British Blues Meets Mersey Beat on Johnny A.'s "Driven"

September 18, 2014

To create his new record, Driven [Aglaophone], Johnny A. worked from 7:30 am to 9 pm, seven days a week, for 18 months straight, with no days off. Driven indeed. The former Peter Wolf sideman and prime provider of pop-guitar instrumentals was determined to build a professional home studio, learn engineering, and play all the instruments in order to make exactly the recording he envisioned.

Driven might also refer to the heavier grit and propulsive grooves of the record, as compared to the guitarist’s cleaner toned, swing and shuffle tunes on 1999’s Sometime Tuesday Morning and 2004’s Get Inside. Here, Johnny A. explains his process and reveals why he originally chose to eschew vocals.

Is that your solo on the Peter Wolf track “Romeo Is Dead?”

That was mine. I went straight from recording my own band’s demos, to co-producing what was to be Wolf’s breakthrough record for Warner Brothers, Long Line, in 1996. That experience taught me about seeing a project through, and maintaining a consistent vision throughout. I carried that discipline over to my first solo record.

On the Driven tune, “It Must Have Been You,” the syllabic rhythm of the title seems to inform the instrumental hook. Do you hear words in your head when you are writing?

I definitely do. I had a lyric for that song stuck in my head, and the rhythm of the melody was written to match. I am trying to become a strong deliverer of melody—like a singer. I am not as interested in speed or shredding. If I could be the “instrumental Beatles,” that is what I would want.

Did you play or program the drum parts?

I programmed every beat. I spent something like 30 hours per tune on drum programming. I began as a drummer— and I am a big fan of drumming— so I had specific ideas about the drum parts. I had originally brought in a couple of drummers to play on the record, but I wasn’t getting what I was hearing in my head. I also got some resistance from them, so I thought, “I can’t do this,” and I ended up programming all the drums.

Did the rock-oriented sound of Driven require different guitars than your previous records?

I played my Gibson Johnny A. models for most of the record. I also used a Rickenbacker George Harrison 360/12C63 12-string on “A Mask You Wear” and “Out of Nowhere,” a Gibson Firebird VII on a few tracks, a Gibson Les Paul, and a Fender Bajo Sexto makes an appearance, as well. For the bass parts, I used my Hofner reissues.

You said you liked the sound of the Gibson ES 295’s P-90s on the first record, but chose humbuckers for the Johnny A. model. Have you considered hum-cancelling P-90s?

No. I am satisfied with my signature models. I used to tour with the ES-295, a Les Paul, and a Gibson ES-335, but I dislike changing guitars. Plus, the ES-295 would feed back on stage. The Johnny A. model has a thinner body, so I can crank it up for the louder tunes, and it won’t feed back. The ebony fretboard and 25 1/2" scale help give it more of that P-90 attack—even though it has humbuckers.

Do you do compose solos or improvise?

Both. On “Ghost” and “C’mon, C’mon,” I jammed along with the track to shape the solo. “The Night I Said Goodbye” and “It Must Have Been You” were more composed.

“A Mask You Wear” has a bit of a Jeff Beck feel. How did you get that throaty distortion?

I used a BK Butler Tube Driver for the overdrive. I was actually going more for a George Harrison slide feel for the melody. He is my favorite slide player. I was trying to play forward, but make it sound like I was playing backwards—until the outro, where it actually is a backwards guitar. That solo was from the demo, because I couldn’t seem to recreate that same attack, feel, and tone when I went to redo it. That is why I establish the final tempo as I do the demos—anything I can’t reproduce from the demo can be dropped into the master later.

Is the synth like-sequencer chop on “From a Dark Place” a guitar?

No. That’s a Hofner bass running through a gated tremolo and processed in places with distortion and flanging.

On “Out of Nowhere,” what flanger did you use for the spacey effects on the bridge?”

It’s an EBow through the Logic flanger plug-in with an auto-pan added. I was going for the flanged effect from “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces. On “It Must Have Been You,” I put individual flangers on two rhythm guitars panned left and right. I spent days getting each one’s rise and fall just right. That is the kind of experimentation I never could have done before I built my own studio.

Is “Arizona Man” tuned down to C?

It is in open F with a low C. That is a custom Gibson Advance Jumbo acoustic with a thinner body, which was built for me by Gibson in Montana. What sounds like slide on the melody is me manipulating the Bigsby on my Johnny A. model.

