A Conversation With… Bibi McGillTuesday, January 13th, 2015
We’re pleased to host yet another edition of Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn’s “A Conversation With…” series. This edition finds Jeff catching up with Beyonce guitarist Bibi McGill.
The warm summer wind seemed to quicken my pace and elevate my state of excitement as I made my way to Rawlicious in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. Once inside, I was greeted by one of the greatest guitarists and musicians on the touring scene, Bibi McGill. She was kind enough to meet for our interview on her night off while in the middle of Beyonce’s On the Run Tour. Guitarist, musical director, entrepreneur, and yoga instructor, Bibi’s spiritual character beams both onstage and in everyday life.
A self-described “rocker from the beginning,” Bibi grew up listening to Santana, Heart, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and Earth Wind and Fire. She points to the three times she went to The Isley Brothers concerts as key moments in her childhood when she knew she would pursue a musical career. After her parents noticed her playing air guitar with a pool cue for her siblings, she was asked if she wanted to learn to play the real guitar. Bibi began taking private guitar lessons at the age of 12 and performed in her high school concert band, jazz band, and city marching band before attending the University of Colorado for Music Scoring and Arranging.
In her early 20s, her goal was to “make a living playing music,” so she moved to Los Angeles after college. After playing in original bands on the LA circuit and building up her musical reputation, she landed the gig as guitarist with Pink on a six-month promotional tour. She performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Dick Clark’s Rockin New Year’s Eve, Saturday Night Live, MTV, and many more shows in a period she characterizes as a “catalyst moment” in her career, after which she was called for many opportunities. She would go on to tour with Mexican singer Paulina Rubio and Chilean group La Ley (commonly referred to as Latin America’s U2) for three years.
After these experiences, Bibi did something quite unexpected. Tired of the music industry, she quit music and began teaching yoga classes in LA. Eight months later, she was told by some of her friends that Beyonce was holding open auditions and that she should audition. She admits she had little interest. She liked Beyonce’s music but was not interested in returning to the rollercoaster environment of touring. It wasn’t until she got a phone call from her father, a barber, who had heard about the Beyonce auditions and encouraged her to try out, that she conceded. Bibi auditioned in both LA and New York and landed the gig.
Since 2006, Bibi has performed guitar and served as musical director (for six of the past eight years – a position she has since handed over) with Beyonce playing the great stadiums, arenas, TV shows, and award shows of the world. Some of her greatest performances include an epic pyrotechnic guitar solo at the Super Bowl XLVII half-time show, headlining Glastonbury 2013 for an audience consisting of over 187,000, and performing at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama’s birthday in January 2014.
Beyond performing with Beyonce, Bibi is a yoga instructor based in Portland, Oregon, and spends a great deal of time visiting spiritual sites globally, attending retreats, and delivering yoga instructional seminars. She is also the owner of Bibi Kale Chips.
I had the opportunity to ask Bibi questions about her career, the experience of touring with Beyonce, and the role of women in touring bands.
JG: Comment on the experience and role of women as touring musicians.
BM: As women, we naturally bring a tuned-in emotional perspective to the music performance. Not to stereotype, but I think women musicians are less concerned with ego than some male performers. I think women musicians may provide more thoughtful and tasteful playing for the overall benefit of the song rather than concern themselves with flashy playing. Live performance is about serving the songs, and the emotion and feel of the music are the most important things.
JG: What makes a great musical director?
BM: For the six years I was the musical director for Beyonce, my job was to run Beyonce’s vision for the show – to take the blueprint and make it reality, to understand and make everyone in the band view the group as a collective, a collective effort for a single goal of making a great show. We are a family on the road. Being a musical director is not just about music; it’s about being a psychologist. It’s about solving problems. It’s about making sure everyone shows up on time. It’s about talking to the people back stage and under the stage to make the show a success.
JG: What makes a great live show?
BM: A concert is an exchange of energy circulating between the performers and the crowd. As musicians supporting the artist, we must harness the energy of the artist for the audience. It’s about creating oneness between the performers and the audience by way of the flow of energy from the music. The goal is for everyone to tap into their own spirit at a concert.
JG: I know there are naturally many musical influences for a musician but if you had to pick one, which guitarist has been the most influential on your own playing?
BM: Randy Rhodes.
JG: How important is music education in schools and beyond?
BM: I think music education is very important. Kids need music in schools to engage themselves and develop their creativity. My reason for going to college was to simply learn more about music. The more we learn about music and our instrument the more we can channel and express creativity.
JG: What guitars and pedals do you use live and in the studio?
BM: I used my Gibson from 2001-2013. Now I use Japanese FGN, Fender, and ESP guitars both live and in the studio. I use Line 6 mod amps live and Quilter Amps and analog pedals in the studio.
JG: Describe your pre-show warm up routine.
BM: I don’t do a warm up other than whatever scales I’m feeling at the moment. We rehearse and perform so many hours, so between that and my yoga… I find it’s most important to ground myself spiritually.
BM: To learn to play a range of instruments including the native flute and didgeridoo. I would also like to do more music production, DJing, master Ableton, and incorporate guitar in my healing practices.
JG: What advice do you have for up and coming guitarists?
BM: Find your own voice. You are unique. It’s not about being the best guitar player; it’s about being you. In order to do that, you must practice your guitar, learn songs, train your ear, play as much as possible, and create music.
I left our interview feeling inspired by Bibi’s energy. I had the sense that if we work hard for our goals, what is meant to be will ultimately find us, even if in unexpected ways. Look for Bibi on tour with Beyonce, check out Bibi Kale Chips at www.bibikalechips.com, visit her website at www.yogabibi.com, and follow her on Twitter @NovaSky.
Jeff Gunn is the author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar Series with Mayfair Music Publications. Hidden Sounds is available at Long & McQuade, Steve’s Music, Cosmo Music, and many more stores, libraries, and music schools across Canada, the UK, Australia, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, Turkey, and more. Jeff co-wrote the song “Scars” with Emmanuel Jal and Nelly Furtado for the soundtrack to the film The Good Lie (Warner Brothers), featuring Reese Witherspoon. He has appeared on CBC’s The National, Global TV, MuchMusic, CTV’s Canada AM, Good Day New York, TEDx Talks, and performed on guitar and as musical director for Emmanuel Jal, opening for such acts as Peter Gabriel, Mumford & Sons, and Ellie Goulding. Jeff is a regular guitar tips contributor with Canadian Musician and several magazines globally. Visit www.jeffgunn.ca, gunnjeffrey on YouTube, and follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffgunn1.