I had the pleasure of interviewing Guitarist Brad Gillis. Even a casual guitar fan is likely familiar with the playing of Brad Gillis. As one of the two lead guitarists in Night Ranger, Gillis brought shredding, virtuoso soloing to the masses via a string of hits like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “(You Can Still) Rock in America”, and “Sister Christian” that were equally embraced by album-oriented FM stations, Top 40 radio, and MTV. Night Ranger’s music has also featured prominently in dozens of films, from Sixteen Candles to the chilling, climatic drug-deal-gone-wrong scene of Boogie Nights. Gillis is also well known for quite capably filling the shoes of the recently deceased Randy Rhoads on tour with Ozzy Osbourne in 1982 and his stunning renditions of Black Sabbath classics on Ozzy’s live Speak of the Devil album.
However, people may actually be even more familiar with Gillis’s guitar playing than they realize. Over the last 15 years he has recorded hundreds of music themes regularly heard on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Fuse TV broadcasts. While he still tours and records with Night Ranger, his broadcast music gig has become his “regular” job.
Gillis is also using many of his vintage guitars on a long-awaited solo album that is finally nearing completion.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, back in 1965.
I was excited about playing instruments because the Beatles had just come out. And I told my parents for my eighth birthday, that I wanted a guitar and an amplifier. My mom knew I was into it. She played piano and she would sing around the house all the time. So music has always been in the family, they said, we’ll get you a guitar and amplifier if you take lessons. So I thought, okay, I’ll take lessons I wanted to learn and ended up taking a lesson from an older man in Alameda, California, where I grew up, but he was teaching me Mary had a little lamb and songs that I didn’t want to learn. I wanted to rock like the Twisted Sister video, I want to rock. So my brother, being seven years older than me at the time, had a buddy who played guitar. So he used to come over and teach me new things that my guitar teacher was not teaching me. And my brother’s friend said, Brad, if you just listen to the radio, you’ll start to figure out all these chords that everybody’s playing. Because if you learn by ear, and not by the book, you’ll be able to play more music and join anybody and jam along, because you’ll have the ear for it. So that’s all I did. I listened to the radio all day. And back then songs were simple, three or four chords. And I figured out what the one chord and the song would be, which would be the main chord. And I started to figure it out.
And then, when I was 10 years old, I started a band called the Invaders and we had a drummer that had a brand new Ludwig set, but he didn’t even know how to play it. And a bass player, a guy trying to learn bass. And we used to practice in the drummer’s house after school.
When I was about 12 or 13, there was a talent show at my school. And we learned the song, Gloria. And I sang it, and played it for the talent show. And when we got done, all the girls were screaming and everybody was clapping, and I was just amazed. It was like Zen for us. We came in second place.
After that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So, all through high school, I had rock bands, and we ended up playing parties all the time. When I got out of high school, “I gotta start making money playing music.” So I went to this guy’s house, I was only 18 and I knocked on his door. And I said, I heard you looking for a guitar player. And he said, “well, how old are you? I’m “18.” He says, we gotta be 21 to play in bars. You gotta hear me play. And he said,”I don’t think you could work out, you’re too young” And I said, “Let me just get my guitar.” So I went home, got my guitar, came back to his house, and I started jamming with them. And he’s going, wow, you’re pretty good. He said let me talk to the band and see if we can get you involved. Come on down and jam on the band. So I played with the band and they said, this guy’s pretty good. So they looked into all these clubs around the San Francisco Bay area that they performed at and they found out I could be 18 to play in bars, but I couldn’t hang out in the bar. So when there was a break I’d have to sit in the back and look through a curtain and watch the rest of the band members out there drinking and hitting on girls. I said I have to change this and someone said, go to Berkeley and for 50 bucks, you can buy a California ID with your picture on it and they’ll fudge your age to 21. So I went and got my fake ID and then all of a sudden it was game on.
I’m out drinking and hitting on women that are over 21 (they all thought I was 21) and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. We ended up playing five sets a night five nights a week and got my chops together playing funky stuff and rock stuff because back then disco just came out. We would play whatever was happening on the radio.
This band called Rubicon were looking for a guitar player and they came down and saw me play and they said, come on down for an audition. They said, we just got a record deal with 20th Century Fox records. We’re heading down to Hollywood to record our first record. It was a dream come true and I’m 18 years old.
