An interview with Johnny A.
This interview was originally published in 2010. Chord melodies are some of the most intriguing and confounding beasts any guitarist will ever attempt to play. But with a long line of masters to inspire, including folks such as Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery both the blueprint and the challenge are out there. One guitarist […]
This interview was originally published in 2010.
Chord melodies are some of the most intriguing and confounding beasts any guitarist will ever attempt to play. But with a long line of masters to inspire, including folks such as Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery both the blueprint and the challenge are out there.
One guitarist who has embraced that challenge in recent years is Boston-based Johnny A., who recently released his solo debut, Sometime Tuesday Morning, on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. As are most of the Favored Nations releases, sometimeis a refreshing musical offering in this time of massive guitarist under-development and hero-deprivation. Entirely instrumental and sprinkled with gorgeous originals and tasty covers, including instantly recognizable tracks such as the Ventures, classic “Walk, Don’t Run,” the Willie Cobbs-penned Allman Brothers favorite “You Don’t Love Me,” and the Jimmy Webb authored Glen Campbell classic “Wichita Lineman,” sometime tuesday morningis an impressive and rousing disc.
Johnny was, for years, the right-hand man of the original Woober Goober himself, former J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf after the seditious vocalist decided to leave the beloved Boston rock ‘n’ rhythm band to strike out his own. Johnny traveled the world with Wolf, but when the singer decided to take a couple of years off, Johnny found himself with too much time on his hands. He soon decided to reinvent himself, and sometime tuesday morningis the exceptional end result.
In this detailed Guitar.com interview, Johnny explains the process of moving a few notches up from the simple blues-rock guitar stylings that had been his mainstay for most of his guitar playing life. He also has a few interesting things to say about Gibson archtop guitars, wound third strings, the pros and cons of musical training, and learning to leave the bends behind. Discover Johnny A’s masterpiece for yourself at www.favorednations.com
Guitar.com: Tell us a little bit about your style and how you came to lay down these tracks.
Johnny: I’ve always enjoyed all kinds of music not just guitar music but all kinds of music. Growing up I was in a house that was filled with listening opportunities, like Little Willie John to Earl Bostic to Middle Eastern music to all kinds of stuff. I was listening to jazz from my dad, and swing, and a lot of pop music. I always liked a great pop song. I’m more of a song guy than anything else. I started off as a drummer and played for about five to six years, then when I was a young kid I switched over to guitar. I was inspired by pretty much anybody and everybody. I love Chet Atkins as much as I love Wes (Montgomery) or Kenny Burrell, or Jimi Hendrix, or Jeff Beck, or Pat Martino, or any of those guys. I always loved a good song, so whether it was Jimmy Webb, or Paul McCartney, or Gerry Rafferty, or whoever, I was influenced by all that stuff.
So after I was finishing up my thing with Pete Wolf, which went almost about seven years or so, he had just decided he didn’t want to play anymore and it basically put me out of work. And spending a decade as being a sideman between Wolf and Bobby Whitlock, it just kind of halted me. There weren’t a lot of gigs out there. You stop getting phone calls when you get tied up with somebody for a long time. People wouldn’t call me for gigs. They figured I’d be working with Wolf and think, “He’s not going to play with us for this money, he’s out playing in Japan with Pete Wolf.”
Guitar.com: So you were stalled when Pete decided not to gig anymore?
Johnny: Yes, and I was in a situation where that 10 years was the only time I was ever really a sideman. Prior to that, I had my own bands, was the singer-songwriter and fronted my own bands and was the driving force behind them. And when I wasn’t having any luck cracking things nationally, that’s when I kind of made the decision to try to focus on being a sideman for some people that could get me to the next level.
So like I said, after this Wolf thing disbanded, I just wanted to get control of my own musical destiny again and not really be held up for ransom by someone else’s whim on whether or not they wanted to work or not. And not really being a great singer, me, I’m speaking about, I just decided to try to develop something that would make my guitar be the voice and try to somehow meld my influences as a guitarist and my love of songs and try to come up with some kind of a combination and some kind of unique voice that maybe people would dig. I wanted to develop more of a chord melody type of style.
