To some, John 5 may look like a freak with a capital “F,” but he’s actually one of the most sensitive and caring folks you could ever meet. (In fact, he recently celebrated his first anniversary with all the giddy romance of someone who’d fit right into a ’50s Life photo essay on wedded bliss—albeit with both partners wearing makeup.) The guy can spew metal riffs heavier than an aircraft carrier, and shred faster than thought waves, but he strictly adheres to tradition when learning bluegrass, western swing, and Chet Atkins-style guitar. In order to wield such diverse and mesmerizing technique, the man, who looks like he could be public enemy number one on the rock-and-roll party circuit, spends much of his time rehearsing and practicing with monk-like fervor. He can also adapt his creativity and temperament with enough élan to play with talents as varied as k.d. lang, David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson, Lita Ford, Rob Halford, and Salt N’ Pepa.
A paradox? Not really. Peel away the assorted layers, and, at his core, John 5 is quite simply someone who adores the guitar, loves music, and is committed enough to pay the price to master his instrument—which makes him everything you and I should be. Kinda funny, huh?
His latest solo release, Songs for Sanity [Shrapnel], continues the thrilling stew of shred-country-bluegrass-metal that landed him on GP’s November ’04 cover. Recorded on Pro Tools at producer Sid Riggs’ home studio in Los Angeles, the album also includes contributions from famed British country picker Albert Lee and technical/compositional wizard Steve Vai that would be hopelessly at odds on almost any record but this one. The never-at-rest John 5 is also a member of a commercial heavy-rock outfit called Loser, and he has been performing with Rob Zombie on the singer’s Educated Horses tour.
It’s no surprise that Songs for Sanity is a diverse affair, but was there any conceptual mission you wanted to achieve going in, or were you penning songs that simply represented different aspects of your style?
I just wanted to make this album more intense, aggressive, and extreme. You know, crank everything up to 10. I’m not just talking about playing fast, either. On “Behind the Nut Love,” for example, I wanted the sound of a pedal-steel guitar. To do that, I tuned the guitar to an open chord, bent strings up or down, and muted the strings I didn’t want ringing. But that didn’t sound right. It wasn’t precise. Then, one night, I was watching The Simpsons, and I bent a string behind the nut. That was like, “There you go!” It sounded beautiful. You bend down back there, and you don’t hit any other strings, so that inspired all these little melodies. The first melody you hear on “Behind the Nut Love” is all done behind the nut. I was really proud of myself because it’s such a cool sound, and I like to take stuff like that to the extreme—to turn things up a bit and make them more intense.
How did you capture and document all these musical ideas?
It’s funny. I start by finding a tempo on this little click track that’s about the size of a wallet, and then I just play everything into a mini cassette recorder. I don’t have Pro Tools anything at my house. I leave Pro Tools to the pros, so I can keep all that stuff separate from my home life.
I do try to have all the sounds mapped out before I go into the studio, though, so I’m not wasting a lot of time tweaking tones. I usually go in with an idea—such as, “I want a light distortion like an AC/DC sort of sound”—and then we go for the tone that best matches the style of the song.
How do you approach crafting your different sounds?
All of my Telecasters are old friends, so I pretty much know how they sound. Some are perfect, some are really bassy—almost to the point of being odd—and others have so much bite that the sound is harsh to the ear. I also have a few Fender SubSonics, and they really fill up a lot of space. So, although I layer a lot of guitars, there’s pretty much room for everybody to come and hang out. All the different tones and frequencies complement each other. On “Gein With Envy,” for example, the bluegrass line that’s totally cooking along was doubled with two different Teles. Whenever I can’t find exactly the right sound with my favorite friends—the Telecasters—I’ll grab a Les Paul or something.
Like a lot of classic, heavy guitar sounds, you don’t use as much distortion as people might think.
No—and that’s key. Whenever I would go to see AC/DC or the Who, they were so loud, but it wasn’t out of control. Today, when I see some younger bands, it seems like they’re struggling with their guitar sounds. My theory is that heavy guitar sounds better with less distortion. On tour with Rob Zombie, I typically use a distortion pedal and a wah, and they go right into the amp. The sound is definitely distorted, but it isn’t crazy. I can mute my guitar, and there’s no feedback. I get so many compliments on my sound from people who really understand—like soundmen.
Do you just back off on the amp volume, then?
Absolutely. I usually have the gain on the Marshall Mode Four at 4 or 5, so it isn’t too hot. It’s a pretty simple setup—much like many bands had back in the day. The Who and AC/DC didn’t have a refrigerator full of effects, and yet their live tracks always sounded so awesome.
How did you veer into becoming such a multifaceted player?
Well, I never stopped taking lessons, and I always check out instructional tapes to expose myself to new styles and techniques. I know this is corny, but I believe that knowledge is power, and I’m always seeking to know more about the guitar.
Do you feel such a high level of dedication is missing in many players these days?
All I can say is that intense, constant practice is so important. And if you’re going to do something, you should start from the bottom. That way, you’ll understand why someone is doing something the way they’re doing it. For example, it may be easier for you to use a pick, but if you’re trying to play like someone who uses their fingers, you should go fingerstyle—at least at first—before trying to adapt their style using a pick. I always start at the bottom and work my way up.
For me, the album title—Songs for Sanity—is no joke. The reason I play and practice so much is because I’d go out of my mind if I didn’t. I have really bad anxiety problems, and playing as much as I do is the only thing that keeps my mind occupied.
It seems like you snuck in even more stylistic colors on this record than you demonstrated on your first solo album, Vertigo.
Oh yeah! I threw in some western swing with “Death Valley,” and I used some Chet Atkins-style playing in the beginning of that song. I’ve been experimenting more and more with that Chet thing of having the bass and melody going at the same time, and I try to keep it pretty traditional. I want to pay homage without brutalizing it.
Do you ever worry that it might be a big leap for fans who dug your playing with Marilyn Manson to grasp your stone country leanings?
Even if you’re not a fan of country music or western swing, what I’m doing is still shredding, and I think it’s still cool. You know, I did an autograph session a while back, and a lot of kids came out, but there was also a bunch of older people who were big fans of the bluegrass stuff. That blew me away.
What people should understand is that I’m not doing these records for the money, and I’m not doing them for the fame. I’m doing them for the love of the guitar, and for the love of music. I also want to inspire people the way I was inspired when I was a youngster watching Hee-Haw, and seeing all these musicians absolutely rip on their instruments. I didn’t know any country music back then, and I didn’t know anything about musical genres. I was just in awe of the players.