John 5: Renaissance Man

By Rod DeGeorge
Photos by Derek Brad

Republished from Our John 5 Issue

There are many facets to John 5. From the virtuosic playing of various styles that seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, to the drastic difference of the stage persona and the down to earth, humble and pleasant person that you get lost in conversation with. It was a pleasure to sit and speak with John about his beginnings as a musician to how his career has developed over the years. He evens teases us with what may be coming next! I hope you enjoy.

Guitar Connoisseur: Could you tell us how you first became interested in the guitar and at what point did you know you wanted to make this your profession?

John 5: When I first became interested in the guitar? Actually, I know the exact time and point in my life. I was watching that show Hee Haw, we always watched it when I was a kid, and in 1976, there was a boy, a banjo champion and his name was Jimmy Henley. He was playing Orange Blossom Special with Roy Clark, and I remember this boy was young. He was young and I was probably six years old at the time, he was probably, you know, like say eight or nine, or probably nine or ten. And I was so blown away by a kid playing this well, I was shocked. And that was the time that I said, “I want to become a guitar player”. Because I knew guitar looked cool and all that stuff, and that’s the reason I play a Telecaster because all the guys on Hee Haw, they all played Telecasters, and I thought that was the only electric guitar in the world, it was that shape.

So, actually, with the power of YouTube I looked up that clip, and you can see it on YouTube. Actually, that was the time that I decided I wanted to be a guitar player. It’s weird to see that, and that was the thing that changed my life.

GC: After all these years and now being an adult, as well as an accomplished player and professional musician, how does the actual clip compare to your memory of it?

J5: It’s strange because, you know when things happen in your mind and you remember them, you will flask back and… well, you know, it almost looks just like I remember it. That’s what is amazing about the mind and the brain, it’s pretty incredible.

GC: As an 18-year old, you packed up, left the comforts of home, and moved to CA. Did you have any connections there, or have a specific plan? Can you talk about that experience and how you made that work, emotionally as well as financially?

J5: Yes, well I’ve been going to Southern California since I was three years old. My grandparents lived out there, so we would go every year. And so, I would just, you know go, go, go and so, I was like well, “if I’m going to be a serious musician, I’m going to move out to California”. But I lived in Hollywood and my first night there, I got my money stolen, and anybody would have gone back with their tail between their legs going, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. But I stuck it out and you know, just did everything I could. It was difficult, you know. It was difficult and to say the least, but I was so driven, and still am today, I really haven’t changed much. You know, I’m still like that driven person. I don’t get comfortable. I’m not like well, “I’ve done a lot and I’m going to kind of take it easy”. I don’t think that’s the case and people you know when they do that, it’s strange to me. I like to like sit down on the couch and play guitar and things like that. But if things aren’t’ going right, I will work all day and into the night and stuff like that to make things right. So really, that passion hasn’t gone away at all.

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GC: That’s great! I think that’s a big part of continuing to move forward musically as well as career wise. Speaking with Neal Schon & Carlos Santana in our interview in a previous issue, Neal was saying the same thing. He said that he has to keep moving forward. He wants to play every day and continue to grow as a musician.

J5: Yeah, now that guy, Neal Shon, he tours more than anyone I know. Because of the fact, we look at these things. You know, musicians look at tours and what’s going on, he is always out on the road. It’s incredible! It’s really incredible!

GC: I’ve read that your goal was to be a session player. What let to that desire and how do you feel about that now, with the career that you find yourself in, including the stage persona and everything you have going on? Is that drastically different from the plan that you had of being a session player

J5: You know, the reason that I wanted to be a session musician is that I hated to travel. I hated traveling, I hated it. I know it’s such a stupid reason, but you know, I was a kid and you know what, traveling, while I was thinking about it, traveling was completely different than it is today. Now, like, I hate to fly; so when you flew back in the day, I mean they had, you know, radar and things like that, but they didn’t have the technology to go, okay, well we are going to take this different route and we are going to go around the storm. I remember you would fly through storms, do you remember that?

