Interview:Gettin’ Inside with Johnny A

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Gettin' Inside with Johnny A
by Adam St. James has spoken with Johnny A a couple of times in the past and we wanted to catch up with him in time for his appearance on Saturday, January 22nd, 2005, at the All Star Guitar Night. All Star Guitar Night is an incredible showcase of guitar virtuosity that takes place during the music industry's NAMM convention at the Anaheim Convention Center (and surrounding hotels) in usually sunny (rain, rain, go away!) Southern California.


The All Star Guitar Night is only open to those with tickets, which can only be scooped up at the NAMM show - which, unfortunately, is not exactly easy for the general public to get into. But if you can, be sure to get to the All Star Guitar Night and check out Johnny A, Kaki King, Muriel Anderson, and a whole bunch of incredible guitar virtuosos. For more information and the complete lineup, click here .


In our exclusive interview, Johnny spoke to us about his unusual technique for playing chord melodies, his hybrid picking, and his plans for a live CD and/or DVD. Hey man, we speak again.


Johnny A: Hey Adam, thanks for thinking of me. I guess I'm catching you on the road?


Johnny A: Yeah, I'm just pulling up to another venue in Baltimore right now. We've got to do soundcheck. So what's new in your world?


Johnny A: Just touring, touring, touring. That's the life you wanted, right?


Johnny A: (laughs) I'm not really sure. This isn't exactly the way I'd planned it. But it's good. I have a great band, and we're having fun. I just got your Get Inside book yesterday from Warner Bros. It's very cool. Now I can try to figure out some of what you're doing.


Johnny A: Oh yeah! Be my guest. I don't even know what it says. Did you ever get the Sometime Tuesday Morning book? No, I don't have that one yet.


Johnny A: That's a really nice book too. They did a great job with the transcriptions, and that book actually has the bass tab in it too. What have you been working on these days?


Johnny A: There are some new songs in developmental stages. But right now I haven't even been thinking about recording a record. I'd like to do a live record and a live DVD. I have a lot of people who ask me because they dig the records, but when they see the band live it's a different thing. As you know, when you record, you try to economize stuff for the studio. And then when you play live there's a certain amount of energy and angst and shootin' from the hip. Both things have a different character. It's not to say that one thing is better than the other, but both live performances and studio performances offer something different to a fan. So I'm considering a live CD or DVD. I'm going to be doing an instructional DVD for Warner Bros. That's great. I'd love to see that.


Johnny A: We're shooting that in March. They want it out by summer NAMM. I started doing some clinics. I did a thing for National Guitar Workshops and a couple other clinics. And that (previously) wasn't something I felt comfortable with because - as we spoke about before - my playing style and my approach is strictly from vibe. It's got nothing to do with being technical and sight-reading or anything like that. So I was always a little hesitant about doing something where I was trying to be an instructor. And that's not really what I envisioned for myself. So I was always a little apprehensive about it.


But we did a couple of clinics and master-classes and they went really well. Aaron Stang from Warner Bros. and Arlen Roth both asked me about doing this instructional video. And I had the book deal with Warner's, so I'm gonna take a shot. I'll shoot it and see how it comes out. We'll look forward to that. So what would a guitarist have experienced at your NGW clinics?


Johnny A: My whole thing, the whole outline of what I did - first of all, I used the band with me too. I didn't play to backing tracks. Different people do it different ways. When I saw Pat Martino do a master class, he barely played his guitar. He basically talked about a certain philosophy that he has toward music, and he has this alphabetic system that he has for notes and creating lines. And other guys will say, 'I use this scale to do this, and this other ithing to do that." And that kind of stuff.


For me - with the broad scope of music that I enjoy, and the many things I've done in my life - what I did was I went in and told people about my background, in case they didn't know, and then I'd tell them how I started, what I grew up with, what I listened to. I showed them little examples of what makes me tick. I'd give examples of my playing in different styles, and then field questions. And I thought it was going to be this long, arduous thing that I was going to be very nervous about. And two hours went by like it was 10 minutes. It was really good.

Consequently, if I'm going to see somebody in that type of environment, I don't think I'm as interested (in technical stuff) like if they're doing the Phrygian mode starting on the third scale tone, or whatever. I'm more interested in the essence of the person, and what makes them click. If I went to see Chet (Atkins) or Jimi (Hendrix) in that type of situation, I'm not sure I care to know if Jimi's playing a certain scale in this song or that song. I think I'm more interested in figuring out how did he get to where he got. What made him, what influenced him, and what inspired him. So maybe I can go back and look at some of those things, and maybe they'll inspire me in a certain way. Sure. Did you get a lot of questions in these clinics?


Johnny A: I did get a lot of questions. I got a lot of questions about my tone, my approach to chords - which I guess is unique. So how I came up with that whole chord melody style. I guess it's unique to me because it was basically based on ignorance (laughs). So you probably found the easiest fingering for each chord you play…


Johnny A: Well, It's like in our previous interview, it started out trying to read (sheet music, from a Beatles songbook), and realizing I was reading piano clusters. Right.


Johnny A: And I was loving the sound of those inversions and little clusters and figures. That's what started me writing chords around that kind of thing, for my own music. And my chord melody style involves the melody being buried inside the chord, as opposed to traditionally being on top of a chord. That's the typical way to play chord melodies, and a lot of the time I don't do that. It's usually frowned upon, but for some reason, maybe because I use a hybrid style of picking, I'm able to pull out the melody note in the middle of a chord - and have the other chord tones surround the melody - and it still rings OK. That's something that Steve Vai commented on. He didn't understand how I could get the melody to ring out in the middle of a chord like that. Are you conscious of putting a little more force on the string that has the melody note?


Johnny A: I just think it's instinctual for me, where I'm trying to hear the melody. It's the attention to my own detail to hear the melody ring. And also, I try to find interesting ways to do a simple lick. Like if it's a simple lick, like for example the lick in "Two Wheel Horse." That's a simple blues lick, and most people, when they hear it, and when people play the song for me, they're usually fingering it wrong. When you hear the lick, the way they finger it is the way one would normally finger that lick. But when it's a simple lick like that, I try to do something to make it sound a little bit offbeat. And I employ a lot of open strings. So I'll take a simple blues lick like that and instead of sliding up a half-step, it might be fretted on the 4th fret, and then an open string on the next string - instead of playing 4th fret, 5th fret. It's almost like a banjo roll type of thing. Like Chet would have done.


Johnny A: Like Chet would have done, exactly. Now does that come from listening to Chet, or from something else.


Johnny A: I think that comes a little bit from listening to Chet, and from wanting to make it not sound like a normal blues lick. I just want it to ring and sound a little different, maybe a little more of a harp-like tone, or effect. That's probably my own ADD (laughs), always tweaking things and even though it's simple, trying to give it its own little unique quality. Well, it certainly has worked well for you. Johnny, thanks again for speaking with us, and have a great time at Muriel Anderson's All Star Guitar Night at NAMM this weekend.


Johnny A: Thanks Adam, and thanks for supporting me and my music.


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 has worked as a guitar tech for Sammy Hagar, and is the author of several guitar and music 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 Article Archive
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