Interview: John 5

Martin Schmidt: You have a new CD out. What's the concept or idea behind it?

John 5: The concept is the love of the guitar, the love of music. I do it not for the money, but just for the true passion for the guitar. If I didn't do it, I'd probably go insane, that's why the title is "Songs For Sanity". I play so much guitar and it's the only way I can express myself on guitar, I can't really do it on other recordings. I love to play guitar like that and that's why I do these records. Playing guitar keeps me sane. I know it sounds a little corny, but it's absolutely the truth.

Martin Schmidt: You play instrumental music now. What do you like about it?

John 5: It kind of reminds me of little orchestra or classical pieces, because there's so much information going on. It's a challenge to do, it's really hard to do that stuff. I always loved to learn and I really enjoy learning new licks, scales, tricks and ideas.

Martin Schmidt: So instrumental music gives you the opportunity to play more guitar than in vocal music?

John 5: Yes, because it's a bigger challenge. It's like three or four minutes of guitar solos and it can't be repetitive and it's got to be new and exciting, it's gotta be good. Vocal music is also challenging, but it's easier, because you play chords and things like that, but in instrumental music you never even get the chance to breathe.

Martin Schmidt: Are there any special difficulties in instrumental music?

John 5: Yes, it's very difficult to play, it's very challenging, but that's why I love it.

Martin Schmidt: Do you mean the technical side of it?

John 5: Yes, I love being precise and very clean, I think that's very important.

Martin Schmidt: What is the most important thing in an instrumental song?

John 5: I think it needs to have a melody, something you can graft onto, something the ear can graft onto, like a little melody in the chorus. You have to keep it exciting and things moving and happening, so the listener doesn't get bored. If you do a fast song, you got to do your best and take it to the next level and go crazy with it. You have to keep the listener excited and entertained. Kind of like a movie, a beginning and an end. It's got to tell some kind of story at least.

Martin Schmidt: What inspires an instrumental song?

John 5: Sometimes it's a movie or a piece of art or another guitar player. I love to hear great musicians and I love to see great art. Like the cover of my album. I was looking through this old book from the 1900's and somebody was levitating two chairs and I thought: There's a good idea for an album cover, but with 2 guitars. I just love to be inspired by great things.

Martin Schmidt: How do you write songs in general?

John 5: I usually start with a riff or a concept like: I want to do a really heavy song, like a Slayer or Slipknot type song or a Chet Atkins type song and really take it from there. To make an instrumental song is a lot harder than most people think.

Martin Schmidt: And when you have a riff, you put a melody on top?

John 5: Yes, I put a melody over the riff and structure out my verse, my pre-chorus and my chorus.

Martin Schmidt: Do you record all these parts in the early stage of the song?

John 5: That's a great question. What I do is: When I get the idea, I have a little click track and just play it and play it over and over again until it's really good. When I get into the studio, I don't have to waste the engineer's time, I'll just go in and play it. I don't build it in the studio.

Martin Schmidt: Do you have a home studio?

John 5: No, I don't, because I would always be there.

Martin Schmidt: Although there's a lot of hot guitar playing, your CD has many different moods and sound effects you wouldn't expect from a so called "shred" album.

John 5: I think that's why people enjoy it, because it is different from your everyday instrumental album. It takes the listener to a different place, it's got good production on it, a different sense of cool sound effects and moody things. It also sometimes gives the listener a second to breathe.

Martin Schmidt: Where do these elements come from? From your experiences with other musicians?

John 5: If I want to express myself in a weird moody way or make weird sound effects with guitars, I try to come up with emotion through music. It's sometimes really hard to do a very scary kind of vibe only with guitar sounds.

Martin Schmidt: Could you have done an album like this before you played with Marilyn Manson or would it have sounded different?

John 5: Oh no. Before I was in MM, I was a huge fan of weird industrial things and also of Marylin Manson, Nine Inch Nails. I was way into it a long time ago.

Martin Schmidt: You played with some famous singers (Rob Halford, David Lee Roth, K.D. Lang, Marylin Manson) What was your favorite experience in working with them?

John 5: I think, when I was really young, all I wanted to be was Eddie Van Halen. I really wanted to play with David Lee Roth, that was my dream and I did. Just to play with my idols and my legends. I just got a chance to work with Paul Stanley from Kiss and that was phenomenal, because I'm such a great Kiss fan.

I had great experiences with all of them, they're all different, but luckily I didn't have any problems. With KD Lang I learned so much about country music and with Marylin Manson I learned so much about recording. The best tour that I've ever done was with Rob Zombie.

Martin Schmidt: Is there a way to become a successful sideman/tour guitarist that you could recommend?

John 5: To become a successful sideman nowadays, you have to have a lot of things. You have to know the songs inside out, you have to have the look, you have to have the sounds. If I was gonna out for a gig with - let's say Gun's and Roses, which I'm not, I'm just giving an example. I would go: Well, this is how they sound, I would need a Les Paul and a Marshall, I would need to look like them, kinda dirty, a jeans/t-shirt vibe. I would learn the songs, get some live recordings, see how they tune their guitars, see which arrangements they do live.

