On a warm California afternoon in March, John 5 is at his home in the Hollywood Hills, enjoying a day of relaxation, a rare thing in his world. Between his primary job as guitarist in Rob Zombie’s band, solo albums, guest and session appearances, and extracurricular activities like scoring the upcoming Zombie-directed horror flick The Lords of Salem, John 5 is a particularly busy man, busier at the moment, he says, than at any time in his professional life.
“Things have been absolutely crazy,” he says. “Right now I’m deep into doing Rob’s film, and then at night I’m writing riffs for the next Zombie record. We’re going to start recording sessions for that in June, right after our tour with Megadeth. Then I’m also working on some songs with Lynyrd Skynyrd for their next album, and doing some writing for Rod Stewart’s upcoming record. And then I have my album…”
John 5’s album is the newly released God Told Me To, his sixth solo effort to date and first since 2010’s The Art of Malice. Like its predecessors, the new disc makes a strong case for John 5 as not only one of the fastest gunslingers around but also one of the most diverse. While God Told Me To features plenty of warp-speed, astoundingly acrobatic shred guitar pieces like “Welcome to Violence” and “The Hill of the Seven Jackals,” these tracks are interspersed with quieter acoustic compositions that are performed in a variety of styles, from the swampy slide blues of “Ashland Bump” to the pastoral British folkisms of “The Castle” to the searing nylon-string flamenco of “Noche Acosador.” And then there’s John 5’s surprisingly faithful cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” in which his guitar mimics practically every nuance of both Jackson’s vocal and the famous solo originally played by Eddie Van Halen. “I love that song,” he says. “So I wanted to do it as a tribute.”
On the eve of the release of God Told Me To, John 5 sat down with Guitar World to discuss the new album, his current gear and why he continues to push himself as a musician. He also talked about the many artists he has played with over the years, including his stint in the late Nineties as a member of David Lee Roth’s band. According to the guitarist, there is a distinct possibility fans will have the opportunity to hear an album of new music from him and Roth sometime in the future. “It’s done,” John 5 says of a collaboration with the former and once again current Van Halen singer. “Hopefully it will see the light of day.”
You take an interesting approach to presenting the songs on God Told Me To by often alternating between the heavier shred tracks and the more mellow and acoustic songs. It keeps the listener somewhat off balance.
I wanted to make it a more enthralling experience. I love instrumental guitar records, but I also understand that, as a listener, it can be difficult to get through a whole album of just that one thing. It’s a lot easier when there are a lot of different styles of music and a lot of different moods to cycle through. So my idea was to sequence the album as if you were listening to an iPod on shuffle. It gives your ears a break from all the crazy shred stuff.
Are there any songs on the album that you felt took you to the boundaries of your ability?
I’ve never done anything like “Noche Acosador” before, and it was pretty tough. But I just practiced my ass off before going into the studio and got it down. With these instrumental records, I look at it like going into a boxing match. I prepare and prepare, because once I hit the record button I don’t want to be wasting anyone’s time. So it’s a challenge for me, but it’s fun. I enjoy playing in all these different styles.
Speaking of “Noche Acosador”: in general, on this album, it’s the acoustic songs, rather than the electric, that represent the biggest stylistic leaps, in terms of what fans expect from you.
Part of my thinking with those songs was that there are all these great acoustic players out there, and I wanted to tackle what they do, but in my own way. Hopefully, that might serve to introduce other younger guitarists to these styles and maybe inspire a kid to think, Hey, there’s something more you can do with an acoustic guitar than just strum it. So in doing the flamenco thing, or using a mandolin or a Dobro, or knocking on the body of the guitar to create a rhythm, I’m taking bits that I’ve picked up from listening to other players and reinterpreting them for my own uses. Because the goal as a guitarist is to just keep evolving.
What guitars did you use on the new album?
For the electric work, I mostly used a Telecaster. My main black J5 model was getting worn out, so Fender gave me a gold one just like it. That’s the one I used the most on this record. And then I pulled out a few from my collection of older Teles, including a ’58 and a ’67 Custom. I also used a Sub-Sonic Tele on a few things. For the acoustic songs, my main guitars were Martins—a D-45 and a D-28—and then I also had a Fender mandolin, an old Dobro, and a Martin nylon-string that I played on “Noche Acosador.”
What about amps?
For the most part, my only amp was a Marshall JCM900. It’s funny—I’m such a big guitar guy, but I’m not a big amp guy. I’ve always used Marshalls and they always sound rad.
The album opens with “Welcome to Violence,” which features some pretty over-the-top shredding. You’ve always been a proud advocate for shred guitar and the notion of playing fast for no other reason than because you can.
Absolutely. I love it. It’s fun for me. It’s exciting. So if you can do it, hey, why not? I’ve been into it ever since I was a kid. But at the same time, it was also always important to me to have my own thing. You know how kids will wait outside after a gig and try to get an autograph from the band? I would do that, but when I found the guitar player I would say, “What advice can you give me?” And a lot of my heroes would say, “Have your own style.” I always kept that in my head. Because there’s already one Yngwie Malmsteen; there’s already one Eddie Van Halen. Why be a clone?
On the new album, you pay tribute to Eddie with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Why did you decide to do that song instead of one by Van Halen?
