Interview:More Than He Ever Dreamed - Johnny A.
by Adam St. James
Smoke pours toward the rafters of a darkened club. Cocktail glasses ring and clink, while an intimate couple shares a laugh and a kiss in the corner. In response, the musician on stage digs deep into his hollowbody guitar to pull a tone - a breathy, singular tone - out of his sunburst lover. It's a classic scene, a romantic image of an upscale urban lifestyle that many of us can recall from our own storied lives. Or is it just a dream? Steady-fingered guitarist Johnny A enlivens these cloudy fantasies with his latest Favored Nations release, Get Inside. With more of the gorgeous jazz-meets-the-juke-joint string tripping we've come to love Johnny for, Get Inside is a strong follow-up to his 1999 debut release, Sometime Tuesday Morning. Guitar.com last spoke with Johnny in 2001, when that self-released record was picked up by Steve Vai's Favored Nations label, so we wanted to chat about developments since. In this detailed interview, Johnny A discusses his ascendance from typical rock guitarist fallbacks of playing either a melody or chords - but never both at once - into an accomplished chord-melody magician. He also describes the process behind the creation of his stunning signature model Gibson guitar, and offers words of encouragement to anyone trying to make a living with six-string in hand.
Johnny A.: Hello
Guitar.com: Johnny, it's Adam with Guitar.com.
Johnny: Hey Adam, how are you?
Guitar.com: Pretty good, how are you doing?
Johnny: Oh, cuckoo. It's a crazy week comin' up. I'm doing well though. Had a good weekend; we worked this weekend. Got a rehearsal - I'm putting a bigger band together for the CD release party.
Guitar.com: What are you going to add, some horns?
Johnny: We're just gonna add the players from the record, so I have a couple of horn players, percussionist, another guitar player, and a Hammond organ. I'm looking forward to it because I enjoyed - the trio thing is a blessing and a curse. It's fun doing it, but at other times you kind of get sick of hearing yourself. I'm kind of a song production guy so every time I'm playing I hear all the other parts in my head. So it's gonna be fun for me to realize it live at least. It's expensive to put together a full band like that and carry it around. But it'll be fun to do it for a night anyway.
Guitar.com: This is at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. What's the Museum like?
Johnny: Well, they've just put millions and millions of dollars of refurbishment money into this museum, which is beautiful. As a matter of fact they brought over an old house from China - an old Geisha house or something. That's on the premises. It's a world-class museum now, and it's in my home town, which happened to work out kinda cool. And the radio station involved with the event, their client is the museum. So it worked out kinda cool.
Guitar.com: And then other than that gig, what else do you have going on, with the release of the new album, Get Inside, this week?
Johnny: The album comes out tomorrow. We don't have a full tour yet, but we've got dates planned. We're doing SXSW, we have dates starting next week. We're playing around the Northeast.
Guitar.com: Have you played SXSW before?
Johnny: I played there when I was with Peter Wolf. It's a great event. You have 600 or 700 bands, 100 venues. Austin is a great music city anyway, so it's fun when like-minded people converge on the same destination. That's always fun. PLUS, it'll be good to go somewhere warm!
Guitar.com: I hear ya. Is the touring situation this time looking to be more extensive than it was with Sometime Tuesday Morning?
Johnny: Hopefully. A lot of it is just economics. I'm a solo artist so I have to pay my band and crew. It's not like we all just get in the van and it's one for all, all for one, and everybody sleeps on the floor. I have to pay for rooms every night, and salaries, and per diems. It all depends on the success of the CD. If the CD does well and there's demand for what I'm doing out there, then we'll be able to afford to go. There'll be some kind of tour support, I imagine, but it's never and endless well of money. Hopefully.
I'm looking forward to it. There's been a good reaction for the new material that we've been doing live, breaking it in. The shows have been pretty well attended. Sometime Tuesday Morning did well in selected markets around the country. We didn't necessarily break out in every market in the country, so it's kind of difficult to get from one coast to the other without losing money at this point.
Is this the interview?
Guitar.com: Yes. Is that OK?
