Five men walk out onto a small stage surrounded by an enthusiastic group of admirers. Three men pick up acoustic guitars while one sits down behind a drum set and the other takes his place behind keyboards. The studio is small and intimate, perfect for what these rock & roll musicians have planned: an acoustic presentation of some of their most popular songs. Jazzing up what could have been a sedate ho-hum sing-a-long, Night Ranger really doesn’t know how to do calm. Not with the snap-crackle-pop of vocalist Jack Blades and his side-kick, the other red guitar rocker, Brad Gillis.
But on this night, Night Ranger has decided to slow things down just an inch to give their fans something a little bit different. And so it goes that on their freshly released new DVD/CD combo 24 Strings & A Drummer: Live & Acoustic, the band sits down and jams. Filled with foot-tapping renditions of their hits interspersed with funny introductory stories, this band from the 80’s continues to evolve thirty years after their first album landed in record store bins.
And Gillis is one of the reasons Night Ranger has chugged along with the kind of energy you mostly see in bands twice their age. However, on the day that he called in to talk with me about his career, he was enjoying a lazy, beautiful day in the East Bay, “home for eight days so it’s kind of nice,” Gillis laughed.
I bet you’re enjoying that. You guys are always running so hard and touring all the time.
Well, you know it’s summer touring time and we’ve been out and about for three and a half out of the last four months. A lot of flying, you know. We do a lot of the weekend warrior stuff where we fly out Thursday and play Friday and Saturday and fly home Sunday or we do four or five day runs here and there. So it’s been good, it’s been busy, no problem there. It’s a good season for seventies and eighties rock. It’s all coming back and everybody is doing good numbers.
Night Ranger has just released a DVD and CD called 24 Strings & A Drummer, which is a live acoustic performance. How did that come together?
Well, we got offered another record deal for another electric record, a regular album, and they also came back and asked us if we wanted to do a live acoustic DVD and we thought, that would be kind of cool and challenging and different for us. We’ve released a lot of records but never an acoustic one and we have often played a lot of acoustic either in the middle of our show where we’d break it down and do a few acoustic numbers. Or we go to radio a lot and do morning shows and bring a couple of acoustic guitars and do a nice little interview and play “Sister Christian” or “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “When You Close Your Eyes.”
But it was let’s go in and do this DVD and change it around a little bit and do some new arrangements on some of the songs and kind of spice it up a little bit, add little vocal breaks here and there and things we hadn’t done before. We took this one song called “This Boy Needs To Rock” and we changed up the tempo and did a whole number on that. Then we do our classic “Sister Christian” number and we all play acoustic along to that. The big challenge for Joel Hoekstra, the other lead guitar player, and I was trying to take our heavy lead guitar solos that we do live and translate it into acoustic. We had work to do to get that done and it turned out pretty great. We were very happy with it.
It must be exciting to put some new spice into it, like you said, because you’re not doing the same old thing you’re used to doing night after night.
Yeah, exactly. We definitely wanted to change it up and we did it up here in the Bay Area at TRI Studios, which is owned by Bob Weir. It’s a nice state-of-the-art complex that we were able to invite about a hundred of our best friends and family to come down and see us. So we’re just waiting for the release on this and hopefully maybe follow it up in the wintertime and go out and do maybe some acoustic shows.
You’re celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of your first album. A lot of things have changed in the music business since then.
Well, that has all changed for sure. Everybody could pretty much get things together in their own home studios and trade files back and forth and end up piecing it together that way. But you know, I’ve been making records since I got out of high school, that’s when I got my first record deal, and we’ve seen the progression from analog tape to digital and everybody just kind of rolled with it and went with these state-of-the-art recording techniques.
Do you like it better?
It’s just easier to do. It really is. Computer-based music is easier to edit and fix and slide things around. And sonically with all the new-grade equipment and gear out, things sound great out of your home studio. You can get sound record quality.
Do you feel like you’ve been in Night Ranger over 30 years?
I kind of do because you know I’ve been touring so much through my whole career, and the ups and downs; you know the band broke up for a couple of years and went through other projects. It seems like I’ve been doing music all my life (laughs). And it kind of takes a toll on you sometimes and that’s why you need that little break at home. Now, back in the eighties when we first came out and started touring in 1983, we jumped on a KISS tour, then we went out with ZZ Top and Cheap Trick and all these big tours we were opening for, and we toured probably eight or nine months out of the year. We’d take a couple weeks off and the other couple of months of the year we’d go on and do a record so it was pretty much eleven months worth of work throughout the eighties for us.
