Interview:Interviews with Waboritas Vic Johnson and Mona

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The Wabo Way: Interviews with Waboritas Vic Johnson and Mona
by Adam St. James

My association with rippin' guitarist Vic Johnson and slammin' bassist Mona, members of Sammy Hagar's Waborita band since it's inception following Hagar's 1996 departure from Van Halen, is long-standing. I first met Vic and Mona years ago at Sammy's legendary Cabo Wabo nightclub during a long, tequila-fueled Mexican sojourn (mine, not theirs). They were gracious and open, and we all hit it off famously.


A few years later I actually teched for Sammy and the Wabos, during one of the boss's infamous Birthday Bash weekends. Vic was my saving grace during those gigs, always giving me looks and signals when I needed to change Sammy's guitars, or turn on an amp, or whatever. Since then I've hung with 'em at concert halls and amphitheatres all over the country, always enjoying their down-to-earth friendliness and truly sunny dispositions.


I caught up with Vic and Mona at a recent Hagar show in St. Louis, in front of a sold out Riverfront Amphitheatre packed with 20,000+ screaming fans. I wanted to find out what kind of gear they've been toying with lately ('cause I know they've always got some new goodies), and what they'd been working on in their spare time. Of course, both are already monster instrumentalists (who certainly do not get their share of recognition in the press) and neither is in need of any wood shedding at this point in their careers.


So while you're reading these cool catch-ups with Vic and Mona, remember to check out the schedule of bands competing at your nearby Hard Rock Cafe in the third annual "A Shot at the Cabo Wabo" band-to-band standoff. Get out there and support the groups in their quest to win an opening spot on stage with Sammy and Vic and Mona down at the tip of the Baja peninsula.


And if you're not in one of those competing bands (we'll profile many of them on in the coming months, and remind you to vote for your favorite online), you can enter to win a trip to Cabo San Lucas and the Cabo Wabo in the "Cabo Wabo Meltdown" contest. See for details.


Also, if you're anywhere near Lake Tahoe on April 30th through May 2 of 2004, you've got to get up there for three nights of Sammy and the Waboritas at the grand opening of the first U.S. Cabo Wabo Cantina! They'll be partyin' in the streets for this outrageous rock 'n' roll event. Don't miss it. Hey, we're here with Vic Johnson. What kind of gear you using these days, Vic? Are you still using Paul Reed Smiths?


Vic: Still using the Paul Reed Smiths. Still doing Crates ? new Crates, BV300s. 300 watters?


Vic: You haven't heard these yet? No, I haven't.


Vic: Oh man! You're gonna get an earful tonight. 300 watts. I use three of 'em. How many cabinets?


Vic: Three cabs. 4x12s?


Vic: Yeah. And what model guitars?


Vic: Remember the single cut from the NAMM show? Yeah.


Vic: I got one of those finally. And pretty much everything else is the same. I've got my swamp ash, my McCarty. I've got a Les Paul out here with me too. The same ones you've been playing the past few years?


Vic: Pretty much, yeah. Any new pedals or new toys or anything like that?


Vic: I got a new [Boss] GT-6. Before I had a GT-5. I still use it as my backup. So I'm using a GT-6 as effects. What are you using on there?


Vic: I have a Univibe I'm using. And a harmonizer. I don't actually using it for harmonizing, but just to fatten up the sound. Two wet cabinets, and the middle cabinet is just dry. So there's like a fine control that's like plus 8 on one side, and minus 8 on the other, the little fine control in the harmonizer. You know what I'm talkin' about? Yeah.


Vic: And then there's a slight chorus thing, so I can get that big fat sound. Are all three of these amps getting the same signal, or are you splitting signals?


Vic: Yeah. 'Cause there's a slave out in the back. It goes slave out into the GT6, then the outputs go into the returns on the two additional BV300s, the returns. So the middle one is just totally dry. The only actual effect that comes out of all three would be the wah wah, 'cause it's loaded up in front of that middle amp. So what have you been doing playing-wise? Have you been working on any new tricks or anything?


Vic: Playing-wise I've just been messing around. No tricks for me, I'm just trying to play it the way it's supposed to be played. You know, put my own little twist on it... Tell us about your twist, man.


Vic: The gear is pretty much what changed for me, because I was just using the two heads before: a wet and a dry. And I'd been really wanting to do this dry and two wets since day one, but Sam was like, 'Oh that's too much gear.' But no man, this is the sound man. Eddie and everybody else and their dogs used to do it back in the day. I did it before I even knew that Eddie did it. A guy at Fender guitars, Mike Eldridge ? I don't know if you know Mike... Yeah, I just had some drinks with him in Nashville last month. He runs the Fender Custom Shop.


