In the wake of the cult horror punk band the Misfits' dissolution, crooning frontman Glenn Danzig quickly formed Samhain as a new vehicle for his musical exploits. Indeed, the New Jersey-bred punk's reputation preceded him; as such, he knew that he needed to put together a stout band to back him up.
Be it through felicity or fate, John Wolfgang Knoll, aka John Christ, walked through Danzig's musical threshold, cementing what would amount to Samhain's final lineup. Soon, Samhain too would dissolve, but no matter; Danzig found his musical muse in Christ, a shredding, BC Rich-wielding young gun harboring classical and jazz leanings.
"The diminutive Glenn Danzig had massive musical talent in the areas of creativity, lyric writing, and even coming up with cool riffs," Christ recalls. "Glenn had the innate ability to hear something or an idea in his head and make that a reality. My gift was that I could hear in Glenn's voice what his idea was supposed to sound like on the guitar. I was the ultimate guitar conduit to Glenn's musical vision."
Throughout Danzig's first five records, Christ's inventive, chameleon-like fretwork delivered through his trusty guitar, which he affectionately named 'The Bitch,' became a hallmark of the group's sound. But eventually, Danzig's pension for egocentrism forced Christ to jettison himself from the group after the release of 1994's Danzig 4.
After four years of stops and starts, Christ finally began work on his first and only solo record, Flesh Caffeine (1999), a cult album reflecting the full scope of the guitarist's vast array of influences. To be sure, life had been wild for Christ to this point, but that didn't stop the apocalyptically talented mad scientist from pushing the proverbial envelope even further.
"I was actually having fun writing songs again," Christ enthuses. "Prior to that, it seems like every note had a dollar value associated with it. Now that I had freedom, I said, 'Let it rip, no expectations,' and I experimented with drop D tuning for the first time ever and fell in love. It all manifested in the song, Flash Caffeine, inspired by a girl I was dating at the time. Everything about that relationship was super-intense; I was out of control, and so was she.”
With a new musical lease on life, the future seemed bright for Christ, but in 2004, the cruel hand of fate extended outward, twisting Christ's fortunes one more. The details of the tragedy are not for the faint of heart, but ultimately, a grizzly traffic accident nearly robbed Christ of his life and ability to play guitar.
"The accident ruined my fretting hand," laments Christ. "Rehab was long and painful. I had a few surgeries. I had a speech therapist. I endured massive physical and psychological testing because of a major head injury. I had to learn how to walk again. I had general orthopedic hand specialists who miraculously managed to get my fingers moving again. I wore these contraptions on my fingers with rubber bands to stretch them. More than a year passed before I could even hold a guitar. It took six years before I could play well again."
Now rehabilitated, Christ has found a new way to express himself, but takes nothing for granted. Finally clean and sober, the metal-loving veteran is working harder than ever to not only regain his skills but improve them.
Still, one loose end beckons at Christ: Glenn Danzig. It's a fair query, considering Danzig's recent pension for 'never say never' antics leading to reformations of the legendary Misfits. But has Glenn Danzig reached out to John Christ regarding a Danzig reunion?
"I am the easiest guy to track down," Christ insists. "My cell phone number is on my website. Glenn has had numerous reunion tours. My phone has never rung even once. However, Glenn's guitar tech for my various replacement guitar players called me before tours have started, asking me how I played certain songs and what amplifiers and special effects did I use. So, with that, I tried reaching out to Glenn through social media but only heard crickets."
Grateful for a new lease on life and preparing to unveil his second act, John Christ dialed in with Guitar World to recount his ascent to greatness, descent into darkness, and renewed outlook as he enters the great unknown.
What first attracted you to the guitar?
"Back in the late '70s, my sisters would have their boyfriends over on the weekends, and they would play air guitar in the kitchen while my folks chaperoned from the living room. They’d grab a kitchen broom and hold it like a guitar, and an empty Coke bottle to use as a ‘microphone’. They’d sing songs like Aerosmith's Train Kept A-Rolling and Walk This Way. They were seven years older, and cool. I knew that wanted to be just like them."
Your use of pinch harmonics has been well documented. Where did the inspiration for the technique originate?
"The pinch harmonics were a direct rip-off from Ted Nugent and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. I love the way they made it scream. Ted Nugent did a song called Need You Bad, off the Weekend Warriors album that was sort of a tour de force of pinch harmonics, and I modeled a lot of my style after that."
Stories of you leaving guitar solos on Glenn Danzig's answering machine are the stuff of legend. Is that how you first contacted Glenn?
"I first contacted Glenn Danzig through London May, Samhain's drummer. London's parents ran an architectural firm in Baltimore where one of my buddies, Tim Moore, worked. In the summer of 1986, Tim told me that Samhain was looking for a guitar player, had several records out and that the lead singer was Glenn Danzig from the Misfits. I told Tim, 'I'm not interested right now; I'm studying jazz at Towson University with Hank Levy of the Stan Getz Orchestra. I don't have time.'