Johnny: (laughs) Oh, OK. I should watch what I'm saying, maybe. Go ahead.
Guitar.com: Is there anything you'd like me to remove from the record of what you've said so far?
Johnny: I thought we were just talking first, I didn't know you'd actually started the interview. But that's OK.
Guitar.com: Well you haven't incriminated yourself yet.
Johnny: (laughs) Oh OK. Give me time. (laughs)
Guitar.com: You had a lot of response the first time around with NPR.
Johnny: Yeah. What happened was... the whole Sometime Tuesday Morning thing was just an organic kind of growth. It got picked up... one of the engineers at one of the stations got turned on to my CD before it was out on Favored Nations.
Guitar.com: At the NPR affiliate in Boston?
Johnny: In Washington, D.C. The main NPR station. They have a whole beautiful recording studio up there. And I guess one of the engineers, or one of the interns, would play the music in his little cubicle. And one of the producers walked by and said, 'Hey, I keep hearing this. I like this. Who is it?' And he gave it to the producer and they started using it for bumper music, like NPR does. They're always playing little snippets of music between stories and shows. And the thing that's great about them is that they list the name of the artist and the track and the time they played the track on their website. So they started to get reaction to my music when they were playing it. And one thing lead to another. They contacted my agent at the time, and they invited me on the air to do an interview, which we did. And it just really helped so much, because there's a lot of passionate listeners of NPR-style radio.
Guitar.com: Who also appreciate the kind of artistry your music represents.
Johnny: Yeah. It's more just... the listener base is active, and they're passionate, and they're not the type of people who would put on a station playing In Sync or something like that. They're more interested in the singer/songwriter kind of thing, or jazz or blues or rootsy type stuff. It worked for me.
Guitar.com: That's cool. So you wrote a lot of tunes on this disc - you wrote a lot of tunes on the first disc too, but on Get Inside you only have two covers.
Johnny: Yeah. I had more songs for the first CD, but on Sometime Tuesday Morning, doing a new instrumental style, I just wanted to have - on a debut CD - more music that people might recognize the melodies to. I wanted to try to get them acclimated to my sound through familiar melodies. There were a couple other covers I was thinking of for this record, but this balance just felt right when I was listening to all the tracks.
Guitar.com: From Sometime Tuesday Morning, "Wichita Lineman" really stood out for me. It's a really haunting melody, and the way you put it across really grabbed me.
Johnny: I love that song. I've always loved that song. Jimmy Webb is an awesome songwriter.
"It was just a guy celebrating his influences. I had no record deal, wasn't makin' any money off it. It was just me playing what I wanted to play for the love of playing."
Guitar.com: So how do you approach songwriting? How do these tunes come to you?
Johnny: It's the same as when I always wrote. I used to be - well, I still am - a songwriter that works with lyrics as well. I had plenty of bands before this that I was singing and playing, or I had a singer. It's always kind of been the same where I hear the melody first. I'll always hear the melody, and then I'll just start constructing different types of chords underneath the melody, to see how the melody reacts with different types of chord substitutions. You can be playing one note of a melody, and you can use the root chord, or maybe you would use the third chord - or that melody note might end up being the seventh in a chord, if you substitute a different chord with it. I like to write a melody that feels strong to me, and then start messing around with the support of the melody, and see how I can make it interesting in a chordal way.
Guitar.com: When we spoke a couple of years ago, with the first album, you told me that part of the way you got into this solo style of playing was that you - if I remember correctly - took some Beatles songbooks, and sat down and learned the musical notation.
Johnny: Yeah. What happened was that I had just finished with the gig that I had, which was [Peter] Wolf's gig. I was out of a job, and I didn't have a day job either. I didn't have any money coming in. And I had invested a lot of time into somebody else's career. [Editor's Note: Johnny had played with former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf for seven years when Wolf decided to "retire."]
