10 questions for John Wesley

Porcupine Tree collaborator on essential guitars and onstage nightmares

10 questions for John Wesley
(Image: © Blake Cortes)

He may be best known for his work with Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree, but John Wesley's longstanding line of solo material has earned its own fervent fanbase, particularly among neo-prog aficionados.

This year marks the guitarist's eighth studio album - a way you'll never be - and with it, a fresh round of '70s-influenced hard-rock riffs and wah-drenched solos that sound classic but never derivative. It's quite a feat.

Here, John lets us in on his storied rig, a serious case of med-induced live trauma and why sometimes putting the guitar down is the best thing for your songwriting…

1. What was your first guitar and when did you get it?

"My first guitar was a $35 Kay acoustic - almost a toy, really, but it tuned up and I was able to start lessons on April 30th 1975."

2. The building's burning down – what one guitar do you save?

"Okay so that's a tough one... I have a list! But if I had to pick just one to save... Years ago, a young artist modelled my hands for sculpture. She made some money off of it and decided to have a guitar built for me as a surprise.

"She grew up in Holland Michigan and happened to know a local builder, so she drew him a picture of the guitar she had a vision of, he adapted it to one of his models and started building. Little did she know that Del Langejans was one of the premier acoustic builders in the world.

"About a year later I was on tour with Marillion as the support act, and as we left a show in Ohio, unbeknownst to me, my guitar had been stolen during the load out. When we arrived in Michigan the next day I found out it was gone, and Steve Rothery kindly offered to lend me his.

I opened the case and there was the most beautiful hand-crafted acoustic guitar I had ever seen. She looked up and said... 'I had this made for you, it took a year...'

"Later that afternoon, I was in a daze from searching for my guitar and calling the police in Ohio. Right about that time, my friend Tas walked in carrying a guitar case. The first thing on my mind was that one of Marillion guys must have mentioned on the radio my guitar had been stolen and Tas must have heard about the theft, then gone out and rented me a guitar.

"She walks over, hands me the case and says, "this is for you". I opened the case and there was the most beautiful hand-crafted acoustic guitar I had ever seen. She looked up and said... 'I had this made for you, it took a year...' True story."

3. Is there a guitar, or piece of gear, that you regret letting go?

"My first real guitar amp: I had a beige 50-watt Marshall JMP head and a 4x12 cabinet in 1977; it was an amp I understood and could make sound amazing with a good guitar and a Rat pedal. I used it for several years, and in the early '80s got talked into trading the 50-watt head for a brand that didn't work for me.

"I went through several amps in the '80s until very early in the '90s when I stumbled basically back into the same type of amp I had let go all those years past. Today, I still tour and play two 1975 Marshall JMPs but in the 100-watt format. I also still tour and record the very same 4x12 cabinet that came with that early head from the '70s. I used that cab to record all the tracks on the new album!"

4. And what's the next piece of gear you'd like to acquire?

"I just ordered a Cymatics LP-16 playback box. I have to play in so many formats now - full band to duo to solo - that I have decided to incorporate some technology to help me expand some of the parts depending on the gig. So I have decided to embrace technology to bring a more intense show."

5. Is there an aspect of guitar playing that you'd like to be better at?

"Aural concepts, really - I would love to be better at hearing something in my head and having it appear under my fingertips, expanding the complexity of what I hear as well as time goes on."

YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLiKRNPl-pc

6. When did you last practise and what did you play?

"Just a few moments ago I finished practising the parts for some of the songs off of the new album - I have some gigs coming up and am working up a set. Practised all day..."

7. If you could have a guitar lesson from one guitarist, dead or alive, who would it be?

"Jeff Beck. He isn't really the kind of guitarist that would give you a 'lesson' per se... but to have a peek into that creative process, that mind. How does he get those sounds out of his head into his hands?"

8. What item of gear would you take with you to a desert island?

My real desert island piece would be my Klon Centaur. I use it on everything

"Well... I would need the guitar and amp to play it through... but my real desert island piece would be my Klon Centaur. I use it on everything."

9. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you onstage?

"Again, how long is the list? But one moment does rise above the rest. I was on tour in Europe supporting Marillion and had a record deal with a French company and they were fairly excited about the album. We were doing two nights in Paris at La Cigale, both shows sold out and my A/R rep had been telling the staff how good my solo shows were going and the president of the label decided to come out on the second night.

"The first night went amazing, but overnight I got sick and woke up with a terrible throat infection. Steve Hogarth from Marillion had gotten sick as well, so they brought in a doctor who gave us several injections, including steroids. I had no voice. I had never blown out before and had no idea how to cope, so I got the bright idea to lower my guitar down a half step, thinking it would be easier on my voice. Bad move.

The meds and the illness had made me delirious… I fell down onstage

"I tried it a bit in soundcheck and it was rough. I went on stage that night, started to sing, and it was horrible. The combination of lost voice and lowered pitch caused me to just barely be able to get anything out, and my tuning went as well. To top it off, the meds and the illness had made me delirious. The stage was really dark and all of Marillion's gear was on the stage around me. In the middle of a song, I took a step back and tripped over Pete [Trewavas]'s Moog synth pedals and fell down onstage.

"After the show, the A/R rep came back freaking out - the president of the label had thought I was drunk. My deal with them didn't go so well after that show!"

10. What advice would you give your younger self about playing the guitar?

"Imagine more. Hear more. Focus your efforts on the music you love instead of chasing music or techniques you think you should play. Play what you love and try to grow from there.

"I remember spending hours on Van Halen techniques only to find I never incorporated them into any of my own solos. As much as I loved Eddie, I didn't 'hear' that kind of music in my head when I created. It took me years to find my 'voice'. When I began chasing my voice, my vision.... everything changed and began to fall into place.

"In the last several years, if I am writing and I get stuck, sometimes I can lay down and close my eyes and start 'hearing' parts in my head. So many parts off of the last few albums were written in my head, hands off of the guitar."

a way you'll never be is out on 7 October via InsideOut Music.