So I said, “I’m gonna try to do that. I’m just gonna try to make a record that expresses all my influences, and hopefully I can kind of slip in and out of genres, music that somehow has influenced me.” I wanted to create a voice on my guitar that was the glue that holds it all together.
Guitar.com: When you talk about chord melodies, was that approach something that you’ve been doing for a long time, or did you sit down in the last couple of years and really work it out?
Johnny: I started to try to redefine or reinvent for lack of a better term the way I play and the way I approach what I wanted to do. I’m self-taught. I didn’t know how to read. I basically play by ear. I’m more from a blues-rock background and I’ve listened to a lot of jazz, but haven’t played a lot of jazz. I’ve listened to a lot of country and country swing, but not really playing it, but always digging it, and just digging what those guitarists could offer in their genres. I mean I always tried to pick up a couple of things here and there, but my musical surroundings kept me more in the rock-blues vein.
I had the opportunity to make a record. And when I left Wolf, people were saying, “Just get out there and rock, man ’cause you can rock like nobody and it would just make a great rock record.” And I really didn’t have any interest in doing that. From my standpoint, there’s some absolutely phenomenal talents out there that do that. Joe Satriani, Jeff Beck, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson,” I mean the list goes on and on and on, and they’re fabulous. And I didn’t think there was any reason for me to be an also-ran. I mean those guys are at the top of their game doing it. And even if I did do it as well, it wouldn’t make a difference. You know it would be just someone that’s coming along late to the party doing what’s already been done. Not that what I’m doing is a hundred percent original, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s been instrumental guitarists forever: Les Paul, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Chet Atkins, I mean all those cats.
Guitar.com: But your music borrows from a slightly more accessible catalog of songs, stuff that even rockers know.
Johnny: My twist is to have something that rock-pop guitar players can relate to, but that still comes from a jazz philosophy, a jazz dynamic. I don’t think that’s been done in awhile. And I wanted to bring back a tone. I use Gibson guitars and I know that most people, when they think about Gibson guitars they think about the humbucking pickups. It’s crunchy, that sound that was developed in the late ’60s with the Gibson, and the Sunburst Les Paul through a Marshall. Jimmy Page started with the Tele, but he moved over to the Sunburst, and then Clapton, and then Duane Allman, Paul Kossoff (Free), and all those guys.
But for me the history of a Gibson guitar includes those pure tones that were around during the earlier days of country, and Motown, and T-Bone and all those guys, like the cat that played with Smokey Robinson. A lot of those guys use Gibson guitars, but they weren’t into the crunch sound, they were more into the clean sound and that pure tone I hadn’t heard in a long time.
I started with Gibson, switched over to Fender, and used Fenders for the longest, longest time. And frankly, Gibson wasn’t making good guitars. In a lot of that period of the ’70s and ’80s, they just weren’t making good guitars. Then Stevie Ray Vaughan came along and Stevie Ray Vaughan and myself would be about the same age and our influences are paralleled, I think. And I would be starting to play, and I’d be using my Strat through my Marshall or my Fender amp, and people would say, “Wow, man you really listen to a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan,” which I take as a compliment, but really I wasn’t influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughan. I was more influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and Freddie King, and all those guys.
And then at the blues jams everybody would be showing up with a white Strat, so I said, “I gotta find something else to do here.” So luckily, in the ’90s, Gibson started to make really, really good guitars with the Historic Collection. So I started out using a ’93 Historic Gold Top, and then I moved on and got a ’94 Historic Flame Top. And then when I got the gig with Wolf in ”95 I got an endorsement with Gibson. They’ve been great to me. They’ve made me a ton of really, really nice guitars. And I was lucky that they started making good guitars again because I was able to develop a sound that hasn’t been around in a while, and to try to have my own kind of little voice.
Guitar.com What is this model that you’re playing?
Johnny: Most of the record was recorded on an ES-295 with a Bigsby tail piece, which is basically like the old Elvis, Scotty Moore type guitar, an archtop P-90. But I’d say about 80 percent of the record was recorded with that guitar and flat wound strings. And the rest of the record was recorded with an ES-395 with a Bigsby, a couple of Les Pauls with Bigsbys, a Firebird 7, an L5, a bunch of different guitars.
