“I like taking things to extremes,” understates John, “and I wanted this album to reach a new level of insanity. As a result, the songs are really long and complex, with intros, outros, interludes, and intense changes.”
John’s rigorous intensity—as well as his curiosity about evil—is intertwined with the album’s song concepts, as all but two tunes are inspired by serial killers such as Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and Son of Sam (whose final murder was committed on John’s birthday, hence the song title “July 31st”). To amplify the creepiness, the album artwork opens up to form a small Ouija board.
“I’m not pro serial killer by any means,” says John. “But I’m fascinated by how someone’s mind could work like that—how they could be so cold and ‘normal’ while committing such horrible acts. So I wanted to create sounds that were total madness—a soundtrack of what would go on in these people’s heads.”
John’s fertile mind is also firing revolutionary salvoes at guitar education, as he is soon set to release the world’s first R-rated instructional DVD (for a preview, click to john-5.com).
“The inspiration is that guys are going to want to learn these guitar licks, but the usual approach is so sterile that it’s almost uncomfortable,” explains John. “I’ll play songs from the CD, and explain how I do all these things, but then we’ll go to clips of topless girls and weird David Lynch-type stuff. It’s education and debauchery. Let’s face it—99 percent of the guitarists buying these DVDs are guys, and who doesn’t like breasts?”
Doubling all your solos—especially at the speeds you play—is pretty nuts.
Yeah. It was a challenge, because every double I recorded had to be in tune and perfectly in time. We did it first on “Werewolf of Westeria”—putting each part in its own speaker channel for a stereo effect—and the album producer, Sid Riggs, really liked it. He said, “We gotta do this for every song!” But the hardest part about doing it was not the speed, it was the bends. If you don’t bend perfectly, the double is going to be out of tune. Behind-the-nut bends were really a challenge—they probably took the most takes to get just right—and doubling the western swing of Chet Atkins’ “Young Thing” was a chore, as well. But the biggest challenge of them all was “Bella Kiss.” The song is in an open tuning, and I used my right hand as a kind of drumstick, tapping harmonics while my left hand was making the chord changes. Then, I did some behind-the-nut bends for another part of the song. We just kept working at it, and working at it, until everything lined up. Also, when I go to a harmony line, it’s just my double moving to the harmony.
After sweating through all those torturous overdubs, do you feel like it was worth all the trouble from a sonic standpoint? I mean, your single guitar lines have always sounded pretty darn good.
I just think that having both tracks going makes the solos sound thicker and kind of cool. I believe Randy Rhoads doubled some of his solos, and I wanted to take a shot at doing it myself. [Ed’s note: Rhoads was known for triple-tracking many of his best-known solos.]
How did you typically arrange the guitars for each song?
For the rhythm tracks, I generally used a Les Paul, and then doubled the part with a Fender Sub-Sonic Telecaster. For the solos, I typically chose one of my signature Telecasters for each of the two takes. I’m really comfortable with Teles. All I would do to differentiate the overdubs was switch pickups and/or amps.
What amps were in the picture?
A Marshall Mode Four, a Fender Tone-Master, and a Peavey 5150. For the cleaner stuff, I plugged into a ’55 Fender Champ. Pedal-wise, I used the Coffin Case Blood Drive, a CryBaby wah, and maybe a chorus pedal.
I don’t think any of that stuff made the weird, nightmarish sounds on “First Victim.”
Oh, no [laughs]. That’s an Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer, a doubleneck Gibson SG with 6- and 12-string necks, and a violin bow. I got the idea for that when I was playing with Rob Zombie, and we did a song called “The Devil’s Rejects” with a horror film clip running on the screen behind the band. I grabbed the doubleneck because the song is played with a 12-string, and I added the bow to get a scary sound that matched the movie images. I thought, “Aw, man—that’s a cool sound. I’ll add it to my record.” You know, I’m such a Tele nut, but I can only play that part on the SG, because the fretboard has a curve to it that helps my bowing. A Tele neck is too flat for using a bow—at least for me. For “First Victim,” I mostly played on the bass strings of the 12-string neck.
How do you devise your compositions?
Sometimes, I start with a riff—just the basic rhythm bit—and then twist it as much as I can to make it interesting, fresh, and a little odd for the listener. For example, country licks are usually played in major keys, but I might make the part sound really strange by putting it a minor key that works with a scary rhythm track. When you put something like that together, you might get a totally unique-sounding piece of music. For “Dead Art in Plainfield,” I wanted to present the vortex in Ed Gein’s head, so I played the parts faster and faster, and added these twisted seconds and flat fifths to make the song sound “off”—like a person who is walking down the street, but who just doesn’t seem right. On the cover of “Welcome to the Jungle,” I wanted the guitar to emulate Axel Rose’s vocal, so I used the wah to phrase the part as much like his voice as I could. But, whatever I do, I usually follow the chords with my single-note lines. From a composition standpoint, playing over changes takes a lot of thought, because your notes have to follow the chords. I don’t just blast scales.
How do you feel about instrumental guitar records these days, and where they fit into popular culture? Obviously, doing a commercial record is hard enough. I don’t think most investors would bet that an instrumental, heavy-rock guitar album is going to zoom up the charts.
Absolutely—but I think that’s one of the reasons I’m doing this right now. A very small handful of people are doing instrumental guitar albums, and I’m one of those people, because I don’t want it to die. I also believe that guitarists should be inspired to pick up and play their guitars, instead of just slamming out a bunch of chords. We’re in the era of My Chemical Romance, the Killers, and the Strokes—and I love all those bands—but many of the people who are listening to those groups have no recollection of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, or Yngwie Malmsteen. So they can’t really understand that the guitar is an amazing instrument that’s capable of so many more things than what the guitarists in a lot of today’s popular bands are playing.