by Alissa Ordabai
How many guitarists do you know who are instantly recognizable not through their tone or use of effects, but through sheer material? The ones you instantly know it’s them, even when they lay off their usual rig and pedals for a moment, or try a different style? The ones where you go, “Oh, it’s Hendrix – his phrasing, his understanding of musical form, his dynamics, his temperament”, or “Oh, that’s definitely Jimmy Page”? There are surprisingly few of those players around, but John 5 has always been one of them.
His new album The Art of Malice to be released next month is certainly very John 5 – the same dazzling technique, the same explosive energy, the same attitude, only this time it’s all happening on a bigger scale – more alive, more spontaneous, more inventive. His songwriting has expanded too – a huge leap forward compared to the air-tight vacuum of the previous record Requiem. On this album John is starting to tell more diverse, more vivid and dramatic stories, opening up not only the guitar’s soundboard, but his view of what can be done if you mix thrash, industrial, bluegrass and whatever the hell else he wants to present his listeners on this most flamboyant, exuberant, outrageous instrumental guitar record to have been recorded in years. John 5 has now raised his game and is scoring goals galore.
“When I first started doing these instrumental records, I have always tried to do something different,” he says. “Because with a lot of instrumental artists, if you mixed up all those songs and said, “Name me the artist”, it would be very hard to do with a lot of rock instrumentalists. They are all phenomenal players, but I wanted to do something completely and utterly different, almost to where it shocks the system, shocks the listener.”
And shock it does. Each track is unique, but together they make for a head-spinning roller coaster going from fretboard fireworks and exhilaration of tracks like “Ill Will or Spite” to lucid subtlety of the likes of “The Last Page Turned”. No track prepares you for what comes next, because what comes next is just as unexpected as what came before, but together this collection of songs makes for a multi-layered mosaic of different themes and moods. To John 5 guitar is an instrument of both seduction and assault, and both come together on this album in as many shades and gradations as one can imagine.
“If you buy a record from the guy who was in Marilyn Manson, you kind of know what you are going to get,” he continues. “So I wanted to really change it up and shock everybody. People who play guitar will buy these records. They will appreciate what I’m doing. It’s like a race car driver but he drives in a different style. People will always have an appreciation for something different, even if it’s not the kind of music you like. If a guitar player will see a guitarist playing somewhere and he’s really good, they will always stop and watch for a little bit. That’s why I did it, I just wanted to spice it up a little bit, change it to make me not sound like everyone else.”
While John says that with the new record he wanted guitar players to pay attention, the impact will surely send wider ripples than just among the guitar community. On The Art of Malice he is dishing out perfect hooks, blistering riffs and instantly memorable melodies by the bucket. An in his new-found vision he is both recognizable and unrecognizable – his technique, which hasn’t stopped developing, is quintessential John 5, but the inventiveness with which he constantly escapes the songwriting pattern takes the new album on another level.
Asked if his songwriting progress came about spontaneously as he went along, or if it was something he purposefully worked on, John is quick to emphasize that this is all result of hard work. “I work at it,” he replies. “I absolutely work at it. I work at it harder than anything else in my life, for sure. Absolutely, it’s like training – I work, and work, and work, and work. Absolutely. It’s not something I pick up, going, “Eh, let me do this…” It’s not like that at all. I train, and train, and train, and train all day. And into the night.”
But rather than a chore, practice to him is a prerequisite for feeling happy. “I love playing the guitar,” he says. “Thank god it’s not something harmful to my health or against the law, otherwise I’d be dead or in jail.” He says his technique requires everyday practice, but this is not something he sees as a burden. “I don’t know what would happen if I stopped for a week or something,” he says. “But I’ve never gone more than two days without playing guitar. So I really don’t know. I think anything that you do, you have to keep it up. But I don’t do it to keep it up – I do it because I love it. I love having a guitar in my hands. It feels safe, just like having a blanket when you are a kid. It feels very safe and very comforting.”
Despite of all the thought and effort which went into crafting this record, it doesn’t come through as labored. Imagination turns John’s craft into art, and he knows how to employ his phenomenal technique on the service of sensation. “Ya Dig”, a swaggering barn-burner on which Billy Sheehan guests on the bass, is one such example. Here it’s all about juxtaposition of tempos and tonal colors, contrasts and connection of harmony and melody, and building up layers after layer of texture without making it too dense or heavy-handed. Its whopping immediacy not only highlights John’s new approach to composition, but both player’s staggering instrumental acumen.
“There is not another Billy Sheehan,” John says. Asked for how long they have known each other, he replies that it’s a small world with musicians, especially in LA. “You see people out, you see people around and you say hello, and after time you get to become closer friends. This guy knows that guy. I love so many artists – it doesn’t matter if someone is a guy from Slayer or a guy from White Lion. I love guitar players and I’m a fan of everybody. And, of course, I have my favorites, and Billy Sheehan is just one of them. I just reached out. He was very kind and agreed to do it. We were both with David Lee Roth, of course, and we know a lot of the same people. It was so much fun, he’s such an amazing talent.”
Childhood memories have also served as inspiration for the record. Take, for example, “J.W.” – a light-hearted, elegant bluegrass-inspired track showing off John’s virtuosic finger picking technique and his sense of melody. “This is how my dad would call me,” he explains. “My middle name is William, so he would call me that: “Hey, J.W.!”
