Interview: Johnny A.

Martin Schmidt: When and where were you born?

Johnny A.: I was born in Mulden, Massachusettes on November 14th.

Martin Schmidt: How old are you at the moment?

Johnny A.: Older than I care to be (laughs).

Martin Schmidt: How did you get interested in music?

Johnny A.: When I was a young child, I was always banging pots and pans and telephone drums and so I started playing drums as a really young child for about 5 or or 6 years. When I was 12, I was just frustrated, because I always heard a lot of melody and drums are a nonmelodic instrument for the most part. So I switched over to guitar and for a while I had a conflict, whether I wanted to be a drummer or a guitarist. But then I joined a band as a guitarist and that was the last time I played drums.

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

Johnny A.: I'm self taught, completely.

Martin Schmidt: Can you read music?

Johnny A.: I can tell you what the notes are, but if I had to sight read a piece, I would not be able to do it.

If I had enough time, I would be able to figure out, what's going on. Early on as a drummer, I did take drum lesssons, so I had a sense of the value of beats and know how they are executed rhythmically.

Martin Schmidt: Who are your most important influences?

Johnny A.: I have singer/songwriter influences and guitar influences. The Beatles are a profound influence. In the guitar world it would be Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Clapton, Kenny Burell, Pat Martino. My musical taste and appetite is kind of vast, I get bored very easily with one style of music, even listening. I can repeatedly listen to the greats, like Chet Atkins. I can listen to him all day long and find something. He was such a complete player, the way he would arrange his guitar for a small ensemble was second to none, he could make a trio or a quartet sound like an orchestra. My approach as a guitarist is not the shredding type, it's more about serving the song. A lot of these early Sixties and British Invasion bands like The Beatles and The Holies and songwriters like Gerry Raferty, Everly Brothers, had great sense of melody and harmony and arrangement. That's what I tend to gravitate to, even in guitarists. I'm more influenced by guy that frame their playing with a great song. Although there were shredders I was influenced by as well, people like John Mc Laughlin and Bill Connors from Return To Forever, some progrressive art rock bands, Steve Howe from Yes and Robert Fripp from King Crimson. My tastes are all over the map.

My dad was into big band jazz and my mom liked blues and pop music of the day, so even though there's nobody in the family that's a musician, they were very passionate about music and listening to it. I'm of Greek ethnicity, so there was also a lot of Middle Eastern music in my house, all these great Syrean and Turkish and Greek clarinet, bouzouki and oud players - my taste in music goes all over the place.

Martin Schmidt: What had you done musically before your solo project?

Johnny A.: Growing up, I led my own bands. I was usually the songwriter and leader of the band - vocal based bands. I came close to record deals, but it never really happened, so at one point I just put my own career aside and took a shot at being a sideman. I've done some work with Bobby Whitlock from Derek & The Dominoes and before I did my solo project, I was working with Peter Wolfe from the J.Geils Band for about six or seven years as a guitarist and musical director. The solo career was a product of trying to survive. Wolfe wanted to take a break from touring and that basically left me out of work. I didn't have a day job, I was a full time musician, so I needed to do something to survive.

I'm not a very good singer, so I didn't want to sing anymore, I just decided that I didn't want to get a singer, because usually the fingerprint of a band is the person that's delivering the melody. You listen to Aerosmith, it's Steven Tyler, you listen to the Stones, it's Jagger. Their voices are so recognizable, they leave such a strong fingerprint, if you take that element out of the sound, it's not the same sound anymore. So my decision was to try to develop my guitar as a voice. The other thing I realized at that point was, as long as I had been playing guitar, I never felt that I could deliver a song on my own. I was more of that gunslinger type of rock/blues guitar player, a little jazzy, but still more a rhythm guitar player, who takes a solo, when it's time, but always in support of a vocal based band. My goal was to try to get to a place, where I could deliver a song with my guitar, without a vocalist.