And it was a good thing. I learned a lot. I don't mean that as a negative. I mean that as a positive. It's challenging to work for another artist and try to help him with his vision. It helps you as well. It makes you get into different bags of playing and musicality to try to satisfy what the writer is going after. But what happened after that seven-year tenure, he just decided he didn't want to tour for awhile, and just put me out of work. And after that I realized that I didn't want to tie myself - I'm not a very good singer. I knew I couldn't compete on the national or international level as a vocalist. I'm just not that good. I can sing OK, but when you look at the singers that are out there, I don't want to sing against them (laughs).
And then at that same time I realized that I had always been a supporting guitar player, lead guitar player, who plays rhythm behind a vocalist, and then when it's time, I play lead in a spotlight solo. But I realized that I never was a complete guitar player in that I could deliver the song totally without a vocalist. And that kind of depressed me, actually. For playing as many years as I had been playing, and not being able to sit down by myself and give someone the sense of a whole song. I found that challenging and I wanted to work toward that. And that's how that whole thing came about.
I couldn't read music, and I still don't read that well. But I was determined. I had to find a tool to help me get into being a more complete player, meaning vis a vis, a guitar player who could play chords and melody at the same time. So a friend of mine gave me the Complete Beatles, which was a two-volume set of all their stuff. And I decided to just flip through the pages and put my finger down on whatever the page was, and that was the song I was gonna learn. And it was ''Til There Was You.' And I didn't want to read the tablature or the chord block diagrams. I didn't want to read that way. I wanted to read the clusters that were on the staff - those inversions.
And that's what I started to do. It was strange inversions that I'd never played before, and it took me days to figure it out, because I don't read. It was a very slow, agonizing process. I had muscles that were aching in my arm that had never ached before, and I'd been playing for 30-something years. (laughs) It was like I'd never played before. And the voicings were beautiful. It wasn't until after I'd finished the song that I realized they were piano voicings. And obviously I couldn't do all the chords because some of the chords would be six-note spreads that were impossible to do on a guitar. So basically I would find the most interesting clusters of those chords, and that's how I started doing it. One thing lead to another. And as I was enjoying that sound that was coming out of the guitar, I started to write songs and employ these clusters that I had been learning through this method. That's what happened.
Guitar.com: So not only did you learn to play melody and harmony at the same time, but you learned a whole bunch of cool new voicings too.
Johnny: Yeah. It was great! I've not read a thing since. I'm not applauding that, I wish that I was technically more adept.
Guitar.com: So basically you learned the technique of playing melody and harmony together, and then explored songs on your own and applied the concept.
Johnny: Exactly. I can't say that was the only song that I did like that. When I decided to cut a Beatles cover, then I took the music to "Yes It Is" that's on Sometime Tuesday Morning. That's how I started. That was the jumping off point of that arrangement.
Guitar.com: Whatever helps you get to where you want to get on the guitar, it's all good.
Johnny: That's right. Whatever Gets You Through the Night. It's been fun. It's been a learning experience, which is good.
Guitar.com: Well your music is beautiful. I really dig it.
Johnny: Thank you, Adam.
Guitar.com: What have you learned in the past couple years, career-wise, and managing yourself, that you can share with the Guitar.com community?
Johnny: That's a really good question. At the same time that I had this epiphany of not being the complete guitarist or musician that I wanted to be, I also had this enlightenment of, 'No one is going to do anything for me unless I do it for myself.' It was just one of those things. When I was a kid I had a band and it was all-for-one, one-for-all, and people would leave and you'd find yourself holding the bag. And I had managers who never seemed to get anything going on, and you'd sit and wait by the phone and nothing would ever happen.
I think as musicians, sometimes, at least in my generation that grew up, we thought we'd get these managers and they'd do everything for us. They would find us the record deal, they'd get us the booking agent, they'd make the contacts. And they never did any of it. And I said to myself, 'As much as I have to become a better player and musician, and try to help myself there, I might as well just assume that nobody is going to do anything for me,' and just make that assumption. That's not to say that nobody ever will. It's just to say that, until somebody does, you need to do it yourself.
