John 5′s resume reads like a who’s who of hard rock and heavy metal frontmen. Having held down jobs with such diverse acts as Marilyn Manson, David Lee Roth, Rob Halford, and now Rob Zombie, John 5 is well versed in the art of playing on other peoples’ records – check out his killer work on Zombie’s latest CD, Hellbilly Deluxe 2, where he adds all sorts of greasy blues-influenced licks to Zombie’s brand of dark rock. For his own solo work though, John 5 combines his equal loves of metal, rock, shred and even country into a distinctive sound, capped off with the stunning displays of guitar technique that he rarely got to show off in his various high-profile day jobs (well, maybe with DLR). I caught up with John 5 to discuss his fifth CD, The Art Of Malice, which is out now.
Did you start with a concept for The Art Of Malice?
Well it was my fifth instrumental record, so it was very special for me. It was something that was… I wanted everything in there. Everything and the kitchen sink. All kinds of music, all bits and pieces going everywhere. Country, heavy rock, metal, acoustic, Spanish flamenco, everything is in there. So I wanted to do it all.
And also, Steve Vai’s got his whole ‘seven’ thing, how the seventh track on each of his albums is the big ballad and all that stuff. You’ve managed to beat him by having your number be five!
(Laughs) That’s true!
One of my favourite things on the album is the title track, where we can hear you flip the pickup switch…
I love that because usually you’d edit that kind of thing out, but hearing little details like this is just great!
Oh yeah! I like doing things in one take, not chopping them all up but just doing certain things and not overdubbing.
What can you tell us about that track?
The true story is, I was doing a clean guitar part for the song The Nightmare Unravels, and I was testing the clean sound and I was playing around with some licks and stuff like that, and we were recording it to see how the clean sound was, and so I could listen back to it, and it sounded so good the engineer was like, ‘We should make this a little track.’ I kept working on it and doing a couple of different things to make it a little longer, but I think it came out really good. So it was kind of an improv thing, a spontaneous piece of music that really came out really nice.
How much of your work is improvised?
None! (Laughs) None! Really, it’s all, everything is planned out and everything is thought out and tried and turned around, and things like that. WIth this kind of stuff it’s very difficult to do so I don’t improvise at all!
Where did you record the album?
What I did was I would write at home, then I would rehearse, rehearse, rehearse at home. I would just get it all down, then I would go into a studio, and usually the track would get done in somewhere close to an hour because I was so rehearsed. I knew what I was doing, so it was mostly getting it down at home.
I hate being one of those journalists who is like ‘Well I read on Wikipedia,’ but…
(Laughs) No, that’s fine!
But I read that with David Lee Roth, when you recorded the DLR Band album, that was only two weeks?
Yeah! We recorded and mixed it and everything in two weeks. And it was all done at like 6 o’clock in the morning, too! I was playing with Rob Halford too, so we would rehearse at noon, and Dave would want be before Rob Halford, so we would rehearse at six in the morning. True story!
Speaking of DLR, your track Ya Dig, with Billy Sheehan, has a bit of the same vibe as Slam Dunk from the DLR Band album.
Yeah! And the reason it’s called Ya Dig is because Dave’s a good friend of mine, and when he talks, when people say ‘y’know,’ they say ‘y’know’. But what Dave says is ‘ya dig?’ like ‘Maybe we should go to the beach, ya dig? They have this great food there, ya dig?’ And there is nobody but Billy Sheehan who does the Billy Sheehan bass playin’. It was incredible. Incredible. Oh man, he’s the best.
There’s a bit of slide on the album. When did you get into slide?
I love slide. I’ve always been into slide. I love Pink Floyd and David Gilmour, but everyone always looks at me as this crazy shredder and stuff like that. But I really wanted to show people that I love music, and I love guitar playing, and I love guitars. Can I Live Again, with that nice melody and all that, that’s one of the most popular songs on the album. It’s really cool because I’m reaching everybody. There’s everything on there for everybody.
I love the little honky midrange tone at the start of Steel Guitar Rag.
