By Jeb Wright
Brad Gillis is most famous for being a hell of a lead guitar player in the rock band Night Ranger. With the major success Night Ranger has achieved over the years, it is easy to forget that Brad replaced Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band after Rhoads was killed in a freak airplane crash on March 19, 1982. Brad appeared on Ozzy’s live album Speak of the Devil and then left the Prince of Darkness’ band to release Night Ranger’s first LP Dawn Patrol.
Now, a few decades down the road and Gillis is still with Night Ranger preparing to release another new album—there is, however, a snag.
In the interview below, Gillis reveals a medical issue with bandmate Jack Blades that may delay the new album. We also discuss Brad's insatiable appetite for guitar collecting, his guitar work for ESPN and an upcoming solo album just waiting to see the light of day.
Jeb: Night Ranger fans are curious with regard to the rumors that there is a new album around the corner. Is it true?
Brad: I will give you a scoop as to what’s going on. Basically, we’ve been doing this record for a while for the Frontiers record label. We are getting excited to release this in a couple of months… but… we’ve been on the road all summer and I guess Jack has come down with a problem with his vocal cords. He’s gone to see the doctor.
We’ve got three in a row this weekend, but we have next weekend off. We’re trying to rest him up so we can finish the lead vocals on the record to get it out. The way it’s looking we might miss our deadline. If we do, that means we’re not going to be releasing the album until next year and we are going to have to blow off Japan in December.
Jeb: That sucks.
Brad: Tell me about it. The record is about ninety percent done. We just have to get some lead vocals and some backgrounds done. The guitars are done. The solos from Keri Kelly and me are done.
It is a great record. We are sticking to that Night Ranger format of the big choruses and twin guitar leads. That formula has always worked for us.
The good thing is that we are out on the road kicking butt. We’ve been doing shows with Boston and we’ve got a bunch of shows with Rick Springfield. We’ve been playing with Loverboy… it’s the same-old same-old. Life is groovy.
Jeb: Night Ranger is fortunate, as you came out and can tour with anyone from 1973 to 1990.
Brad: That is a good thing. We were right in the heyday of MTV when it came out in late 1982. We had a great run all through the decade.
We’ve sold something like 18 million records worldwide. We are very lucky. I thank my lucky stars for being with such a great outfit. We all get along well and we have a blast out on the road. We humor each other to keep the positive vibe going.
It is too bad about this record. Everybody was looking forward to it. You know, things may change and he may get better and we may be able to pull it off. Right now, Jack needs to get back to the doctor to find out the final word on his vocal cords.
Jeb: All kidding aside, when you make your living singing that is some serious shit.
Brad: Yeah. The problem is we couldn’t figure out where he got it. As I am a guitar collector of vintage guitars, Jack is a collector of old war memorabilia and old uniforms and flags and stuff like that. He’s got an extensive collection of that stuff. He moved up to Washington State and had this room dedicated to all of his stuff. I guess that stuff has a lot of mold and stuff in it. When he was in there working on that room for a couple of days he got some of that mold on his larynx. There ya go…
Jeb: This is one of those weird-ass things that wasn’t supposed to happen…
Brad: Yeah, but at least they figured it out. We are just trying to get through these three shows in the Midwest. He will then get some rest and some medication. He will hopefully get better. The machine is still rolling and we’re having a blast. Otherwise, Jeb, life is good.
Jeb: Your last couple of albums were on Frontiers as well...
Brad: Yes. The last album was High Road. What is great about them is that they release to about a dozen European countries and they license to America and Japan. We’ve always done great in Japan. Man, we were looking forward to going there in December. We will see what happens in the next couple of weeks.
Jeb: I’m going to choose my words carefully because I don’t want to disrespect anyone. Some bands get a record deal just to get a paycheck and they don’t care so much about the songs. Night Ranger is still writing great rock songs and working hard to make them sound great. You guys don’t rest on your laurels.
Brad: I’ve got to tell you, Jeb, with the nucleus of the band being Jack Blades, Kelly Keagy and me… what we usually do is that the three of us get together and start pounding out song ideas. Jack and Kelly have always had the gift of great lyrics and melody. We parlay that into great Night Ranger songs. We get together with Keri and Eric on keyboards and then we start building off of that. Those guys come in with some great stuff, too.