But nowadays, they can see everything and they just go around everything. I mean I don’t know when the last time you flew, but the technology now with that is incredible because they just go around everything. Back in the day, it was terrifying. So, I was like, I just want to be a session musician because you wouldn’t have to travel every day and everything that goes with traveling. And I was like, you know, just a young kid, but I never really wished to be like, it’s hard for me to say, like a famous well-known musician, or rock star. You know? I never really wished that because it was so untouchable, it was so beyond my wildest dream. So, I appreciate it so much every day. Every single day, I appreciate it, what has happened and what is happening.

GC: I’m sure that attitude of appreciation and gratefulness plays a role in you staying so driven today.

J5: Yes, absolutely

GC: Can you talk about how you broke into the industry and how you compiled such an impressive list of artists that you have recorded with or performed with?

J5: Well, I was doing sessions in Los Angeles, but I was doing them for half the price of everyone else, and half the speed. Because you know, in the studio, they want you to get your track done quickly. They want the guitar tracks done quick, they want to get to the vocals, they want to get it done. You know, and I was doing them because I studied so hard my whole life. I mean from like 7 to 18, I was like, I’m going to know everything. So I would study it and I would go into the session like a boxer, they’d be like, “oh play this kind of thing”, I’ll be like (rattles off lick). So, I really studied it. So, I was doing it for half of the price, half of the speed of everybody else, and everybody was using me. So then, it just got the point where people were like, “Oh, would you like to do this tour?”. You know, and things like that, and I was like, “Sure!”. So, I kind of like guess it was just word of mouth. Plus, I understood that I am a side-person. These people are here to see this artist, so I’m going to play exactly what it is on the record. I’m going to perform it, I’m not going to throw any arpeggios or, you know, anything like that and say “Look at me!”. And that’s why I think I’ve worked so much throughout the years.

When I was playing with KD Lang, we did a live DVD. When I was playing with (Marlyn) Manson, we did a live album and live DVD. So every time I was playing with somebody, they put out live material, because I was playing it. I was trying to play the music exactly, and right on the beat, and it was like a game, I would play with myself, so it wouldn’t get repetitive. I was trying to see how perfect I would get it because you know, I love Steely Dan, and they were like, Perfection. You would get to perfection, but you wanted to go beyond perfection and so, that’s always what I was trying to reach.

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GC: That’s great! An everyday challenge. Even if you had a spectacular show the night before, now you want to see if you can recreate that.

J5: Exactly, and that was the fun part of it. You know the really fun part about it is, that is what I’m doing with the Creatures. Because this stuff is a MONSTER live! Now, we are talking a zillion notes, and we are talking about so much stuff, so we all, the band, are trying to see how perfect we can get it. And it’s so funny, because after the show when we’re driving back to the hotel, it is silent because everybody is exhausted. Not exhausted because we are jumping off risers or anything, but we are mentally drained.

GC: Unfortunately, I didn’t get to catch your show when you were in town, I had a gig myself, but I have been checking out some live footage and you guys are doing a great job executing difficult passages one right after the other, song after song. There is no time to let your mind drift or wander. That has to be a challenge to do that night after night.

J5: Exactly! Exactly! It’s hard because man, I’m telling you. Because, here’s one thing we are not doing, we are not improvising. Everything that you are hearing, these are songs from albums, and this is the game I play again. I’m trying to reach this perfection. So, I’m playing every single note that you hear, is every single note on the record. And I think if you put in John 5 entire show, I think that whole show, either Portland or somewhere in Washington, it’s on there. And I would love to have you see it.

GC: Yeah, I believe that was one of them that I was watching. That was Killer!

J5: Thanks, man! And if you listen to the songs, the actual recorded songs, and you A/B them, it’s exact! And it is a game because, and I’m glad I’m talking to you about this because you understand, it’s just like, it’s a really hard, but fun challenge every night.

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GC: Yes, it is definitely a challenge, and a great practice in focus and being in the moment.

J5: Exactly, and I talked to the other guys about this as well. I really kind of did research on this, why do people mess up if they are playing something for a long time and they’ve done it a long time? What I’ve come up with is your brain, of course, it’s just common knowledge, that your brain, it just wanders a little bit. And you are thinking about, oh, did I turn the stove off, you know or something. As soon as your brain goes away from that, you know, it could be over. Because you are thinking of timing and dexterity and just perfection and hitting everything correctly and where your fingers are. But it’s hard at a show because people are trying to get your attention, they are trying to tap on your foot. You know, they are doing everything in their power, they are filming you right in your face etc. So it’s like somebody juggling chainsaws and throwing balls at you while you’re doing that.

