“I just wanted to be a working musician. I never dreamt of any of this!” John 5 on covering Queen, loving Les Paul and surpassing his wildest dreams

The Rob Zombie guitarist on why he only needs one Telecaster when push comes to shove, his veneration of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, and why he’s somehow nailing his parts in one take.

John 5 must surely be one of the hardest working guitar players in the industry. Songwriter for hire, solo artist, hired gun for some of the most prominent rock stars in the world – these are often roles he occupies simultaneously. He’s probably best known for his stint with disgraced rocker Marylin Manson, or his current gig with Rob Zombie but that doesn’t really reflect the breadth of his CV.

In a three-decade career, John 5 has played with countless titans of the music world including David Lee Roth, Rob Halford, Steve Perry, and Paul Stanley, not to mention contributing to movie soundtracks and writing songs for other artists – it’s precisely this dedication to his craft that has made him the successful musician that he is, and not the misfit persona that he’s created for himself.

He is also quite obviously – and healthily – obsessed with playing guitar, exemplified by the sheer diversity of guitar players he pays tribute during our conversation and the fact that the stunning gold coloured Telecaster permanently attached to his knee is forever being caressed and played during our entire conversation. The guy just loves playing guitar, and we were treated with ad hoc but flawless performances of every tune we talked, whether he’d penned them or not!

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Last year he released Sinners, his ninth solo album and perhaps his most musically electric, an almost an A to Z of genres. The same eclecticism did not extend to the guitars used on the album however, for the guy with the famously huge Telecaster collection very surprisingly crafted the new album with just one. Well then what’s the point of owning so many guitars, you ask?

Unfortunately, the recording and writing of the album was during a time when it was impractical to access his huge collection (they were in storage). But the wide-ranging tones and genres covered with just one Telecaster is once again testament to the versatility of our septuagenarian friend: from the shred fest that is For I Have Sinned to the countrified arrangement of Crazy Little Thing Called Love, there simply isn’t a style that either the Telecaster or John 5 cannot do with aplomb.

We sat down with John to talk about how he recorded the guitars for the album in one take, why he still loves collaborating, and how James Brown almost made an appearance on the new album

Are you pleased with how the album turned out?

“Yeh I’m super happy with how it turned out! It was a lotta work, but I’m really happy with every song, all the mixes and the tones and everything like that. I couldn’t be more pleased!”

When you wrote Que Pasa did you immediately have Dave Mustaine in mind for vocals?

“Well, it started with a James Brown sample. We had the riff, and then we had James Brown going like “Que pasa, people! Que pasa!”, this really cool sample my producer just put in there. I like cool things like that; little hooks in there that are really cool. With that James Brown sample, they were like, ‘You can’t have James Brown in there’. The record label was like, ‘Who would you like to have?’ and I said I’d love to have Dave Mustaine. I know Dave enough; saying hello, how are you, things like that. We’ve done some shows together with Zombie and Megadeth. He really liked the song, so I was so happy about that, so he did the video, and did the song. It’s really wonderful!

Throughout the album there are examples of metronomic virtuoso accuracy but there’s also real balls-to-the-wall, letting it all hang out type of playing. Do you like to strike a balance between perfect accuracy, and really going for it?

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“Whatever the song calls for. I like to have a nice cool riff, some crazy guitar playing music, just something that people can enjoy. This Is How I Do It, that kinda cool slap thing [plays main riff] and then the chorus part I really liked. That song’s a really fun song; a lot of slapping, a lot of cool jazzy stuff in there. But it rocks too!”

John 5 - Sinner

This is your ninth solo album now; how do you think your playing has evolved?

“I’m always learning. Every day I try to learn something new and there’s new guitar techniques out there. Like the tapping thing – how they tap now, not just pull-offs. That cool stuff that’s kinda like a keyboard, that’s Land Of The Misfit Toys. There’s also new techniques like where it’s kinda jumping all over the neck; I really like that too. It was so different from what was happening maybe even five years ago, and I use all those things in my playing today. I love all the new techniques.”

You’ve got a couple of covers on this album, like How High The Moon and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. What do those bands and guitar players mean to you?

Les Paul was a huge influence on me. My Dad listened to Les Paul and Mary Ford all the time. I got the chance to play with Les Paul in New York; it was one of the greatest nights of my life! I looked completely crazy; I had no eyebrows, a big black fur jacket on, and I’d just got offstage doing Ozzfest. I went down there and they were doing this beautiful jazz, and everybody would come up on stage and just jam. I was loving it. I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible! These musicians are incredible!’. They invite me up on stage and I was like ‘Oh no! What am I going to do? Highway To Hell or something?’. I just played and we improvised, and it was one of the greatest nights of my life. That’s why I did that cover of How High The Moon. Les was a burner, man! All that cool stuff he did, I just loved it!”

