If you’ve ever entertained thoughts of being a rock star, chances are Gilby Clarke has already gone and lived your fantasy. The celebrated rock and metal guitarist has built a career as one of the finest session and touring musicians in rock, with a Rolodex that’s the envy of many a tattooed pretender.
Starting out in Los Angeles’ decadent early 80s hair metal scene, Clarke first courted success as the lead guitarist and vocalist for metal bands Candy and Kill For Thrills. In the 90s he kept busy as the touring guitarist for incredible bands like MC5, Heart, Nancy Sinatra and Slash’s Snakepit, as well as famously serving a three year tenure as the rhythm guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, replacing Izzy Stradlin at the height of GNR’s powers (and excess).
You might also remember Clarke from the TV show Rockstar, where he joined up with Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe and Jason Newsted of Metallica to find a singer for their supergroup Rockstar Supernova.
After touring the world for nearly two and a half decades with a host of huge bands, Clarke has seen everything from tiny shows in the back rooms of bars to the opulence of private jets and groupies.
“There are still times when we get the private jet and relive the decadent times,” Clarke says, “but for the most part, rock’n’roll is very different now, and it’s hard to play a show and party it up afterward and then do another show the next day. The drinking and partying is hard on your voice and body when you’re in your 50s. You have to be more responsible to your fans and not just show up and say ‘I have a hangover, sorry’. People pay good money to see you at your best!”
Looking at Clarke’s CV, you can imagine the kind of anecdotes he must have stored away in his memory, but he’s not dishing any dirt up just yet.
“I’ve thought about writing an autobiography – maybe some day. I do think I have an interesting story that hasn’t been told – not just another Guns N’ Roses story, but of a kid from Cleveland who had Kiss posters on the wall and dreamt of being in a great rock’n’roll band; the struggles, successes and the ups and downs of life as a working musician. And I also lived through the fun 80s Hollywood rock’n’roll scene and remember most of it.
“Of all the bands I’ve played with, Guns ‘n Roses was the most fun to tour with; but playing those MC5 songs on guitar live and loud was pretty much guitar heaven. Playing with Heart was challenging, just because I heard the songs differently from how they did. I always thought of Heart as a rock band, with those wonderful vocals and harmonies, but I was bit loud for them – even though I was only playing a 50 Watt Marshall Half Stack – and my personality clashed.”
Between lending his axe skills to some of the biggest names (and biggest heads of hair) in the business, Clarke has also kept up a steady output of solo material; from his solo debut Pawnshop Guitars in 1994 to 2007’s Gilby Clarke, he’s put out seven albums and EPs, and it’s this deep back catalogue that he’ll be digging into when he comes out to Australia for a series of solo acoustic shows this month.
“It’s a nice challenge, going back to acoustic,” Clarke says. “I wish I was a better singer, but I put more emphasis on the songwriting when it’s acoustic and try to make it fun, not stuffy and boring. This time I’ll be mostly playing songs from my own records, but there’ll also be some Guns ‘n Roses, Rolling Stones, and Bowie in there – the good stuff.”
BY NICK JARVIS
Clarke plays Hermann’s Bar in Sydney July 6 alongside Divine Electric.