Vic: He's the one that turned me on to it a way long time ago. That guy knows like everything... Yeah he does.


Vic: So with him I actually had that set up way back in '85, that three cabinet trip. Except that I used the SPX900 that I'd gotten from Yamaha when he was at Yamaha. And I used a power amp. And I love that sound. I loved it. And then when I got with Sammy he was like, 'Oh, that's too much!' So that's why I was just doing the one wet and one dry. So how did you get him to agree to the bigger setup?


Vic: I just did it. And then he walked in and heard it and he was like, 'Yeah! Yeah man, that's it!' So he's all good with it. All it is is just one additional stack. One additional half-stack. Which we needed anyway; the stage was looking kinda small up there. You still doing all the risers behind you for the fans?


Vic: Yep, still doing that. The fans behind us creating havoc. So what do you work on at home these days?


Vic: Man! My house! That's what I work on! I come in and my hands are all beat up and I try to play guitar, you know. Do you have a little home studio or anything? Do you work on tunes?


Vic: Yeah, sure I do. I've got a Pro Tools Mix 24... you know, every year your gear is old. But I make what I have for me. I've got the little [Roland] VS-880, and the Mix 24 on my computer. Pro Tools. And that's it. It works for me. I get the job done, what I want to do on it. So do you use Pro Tools or the VS-880 more?


Vic: I use Pro Tools, actually, 'cause it's easier. It's really one or the other, isn't it?


Vic: Yeah. I like the, I can just take the VS-880 and just tuck it up underneath my arm and get going. It's actually harder to operate than Pro Tools ? it's tricky because there's so much stuff underneath, hidden, to get to. But after you've fooled with it for a couple, three or four years, you get about a quarter of it, and you go, 'Oh, now I remember how to get to the preamp!' or whatever. It's a good little rig though. So what kind of licks have you been writing these days? Are we going to be hearing some of them in some of Sammy's music?


Vic: Oh yeah, actually from "Hallaleujah," was that the last album we did that came out in May (2003). Some of my licks got on there. "Hallaleujah" is definitely my licks. What else is on there. I can't even remember. I definitely got some licks on there. How does the whole songwriting thing go in this camp?


Vic: Sammy is still, for the most part, writing the tunes. And I just kind of go in there and re-arrange everything, the guitar parts. Does he lay down scratch guitar tracks? Or his keeper guitar track?


Vic: We all do it together. It's very, very bare in the beginning. And then usually [Jesse] Harms and I will get together and straighten it out. Is Jesse Sammy's main engineer these days?


Vic: Yeah. Jesse's definitely been the guy. That helps with all that keyboard stuff that's going on too, because Jesse's right in there from the beginning.


Vic: Plus Jesse has been a songwriter from day one, he's really good at it. And he's really good at arranging. So what's next with you guys? Another studio album coming out in the near future?


Vic: Man, think about this: We have the Not For Sale album that came out in October 2002, then the live album that came out in May 2003 ? this Live-Hallaleujah double live album. It's got Mikey on it. [Editor's note: Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony. The guys from Boston. Who else is on it? The guy who used to be the Van Halen singer after Sammy: Gary Cherone. Extreme was a rippin' band.


Vic: Oh they were killer, are you kidding? Nuno was exceptional.


Vic: We did that, and we have the live DVD, Long Road to Cabo, that came out in September, 2003. We've been busy, man! Yeah, you guys ain't slackin', that's for sure. Hey Vic, it's been great catchin' up with you man. I hope I can make it out to Lake Tahoe at the end of April for the grand opening of the new Cabo Wabo Cantina!


Vic: Yeah dude, that's gonna be rockin! Take care man.

Mona Gets Her Groove On How have you been Mona?


Mona: I've been great. It's been awhile.


Mona: Yeah, it's been a long time. Let's talk about the gear you've been playing. What are you playing through these days?


Mona: I've got to tell you, man, I've got this bass right now that's slammin' so hard: I've got a Modulus. Oh cool.


Mona: Yeah, Mike from Modulus came down and said, 'Hey will you check out our basses?' And I said, 'Yeah, 'cause I can't get within 50 feet of your booth at the NAMM show!' So I picked one up and it's awesome. It screams. Modulus is a small company based out of Novato [California.] So what model do you have?