You often vary your tone by picking in different places along the string…

That is just another attempt to make the melody more vocal—like a singer will change enunciation or add more grit to some words. I started as a singer, but while on the road with Peter Wolf, I developed severe bronchitis and laryngitis. I lost the midrange of my voice, and it never came back. When Wolf stopped touring, I had to decide what to do. I realized the deliverer of melody—which is usually the singer—defines a band’s sound. I didn’t want to be reliant on a singer who might quit for my sound, so my guitar became the deliverer of the melody.

Did you always hybrid pick, or did that come with solo playing?

From the time I picked up the guitar at 11 years old, I started using my pick and fingers— before I knew there was such a thing as hybrid picking. Even when I do Chuck Berry rhythms, I use the combination of pick and fingers, rather than just strum. My nails are way below the fingertips, so I get a softer, warmer sound with the meat of the fingers.

Are you still going direct?

The whole record was recorded direct— even the acoustics. There were no mics. The electric signal came from the line out of my Marshall 30th Anniversary amps. Live, I have started to use two Marshall JMP-1 preamps run clean with a Lexicon MX400 set to Dual Mono for a little air. I starting using the preamps rather than my Marshall 30th Anniversary heads while on tour in the U.K. with Joe Satriani, so I wouldn’t have to worry about shipping tube amps. The JMP-1s go to a Radial JD-6 direct box, and then out to the house. The guitar goes into a Johnny A. Signature VM-Pro volume pedal and my Signature Rewah wah-wah—both from Mission Engineering. From there, the signal goes to a T.C. Electronic G-System with three BK Butler Tube Drivers in the system’s loops.

You started going direct to avoid amp-miking inconsistencies from gig to gig, but what about the house EQ?

I modified the speaker emulators on my amps to sound correct flat, so the first thing I tell the soundperson is to bypass their EQ. It is usually voiced in a curve for vocals, anyway, and we don’t have any vocals. I know the EQ my guitars need, so if they feel they must use EQ, I might tell them to roll off a certain amount at 3.5kHz, and boost 100Hz. I also tell them not to add compression, because it messes with my picking dynamics.

Will you be using a second guitarist live for Driven’s rhythm and harmony lines?

I have a whole new band—which includes a second guitarist. I would have been able to do only a couple of tracks from the new record without one. Now, I can also do some tunes from the old releases that I couldn’t perform as the sole guitarist.

The Johnny A model is a beautiful design. Any plans for a new one?

We are relaunching the model with some changes. The ones they made for me always had rolled edges on the fretboard, but the production ones didn’t. Now, they will. Mine also had Bumblebee caps and CTS pots, and we are adding those to the production models, as well. The new Standard model will replace the mahogany top with a maple one, and it will come in a goldtop version and a new sunburst with a figured top.

How would you sum up the new direction on Driven?

It has more of an edge to it. I wanted to go with a heavier backbeat than previously— there are no shuffles or swing tunes on this one. I grew up with the music of the ’60s—British blues, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Yardbirds—and I wanted to explore those grooves. I was also inspired by the Beatles’ Revolver, which I understand was the first record where they used the studio as an instrument. I would describe Driven as British blues meets the British Invasion, but not in a retro way.

HOME-STUDIO UPGRADE

Johnny A.’s commitment to getting just the right sounds for Driven required some tweaks to his personal-recording space, so he made a trip to GC Pro (Guitar Center Professional) in Boston to seek out the right tools. Working with an old friend, GC’s PK Pandey, he upgraded to an SSL AWS 948 console, multiple Apogee Symphony systems, a Neve 1058, two Neve 1081A EQs, two Vintech X73 preamps, an SSL XLogic stereo compressor, a GML 8200 EQ, a pair of Universal Audio LA-3A Classic Audio Levelers, an Isochrone master clock from Antelope Audio, four Distressors, various items from Retro and Mercury Recording, a pair of John Hardy Twin Servo preamps, an ADL 670, a Logic setup, and Addictive Drums software from XLN Audio. Quite a lot in the shopping cart!

“I guess I was a bit naïve in the beginning—thinking I could take on this whole album myself,” says A. “But we made it happen. PK was well aware of my production techniques— of recording mostly direct—and I asked for his recommendations on analog gear. He knew all the right tools for the job. It was a daunting experience, but I’m blown away at the finished product.”

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