His look may take visual clues from the Joker, but John 5’s heart is in Kornfield Kounty, the mythical home of the TV variety show Hee Haw, where he first saw speedy country picking done on Telecasters. Photo by Debi Del Grande
Are you constantly learning new licks and adding them to your arsenal?
Every day I’m doing fun, new, exciting things that inspire me to play. It’s great—I love it. I am so excited. I have been playing for a zillion years and I’m just so fired up about it.
Do you work with a metronome?
I always have a metronome. I have it in my phone and I always have a metronome going.
Do you put the click on two and four, or use the metronome to figure out different polyrhythms and things like that?
You know, it’s funny, but I don’t do that. To be completely honest, I don’t really like it when it is all crazy rhythms and it is confusing. I don’t want it to be confusing to the listener. I mean, what I am doing is insane. It is crazy guitar playing, but you can still tap your foot to it. Even though the notes are a zillion miles per hour, you can still find the one. I think that is important to the crowd. I’m just putting myself into the audience’s shoes and you want to keep it to where you can still tap your foot.
So odd meters are not your bag.
It’s not my bag. But maybe I’ll get into it. I have a song called “Guitars, Tits and Monsters” off the new record. The intro part is in seven and then we go into four. But that’s about it. I don’t know why I haven’t gotten into it, but you know what? Who knows what is going to inspire me tomorrow—maybe I’ll totally get into it.
Do you spend time working on different feels, like jazz, reggae, or funk?
I love it. I love Western swing. I love cool, old bebop jazz. I love James Brown-type stuff. If it’s well done, man, I can appreciate it. Like in “Guitars, Tits and Monsters,” it’s got that cool James Brown thing. And hopefully, because this is what happened with me, I’ll inspire some kids on the way. That’s what makes me happiest, if I can inspire some people with this cool music that inspired me.
Let’s talk about your picking. You have a pretty wide sweep when alternate picking. How do you keep from bumping into the other strings?
This is strange and will hopefully make sense, but my brain doesn’t have to think about my left hand that much. But my brain does concentrate on my picking hand. I just really focus. You know when you’re playing and you’re like, “Did I forget to turn the water off?” Or “I wonder what my girl is doing right now?” Or “Did I feed the dog?” When you’re playing, you think about things like that. But when I focus hard and concentrate, that will make my picking really, really clean.
Do you practice with an amp or without an amp?
I have to practice with an amp because I think it is so important. When I was little and I was playing all the time, like at 11 or 12 years old, I sometimes wouldn’t practice with an amp because my family would be around and we’d be watching TV or something. Later, I would plug in and I would be like, “Hey, why don’t I sound as good with an amp? It doesn’t sound that good now.” I was getting lazy and I was thinking I was playing well, but I wasn’t. Now every time I have a guitar in my hands, I have an amp plugged in. I have those little battery-powered Marshalls when I’m on the road or on the tour bus or backstage. I feel bad for Rob Zombie and all the band members because I’m playing all the time. It must drive them crazy—especially in the hotel rooms. When we book hotel rooms, we’re usually right next to each other. They’re so sweet, they don’t say anything, but they’re like, “I heard you playing all night.” Because I always use an amp.
In other words, not using an amp masks imperfections. Having the amp lets you hear what you’re really doing.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. That is exactly right. Always. It will make you stronger. Even if you just have that battery-powered Marshall or Fender—you know the ones I’m talking about? It doesn’t have a lot of gain, but you start shredding on that with just a cord and a guitar and see how it sounds. That will really wake you up in the morning, to see what you sound like with just the clean tone, a cord, a guitar, and a pick.
How did you develop your fingerpicking chops and who were some of your mentors?
I really loved Brent Mason and, of course, Roy Clark and Chet Atkins. But the main one for me was Jerry Reed. I do a cover of “Jiffy Jam” and I also do a cover of “Jerry’s Breakdown.” There are some great fingerpickers out there, and that is a whole other world from what I’m doing. It is so different from shredding and all that stuff—which is great.
Do you use nails or the flesh of your fingertips?
I use just the flesh of my fingers. I do it that way and it has been practice, practice, practice. Before I started doing my instrumental work, I was just out of Marilyn Manson and I was like, “What am I going to do?” I wanted to put out a guitar record, because no one knew I could play anything more than “Sweet Dreams.” So I made a guitar record, kind of just for my friends, but I wanted to do it to be different, because we already have “these guys” over here. We don’t have a guy who is doing that stuff, but then also does the Western swing or that kind of thing on a record. I was like, “You know what? Maybe I’ll just be myself.” I was raised on that stuff and I look like a complete crazy person, but that’s really who I am. It was so different that it worked and I am still doing it today. I think it’s because the fans know that it is so real.
Metal and country don’t have much in common harmonically. Metal is usually more modal and country has many more chord changes, similar to jazz. Have you spent time learning changes and working on more advanced chord theory?
Absolutely—100 percent. Like I was saying before, it is a completely different world. It’s like if I started talking Japanese right now. You’d be like, “What? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” I love things like that. I want to learn everything I can learn. You can do Rubik’s Cube and master it, but you will never, ever meet a master of the guitar, because it is impossible. That’s why I love all these different styles, like jazz, and all the different chords and the theory behind it. It’s just fascinating.
Do you play other instruments, like banjo or mandolin?
In the song “Black Grass Plague”—the first song on the new record after the intro—at the end I play guitar, then I put the guitar down and pick up a mandolin, then I put down the mandolin and pick up a banjo. The reason I did this … now you must look this up. It is so important to check this out because this is something that inspired me, and you’ll understand—it’s a guitar player by the name of Joe Maphis.
“Pickin’ and Singin’”—I’ve seen it. (View this vintage TV performance here.)
Yes! “Pickin’ and Singin’”—that’s what inspired “Black Grass Plague.” How great is that?
It is amazing! And when I do it live at my shows, people lose their minds. It is just fun. So yes, I play mandolin and banjo.