Partly because it’s such a massive, massive song. You can go pretty much anywhere in the world and people know “Beat It.” When I was growing up, you heard it everywhere. I remember being a kid and going to school dances and stuff, and they always played it. And I thought the riff was amazing, the song was amazing, and Eddie’s solo was amazing.
You actually recreate Eddie’s solo almost note-for-note on your version.
I put a lot of thought into that. My feeling was, that solo is a piece of music in and of itself. And it’s iconic; I didn’t want to mess with it. So I go off at the end a little bit and do my own thing, but otherwise I play it pretty close. And it was fun trying to pull that off.
You’ve talked often of Van Halen’s influence on you as a musician. Given your love for the band’s music, what was it like to have the opportunity to play with David Lee Roth on his 1998 album, DLR Band?
It was amazing. I was actually playing with Rob Halford at the time, but I sought Dave out and sent some songs to him through his management. He liked what I did, and his manager at the time invited me up to his house. And for me, meeting Dave—I may as well have been meeting Superman or Spider-Man or something. He’s a childhood hero. I remember driving through the front gate of this massive house in Pasadena, and the first thing I see is the car from the “Panama” video—the red convertible. That blew my mind.
And then Dave came out of the house, and he was just as you would expect. [impersonating Roth] “John! Good to see ya! Great songs! Here’s what I wanna do. I wanna go into the studio and I wanna cut this record just like the old Van Halen days—just knock it out.” And I said, “That’s great, Mr. Roth. Only I’m rehearsing for a tour with Rob Halford.” And he said, “No problem. But I wanna have you fresh every day, so what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna start recording at six a.m. Then afterward you can go do your other thing.” [laughs]
So I would get up at five in the morning and go down to Ocean Studios in Burbank to record with Dave, and from there I’d go rehearse with Halford. And I’ll never forget being at Ocean that first day: here I am with one of my idols, and right before we start, Dave gets on the mic and he goes, “If you can’t do it in two takes, you can’t do it. Hit it, boys!” I was like, Oh my god… But we did it. We cut the whole record in two weeks, including mixing.
Do you still keep in touch with Dave?
Ever since then we’ve been really good friends. And here’s something I don’t think really anyone knows: Dave and I have about 12 or 13 songs in the can for a future record. And it’s all acoustic. But not strummy, campfire stuff—I’m talking lots of cool, crazy jazz chords, and 50 or 60 overdubbed guitar tracks, with all this harmonizing and other weird stuff going on.
When was this recorded?
We just did this recently! We had Gregg Bissonette on drums and Brett Tuggle on keyboards, who both played with Dave back in the Skyscraper days. And Dave’s vocals are incredible. He sings his ass off. Dave obviously has his plate full right now with Van Halen, but hopefully this record will get released one of these days.
You’ve worked with other artists outside of the hard rock and metal worlds, like k.d. lang, Wilson Phillips and now Rod Stewart. How did those experiences help to shape you as a player?
It’s always good to go outside of your comfort zone. But for me, I wanted to make those worlds my comfort zone too. It’s like when you’re going to school and you have a test that you know you’re unprepared for. And the whole morning you’re going, “Oh god,” just dreading it. I never wanted to have that feeling in music, so I not only studied all these different styles, I went out and played them. Another benefit is that, in doing those things, you get to meet a lot of other great musicians. When I was playing with k.d. lang, Larry Campbell was also in the band, and he played violin, lap steel, pedal steel, mandolin, guitar…all these instruments. And he was always practicing. When we were on the tour bus, he’d be sitting in the bathroom, just playing. That was really inspiring to me. There are a lot of guys like that out there. And they’re not only multi-instrumentalists—they play all the instruments really well. It’d be like if I plugged in and did all this crazy guitar stuff and then was like, “Okay, cool. Now I’m going to get on the drums,” and then I just rocked it like Neil Peart. That’s how these guys are. So you get your eyes opened, and you see how much more there is out there to learn, and how much creativity is out there.
Your own playing has always shown a desire to push boundaries. For example, on “Behind the Nut Love” [from Songs for Sanity], you performed much of the song by fretting notes on the portion of the strings behind the nut on your guitar. And for The Devil Knows My Name, you doubletracked virtually every solo on the record. Do you sometimes do these types of things purely to see if you can?
Yes, totally. With “Behind the Nut Love,” I had seen Adrian Legg do this thing where he turned the tuning pegs on his guitar as he played, and it sounded like a lap steel. And I thought, That’s rad. Then I saw Jerry Donohue do a similar thing, and I thought, You know, I’m gonna try something like that. And so I came up with my thing and sat down and just practiced the technique over and over.
And then with doubletracking all the leads on The Devil Knows My Name, I did it on one song and liked the way it sounded, so I worked on it and did it for all of them. And that was a crazy thing to do, but why not try it? That’s what it’s all about for me. Because it’s not like I’m making tons of money on these albums. I’m just doing them because I like to do them, and also to say to kids, “Hey, try this!” Because you never know what can come of it. I mean, when I was first getting into the guitar I never could have dreamed of any of the things that have happened to me.
What was your dream when you were starting out in your career?
Honestly, my dream was to be a session guitar player who lives in California. That’s what I hoped to be able to achieve. Because anything more than that seemed so out of my reach. So to be able to play with all the people I’ve played with, and then put out these albums of my own instrumental music on top of it, is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It’s an amazing thing.