“Just like the Beatles or the Stones were for a lot of people, these songs have been in my head for as long as I can remember”: John 5 shares his Mötley Crüe story so far – and why he still can’t believe he’s landed his dream gig

Mötley Crüe guitarist John 5
(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

Earlier this year John 5 woke up from a dead sleep and had no idea where he was. He looked around, disoriented, blinking his bleary eyes. “Oh, my God. I’m on an airplane,” he said to himself. 

Still not fully awake, he scanned his surroundings some more – the massive aircraft was a chartered affair, plush and roomy. All of the other passengers were stretched out, sound asleep. Then he started to scrutinize their faces. 

“Who are these people?” he thought. After a few seconds, he recognized guitarist Vivian Campbell, and soon he realized that all of the members of Def Leppard were on board. Not only that, but so were Vince Neil, Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe.

“I started freaking out,” John 5 says. “I got up and went to the back of the plane to wake myself up.” What at first seemed like an out-of-body experience soon became very real. The guitarist was winging his way from the U.S. to South America in spare-no-expense rock-star style as both bands, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard, were about to begin their 2023 co-headline world tour. 

But the guitarist was no mere guest on the flight; a couple of nights earlier, he had made his official debut as Mick Mars’ replacement with a pair of warm-up shows in Atlantic City. 

Dispensing with the elaborate costumes and horror-goth makeup he famously donned during his years as Rob Zombie’s lead axeman, John 5 adopted a stripped-down, modern Mötley look; wearing a black leather jacket and with his medium-length blond hair neatly slicked back, he resembled a badass biker as he expertly peeled off familiar riffs and solos during the Crüe’s 15-song, hit-filled show. Grinning a wide, exuberant grin, he seemed to be having a high, heady time – as if he were living out one of his wildest teenage dreams. 

Which, in a very real sense, he was. 

“These things are so strange to me,” he says. “I’ll be on stage with them, and I’ll be like, ‘I still can’t believe this.’ I’ll start laughing when we’re playing a song. The guys will say, ‘What’s so funny?’ And I’ll be like, ‘This is just so weird.’ We’ll play Same Old Situation, and it’s so cool. Or we’ll play Home Sweet Home in front of 60,000 people, and I’ll look at Vince and say, ‘This is just like the video!’” 

He pauses, then adds, “This is where it’s going to sound funny, because it sounds like a dream. I’m so worried that I’ll wake up and tell my wife, ‘Whoa… I had this dream that I was in Mötley Crüe.’” 

Making the (Crüe) Cut

Mötley Crüe guitarist John 5

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

John 5 comes to the Crüe as something of a name brand. As a solo artist, he’s released a series of albums that highlighted his accomplished and inventive instrumental skills while reflecting his wildly eclectic tastes (everything from bluegrass to molten metal). 

During much of that time, the guitarist (born John Lowery in Grosse Pointe, Michigan) also enjoyed an enviable run as one of L.A.’s most in-demand musicians. 

Before his 17-year stint with Zombie, he served as a key member of Marilyn Manson’s band. In addition, he collaborated with David Lee Roth and has contributed to projects by a dizzying and diverse array of artists – Rod Stewart, Garbage, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lita Ford, Rick Springfield, Paul Stanley, Ricky Martin, Steve Perry and Alice Cooper, among others. One of his first pro gigs after he arrived in Los Angeles was playing guitar for pop-country singer k.d. lang on her 1996-97 world tour.

“To me, any similarities between any of the people I’ve worked with, whether it’s k.d. lang or Mötley Crüe, it all comes down to one thing: I just love music,” John 5 says. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved music. It didn’t have to be rock or a certain kind of thing. As a lot of people know, I watched Hee-Haw on TV. There were amazing players on that show. Anybody who could do anything very well – if you were good at your craft – I was excited about.”

The Crüecible

John 5’s ascension to the Crüe fold comes at what could be a problematic time for the veteran band. 

When it was announced last October that Mick Mars was leaving the group as a touring member, a representative for the musician issued a statement to Variety that cited the guitarist’s long struggle with Ankylosing Spondylitis (a form of arthritis that, over time, can cause some of the bones in the spine to fuse) as the reason for his departure. 

In the statement, it was said that Mars would “continue as a member of the band, but can no longer handle the rigors of the road.” There was no firm word at the time as to a replacement for Mars, though it was widely assumed that John 5 would step in.