Martin Schmidt: So it's not enough to be a great player.

John 5: No, that's just half the battle. You gotta go in looking like you're a part of the family.

Martin Schmidt: Why do people want to work with you, what are your strengths?

John 5: I think I go up there and make the artist sound good. I'm not a player to say: Look at how good I am, I'm up there to say: Look at how good the band or the artist sounds. You gotta be a team player, I'm not up there playing a bunch of solos, I'm playing for the song and make sure the artist is very happy.

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Martin Schmidt: Besides being a technically versatile guitarist, you also have a very distinctive look. How important is the optical/image side in becoming a successful sideman?

John 5: I think it's important. If you wanna be a rock star or a successful musician, nowadays visual is so important. If you walk into a party and look like a regular guy, everyone doesn't really care, but if you walk in with tattoos and bleached hair, people will take a second glance at you. When I was a kid, when a successful rock star came in, I was like: Wow, look at that guy, that's what I want to be. But not when a guy came in that looked like he could work at the place.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think rock 'n' roll needs this element, a special look or image?

John 5: It's inspiring to upcoming musician to look at friends and go: Oh my god, look at that guy, that guy looks like a star. When Marylin Manson walks in, he looks out of the ordinary. It's entertainment, it influences younger people.

Martin Schmidt: What made the job with Marylin Manson interesting for you?

John 5: The music first off. I loved what he had to say and that he was odd and mysterious, but when I joined the band, what really drew me in was he was real. It wasn't fake or a show, it was completely real.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think technically good musicians can learn from guys like M.M., who have a more artistic, emotional way of playing music and put the focus on other elements than playing technique?

John 5: Absolutely. You can learn always learn something from anybody. I learned a great deal from being in Manson's band.

Martin Schmidt: What made you want to play guitar in the first place?

John 5: I would say it was probably Kiss. They were a big part of my youth. Jimi Hendrix and seeing people like that was crazy to me and I automatically wanted to play guitar.

Martin Schmidt: Can you remember your first record?

John 5: I can, Kiss' "Love Gun". I was 7 years old and started playing right away.

Martin Schmidt: Did you take lessons or are you self taught?

John 5: I started taking lessons at this place called Fiddlers at this place in Crossport, Michigan. It's actually a song title on my new CD. I wanted to learn songs that I liked and that's what made me keep practicing guitar. Learning a Kiss song made me want to play guitar all the time.

Martin Schmidt: How long did you take lessons?

John 5: Forever. I still do.

Martin Schmidt: Do you have harmonic knowledge or do you play by ear?

John 5: I do both. I like to read music, but I like to play by ear, too.

Martin Schmidt: But you know harmonic rules and scales?

John 5: Yes, definitely. It's very important, because if you go to a session and don't know how to do that, you're in trouble.

Martin Schmidt: What do you think of music schools like GIT?

John 5: They're great, it's phenomenal. Any way people can get educated, I'd say: Go for it.

Martin Schmidt: Are they a good way to become a successful musician or are they more useful in becoming a guitar teacher/Top 40 guy?

John 5: It's what the person wants to do. If you want to become a successful musician, you need to learn to play the guitar really well and then you go after your dream.

Martin Schmidt: On the CD you mix elements of country, metal and industrial rock. Is this a natural thing for you or do you do it on purpose?

John 5: I think it's interesting especially to guitar players. It gives the listener a way to say: Wow, here's a different style of music that sounds really cool.

Martin Schmidt: So the music on the CD is your personal style?

John 5: Oh yes, absolutely. I ljust love different styles of music, it keeps it exciting.

Martin Schmidt: What do you like about country music?

John 5: I like the major sound, the major scale and major third. I think that makes it sound exciting, a different sound than metal and it's also ripping! Those country guys are ripping! They are just melting those frets, guys like Scotty Anderson and Brent Mason. It's like shredding in a different style of music.

Martin Schmidt: What do you like about metal?

John 5: I just love the aggressive sound of it and the angry tone, just how it makes me feel.

Martin Schmidt: When did you start getting interested in country music?

John 5: I always listened to country music early on, but I started to play it around 1996, when I was with KD Lang. It's a completely different way of playing guitar, fingerpicking, banjo rolls, string skipping, double stops and pedal steel bends, it's completely different. And that was what I liked about it, because I was doing all this tapping and arpeggio stuff and I thought: Wow, this is a really cool way of playing guitar.

Martin Schmidt: Who are your favorite country players?

John 5: I'd say Chet Atkins, Doc Watkins, Brent Mason, Scotty Anderson, people like that.

Martin Schmidt: Do you like a more traditional approach to country also, and do you play that style?

John 5: Oh yeah, I just love it, I'm a fan of the music!