A lot of it came from an attorney, when I finished Sometime Tuesday Morning [Editor's Note: Johnny released Sometime Tuesday Morning himself before the disc was picked up by Steve Vai's Favored Nations record label for national and international distribution.]. I said, 'Listen, I want to see if I can get a record deal with this thing.' And she said to me, 'You know, lawyers don't really get record deals anymore. It's a whole different business than it used to be. You need to make a good product. You need to create a live story. You need to create a press story. You need to create a radio story, and a sales story. And once you sell some units, then probably some label will take notice of that, and one thing will lead to another.'
And that's exactly what happened: We put the band together. We started to sell some CDs locally. It got picked up by a local radio station. It spread throughout the region. Some record store chains started to take the record in. We started to get a lot of press. And then labels started calling: Sony, RCA, Blue Note, Razor and Tie, and finally Steve Vai. And I thought Steve really got it. He really understood what I was trying to do. He's a highly intelligent guy, a fantastic player and musician. And it worked out good.
And one thing lead to another, and I had been working with Gibson for 10 years as an endorsee. And when the success with Sometime Tuesday Morning started to happen, and Warner Brothers did the tab book for it... And it charted - it was the first instrumental since Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" that charted on AAA radio in the Top 10. So because of my history with Gibson, they started talking to me about a signature model.
I think that my way is the right way, it's just that everybody has to find that little right way that works for them. And they can't give up on it. And the other thing is I really think that you've got to be hard on yourself. As hard as you'd be on anybody else. You have to say, 'Hey man, is what I'm playing here BS? Is this song any good, or does it suck?' And you have to be willing to say, 'I SUCK!' And then make adjustments.
Guitar.com: Let's talk about that beautiful Johnny A signature model Gibson guitar.
Guitar.com: It's a fairly high-end guitar.
Johnny: Yeah, and I gotta tell you, that whole Gibson signature thing totally blows my mind! I look at the heritage of that line, and the players that have used that guitar, and the players who are on that guitar: players like Wes Montgomery, and Chet Atkins, and Charlie Christian, and Pat Martino, and Les Paul. It's just totally mind-blowing to me [to have a signature model guitar with my name on it]. It's just an amazing thing to me, and something that was totally unexpected. Not something that I've ever dreamed would happen. It's not like I was playing and saying, 'Someday I want to have a signature model.'
It came out of frustration. A lot of the first album was recorded with that ES-295. I love the sound of that hollowbody guitar with the flat-wound strings and the Bigsby. And I'd take the thing out live, and it would just howl like a wolf. It would just be ridiculously hard to control. So I started using that and a 335, and then the Les Pauls. And then Gibson started making me these '59 reissue Les Pauls with Bigsbys. And it sounded great. But I still missed the hollowbody sound. And the body was a little bit small. I sit on a stool and I was hunched over the guitar. I was getting backaches. When we do a headline set, we're playing for 90 to 110 minutes. And it really started to hurt.
So when they approached me, and we started to get into meetings and conversations about guitars, I wanted a little bit bigger body. And first they sent me blueprints of like a 15-inch Les Paul styled guitar. So like a Les Paul, but two inches bigger. And that was crazy looking. That wasn't gonna work at all. And then one thing lead to another and we came up with this all hollow design. I was trying to replicate, as close as possible, the sound of that ES-295 with P90 pickups. And as you know a 295 has a single-coil P90 and it has a rosewood fingerboard. So you get that quick bite off a P90, but the guitar still has a warm sound to it because you've got the rosewood and the hollow body. And it's a 24 and ¾ inch scale on that guitar.
So to emulate that we put a longer scale on the guitar. We put a 25 and a ½ inch scale on the guitar, which is the traditional Gibson jazz scale, like their L5s and their Super 400s and a lot of those guitars. And then we put an ebony board on it, to get a brighter attack, because this guitar has PAF pickups. I didn't want the hum of a single-coil pickup. Coupled with the hollow body, it's an archtop, it's an arched back, but the inside of the guitar is carved flat, not arched. The idea was to have the sound reflect quickly off the back, kind of like a flat-top acoustic, as opposed to an arch-top acoustic, or arched-back acoustic, I should say.
