John 5 Interview: Shreddin' Surprises

Shock Therapy. They may have outlawed it long ago in the medical profession, but it’s still in use in the music biz to this day. How else can you explain artists like Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus, or – switching over to the metal genre, and going back a few years -- Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie?

Weird, crazy, totally gonzo-insane -- maybe so -- but if you let that kind of stuff run you off, you’d never realize what an amazing, virtuosic guitarist those two shock-artists have shared in Detroit-born John Lowery, aka, John 5.

On his new solo disc, Careful With That Axe – his sixth in the past decade – the 43-year-old guitarist showcases simply immense fretboard talent. Over 10 cuts on Careful...John tears it up not only over the metal grooves you would expect from a guy who routinely shaves his eyebrows and paints his face like a psychotic clown, but also in a completely authentic, and completely mind-blowing display of hot country pickin’ as well. Yeah, shred-metal, and shred-country. Together. On the same disc. And it ain’t his first time at this rodeo either. You just gotta hear it.

John has spent most of the past decade recording and touring with Zombie, and before that played simultaneously with both Marilyn Manson and David Lee Roth for a five-plus years, and on a couple of albums. But you’ve also heard him on records such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s God & Guns and Last of a Dyin' Breed, and songs by Scorpions, Garbage, Ricky Martin, and k.d. lang -- to mention just a few. It’s no surprise that a player this good gets a lot of calls for session work, and he takes it all very seriously.

In this exclusive interview we talk all about his country pickin’, his love of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, and his sessions with – and hilarious first meeting with – Rock And Roll Hall of Famer’s Lynyrd Skynyrd. John also touches on his movie-soundtrack work with Rob Zombie, his wild collection of Telecasters, and all his favorite gear.

And don't miss John 5 on his October 18th worldwide streaming concert, produced by the folks from “The Tonight Show.” (See the link below) Hey John, how are you today?

John 5: Ahhh… I’m in Paso Robles, California. It’s beautiful; I’m loving it. The weather: amazing. I love playing in California because it’s so close to home. We’re just doing it today. That whole area is amazing – Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay. Have you ever been over to the coast, by Hearst Castle, to see the thousands of elephant seals laying on the beach?

John 5: Yes, I have. How cool is that? And they’re just laying there. They’re like the size of Volkswagens. So who are you playing with tonight?

John 5: It’s a Rob Zombie show. So this new disc of yours – just amazing guitar playing, as always.

John 5: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I am always amazed, and I was since the first time I heard you do some solo stuff with the Vertigo album back in 2004, at your country picking.

John 5: That’s why I did it. A lot of people enjoy the country picking, because they don’t hear it all the time. Whenever an instrumental thing comes out, we know what it’s going to sound like. But I really enjoy playing like that, and I promised myself when I first did it, “I’m gonna do some country picking on here. I don’t know if anybody will like it, but I’m gonna do it, and see what happens.” And people really enjoy it. We do like it. And you’re as fluent at that, as you are with the basic metal-shredder kind of stuff.

John 5: Oh thank you. I just love playing, and I love putting out these records. It’s just for the love of guitar, and the love of music. I really enjoy it, and I think people enjoy it as well. It’s a great thing for me to do, and it’s a lot of fun, that’s for sure. How did you pick up those country pickin’ skills?

John 5: Well, I loved that TV show, “Hee Haw” growing up. And my Dad always had Jerry Reed and all these pickers playing in the house. And I just really enjoyed the guitar playing in it. I thought it was really cool. And of course I loved all the crazy rock guys as well.

And I thought, “Oh man, there’s so many things that music can do.” I was so young, and I thought, “There’s so many things I can do with this guitar,” and I just learned everything. I just wanted to know everything. I just wanted to be a session musician. I didn’t want to be a well-known guitarist. I just didn’t even think that would be possible.

I just wanted to be a session guy, so I learned everything you could on the guitar, every kind of style, and all that stuff. So to keep up those country skills, is there a different practice regimen that goes into that, than goes into the rock stuff that you play?