"Six months later, around Christmas time, Tim Moore came by again and told me that Samhain was still looking for a guitar player. Only now, they had a pending record deal with Rick Rubin and CBS, which piqued my interest. According to Tim, Def Jam was ready to sign Samhain to a multi-record deal as soon as they got a new guitar player. So, this time, I told Tim, 'Contact London May and see if we could set up a meeting.' That's how it all started."
What are your memories of your Samhain audition?
"I came in pissed off and ready to fucking kick some ass. We played a bunch of songs, but the most notable was November Coming Fire. The way I heard it on the cassette tapes and the way Glenn played it was different. I handed him my BC Rich, aka 'The Bitch' and he showed me the right way to play it. The audition went pretty well until I broke the fingernail on my index finger of my picking hand and started bleeding all over my guitar and the stage.
"We were jamming at a furious pace. Samhain used only downstrokes with no alternate picking. The super-fast down-chopping forced my arm to cramp up, and I started playing harder and harder. At some point, I tore the fingernail off my index finger, and it began to bleed everywhere. I accidentally brushed up against Glenn and left six bloody lines on his shoulder. Rick Rubin thought this was awesome. Glenn thought I was on speed. I was just pissed off because I had to wait four hours to audition. [Laughs]."
Was the chemistry between yourself and Glenn immediate?
"Glenn was not too impressed with my rhythm playing at the time, but my lead playing spoke for itself. Rick told me not to worry about Glenn, and then he wanted me to come back for a second audition. I told Rick I would be ready in a week, but it took almost a month to get the second audition.
"During that interval – as you mentioned before – I began calling Glenn and leaving guitar riffs on his answering machine. He never called me back, so I started leaving longer and longer wailing guitar messages until the tape in his answering machines would run out. [Laughs].
"Eventually, I got the second audition in Manhattan the very night before the spring semester at my college was set to begin. I nailed the audition, and the newly completed Samhain began working on the album right then and there in Top Hat Studios on 28th street, NY, on February 1, 1987."
Samhain gave way to Danzig, producing a self-titled record that remains classic. Most of the tracks are attributed to Glenn Danzig only. Is that entirely accurate?
"Many of the songs on the first Danzig LP had been started in utero before I joined the band known as Samhain. It was only a matter of weeks after I joined the group that London May was fired. Rick Rubin instructed Glenn to find a better drummer for the band.
"I distinctly recall multiple rehearsal sessions at Zounds where everyone in the room: Glenn Danzig, Eerie Von, Chuck Biscuits, producer George Drakoulious, and me. And then, Rick Rubin gave a ton of input on every single song that eventually would end up on that first album, end of story!"
Your guitar work on Mother always stuck out to me.
"Mother was one of the easier ones to lay down. By the time I was laying down guitar leads, I was more than ready to take 'The Bitch,' and get going. I was ready to rip back in those days, and I was still trying to impress people with how fast I could play, and the chord progression for Mother lent itself to some of my favorite Ted Nugent pull-off licks. My first guitar hero was Ted Nugent, and so the second solo in Mother was inspired by him all the way.
"The first solo, on the other hand, was a group effort. I was nervous in the studio. I learned during this session that the recording engineer is the lead guitarist's best friend, so Dave Bianco was my hero. I seem to recall that Dave helped me get an awesome lead sound that I was comfortable with; we ran through a bunch of takes, and everyone gave their opinions. Eventually, I got some good passes that Dave could cut into one cohesive solo."
How the God's Kill was a significant departure with gothic and doom sounds throughout. I assume you would have needed to heavily alter your bluesy approach to fit that style of music.
"You're right about that. But How the Gods Kill was my favorite album purely due to the unique guitar tones that I captured. But again, I have to give credit to someone else, Nick DiDia. I could not have done it without his friendship and engineering wizardry.
"Nick and I spent long hours together, but the studio budget allowed anything I wanted this time, which meant tons of new guitars and amps. It was the best guitar tone-chasing experience of my whole career with Danzig, bar none. This was my heavy-metal guitar album. The songs were heavier, and the progressions of the songs allowed for louder guitar solos with more fiery intensity than in the past."
Being that it's your favorite, which cuts stand out most?
"I had numerous cassette tapes of all the rough mixes, even from pre-production, and I sat listening to the songs, singing along without my guitar, searching for that magical phrase that perfectly fits that song.
"Dirty Black Summer is a perfect example; the song is very basic, the guitar lead is very short, and there is not a lot of room to do much. So, I just played a little blues scale, descending line, like my version of Aerosmith's Dream On, you know? That descending blues scale in the middle of the second chorus, right after Steven Tyler sings, 'Dream until your dreams come true.' That's what I was going for."
You used one of Jeff Beck’s old guitars for the title track, right?
