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
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
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
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.
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.”