Life in the Fast and Slow Lanes with the Racer X-Man
By Paul Hanson
Veteran guitarist Bruce Bouillet got his first big break while attending GIT (now Musicians Institute) in Los Angeles, where he became a student and friend of instructor Paul Gilbert. He soon joined Gilbert’s band, Racer X, as a second guitarist, and the duo attained legendary status for their insane precision harmony playing during the group’s initial run in the late 1980s.
After Racer X, Bruce formed The Scream in 1989, and they enjoyed some moderate success. However, severe hand tendonitis began to hamper his playing, ultimately leading him to abandon the guitar and turn to music production for a period of 10 years. After the long layoff, his condition had improved to the point where he could reunite with Gilbert on the 2007 G3 tour. Most recently, Bruce has released two instrumental guitar albums, and he continues producing, playing, and writing with various artists.
Not long ago, I talked with my old GIT colleague for a BOSS Tone Radio podcast. To listen to our complete conversation and clips of Bruce’s music, visit www.BossUS.com/Podcasts.
The following is an excerpt from our discussion.
Where did you grow up?
Vincennes, Indiana. It was a good time growing up there. I must have gotten lucky, or it was a sign of the times, but when I was a kid there must have been 12 different bands in a town the size of 20,000 people. I just grew up around a lot of music there.
You were about 20 when you moved to L.A. to attend GIT. How did you hear about the school?
I’d subscribed to Guitar Player magazine, and I [saw] an ad for GIT. I really wanted to get to L.A. I looked into it a little more and I was really into it. Mom and dad, once again, had my back on it and said, “If that’s what you want to do, we support it.”
Did you get a place in Hollywood then?
Yeah. When I came out here, it was the typical scenario—guitar in one hand and a bag of clothes in the other. [Laughs.] I moved right around the corner from Mann’s Chinese Theatre, and one block from another guitar player both of us know real well: Paul Gilbert.
You know, I just started writing down the names of teachers from that period at GIT, and they’re all famous: Norman Brown, Frank Gambale, Scott Henderson, Paul Gilbert…
It was pretty incredible, really. I remember it was just so amazing to walk down those halls.
In the main performance room, I remember seeing players like Robben Ford, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and Larry Carlton.
Wow, unbelievable. That was a funny experience for me. You’ve got to picture me, coming from Indiana. I was sort of the big gun in my neighborhood where I grew up, playing wise, by the time I left. I remember having in the back of my mind [that] there were going to be so many amazing guitar players in L.A. [that] I’m probably going to be inundated or just give it up.
The very first day, Paul Gilbert is giving his end-of-the-year performance credit, playing the first Racer X album. I remember looking at the guy next to me. I’m kind of bummed, you know, and I asked, “How old’s this dude up there?” And he said, “17.” I was like, “I knew it! I knew it!” [Laughs.]
Did Paul Gilbert become your private instructor?
Yeah. I had heard at the time that he was also going to start teaching. So, the minute he stopped playing that day, I walked up to the front of the stage and was like, “I heard you’re teaching. I want you for my private teacher!” [Laughs.]
So, Paul was my private instructor [at GIT], and it happened to be that I was his last student of the day. So generally, once we finished, we’d walk toward his apartment, which was the same way as mine, and we would just talk about music and stuff.
Were there some things that you remember learning from him as a private instructor?
Obviously, there were a couple picking things that he’s gone on to almost put his name on. But I think, overall, it was just sort of the shock and awe of seeing Paul being that young, that aggressive on the guitar, and that advanced with his kind of sound. He had a particular sound that was pushing up at the forefront.
Did you have a practice schedule?
A lot of it was just jamming and stuff like that. There was so much to see. It was hard to narrow it down half the time. You’d walk through the school one day and come back wanting to do four or five different things great.
Less then halfway through going to the school, I’d gotten the gig playing with Paul [in Racer X]. At that point, [I’d] switched over to really trying to be able to play things that he could play, as I knew I was going to harmonize with him. That really started consuming my time. I really started being able to emulate what he did, and trying to throw my two cents in, too.
I saw you guys at the Troubadour, and it was packed with wall-to-wall people. Do you have any special memories of those Racer X days?
All of it stood out. It just happened really quickly. Within six months of moving to L.A., I had gotten into a band with musicians that I thought were incredible. We had already been playing a couple shows around town and then were immediately up at Prairie Sun above San Francisco recording the second Racer X album.
Second Heat is the studio album, and then you guys recorded two live albums. Where were they recorded?
They were both recorded at the same time, really. We did a Saturday/Sunday show at The Country Club in Reseda, California. It was one of the greatest clubs. I always wished they’d open that back up.
After Racer X, Paul formed Mr. Big with Billy Sheehan. You formed The Scream and signed with Hollywood Records. Can you tell us about that band?