Martin Schmidt: Do you make a living strictly with your own music?

Johnny A.: Yes, I make a living with it.

Martin Schmidt: What is important in instrumental music (melody, songwriting, improvising, the technical aspect)?

Johnny A.: The personality of the player, which is the same whether it's vocal based or instrumental. It's my criteria of what makes it special for me. A great song with a special quality of the voice, who delivers the melody. Something that touches me emotionally. There are a lot of great technical players in the world, but sometimes you hear these guys and no matter how great they are, it doesn't touch you.

Martin Schmidt: Does it have a different effect on people than vocal music?

Johnny A.: It's funny. The audience semms to be attracted to what I do. I get my share of the guitar community, but I also get an unusual amount of people that are into vocal music. I get played on radio station formats that are singer/songwriter based. I had a top ten single on a vocal based format and that hadn't happened in 10 years.

Martin Schmidt: Do you see yourself more in the tradition of jazz, or do you have a broader definition of instrumental music, with elements of blues, jazz, country, surf and soundtrack stuff in it?

Johnny A.: I don't consider myself a jazz musician, although I do a lot of improvisation. My approach to my records and my songs is more in the tradition of pop/rock. I write the song, I arrange it and a lot of times I compose the solo to fit the song, as a song in the song.

Martin Schmidt: How did you get involved with Favored Nations?

Johnny A.: I released my first CD "Sometime Tuesday Morning" on my own record label and pressed a thousand copies and sold through them. Then I pressed a thousand more and I managed to get it on the radio locally and then it spread regionally through pretty much of the New England area, which is six states in the USA. It got on all those radio stations and I ended up selling 8500 copies of the record in 10 months. I started to get calls from different record labels, they had interest in me, but at the end of the day the didn't know what to do with me, because it's not really jazz, although it's jazzy, it's not really blues, but bluesy. It was one of these complex things they couldn't label and didn't know what to do with.

So I couldn't get a record deal and wasn't able to take it any further, so I decided to remortgage my home, get a national distribution deal and hire some independent promo people, see if I could take it nationally. One of these people turned my disc to a guy, Howe Gabriel, from a distribution company called Red, who worked for FN, he gave it to Steve Vai and Steve called me. He flipped over the record and offered me a licencing deal for the album.

Since then we have sold 60,000 copies in the United States. After that he offered me a record deal for three albums. My current album "Get Inside" is the first of three. That's how that happened.

Martin Schmidt: Is there a concept behind the records?

Johnny A.: The first CD was a little safer sounding, intimate, maybe ultra loungey at points. "Get Inside" comes after three years of touring, a little bit more confidence in the style that I'm playing, a different rhythm section and I wanted to have a little bit more of the street in the sound, a little edgier. My vision is a little more defined now, after going all over the USA several times.

Martin Schmidt: How did you record in the studio, live or track by track, analog or digital?

Johnny A.: Usually we play together as a band, after a few weeks of preproduction, record live and try to get the drums, the take that has the most energy and has the right spark to it. Then I replace the bass and the guitars. I like to record analog.

Martin Schmidt: Do you improvise a lot in the studio, or do you work out everything?

Johnny A.: I don't work out everything. It depends on the song. If you take "Bundle Of Joy" from the new record, the solo is worked out and there's a strict melody line, but the way it's delivered might be different from take to take. The whole outro of "Get Inside" is one improvised track.

Martin Schmidt: You covered a Jimi Hendrix song ("The Wind Cries Mary"). Why did you choose this song?

Johnny A.: I pick covers from certain artists for the way they influenced me as a child growing up, how they inspired me. It's a way for me to say thank you and give something back.

Martin Schmidt: How did you get the idea for the arrangement, it's very different from the original?

