Once you bore beneath John 5's uber-platinum hair, ornately tattooed limbs, black fingernails, and battle-scar eye shadow, you find a tremendously soft-spoken, humble, and guitar loving musician. Completely at odds with the image, John has been slowly garnering the accolades and the praise for being one of the truly most unique guitarists around. He has blended violent country picking with a savage form of shredding that places him in a room all his own.
After leaving the Manson family back in 2004, the guitarist headed off on his own instrumental career. He has just unleashed The Art Of Malice, his sixth album, and on it he covers everything from the Chet Atkins/Les Paul swing of "J.W." to the frenzied fret lashing on "Portrayed As Unremorseful." He has pushed his jacked-up Telecaster to its virtual breaking point and has taken it miles beyond anything James Burton, Albert Lee, or Roy Buchanan could have ever imagined.
You're immediately confronted with John 5's enthusiasm about what he does and about what his heroes do. He repeats himself and starts laughing because he's so over-the-top about a lick or a guitar tone. And when he says, "I always tell the truth whenever I do interviews; I always tell the truth and things like that and don't make up stories," you just have to believe him.
UG: I want to start this interview with a quote: One of the main things that I really wanted to try to do is really have my own unique style. To have my own kind of thing where people go, Oh, well, that sounds like John 5.' Steve Vai said, It takes balls to be a true original' and I think that's what I was really reaching for. That's from an interview you and I did back in 2004 and it's part of the quote I picked to accompany your photograph in Neil Zlozower's photo book of guitar players called Six-String Heroes.
We all want an original voice in whatever we do and we all work hard at our craft. On your new record, The Art of Malice, can you measure in any way that your voice has become more distinct? How do you create a unique voice and then realize you've created something original? In other words, can you sense that what you do on guitar is really unique to you?
John 5: Absolutely; you're absolutely right. I did try to create this unique voice and how I went about that is adding is really adding country-style playing into hard rock. And people are recognizing me for that and also Telecaster playing. And I think I've done that because sometimes I'll go on Youtube and see a guitar player and who describes his style as John 5ish and like some country-type stuff going on in some rock influence and he's playing a Telecaster and things like that. So I think I'm onto something here; people really, really enjoy it because it is different. I don't wanna sound like everyone else that's out there; I want to have my own voice.
The Telecaster is a huge part of what you do as you mentioned. Do you think that if you had created this style on a Strat or a Les Paul that your vision may not have been as unique?
Well, I don't know. I love doing interviews with you cause you have such great questions. I don't know; it is a good question. A lot of the tricks I do, the things I do, you can really kind of only do on a Telecaster. Like the behind-the-nut bends and certain things like that which is more hard to do on a Les Paul. It's just a kind of type of Telecaster playing so I enjoy that. And I had the love for the Telecaster so I chose that or it kinda chose me. But yeah, I think playing a Les Paul it would have been a little more difficult to pull off some of these little tricks that I do.
Do you think in another life and had you not fallen prey to the dark side, that you might have been a player like James Burton or Scotty Moore? And backing up singers in rock and roll bands?
I think I'll do that in this life! I don't think I'm gonna be getting up there and jumping around like a lunatic, you know, in my older age [but] I know how to play all that stuff. And on my new record there are a lot of country instrumentals and stuff like that so I think later in my life I will be doin' that.
Did you ever have the desire to do a Slash-like record where you would bring in different singers for various tracks? You've written for so many different artists and you've played with so many different people, that it seems like an album like that would be a natural for you.
I would love to do a record like that. I think it would be really interesting and really a fun thing to do. Slash is so talented and such a great songwriter and such a great guitar player and he knows everybody under the sun. It's such a great idea and it is something I would love to do as well. I've heard Slash's [record] and some of the songs and they're just phenomenal. He's a wonderful, wonderful talent.
He really is.
I'd love to do that; I think that would be a great idea.
Along similar lines, do you have any feelings about the Loser project? Certainly that was a crossroads in your career and you made the decision to work with Rob Zombie and that was obviously the right choice. But do you ever look back at that and wonder, What if?
I think always if you do any kind of job or have any kind of relationship or you always think of, What if? You know, of course it was a great record and maybe I'll do something because the record is completed: mixed and mastered and everything. Maybe I'll put that out one day because it is a great, fun record.
