Brad Gillis of Night Ranger: Taking the High Road

By Jeb Wright

Brad Gillis and Night Ranger have made a career of pumping out summertime rock hits and heartfelt ballads—something for both the boys and girls in the audience.  This unique blend of rock and roll attitude and softness of the heart has created a thirty year career for the band that proves on a nightly basis that one can indeed still Rock in America.

Night Ranger has a new album on the way, titled High Road that is filled with rockers as well as some good slow dance material… surprised?  The result is a collection of tunes that you can crank up as you cruise Main Street in addition to sliding in the disc player when it comes time to venture out to Make-Out Point. 

Classic Rock Revisited caught up with the talented guitarist to discuss the making of the new record, as well as to discuss Leonardo da Vinci, “Sister Christian” and his famous red electric guitar. 

Jeb: Mr. Gillis, how the heck are you? What have you been doing besides making a new album?

Brad: I took the wife to Italy and we had a great time.  We had a show over there.  We did this big festival for Frontiers Records; it was a three day festival and we headlined Saturday night.  It was the first time the president of the record company had ever seen us play live, so that was very exciting.  We just decided to just fly to Milan and make a vacation out of it. 

We went to Venice, and then Milan, where we went to see were Leonardo da Vinci lived and made a lot of his great designs.   A lot of people don’t get to see this, but they liked us, so they took a few of us on a tour underground.  It was amazing, Jeb, unbelievable…  We ended up going to the Leonardo da Vinci museum.  We did the tourist thing and we went to this place where all of his inventions are all laid out.  I had no idea he did all of that.  He invented the harpsichord and the modern day piano and he invented a flying machine.  It is unbelievable what that man did. 

Jeb: You were over there for the Frontiers gig, and now Frontiers is releasing the latest Night Ranger album.  I think your solo album was also released on Frontiers... 

Brad: They released my Alligator record thirteen years ago, 2001 I think it was.  I have been working on a new solo record and the music is pretty much done.  I have 14 to 15 songs and I am talking to a lot of big name singers that I want to sing on the album. 

I’ve secured the deal for a worldwide release.  Now that the Night Ranger record is done I am hot and heavy on it, Jeb.  I am fucking right on top of this.  It sounds huge.  The guitar tones are really good on it.  I can’t really talk a lot about it yet, but just know I have a lot of great singers involved. 

Jeb:  You’re correct, the reason we are talking is because the new Night Ranger recording is finished and hitting the streets.  Tell me about this album. 

Brad: We figure we still have a lot of gumption in us, man.  We’ve still got that drive.  It exudes to our live show and to our records. We want to keep things fresh; we don’t want to saturate the market.  We want to put stuff out every couple of years. 

We took a lot of time on this record; we started over a year ago and we finished it last month.  By taking that time, we were able to put out, what we think is a great album. 

We toured a lot last year, but in between tours, we would get together at Jack’s [Blades] and put down some ideas.  Joel [Hoekstra] would come over to my house and we would do some guitars and fly ‘em up to Jack’s house and put it all together. 

We took our time because we wanted the best songs.  We picked the best 12 tunes for the record and we’re really excited about it.  We feel “High Road” is the perfect little summer song and “Knock, Knock Never Stop” has that commercial hard rock feel to it.  Mainly, we are about songs and harmonies, and the harmony vocals, and harmony guitar solos, which are the nucleus to any Night Ranger album. 

Jeb:  You did not copy the past, yet you didn’t try to sound like the modern day.  You found a cool balance, where the classic elements of Night Ranger are what this album is about yet these songs sound new and fresh. 

Brad: Like I said, by having the luxury of time we were able to make it the best we could possibly make it.  I’m just waiting for the release so the general public can listen to it and start giving us feedback on it.  That downtime between when you finish an album and when you get it out there is nerve-racking. 

We want people to hear it.  We have already put “High Road” in the set and we are going to put “Knock, Knock” in the set, and it is the second video from the album that we are going to release.   We are pretty excited about it.  You can’t throw too many new songs in your set because the hits we have from the past have to be played. 