Johnny A.: I don't think it makes sense to recreate something that's already perfect. Any guitar player that tries to go toe to toe with Jimi Hendrix would be a fool. It's my own version of it, I wanted to do it in a Hip Hop, Acid Jazz feel. The whole middle section is not part of the original song, I rewrote it. The idea with the muted trumpet solo was to get that urban Manhattan, New York City feel. Jimi Hendrix was very much into Miles Davis and it was this kind of tongue in cheek thing of trying to get this Miles Davisey vibe into the Hendrix song.

Martin Schmidt: A key element of your style is the tone of your guitar. How do you get different sounds out of it?

Johnny A.: The actual audio path is extremly simple. I use a Marshall 30 anniversary amplifier without a speaker. I use the amps speaker simulation circuitand, plug it into my Neve modul and run direct into my Studer tape decker. I bypass the console, the patch bay, no effects, straight in.

The tone is an extension of my expression. I just play differently, attack the guitar differently, pick close to the bridge or the neck pickup, I use my fingers. My right hand is extremly dynamic.

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Martin Schmidt: Do you use a pick, your fingers or a combination?

Johnny A.: I use a hybrid style, a pick and two fingers.

Martin Schmidt: Do you use all four fingers of the left hand?

Johnny A.: I use all four fingers, sometimes even my thumb.

Martin Schmidt: Is playing technique important for you, or do you prefer a "whatever works is OK for me" approach?

Johnny A.: I think about what is the best way to execute what needs to be executed. I don't necessarily follow musical rules about technique or composition. If you listen to the way I play chord melody stuff, it's not the traditional way of chord melody. Usually the melody is delivered on top of the chord, but I don''t do that, a lot of the times my melody is buried in the middle of the chord. It comes out of not studying. I read a quote of someone who said "style is a lot of times brought out by someones limitations as opposed to their profiency". Look at someone like Keith Richards. He hasn't got the chops of someone like John Mc Laughlin, but his style is so recognizable that you have every guitar player in the world trying to emulate Keith Richards, but you might have this extremly proficient Berklee player that has no style, so someones a style and a voice is brought out of someone just trying to find their way to do something, if that makes any sense to you.

Martin Schmidt: Do you have a good harmonic knowledge of the guitar?

Johnny A.: I basically play by ear, but after so many years of playing, you start to get an understanding of what's what.

Martin Schmidt: You play a lot of chord melody stuff. Did you work out all these chords theoretically, or did you stumble on them by experimenting?

Johnny A.: This technique started, when I was trying to read staff from a book called "The Complete Beatles". I was looking at these chord clusters and tried to figure out what they were, it took days, but they sounded really great, unlike chord clusters I heard before on guitar. Later I found out that I was tring to read piano staff. So this was like a key that unlocked doors for me. I couldn't even tell you what the chords were at that time, but I started to use them in my writing. Now, obviously I've gone back and know this is a flatted 13, now I can figure it out, but at that time it came totally out of ignorance, not being a schooled player, it was just a process of discovering.

Martin Schmidt: How do you approach solos? Do you think in scales, licks or do you hear melodies that you transpose to the guitar?

Johnny A.: I think in melodies, melodic terms, rhythmic terms and harmonic terms. I don't think in scale terms at all.

Martin Schmidt: Can you play all these different styles (country, jazz, blues, fingerpicking) in their pure form, or do you just pick certain elements and make them part of your style?

Johnny A.: It's based on a song, when I'm writing or reinterpreting a song, the vibe I wanna get into dictates the way I play. I could play with any band, a jazz, country or rock band, but if you ask me to play like Pat Martino in a traditional jazz band, no, but I could go up there and not make a fool of myself.

Martin Schmidt: So you play all these things in your own personal way?

Johnny A.: Yes, I like elements of things. I can't play like Wes Montgomery, although I can emulate some of the vibe he had and bring that into my style of playing. I don't wanna play like Wes Montgomery, he was great. I'm more interested in trying to find my own way and seeing if there's anything I can contribute.

Martin Schmidt: Do you practice a lot?