It was probably around ’90 when we signed, I think. Racer X had broken up in ’88. Unfortunately, at that point in my life, I’d had really bad hand problems.
Did you have tendonitis?
Yes, really bad in my fretting hand, my left hand. It was actually in my palm and my wrist. It had gotten so bad that [I missed a couple of the last] Racer X shows. [I was] getting injected with cortisone and stuff like that, which wasn’t thrilling me. At the time, I had to make a decision based on how much I could play, so around the time of The Scream you could really hear a shift in my playing from the Racer X days.
Your playing was more laid-back. And you played slide on “Man in the Moon.”
Well, that’s more of the background I’d had growing up in the Midwest. My father was country oriented, and I had some really good guitar-playing friends. One was from Chicago; he was a blues guy. So, I definitely had a lot of that growing up. I kind of reverted into that because it was the most comfortable thing to go back to. That was a fun band. We toured a lot, and we were one of the first to sign with Hollywood Records.
When the whole grunge thing happened around that period, guitar chops weren’t that important. It’s funny you went that way because of your hand.
I had no choice, really. My hand was starting to blow out. It eventually came to the point were I had to stop playing.
Did Eddie Kramer produce The Scream’s album, Let It Scream?
Yeah. The guy who [worked with] Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. It was quite an experience. Obviously, it was the first time that I’d been involved in a major deal. Because Hollywood Records was built out of the Walt Disney empire, they had tons of money and [were] obviously spending tons of it. We got to work with great people.
Over the years, you’ve become a producer and a recording studio guy. I read that, by 2001, you’d worked on at least 75 albums.
After DC-10, my hand had kind of run its course. [Editor’s Note: DC-10 was Bruce’s band in the ’90s.] So, I built up a couple studios in L.A. and just started producing. I turned all the stuff I had learned toward that side of it. I really got to record some incredible people.
I saw a picture of your pedalboard. You’ve got a bunch of BOSS pedals, including a CE-2 Chorus.
Yeah, the light blue one. I love that pedal. It’s got the two knobs on it. That one’s straight off my high school pedalboard.
They just don’t break.
They’re there for life. I had a couple other pieces that became too much real estate for my pedalboard, but I had some of the old [CE-1] chorus ensembles. Back in the day, I loved those things.
I saw a PH-2 Phaser on your pedalboard, too.
Yep. Over my span of playing, I can’t count how many different ones I’ve run across. I used the [GE-7] graphic EQ pedal a lot. You’d turn the thing up and it’d give you the perfect overdrive, if you needed an extra boost. I [also] used the yellow OD-1 Overdrive. The DS-1 [Distortion], I have one of the original ones. It’s interesting…in 2007, I got to re-team up with Paul and go on a G3 tour. For me, that was pretty phenomenal, because it’s a Holy Grail tour for guitar, and I was just coming off of 10 years of not playing.
Was that with Joe Satriani or Steve Vai?
Satriani and John Petrucci.
And Paul, too?
Yeah. It was funny, because halfway through the tour I was kind of hanging out at sound checks, checking to see what [Joe] was using. He asked, “Hey, do you want to play through [my rig]?” And [I said], “Sure!” He said that through his whole run he’d used sort of clean tones on the amps and the DS-1 as his main sound. I thought that was an amazing idea to travel the whole world with one box and your amp and still be able to have your tone.
You’ve been doing instrumental albums. Is your hand back in shape again?
Around ’99, I had started working with Paul again on some of his albums, helping produce and mix and whatnot. I ended up doing a few stints in Nashville around the same time, and I had been producing a lot of bands. And a band approached me to start playing with them, a really heavy underground band. They were like, “We know you play, dude,” and I’m like, “I don’t know.”
So, I ended up taking a guitar and tuning it to an open A. I experimented playing again with a one-finger approach. Lo and behold, about two years after hooking up with these guys, we got signed to Elektra.
What band was that?
This was a band called Epidemic. In 2001/2002, we released an album on Elektra, and we opened up a whole summer for Nickelback, opened up for Jerry Cantrell, [and did a] lot of festivals with bands like Hatebreed, P.O.D., and Rob Zombie. I did that all playing with one finger. It’s just kind of amazing.
After that, I switched my whole style of playing. For some reason, it popped back to where I could play again, and I don’t have the problems any more. It just came back, so I started doing solo albums again.
Do you have any final advice for guitarists?
Enjoy what you do and don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. If you like it and it sounds good, then it is good. In hindsight, it really pays to go back and research as many different players as possible, because there are a lot of hidden gems out there. Especially now with YouTube™, there are so many things you can find. And, play with as many different people as possible.
Any last words about BOSS?
I’ve put in about 30 years now of playing. I had BOSS on the pedalboard back 30 years ago, and I’ve got BOSS on the pedalboard 30 years later now. I’m glad they’ve been there to add those extra effects and make guitar playing that much more fun!