“Another picker I loved was Chet Atkins. I loved Crazy Little Thing Called Love – one of the greatest songs ever written. It was like a tribute to Elvis, and all of that Elvis guitar playing, a lot of that was like that Merle Travis style with the thumb and the finger. I did my little version of it. You can do the melody line and bass line at the same time but when the solo came up I was like, ‘Well how am I going to do this?’ I just wanted to do it in that kinda’ Chet Atkins style because it sounds like that song would be like that! If they had that in the 50s, that’s how that song would have been performed! It could be a total country song!

“The last cover is Georgia On My Mind, which is one of my favourites, featuring Peter Criss. Peter’s one of my favourite people on this earth; he loves jazz. I was just gonna finish it out with like a solo guitar, jazz guitar, and I said, ‘Pete, would you play on this song?’. He said, ‘Sure I’d love too’ and man I tell ya, he sat down at those drums and just played it effortlessly. It was like breathing to him, because he loves jazz and you can hear in a lot of those early KISS songs – those are jazz licks in there. And then we caught him talking a little bit before we started recording, we used a little bit of that.

John 5
Image: Miikka Skaffari / FilmMagic

Do you record all of your guitars in the studio or were you recording at home?

“You know it’s funny, I did everything in the studio and during the lockdown I couldn’t get to any of my guitars. I recorded the whole album with this guitar because it was the only one I had!”

What were you using for amplification?

“My producer had a couple of amps; I just had my Marshall that I use all the time. For the clean stuff we had some really cool Fender, Harvard and things like that.

“I was listening to a lot of 40s music and you know, when you hear that music, everyone’s playing at the same time: they’re playing and recording – it’s like a live album. That’s how I did it; I just rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed, and then when I had a chance to go into the studio I just was so prepared. If I messed up, I’d start again from the top and I needed to get a full take. So everything you hear on the album is just a complete full take. No overdubs, no punch-ins.”

That’s relatively unheard of in modern-day recording!

“I just had nothing else to do! The only thing that was different is in the first song Welcome to the island where there’s a part where I had to tune my string to an octave. Other that than it was completely like, starting at the beginning until the very end.”

John 5
Image: Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

You’ve been extremely busy from a really young age; you left home at 17 to pursue a music career. What was your driving force back in those days?

“I wanted to just be a working musician. I never dreamt of any of this; I never dreamt that anyone would wanna do an interview with me, or I’d be like, you know, well known or anything like that. It’s even hard to say ‘rock star’, you know! I just wanted to be a working musician so everything that has happened I’m so appreciative and I just can’t believe it. But I think it’s just how I’m wired; I love playing guitar and I like to keep busy and push myself. I’m as hungry as I am when I was eighteen. I never go. ‘Meh, I think that’s enough’ you know, never. I just always wanna keep pushing. And I’m happy I have that drive and that hunger, and I hope it never goes away.”

You’ve written a lot for other musicians and you still collaborate with a lot of high profile musicians, like Rob Zombie. Do you get as big a kick writing for others as you do writing your own music?

“100 per cent, I love collaborating with people cos I don’t know all the answers, you know? And I love to collaborate with people when they’re like ‘Hey, how about if we try this?’. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what a brilliant idea, I would have never thought of that!’. And being someone that goes, ‘I would have never thought of that’, that’s what’s so magical – they have their ideas that you would never think about. And working with some of the greatest musicians in the world, oh my god, it’s been something to see you know! The ideas, the lyrics which I can’t do at all; all I’d write about is guitars and monsters and stuff! Writing with Steve Perry, him writing these lyrics and coming up with these melodies, it’s incredible. My great friend Nikki Sixx, he’s an incredible lyricist you know. It’s just like, ‘Wow! How can you even do that?’. I really love working with people and I hope I get to work with a lot more in the future.

You mentioned before that it was always important to you to develop your own way of playing, rather than simply be just a technical guitarist. How would you describe your style?

“I would describe my style as just a little bit of everything, you know. I like music, and it’s something that is intense; there’s a lot of different styles involved. I think if it was described that way, I’d be very happy. So I just wanna influence some kids on the way and have them continue on. I think it’s very important for instrumentalists to play and influence kids or adults to play guitar, and play drums and play bass, and just get out there and play music. It’s so important cos instrumental guitar, it’s a hard sell! I have to get up there in front of all these people and entertain people with just a guitar? It’s like a pretty hard sell! It’s like, in the summertime [shouting] ‘Hey, I’m selling coats!’. Luckily I’ve had wonderful luck, you know; I’m very happy.

Of all the accolades you’ve achieved, and all the recognition from your peers, what has meant the most to you? What stands out?

“Well, it’s so weird, cos just today I saw my album cover and my name on a NASCAR. I mean, it’s unbelievable! I’ll never forget that my whole life! And playing with all the musicians I’ve played with; writing with all the musicians I’ve written with; doing all the shows; I mean I just hope I don’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Man, I had this crazy dream!’.”

Sinner is out now on Big Machine.

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