Mona: You know, dude, I don't even know. I ordered one and I brought the one that I'm playing into rehearsal, and Sam just loved this so much. And then it went back and they said, 'No, we have to take that bass out for this tour.' So mine wasn't done, so I brought this one. But it doesn't have any info on it. I just plug it in wide open and go. Is it a four-string or five?


Mona: It's a four-string. I've got small hands so I never mess with five. Just about the time I get competent I hit that low B and all hell breaks loose! What kind of amps?


Mona: Oh man, Ampeg, always! You're never gonna change that, huh?


Mona: No, that's a keeper. I'm still with the SVT-4Pro. How many watts?


Mona: It's like 350 or something. You know I am so much of a non-gear head. I just plug in, and when it sounds great I don't even... people come up and go, 'That's a DR-5... .' And I just go, 'Whatever.' You know I spent a lot of time running, and whenever I was at a trade show or guitar show, people were coming up to me and talking my ear off about some minute detail on some ancient instrument, and I'm like, 'Yeah, whatever.' I'm a player, not a historian.


Mona: Exactly. Right. I just play. If I had enough money to buy one of those things you're talkin' about, I might care.


Mona: Right. That's what I love about Ampeg, it's so user-friendly. You plug it in and it sounds great. And if you need to tweak it, it's minimal. It always sounds good. Do you use any effects?


Mona: No. Before Montrose came out, we were doin' "Bad Motor Scooter" in our set, and obviously Sam gave me a solo in that. And for that I had a little bit of distortion, but I didn't have it on stage. I had it out front. The soundman would just dial that in for the solo. I don't even know what he's got out there. I think it's a SansAmp or something. Are you using a wireless?


Mona: Yeah, absolutely. Shure. Mine's a little rack-mounted guy. I tell you, that unit has been awesome. I've had it since the start of the tour. I've got like four receivers now. Every tour though all that stuff goes back because those guys are cleaning tequila out of my transmitters! But this stuff is so good. Do you bring four basses on the road with you?


Mona: Yeah. But once I got the Modulus, man, that's the only bass. I've got my others out, and I still have the Woodpicker, Washburn bass. But honestly the thing is that Sam sings to bass. And that bass, I can crank it up so loud without getting in anybody else's way. It's happening. What have you been doing playing-wise on your own? Do you work on anything special?


Mona: No man. I work on the same stuff I worked on 10 years ago. Same stuff I always did. I'll pick some old Motown song that I love and work on that. I'm not really that into... .it's terrible. Every now and then I'll buy a really cool new book and sit down and learn some different finger positions for fun. But to tell you the truth, I'm not as diligent with that stuff as I should be. Do you ever use instructional videos? Those are the best.


Mona: I've bought 'em, and I watch 'em. Those things, man, I love those things. And I'm like, 'OK, he did what?' These guys have fingers that are... I have a TV right behind my desk and any time my job freaks me out, I just turn around and flick on the video and just learn some riff for like a minute. If you try to get too deep into it, and learn it all at once, you can't take all that in.


Mona: It's too much info to process. Yeah, you just have to learn it a lick at a time. So have you had any projects in the off-season? Or is there an off-season?


Mona: Well, there's always a little bit of an off-season. The biggest project I've got going right now is I'm going to tear my Triumph down and rebuild it. But not really much in the music department. I've had a few offers to do some things, but I can never take anything... I'm hesitant to commit 100 percent to somebody, and then have to tell them two weeks before, 'Hey, Sam's got... ' So I try not to do too much of that.


I had an offer to play with Shana Morrison [Editor's note: Shana is Van Morrison's daughter.]. She's got some really cool stuff, but that was one of the things that went head to head with this. But I'm still looking forward to it. I think she's got a nice project going. It would be fun. Are you still living way out there in Northern California?


Mona: In Willits? Yeah. Yeah, it's really peaceful up there. I've been in Chicago for four years and I'm really seriously missing the mountains.


Mona: We were there for 10 days! We hubbed out of there for 10 days. I love Chicago. I hurt myself in Chicago. I said I was gonna stay in my room and be good, but I went out one day. And I came back full of shopping bags! Michigan Avenue will do that to you. Did you hit any music stores?


Mona: Not a one. Well Mona, I hear them calling you up to the stage, so we'll end it here. Thanks for talking with us.


Mona: No problem, Adam. Anytime!


About the Author
Adam St. James joined shortly after the website launched in the summer of 1999 and has been the site's Editor for several years. Adam is the author of several guitar instructional books, including "101 Guitar Tips: Stuff All the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard). He fronts blues and rock bands in the Chicago area. See for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.