We broke up in 1989 and got back together in 1995 and started out kind of slow, doing thirty or forty shows a year, maybe even doing a record, then it’s been building up more and more to whereas last year we did almost a hundred shows and 65 were with Journey and Foreigner. We went to Europe and Japan and it was a great year for us. We’ve seen things build back up to the point where we’re working a lot now and we’re still drawing big crowds and we’re playing with a lot of great bands. We just got done playing with Boston and Foreigner and Cheap Trick and got shows with Journey coming up and a little Canadian tour coming up with Journey and Loverboy in late November/early December. So we’re staying busy.
When the band broke up and everyone went and kind of did their own thing, did you think Night Ranger would ever get back together?
Well, you always hope that things will work out and luckily they did. The Japanese came in in 1985 and asked us to put the original band back together and go to Japan for a tour and do a record. We all got in a room together after not seeing each other for quite a few years and played “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and “Rock In America” and we all looked at each other like, yeah, this is great, like old hat (laughs). We went on a successful tour in Japan and started building the band back up, building the brand back up. So it’s to the point now where William Morris is booking us and we got great management, Doc McGhee, and with that kind of clout behind you we’re able to go in and do some great shows with some great bands.
And you’re still out there promoting Somewhere In California, which you released last year.
We’ve been playing a few of the songs live and they’re coming off real well and it’s always great to promote new stuff. We don’t want to overplay the new material cause we want to throw in our hits and the songs that people really want to hear. So we just throw in maybe one or two new songs in a fourteen/fifteen song set. Of course everyone wants to hear the big songs: “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Rock In America” and “Sister Christian.”
When you’re creating music, you personally, where do the ideas come from? Is it just from noodling around on the guitar or do you wake up in the middle of the night and have riffs in your head?
Yeah, it’s all true, there are all different types of ways to write music. But for me, I’ll just get a great groove in my head and I’ll grab a guitar and do a great guitar lick and I’ll get a melody for a vocal and just kind of piece it together that way. Sometimes you just have a great song or lyric idea and you kind of write the music around that or sometimes you will hear a great beat, you know. I’ll hear a great beat and I’ll get a drummer over here and have them lay down this beat that’s in my head and I’ll play along to it and kind of piece it together that way. So there’s all different ways of writing a song but what I do best is music. I write a lot of music tracks at my house cause I do a lot of music for ESPN and Fox Sports, where they want music that’s in the background, where football players are running on the field for Sportscenter and such. I’ve wrote over a couple hundred music bits for ESPN and Fox Sports in the past twelve years. I kind of got the music thing down where I’ll get a drummer in and slam down some drums and I’ll put the bass and guitars on it and just kind of do things that way. If I feel that it’s that good, I’ll save it for a Night Ranger project or a solo record project or a collaboration with somebody. Otherwise I will just put it aside and give it to ESPN and have them use it.
How long have you had the red guitar?
Since the dawn of time (laughs). There’s the original 1962 red Fender Stratocaster, which was given to me in 1978 by a friend of my brother’s who played guitar and he ended up taking it all apart and sanding it down and never finished putting it together and he came over to my house one day and asked me if I wanted it. He goes, “I got this guitar and I can’t seem to finish it,” and I said, “Sure, I’ll take it.” It was not a big deal back then cause it really wasn’t a vintage guitar, plus it was all sanded down; but Fenders play great and it had a good feel to it. I put it together and had it painted, the neck painted, and added a built-in wireless original Floyd Rose tremolo system and I did all this work to it and that’s the guitar that I’ve used throughout my career with Night Ranger and I used it on the Ozzy tour when I toured with Ozzy for eleven months back in 1982 and on the record Speak Of The Devil that I did with Ozzy. So that’s been in pretty much every record that I have done since 1980.
I toured with it for a long time and brought it with me on the road. The whole Journey tour last year I had it out. But now that we’re doing these weekend warrior gigs where we fly a lot, I really hate to carry it on my back because sometimes on a smaller airplane they’ll take it away from me and put it underneath and that’s happened to me a few times and that’s pretty scary, you know, cause it’s a soft-shell case and you don’t want them to throw it around and break the neck. So I retired it and I use it at home to record. Basically I have a Brad Gillis Fernandes Fender Stratocaster copy that was made back in 1986. They made a hundred of them that they sold and the first few they made they gave to me so I use them on the road for my lead guitar now. It looks pretty much exactly like my original Strat but not all beat up (laughs)
You mentioned that you toured with Ozzy. Was that stressful when he called you in to play after Randy Rhoads died and you had to learn all the songs on such short notice?
Yeah, it was crazy. They flew me out to New York and I had only known two or three of their songs and I sat in the hotel room for four days with a cassette of the live shows that Randy Rhoads was on with the boom box and a little amplifier. And every day I practiced twelve or fourteen hours a day learning everything and on that fifth day I was told I was ready to jump up and play and we did a gig that was in Binghamton, New York, and it was sold out, 8000 people, and that was my first gig with Ozzy. I had never rehearsed with the band before or even met most of these guys. It was all a new experience for me and I was only able to do seven or eight songs out of the fifteen/sixteen song set during soundcheck and then I played that night. It was probably one of the scariest nights of my life, you know (laughs).