John 5: Yeah. It’s a consistent – it’s not even like a practice regimen. It’s just a consistent playing. You just constantly play guitar. And you’re constantly learning. It’s not even like, “Well, I gotta practice.” It’s like, I’m just doing it. Just do it every day. And that’s what you do all day. It’s kind of crazy, but it’s the truth. So I suppose you listen to people like Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, and others like that?

John 5: I love Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. And there’s a guy out there, his name is Joe Maphis, right around the same era. He was a monster – a MONSTER! And I really loved him a lot. Oh my God, he’s incredible. So if anybody is checking this interview out, check out Joe Maphis. You mentioned session playing, and while most of your fans know you from your solo albums, and your recording and touring with Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, you’ve done an awful lot of session work with a really wide variety of artists. You’ve recorded with everyone from Rod Stewart to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and obviously Rob Zombie and Marily Manson. I imagine you really enjoy the variety of the session work.

John 5: Yeah, I just enjoy variety in general. That is kind of what I try to do with my instrumental stuff: variety. People don’t want to hear the same stuff over and over again, so that’s kind of why I do what I do. And it keeps it fresh. It keeps it fresh for the artist, and it keeps it fresh for the listener too. Variety is really a great thing for the listener as well because you never know what you’re gonna get. It’s like having your iPod on shuffle. You never know where it’s gonna land, which song. With Skynyrd, you laid down a couple different tracks for them on a couple different albums, right?

John 5: That’s correct. On their last two records. And what an experience that was! I went down to Nashville, and it was cold at the time. I think I had no eyebrows at that time. And I walk in there, and they didn’t know who I was, somebody at my publishing company set it up.

And I walked in there, and I had a big, black fur coat on. Huge. Totally ridiculous, like Liberace style or something. And I walk in with no eyebrows, and I was wearing two different colored shoes. I was just crazy, I mean CRAZY looking.

And they thought there was a mistake. They thought there was a mix-up or something. They thought someone was pulling a joke on them, you know?

And then I sat down with them and I played all this music that they loved, all this country stuff and all that, and we’ve been very close friends ever since. Did you end up laying down some harmony riffs with them?

John 5: Oh yeah. I ended up doing a bunch of stuff with them, and it was great. I’m a part of Lynyrd Skynyrd history. How cool is that? Yeah! I’m sure you grew up hearing some Skynyrd, right?

John 5: Oh my God! I worshipped them. But that was the whole trick. I think that’s why I get a lot of sessions because the only sessions I say yes to are the ones that I grew up listening to. The one’s I’m really familiar with. Because I know exactly what they want. If they reference something, I know exactly what they’re talking about. Things like that.

If they reference, say, “Tuesday’s Gone,” or something from the album Nuthin’ Fancy, or something like that, I’ll know exactly what they’re talking about, which is really cool. So do you listen to that artist and sit down and play along with a couple albums before you go into a session with them?

John 5: Absolutely. I know exactly what key they like to write in. What style they like. What kind of chord progressions they like. I do my research. I’m like an assassin, hired to do a kill. I just do so much research, you know? I really, really get into it. It’s very important, because I want to do a great job for that artist. So you’ve got the live thing going with Zombie right now…

John 5: In the past decade we’ve been touring a lot. And he does his films on the side as well. So he’s workin’ so hard. This guy is unbelievable. So we’ve been touring like crazy, and he’s been doing movies. So it’s pretty insane. But that gives me the chance to do my records when he’s doing movies, so it really works out well. How do you approach the songwriting for the soundtracks?

John 5: Oh boy. Well, he’ll give me like a cue sheet, like music that we need. And certain kinds of themes, or certain kind of moods, or things like that. So I usually go from there, that way. That’s really difficult. But we’re gonna start to do another movie, called “31” soon. You probably have a home studio, right?

John 5: Believe it or not, I don’t. And here’s the reason why: I would always be in it. I’d totally be Howard Hughes, you know? I’d never get out of there. I’d never, ever get out of there, which is not good. But I’m always sitting on the couch playing guitar. And I think I would also get lazy because, when I go into the studio, it’s like a boxer or something. I train, train, train with instrumental songs. And I just get them down pat so hard. I love to train, train, train and get it just perfect, because I pay the engineer hourly.