And I went down to audition and there were 25 guys and I was the last one to audition. And they had given the cassette with all the new material from Rubicon to a guy named Danny Chauncey, to learn, and they basically hired him, but I was the last guy to come in and see if I was any better. We went to high school together and he was one year older and he always got better gigs than me. And now he’s sitting in the other room at this rehearsal hall with the cassette in his hands, seeing me walk through and going in to be the last guy to audition. So of course Jack Blades was in Rubicon before Night Ranger, and the lead singer and bass player for the last 38 years. Jack and I totally hit it off and he was jumping around the stage in circles. I started jumping around in circles with them playing my funky ninth chords and, then after jammin a couple minutes the leader of the band Jerry Martini says, alright, hold on band meeting. So everybody went to huddle in the corner while I’m still standing on stage when they’re talking. Then Jerry turns around and says, alright, who’s gonna get the cassette back from Danny.
That’s when I knew I got the gig.
Then we went to LA, recorded a couple of records and had a top 20 single called I’m Going to Take Care of Everything with Rubicon and we had a little tour that we went on. But on March 18, 1978 was the biggest musical day of my career. We played the Cal Jam at the Ontario Motor Speedway. We were the only unknown band on the bill. They had Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Heart, Dave Mason, Santana. There were 400,000 people at this concert and I just turned 20. They put us at the end but we were supposed to open the show because the opening slot was too big of a slot for an unknown band. So they figured Aerosmith is done, put us on after and have us play while the crowd leaves or not. Maybe 100,000 or 150,000 people left but there are still 250,000 people that we played to. They recorded a live video of it. They released a live double record and the whole show was on TV. And it was definitely a stable day in my career. The band broke up and Jack and I stayed together and Kelly Keagy joined Rubicon towards the end and we put together Night Ranger. We didn’t want to play because we were an unknown band, but we had material. We were already recording the record. And that’s when I got the call after the tragic death of Randy Rhoads to replace him in Ozzy’s band. So I flew up to New York and did the whole tour. And then towards the end of the 80s Rudy Sarzo, the bass player with Ozzy had an offer with this new band Quiet Riot. So Rudy had left the band and then a little bit after that, Night Ranger had an offer for a record deal with Boardwalk Records who had Joan Jett at the time with her big hit. We ended up finishing the record.
I had gone in and done a live record with Ozzy Osbourne called Speak of the Devil at the Ritz in New York in September 1982. So when I left the band, and we released Dawn Patrol, the same week, October 15 1982, they released Speak of the Devil, the live Ozzy record, so I had two records that came out the same time. Unbelievable for a kid like me.
We ended up going out with Kiss and all these great bands and toured the world, went to Japan and they just absolutely loved us in Japan and ZZ Top and Cheap Trick and these great bands we were touring with was just absolutely amazing. Then we released our second record Midnight Madness and it was just when MTV came out. So our videos were all over MTV because they didn’t have enough content. And we released Rock In America, and that was a big hit. And then out came this little ballad called Sister Christian. And it went nutty on the radio and the video they probably played 2530 times a day and that’s when it took us to headline status. We all took a break at home and geared up for headline status with a brand new stage and a big crew and big trucks with all of our equipment and big stage lighting. We started a headline tour, in late 1983 and we pulled into La Crosse Wisconsin and started our tour at the Coliseum. We had three buses at that time. We pulled up and the Marquee said “Tonight Night Ranger sold out!” It’s our first headline show. And that really made us all realize this is the big time. And we ended up having a great run all through the 1980s and released records and singles and big tours and then we went back to Japan and played Budokan, which is where Cheap Trick did their live record. And, it was a wonderful run doing 250 shows a year. We’re constantly on the road 9 to 10 months a year and then we go home for a week and go right in the studio and record a record so nobody ever really had any time off. Then right towards the end of the 1980s everybody was fried and we decided to take a break and Jack Blades went off to do Damn Yankees with Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent, and then Kelly and I got together and tried to do another version of Night Ranger, but it didn’t go too well.
