Guitar International recently conducted an interview with John 5. You can read it here.
By: Dr Matt Warnock
The Art of Malice is an engaging and diversely interesting album from multi-faceted guitarist and composer John 5. Each of the twelve tracks is a window into the multitude of genres that have influenced the guitarist over his long and successful career.
One of the most compelling aspects of the album, from a guitarist’s standpoint, is John’s ability to seamlessly switch between musical genres at will. A skill that he’s developed over years on the road with some of the biggest names in the business including country star K.D. Lang, metal monster Rob Zombie and the incomparable Marilyn Manson
In the title track, for example, one can find moments of classical fingerpicking and chickin’ pickin’ country guitar ala Jerry Reed and Albert Lee, while other songs delve into the modern rock, classic rock and metal genres. John always seems to have something new up his sleeves to entice his listeners, keeping them coming back for more.
Songs like “The Nightmare Unravels” are dark and brooding, featuring layers of guitars and powerful riffs that build until the songs climactic peak. Others, such as “Steel Guitar Rag,” find John on solo guitar, playing in a laid-back country setting, providing contrast to the heavier moments on the album.
Possessing the ability to maneuver between rock, metal, classical and country music with ease, John’s playing on The Art of Malice offers something for listeners of all backgrounds and tastes, while remaining true to his personal voice on the instrument.
Though there are many guitarists out there that can play as well as John in each of these individual styles, there are few that come to mind who can play all of these genres as well as he can. This ability shines through on this record, making it one of the most interesting instrumental guitar albums of the year.
Matt Warnock: On the title track to The Art of Malice you quote the classical guitar piece “Leyenda.” How has classical music influenced your playing and writing over the years?
John 5: I love classical music, it’s a style that I really appreciate. I love to study it and I want to get more into it. There’s a Spanish piece and a little classical piece quoted in “The Art of Malice.”
That song has a bunch of different styles in it. It’s a very cool piece that way. I really appreciate classical music, as well as all kinds of music. I’m a fan of the guitar and just a big fan of music.
Matt: When you play in the classical style are you using a pick or do you switch over to your fingers at that point?
John: I’m using my fingers for that kind of playing. It’s something I developed over the years. I’ll sometimes use all of the fingers on my right hand and I fingerpick as much as I use my pick. Even when I’m playing with Zombie, I’ll use my fingers if I think it’ll work better.
Matt: There’s also a lot of chickin’ pickin’, Jerry Reed, Albert Lee style playing on the record. Is that a style of music that goes back to your days growing up in Michigan or did you discover that genre later on in life?
John: I was first introduced to that music before I found out about rock. When I was about seven years old I saw this kid, who was about the same age, and he was playing the banjo. He was so good and it really made me want to play the guitar. I didn’t understand what a banjo was compared to a guitar at the time.
I always appreciated that style of music even when I was playing rock, but it really hit me when I was on tour with K.D. Lang. There was a multi-instrumentalist in the band. He played fiddle, banjo, lap-steel, pedal-steel, all these different instruments, but it was all country music.
I thought, if this guy can master all of these different instruments in the country genre, I should be able to master country music on just the guitar. So that’s what I set out to do.
Matt: Because the album features so many different styles of music, was it a tough choice between planning the album this way, or doing a genre specific record featuring just country,just metal, just rock or whatever?
John: Yes, and the reason I say that is because when I listen to instrumental records, even if it’s great music, I get tired with it after a while. But, when there are different styles of music on a record like that I don’t get tired. It’s not just crazy fast guitar all the time in the same style. You’re getting a break from it with the different styles.
It’s still fast guitar playing, but the different styles break it up so it doesn’t wear out after a few songs. I think that’s one of the only reasons that I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m not a clone of Yngwie or Paul Gilbert or something. I’m not ripping anybody off. I’m out there doing my own thing.
Matt: Do you feel that being such a diverse player has really helped you develop your career over the years, compared to how things might have gone if you had chosen to specialize in just one genre?
John: Back to what we were just talking about, I would love to be Steve Vai or Satriani or Yngwie. They’re great, they’re my heroes, but I didn’t want to clone them. What they do is amazing. I just didn’t want to copy them. I wanted to make a name for myself.
Playing for so many different artists over the years, I’ve realized that I’m playing for that person. I’m not up on stage playing “Beautiful People” with Manson and throwing in sweep arpeggios all over the place. Same thing with David Lee Roth or Rob Zombie, I’m not throwing in solos all over the place, that’s not my job when I play in a situation like that.
With the instrumental stuff, I wanted to do something different. There are so many people out there cloning those big-name players, but that’s not how you make a name for yourself in this business. That’s always been something I’ve focused on over the years, being known for my own style and not just as a copy of someone else.
