John 5 first picked up a guitar at the age of 7 and since then he has played with everyone from Marilyn Manson to Rob Halford to David Lee Roth. His career has seen him play with countless great musicians and producers and he is currently the guitarist for ROB ZOMBIE. Roadrunner Records UK chatted in depth with John 5 about his gear and set up, his influences, style of playing and more, which you can read below:
RR– Take us back to when you were a kid- can you remember when you first picked up a guitar and what inspired you to pick it up?
John5 – I do remember. I had older sisters, I loved The Monkees, I loved KISS and I wanted to play guitar! I was about 7 years old when I got my first guitar for Christmas and I started taking lessons right away- I just didn’t bang on it, I played all the time A lot of kids have a blanket or a favourite toy and I had a guitar. I really enjoyed having it always with me. I always liked to learn as much as I could and I’m still like that today. I never really stopped taking lessons because I think it’s the only thing I really know a lot about.
RR – When I’ve spoken to other guitarists on the label, a lot of them are very much self taught, they’ve sat in a room and played along to their favourite records, but you’ve consistently had lessons. What do you think you’ve gained from that and what was it that you loved about them?
John5 – What I gained is I’ve learned to play all styles. Country, bluegrass, jazz, classical, rock. But really studied and really understood it and always still to this day enjoy taking lessons and learning as much as I can. I know it sounds cheesy, but knowledge is power and I really believe that because I’ve played with so many people and that knowledge has really got me a long Way. A lot of the time, I just rock, but the other genres of music I have learned have helped me a lot to understand what is going on musically and what to do and what not to do.
RR – Do you remember your favourite teacher over the years? Was there one that inspired you as a kid and what made them special?
John5 – I think it was one of my first teachers- his name was Chuck Miller. It’s funny, he still is a teacher in a music store and someone told me recently they went into the music store and saw Chuck and my friend was like ‘heyyy Chuck Miller how are you?’ and he was like ‘I TAUGHT JOHN5’ he didn’t even know my friend knew me! He was a big inspiration. And then there was another gentleman called Robert Gillespe. I think good teachers really get you started and push you out there. There was another guy called Mike Kerdonna and this guy was so… he was a natural; where you see someone who’s really great at a certain craft and he was like that with guitar. He was so good, because I’ve seen a zillion guitar players in my life, but he is still the one that I was like “oh my god this guy is unbelievable”. He was such a natural. He’s not in the music industry or anything like that- I think he sells insurance- but he is an absolute natural!
RR- When you think about the guitarists that were really inspiring you to play and you were possibly playing along to in your spare time as a kid, who were they?
John5 – I always have epiphanies in my life and I think my first true life changing experience was Jimi Hendrix. And then Jimi Hendrix went to Ace Frehley, and he went to I’d say Eddie Van Halen, because I’d bought the Val Halen record because it said Gene Simmons on the back of the record, that was the only reason why I bought it! From Eddie I went to Yngwie Malmsteen and then I started getting into a lot of country players. So I’ve always had epiphanies in my life, thank God, because there’s nothing that I like more than being inspired. I really, really like getting inspired. I still get inspired today which is really great. And I’m always looking for inspiration.
RR – So any modern guitarists or anybody you’ve played with recently that’s really inspired you or taught you anything new?
John5 – Yeah I really like Buckethead. He’s a great guitar player and his whole vibe and whole image and how he presents himself I think is great. I really like him a lot. I love Roy Clarke, Chad Adkins, these are different styles of music but I really enjoy listening to old pickers like that.
RR – Do you remember your first guitar and what it was?
John5 – I do- my very first guitar was an acoustic made by Sears. I didn’t have it long. My hands were so little- I still have girlish hands (laughs)- but it’s strange because I would play it so much but my hands were so small and one of my hands grew larger than the other because I would play and I stretch. Just like in the torture chambers if you would stretch yourself! And I got this black Magnum guitar too. My third guitar was a Fender Stratocaster and that was an amazing instrument and that’s when I really excelled and grew to my abilities and I had that guitar for a really long time.
RR – I see you’re playing with a Fender now, have you always stuck with Fender?
John5 – I always have. I’ve always been with Fender. When I was in Marilyn Manson I needed a number of guitars. I didn’t really know how to go about certain things so I just played Ibanez, but after a while Fender came to me and said, “Would you like your own signature model and an endorsement”? And if course I did! I’ve loved Fender my whole life and I’m a total Fender nut and a connoisseur of Telecasters for sure. That’s my weakness. That’s what I spend most of my money on. But it’s a great investment. If there is one thing I have ever done right it’s invested in guitars because it’s really been a smart decision of mine to do that.