It has always been about melody and song choice. We may run down 20 to 25 ideas and we pick the best 11 or 12 for the record. There is no rush on releasing it with Frontiers knowing that we tour a lot, we are able to kind of get a grasp on the songs. We can make any changes we need to make and we can make them a little better.
I will tell you this new one is a great record. We’ve got a lot of good ones on there. I was excited about releasing it. Like I said, we will see what happens.
Jeb: Do you work together easier at this stage of your career, or do people still argue and fight for their ideas?
Brad: As far as individuals in the band?
Brad: You kind of end up knowing what’s good. Once you start playing it and everybody starts singing along… this is before any recording has started. This is just slamming out songs at somebody’s house or in a rehearsal place.
We actually went to Nashville and slammed some stuff out there. We went to Kelly’s house with a bunch of ideas. We came to my house in the Bay Area with a bunch of ideas.
After a while, you just kind of realize what the best songs are for Night Ranger and what fits the mold. We tried to stay within our comfort zone of which songs sound like Night Ranger. We didn’t want to step out of the box too much. When you get a formula and it works then you’ve got to stick with it.
Jeb: Writing solos is a different craft than writing songs. How do you keep coming up with new ideas?
Brad: I’ve gotta tell ya that I actually practice!
Jeb: That’s a great answer.
Brad: I get these rough ideas and I fire them up on my computer and I plug in my guitar. If it is a solo section that I’m doing I just loop it and I just keep playing it. I will let this eight or sixteen bar loop go and every roundabout I will just try a whole new approach, you know. If I record them all and listen back it will almost sound like sixteen different guitar players or ideas that I can pick and choose to where I want to go with the solo. Having your own home studio gives you the luxury of doing stuff like that.
Working with Keri Kelly is great. He is an amazing player. He spent seven years with Alice Cooper and a couple of years with Slash. He’s a great player. Losing Joel was tough when he went to Whitesnake, but Keri is a great player and he’s very articulate and has great ideas. He actually contributed a great amount to this record. I’m just looking forward to getting out and having people hear this new music.
Jeb: Keri has fun on stage.
Brad: He throws it down. He sings well and he’s got a good upper end full voice, which helps our harmonies. He comes out with the middle voice and doubles Kelly and Jack. Eric has more of a lower voice that rounds out the bottom. What I really love about this band is that we’ve always had that nucleus of Jack, Kelly and me singing back grounds and whoever else is in the band enhancing that. We’ve played with some of these bands, and I won’t mention any names, but you hear these background chorus tracks going and you’re like, “Reaaaaaallly?” We’ve never done that and we will never have to.
Jeb: You collect guitars. Some people collect PRS. Some Gibson… Some Fender. You seem to collect it all. Do you have a favorite?
Brad: I collect everything of vintage value and I try to collect pieces that I don’t normally play. I do that just to grab that vibe of that guitar and see what it is all about.
My collection is up to about 130 or 140. I started getting into more eclectic guitars, like Dan Armstrong Lucite 1969 guitar/bass that they came out with. Rickenbacker basses and 12-strings guitars… I got on a Martin kick for a while. I have about 30 Martin acoustics now. I started getting into the pre-1969 Brazilian wood with the D-28 and the D-35 and the D-18. I started stepping out of the box and getting stuff like the Gibson J-200 that Elvis Presley had his name on the neck. The J-200 with the vine going down the neck is cool. I started getting into the early ES335s in different colors and such. I got into early ‘70s and late ‘60s ones. I grabbed a couple of ES-335 12-strings from 1965 and 1966 which are amazing.
Jeb: What are you currently looking for?
Brad: A couple of things that I’m currently looking for… I’d love to get one of those 1961 or 1962 Les Paul SG’s. I want the white three pickup model. I’ve always wanted one of those. I’ve been looking for one. I can’t find one that is clean enough or that is in the price range I want to pay.
Jeb: Do you look on-line or do you go around the cities you travel through?
Brad: I get on Craig’s List in each city that I’m going to and spend that day hitting people up. A lot of times someone will hit me back and I will invite them to the show and get them on the list. They bring the guitar and we work out a cash deal and I have them send it home.