Martin Schmidt: Do you think your fans can relate to the country elements musically, or is it more a fun thing for them?

John 5: I think when I released "Vertigo", my first instrumental album, that was a shock. It wasn't just metal, there was crazy bluegrass on it! And people said: Oh my god, listen to this, I don't know, if I like it, but listen to this. It sold so many copies and did really well, people liked it. I haven't got any complaints yet, people enjoyed it.

Martin Schmidt: What do you think the country audience thinks of John 5? Are they interested in what you do?

John 5: Good question. I got a call from James Burton, the famous guitar player, who played with Elvis and all these famous country guys and Albert Lee and they all liked what I did. Albert Lee got on my record and he is one of the most appreciated country guitar players in the world. He really enjoyed what I did and that made me feel great!

Martin Schmidt: Do you have any country fans at your show with cowboy hats?

John 5: I did an autograph session and there were so many older men their, country fans and that made me feel great. It wasn't just a bunch of goth kids, which I love, they're my people, but this time I had some older gentlemen there, who just wanted to meet me and say hello.

Martin Schmidt: Do you have any special playing techniques, where you combine metal and country styles?

John 5: I try to mix. I throw in double stops or banjo rolls, when I play metal and it makes it sound unique or different and cool, a little out of the ordinary. I try to throw in a major scale in a minor mode.

Martin Schmidt: And how does it work the other way around, metal style in country?

John 5: That's a little easier. I can do crazy tappings in a country song and it totally works.

Martin Schmidt: Which guitars do you use?

John 5: I mostly use my John 5 model, but I also use old Telecasters. I'm a big collector of old vintage Teles.

Martin Schmidt: Which amps?

John 5: I used a lot of Marshalls, but also some old Fender Champs from the '50s, an old Fender Harvard to get that nice traditional sound.

Martin Schmidt: Which amp do you use live?

John 5: I used a Marshall Mode Four with Rob Zombie and they're killer!

Martin Schmidt: Which effects do you use?

John 5: I use many different pedals. With Rob Zombie I used a distortion, a chorus, a noise suppressor and a wah and that was it. I use pedals, because I feel like I'm more in control. If something doesn't sound right, I can bend down and be down.

Martin Schmidt: What is the special thing about your signature guitar?

John 5: I wanted a guitar that was an all around guitar, something that I can use for a country gig and a metal gig. I love the Telecaster, so I wanted a Telecaster that I could play in a really heavy gig, like Manson or Zombie. The John 5 telecaster is like the perfect beast for that, you can play "Beautiful People" or pure country songs too.

Martin Schmidt: Is it a guitar that you use mainly live, because it works well and looks good or is created with the sound you want in mind?

John 5: Both. It looks great and sounds great. I use it on every recording.

Martin Schmidt: Do you prefer it more than your vintage guitars?

John 5: You can't play really heavy stuff on the vintage guitars, because the pickups aren't strong enough. I don't change anything on the old guitars, I just keep them stock. Nothing is refinished or refretted, everything is original except the strings.

Martin Schmidt: How did you record the CD, live with a band or track by track?

John 5: Usually I would lay down a rhythm track and play to that, but some of the country songs we played as a band.

Martin Schmidt: Do you improvise a lot or do you work out most of the parts?

John 5: I work out most of the parts and the solos, too. I don't want to repeat myself and play too many of the same licks. That happens a lot, when you're jamming, you just play your favorite licks.

Martin Schmidt: Do you prefer analog or digital recording?

John 5: Digital, because I've been using it for so long. Drums sound really good analog.

Martin Schmidt: Do you do a lot of overdubs?

John 5: Yes, for harmonies and things like that. There's always cool things and sounds to do.

Martin Schmidt: Can you make a living playing your own music now, or do you have to do other things with other musicians, or in the studio?

John 5: I do things with other musicians, but it's truly for the love of music, I always love to work and work.

Martin Schmidt: You also have a vocal band called Loser?

John 5: It's great rock 'n' roll songs with a great singer. I think it's going to be real big. We got a record deal on Island records. Our CD will be out next year. We're doing shows around town right now.

Martin Schmidt: What is your goal for the future?

John 5: It is to keep making music, keep making records, enjoy life and keep playing guitar.

Martin Schmidt: What do you do, when you don't play guitar?

John 5: I go to movies a lot and hang out with my friends a lot. But I usually play guitar.

Martin Schmidt: So that's your main focus in life?

John 5: Yes, absolutely.

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John 5 has played with a number of big name singers and musicians already in his career, including David Lee Roth, KD Lang, Rob Zombie, Rob Halford, and most notably Marylin Manson. Now he is making noise with his two instrumental CDs released through Shrapnel Records, "Vertigo" and most recently "Songs For Sanity", both of which demonstrate his enormous ability and dedication to his craft.

Martin Schmidt recently interviewed 5 and decided to talk about his foray into instrumental music, his new record, and his upcoming projects.