We had such a fun time doing the Loser record but I am so happy with the decision I made. I've been with Rob Zombie for over five years and I'm so happy and I know from the bottom of my heart I made the right decision. But maybe I'll put it out one day.
Talking about Rob Zombie, how would you assess your playing on the Hellbilly Deluxe 2 record?
You know I'm glad that you asked that because a lot of guitar players will understand that I did so many things different on this record. I used a 1934 Dobro on a song called Werewolf, Baby! and we distorted it so I did a lot of unique things on this record. That song was all done open tuning like Robert Johnson. And also I slashed one of my speakers on one of the cabinets to make it have a cool unique sound. I read as a kid Pete Townshend did that so I always wanted to do that so I did that on this record. I used a lot of cool guitars. On the beginning of Mars Needs Women I used this old Martin D-45 and a bunch of old Telecasters. It's just a great live sounding record cause we all played at the same time. It was really a lot of fun.
In some respects is Rob more open to guitar experimentation than Marilyn Manson was?
I believe so. If you've ever seen us live, I get to do a solo and I'm really appreciative of that. Because I play for Rob Zombie it's not Rob Zombie and John 5. But he does give me that time during the shows for a solo which I appreciate very much. I never did that in Marilyn Manson so I'm really happy with that. Yeah, he lets me go and do my thing which I'm very happy for. He's the best person I've ever worked for in my life and I'll probably always say that.
You really are two different characters the John 5 who releases solo guitar albums and that other John 5 who rips it up with Rob Zombie. What do you get from making an album like The Art of Malice that you don't get from making Hellbilly Deluxe 2?
Well, that's exactly why I do those instrumental records. I do them kind of for myself. Music has no rules and boy, the music I do there is no rules; there is no format or no anything like that. It's just having a great time playing guitar and I get to do whatever I want. I have all these different styles on there and it's just a lot of fun making these records. And I really love inspiring people, too; they really enjoy listening and learning and I love talking to the audience, the fans, about these records, too. Cause that's the reason I wanted to do it is to inspire these people and have em pick up the guitar and not just play a few chords but there's a whole world of music out there that needs to be explored.
On March 31st you actually conducted a question and answer session with fans at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
Yes, I did; I did a little performance and a discussion and things like that and I love doing that for the fans because it's what it's all about; it really is. I know it sounds corny to say but it's the truth. I love going out and meeting them and talking to them and seeing what their feedback is. I listen as well.
It's not corny at all. You touched earlier about the country elements on The Art of Malice album. The title song is a great example of your country style mixed in with the rock thing and the classical and everything else.
I took little pieces from everything. With that song, The Art of Malice, I was checking my clean guitar tones; I was in the studio and checking my tones. I think I was checking the tones for a song called The Nightmare Unravels, the first song on the CD. So I'm checking the tones, checking the clean tones, and I just started playing this piece; I like to work on certain licks. The engineer was like, OK, John, just play a little bit and play hard and let's see if it cracks or distorts a little bit. And so I'm playing and I'm playing this piece and producer guy was like, Hey, that sounded great; let's keep that. And I said, OK. At the end of the record, he was like, Oh, listen to this and so it came up and I just said, Hey, let's call that The Art of Malice' cause it was just me checking the clean guitar but it sounded so good we kept it.
So that was you just noodling?
Me kinda just messing around. I like playing those licks and stuff like that cause I work on stuff at home so I always play a certain thing. But yeah, I was just kinda messing around and he kept that. I was gonna actually put a lot of those little bits and pieces into a song and I was just checkin' the clean sound and messin' around and we just kept it.
When you used this little solo guitar piece for the title track, did you think that your fans might think the rest of the record was more kind of country oriented?
I want people to think of this record [and] that's the whole key is to think of this record however you want to think it. I always enjoy now doing autograph sessions where there are such a wide array of people coming to these autograph sessions that I do. You know you have your Rob Zombie/Marilyn Manson fans; you have your guitar shredder guys, right? And now I'm getting this older generation coming too and that's because of this country pickin' I'm doin' and it's wonderful. I love to get a wide array of people so I want them to see this record however they want to see it. If you love the guitar, you're gonna love this record.
J.W. is another one of those crazy chicken pickin' songs. Are those Chet Atkins influences? Is this a nod to Les Paul? How would you describe the textures in this track?
You nailed em both: Chet Atkins and Les Paul fer sure; you nailed it right on the head.
