Johnny A. Reveals His Gorgeous Gibsons, Gretsches & More

The studio ace shows us his rare guitars and talks about his new album, 'Driven.'
By cscapelliti,

This story taken from the NOV/DEC 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine, which also features Joe Perry, Taylor Guitars, Johnny Winter, Jay Somers, and much more. Check it out at the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

Home Alone: Performed, engineered, and mixed entirely on his own, Johnny A. recorded his latest album, Driven, with a stunning collection of guitars.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Trent Bell

“This is the very first electric guitar I bought with my own money," Johnny A. says proudly, grabbing a compact, off-white 1964 Vox Clubman from a stand and twanging out a few unamplified notes. He’s standing in the luxuriously appointed basement of his house, just north of Boston, dressed in shades, a white linen shirt with light-blue stripes, black jeans, and Beatle boots. Behind him is a plush lounge area with a pool table and a well-stocked bar (he’s fond of Scotch). Skull-shaped shot glasses stand at regular intervals on the granite countertop. In front of him is the comfortable studio space, dominated by an SSL console, where the rocker recorded and mixed the entirety of his latest instrumental album, Driven.

“It was 1965 and I was 12 years old,” Johnny recalls as he strums the Clubman. “I’d been playing guitar for about a year. Before that, I was a drummer. My aunt ran a beauty salon in Medford, Massachusetts, and right down the street from it was a music store. One day, I looked in the window and there was this Vox. I wanted it, but it cost $88, so I ended up sweeping the hair clippings in my aunt’s salon every Saturday until I had enough money to get it. I’d go into the music store every week and give the guy a few more dollars, and finally I got the guitar. And you know what? I just plugged it in yesterday for the first time in years. It still sounds good!”

Johnny has picked up a few more guitars since then. He currently has about 70. “I don’t think of myself as a collector,” he says cautiously. “I’m an obtainer of things I want to use. Most of my vintage guitars are gone, actually. I’ve owned ’52 Teles and L Series Strats and early Les Pauls, but I’ve gotten rid of all of them. The guitars I have now are all the guitars I want, and the reason I have them has nothing to do with their worth.”

Johnny's 1964 Vox Clubman

The core purpose of all these instruments is to serve a musical talent that has made Johnny A. a staple of the New England rock scene for decades. In the Eighties, he was a key member of the well-loved Boston band Hearts on Fire. In the Nineties, he hooked up with famed J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf. Following his seven-year tour of duty as Wolf’s guitarist and musical director, Johnny recorded an instrumental solo album, Sometime Tuesday Morning. One cut from it, “Oh Yeah,” hit Number One on the adult alternative radio chart in 2001, the first time a non-vocal track had reached the top spot in more than 10 years. He hasn’t looked back since.

“While I was on the road with Wolf,” Johnny says, “I got a bad bronchial infection and my voice never came back right. So I knew I wasn’t going to be a singer. For my own music, the guitar was going to have to carry the melody. But that way of thinking came naturally to me anyway. I was always drawn toward being melodic.” Indeed, one hallmark of Johnny A.’s enviably fluid style—which bears strong resemblances to the playing of Jeff Beck, Chet Atkins, and Danny Gatton—is that he never lets his obvious virtuosity trample over his good taste.

This year, he celebrates the 20th anniversary of his becoming a Gibson endorsee. The relationship began in a disarmingly straightforward way: Johnny cold-called Gibson and asked if the company was looking for players to add to its roster. Gradually, he began working more closely with the Gibson Custom Shop and putting his mark on the guitars it built for him. A lovely LeGrand archtop attests to that (“I asked for Grover Imperial tuning machines, which Gibson hardly ever uses, plus a very thin spruce top and abalone inlays”), as does a pair of striking Firebirds.

“For years, I was begging them to make me a Firebird VII like the one Brian Jones used,” Johnny explains. “Finally, they got [former Gibson luthier] Phil Jones involved, and he’s a Firebird fanatic. The one thing I told him was that I didn’t want a typical skinny neck. So the Custom Shop borrowed a dead-mint Firebird from a doctor down in Nashville and took all its measurements. They still didn’t have any of the original lyre tailpieces, so I ended up sourcing a brand-new old-stock one from a store in Canada. The problem was that it was nickel instead of gold. But then I somehow got hold of an original gold vibrato arm, so I took the tailpiece to a metallurgist, who stripped it and redid it in gold to match the arm. They even used the original Sixties wood sealer on it!” The result is a gorgeous reproduction of Jones’ ax, which was later used as the basis for an “official” reissue model. Arguably even more stunning is another custom Firebird that Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz gave Johnny in 2002—its finish is an eye-popping green marble.

