John 5 really loves playing guitar. It might seem like a redundant statement; he’s a professional guitarist being written about in a guitar magazine, after all. It’d stand to reason he enjoys picking up the instrument every now and again.
But this can’t be stressed enough: John 5 really, really, really loves playing guitar. Put aside the fact that instead of taking well-earned vacations when he’s not on tour with Rob Zombie, he collaborates with artists as varied as Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ricky Martin and puts out solo albums, including his latest, Sinner. Ignore the fact that his Instagram is peppered with tour preparations consisting of running scales while trotting on a treadmill.
Let’s put it this way: When most guitarists sit down for an interview, they get on the phone and answer the questions. Sometimes they gush about a new project or a new signature axe, but the format is consistent.
When the man born John William Lowery sits down for an interview, he insists on a Zoom call and appears on the screen holding his signature frost gold Fender Telecaster. It’s a guitar that’s been so well-loved that he recently had to replace the pickguard because of wear and tear.
“I’m just mostly comfortable with this guitar,” he says. “The metal was worn in. And now, already you can see it’s getting worn away again and it’s only been a month or so.”
Throughout our interview, John 5 doesn’t just answer questions about Sinner: he offers an intimate and unprompted playthrough of favorite tracks, demonstrating riffs and solos (and only occasionally getting distracted by one of the Sphynx cats strolling over his coffee table).
So, yeah: John 5 really loves playing guitar, and that love is all over Sinner. Which isn’t to say this is the typical shred album. Sure, there’s mind-blowing technique sprinkled throughout the 10 tracks; lightning-fast arpeggios on album opener Welcome to the Island, sweeps and taps galore on the verses of Euphoria, and, of course, the country runs that have become a John 5 signature on a demented version of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s How High the Moon.
What’s most noticeable on Sinner is just how concise everything is. On previous solo records, John 5 would go off on whatever tangent his fertile imagination would take him, which resulted in some very inventive, if somewhat unfocused, music. Here, that cerebral chaos has been finely honed. The album is eclectic (this is a guy who spent an early portion of his career backing k.d. lang, after all) but keeps from meandering.
“I love rock, mostly, but I just love music – and that’s what’s most important. I just love all the different kinds of guitar playing there is. All these different kinds of guitar players and styles, I try to use that in my records. It’s just what I watch on TV, it’s what I do and I try to incorporate all these cool licks with heavy rock music. People really enjoy those parts of the show because it’s not just metal, metal, metal music in your face,” he says, veering off into a quick chicken pickin’ run.
It’s entirely possible that the blade-sharp songwriting on Sinner is a result of John 5, like the rest of the world, not having a ton else to do while working on it.
During Sinner’s creation, there were no tour dates with Rob Zombie or with his solo band, the Creatures. Los Angeles, where John 5 lives, was on strict lockdown. During the recording of the album, he admits to sneaking out to get to the studio as often as possible, lest he slowly go mad at home and resort to having to make sourdough like an ordinary person.
“What was wonderful is there were no distractions because there was nothing going on, so I had a chance to really work hard on this record,” he says. “[Producer] Barry Pointer had a lot to do with the production. He was incredible, and we worked so hard on this record because we had time.
“We just went through everything with a fine-tooth comb. I wanted to do everything as a performer. The only thing I didn’t do as a performance was on Welcome to the Island. All these arpeggios, the second part is in a different tuning. So that’s the only thing I really changed.”
The end result is an album where the firepower is often kept in reserve, allowing electronic textures and grooves to come front and center, along with John 5’s tight and focused rhythm playing.
“I love a great riff! I try to write great riffs as much as I can,” he says, launching into the rhythm part that anchors Euphoria. “People have to be attracted to the riff, the first part of the song. It’s very important – and then you can put all the craziness on top of it.
“That’s how I like building the songs, either it’s a cool riff or a cool lick or something like that – and [then I] kinda put it all together. [I] put a cool chorus together and make a fun instrumental song that I really enjoy. It really is just from the heart, and people gravitate toward that. They know it’s real.”
Among the people who have been pulled into John 5’s gravity are some of Sinner’s guest stars. Carla Harvey, singer for gore-meets-glam metal band Butcher Babies, pops up on Euphoria while Mr. Megadeth himself, Dave Mustaine, guests on Que Pasa. Rather than use such a notable and recognizable metal vocalist in a conventional way, John 5 puts Mustaine’s signature snarl to novel use, essentially using him as a living sample in the chorus.