This was confirmed the next day when Neil, Lee and Sixx issued their own statement, saying, “No doubt it will take an absolutely outstanding musician to fill Mick’s shoes, so we are grateful that our good friend John 5 has agreed to come on board and join us moving forward.” Notable in their statement was a line that read, “While change is never easy, we accept Mick’s decision to retire from the band due to the challenges with his health.”

And then all hell broke loose. In April, Mars filed a lawsuit against Mötley Crüe, alleging that the band had attempted to divest him as a major stakeholder in the group’s corporation and business holdings. What’s more, Mars alleged that the band had engaged in a pattern of “gaslighting” him, belittling his musical and cognitive abilities, in an effort to oust him entirely. 

While an attorney for the band maintained that Mars’ decision to cease touring equaled quitting the band outright, Mars fired back in an interview with Variety, saying, “Those guys have been hammering on me since ’87, trying to replace me.”

Mötley Crüe guitarist John 5

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

How this situation will be resolved remains to be seen, and it should be stressed that none of these issues were broached during Guitar World’s interview with John 5 (our discussion took place before Mars’ lawsuit was made public). 

In the meantime, as the guitarist acclimates to his new gig, he remains the ultimate Mötley Crüe fanboy. 

He recalls how, as a budding young picker in the early ’80s, he missed out on one of his earliest opportunities at seeing his heroes live: “When they came to Detroit, they were opening for Ozzy. I was going to go – I really wanted to see the Crüe – but it was on a school night so I couldn’t go. I remember sitting in my friend’s kitchen, and I said, ‘Mötley Crüe is on stage right now.’ I remember that vividly because I wanted to go so bad.”

Putting a fine point on his unbridled admiration for the band, he says, “It sounds kind of cheesy, but they’re the soundtrack of our lives. Just like the Beatles were for a lot of people, or the Stones or anyone else – these songs have been in my head for as long as I can remember.”

Before you joined Mötley Crüe, you rubbed shoulders with the guys quite a bit. You and Nikki even formed a side band called L.A. Rats, which includes Rob Zombie, funnily enough.

“Oh yeah. I’ve known Nikki for a very, very long time. We’ve been best friends – literally best friends, like we know everything we could possibly know about each other. We’ve done a lot of work together. 

“I worked with him on The Monster Is Loose, which was the title track to Meat Loaf’s album [Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose]. That was amazing. We did “Lies of the Beautiful People” for Sixx: AM

“We did The Dirt together and so many other things – L.A. Rats, of course. Nikki and I talk every day, like, 30 times a day. We’re like two kids. We go to the mall and do stupid stuff. We run around and have fun. I’ve known Tommy forever, but I didn’t know Vince.” 

Mötley Crüe guitarist John 5

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

Take me inside how you were asked to take over guitar duties from Mick Mars.

“There was never really any talk about it. It’s funny because we didn’t talk about business a lot. It was so much in our lives, so we didn’t talk about it. We talked about music and bands and records we love, movies and things like that, but I wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, Zombie, John 5 and the Creatures… ‘ I mean, Nikki would say, 'We’re getting ready for the tour, and the tour’s huge,' and things like that. I don’t even know how it all came about.”

I didn’t have to learn any songs. I know them all. To get a new chapter, a new beginning in your life – what a gift it is

But at a certain point, Nikki must have said to you – I assume it was Nikki – “Mick is thinking of leaving. What do you think? Are you interested?”

“I was on the road, and they were finishing up their tour. We were actually missing each other a few times. Mötley were still touring, and I went right out with my band, the Creatures. There were times when I was playing a show in the exact same city as Mötley. 

“I’d be three miles away in this large club while they were in a stadium. At the end of the tour, Nikki was like, ‘You know, I think Mick’s going to retire. A tour’s coming up. We’re gonna go to Europe and South America and do all this touring.’ He said, ‘Is this something you’d be interested in?’ To be honest with you, I look at this as ‘life is very short, and I want to experience as much as I can.’ I was like, ‘Well, of course.’

“You know, this is my best friend. I know every single song. That’s the other thing – I didn’t have to learn any songs. I know them all. To get a new chapter, a new beginning in your life – what a gift it is. It’s hard to explain. It’s such an epiphany to receive a gift like this, to go, ‘OK, here we go.’”

You didn’t have to think about it for a few days? Right away, you said you were interested?

“I said, ‘I’m interested; right away. This is how to say it: I’m still very, very hungry. I’m not ready to go, ‘Boy, what a great life.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m very interested and I want to do this.’

At the time this was going down, were you thinking of leaving Rob Zombie?