Asked if he was growing up in a musical family, John laughs. “Actually, no,” he says. “But I never did anything else except for play guitar. A lot of people say that, of course, but I really didn’t do much else. I wasn’t into sports that much and I wasn’t… I had friends – I was kind to people and they were kind to me – but was always indulged with my guitar. And there is a thing called “The S Lot”, and that is a part of my high school. And “Fractured Mirror” was a cover of Ace Frehley, and that was one of the songs that I loved as a kid. It was one of the instrumentals that changed my life.”
It’s not just Ace Frehley, however, who John pays a tribute to on this record. “Portrayed as Unremorseful” tips a hat off to Jimmy Page by cunningly playing a close reference to the “Heartbreaker” solo over the harmony of “Rock’n’Roll”, reminding us that rock music has always been about both imagination and imitation, sometimes copying and sometimes inventing.
But did he ever have a clear musical ambition or aspiration when he was growing up, I ask. “I understood at a very early age exactly what I wanted to do,” he replies. “Not like, “I want to be a big rock star and have girls, and cars, and houses, and move to California.” It wasn’t like that. It was so funny because when I was young, I said to myself, “All I want to do is make a living playing guitar, and I want to live in California.” That was my dream. That was all I wanted.”
“I didn’t want fame or anything like that. All I wanted was to make a living playing guitar… and live in California. Because truthfully and honestly I didn’t do that well at school because I was playing guitar that much. It’s so weird how a child understands stuff so early on, but I understood that I was not academically great. I understood that all I could do was play guitar. A lot of people say that, “What else am I going to do?” and stuff like that, but really I was being honest with myself because this was pretty much all I could do. I really focused and just worked, and worked, and worked, and luckily, LUCKILY, I left my home and now I’m here in California. I stayed and pursued it.”
So has being a rock guitarist change in any fundamental way since the time when he was growing up? “One. Thousand. Percent,” John says. “It’s frightening what is going on now. Let’s say in the Seventies it was great. Great, great, great. Then in the Eighties it changed and it was like, “Wow, this is even greater!” It just keeps… People are exploring and expanding their minds. It advanced so much. Players, just players. It advanced so much. Yeah, we had a low in the grunge era – not a lot of people really playing guitar, but still there was amazing music that came out of there. I love grunge era because there was incredible music. But guitar-playing-wise it advanced so much. It’s great, I love it.”
John himself is, of course, at the forefront of these developments, exploring and expanding his approach album after album. His ability to unite different genres within one musical form has always been staggering, and this is what I want to find out about next. “I try and appreciate different styles,” he says. “I don’t learn it just to learn it – I appreciate it. I really enjoy doing what I’m doing and that helps a lot too, when you are enjoying what you are doing, and not just playing some country song because you are trying to impress. I really enjoy that music, and I love Les Paul, and Chet Atkins, and Roy Clark, and Albert Lee, and all these people, I have such a fondness for them. So it’s a pleasure. I’m not trying to be the best, but I love playing the guitar.”
“The Art of Malice” from the new record features John playing a flamenco intro followed by some beautifully improvised country-inspired material, which shows off his ability to shift between the automatic, the spontaneous and the evoked. The story of this track turns out to be almost as interesting as the music itself.
“I was trying a couple of different styles,” he says. “And here is the real story of that song. I was testing my clean tone in the studio. I was going to do a clean guitar part of one of the other songs. I think it was “Nightmare Unravels”. I was going to do a clean guitar part. We were testing the clean sound: “Does this sound good, does that sound good?” And the engineer will always say, “Play a little, play as hard as you are going to play so that we can hear how the sound will come out.” And that is me just checking the sound. And it sounded so good, I was like, “Let’s keep this on the record.” And the story gets better. There is actually a video of me doing this. It’s up on YouTube and it’s just me really checking the sound and that’s the take that we used on the record. If you put in “John 5 in the studio”, you’ll hear it. I added the flamenco part later, but you will hear the take that is on the record.”
How so much fun can be put into so much brilliance is what this YouTube clip shows the best. But there soon will be plenty more chances to see John 5 to match his inner essence to the outward expression in a spontaneous situation – on April 25 he is embarking on a four-month-long US tour. “I am looking forward to this tour because of the fact that I’m getting to be with my friends, and it will be summer time, and I love playing shows in the summer time,” he says. “Because I’m skinny and I love to be warm, and I hate being cold. We usually play around Halloween time or winter time, things like that. It’s always cold, and I’m miserable and stuff. But touring in the summer time just puts a smile on my face. I’m playing guitar, I’ll be out with my friends and it will be summer time.”
So what elements need to coincide, in his opinion, for a truly great show to happen? “I just use experience,” he says. “I make sure it sounds good and everybody is performing up to their abilities. Unfortunately, I feel sorry for the band because I rehearse so much. I just want everybody to be so perfect, because I want it to sound really good. I want it be rehearsed really well and I want everybody to sound as good as possible. And then in Zombie we make sure that everyone stands at a right spot because he’s a perfectionist too. That’s why together we make such a great team. We always, always have great shows. We make sure of that. We want those people to walk away going, “That was awesome!”
And when I hear him say that, I realize that it’s passion that makes a musician, not technique – something that John 5 proves so convincingly on the new record and which rings in his voice as he says those last words. Passion not just for his instrument, but – most importantly – for music. Music where he uses virtuoso execution to advance not only his own, but our collective perception of what is possible in art. Of how it’s possible to dream, move, change, pay tribute, imagine and invent with a purely creative purpose at heart. A purpose beyond vanity, hype and ambition.