Interview: John 5 on "God Told Me To"
The metal-meets-chicken''-pickin'' veteran discusses his new Spanish-influenced half-acoustic solo album and we try to get him to buy Eddie Van Halen''s guitar.
Like many guitarists, John 5 moved to L.A. to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional player. But unlike the countless others who were quickly chewed up and spit out by the music industry, John 5 became one of the most successful rock guitarists of the last two decades, achieving a level of success unimaginable for most. He’s an in-demand guitarist and songwriter for some of the biggest names in the business—Ricky Martin, Salt-N-Pepa, David Lee Roth, Marilyn Manson, and Rob Zombie—and also maintains an illustrious career as a solo artist.
With his unique bluegrass-meets-metal style, John 5 is a bona fide guitar god. He developed his prodigious abilities through an unwavering dedication to the instrument and endless hours of rigorous practice. Like the late Randy Rhoads, John 5 would seek out guitar teachers on the road while on tour. “It had to be the right kinds of teachers, not just a rock guy who’s got a Metallica shirt on and is going to show me some licks,” John 5 clarifies. “I looked for the real guys who just know how to play one style of music, whether it’s classical or country.” He’s become extremely articulate in reversing those roles and taking on the duties of the teacher. In 2008, he released the instructional DVD, The Devil Knows My Name, and earlier this year, he released an instructional book, The Book of John, both through Hal Leonard Corporation. “It’s definitely a great book if you want to figure out certain ways that I do things,” says John.
Currently, John is in the midst of a world tour with Rob Zombie (co-headlining with Megadeth). Although the shows are physically demanding and the tours exhausting, he says, “When I’m on the road, instead of just sitting around and doing nothing, I’m writing music and working on stuff. If I have an hour free, I take advantage of that time and work. I learned that from Rob Zombie. He’s always working and he’s very productive in his life.” As a testament to this making-every-minute-count work ethic, John 5’s sixth and latest CD/DVD release, God Told Me To, will be released mid-tour this month, and he’s currently scoring Zombie’s upcoming film, The Lords of Salem. We got the scoop from John 5 on his new album and how to make it as a session player, and then we geeked out on his massive gear collection while trying to nudge him to purchase Eddie Van Halen’s exorbitantly priced 1984 guitar, which recently hit the auction block.
Is God Told Me To an evolution forward from your previous releases?
I think it is because it’s half acoustic and half electric. I’m dabbling in some Spanish style music on this one—some different acoustic types of playing like knocking on the guitar and creating rhythms, and using the violin bow. I’m also using the mandolin and all sorts of crazy stuff.
What inspired this?
I’ve never done it before and I wanted to change it up. I want to make every album special, so people aren’t like, “Oh, here’s another John 5 album. It’s going to be a little country and a little rock.” I want to keep them on their toes so they never know what they’re going to get.
On “Beat It,” you pretty much played Eddie Van Halen’s solo note-for-note. Why did you do choose to do that?
“Beat It” is just an iconic piece of music and the solo is also iconic—it’s incredible. So, I had to pay tribute to how amazing it is. I think it came out great, I’m really proud of it.
After the solo proper, you go into your own solo and it sounds like you made a conscious effort to avoid any signature Eddie Van Halen-isms.
I wanted to put my style into it. Eddie always said, “Have your own style, have your own thing, and do your own thing.” So that’s what I did.
Speaking of which, you’ve played and recorded with David Lee Roth before. Have you checked out the new Van Halen album, A Different Kind of Truth?
Yes. It’s amazing. I love it so much. I think they did a phenomenal job and they’re kicking ass on tour.
“Noche Acosador” features a lot of authentic-sounding, acoustic Spanish-style playing.
I study so many players, so many styles, and the right way to do it. Whenever I do something country or a different style of music, I don’t listen to a rock guy doing it. I listen to the real guys doing it. That’s why, hopefully, it sounds authentic.
You got your start as a session player. How did you break into the scene?
I was just a guitar player around L.A. looking for work and I didn’t know what people charged for sessions. I was like, “I guess $100,” meanwhile people were charging like $1,500 a track. So I would do everything for half the price everybody else was doing it for and I would do it in half the time just because I didn’t know. And so I got a reputation—everybody was like, “Hey, this guy will do this really cheap and he’s really good.”
You’re now an established A-lister. What’s the secret to scoring the big gigs at this level? It’s safe to assume that anyone called in for a high-profile audition is also a monster guitarist who can play the required parts flawlessly.
You have to really know the songs. In addition to all the guitar parts, I would learn the keyboard parts and I would practice and practice. I did so much research. I would just be so prepared it was ridiculous. I would find out what guitars were played for certain gigs and what kind of clothes they wore. Because it wasn’t enough to just know the songs. You have to have the look and you have to play the right kind of guitar. If you’re going to go audition for The Allman Brothers, you’re not going to go up there with crazy makeup on your face.
Your obsession with the Tele has long been documented. In the past you said you wanted to get a Tele for every year. Have you reached your goal yet?
It’s not like a huge hurry to do it. I want to do it in my lifetime, but I want to get the right Tele of each year. The ones that are in nice condition and are all original. It’s kind of the thrill of the hunt for me. I’m missing just a few though so I’m doing pretty well.