"Yes. I rented one of Jeff Beck's old Fender Stratocasters from Andy Brauer's Studio Instrument Rentals in the San Fernando Valley. This is how cool it was: you tell the engineer, 'I don't have a guitar for this; I want a specific guitar sound,' and the engineer says, 'Well, we have several rental places in the area that might have what you're looking for.' So, out came a menu a mile long of guitars and amplifiers for rent; I was salivating. "
What led to your decision to move on from Danzig?
"The band – Eerie Von, Chuck Biscuits, and I – were in horrible contract negotiations. Actually, there were no negotiations. Glenn wanted it all and was slowly squeezing us out. He had all of the support from the label and management. We had no-one backing us. Glenn could afford to outspend us until we cried uncle. Royalties, publishing, advances, everything. He signed his own deal without us ever knowing about it. Welcome to the entertainment business!"
Did you have a plan when you quit Danzig?
"What I really wanted was to join Metallica. I wanted Kirk Hammett's job so badly that I could taste it. It's funny; years later, after I sobered up, I occasionally thought about how I would take Kirk Hammett out and get his job. [Laughs]. The only other gig I really wanted was playing with Ozzy Osbourne. But I ended up forming Juice 13, a band with guys that could literally talk a nun out of her panties, but that didn't work out. I immediately moved to record a solo album, but at that time, I was in a very physically intense relationship with a woman that I met at the gym, which was addicting, and that clouded things for me."
Flesh Caffeine remains your lone solo effort. How did those songs come to be?
"I'd been writing songs for a long time while I was still with Danzig, and three or four of the riffs on the Flesh Caffeine album were initially written for Danzig. Glenn rejected my ideas repeatedly, so I stopped bringing them down to rehearsal. In the years when I was trying to figure things out, the world went crazy, and there was so much violence and hate. So, I started writing about it.
"I had a little studio on the second floor of my Southern California condo. I had six guitars in there, a keyboard, a drum machine, mics, a digital tape deck, and a mixing console. Going to my little studio every day and working there was one of the best times of my life."
What did your solo record allow you to express that Danzig didn't?
"My solo record allowed me to sit on the edge of the abyss, dangle my feet over the edge, and peer into the darkness. I found many strange things there. Years earlier, a girlfriend of mine predicted that I might crash after I left Danzig. She was right. But before that, I was determined to put out an album with my best guitar tone and lead guitar work ever, and I did."
You alluded to your affinity for Metallica earlier. To that end, what was your approach to the re-recorded version of Enter Sandman from the Metallic Assault: A Tribute to Metallica album?
"Bruce Kulick and his brother Bob approached me about playing on a compilation album. At the time, they were cranking out compilation albums left and right, and they had an assembly line sort of process. They asked me what song I would like to play on this Metallica tribute album, so my idea was to make a slightly darker, eviler version of Enter Sandman. I felt like I needed to get a couple of my signature descending chromatic lines in there, do some wah-wah, and take Kirk's original playing and take it up a notch. I think I succeeded in that."
What challenges did you face as you rehabbed in the wake of the car accident which nearly took your life?
"In the hospital, the wonderful nurses and assistants told me, 'Your life now is going to be defined by a new point in time referred to as 'after the accident’. My whole world changed in an instant that seemed to drag on for an eternity. Time does feel like it slows down as you are crashing. The good news was that I survived and would lead a relatively normal life. The bad news was I was told that I would never play guitar at a professional level again as my fretting hand fingers had been crushed in several places.
"My fingers were literally hanging by the skin. No-one, to this day, is exactly sure of how my back got broken. It was either from the truck rolling over or from the car that ran over me as I lay in the oncoming traffic going the other way. I remember Errol Sack, my friend, roommate, and business partner, kneeling over me in the middle of traffic, telling me, 'John, don't move. Do not move. The helicopter is on its way.'"
How has your approach to the guitar changed because of your accident?
"My ring and pinky fingers on my left hand have no sensation in the tips. I had to re-learn how to send specific messages from my brain to my fingers to produce a certain sound. My fingers can no longer intuitively sense the differences between the strings. I can feel pressure, but not texture, heat, or cold. It was hard because I would intermittently accidentally burn my fingers for years after the accident because I couldn't feel anything.
"So, my ear became my guide to re-teaching myself how to play guitar. My fingers could no longer do some of the intricate patterns that had become effortless. Sometimes my ring finger would lock on the guitar's neck, and I would have to stop playing and use my right hand to open it back up. The beautiful result was that through trial and error, and tens of thousands of hours of super-slow motion, repetition, and experimentation, I discovered that if you can hear it and sing it, you can absolutely play it!
"I was determined to quietly, below the radar, off the grid, rebuild my guitar skills. It has taken me nearly 20 years, but I've done it, and I'm better than ever. If you don't believe me, come out and see me perform in 2023. I was once ranked number 63 in the top 100 metal guitar players by Guitar World, so I've got 62 more spots to make up!"