Jeb: Do you guys create together or apart?  How does the writing work?

Brad: Well, we started out be grabbing the nucleus of the band, which is Jack, Kelly [Keagy] and me. We got together at Jack’s house and we sat in his rehearsal room going over ideas.  Kelly and Jack had some ideas and I had some riffs that I brought in and we just kind of went through them and figured out what is viable and what is not. 

We start working on the good stuff and then we bring in Joel and Eric [Levy] in and they are the icing on the cake.  We wrote a couple of songs with all five of us. 

Jeb: Is the pressure different from the old days?

Brad: Really, there is no pressure.  We try to be relaxed about everything we do and we just go in with the conception of making a great record that is Night Ranger.  We just want to make a great record that sounds like us. 

The only big difference on this record from past records is the production.  I think this record sounds bigger.  We went back and forth with mixes for a few weeks to make it bigger, wider and larger.  I think it is the best sounding record we’ve ever done, as far as production goes. 

Jeb: Did you produce this as a band?

Brad: We produced the album as a band.  We had Anthony Fox come in and engineer it.  He started doing the mixes and he would shoot them to us and we would bring our comments to make it larger and bigger and to make it sound the way we wanted it to sound. 

Jeb:  You have a cool guitar tone and a unique soloing style.  Do you have to keep yourself in ‘Night Ranger mode’ when you write the solos?

Brad: I just sit down with the tracks and I go over them at my house.  I try to figure out a basic format and I figure out what I want to do with the solo.  Sometimes I do it by myself, but sometimes, I do it with Jack and Kelly in the room because I like that energy around me. 

There is that extra amount of energy when other band members are in the room watching you solo.  They will throw in their comments.  I might not like something and they are like, “No, no, keep that.”  I was worried that the “High Road” solo may have too much wang bar and too much of my cricket sound on it, but they came back and said, “Are you kidding?  That is totally you.”  They kind of sold me on my own solo. 

Jeb: I think one thing that makes Night Ranger stand out is the fact that you are equal parts.  Journey is now all about Neal Schon.  Foreigner is all about Mick Jones.  Night Ranger does not have a guy…you’re a band. 

Brad: Yes, we like to keep it as a band.  We like to keep everybody in check.  We get along well when we tour.  Everybody hangs out when we tour, and we joke around. 

We have a really good core unit of band members.  Everybody has a great time on the road.  It is not tiring and it is fresh.  We hit a new city and we are excited about it.  We make sure we do a sound check so it sounds great.  Everybody puts in 110% and everyone makes sure that all aspects of the band, the touring and the records, are to our own satisfaction and the best we can possibly make it. .

Jeb: Joel has stuck around for many years now.  What does he bring to the band and to you as another guitar player in Night Ranger?

Brad: Joel is a great all-around player.  He can play rhythm and solos and he has great ideas for harmonies.  When we play, it is exciting and fun, as he is the complete player.  Because of that, it makes things easier for me and it makes it a lot of fun when we get together and play new stuff. 

We try to make sure we feed off each other on our rhythm parts.  We try to make sure there is not too much going on, as sometimes with rhythm, less is more.  We stick to that core riff and we slam it out, and we do counter riffs for maybe the verses, or whatever that really helps out the song, and then we get to play this stuff live and it makes it so exciting to do. 

Jeb: I bet you’re looking forward to playing some new stuff live.  What’s up with the tour?

Brad: We are really looking forward to playing some of these songs live.  We’ve got a great schedule coming up.  We have like fifty or sixty more dates this year.  We have about eight, or ten, shows with the band BOSTON and we have some casino gigs that we are going to headline. We have Japan coming up in October, which will be our normal Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka run that we do. On the way back, we are hitting Honolulu and Maui for a couple of shows.  Everything is looking great. 

Jeb: Why do you think Night Ranger is still touring all over the world? 

