet to running six miles a day. Now, I can jump rope for 20 minutes straight. I lift weights.

I do all kinds of physical stuff. This has been going on for the last seven years, and I think it is what gives me the energy and the attitude. If I wasn’t doing the exercise, I don’t know if I’d still be able to be as physical and in-your-face as a player—and that kind of player is the player I still want to be.

Well, that mental approach seems huge. Perhaps some players start thinking, “Hey, I’m 50 years old—I can’t be jumping up and down anymore. It’s not fitting.”I don’t give a sh*t about that. I call it, “last man standing.” Anybody who knows me knows that I’m relentless. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I will do everything in my power to show you that I can. It’s a philosophy I try to live by, and I try to instill it in my children, as well. My playing is no different, because the tone is in my hands and the attitude is in my heart, and I can’t change that. Even though you may be getting old, unless something is physically affecting what you’re able to do, you should stay pretty consistent performance-wise—as long as you’re ruthless enough [laughs].

Do you feel you’ve gotten your due in the guitar-culture world, or do you care about that kind of stuff?
I did care for a while when I was younger. It doesn’t matter to me now. In the mid-’80s, I was doing just about everything—arranging, producing, playing, and so on. It was really my band, but I don’t think anyone knew that or gave me props for everything I was doing to help craft all the hits. The wife and myself were equal partners—we still are—but I didn’t understand why management decided not to do anything to promote the band. But, you know, I get it, and right now it means very little to me whether audiences focus directly on my contributions. It’s far more important that I do great work, and that somebody appreciates the great work— whether they know my name or not.

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Guitar Player Presents 50 Unsung Heroes of the Guitar

Everyone knows the legends – Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Beck, and all the other six-string giants – but the evolution of guitarcraft wasn’t forged purely by über-famous players with large cultural footprints. Scores of lesser-known pioneers such as Tommy Bolin, Danny Cedrone, Tampa Red, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe contributed vast numbers of licks, riffs, solos, tones, compositions, techniques, and musical concepts that inspired generations of guitarists and advanced the art of playing guitar. Their stories are as critical to modern guitar music as is electricity or amplification. Any guitarist seeking to devise a unique and individual sound should study the wacky, off-kilter, unfamiliar, and criminally underutilized creative concepts of the unsung greats, straight from the pages of Guitar Player magazine. Available for purchase here.