Johnny A.: I practice a lot. I just try to keep my chops up, there's no routine. If I have trouble spots in songs I wrote or play live, I play these parts or elements or I just continue to compose. A few times a month I go to jam sessions with friends and improvise a few hours to get a different fusion of players and music, that's not my music just to keep myself open.

Martin Schmidt: How do you write songs?

Johnny A.: I write songs from melody first. The melody comes in my head, then I find the melody on my instrument, then I frame it with chords and then I look at different variations of chords against these melodies to give the melody a different tension.

Martin Schmidt: What inspires you to write a new song?

Johnny A.: Sometimes it's just the instrument in my hand, but I also do a lot of writing while I'm driving. That's when I'm most clear, melodies come to me and I have a small recording device beside me in my car and just record it.

Martin Schmidt: How do you find titles to the songs? Do they come first?

Johnny A.: I start with the music. A lot of times the titles are based on something that has to do with me personally through my life.

Martin Schmidt: Do you write down ideas?

Johnny A.: I usually record the initial ideas, so I don't forget it. A lot of times I only go as long as the inspiration is fresh., once I start forcing that inspiration, I stop and let it sit there and go back a day or a week later, play the tape and try to recall that original inspiration, see if it helps me finish the song.

Martin Schmidt: Has your band had a great influence on the way the songs are arranged and played, or do you have a strong vision of how the songs have to be played?

Johnny A.: I have a strong vision how the songs should sound. A lot of times I explain them what I want to hear. Coming from a drum background, I know how I want the drums and rhythm section to be and will be pretty explicit about it. But even if I have a specific thing in mind for the rhythm section, most oftenly I let them play the song before I tell them what I want to see what they come up with. That might be totally different than what I'm thinking, but it might be better. I feel that once I tell them them what the idea is, it squelches their creativity, it puts the brakes on what they might naturally feel. Since I don't profess to think my ideas are the right ideas all the time, it's good to see what someone would play on their own without any kind of input..

Martin Schmidt: You also play slide and lap steel guitar. What or who inspired that?

Johnny A.: I'm not real lap steel guitarist, I use it more like a sound effect.

Martin Schmidt: Do you use open tunings for this style?

Johnny A.: I use open tunings, but more often I play in standard tuning.

Martin Schmidt: Are there any other current instrumental artists you like or feel connected to?

Johnny A.: Of my contemporaries, I'm always intrigued by Jeff Beck. He's probably the greatest rock guitarist. He's a guy that continues to push the enveloppe. If you look at his discography, coming from a rockabilly guitar player early on to the Bluesrock of the Yardbirds, developing that style more with the Jeff Beck Group, the way he transformed himself doing all the fusion stuff to the house stuff he does now. That's a guy, who has so many faces and is so versatile. That would be the benchmark as a rock instrumental guitarist.

Martin Schmidt: Are interested in today's music and artists, or do you prefer older stuff?

Johnny A.: My regular diet is older stuff, but I get exposed to music of the day from the radio.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think tradition is an important part of making music?

Johnny A.: I think it's a balance. If you're too traditional, it would never expand, like in the blues idiom, there would never have been a ZZ Top. They took the traditional blues and brought it into the 21 century, but they're still a blues band. They're a perfect band that embraces tradition and challenge it at the same time and I think it's good to do that.

Martin Schmidt: You're playing sounds very relaxed and you don't overplay things. Do you have to hold back yourself from time to time, or does this way of playing comes naturally to you?

Johnny A.: It is now. When I was younger, I had a tendency to play more and I would listen to tapes and go: There's a lot of stuff in there that hasn't to be there. When I see players or singers and I get the impression that they're yelling at me, I don't like that. So when I listen to myself and get the impression that I'm yelling at somebody instead of having a nice conversation, I tend to think that I'm doing something wrong, if that makes any sense to you.

