Premier Guitar

Interview: John Roth - Meet Giant's New Guitarist

March 23, 2010
John Roth knows what makes a good guitar solo. After all, as the newly christened lead guitarist for melodic rock band Giant, he’s taking the place of Dann Huff, a man known for his killer leads.

More than just a surrogate guitarist, John Roth played a major role in the realization of Giant’s new full-length, Promise Land, released March 9. Roth co-wrote three songs on the record: “I’ll Wait for You,” “Complicated Man” and “Dying to See You,” and worked with his predecessor, Huff, who co-wrote half of the album.

Inspired by the gritty licks of Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons and Jimi Hendrix, Roth’s playing combines elements of old-school funk, blues-rock, fusion and soul, with arena rock-style charisma. After years playing in Winger (along with work with Survivor and Black Oak Arkansas), Roth got the call to come into the studio and lay down guitar tracks with Giant. He chatted with Premier Guitar about getting that call, his early inspirations, and the creative process behind the new Giant album.

Who inspired you to pick up the guitar?

It was KISS, actually. I was just a kid, and I was into comic books, so the guys in KISS were like super heroes to me. Not long after that, I discovered Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top and all these other bands, but KISS was really the band that got me playing guitar.

Who are some of your all-time favorite players?

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Jeff Beck and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. Also Neal Schon from Journey, Eddie Van Halen and a slew of other guys from different styles. There are just a ton of them. But my top three favorite players are Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons and Jimi Hendrix.

Did you study guitar?

I’m pretty much self-taught. My cousin got me playing at first, but I’ve relied on my ear to get through my career. I teach guitar, so I’ve actually gone back and done a lot of studying on my own. But mostly, I’ve picked up a lot of things from working with talented people. Kip Winger is an amazing musician, and he’s very well-studied, so I’ve learned music theory down the line from guys like that, and just from playing a lot.

That’s great you teach. Where?

I teach at a music store called Crossroads Music, right on the border of Mississippi and Memphis. I have about 22 students a week when I’m not touring with Winger or recording. I’ve been doing it for four years, and it’s great for my guitar playing and getting into music theory. I really enjoy teaching, and I have a couple of students who blow my mind.

What was your first guitar?

I’m pretty sure it was a cheap Tiesco Del Ray. My mom bought it for me from Herald’s Everything Store where I grew up in Arkansas. They had everything from guitars to lawn mowers. [laughs] I think Eddie Van Halen actually played a Tiesco for one of his first guitars.

My first good guitar was a Gibson Marauder. Keep in mind I started playing when I was 10, so I had no money and my mom bought my first couple of guitars. But it was a good guitar. I’ve still got it. I actually had someone cover it in snakeskin because it was so ugly. [laughs] It was a brown wood-grain finish, and it had a maple neck, which is weird for a Gibson. It had a single coil in the bridge and a double in the neck.

Let’s talk about Giant. How did you land the gig?

Mike Brignardello, the bass player, called me about this time last year. I knew of Giant, because I had Giant’s first record and I had seen the band live. I was a fan back in the day. I knew of Mike, because he’s a pretty famous session bass player in Nashville. So he called me, and I guess he was referred to me by Greg Morrow, who’s a big session drummer in Nashville.

Also, Frontiers Records, the label putting out the record, wanted to make sure whoever played guitar and sang in Giant—since Dann Huff was also the singer—had played in a national act before. I’ve played with Winger, and still do, and I had toured with Survivor, so I had a track record. All of that led to me getting the gig.

Are you pumped?

Yeah—I’m totally excited and jazzed to be playing in Giant. I’m so excited to step into Dann Huff’s shoes, because Dan’s an incredible guitar player, and he’s got an incredible reputation as a studio player and producer for Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts and a ton of artists in Nashville. Being called in to take the place of a guitar player like Dann and then getting the gig is an honor.

What’s the biggest challenge of playing guitar in Giant?

The biggest challenge is getting all the different sounds to lay into the mix. With Dann’s approach, the guitars in Giant were very layered. There are clean guitar sounds; there are jangly guitar sounds that have a little bit of chorus on them; there are big, wallowed distorted rhythms. The biggest challenge is getting all those little parts to lay in there right and not step onto each other.

Another thing is that you’re always trying to support the vocals when doing your guitar overdub. So I always keep in mind where the vocal melody is going and try to compliment what the vocals are doing and add some other cool things other than basic rhythms and solos. Plus, keeping it all in tune, because when you add a lot of guitars, you’re going to run into some tuning problems. So those are all big challenges.



The new album, Promise Land, dropped on March 9th. Dann was involved in the writing process, right?

Yeah, he wrote or co-wrote about half a dozen songs and played solos on two songs, so his vibe is definitely in there. It wouldn’t be Giant without Dann’s influence.

What does it feel like to get Dann’s stamp of approval?

Anytime anyone gives me a nod like that, I’m humbled and gracious, so that makes my day. It’s been an honor to play with these guys. They’re super great guys and it’s been nothing but a great experience.

What are you most proud of on this album, guitar-wise?