Guitar.com: What do the flat wound strings do for you? Eliminate finger squeaks?
Johnny: No, that’s not really the reason I use them. I use them because they offer a different type of attack. And with a lot of the chordal stuff when you hear songs such as “Yes It Is,” or “Walk, Don’t Run,” or “Wichita Lineman,” or something like that, the sound of the wound G is distinctive. A lot of times when you’re doing a lot of those chordal clusters and maybe there’s an open string involved, just the way the chords ring with the wound G gives it a fuller, more elegant sound. And then the flat wounds just give it more of that jazzy, smoky sensibility that’s not as sustained. There’s a little bit more percussive vibe on the string. When you hit it, there isn’t as much of a twangy type of brilliance to it.
Guitar.com: It takes a little getting used to though doesn’t it?
Johnny: Yeah. Just the whole thing to be honest with you. Trying to find the tone. I didn’t have the ES-295 when I started this thing. I was using an old Gretsch that my dad had bought me when I was a kid and I said, “OK, I want to get this Bigsby thing happening again, but this isn”t quite the guitar.” I wanted to find a sound that other people weren’t using. And you know, Brian Setzer and other people were using Gretsch guitars, but I didn’t see anybody using, in a pop way, the archtop Gibsons. So I just kind of stumbled along the 295 and really liked what it was doing. I got the guitar, I decided to use the flat wound strings, I started this chordal melody thing and I was a mess. I mean, it was like it was the first time I had played the guitar. I had arm muscles and finger muscles and wrist muscles aching like I had never played before. And I just said, “Hey, I gotta work at it. I started at one song, went to two songs, went to five songs, went to fifty songs. It was just a constant and it still is a constant development. I’m trying to teach myself how to read, which I can do a little bit.
Someone had given me “The Complete Beatles” years and years ago, this double-volume book of all their stuff transcribed. So I took out the book and flipped through the pages and stopped at whatever the first song was. I was determined to learn it and read it. And I wanted to stay away from the framing of the diagrams of the chords and the little boxes. I was more interested in picking up the clusters that were on the staff and voice leading. Unbeknownst to me, they were piano charts. I didn’t realize it, and that’s kind of how my fingering started to develop. And as I started hearing these clusters and the way that the inversions sounded and I was really starting to like them, they started to filter into my own writing.
Guitar.com: So have you pursued reading to this day? Are you getting better and better at it?
Johnny: No. I don’t think I’m getting better and better at it. I think it’s had to take a back seat because prior to Steve Vai’s signing me to his Favored Nations label, I was doing all the business. So I had all I could do to just get a catalog of material to play out live, and to do the radio publicity, do the record promotion, the record distribution, be the shipper/receiver, answer the e-mails, book the gigs. You know it was a full-time, 14-hour a day job and I still do it. I still manage the act and, obviously now with a company label behind you, there’s a publicist, and there’s radio promo, and there’s a booking agent, and there’s all that other stuff. But up until four or five months ago it was brutal, the amount of hours I had to put in and try to keep developing myself.
One thing I want to do if this thing starts to allow me to have more free time is I do want to go for instruction not necessarily guitar instruction, but music instruction. I had taken a few lessons from this pretty renowned cat in Boston here, named Charlie Bernaucus. He instructed a lot of people from Mike Stern to Pat Metheny to Jeff Golub, and horn players and pianists. He’s a piano player, and he doesn’t teach you how to play guitar. He just basically teaches you a lot of the fundamentals and knowledge of music, which is more of what I want. I’m not necessarily looking for guitar lessons. I’m looking for more knowledge, so that excites me. And the idea of being able to get time freed up to pursue that really excites me.
Guitar.com: Once you start learning some of those chord voicings and voice leading music theory starts to come more in to play. Do you understand theory to some degree?