I've come to learn that a whisper to me is more powerful than a scream, although the scream might be more initially impactful, I think over time you tend to run away from someone who's screaming at you and you listen more closely to someone whispering in a corner. It's like having a piece of candy you really love and it's super sweet and you initially like it, but then you have five or six pieces of it and it makes you sick to your stomach. That's my approach to music.

Martin Schmidt: Which guitars do you play? Do you always play your signature model or do you use other stuff, too?

Johnny A.: On the first record I used a Gibson ES 295 for 70% of the record with flatwound strings and a wound G-string. I also used Les Pauls, a Firebird, a L-5. an ES 335 and a baritone guitar.

On the second CD I used the signature model for 75% of the album and a Martin acoustic for backing tracks.

Martin Schmidt: You're more interested in Gibson style guitars?

Johnny A.: Well, I played all kinds of guitars, but I changed back to Gibsons, when I started playing with Peter Wolf. I played Strats for a long time, but then that Stevie Ray Vaughan craze hit and I got frustrated, because all the time I played, people said: "You're into SRV, heh?" and I wasn't, I listened to him, but we were the same age, so I already listened to Albert King, Jeff Beck and Hendrix and Kenny Burrell before. Peter Wolfe was inspired by a previous generation of guitar players, like T-Bone Walker, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield and Steve Cropper. When I listened to those recordings, they had Gibson guitars, but not like Led Zeppelin, more with a beautiful, warm, clean tone. So when I started my instrumental thing, I was looking for a specific tone. I wanted to use a Bigsby vibrato, so I tried my Gretsvch, my first guitar, but it wasn't working for me and then I came across the 295.

Martin Schmidt: How did you design the signature model? Is it a copy of your old guitar?

Johnny A.: It's not a copy, it's a totally new design, something I worked with the design group of Gibson.

The great thing about that collaboration with Gibson customs was that they never said, "Well, this might be great for you, but when we put it out into public, we have to make these compromises." The guitar was designed for my needs, the body size, the 25.5" scale.

Martin Schmidt: Why do you use Marshall amps, you prefer a clean or crunchy sound, usually associated with Fender or Fender style amps?

Johnny A.: The reason I started that particular model was, when worked with Wolfe, I had to cover a lot of different styles and guitar tones of his career and I needed an amp that covered 3 or 4 distinct sounds, kind of a Swiss army knife thing. This amp does did a lot of things good and with the direct circuit speaker emulation, my tone was consistent every night, without worrying about the sound man.

Martin Schmidt: Which effects?

Johnny A.: I use a couple of Boss DD-3 Delays, one for slapback and one for long delays, a little Alesis Nanoverb for the reverb and a Dunlop 535 Q Wah Wah Pedal, a tremolo pedal and an Octave Pedal and a compressor sometimes.

Martin Schmidt: Do you think things like picks and strings are important for the sound or are they overrated?

Johnny A.: I think everything is an element of your end result. I can hear the difference between picks (laughs) and strings. A lot of it is how it feels to you, because that makes to play you a certain way. Each element is equally important.

Martin Schmidt: What do you think is the most important thing for a musician, what should he or she try to achieve?

Johnny A.: I think the most important thing for a musician, or any artist, is to emotionally touch the audience. It doesn't matter how you do it, you just gotta do it.

Martin Schmidt: What do you do besides playing music?

Johnny A.: I'm pretty self absorbed with it now, but I enjoy motorcycles.

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In the midst of a lifelong fascination with the guitar, Johnny A. originally released his debut CD, "Sometime Tuesday Morning", on his own label, eventually selling thousands of copies out of his car trunk. The attention led to a re-release and distribution deal with Steve Vai's Favored Nations label and a number of high-prestige gigs with the likes of B.B. King, Robert Cray, and Jeff Beck plus an appearance at Eric Clapton's "Crossroads Guitar Festival" in 2004.

Martin Schmidt recently sat down with Mr. A. and chatted about his two solo albums, his deal with Favored Nations, and his musical approach.