GC: Yes, it’s definitely a challenge! Now, with all the big name artists that you have performed with, such as K. D. Lang, David Lee Roth, Rob Halford, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie etc., can you talk a bit about some of the stand out moments to you from those experiences?

J5: I mean they are all real stand-out performances. You know, like, I’m a fan just like anyone else, but like when I first started playing with KD Lang, my first real gig was VH1 fashion musical awards. I don’t know if we opened the show or not, but I think it was the first annual or second annual, and the curtain opened and there was Peter Gabriel, Madonna, Prince, etc. you know, because they put them all in the front. So, we’re playing and I was like “This is insane! This is weird!” This is like waking up and going, “I had this weird dream that I was playing for Prince and Madonna”, it’s like because you hear friends talk like that, you know?. And then like with Manson, my first show, the first time being on stage with him, because I always wanted to see Marilyn Manson live but I’d never got the chance because I was touring, or it just didn’t make it. Some reason, I didn’t get the chance. So, my very first time seeing Manson was with me on stage and it was at the MTV Video Music Awards doing Dope Show. I kept on looking at him because I wanted to watch the show, and it’s the truth. I mean, it sounds so stupid but it’s the truth. You know, and all these shows, are so many shows and so many great things, I mean Download with (Rob) Zombie and all these great moments, just, it’s been such an amazing experience. That’s why I don’t take it for granted. I love it so much, but you know, it’s been a real, real, real treat, I’m going to have to say. I’m so lucky and… you know, I played the Sydney Opera House in Australia and I’ve played everywhere all over the world, and I just cannot believe it. So, it’s been it’s been a real gift.

GC: The stage experiences I’m sure were all amazing in their own right, but you’ve also toured with a wide variety of personalities, both on stage and with the type of people who come to the shows, I assume there were times where you find yourself in situations where you might be thinking, “This is crazy, no one would believe me if I told them what was going on”

J5: Oh absolutely, every night with Marilyn Manson. Oh yeah, it’s like, I remember laying in the bunk and going, “This can’t be good, this can’t be right”. You know, and you feel horrible about yourself. I mean, I’m not talking about like, if a bird hit your windshield, I’m talking like, you are like “This cannot be good for anyone!”. So, and that happened a lot, every night was New Year’s Eve you know? So, the very first night I got on tour with these guys, you know, they always put the party in my room, and I remember there was like this guy, one of the guys that worked for us, just got a video camera and he was going to video the tour. And this was… or was it my first tour? It was one of the other tours I think. So, we had a video camera and this is all on you know, the Guns God and Government DVD by Marilyn Manson. It’s a special feature called ‘Death Parade’ and the very first night of the tour, this girl’s like smoking a cigarette with her vagina, and then there was this other girl, that pissed in the trash can, but when she pulled down her pants, she had a dick. That was the very first, just the first night and it just escalated from there. And that’s all on the D.V.D. They’ll see it. I don’t know, I think they took the vagina part of smoking a cigarette, I think they took that out. But what she did, obviously she practiced this, because she turned the light out and you could see the cigarette illuminate in the dark. So she obviously has done this before.

GC: Now, from seeing footage of you in interviews, conducting lessons etc., you seem like a down to earth, genuinely nice guy. You had to have found yourself in situations that were a little uncomfortable.

J5: Oh of course, yeah of course, of course, I was the guy, you know, I was just saying like you know, I just want to play a good show. And I just want, you know, perfection and you know to be honest with you, just for us chit chatting and talking here, I think it was, that’s maybe one of the things they got me out of the band you know? I just wasn’t the party guy that the other guys were. And it just didn’t, I think it just didn’t gel for them. I just want to play the best show and put on like perfection. Because you know that’s, it’s just who I’ve always been. Plus, I loved Marilyn Manson, so, I really respected my job. But it’s just like, you know if you’re in any situation. If we were in a band together and we were all sober and there was this total crazy person, you’d be like “This guy’s not really working out”. It was just like, you know, I think that was what the downfall was.

GC: Yeah, it can be tricky living on the road with different personalities, different factions can develop and some people like to let loose and some just like to keep to themselves a little more.