I do a lot of local Bay Area Craig’s List. I’m looking at that three or four times a day. I jump on that. That is where I ended up a couple of weeks ago buying an ’82 Coreanas Gibson Moderne to add to my Coreanas collection.
I’ve got a bunch of Gibson Explorers and Flying V’s and Modernes from the early ‘80s that are nice collectible pieces. I just collect whatever I feel is of value. I really don’t sell a lot of guitars but I am thinking of selling a bunch of my Seventies Strats because it is going to take too long for those to go up in value. I’d rather sell them and put that money into buying ‘50s and ‘60s era guitars that are worth money.
Jeb: I knew if you sold them you’d use the money to buy more guitars!
Brad: I’m going to sell some stuff to go for more vintage things that have value. The thing is, whenever I buy a guitar I bring it home and I take it apart and I clean the pots. I check it out and make sure everything is right. Anything that needs to be done with fixing the switches and such gets done. I put it back together and clean all the forty or fifty years of gunk off of it and throw it back together, string it up, intonate it and adjust the neck and I make it happen. I then play that thing. I play it when I am doing something for ESPN or whatever I’m working on at the moment. I may use it on a record or whatever. Then I take it back to my storage. I have this storage away from my home that is underground and it has a constant 68 degrees with no humidity. That is the perfect place to house vintage guitars.
Jeb: What is your Holy Grail?
Brad: I don’t have any ’59 Les Pauls. I’ve never owned one so that would be something I’d like. I’m not ready to shell out a couple of hundred grand for one yet. I try to get a fairly good deal on whatever I buy. I always go in with cash. You know, I’ve got quite a collection. It is serious fun and it is a great hobby to have.
I have the luxury of traveling around the country to be able to hit up some of these Mom and Pop music stores and Craig’s List and even eBay. I always try to bring them to the show and see the guitar and buy the guitar.
I ended up buying a Les Paul R-8 a couple of months back from some guy that came to our show. It was absolutely mint. It is fun and it is my passion. It is also a write-off.
Jeb: You are on an upcoming album by the band Vicious Rumors. You’ve been on other albums of theirs previously...
Brad: Oh, Vicious Rumors… there you go. Geoff Thorpe, the lead guitar player and leader of that band, has been my buddy for a good 25 to 30 years. We’re both from Alameda, California, originally.
He had great success with that band, especially in Europe. He would always hit me up when he was home saying, “Brad, I’m doing a new record, man… You want to come play on it?” I never ask for money. I never wanted to get paid for it. I want to do it because it is stepping out of the box for me to do a heavy metal record.
We are just slamming. I go and I pop a solo on it for him and in turn he would come over to my house and I would play bass and he’d play guitar. I would record a couple of cool little riffs with him. I can turn them into tracks for ESPN or something. It kind of worked out for both of us. I’m on the latest one that is just coming out real soon. I think it is my fourth CD I’ve played on with those guys.
Jeb: They are traditional metal?
Brad: It is total traditional metal. They stick to their guns with what they’ve got. They are popular in Europe. Whenever I talk to him in the summer time he is heading over there to do festivals. A few months back I did that solo for this record.
Jeb: When do we get a Brad Gillis solo guitar-fest album?
Brad: I’ve been working on this solo record for a couple of years now. I will tell you… I’ve got some great stuff that I am digging. Some of the stuff I wanted to keep for my own and not give it to Night Ranger because it is more for a screaming vocal in the Sabastian Bach vein. I’ve approached a lot of singers… a lot of them are big guns… about singing on the record. It is hard to lock down when they are not touring or I am not touring. They live in L.A. or New York and I’m up in the Bay Area.
Once this tour is over and things slow down I’m going to start slamming that solo record and finish that up. I have a good fifteen to twenty tracks. It is just finding the right singer. I wonder if I want to grab just one guy to do the whole record or should I grab different singers for different songs and do all guest singers?
I need to get through this tour and finish the new Night Ranger record first. We also recorded a live DVD at The House of Blues in Chicago about a month and a half or two months ago. We’re trying to finish that up and get it mixed and out. You know this TV music I do, I’m definitely busy and I like that… but there will be a time that I will finish this solo record soon.
Jeb: You have a passion for guitar playing, like a kid.