“That’s a great question. No. We’re friends. We’re buddies. We love each other. He’s the best guy ever.”

Still, I imagine it was a hard decision, because as you said, Rob Zombie is a friend.

“It was a hard decision, yes. I thought I could do both. Even Nikki was like, ‘Well, maybe you can do both.’ Me, Rob, Nikki, Tommy – we’re all friends. But life is short.”

John 5

(Image credit: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images for Live Nation UK)

Was Rob understanding about everything?

“He was understanding. He understood because he’s professional. It was hard because I never wanted him to be sad. That was tough, of course, because we were so close. But I had to look out for myself this time. I had to take this opportunity.”

Do you know Mick? Did you talk to him at all before you made your decision?

“I know Mick. We’re good friends and things like that. But I didn’t talk to him beforehand.”

When we got into the first day of rehearsal, it was so smooth. We ran through the whole set... We just went through every song – bam, bam, bam. It gave me chills

Despite your strong relationships with Nikki and Tommy, was there anything like an audition? Did you have to get in a room and jam – just to make sure?

“Not really. Nikki and I have played so many times before. We’ve worked together in the studio, and we’ve even played live together. He played Helter Skelter with Zombie; he played Shout at the Devil with me at one of my solo shows. I’ve worked on Tommy’s records. 

“They know how I play. I didn’t have to audition, but I’ll tell you this: When we got into the first day of rehearsal, it was so smooth. We ran through the whole set, with intros, outros, medleys – everything in one take. It was amazing. We got into the room and they said, ‘What do you want to start with?’ I said, ‘Let’s start at the top.’ We just went through every song – bam, bam, bam. It gave me chills.”

You were meeting Vince pretty much cold. Was there any kind of getting-to-know-you period?

“Good question. OK, Tommy was having his birthday party, and Vince was coming. We were all there. Tommy introduced us, and Vince said, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna have such a great time.’ 

“I was so excited to meet him, and I got emotional. I told him. ‘You have a birthday coming up, and I think it’s when we’re going to be rehearsing. I’m gonna get you a really cool gift.’ He said, ‘You’re the best gift I could have ever gotten.’ I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was amazing. 

“We have such a good time together. We laugh all the time. On tour, we have these different cars to take us to the venue, but we wind up getting into the same car. We all want to hang together and laugh and chit-chat. I think that’s why we all got sick recently – because we’re in each other’s faces all the time.”

John 5 and Nikki Sixx

(Image credit: JUAN PABLO PINO/AFP via Getty Images)

Even though you knew the band’s music, did you do a little homework before that first rehearsal?

“I would go through the set every day. I prepare myself for everything because I never want to feel nervous. I don’t like that feeling. I would study their stadium tour concerts – what Vince is going to say, where I should go during this, where I should go during that – and I mean really study. 

“In rehearsal, Nikki would say, ‘At the end of the song, we’re going to do 10 hits here.’ I knew all of these endings. I knew the different ending of Live Wire, going down from A to Ab, G, F#, F and then ending in E, which segues into Looks That Kill. They looked at me like I had the memory of a crazy elephant. I knew their show so well because I didn’t want to be nervous.”

Did you have to pull out any of their CDs, just to make sure you had the licks and solos down?

“That’s what I’m saying. I did it every day for months. I wanted to play those solos exactly as they were written. Those solos are so important to me as a fan, and they’re so important to the audience. The squeals in Looks That Kill or the harmonics in Dr. Feelgood – these are very important to me and the world. 

“It’s like you’re looking at some sheet music; you’re looking at Mozart, and you’re like, ‘Well, I’m gonna improvise over this part.’ No. That’s how those songs were written, how they were recorded, and how they should be performed. I wanted to give those songs respect.”

It’s like you’re looking at some sheet music; you’re looking at Mozart, and you’re like, ‘Well, I’m gonna improvise over this part.’ No. That’s how those songs were written

I’m just trying to get the picture here. So there wasn’t even one song by the band that you didn’t already know very well? 

“Honestly, I really did know all the Crüe songs. The only thing I had to learn was the arrangement of the medley that’s in the middle of the band’s live setlist. I’ve known all the songs for as long as I can remember.”

Did the guys say you were free to take the songs outside and “John 5” them a bit?

“I checked with the guys and said, ‘I’m going to play them as they are on the records.’ They said, ‘OK, well, you can have a solo.’ And that’s when I go completely berserk. It’s kind of a perfect situation.”

John 5 live with Motley Crue

(Image credit: Per Ole Hagen/Redferns)

Do you think you might suggest to the guys the idea of playing some deep cuts?