J5: Yeah. and it’s you know, it’s still great. It was so much fun, I wouldn’t change it for the world. You know, not for the world! I still have such a great respect for those guys and they’re doing great, you know? I think it’s awesome!

GC: You are such a versatile player and composer, can you talk about where the origin of your musical roots lie, and how you started to expand and incorporate the various styles and techniques that are now part your playing?

J5: It was, I just loved… I love anything that anyone could do well. Like you know, if someone is riding a unicycle. I was like man, look at that! That’s just so awesome, he’s like a master at riding the unicycle! I mean, it could be anything that anyone was doing really well and I loved it, and I ate it up. I was just like “Woh, that’s fucking awesome!” you know? And I think that was one of the things which I was just, I wanted perfection all the time and I just want to be a session guy, so, I would do everything in my power, because there wasn’t YouTube, so I would learn everything I could by just looking at other styles and reading and practicing and doing all that stuff.

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GC: One thing that I personally enjoy, is the fact that when you incorporate different styles and techniques, such as some of the country stuff, you do it in such a musical way, and people who may be familiar with your heavier stuff, can still relate and enjoy that.

J5: Well, thank you very much and it’s also a trip to do it when you have all this makeup on your face, like monsters and all that stuff. But it’s cool because… so, I’d say ninety-nine percent of the people are like, you know, I come out, and I’m doing this heavy stuff, and when I start with the country and the bluegrass stuff, people lose their mind because, even if they don’t listen to it or like it, they’ve heard it in their lives. But when they see it, they’re like “Oh my God, this is so rad!”, you know? This is just something I would like to see. So, I’m just doing stuff that I wanted to see, you know? That’s it. Because it’s from the heart, everything I’m doing is from the heart, and I love it, and I think that’s what makes it real to people.

GC: I think that comes through in the music when an artist is still passionate about their craft, I think the audience can feel that.

J5: Absolutely, 100%!

GC: After following your career and seeing a bunch of interviews and lessons that you’ve conducted, I can’t help but notice the drastic difference between what seems to be a down to earth, laid back, nice guy, to the stage persona, artwork and subject matter of a lot of your work. Can you talk about that, and where the horror show element comes from?

J5: You know, it’s just really interesting to me, and it’s all like kind of psychological. From when I was a kid, I just loved Universal Monsters, I loved it! You know, everything about it. So, like. we’re all just the same kids as we were when we were six or seven, so, it’s just what I loved. I love Famous Monsters, you know, magazines the Famous Monsters of film magazine, and I just you know, you are a kid, you just love that stuff. It was comforting to me. And then I saw Kiss, and it was like Monsters with guitars! I just bought it. I just bought it because of the cover you know? I was like, “This is incredible!”. And so, you know, but then you get into like the serial killers and stuff like that, and of course, I don’t support that stuff or condone it at all. I’m just so interested how their brain works. You know, it’s… if you really think about it, it’s pretty astounding how these people, how their brains work. And it’s just, you know, and that’s why there are so many movies like that. That’s why in every single, every single movie except for maybe love movies or things like that, there’s violence or there’s a gun, or there is something like that. Because people that’s what people like. You know that’s what people like, every single movie! You know, video games too, everything! And that’s the same thing with me, you know? I enjoy it, but I… you know it’s fun, and I like to read about it and things like that, but the last thing I would do is ever harm anyone, and that’s why I’m like, nice to people. I just treat people how I want to be treated, and I treat everybody the same. Like you know, if I’m on tour, and there are road crew guys and, I was never that person that didn’t talk to everyone. I talked to everyone in high school, or in you know, junior high, or anything like that. You know, I said hello to everybody, and that’s what I do now today. We’re all people, we all have feelings and why not? Why not be nice? Why not? What’s it going to do? It’s just going to make that other person feel good.

GC: Yes. Exactly! Now you had talked about the psychology of all of this, do you feel that it affects you as a performer? Does putting on the make-up and the wardrobe affect your state of mind for a performance?

J5: It’s kind of just like putting on a shirt, but you know, what I do is entertainment. You know, it’s entertainment. And I’ve given all these things a lot of thought, and when I would go to the dressing room, people are like “Oh yeah; okay cool”. You know, “Hey what’s up?”, but then when I’m walking to the stage with all the garb on, people are like… that’s when the cameras come out, like, people freak out! So, it’s like… okay well, that makes sense. I’m going to just keep doing this because this is what is working.