So it’s kind of like a game for me. I just want to see how well I can play. I don’t like to do a lot of punch-ins or overdubs. So it’s kind of a little game I play. So I imagine if you had your own studio, you’d spend a lot of time doing engineering work, and not as much time actually playing?

John 5: That’s exactly right. Being creative as the producer, not the player…

John 5: Exactly, 1,000 percent right. I understand. So let’s talk about your rig. What are you using these days?

John 5: I have all these crazy Teles. I’m using like, 13 Tele’s, or something. And then I’m using all Marshall 900s. A couple of 800s too, actually. If you follow me on Instagram, I have this thing called “Tele-Vision.” It’s like an iPad in a guitar, and it just shows me while I’m playing. It’s really rad. Cool, I’ll check that out. What is the difference to you between the Marshall 900 and the 800 amps?

John 5: The 900 has more gain. And, I mean, it’s a hundred more! (laughs). The 900 has more gain to it, and that’s pretty much what I know about it. But I love Marshall, man, they’re great. And the Tele’s… You’ve got signature model guitars out there, right?

John 5: Yep. I’ve got my own model out there. I just love the Tele, and that’s from the old “Hee Haw” days. They’re not the most forgiving guitar in the world. It’s just like wearing a half-shirt, you know? If you’re gonna wear a half-shirt, you’d better be in shape. That’s how I view the Tele. My main guitar is a B-Bender Tele, but I have to admit, I cheat, and I don’t use the B-Bender, because I can’t stand still on stage, so the thing would go in and out of tune very time I moved if I was running the B string through the bender.

John 5: Oh! You know, it’s funny: I have all these Tele’s, and I don’t have a B-Bender, because I do it behind the neck. So it’s really weird that I have all these Tele’s and I don’t have a B-Bender. You’re into country pickin’. Do you listen to Clarence White, and all those Bender guys?

John 5: Yeah. And it sounds so good. I love pedal steel and lap steel, it’s one of my favorite instruments. When I was running Fender Frontline magazine back in the ‘90s I did a photo shoot with Marty Stuart, and he owns the Tele that Clarence White built, with the first B-Bender…

John 5: Yeah, he’s got one of the biggest collections out there, of everything. Yeah. We were at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Glendale, California, and he was doing a shoot for us, and he let me play the guitar, which was pretty cool. And then he was buying all kinds of stuff directly from the museum’s private collection.

John 5: That’s really, really cool. So what are you using as far as effects and pedals?

John 5: I’m very basic. I just use a Noise Presser, which isn’t really even anything. But all Boss stuff. I use a Super Overdrive, and I use a chorus, and a wah, and that’s it. Very basic. What kind of wah?

John 5: A Cry Baby. Just a regular Dunlop Cry Baby. And I only use that on one song. Don’t I hear a little bit of Whammy in the new album?

John 5: Actually no. I’m doing that with my fingers. Octave slides. I know you practice hard. Do you practice those octave slides pretty hard?

John 5: Oh yeah. You’ve got to have them just right, and right in rhythm too. So what is it that we haven’t heard from you, but that you’re workin’ on? Is there like some jazzy stuff or fusion or something?

John 5: Well there is. A lot of people ask me about live shows. And I’m doing this live streaming concert October 18th. It’s gonna be all the instrumental stuff. You can call in. Chris Broderick of Megadeth is gonna host it, and the guys from “The Tonight Show” are putting it on. So it’s a really cool thing. And tickets are totally cheap. It’s really gonna be something special. This is an interactive thing, right? Can people make requests?

John 5: They can ask questions. But I have a pretty set, set list. I’ve never done a solo instrumental concert before, so I think everyone will be excited. I’m gonna do some old instrumental stuff, and some new stuff. It’s gonna be a really special thing. Are there any plans for a solo instrumental tour?

John 5: We’ll see. If I have the time, yeah. I would love to do it. It would be a lot of time. I would love to see that. I know you gotta get on stage, so thank you so much for your time today John.

John 5: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Related Links:

John 5 Official Website

John 5 on Facebook

Watch the October 18th Streaming Concert

John 5 Signature Telecaster

Just can't get enough? Check out...