But we released a record called “Feeding Off The Mojo” with Gary Moon singing. And I thought it was a great record but that’s when Nirvana came out and radio changed and the whole music scene had changed. We broke up and then Damn Yankees broke up. Then right around late 95, A Japanese label came to us and said, “we have a record deal pending for you.” We have a big tour in Japan if you get the original band back together. So we all got back together and went into rehearsal a little bit and went off to Japan. It was a total success there and that started the resurgence of Night Ranger.
At this point we were getting ready to do 100 shows this year at about 42 with Sammy Hagar and Whitesnake. Then in the middle of March, everything came down with the virus.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?
The Cal Jam was the biggest day of my life, but then I have some crazy stories about Ozzy. Every show was sold out with Ozzy all around the world. We’ve been to Japan and Europe, all over the States. In fact, shows were oversold and we were heading to my hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area in Oakland, California. We were booked at the Oakland Coliseum, my hometown. I had all my friends come and many of my band guys were coming to see me. My dad was going to come. And Sharon Osbourne came up to me two days before and said, I’ve got some bad news.
“So what’s that? “She said, Oakland’s been cancelled.”
“What? Why? So every show’s been sold out. It was due to the lack of ticket sales, I’m afraid to say.”
“And she goes, I’m sorry. And she walked away. My mouth is wide open. Oh my god all over the world we have sold out and then we come to my hometown, and it’s lack of ticket sales. And she took about 10 steps and turned around and said Just kidding. Sold out in three hours.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you’re working on right now?
Well, now we are all home and sheltered. Everybody in Night Ranger has home studios. And we’ve been putting out a record every couple years. And it’s been a couple years now since we have released one. So we’re starting to pass around different ideas to get this next Night Ranger record going.
Over the last couple years I’ve been putting together my solo record with Gary Moon singing on it. It’s to the point where I’m almost done with the record mix mixing and mastering. And now I have a few record companies interested in signing me. I am looking forward to putting that out because I haven’t put out a solo record in 20 years. The luxury of doing a solo record is you’re the boss. I’m able to produce songs I want, produce all the way that I want to produce it and I can pick and choose the best songs that I think are best for the record. We’re almost almost done with that. I can’t wait to get that signed and out.
And hopefully things will open up in 2021 for Night Ranger so we can go back and start touring again. But otherwise, I’m working with my new personal manager Raquel Bruno from Drive Entertainment Group. We’re back working on a lot of my TV placement music that I’ve been doing the last 20 years. I have placed about 400 tracks with ESPN Fox Sports and I did all the music for a couple Tiger Woods, PlayStation games, and a bunch of college sports stuff. And I just placed a flamenco track on the Price is Right.
We’re working together to get my whole new music library out to the masses and try to get more placements to generate more income on our time off. I have got a lot going on right now, but I love being busy and when I get going, I’ll spend 16 hours in my studio. And it’s never boring. It never gets old. It’s very exciting to be able to do what I love and do it in my home environment. I collect vintage guitars, I have about 120 guitars and about 40 amps so I’m able to get any sound I want. And which has definitely helped my music library with all the different genres of music that we have there, but never a dull moment and and and I’m just glad to be working and have a lot to play.
Who are some of the most Interesting people you’ve interacted with? What was that like? And do you have any stories about them that you can share?
Well, back in the early 90s, when Night Ranger broke up, I did my first solo record called Gilrock Ranch which was basically going to be all instrumentals. And I was working with a new kid on the block, this keyboard player named Derek Sherinian. We had met and got together and started writing these great instrumental tracks. He was a beautifully accomplished keyboard player that actually played guitars, keyboard solos, like a guitar player, and it was pretty exciting. We ended up doing this record and doing a bunch of solos together and stuff and was starting to branching out on different instrumental songs that unleashed my style on the record.
And right about that time the singer named Gregg Allman moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and he was hanging out with a few mutual friends. I had a barbecue one day and they said, hey, can we invite Gregg over and “I said, sure you can bring him over.” I met him and he was the nicest guy in the world. “I say, hey, Gregg, come see my studio.” So I took him to show him my studio. I had this track with a singer on it and I didn’t really care for the singer’s voice so I I turned the track off. And I turned the vocal track off and I played Gregg the song with no vocals. “He then says to me, can you play it again?” I played it again. “He goes, Hey, man, you got a pencil and piece of paper?” He’s writing lyrics. And think, Oh my gosh, I got Gregg Allman writing lyrics to one of my tunes. So he came up with the song in one day, wrote all the lyrics to Honest to God and it was a wonderful track. We put that on my solo record, along with another vocal that Gregg did. When we released Gilrock Ranch, we had radio placement for Honest to God. Next thing you know it shot up the charts and we were number 18 on Billboard and Billboard magazine. I was with a small record company at that point and they couldn’t get enough records in the stores for people to buy, but it was all over the radio. It ran its course. But just meeting and hanging with Gregg and having him write a few songs made my record just unbelievably cool.