“That was a James Brown sample, saying ‘Can’t pass the people, can’t pass the—!” John 5 says. “It was such a cool James Brown thing – but we couldn’t use James Brown. I was like, ‘It would be rad if we could use Dave Mustaine.’ I’m a huge Megadeth fan and I know Dave’s assistant, who played him the track – and he liked it.
“I was so happy he agreed to do it, because he sounds amazing. It sounds so much better than the original we had, so I’m just honored he did that. It’s so cool because Dave was just Dave. He listened to it once and just did his Mustaine. That’s what I loved about it – you can hear that growl and everything.”
Equally interesting is where vocals were not deployed. Alongside the Les Paul and Mary Ford cover, John 5 gives his instrumental take on a few other classic tunes, including Queen’s rockabilly throwback Crazy Little Thing Called Love. While John 5’s playing stays mostly true to Brian May’s phrasing (which, in itself, is a loving homage to Elvis Presley sideman Scottie Moore), he throws in some of his signature country runs, all while covering Freddie Mercury’s vocal line.
“I just love that Chet Atkins style, and I love the Elvis approach to it when Queen wrote it. I just thought, ‘My god, this is such a great song to bring Chet Atkins’ style to,’” he says, before once again turning up his volume knob and running through some of the song’s recognizable phrases.
The idea to do the song came about from one of John 5’s non-guitar related hobbies: scrolling through Instagram. “I saw my buddy on Instagram playing a version of it, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s rad.’ That inspired me to go through with the song.
“I try to use Instagram as a learning tool, to show people, ‘Check this out, check this out.’ That’s what I do as well. I look at other guitar players all day and go, ‘Wow, that’s a cool idea.’”
And then there’s the album closer, a surprisingly faithful instrumental adaptation of Ray Charles’ Georgia on My Mind. It’s on this track that subtlety reigns entirely.
“I figured out these cool chords and it just really worked well,” he says as he picks his way through it. “I love that song so much and came up with this little jazzy approach to it.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a John 5 track if there weren’t a curveball. The track features original Kiss drummer Peter Criss, but rather than putting the most bluesy vocalist to ever grace that not particularly bluesy band’s lineup to work on vocals, Criss just provides some percussion and a spoken-word intro where he pontificates on the sheer, mind-blowing weirdness of this guitarist playing this song.
“He absolutely killed it. He did two takes of it,” John 5 says. “There’s some tricky parts to it; I just kept the best time that I could, and he nailed it right away.”
If this were John 5’s first solo album, it would be hard to imagine names like Mustaine and Criss appearing in the credits. Sinner is, above anything else, the work of a guitarist who has long since hit his stride technique-wise and is settling into a new phase of his career – if not an elder statesman (he is, after all, only 51; though, it must be said, he looks 15 years younger) than a member in good standing of the guitar establishment. That is, someone who has the clout to get his phone calls returned while he chases his muse, no matter how offbeat she might be.
“I never dreamt of being a rock star or people knowing my name or even doing an interview. I’m so thankful for that and for just something I do in my pajamas from the day into the night. I don’t take it for granted. I’m so lucky and fortunate to do what I’m doing.”
As we speak, John 5 no longer has to worry about sneaking out to play some music. After a year and a half where he, along with most other musicians, couldn’t play in front of an audience, he’s got a full dance card: a headlining tour of clubs, some dates with Rob Zombie and then more solo shows, this time opening for Yngwie Malmsteen.
It’s a change of pace that could be discombobulating and humbling for someone who’s in it for the money or the fame, but John 5, once again, really loves playing guitar.
“I don’t look at this stuff as ego at all. I’m just so happy to play guitar, and I’m happy to play guitar in front of people. It doesn’t matter if I’m in front of 500 people or 50,000. As long as I have a guitar in my hand, I’m super-psyched and it’s a good day.”
In fact, he’s pretty zen about the switch from headlining huge festival stages as a sideman to getting down into the clubs for his solo material. “When you’re in a huge arena, all those little nuances aren’t going to ring out so well. This sounds great,” he says, launching into the chugging riff that anchors White Zombie’s Thunder Kiss ’65. “But if you’re like [he begins sweep picking here], that’s gonna get lost.”
To hear John 5 talk about the state of his career, it’s clear that the first impression is the right one: this is a guy who just loves to play guitar. He likes chilling with his cats and posting about his family on social media. He isn’t a demon; he just plays one onstage with Rob Zombie. So, given how well-adjusted he is, why is this album called Sinner?
“I’m a nice guy. I’m very kind and considerate to everybody, sweet to everybody. I don’t want anyone to have a bad day. I just want everyone to be happy and all that stuff. But those are the ones you gotta watch out for. Those are always the scary ones – the really nice ones.”
- Sinner is out now via Big Machine.