Johnny: To some degree. But I think that the style developed and my record is developed really out of ignorance, to be honest with you. When I talked to Steve (Vai) about it, Steve thinks that it’s probably my ignorance and not in a bad way that has made it sound different. If I was approaching it like a regular jazz artist would, it would probably sound like any other jazz player doing it, which I’m not sure if it would have a unique quality to it. So out of one’s limitations comes a style. I don’t know who said it maybe Keith Richards, that sometimes it’s the limitations that create the style and not the virtuosity. Sometimes it’s what you don’t know and what you can’t do, when you’re banging things in with a hammer and you hit on something. That’s what’s exciting about music, too. Maybe it took me a little bit longer to get there because of my lack of intelligent knowledge to music theory in general, but you know I’m still hacking away trying to get there.
Guitar.com: I’m listening to “Up In The Attic” right now, which has more of that country vibe to it. Some of these things are in different genres, and you mentioned that you listen to a lot of different styles and you picked up a few things here and there. But some people spend their whole life just working on that country genre and learning how to play that style and those kind of licks. Will you spend a whole day playing country just to keep those licks together, and then jazz the next day, or what do you do?
Johnny: Not at all. I think that what you hear is kind of an amalgamation of my upbringing and listening. It’s not that I think I’m a hack and I can’t play. I just think that I don’t have knowledge from a schooled or studied standpoint, so my ears have always been big. Wes [Montgomery] couldn’t read, so I’m not really concerned. I want to read for my own benefit, to make myself a better player and a better musician, but I’m not saying I think it’s necessary. I think if you have big ears, and you have desire, and you hear things, and you can hear these inside clusters.
And another thing too: In listening to these players I never really tried to pick up their licks. When I listen to a player, whether it be Jimi Hendrix, or Chet, or Albert Lee, or Pat Martino, or Jeff Beck or any of these guys, it’s really not about me stealing a lick from them. It’s more about me trying to get into the essence of why they sound the way they do. It’s got nothing to do with the instruments they play. It’s got nothing to do with the amplifiers they use. It’s got to do with their soul and how they filter their soul through their hands and their head.
That’s the type of player that I am. I truly shoot from the hip and from the gut. And when I’m constructing something like “Up In the Attic,” I’ll construct a solo and I’ll just listen to it in my head and try to find through my hands where that music is. So no, I don’t sit there and play country bends and double stops and all that stuff all day long. I don’t sit there and play blues all day long and I don’t sit there and play jazz all day long. I just kind of play all day long. And if I’m writing something, I try to write compositionally for the particular song that I might be working on. That’s my approach.
Guitar.com: In my own playing, I’ve got a variety of different genre influences, and they’re all coming along and I’m getting better at all of them at the same time. But there are times when I have to concentrate on one style to bring it to the next level and then once I get it there, then I go back and grab one of the other styles and bring it up a level.
Johnny: Yeah, I understand.
Guitar.com: And so when I’m interviewing people like yourself who have mastered a whole variety of styles, I wonder if you play each of these styles every day, or do you get in little kicks for like a week when you’re just totally into country and that’s all you play, and that’s why you’re so good at that genre, at the same time that you’re so good at a totally different genre such as jazz.
Johnny: I don’t know if I’m so good at it or not, you know [laughs]. Basically I come from a compositional point, so it depends on the music that I’m writing. When I’m listening to “Walkin’ West Ave.” and I’m writing “Walkin’ West Ave.” And I’m trying to develop a solo for it, I might be thinking Pat Martino. If I’m doing “Up In The Attic,” I might be thinking Albert Lee, or I might be thinking, you know, it’s whatever the song dictates to me.
Like I said, I don’t try to copy anybody, I just try to find the essence of what is the song, and where does this gotta go. My guitar is like the lead singer. And the songs are constructed not from a standpoint where it’s a jazz or a heavy rock thing where there’s a riff and then it’s all really about the soloing. That’s not really where I’m coming from.
Where I’m coming from is almost like British invasion pop, if this makes any sense, where the song format, it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, bridge, verse, chorus, out, so my solo is really only an extension of the song for me. What I’m doing it’s not really about the soloing. It’s more about the complete package.
