The Hardest Working Guitarist in Rock n Roll
When I showed up at Morgans Pub in Calgary at 9:30, things were pretty low key. I wasn’t too surprised, though. It was a damp, miserably cold evening in late April, and Thursdays are hardly best night to go out if you’re looking for crowded dancefloors and wild parties. That all changed, however, when Gil Tougas and his band took to the stage.
Fronting a trio called Three Way, Tougas stepped up to the mic with his guitar, introduced himself and his band, and busted into one of the best cover sets I’ve ever heard. They made their way through an enjoyable regimen of rock n roll classics, playing everything from the Stone Temple Pilots and the Tragically Hip all the way back to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. As Tougas was onstage playing cover after incredible cover, that’s when it happened: the scene at the pub exploded, going from a couple of guys drinking at the bar to a full-on, densely-packed party, crowded with people dancing, drinking, playing pool, and enjoying the tunes. At one point, somebody burst through the front doors and exclaimed, “I heard you playing Rock n Roll in here and you know I couldn’t just ignore that, I had to come in and check it out!” At that moment, I couldn’t have agreed more.
There are two things that make Gil Tougas so notable. First, it’s his incredible talent and mastery of music. When Tougas takes the stage and starts singing, it’s impossible not to take notice. His voice is undeniably fantastic – and I don’t mean that in the gritty, rock n roll sense. Tougas has a truly incredible set of pipes. When he sang What Is and What Should Never Be, you could have closed your eyes and imagined that Robert Plant from 1969 had taken the stage. More impressive than that, though, is his skill with an axe. Tougas is one of those players who are somehow capable of making the most complex, intricate guitar solos look utterly and unbelievably effortless. The instrument functions almost like an extension of himself – he’s completely at ease onstage, and playing even the most difficult riffs and bridges looks like a perfectly natural affair. Every trip up and down the fretboard was smooth, calculated and uncomplicated. It was really a treat to watch – I guess that’s what 37 years of practice will get you!
The other thing that sets Gil Tougas apart is his gig schedule. When I was originally put in touch with Tougas, I was told that I wouldn’t have a problem finding a night to see him perform, because he “plays seven nights a week.” I’ve heard this turn of phrase before, and it’s generally meant as a hyperbole – not so in Tougas’ case, though! Along with Three Way, Tougas also performs in Broken Toyz (an 80’s hair metal group), Lost Boys (a five-piece electric group), a variety of duos and jam sessions, a band called Lack of Prozack, and as many solo acoustic gigs as he can get. When I asked him about whether he was crazy to be involved in so many musical projects when most people have trouble just keeping a single band together, he laughed in a good-natured way. “I like a full plate,” he told me. “I like being busy all the time. When I’m not doing something, I pretty well go crazy. I love what I do. There’s a million guys out there who would love to do what I’m doing, so I have no complaints. I just live to play.”
I’d mentioned there were two things that made Gil Tougas unique, but I want to amend that and add in a third: he is one of the most genuinely happy and humble individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of chatting with. That could have something to do with the fact that, as he mentioned, playing music is his fulltime job. “I’ve been doing this 100% since 1989. I get to do what I love every day. I play anywhere from 5-7 nights a week, for the last 28 years. It’s awesome.”
That being said, it’s not like Tougas is living the life of a rock star. In playing music for a living, he’s essentially running a small business, in which the service he provides is his talent. And like all freelancers, that means that a lot of Tougas’ time is spent looking for that next opportunity. “I’m always hustling, always looking for work and interesting little projects,” he informs me. “Still writing, going to start working on my second album pretty quick. I just still believe in the whole concept.”
And that’s what it comes down to. Tougas is where he is and can do what he does because of his attitude, his ambition, and his talent – but also because he still believes in making music, working hard, and hustling to play shows. Sounds to us like he’s living the dream, but even as a fulltime musician, Tougas still gets asked that one question that every long-suffering musician has heard a hundred times over again: “How come you haven’t made it yet? It’s kind of insulting, but yeah, I get it. But then, I have to ask, what’s your definition of ‘making it’? I’m like everybody else. I’ve got a house, got a mortgage, got car payments, got kids, and I’m a happily married guy…I’m doing just fine! I’m still trying to break into that bigger picture, but it’s like winning the lotto, it’s really tough. You just gotta keep doing it, and if you don’t love it, don’t do it.” Brilliant stuff from an incredibly hard-working rock n roll musician.