Brad: Well, you know, we have our core hits and our staple mega hit, “Sister Christian,” which everybody loves.  We all get along and our personalities work well, as we joke around and have a good time.  We make sure our touring is not too much on us.  We have William Morris booking our shows and they do a wonderful job for us making sure our routings are good. 

We have a great road manager and we have an excellent team, and it makes things easier and a lot of fun.  We haven’t even thought about slowing down. In fact, now that we have a new record coming out, everyone is excited.  We’re a lucky band to still be at it for thirty plus years later. 

Jeb: Tell me about the set list. 

Brad: Yeah, we are going to put “High Road” and “Knock, Knock” in, but we have to play the other songs; we just have to.  We are going to put Damn Yankees in and we are going to throw in some of our bigger better B cuts like “Sing Me Away” and “Rumors in the Air,” and “Eddie’s Coming Out Tonight.”  We like to keep those songs in there.  We break it down acoustically in the middle with songs like “Goodbye” and “High Enough” by Damn Yankees.  We try to round out our set with something for everybody. 

Jeb: Tell me about the artwork on the new album cover as it is really cool.

Brad: We have our input on what we’d like to see on the album cover.  We had our artist do a couple of depictions of what we want to see.  We added a little icing to the cake, as we threw in a few bits of the older albums into the cover. 

When I was a kid growing up, you’d see an album, something like Cheap Thrills with that cartoon album cover.  I used to stare at the artwork and listen to the record and dream away. 

We wanted to show that we are a Bay Area band, as this is where we started.  We have the bridge on it and it is a great cover.  The entire package is very complete, and we are looking forward to getting it out to the public. 

Jeb: Do you ever think back and wonder how in the hell you went from Rubicon to Ozzy to Night Ranger to where you are today?

Brad: I have to thank my lucky stars to still be in a band, which has been together over 30 years.  We have sustained such a long career.  Many bands came out in the ‘80s and they released a record or two and then they were over with. 

All of these bands are coming back now, because the ‘80s revival is going on.  You put three, or four, ‘80s bands on a package and then, the next thing you know, you’ve gotten ten to fifteen thousand people buying tickets and you’re selling out a large venue. 

I talk to a lot of kids that you’d think would be into the ‘90s music that are not.  You ask them how they got turned on to ‘80s music and they say, “My parents had these records and I heard them and love them.” 

One thing about ‘70s and ‘80s music is that the song value is huge.  It has sustained our career.  We are excited to still be doing it. 

Jeb:  Are you still doing the guitar stuff for ESPN? 

Brad:  I’m finishing eight songs for them in the next week.  I will tell you, Jeb, I get up in the morning, I go into my studio and I open the shades and I have these beautiful rolling hills to look out at, and I have no neighbors next to me, and I fire up my computer and all I want to do is play music. 

It is such a great feeling to be able to wake up and do something you love to do and get paid for it.  The hardest part for me is that a lot of these riffs that I write for ESPN, or Fox Sports, end up being so cool that I want to save them for Night Ranger, or my solo record.  I have the option of doing whatever I want, but it’s hard sometimes.  I just wake up and write music and that is my day. 

Jeb:  You worked with Gregg Allman on your first solo album.  What was it like to work with Gregg?

Brad: That was kind of a freak accident how that came down, to my advantage, I must say.  

Gregg moved to the Bay Area and was living here for a while.  He had Gregg Allman and Friends and his backup band was a band that I started back in 1980 called The Alameda All Stars. 

Back in 1980, when Night Ranger was trying to get a record deal, we were not gigging much.  I wanted to play, because I had ‘the fire’ up my butt where I needed to play.  I started this band called The Alameda All Stars, and we played local clubs around the Bay Area. 

I ended up going with Night Ranger when we took off and the Alameda All Stars ended up changing members.  When Gregg came around, in the early ‘90s, he ended up hiring The Alameda All Stars as his backup band to tour with.  My buddies were on tour backing up Gregg and, like I said Gregg, moved to the area. 