I don’t profess to be anywhere near as good at this as Chet was, but Chet Atkins, to me, when you listen to those early recordings, anything that he does actually, I mean the way he produces and arranges for his guitar is just astounding. He was just so awesome at that stuff. And the way he’ll approach different verses, he approaches the guitar like an orchestra. He approaches his band like an orchestra, almost. I’d love to be able to get to the point where I could do it half as good as he could do it, but that’s what’s exciting to me. What is exciting to me is the composition and what you do with the composition ’cause I think the thing that stands the test of time is the music and the song. That’s why I like Jeff Beck. He has such a great career and a great catalog. And guys like Eric Clapton because it’s really about the song first, and the way they’re playing fuses with the material. That’s what I always wanted to do. That’s what always influenced me. It was always a song first.
Guitar.com: You mentioned that you play with a wound third string.
Johnny: On my flat wound set not on my round wound set.
Guitar.com: And do you have different sets on different guitars?
Johnny: Yeah. Live, if you’re opening a lot of shows or you’re in situations where you don’t know what you’re gonna run into for monitoring and stuff like that, you could have problems. I have not been taking the archtops out because they’re too troublesome with feedback. So live I use two ’59 historic Les Pauls with Bigsby’s that they made me. One of them is strung with flat-wounds with a wound G. The other one is strung with round wounds with a plain G and they’re both 11’s. The round wounds I believe are .011 to .049 and the flat wounds are .011 to .050.
Guitar.com: How does playing on the wound third string affect your playing? I know it’s a little tougher to bend those, isn’t it?
Johnny: Yeah. But most of the songs that I’m using the wound G on are not songs that need bending. And a lot of times what I try to do when I use the wound G guitars is I really try to approach and please, I don’t consider myself a jazz guitar player by any stretch at all. I would never insult a jazz player by saying that I’m a jazz player. I’m just a guitarist. I’m just a musician. But when I approach the wound G thing, it’s more like the approach that a jazz guitarist would take to playing his guitar, which would mean there really isn’t much vibrato. There isn’t really much bending. It’s more actually attacking the note or sliding. When you listen to something like the solo of “Walkin’ West Ave.,” there’s probably no vibrato on that song, I believe. There’s no bending in that solo. That’s the approach I take when I go to that.
Guitar.com: But you have the Bigsby too, so you can use that if you want to throw in that texture.
Johnny: For a little shimmer, yeah. The Bigsby is pretty much a staple that makes my records sound like that. You know it’s a big part of it and I think that everyone of these vibrato tailpieces have their own character to them and I believe that the Bigsby just has it’s own unique sound. It always did. I always loved it and I think it just has a much more romantic, subtle character than a Fender or a Floyd Rose or something like that.
Guitar.com: When you talk about not bending and sliding, you’re talking about taking a T-Bone Walker approach, correct? He really didn’t do a lot of bending. He would slide into notes. The rest of us, the people that grew up in the rock world would bend the note, where he would slide into it.
Johnny: Or Wes, or Chet. You know Chet did some bending, but you know a lot of that third string bending, no. And the same with Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell. They did more sliding into the notes, more attacking or just striking the note. I think that’s more of the jazz approach, which if I believe so even though T-Bone’s considered a blues player, I think he came from a jazz sensibility too, with his bands behind him and stuff like that., fusing that kind of blues guitar with a jazz band. I don’t know who he listened to, but I think he comes more from a jazz approach, even though it’s blues.
Guitar.com: Do you have plans to get around the country at all? I know you’ve got a lot of gigs in the Northeast, and you’re based there.
Johnny: Yeah. We’re trying to do that. You know it’s the same catch 22 thing. You need to have some kind of story to become valuable as a support act on tours. I’ve done a ton of shows. I’ve done a bunch of shows opening for Jeff Beck. I opened up multiple shows for Robert Cray, B.B. King, George Thorogood, Buddy Guy. But to go out on tour the idea of a support act is to support the headliner and be able to get some people to buy tickets. So until maybe there’s a little bit more of a story nationally we’ll just go for what we can get. Now we’re starting to branch out and we’ll be going to Philadelphia, and maybe Maryland, and New York, and stuff like that. Little by little. You gotta crawl before you can walk.