But I got through it and I screwed up on one song and Ozzy looked over at me when I screwed up and I went, Oh jeez, and I stopped and got back to where I was supposed to be in the song and finished it out and actually did pretty good for never rehearsing with the band. And the next night Sharon comes up to me and goes, “Bradley, you did great last night but tonight don’t screw up.” (laughs)
What do you think you learned the most from touring with Ozzy?
I guess what I learned is how to be on the road and deal with big stages and lots of people and sold out shows and playing with new musicians and basically getting my road shoes on. So when I went back to Night Ranger, I had toured so extensively with Ozzy, we did Europe and Japan and the States, so when I went out with Night Ranger, I could groove quite easy being on the road and playing these big stages.
What was it like playing with Rudy Sarzo, who was in Ozzy’s band at the time?
Rudy was great. He was so helpful with me and any problems I had on any of the songs, he guided me and helped me out. When I thought I wasn’t cutting it or I felt down and out, he gave me pep talks and kept me going and pretty much helped me throughout the whole tour. He is a wonderful man.
So where did you grow up?
I’m a Navy brat, my dad was a pilot in the Navy, and I was born in Hawaii. Then he got stationed in Alameda, California, which is in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I pretty much grew up in Alameda. Right when The Beatles and the Rolling Stones came out, I started having an interest in music. My mother played organ at home and she was musically inclined and had a good voice. I had music around me growing up so I asked for an acoustic guitar for Christmas when I was seven years old, seven and a half, and my dad got me an acoustic guitar and I started messing around on it, learning some chords, and was really digging it. And for my eighth birthday, I asked for an electric guitar and an amplifier. My dad was kind of reluctant cause back then the guitar and amplifier he got me was $150 and that was a lot of money back then. He said, “Well, you know, you seem like you’re in to it so I’ll buy this for you but I want you to take guitar lessons.” And I thought, deal (laughs). So he bought it for me and I started taking lessons, learned a little more and more, started learning how to read music. Then this friend of my brother’s came over and showed me a bunch of guitar chords and how to play lead and I just really started getting into the guitar a lot more.
When I was ten years old I started a band called The Invaders and it was me and some buddies. We played some Beatles songs and Rolling Stones songs and Monkees songs; we were just having a lot of fun. Then I kept getting better and better and by the time I was a freshman in high school, my lead guitar skills were getting pretty good and I was asked to join a band with all Seniors cause I learned faster than other kids. So I ended up doing the Senior prom when I was a freshman in high school, which was pretty amazing (laughs).
Because of that I hung out with an older crowd and I always played with older kids and when I got out of high school, being eighteen years old, there was this band that needed a guitar player and they were playing the club scene in the San Francisco Bay area. I heard about it and went over to the keyboard player’s house and knocked on the door and he saw me and I introduced myself and said I’d like to audition. He asked me how old I was and I said I was eighteen. He said, “Well, you got to be twenty-one to play in bars.” “I’ll get a fake ID.” “Well, I don’t know.” “But you got to hear me play.” (laughs) He was nice enough cause he knew my sister who was a bit older than me and he said, “Well bring your guitar and come on back.” So I went home and got my guitar and came back and jammed with him and he pretty much loved my playing and said, “We got to get you in.” So I went to Berkeley and got a fake California ID, not a driver’s license but a California ID, and sure enough it worked. I was able to play in these clubs when I was eighteen years old. And that really helped me out for my musicianship cause we were playing all kinds of different styles of music, like funk and disco-kind of stuff and rock stuff, which I knew pretty well. It was a good learning experience playing five nights a week, five sets a night, in a club.
That’s where I was discovered by this band that needed a guitar player when I was nineteen called Rubicon. Jack Blades was in that band and it was a funk-rock band and they hired me with that band and we did a couple of records and toured a little bit and did this huge show, which is still the biggest day of my life. It was March 18, 1978, at the Ontario Motor Speedway and it was called the Cal Jam 2. Our band Rubicon was fairly unknown except for a slight radio hit we had. But we played with Heart and Dave Mason and Santana and Ted Nugent. It was just this amazing bill to be on and there were 250,000 people there. Being flown in by helicopter and limoed around and playing on this big huge stage that they filmed for a live TV broadcast and a double record. It was quite an experience for me.
Then that kind of morphed into Ranger, as we were called when we first got together, and that’s when Kelly Keagy first joined the band; right at the end of Rubicon, Kelly joined and Jack and Kelly and I stayed together and started Ranger, which turned into Night Ranger when we found out there was a country band out of Nashville called the Rangers. It was a little too close so Jack Blades had written a song called “Night Ranger” so we just put a Night in front of our name and ran with that.