I’m using my Fender Broadcaster on that. We just took a lot of the lows out in the studio, and then it kicks in with that nice steel guitar rag, and it’s one of my favourite tracks on the record. It’s hard to play with a clean tone but it’s one of my favourite things to do. When I’m on tour I always have a guitar in my hand, and I have a little battery powered amp, and it doesn’t get a lot of distortion, so it’s always clean.
There’s a cool cover of Ace Frehley’s Fractured Mirror…
I loved KISS when I was a kid, and that was my introduction to instrumental music. It’s my tribute, saying thank you to Ace.
And Last Page Turned sounds like a tribute to Jimmy Page?
That’s right. My favourite stuff was always his acoustic work on Physical Graffiti and Led Zeppelin 3. That’s where I got it. He’s amazing. I love him.
Now: guitar talk! The Fender J5 Triple Tele Deluxe is awesome!
Thanks! Everybody knows I love my Telecasters. It was the first solidbody electric guitar in 1950, and I just started playing Teles early on in my life, but no-one really played them in rock and metal that much, so I kinda wanted to design them so more people were able to enjoy this incredible instrument. So that’s why I designed the Triple Tele. It’s kind of like the Black Beauty Les Paul. And there’s a lot of chrome on it and it looks amazing and it sounds incredible. But I just put out a Squier version of my main model, and it’s priced to sell. Everyone can afford one of those, and they’re great guitars. You’ll have those forever. I have one with me in the studio. All the guitars Fender produces for me are unbelievable.
Yeah, the quality of Squiers is so much better than the stuff I started out with!
Absolutely, of course! They’re great, great guitars, and they’re very inexpensive so everybody can afford them, but they’re fabulous guitars. I’m online playing them, and I love it. I love it.
And the Telecaster in general is such an immediate-sounding instrument. Why do you think they’re not so much associated with rock?
I think because when it came out in the early 50s, rock n’roll wasn’t even around yet – y’know, rock n’roll didn’t really come in until 1955 – and everybody played Teles and they just played country music. So I think they got pigeonholed really quickly as being a country guitar. But y’know, in the 60s and 70s, Steely Dan played a Tele… the Stones of course, the Beatles, Jimmy Page. I started playing it in Manson, and Jim Root plays one in Slipknot and Stone Sour, so it’s my favourite guitar. It’s the best in the world.
The J5 Bigsby Telecaster is very cool.
I just play with the Bigsby a little bit for vibrato and things like that, and at the ends of songs you’ll hear me shake it and things like that. But I love the Bigsby, y’know? I really love it. I think it looks rad and I think it sounds rad, y’know?
And I believe you’re using DiMarzio D Activator pickups?
Yeah. To be completely honest, I’m not a huge tone chaser. I love guitars, but I’m not a huge amp guy. But pickups …Larry DiMarzio’s a friend of mine and he’s always like, ‘Oh you’ve got to check these out.’ And they just sounded so good. That’s how I am in the studio: if it sounds good, ‘alright, cool!’ Some people will fiddle with sounds for hours and hours but I just don’t think I have the patience for it, for just trying to find that perfect sound. But I think that’s why I have great engineers to do it for me. Because I’ll plug into a little battery-powered amp and play, just as long as I can play. Your fingers will get that tone for you. Eddie Van Halen says ‘I can pick up any guitar and I sound like Eddie Van Halen,’ because it’s in his fingers.
Any guitars on your wish list that you don’t have yet?
Yes! A Fender Nocaster. What the Nocaster was is, Fender came out with their first guitar in 1950, which was the Broadcaster, and they got sued by Gretsch, who had the Broadcaster drum set. So Fender had to take the Broadcaster part off of the headstock. So the collectors call them Nocasters. This was in 1951. So that’s what I’m looking for!
Do you have any plans to come down to Australia any time soon?
Actually yes! We might come down there with Zombie in February. I’m hoping, because it’s one of my favourite places in the world, but that plane ride’s a son of a bitch! It’s a long one.