You’re talking big bucks here with the old Fenders. What’s the priciest guitar you’ve bought?
A 1950 Fender Broadcaster that was probably $150,000.
How well researched are you on what to look for and how to verify an instrument’s provenance?
I’m an old Fender history nut and am very educated on the Teles—the lacquer, wiring, pots, and wood. And then, once it passes me, I take it to some experts that I have before I make the deal. I usually buy one a year or something like that. It’s been going great though.
Do you ever just buy stuff on your own through Craigslist or eBay?
Sometimes I’ll do it from eBay. There are certain dealers I know on eBay, and I know they’re totally legitimate and they have great stuff.
What about buying one from a private seller—have you done that or is it too risky?
Not really, no. It’s sometimes too risky.
Although you do a good amount of country chicken pickin’, you’re most commonly identified as a metal shredder. The Tele is not the first guitar that comes to mind for that genre.
Yeah, I love it. The Telecaster is like our first electric guitar and it’s a workingman’s guitar. You can’t really hide anything on a Tele—it’s a really tough one to play but it’s just like a part of my body now. At this point, playing anything else would be more uncomfortable to me.
Fender J5 Triple Tele Deluxe
Your signature J5 Triple Tele Deluxe and Squier J5 Telecaster both have flat 12” radiuses and two humbuckers—specs favored by shredders and not typical on Teles. Did you choose these specs to make the guitars easier to play?
Yeah, when you’re on stage and it’s blaring loud and it’s so super loud, you’re going to need some power. That’s why I put some humbuckers in there and the flat neck, makes it comfortable to play. The neck was designed around a 1966 Esquire I have, which has an amazing neck, and the body was kind of designed around a Fender Custom Telecaster with the binding they had back in the ’60s.
Your signature guitars probably feel a little bit different than the vintage Teles in your collection. Would you be able to just pull out an old Tele and use it onstage immediately or would it take some adjusting to get used to?
They feel the same. The only thing is, the Teles from my collection are completely original. So they would feedback a lot because I play at huge venues at such loud volumes. But in the studio, I use a lot of old Teles for recording.
On “Beat It,” there’s some whammy bar action. Do some of your Teles have whammy bars?
I have a bunch of Teles with Floyd Roses in them. I used to play a lot with a Floyd Rose because I was a big Eddie fan. I just wanted to have that exact sound.
Were they after-market Floyd Roses or did they come stock from Fender?
They came stock from Fender.
You also have some guitars up on eBay. Why did you decide to put them up on the auction block?
I was cleaning house a little bit and I was like, “Man, I have a lot of guitars.” I was kind of trying to make room. I was thinking to myself that if back when I was a kid there was eBay, and Eddie Van Halen put some of his guitars up—I would have freaked out. I just wanted to put them up and have people enjoy them as much as I have.
But, hey, did you know that Brad King from rig-talk.com has Eddie Van Halen’s Kramer Frankenstrat guitar that was used for 1984 listed up for sale?
I didn’t know that.
Yeah, just Google it.
What would I put in, “Eddie Van Halen 1984 guitar?” [Finds guitar online.] Oh yeah, you’re right. This is crazy. Wow, that’s cool.
It would be a nice one for your collection. Are you as obsessive about amps?
I’m not a big amp guy because I guess I’m such a big guitar guy. I’m not that fussy with amps, as long as it works and sounds good. Marshalls always worked and sounded good to me.
Even though you’re not as obsessive with your amps, you now have a DiMarzio-branded John 5 cable. Do you find that quality cables make a noticeable difference?
I do. I’m not a tone chaser but I do notice a difference with cables, especially live. Sometimes even though I play wireless I’ll go to a cable because it just sounds better. Eddie did the same thing on the last tour—not this one. He was plugged in.
Can you describe the sonic difference between cheap and better cables?
It’s really hard to explain. It’s like trying to explain the color blue. You kind of have to hear it, but there is a difference.
Just from speaking with you, I can tell that you’re really obsessed with all facets of the guitar. Yeah, I was just playing before you called. [Laughs.]
Guitars: Fender Telecasters including a massive vintage collection and signature models—J5 Triple Tele Deluxe, J5 Telecaster, Fender J5 Bigsby Telecaster, Squier J5 Telecaster
Amps: Marshall JCM 900 with vintage Marshall 1960 4x12 cabinets
Effects: Boss SD-1, Boss CH-1, Boss NS-2, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synthesizer, Zoom G1J
Strings: GHS .009s [sometimes .010s or .011s, depending on the tuning]
Picks: Seven Kings .96mm
Cables: DiMarzio John 5 Signature
For a taste of John 5 in action on the big stage, check out the following clips.
Full-length concert footage of John 5 with Marilyn Manson from Rock am Ring 2003 in Germany.
A scorching cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is among the highlights of God Told Me To, John 5’s latest release. At a Rob Zombie concert from 2010, John 5 gives audiences a teaser by playing the intro riff and verse vocal melody of “Beat It” during his guitar solo.
This live rendition of Rob Zombie’s hit “Thunder Kiss ’65” features a blistering unaccompanied guitar solo by John 5 starting around 4:50 that concludes with a nod to The Munsters theme song and Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption,” starting around 8:09.