Which people in history inspire you the most and why?
When I was about 12 or 13 years old, roughly around 1969. My brother being seven years older than me had all the latest greatest records that came out at that time, we’re talking Led Zeppelin, One Santana’s first record, Janis Joplin, the Doors. He had all of these fabulous records. And I would sit in his room and he would go out every night and I would just play the records. And since I had learned by ear, I was able to pick up these songs. And I started getting into playing lead guitar. And I was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck. So those are my three biggest influences in my career.
But those months that I sat in my brother’s room just listening and trying to perfect my guitar playing really paid off. And so those are the guys that drew my musical career around.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Well, Night Ranger at one point did a couple Make A Wish gigs and we’d actually have people from the Make-A-Wish Foundation come to our shows and we went down and visited a few kids in the hospital and gave a little love back to the kids. And just a look on their faces was just amazing. My thing always was to be nice to everybody, give them love and show them love with our music.
A long time ago I was hanging out with a musician who I won’t name, that was kind of a jerk. A lot of people and I saw that. And after he left town after the show that he did, everybody was talking about how he wasn’t a very nice guy and I thought to myself, I will never be like that because I would hate people to talk about me like that.
Growing up with a great family and music and was all around the house. My whole demeanor has always been to be fairly nice to people. And it pays off. You get a lot of fans and the meet and greets, they come back and we all shake their hands and take photos with everybody. We give them a minute or so of time and they tell stories and we interact with them and they come back the next year saying, Hey, you guys are one of the coolest bands we’ve ever hung out with. Just be nice and it pays off.
What tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burnout?
Well, as far as music, there’s nothing better than creating new music, because that’s quite an outlet for any musician. And just be creative and with everything going on, everybody’s just struggling just trying to get by. But music is such a great outlet, that’s one thing that brings everybody together. So that’s why I’m lucky to be home creating music and hopefully, some of the ideas that I’m recording now hit a nerve, just like Sister Christian did and Sentimental Street and some of these ballads that we had back in the 80s. I hear so many stories of going on the road and in our meet and greets people saying “oh my gosh,” I was going through a tough time and your song Goodbye really brought me through everything.
It is great to hear these stories from people that lived through the 80s and all the bands like Def Leppard in Germany it’s great music that came out back then. I remember cruising down the strip in some Midwest town with my stereo blazing on and my windows down singing and going crazy to Still Rock in America or Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.
What are five things I wish someone told me when I first started and why? Please share a story or example for each?
One of the greatest things was my brother’s friends telling me to learn by ear. So that definitely changed my life.
People told me to be nice, and I decided to be nice to people.
People told me to follow your dreams and don’t give it up and put 110% in and who knows it may pay off and luckily it did. My mother told me, Brad, just go for your dreams and goals. And don’t let anybody stop you. And you’re your worst demise. So stay positive.
And that really helped me out. And my sister always said, you know, Brad, you’re doing great, finish the song.
I end up moving from one project to another and one day I’ll go through like 16, 17 things or 20 things, but at the end of the day is if I get closer to the finish point, then I know that I’ve actually been productive and might have a viable product to put out when it’s done.
We’re blessed that some of the biggest names and business VC sports entertainment, read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why he or she might see this?
Well, being a big Beatles fan how wonderful would it be to have lunch with Paul McCartney. He was such a big influence on my playing and songwriting. That’s one person that I idolized as far as songwriting that I’d love to have lunch with.
A couple of my big idols I would have loved to spend time with in the past like Jimi Hendrix would have lunch. And then I think someone as crazy as Jim Morrison. Yeah, happy to hang out with him. The guy was so out there and wild and crazy I can almost relate to it sometimes.
How can people follow you on social media?
On IG — bradgillisofficial