Matt: There are tracks on the album that have a guitaristic quality to them, that sound like they were written on the guitar. But there are also songs like “The Nightmare Unravels” that have a textural, orchestral quality to them. Were those types of songs written on the guitar as well?
John: Those are all written on the guitar. I don’t play any other instruments. I can play bass and banjo, but nothing else. I have a guitar on me all the time, there’s a guitar in my hands now. [Plays a screaming double-stop bend] It’s always with me and I do all my writing on the guitar.
Matt: Can you talk about your song “Wayne County Killer” a bit. Was this inspired by the serial killer from Detroit in the ’70s?
John: Yeah, there was a serial killer who killed kids in Detroit back in the ’70s that was called the Wayne County Killer. I remember that I couldn’t go outside sometimes because the whole situation was just terrible.
Matt: Are you often inspired by real world events like this in your writing?
John: Yeah, but of course I’m not glorifying serial killers by any means. It’s just the way people’s brains work that inspires me in that way. People like Howard Hughes, Mozart, people with these crazy, crazy brains.
With a serial killer, it’s just beyond me how someone could just do that. That their brains tell them it’s OK to do something like this. I can’t even stand to see a small bird suffer let alone a person.
I’m drawn to how those people’s brains work, mostly because they’re so outside of my own thought process and experiences.
Matt: You covered Ace Frehley’s song “Fractured Mirror” on The Art of Malice. Why did you decide to feature this specific song to cover on the album?
John: That was the first piece of instrumental guitar music that I ever heard and I loved it so much. I loved KISS and loved Ace. It was just an awesome song. That was just me paying tribute to Ace for inspiring me so much over the years with that song and with his playing.
Matt: When you listen to the album front to back it sounds like you’re using a different guitar on each track because of the wide-range of tones you’re using, but that’s just your Telecaster right?
John: Yeah, but I used my Broadcaster on one thing and a Martin D-45 for the acoustic work.
Matt: Is this why you’re drawn to the Tele, the diversity of the guitar?
John: You know, I love history. For some reason I just love it. I love Fender, and Fender of course built the first solid-body electric guitar. I love the Telecaster. It’s just something I’m drawn to. I think it’s a well-rounded guitar, it just does everything.
It sounds incredible and I think they got it right back in 1950 when they first built it. I wouldn’t play anything else. It’s something from my childhood that’s really stuck with me.
I wish I could’ve used it earlier on in my career, but those bands always saw it as a country guitar. I like being different, so why not use a Telecaster in some of the heaviest bands in the world.
Matt: Did you play your Tele backstage and in the studio at the same time as you were playing a more “metal” guitar onstage with those bands?
John: Yeah, I always played a Tele offstage. Luckily Fender knew I was doing this and they approached me to see if I would be interested in doing a signature model with them. That was one of the happiest days of my life. It really is unbelievable. There’s no way I can explain it.
Growing up I collected all the catalogues, brochures, all the price lists, the Fender facts, I collected all this stuff and was so into it. When I found out I was going to get my own signature model I was just blown away. It was a huge moment in my life.
Matt: You mentioned playing acoustic guitar on the album. Are you using a DADGAD tuning on the song “The Last Page Turned?”
John: It is a DADGAD tuning, I’m almost positive. Once I record it I don’t play it for a while, but I think that’s it. I just love acoustic music, like Jimmy Page’s acoustic stuff. In fact, I love Page’s acoustic work on Physical Graffiti and Led Zeppelin III better than the electric, hard-rock stuff.
That was kind of my approach to it, thinking about how I would do things if I was around in the ’70s or something. I think it would be great to do an acoustic album someday.
Matt: Since a lot of our readers are also players, can you tell us how you approach practicing to develop the level of diversity you’ve been able to achieve in your playing?
John: You know what I do, and it sounds crazy, I watch T.V. and play guitar for hours on end, going over things forever until I really get it down. I know it sounds funny but it’s what I do. That’s my secret. It’s a bit strange, but it’s what I’ve always done and it works for me.
Matt: I’ve heard that Stevie Ray Vaughn used to do the same thing. He’d put on a football game, sit back in his recliner and improvise to what he was seeing on the screen. If the ball went up in the air he played an ascending line. If there was a big tackle he played a jarring riff, that sort of thing.
John: I’ve never heard that, but that’s exactly what I do, though I don’t watch sports. I just watch whatever happens to be on and it really helps.
Matt: As you go forward do you see yourself focusing more on your solo career, as opposed to playing in other people’s bands, or are you going to keep doing both?
John: I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. Today I’m leaving to go on tour with Zombie and I get to play in front of fifteen-thousand people everyday, which is rad.
I’m lucky. I get to play guitar all day and make a living and I’m happy. I think that’s the secret to life, be happy and enjoy what you’re doing.