GC: Can you talk about your compositional process? Do you find your ideas mostly come with your guitar in hand, or do you hear and arrange things in your head and then go to the instrument to flush them out.

J5: I’m usually, it’s usually just playing guitar. But sometimes I’ll hear something in my head and it works. You know, that’s what’s cool about it. It kind of does work but that’s not all the time, that’s pretty rare. Because, well… I guess because I’m always playing guitar, you know? I’m always playing guitar. Right now, if I wasn’t talking with you, I’ll be playing guitar. So, yes it’s just from playing guitar and just coming up with stuff and doing it that way.

GC: Can you tell us about your new release Season of the Witch and the similarities and differences from your previous releases?

J5: Well this one, just like every other release, every song was very important. Just like in anyone’s release. Every song is important. Every band works so hard, and they try to make it as great as possible. But what is happening nowadays, it seems there’s a lot of bands that all these great songs are getting lost because everyone just cherry picks everything. You know? They’re like, “Well, I just want to hear this song, I kind of like this song” etc. But all the other songs are awesome too, and they worked just as hard. It’s just because there’s a video for these other songs. So, I started doing all these videos for the songs and it works. You know it really, it really worked, doing all these videos for the songs. Because people get into the songs more that way. And you know, well, my son, he just watches YouTube. That’s how my son listens to music. And it’s pretty incredible that it’s at that point now. And so I just made all these videos and people know all these songs.

GC: That leads into my next question regarding the change in the industry due to the usage of the internet. Along with making more videos, how has this changed the way you market your music to make people aware of new releases?

J5: Well it’s completely different. It’s so completely different from when I started. Just like from my first instrumental record, you know? It’s so different. You know CDs were still very important in 2004. But you know, now people aren’t really even downloading, and that’s CRAZY! People aren’t downloading, they’re just streaming now. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just… I do it myself. I’m like “Hey I want to listen to this Al Di Meola album that I haven’t heard in a thousand years”. So, I’ll pull that up, and you know I can listen to it. It sounds amazing and here we go, and that’s what people are doing now, you know? They don’t even download, they don’t even buy stuff and it’s crazy! But, I do it too. We were backstage and our bass player was like “I keep hearing about Adrian Belew’s new record” so, he pulled it up and we listen to it, and it’s that simple man. It’s crazy! It’s that simple.

GC: Now, technology, in and of itself in can be neutral, it’s how it’s used that can be positive or negative. Do you have any thoughts on how this new phase of the industry is structured? It is very hard for an artist to get paid fairly.

J5: Yes and it’s a nightmare. That’s why I got out of writing for people. That’s the honest to God truth. That is actually why I got out of writing for people. Because it was way too much work, for not a big return. Before, it was a great return! But now, it’s like “Okay cool, you have a number one record and the return was like, what? This is what we make from a number one record nowadays?”. Yeah, so I just write for myself and I’ll write for Rob Zombie. But then, I’ll write for friends you know? I just wrote with Steve Perry and that will be coming out soon. So, you know, we’re buddies and I’ll do it for fun. But not for like, “Oh I’m going to really reap the rewards” you know? Those days are long gone. That’s why I’m touring, that’s why I’m on tour. I mean I’m so thankful I’ve gotten out of my tomb with a view and started touring.

GC: What does the future hold for John 5? Do you have any dream collaborations or situations, that you would like to be in? A long-term goal that you are working towards?

J5: You know, it sounds so stupid but it’s the truth. It’s like… I’m just so happy now! Like, if something comes along you know… I’ll always play with Rob Zombie, I always do instrumental stuff, but if something comes along, great. But I’m so content, you know? Someone may say “Play a solo on my record, or write this with me”, great. But I’m so psyched of what’s going on. For my next instrumental thing, you know, I’m always thinking, but I think I’m going to go in a different direction. I’m not going to really say anything about it yet, because I’m still going to see if it’s going to work. But, I just started to figure out what I’m going to do but it’s going to be exciting!

GC: Very cool! It has to be great to be in a position where you aren’t searching and you are very happy to be where you are.

J5: Yeah I’m very, very lucky, very, very fortunate and I’m psyched.

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