When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician and not just playing in little bands on the weekends for fun?
Probably when I was a freshman in high school playing with the older guys and my goal was always to either play Winterland or the Cow Palace so I had a goal to keep moving on ahead with my career, to keep getting better at my trade. I just put 100% into it all the time. I never really had a regular job except for being a salad bar man at a restaurant once and delivering groceries at a market for a month or two. So getting out of high school and playing five nights a week, playing music and making money, was the best thing ever for me. I thought, wow, I can make a career out of this. Then I went professional and started making records and it took off on a whole new level.
Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
It would have been Eddie Money. I was a senior in high school and I had a band and somebody had a private party and hired Eddie Money and my friend’s band was second-billed and our band was third-billed to Eddie Money. And I remember going and meeting him; that was when he was flying high with “Two Tickets To Paradise.”
Do you have any plans to do another solo album?
That’s funny that you mention that. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been home the last couple of days. I’m putting together all these tracks; it’s a lot of hard rock music with a lot of energy to it and I’ve been recording drums and guitars and getting all these tracks together. I plan on getting some special guests, big league singers, on the record too so I’m trying to get together tracks to give out to some of these singers to figure out which ones they could sing on. I’ll move along with that and writing Night Ranger material and some Tv music.
You worked with Gregg Allman on “Honest To God” off your first solo record. What was it like working with him?
It was a great experience. He had moved to the Bay Area, we had mutual friends and he had started a band called Gregg Allman & Friends and the friends he had hired for his band were all buddies of mine. So I started watching them play and sitting in with them and I had a bar-b-que at my house one day and invited him over and he came over and I had that music track of “Honest To God” already recorded and we had another singer on it that I really didn’t like what he wrote or his performance. I thought, maybe I’ll play it for Gregg and turn the vocal totally off so he could come up with his own idea basically. So I started playing it for him and he really enjoyed the track. When I got done playing it, he said, “Play that one more time.” I played it again and he got out a piece of paper and a pen and started writing down stuff. And I thought, what is he doing? And I get done playing it for him and he goes, “Hey man, let’s get everybody out of the studio, I want to try singing this.” “Sure” (laughs) Got everybody out and set up a microphone and two hours later we had that song. He ended up coming back the next day and we went over it again just to get things a little better and more in tune and in time. We had great radio airplay all over the country with it and it was actually #18 on the rock charts, so we had a semi-hit with it. Gregg is one of the nicest guys in the world and just so soulful and bluesy and he just really nailed that song.
Night Ranger is so closely associated with the Bay Area. What is so special about San Francisco?
Well, the best thing about the Bay Area is the weather. It never gets below 40 degrees, it has beautiful hills and trees, and you have the beaches and the ocean. From my house I go two hours east and you’re in the snow, in the mountains, so it has everything to offer here. You know, my dad told me when I was a kid, him being a pilot, he said, “You know, son, I’ve been all over the world and the Bay Area is the best place you’re ever going to live.” And I found out for myself that is totally true. It’s great to come home to beautiful weather, especially when you’ve been in Memphis, Tennessee, in June and the humidity is like crazy and it’s 100 degrees and you’re sweltering out there (laughs). San Francisco is nice and all the attractions there and the food is great here in the Bay Area. No smog, it’s beautiful here.
I understand that you’re a motorcycle guy.
I have rode motorcycles all my life. My dad brought me home a Honda 90 motorcycle from Japan when he was flying back when I was fourteen and that’s when I had my first bike. I pretty much rode for quite a few years and then I was showing off one day and crashed my bike and I could have hurt myself real bad. But it kind of shook me up to the point where I thought, we’re touring pretty heavy right now, I can’t afford to break a wrist doing something like that and put everybody out of work and stop a major tour so I sold my bikes and I quit riding. Then about five years ago I thought, well, all my friends have Harleys, which is a nice slower ride and there’re some great roads and hills around here so I thought I’d get me one. So I bought a nice little Harley, kind of low-rider, silver and black, hundred year anniversary bike, and put on little things here and there. So I like riding with my buddies on the weekends when I’m home, just a nice little ride up in the mountains around here.
When you’re home, that’s the key word
When I’m home (laughs). The next few months we only have a dozen gigs, things are slowing down, so I’ll have a lot of time to go for rides and work on music and just kick back for a while and not have to travel (laughs)
Geoff Tate has been in the news a lot lately, what with all the turmoil going on between him and his band Queensryche. But MY ROOTS recently had a chance to explore the man behind the voice. Join us next week for an insightful talk with the voice that created not only Operation: Mindcrime but his own wine as well.