Certainly you heard that Les Paul passed away last August. That must have been pretty devastating for you.
Devastating. That's one of the reasons I did that; I just love Les and he was such a great influence on me and still is. And the same with Chet. So I love that style of playing, kinda that western swing style of playing. It's really interesting to me.
Had you met either Chet or Les?
I didn't meet Chet but I did get a chance to jam with Les Paul. So it was a real true honor.
J.W. was sort of your father's nickname for you. Is he still alive?
Actually, no, unfortunately he's not.
What would he have thought of J.W?
I think he would have really loved it. To tell you the truth I never lie [and] as I said earlier he didn't really enjoy the Marilyn Manson stuff. But he really enjoyed the country kind of playing and picking so he really enjoyed that. And, you know, he used to call me that all the time and so all of these songs are a little bit of my life in there as well.
But your dad did see you achieve success so that must have felt pretty great?
Yes, he definitely did.
Ya Dig is something David Lee Roth used to say you a lot when you were in his band and the song is an ode to him and Van Halen. When you hear the track, you instantly know there is a Van Halen influence here. What is it that we the listener hear in the song that suggests a Van Halen riff? Is it the style of the rhythm? The tone? What is it?
I think that anyone who has ever owned a Van Halen record understand the kind of style of that. And that's the song that Billy Sheehan played on and it's really cool cause it's such a Van Halen-sounding song. It's a lot of tribute and ode to and it's definitely one of those songs where I pay a big respect to Van Halen and Diamond Dave and all that stuff because it was an epiphany for me; a big life-changing experience hearing Van Halen.
You used to play Van Halen songs in a cover band way back in the day?
No, actually I just had a band in school and we would play a bunch of Van Halen covers and things like that. That was a lot of fun and I think that was my first true test of being a real professional and getting up on stage and playing in front of people and things like that. So it was a lot of fun.
Learning Edward's solos and phrases and techniques was a milestone for you? It changed how you looked at the guitar?
Yes, it did; it changed everything cause I was so into Kiss and I was so into Ace Frehley hearing Eruption and things like that really changed my life. It was unbelievable.
"I don't wanna sound like everyone else that's out there; I want to have my own voice."
Ace Frehley has continued to be a major influence for you since you covered Fractured Mirror from his solo album way back in the day. What was it about Ace's playing that you liked since he was at the opposite end of what Van Halen was doing?
What it is when I was a child, a young child, seeing Kiss blew me away. And I think 99 per cent of it was when people discovered Kiss, it's with the makeup and the fire and the smoke and blood and everything and it really affects someone. It's just like if Frankenstein or something like that played awesome rock music, you'd be like, This is incredible! And I think that's why it influences a lot of guitar players and musicians because that's what it did for me and when you're a child it just blows you away. I mean I know that's what happened with me. Hearing Fractured Mirror was my first instrumental song listening to it and I loved Ace's music. Even back then I really enjoyed it and it really just struck a chord because I remember I was nine years old, eight years old, when I heard that I was just blown away by Fractured Mirror. I loved the Ace solo album.
Then the other side of what you just said is if Kiss hadn't done all the theatrics with the blood and the smoke and everything, do you think you would have still been attracted to Ace Frehley as a guitar player?
Umm, I think I would have been attracted to the music but definitely the reason I bought Love Gun, my first Kiss album, was cause I was so into monsters and things like that. I was so drawn to the cover and then hearing Ace. I would have been a fan of Ace because he had a lot of great things he was doing. He was one, he was a great songwriter; I mean hands down, the guy is a phenomenal songwriter and he did some chicken pickin' too. He did that ba bownnt ba bownnt ba bownnt [imitates simple descending country lick] in a lot of solos but also he was such a great inventor. I mean he came up with the smoke coming out of the guitar and all that stuff. He was one of those epiphanies in my life; it just really changed everything for me.
Can I Live Again is John 5 on slide. Do you like the slide as a different sort of expression?
I do; I love whenever I get the chance to play slide because it's just another style and another way and I really appreciate good slide playing. I even played a lot of slide on the new Hellbilly Deluxe 2 on that song Werewolf Baby which we were talking about earlier. So I really enjoy the slide [and] whenever I get a chance to play it, I do. I think that's a real nice, melodic change to the whole madness of the record. And you know as well as I, hearing instrumental records, it's tough cause it's usually one thing over and over and over; the same style. But I wanted to give the listener kind of like avenues; you can listen to the whole album without getting so frustrated like, Oh, god. It just takes you to different places.