And one of the byproducts of that - and it was purely an accident - was that it takes a lot to get that guitar to howl and feedback. There's no center block, it's totally hollow. Even if you take a 330, a hollowbody like Grant Green used, those things will howl right away. And it's not much thicker than this - a 330 or 335 is not that thick of a guitar. I think what happened is that a byproduct of carving it flat for the reflective response was that you didn't get a mirror image of the archtop on the back, to make that air swirl in a certain direction.
So whatever it is, I can go into pretty high volumes. And I play with wedges in front of me on stage. I don't use a speaker cabinet on stage. I use my Marshall compensated speaker emulation right to the console. I pipe my guitar through wedges out front. And they're loud! It's not pussy volume or anything. And it doesn't get away from me. The feedback that you get is always musical feedback, totally controllable. So it was amazing, the fact that it was a totally newly designed guitar. It was not a model that they just adapted, it was a totally new design.
Guitar.com: Is there any particular reason you went with double cutaway?
Johnny: Well, it gives you great accessibility on the whole fingerboard, especially if you start doing some chord work a little higher up the register...
Guitar.com: Which you do...
Johnny: Which I do. And the other thing that was great about working with Gibson on this guitar was, at no time did they ever say to me, 'Well, Johnny, that's cool. We can do that on your guitar, but not on the production models.' They didn't do that. The guitar that I play is the one that they sell. There's no watered down version of it. There's a lot of little nuances on the guitar, I'm such a guitar freak, and just a romantic about guitars - and especially Gibsons. There's a lot of little nuances in the guitar that maybe people won't even realize, like just the taper of the headstock. The depth of it from the side is so much like a '50s Gibson, how thin the top of the headstock is. And just the carve of the dish.
Guitar.com: What's the "dish"?
Johnny: The dish is the carve of the top. How it's carved. From an appearance standpoint, I was trying to have it feel like it could have been a guitar that came out in '59, '60 or '61. Even the finish - the finish was a whole new sunburst that they've never had before. And they let me get in there with the painter, Mick McGuire, and I said, 'Well I'm looking for this type of finish, this type of color.' And they allowed me to name the color.
It was just fabulous. Mike McGuire at the Custom Shop put this whole team together. And Rick Gembar, the head guy over there, was the guy that put the green light on the project. It was kind of a dream... .I can't even say it was a dream come true, because I never really dreamt of that happening. It's just a mind-blowing thing.
Guitar.com: Gibson makes them with and without a Bigsby tremolo. Do you use both?
Johnny: I did use both, I do use both on the recordings. Live, since I don't travel with a ton of guitars - I usually only bring two or three - I have them all set up with Bigsbys. But I use different strings. On my main guitars I'll use the D'Addario XLs. And then I usually carry a guitar that has the D'Addario Chrome Flat Wounds on it too.
Guitar.com: Why flat wounds on some guitars and regular strings on others? Are there particular songs that you prefer the different tones?
Johnny: Yeah, on certain songs. When I do some of the more balladeering type of songs, like "Wichita Lineman," or "Walk, Don't Run" I think had it. And on the new record on "Poor Side of Town," and some of the rhythm tracks, like in "Hip Bone." There's a certain timbre, a certain tone thing that happens with the flat wound strings that I really like. It's not a noise thing, it's not a squeak thing. It's just the way the guitar sounds with flat wounds. You can't emulate that sound. It's just more of a percussive sound, a little more thuddy, a little more dead. I just kind of prefer that on some of the stuff, especially when layering tracks. The guitars separate from themselves better. And a lot of my chord clusters are in the lower register, and it gives it a more thumpy attack.
Guitar.com: Well, the Gibson Johnny A signature model guitar is a gorgeous instrument, and the music on Get Inside is really inspiring too, Johnny. Thank you so much for spending some time with us, and we'll look for you out on the road this year.
Johnny: Thanks Adam, take care.
About the Author
Adam St. James joined Guitar.com 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 www.adamstjames.com for info on all Adam's books, bands, and barstool banter.
About the Author
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