Playing on this album was kind of like being a kid in a candy store. There was so much room to play. After I laid down the first track, I was listening and I was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of guitar on here and a lot of different sounds and fills.” So my feedback from Mike when he heard that first track was, “Man, this is great. You’re right in there with what we need. Just don’t be afraid to play more. Play more fills; play more leads; put a lead on the front, in the middle, between the verses, wherever you go.” And I kind do that anyway, but I certainly didn’t want to hog all the sonic landscape. So I picked up probably 10 different guitars to play the record, and the most fun was just having all the freedom to just play fills and use all these different sounds. It was a lot of work, and I just enjoyed every minute of it.

I’m really proud of all the guitar on there. It’s not like there’s just one solo in the middle of a song and that’s the only time a lead guitar part pops up. There are solos everywhere, and there are Strats and Les Pauls and Telecasters and acoustic guitars.

What’s the secret to good soloing?

To me, a good solo shouldn’t just be a barrage of notes. Every now again, if the song calls for it, then that’s what you do. There’s a song called, “Complicated Man,” on the album, and it’s pretty blazing to convey the emotion and keep the intensity of the track. Sometimes you’re going to play some really fast passages. But for the most part, I think a solo should illustrate the lyrical content of the song, keep the melody in mind and somehow create some kind of sonic landscape. If it’s a sad song, make your guitar cry and moan. Try to convey as much emotion and attitude as you can instead of trying to play something flashy.

Let’s get into gear and guitars. What’s your go-to guitar on the road?

It depends on what band. With Winger, I play Les Pauls a lot, because Reb Beach plays a Floyd Rose. Reb’s a fantastic guitar player and does a lot of whammy guitar stuff and tapping, so I try to compliment him.

With Giant, I play a ton of Les Pauls. It’s my go-to rock guitar. I also play Strats a lot. In fact, the last Winger tour I played a Strat with a humbucker in the bridge a lot, just because to me, the ultimate medium of expression is a Fender Strat. I kind of grew up on the Hendrix thing, and I like having the volume knob real close to my finger. It just depends on the gig. I’ve got two Gibson Les Pauls that I play: a white studio that’s a ’90 and an early ‘70s tobacco sunburst Les Paul.

Are you a fan of effects?

You know—I use them like salt when making a dish. Put a little bit of salt in your food, and it will make it taste amazing. Put too much in, and it will ruin your dinner. That’s the way I think about effects: You don’t want to overuse them. Tons of compression: bad. A little compression: good. Too much delay: terrible. A little big of delay: great. I certainly wouldn’t use them as a crutch, but use them to just spice up your sound.

What’s going on with you and the band Winger?

We just did a new record in October called Karma, and it kind of pays tribute to the old Winger stuff, but it’s pretty modern sounding, too. It’s dark and heavy but still has some great rock anthems on it. I co-wrote one song on record, “After All This Time,” and I played all the guitar solos on that track. It’s kind of a blues-y track for Winger, but it’s really soulful. We’ve also been touring. We did a month in Europe last year, and we’re going back out to the United Kingdom, Norway, Ireland and Germany in March and April, and then we’re coming back home to do some tour dates in the U.S.

What’s your advice for upcoming guitar players?

Practice hard, and try to find your own voice with your playing. There are 12 notes, and it’s all about how you phrase them, which notes you pick and how you play against the beat. Practice with different drum beats. There are so many resources for new guitar players now, like loops and jam tracks. Just jam to different beats and try to get deep down into the pocket and the groove. Pay attention to the space in between the notes, because the sounds in between the notes are just as much music as what you’re playing.


JOHN ROTH’S GEAR BOX:

Guitars:
1990 Gibson Les Paul Studio: used in the video for, “Promise Land,” Roth calls this his “go-to guitar for a lot of rhythms and a few solos.” It’s white and features two humbuckers, a Fat Tone pickup in the bridge and an original pickup in the neck.
1973 Gibson Les Paul Standard: used for solos. Tobacco sunburst finish.
1962 Fender American Standard Stratocaster reissue: all single-coil pickups, tobacco sunburst finish.
2009 Charvel So-Cal: used for whammy bar work. It’s Pagan Gold and features a Floyd Rose tremolo.

Amps and cabinets:
2 4x12 Mesa/Boogie cabinets, loaded with vintage 30 celestion speakers
2008 Mesa/Boogie dual rectifier roadster head, 4-channel
1993 Mesa/Boogie dual rectifier solo head, 2-channel

Strings:
D'Addario XL110s, nickel wound for standard tuning with Giant. He uses 11s or 12s for occasional dropped D tuning.

Pedals:
Dunlop Wah (an older Dunlop Crybaby, mounted with a Fulltone Pot and Fulltone True-Bypass switch)
Fulltone OCD overdrive
Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive overdrive (He uses the clean boost side to add grit to a clean sound.)
Fulltone DejáVibe2
Boss DD-3 digital delay
Retro Comp compressor
Rocktron Banshee Talk Box

Picks:
In Tune, GrippX, .60mm