I used my D-45 and my Signature model Telly. I used a metal Jimmy Dunlop slide and just let it go. I did raise the action a little bit and because you know you can't have very low action for that kind of thing.
There are also some keyboards on Can I Live Again?
Uh, yeah, there's a little bit of keyboards just to make it a little more musical and make it a little groovier sounding. Just cause I wanted to make it different sounding in all aspects but I always want to keep people guessing. But there's not keyboards in the sense of Nine Inch Nails type of keyboards but it's more of a keyboards of like a B3 or a Rhodes.
Aren't the keyboards doing like string pads?
Yeah, nice string arrangements and things like that, I love. It kind of reminds me of a nice Pink Floyd-type of sound.
Are you playing keyboards?
No; I actually stick to what I do and stick to what I know and I play bass and I play guitar and I'm not one of those guys who says, Look at me I'm playing everything. I leave that to the professionals.
You talk about playing bass and you obviously know exactly what you want. But have you ever thought of bringing in an outside bass player to get more of an ensemble feel on your records? Maybe another bass player would bring something to the music that you wouldn't.
Absolutely; I love that. I love a great bass player. There's nothin' that I love more than a great bass player. Billy Sheehan, of course; Paul McCartney; Bill Wyman. Real bass playing. Even the Alice Cooper stuff; really great bass lines. Paul McCartney had such great bass lines. It's just like so interesting to really hear a real bass player; it's such an important piece of the music instead of thud thud thud. I love great bass players; it's a very important instrument.
Rob Zombie is touring with Alice, right?
Yeah, and you know what's funny about this? I was always a Kiss fan, I was always a Kiss guy but early on I had my Alice Cooper albums. I had a few but I wasn't a big Alice fan because I was a Kiss fan. And later in my life, here I am in Rob Zombie's band and Rob Zombie loves Alice and our bass player loves Alice and things like that. So they were always talking Alice stories and talking about records and I felt very left out because I didn't know anything. I knew like the School's Out song, Eighteen the song; you know things like that. I didn't really know much; I knew his hits.
So what I did is I go, You know what, guys, what's a great first Alice album to get? So I went and got the Alice record [Pretties For You] off iTunes and I'm tellin' ya another epiphany! It changed my life; it's incredible: the orchestration and the writing and the parts and the styles. Oh, my god, so many different styles. So now I got Love it to Death; I got Killer; I got School's Out; I got Lace and Whiskey; I got From the Inside. I got all these records: Billion Dollar Babies, of course; Welcome to My Nightmare and I know all these songs and they're incredible. I love it and I only started getting into it maybe a year-and-a-half ago but I love it. It really changed everything for me and I'm so happy that we're touring with Alice cause now I can appreciate everything he did. Because before I was like, Yeah, Alice Cooper, he's got good songs but I didn't get it. But now I get it.
Bob Ezrin's production on those records was amazing.
Oh, yeah; incredible. I had a meeting with Bob Ezrin and he was talking to me about myself but I wanted to talk to him about Alice's stuff.
Who produced The Art of Malice?
I produced it with my friend, Chris Baseford, who helps out with the Zombie. I come in just very well prepared and we knock it out really quick.
Portrayed As Unremorseful was a crazy track with that little bit of Zeppelin in the middle there. You took the chords to Rock and Roll and played the solo from Heartbreaker over it. Very cool.
Oh, absolutely. It's funny; it did exactly what I wanted it to do: it surprised the listener and caught them off guard. Anybody that has a pair of ears knows what that is because Jimmy Page is the most phenomenal known guitar player in the world and I wanted to pay tribute to him. I love him so much. I didn't try to like sound like him or anything but I wanted to pay a tribute. And when I pay a tribute, I play it exactly how it is and say, Thank you for doing this and giving the gift of music to the world and inspiring me. So that's why I did that in the midst of all the chaos.
In Portrayed as Unremorseful, there really are an abundance of guitar tracks involved: there is the rhythm track and harmony guitar tracks and the solo and noodling track. When this John 5 guy goes in and lays down the rhythm track, does he know what this other guitar player is going to come in and do solo-wise? Are you six different guitar players on a track or are you always John 5?