Johnny's custom Firebird in green marble finish

Buying a 1996 ES-295 helped inspire Johnny to kick his solo career into high gear. He eventually switched to Les Pauls for live work, and he still has a bunch, including a 1969 sunburst (originally a gold-top) signed by Les Paul, a fetching 2001 Cadillac Green model with a Mary Ford–style pickguard (the finish color was sampled from a 1955 Gretsch), and a 2002 pink Playboy design commissioned for a Playmate of the Year photo shoot. (It given to him by Gibson’s Rick Gembar at the request of Johnny’s daughter: “She was a preteen and couldn’t even play guitar,” Johnny says, “but she liked the look of it.”) Still, he grew to miss the distinctive hollowbody tone of his 295 onstage. Eventually, he and Gibson jointly decided to develop his own signature guitar, combining his favorite traits of both archtops and solidbodies.

First sold to the public in 2003, the Gibson Johnny A. Signature has a maple top with scimitar-shaped f-holes, quarter-sawn mahogany neck with 25 1/2-inch scale, two humbuckers, and a Bigsby vibrato (a crucial element in Johnny’s playing style—“It just has a certain girth to it,” he says). He owns about 30 of them, mostly one-offs, including the prototype, the first official model built, and a few with finishes so fluorescent and sparkly you’d need sunglasses to look at them in the right light. “What can I say?” he says, chuckling. “I’m a child of the Sixties. I like sparkles.”

Gibson Johnny A. signature models, many in custom sparkle finishes

Among Johnny’s many other notable Gibsons are a 1936 L-00 (a Christmas present from his wife and daughter), a 1966 EB-0 bass, a custom Johnny A. Montana Advanced Jumbo with breathtaking woodwork, and a pink-and-white 1960 Skylark lap steel. But his collection doesn’t revolve around just Gibsons. He also has a few Fenders, including a 1997 Telecaster Bajo Sexto and a James Burton Tele that he picked up during a 2005 appearance at Burton’s first International Guitar Festival in Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s signed by all the festival participants, including Burton, Steve Cropper, Brad Paisley, and Jerry Donahue. “They passed these guitars around for us to sign, and we thought they were going to be auctioned off or something,” he says. “Then at the end, James gave one of them to each artist on the bill!”

Elsewhere in the studio space are a recent-vintage Rickenbacker 360-12, a Jersey Girl electric with distinctive maple control knobs, a purple sparkle–finish Washburn acoustic/electric allegedly built for Prince to use on the 1984 Purple Rain tour, a 1993 Martin D-28 (“That guitar’s a cannon”), a rare three-pickup Silvertone from the Sixties, and a 1984 Bond Electraglide. That last guitar is a rare and bizarre Scottish-made electric model with a carbon-fiber body, graphite neck, digital controls, active electronics (which require an external power supply), and fingerboard that has no frets and resembles a staircase.

Sitting in a hardshell case nearby is a sunburst Gretsch Viking, purchased new in 1967. “I was an impatient teenager when I bought that guitar,” A. says. “What I really wanted was a White Falcon, but they told me it was going to be a 13-month wait. I wasn’t going to wait 13 months, so I got the Viking instead.” Right next to it is a more modern Gretsch, a 2004 Golden Anniversary 6120 given to him by the company after a NAMM show.

Johnny’s custom Gibson LeGrand archtop

Johnny also has a thing for Hofner basses—not just the classic 500/1 violin-style bass that will forever be associated with Paul McCartney but also the company’s chunkier Club model. “I got them to make me a Club Bass just like the Sixties ones, but without the neck binding,” he says. “I love it.”

A choice selection of the guitars mentioned above, plus a few others, were used in the making of Driven, which Johnny engineered and mixed on his own, in addition to playing all the instruments. “I had never put my hands on a recording console in any kind of serious way before,” he explains, “so I was learning the gear as I went along. I also had never planned to do the whole album at home, but the demos I made here sounded so good that I finally realized, I can do this. It was work, though. I took myself off the road for almost a year and concentrated on making this album for 18 months, seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day.”

Clearly, the album’s title is apt, for it describes its maker to a tee. And from the dense riffing of “Ghost” to the supercharged Sixties-style pop confection “C’mon, C’mon” to the inspired cover of the Bee Gees ballad “To Love Somebody,” you can hear that the finished product was worth all that effort. “I didn’t want to compromise,” Johnny says, a statement that applies just as well to his method of recording as it does to the way he designs, acquires, and plays guitars.

This story taken from the NOV/DEC 2014 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine, which also features Joe Perry, Taylor Guitars, Johnny Winter, Jay Somers, and much more. Check it out at the Guitar Aficionado Online Store.

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