RR – It must have been great when they approached you and said we’d like to endorse you and give you a signature model. How did that make you feel?
John5 – I’m the guy that has all the catalogues and really enjoys the story of Fender because Fender Telecasters are first solid body electric guitar and I really just liked the history of it and so I really enjoyed that! When they came to me it was at the NAMM show and I remember them saying to me ‘oh we’d like to do this for you’. I went to the Fender booth and there was a picture of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, a picture of me and I wasn’t even endorsed then but I would play Telecasters. I’ll never forget it. It was such an honour. I’ll never forget that day when they came to me about that. They know how much I love the Telecaster and I am just always playing it.
RR– Do you think it’s the solid body that makes it so special?
John5 – I do. Definitely. I think it’s a very simple guitar. There’s not a lot to it. They made the first batch of solid body electric guitars, about 124, and I have one of those 124 solid body electric guitars. Just think about how many millions of those solid body electric guitars in the world and I have one of the first 124 of them that were ever produced!
RR – A prized possessions?
John5 – Yeah! It’s my holy grail that’s for sure.
RR – So what’s your set up onstage? How are you rigged up? What guitars are you playing?
John5 – I’m playing all Telecasters and most of them are my signature model and let’s see… I have a double neck Tel- it’s great! I have a red, white and blue sparkled one. That goes after Buck Owens. And this ones my main one [holds up the guitar he’s holding] – it’s a gold one of my signature model. What else am I playing up there? I have a bunch of subsonics, which are tuned low and let’s see what else… I have so many Teles up there. I do have an acoustic up there? I have a Taylor acoustic for one song. So yeah I have a lot of guitars travelling with me so it’s great, it’s wonderful.
RR – How about amps, pedals…?
John5 – I use just very small amount of pedals because one time someone said, when I was in Marilyn Mason, “oh John5 uses all effects” and it couldn’t be more from the truth. From that time on I barely really used effects. I think I have overdrive pedal, a chorus pedal and a wah wah and that’s it. Keep it simple. It’s sooo simple. The more simple, the less that can potentially go wrong on stage. My tech must be like ‘jeez what an easy job’ because it’s so simple. But I use Marshalls- I use the 900s- the heads and Marhsall cabinets. I just try to keep it simple, I just try to do everything with my hands and I think it’s the best way to go.
RR –Everybody started out in bands, obviously when you were kids and stuff, tell us a little bit about your early bands and the type of music you were playing, any funny stories.
John5 – Yeah, actually my first band I was in a band called Dirty Tricks and we won a battle of the bands. I was so young too- I had to be in 7th grade- and we would play Van Halen covers. We would go play these bars to play but we were so young and our parents had to be there. The first time I was ever on a real stage, I was getting ready to walk up there, and the singer said, I’ll never forget this, “now remember the stage is very flimsy so be careful” and I was like “yeah yeah yeah” I wasn’t even listening just warming up and sure enough I go out there and I step on the stage and it was so flimsy and it bent and I fell forward, I go skidding across the stage in front of everybody! But I got up and did the show. Luckily I had the balls to keep doing this because it was so traumatic for a kid that age!
RR – [Laughs] As a teenager that could’ve been it- “I’m never doing this again…!”
John5 – Yeah exactly! [Laughs] And then after that when I got to high school, I was pretty good at guitar and a lot of people wanted me to play in bands. And I lived in a very posh neighbourhood; a very upper class neighbourhood and these guys from Detroit wanted me to be in their band. They were mid 20s and they had really long, super long jet black hair and they were playing really popular clubs. They were called Vampirilla, and so I was so young and I’m playing with these big grown monsters and I remember I put a black wig on because I went to a very high class school.
RR – So you had to be very smart and have short hair?
John5 – Yeah! Oh very short hair! Hell it was the kind of school where everyone smoked pipes and not the marijuana kind… [Laughs] so I put on this black wig and I remember it was so funny. Someone once asked why we were doing these shows then there was no one there and I always thought to myself you know what this is- it’s great experience. When a fighter gets into a ring and he boxes it’s all experience. If he trains trains trains and never gets into the ring, it’s not very good experience. So that’s why I played all those shows. It was all very very good experience so I’m very comfortable to be onstage.
RR – Which leads me nicely into my final question- what advice would you give to a budding young musician. To me it would from what you were saying, just get out there and do it?
John5 – Yes- go out and do it and be comfortable, and play what you like to play and if you really are hungry and you’re gonna do it, go to the right places. I lived in Michigan where nothing was happening so I moved to California. But London, New York, LA, things are going to happen. Places there’s opportunity. Places where opportunity knocks. If you live in different parts of the country, or the world, if you’re really serious about it, make the trip and start out.