Well, I think [as] John 5, if you will, I try to be all of these different people. It's kind of like all of my heroes; I put a little bit of everybody in me and I try to make it so diverse and different. I remember people talking about Steve Morse and things like that and I really appreciate people just changing it up. And I think if I was doing this and I was just doing one thing and one thing only, I don't think people would be really talking about me or wanting to really do interviews and things like that. But it seems to be working: I get the opportunity to talk to you about what is going on and it is like eight different guitar players but they're all me.
"I had the love for the Telecaster so I chose that or it kinda chose me."
You explain your approach as being very well prepared. On a song like Portrayed as Unremorseful, do you know exactly what the rhythm part is and what the solos are going to be as you're laying each track down? It does represent a pretty complex process.
That's a great question I know exactly what I'm going to do before I walk in the studio. I have someone recording me and producing me so between you and I, he wants to get out of there quick and he doesn't want to hear a bunch of stuff. So I know exactly what I'm going to do and I rehearse it so I'm in there quick. I prepare for my job; I'm not, Oh, let's try this, let's try this. I'm in the studio only for about, I'd say no more than two hours cutting tracks of a song. I'm only in there for the most two hours; the most. Because I'm so prepared and I just come in there and play. And he's like, OK, let's try this again or let's try that again or let's try to get this sound. It's really quick because I prepare myself at home. There's nothing worse than someone unprepared if they're going into a studio atmosphere or even a job atmosphere. If you're doing a job, you want to be prepared for it.
Steel Guitar Rag sounds you're actually using a Dobro or a steel guitar. Are you?
No. I'm just playing my signature Telly on that. And put it through an old 1955 Fender Champ amp. It's an old, old, old traditional song and no one even knows who wrote it. So it's a great, great song and it's an old one and it's an old favorite. And I wanted to put a little mess on there to that beautiful, traditional song. Did a little stain on it.
The Telecasters are the main instruments on the album?
Of course it's all Telecasters and I used my Martin D-45 on the acoustic parts of it. But mostly just an array of Telecasters. I used a '69 Thinline on it and mostly, I'd say 80 per cent of it, is my Signature Telecaster. I used this '64 Telecaster Custom.
Have you come to rely on a basic amp rig?
Yeah, I'm using these Marshall 900s now. Really a great, great, great amp! Oh, my god, just a wonderful, wonderful amp. And I used some old Fenders: a 1955 Champ and a Fender Twin and things like that. But for the distortion, I used these Marshall 900s.
Is the acoustic track, The Last Page Turned, another nod at Jimmy Page?
It's a nod towards not only Jimmy but it's a nod towards one of my favorite records of all time: Led Zeppelin III. Because they have so much great acoustic work on that and I love Jimmy's acoustic work. Oh, man, oh, man, oh, man! I love it and it's just saying thanks. It's that kind of style because there's such a vision with that; it's just such a beautiful piece and I just wanted to keep that like you can picture it that beautiful 70s kind of thing.
Back in the days of Zeppelin and other bands who were using acoustic guitars, you could always hear the physical sound of the instrument being played: fret noises and pick scrapes. There was a real organic quality to that. Now, acoustic guitars get compressed and you lose a lot of that integrity. But you had a ton of fret noise on The Last Page Turned so you get it.
Back in the day, me and you can understand this: they would just put up their mics and they'd play and they'd get a good take and that was it. They made these records quickly and that's the magic, the real sound. It's not so processed where it's taking everything out. It's just really how it sounds and really how it happened.
Would you like to tour for The Art of Malice?
I would love to go out and tour. You know what I like to do better than that? I like to do these clinics because I get the chance to meet the fans and talk to them and they ask me questions and vice versa and they can say, How do you do that? It's good to do that because you can't really do that at a concert where you raise your hand and say, Hey, Eddie, how'd you do this? And playing shows, a lot of em, are in nightclubs or something so I want the younger kinds to come to. So I really like doing clinics. It's the same thing but during the day and all ages and usually free!
[Note: As John was saying his good-byes, he made this last comment: "You have the best questions of anybody. Talk about being prepared? You have the greatest questions. I was so happy that you were doing the interview. I was like, "Oh, yes!"]
Interview by Steven Rosen
"On my new record there are a lot of country instrumentals and stuff like that so I think later in my life I will be doin' that."