Brad: I’ve got to tell you, Jeb, here’s the deal. You go into a different city and you play. You’ve got a different crowd and a different stage. You’ve got a different gig each night. Even though you’re playing the same songs, it is a different environment.
Between Jack being a little firecracker up there and Keri’s energy and Kelly’s slamming it on the drums and Eric is on keys… we’ve got this machine going that is working.
What I like to do, being at my ripe old age, is to pull into a city and I get my good night’s sleep or whatever. I wake up and hit the pool and I hit the gym and I try to go for a walk. I check out vintage guitars in the town and I get fired up and I do my show. We put 110% into it because we still have the passion. We really, really do.
Jeb: Before we end, I have to ask about the song “You Can Still Rock in America.” Did you know when you heard that one it was a hit?
Brad: That’s been the closing song for Night Ranger’s history so that says something there. With everything going on in the world these days it still transcends and people still comment on it and sing along to it. It is a staple for this band since the dawn of time.
When that one came out, Jack had the actual vocal idea and I came in with the riff and we threw down the song and brought it to the band. It was our first single off of our second record and it did fabulously on MTV and it took us to the next level.
Our next song, this little number called “Sister Christian” came out and then our world changed. I will never forget… with “Sister Christian” they said we were doing well and that we had a mega hit on the radio and they made us a headliner. I remember pulling in with our bus and all of our equipment to Lacrosse, Wisconsin in 1983 and on the billboard it said, “Night Ranger-Sold Out.” That is when I knew we were making it big.
Jeb: Night Ranger has three prongs: The hard rock stuff, the ballad stuff and the, for lack of a better word, this classy pop… like “Sentimental Street.”
Brad: Oh, I love “Sentimental Street.” That is a great song for Kelly to sing and we still play it every night. I love playing that guitar solo because it’s got feel and melody. It is probably our second biggest ballad hit that we’ve had. That is a great song and I really love to play it.
Jeb: Was that one of the addictive things about this band? That Night Ranger had so many musical weapons? Were you smart enough to realize that or were you just young and dumb and trying to make it?
Brad: I was young and dumb… and smart, trying to make it. It was all of the above.
We had this whole way of making the song sound like Night Ranger but drifting off into different styles. It could be something hard rock like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” or something very soft and emotional like “Goodbye.” The song “Goodbye” was written by Jack and Jeff Watson. Jack wrote the lyrics and it was about his brother who died of an overdose back in the late ‘70s. That is heavy, you know.
On the other side of the coin you have “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” which is a little slap-you-in-the-face song about women. You’ve got to try to hit all of the different areas and we’ve been lucky enough to have a handful of hits that helped us sell the records we’ve sold.
We are still together since the inception in 1980. We’re still out doing it. There is nothing wrong with that. I love the way it is working now because we play on the weekends and we are home during the week. We call ourselves ‘Weekend Warriors’. We hop on that plane on Thursday and we play Friday and Saturday and sometimes on Sunday. We are home on Monday with a couple of days off and then we are back out again. That is our routine from March through October.
Jeb: It is a good gig, Brad.
Brad: Yeah, I can’t complain, dude. I cannot complain.
Jeb: Last one: Did you leave Ozzy or did you get fired?
Brad: I left Ozzy after Rudy Sarzo left to join Quiet Riot. The situation coming down was very uncomfortable for Rudy… they brought in Pete Way to play bass and we finished the last leg in Europe. Things just didn’t feel right anymore.
I had a bunch of my buds back at home that are getting offered a record deal with songs that I was part of. It was something that was fresh and new.
I quit Ozzy. I quit and came back to the band and they signed us up. I had just finished the Speak of the Devil live recording with Ozzy and I had just finished the Dawn Patrol record by Night Ranger. Both records were released in the same week in October of 1982.
The old radio magazine… what was that called? It was the A&R magazine… I forget what it was called. Anyway, there was an A&R magazine that came out for radio stations that had two picks of the week. They had Speak of the Devil and Dawn Patrol as their picks of the week. That was pretty interesting.
I just didn’t feel comfortable with Ozzy and I knew my buddies back at home needed me to get this record out. I rolled the dice. I’ve been with the same band for 35 years and Ozzy has been through about six guitar players, so I think I made the right choice.
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