As one of the best-selling artists in his native Colombia, there have been many milestones in Juanes’ storied career to date. But being named Person of the Year at the Latin Grammys in November 2019 is certainly up there among the most unforgettable.
The special award was handed to him by his personal hero Lars Ulrich, who had some choice words to offer the crowd gathered before them. “I had the pleasure of first meeting Juanes years ago after performing in Mexico,” revealed the suited and booted Metallica sticksman. “And I have keenly watched his music, his creativity and his radiant humanity storm this beautiful planet. Back then, I learned he was a Metallica fan… Now tonight, we come full circle. I proclaim myself a Juanes fan!”
It was clearly an emotional moment for the Colombian musician, who looked on mouthing the words ‘wow’ as tears began to fill his eyes. Two years later, his cover of Enter Sandman on The Metallica Blacklist – an official tribute to the group’s multiple chart-topping album of 1991 which also featured artists as revered as Corey Taylor, St. Vincent and Ghost – brought him yet more global recognition. You get the feeling Juanes still can’t quite believe Lars and co. have given him such a public stamp of approval...
“It really meant a lot to me!” says Juanes, speaking from his home studio. “I grew up with their music. I must have been about 13 years old when I got Kill ‘Em All and it completely changed my life. I’d stare at their pictures in my room and dream about a life in music. I still feel the same when I hear their new albums, too.
“I love what they’ve done for heavy music – it’s been such a massive inspiration for me. Even if my music doesn’t sound like them, learning from all of those various down-picking and alternate picking techniques ended up in my musical DNA. So, of course, it was a very special thing to be featured on The Metallica Blacklist and to have Lars present me with that award.”
Today, the Colombian singer/songwriter is talking to GW about his new signature Stratocaster through Fender – the electric guitar brand he’s stuck with since his very first solo album, released nearly two-and-a-half decades ago. The new model has many talking points, starting with its never-seen-before ‘Luna White’ finish…
“Luna is the name of my oldest daughter, so for me there’s this extra-special meaning,” smiles Juanes. “And as you probably know, it’s the Spanish word for moon, which is white but also not a regular white. I wanted to create something new and special that I had a personal connection to. I’m very proud. It’s such a beautiful guitar… I’m so happy to be part of the Fender family.”
Other appointments include a mid-boost preamp, an S-1 Switch, two noiseless single-coils and one modern-voiced humbucker in the bridge position. It’s the kind of guitar that will happily cover any musical situation imaginable – which is to be expected from someone as sonically eclectic and stylistically versatile as Juanes.
“Normally, I’m not the kind of guitar player who uses a lot of gear or pedals,” he continues. “I’m pretty simple in that way. I like going straight into the amplifier when I can, or might just use one pedal here and there. But I decided that having a boost on my actual guitar could come in handy, especially when I’m playing shows.
“I have everything right here in my hands and it’s all very clear for me… I can think on the spot! It helps me get running when I need to play a solo or lead or anything like that. I know it’s going to come in useful for me, and anyone else who wants to play this guitar. It’s so versatile, when you factor that in with the pickups and all the different sonic possibilities.”
Along with the S-1 switch and humbucker, this really does feel like the Swiss Army Knife of signature Strats!
“Exactly! I love to play metal music. I grew up loving rock. So it’s nice to have that kind of energy and sound in my Strat, as well as some of the cleaner tones. It’s very important for me. Over the past few weeks, I’ve actually just started a new metal side-project – so this guitar is perfect for all that stuff, as well as my solo music. It’s fuckin’ amazing, man!”
So what drew you to guitar in the first place?
“I grew up in Medellín and ended up listening to all kinds of music. But at the very beginning it was mainly folk. Then as a teenager I got crazy about rock and metal, and as I got older from there I started to look into genres that existed before all that heavy stuff.
“I was loving funk and blues or other stuff like jazz. I’d listen to anything that had instruments… and even music that was programmed like deep house or whatever. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is if it makes me feel something! But the guitar is very special to me, like it’s part of my soul. I project myself through the guitar and use it to share how I feel, what I think and who I am with other people.”
Was there a moment when you realized Fender would be the electric guitar brand best suited to your music?
“I remember signing my record contract with Universal and recording my first solo album in Los Angeles about 23 years ago. At the time I had a Telecaster, a Stratocaster and a Fender amplifier. That was all I needed! It just happened naturally… the sound of Fender guitars became my sound. That’s why I’m so happy to use them. The guitars they make give me so much versatility – I can go from rock to cumbia to funk to salsa to vallenato to metal. Anything is possible! Their guitars give me the possibility to play any style I want and do it very comfortably.”
While working on your new album Vida Cotidiana we heard you’d been taking lessons from Berklee professor Tomo Fujita – the man who famously taught John Mayer. What did you ask him for direction on?
“I learned many things from Tomo. I was actually studying with him just yesterday morning, funnily enough. Over the whole Covid time, it felt like an opportunity for me to try and open new doors in my approach to guitar. I wanted to grow. So I saw what he was doing on social media and decided one day to send him a direct message. He answered back and we started to work together over Skype and now I’ve been studying with him for over two years.”
And what’s he like as a tutor?
“He’s a very nice guitar teacher and a lovely person. He plays very well and very clean… he’s a perfect guitarist. I love his approach to teaching in general, but I guess the most important thing is his perspective of the guitar from a more human angle. You don’t have to be better or worse than anyone else. You just have to be patient and work slowly towards your goals with love and passion… then it all comes together.”
You also studied with Guillermo Vadalá. How exactly did that differ?
“He’s a bass player and guitarist from Argentina, and a very talented guy. We spent time together over lockdown. I started to study a lot of musical harmony and it gave me a lot of new keys to open musical doors. On songs like Mayo, Más and Gris from my new album, you can hear there's a different flavor from me in terms of harmony. Because I sat down to try things that I probably couldn’t have made before. All these people helped me a lot during the whole process. This new album Vida Cotidiana is definitely one of my best. I feel very happy, confident and strong about how it came out.”
What kind of amps and pedals were you plugging your Fenders into for the new recordings?
“When I was working in the studio, I ended up using a lot of Neural DSP plugins… I just loved the sound of them. So they ended up on a lot of the recordings. When I play live, I tend to use the Fractal units because they are easy to use and have a very high quality. But Neural DSP seemed to make more sense in the studio.”
A lot of your ideas exist within a pentatonic framework. What’s your approach to getting as much as possible out of a five-note scale?
“Well, I don’t think I’m a master at all. I just try to learn and play the best I can. Pentatonic is just the language that seems to suit. I’m not sure if it’s the most important scale in Colombian – I don’t know, it could be. But I think it is very important in rock music and is the best scale to start with.
“If you don’t play guitar, learning the pentatonic minor and major is the perfect place to begin. After learning the first positions, you then try to learn it all over the neck. From there, you can try all the other things like modes and the more outside-sounding scales too.
“But the pentatonic is the most natural and easy-sounding scale – whether you’re listening to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin or Carlos Santana, it’s going to be featured a lot!”
- For more information on the Juanes Stratocaster, head to Fender.com.