I had a barbeque at my house one day, and the All Stars came over and they invited Gregg, and he came by.  I showed him my studio, and I had this song that had a different singer on it and I didn’t like what the vocals were doing, and Gregg was like, “Let me hear what you’ve got going on.”  I played him back the track, but I turned off the vocal that was already on it, as I didn’t want him to be misled by any of the original vocal. 

When I got done playing it he was like, “Hey man, play that thing again and, hey man, let’s clear the room.”  I had about five, or six, people in the studio and I said, “Everybody out.” 

I played it to him a second time and he picked up a pencil and a piece of paper and he started jotting down words.  I kind of looked over his shoulder and went, “Well, this is good.”  He says, “Hey man, put up a microphone,” so I did and he started singing these ideas and I loved it. 

It was still pretty rough and he goes, “What if I come back tomorrow and finish this thing off?”  I said, “Are you kidding me?”  He came back the next day and we finished the thing off and I played him another tune and he started writing lyrics on that one. 

My Gilrock Ranch record, that was released in the early ‘90s, was all instrumental except for the two Gregg Allman songs.  “Honest to God” ended up Top 20 on the rock charts and had airplay all over the rock stations in the country for a few weeks.  

Jeb: I want to talk about the guitar solo in “Sister Christian.”  When you heard the song, did you hear that guitar solo in your head right away or did you have to work on it?

Brad: I knew the song was going to be a hit.  I thought, “Well, I’ve got to write a solo that sings, and that shows me and my style.” 

The next thing you know, I am in the studio with Night Ranger getting ready to do my guitar solo, and I had cranked up the amps in the studio super loud.  There was the feedback loop that went through the main speakers in the control room and then through the pickups in my guitar.  When I hit a note it was so loud that the sustain just went on forever. 

There are no sustain pedals on that song, as that is just the sustain from the cranked-up amplifier.  The guys walked in and said, “Oh my God, that is a great solo.” 

The song was finished, and then it came out and it was our main hit in 1984, and it became our biggest hit for the rest of our career. 

Jeb: Did you use a sustain pedal when you played it live?

Brad: No, I never use sustain pedals.  I am a pretty straight up guy.  I have a little chorus for the intro to “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.”  I’ve got a delay pedal that I kick on for “Rumors in the Air,” and my cheater and my wireless. 

I ended up adding a compression pedal to get more sustain out of my notes when playing live.  On songs like “Sister Christian,” we kick on my compression pedal and it gives it more sustain. 

When I play live I am actually pretty raw.  I don’t use any effects while I am playing rhythms, except for the aforementioned ones.  I have been a straight up guy and I have always been wireless and I’ve always had the wireless built into my guitar and it has worked well for me. 

Jeb: Last one:  Do you still play the original Brad Gillis red guitar on stage? 

Brad: No, I couldn’t take it out anymore because, at one point, we were doing a puddle jumper flight on a small aircraft and they wanted to take it away from me and throw it down below.  I said, “That is not going to happen.” 

I almost got booted off a couple of flights because I would not give it to them.  It is too nerve-racking for me to travel with it anymore. 

They took it away from me on a flight to Denver about ten years ago.  It was in a soft shell case and they put it down below.  I freaked out.  It was the worst flight I had ever had, as I was worried about my baby down below the entire time. 

I would hate to lose it, or have it get stolen from a gig, or have it get broken.  I retired that guitar.  I have been playing my Fernandes copies that were made back in 1986.  They made 100 Brad Gillis models that were pretty much exact replicas of my number one 1962 Stratocaster guitar.  I have been using those live, and they all have original Floyd Rose tremolos on them with built in wireless and they have a 22nd fret added on the neck.  They are workhorse’s man; they do really well for me. 

Jeb:  Let’s end back on the High Road topic.  Anything you want to add?

Brad: We are excited to release this album and get some feedback from the fans.  We are excited to play a couple of these new songs live and we want to keep this machine rolling.