“Oh, of course. At rehearsal, I’m that guy. They’ll say, ‘Can you check the guitar really quick?’ And I’ll play Louder Than Hell or Bastard. I’ll play Ten Seconds to Love – any of these deep cuts. They’ll say, ‘Oh, kick ass!’ 

“Whenever they suggest something, it’s like, ‘You know all these songs.’ It’s like you were in the Beatles, and they said, ‘Hey, let’s try Hey Bulldog.’ Who knows what we’ll do in the future? I’m ready and prepared.”

It would be silly if I came out with a long black wig and a hat, you know? I’m my own person

Let’s talk about your first show with the band. Were you nervous about Crüe fans accepting you? There’s always that thing – “He’s not Mick.”

“I wasn’t nervous about the show. I was like, ‘Yay, let’s do this!’ Everybody was like, ‘Are you nervous?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ Because I was prepared. If somebody said, ‘Give me bar 22 of Shout at the Devil,’ I would say, ‘OK.’ That’s how prepared I was. But of the people wanting to accept me? If they said, ‘He’s not Mick Mars,’ it’s like, ‘I’m not Mick Mars. I’m John 5.’ It would be silly if I came out with a long black wig and a hat, you know? I’m my own person.

“For instance, I love Kiss, right? I love Kiss. But I would never put on Ace’s makeup. Never. I’d create my own character, and if they said I couldn’t do that, I’d say, ‘Then I’m not the guy.’”

Mötley Crüe guitarist John 5

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

Have you had to change anything about your own personal guitars or gear for the Crüe gig? You’re still playing the Teles…

“I’ll tell you, I had to put this weird contraption on my guitar – it’s called a Floyd Rose.”

Oh, I’ve heard of those. They’re new. [Laughs]

“Yeah, it’s weird. This thing’s got a bar on it, and it makes the strings go up and down. Again, I’m who I am – I’ve always played Teles. Actually, Mick played Teles a lot throughout his career.”

Now that you mention it, in some of the clips I’ve seen of you with the Crüe, I noticed you were using a whammy bar.

“Yeah, I had to put Floyds on all of my Teles. Listen, I was a Van Halen nut, so I had Floyds, and I know everything about them. I just haven’t played with a Floyd in a while, because I would do all that stuff behind the nut. So when I got the guitars with Floyds, it wasn’t any kind of crazy thing. It was fine.” 

Are there any significant tonal adjustments you’ve had to make to suit the Mötley Crüe sound?

“I did have to make my sound more distorted at some points. I’m using the two distortion pedals to have the harmonics and the squeals both come out just perfect every time. 

“But you know, I wanted to say something because you mentioned the fans. The fans have been so happy and accepting. They know I’m one of them. I love these guys so much, and the fans have been so kind. I’m just playing the songs the way they’ve heard them. It’s not like I’m trying to do anything crazy. 

“I read all the comments, and of course, you’re always going to have the people who say, ‘He’s not Mick Mars.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m not trying to be Mick Mars.’ If they say, ‘He shouldn’t be playing a Tele,’ it’s like, ‘But Mars played a Tele for so many years.’ For Girls, Girls, Girls, he played a Tele. 

“When the band went to Russia, he played a Tele the entire time. He loves Telecasters. But the fans have been very accepting. I’ll go down to the lobby and I’ll sign all the stuff. It’s just wonderful. Of course, it’s concerning, but it’s been such a smooth transition.”

Has being in the band given you a different or renewed appreciation for Mick Mars’ work?

“Oh, no, no, no. I’ve had a beyond appreciation for Mick Mars ever since I was a little kid. I love Mick Mars. Nothing has changed. Knowing these songs as a kid is how I know them now. I used to play Harpo’s and the Ritz and all these clubs, and we’d play Mötley Crüe songs. I have such a high appreciation for Mars, of course. I always have and I always will. I just want to play these songs to where the guys are proud.”

Has there been any talk of recording new material with the band?

“We’ve been in the studio with Bob Rock, and we’ve been having a great time just like we do on tour, laughing and playing music. It’s coming along really quickly. The songs are super heavy and everybody’s excited.”

In your mind, how long do you envision staying part of the Crüe lineup?

“I envision staying with Mötley Crüe… As long as Mötley Crüe are around, I don’t plan on leaving – and I hope I never get fired. It’s such a wonderful band to be in. It really is a dream to be playing with your friends. It’s something I never envisioned, but I’m so thankful it’s happened.” 

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.