John 5: these are the 10 guitarists who blew my mind
It’s a January morning and John 5 is at home working on a new lick that he says “sounds like a broken computer”.
Intrigued by the notion of such mechanical discombobulation in sonic form, we can’t resist asking to hear it. The guitarist plays his latest creation down the phone to MusicRadar and, sure enough, it lives up to expectation – using wide intervals, right-hand taps and chromatics to give the impression of a robot in distress. It could be said that few guitarists are as bravely and brilliantly inventive.
But this is no ordinary axeman, himself having played for big names such as k.d. lang, Rob Halford, David Lee Roth and Marilyn Manson before eventually settling down as Rob Zombie’s right-hand man.
“I love and cherish new licks,” explains John 5. “I try to find a new one every other day – I’ll come up with something, spend two days to practising to get it down and then go on looking for more.
"I try putting them all in songs so I never forget them. That actually helps so much; like a lot of guitar players, I have my security licks – so instead of relying on similar ones, I want to have all sorts of types at my disposal. It might be string skipping or tapping or just some weird noises, it doesn’t matter to me - I just find it fun!”
The guitarist is talking to MusicRadar to promote latest release It’s Alive! with solo band The Creatures – 17 tracks recorded spontaneously at Pennsylvania’s Sellersville Theater in April 2017.
Unlike the more heavy metal inspired riffing involved with the day job, it revolves around more fretboard acrobatics with less distortion - a scenario which often separates the amateurs from the pros...
“It’s a lot of work to pull it off perfectly - you are really, really naked up there!” he laughs. “I concentrate and work on that more than anything. I love that style of playing, so when we do that live - and the record is 100% live - I made sure I practised a lot with the band.
“I wanted to sound very traditional, like a band playing back in the '50s or '60s. And that’s the fun part about playing with The Creatures: there’s a lot of work involved. We tend to play a lot of shows in a row, we play this game with each other to see how perfect we can get it.
"What a great opportunity it was when we got told there was a recording facility at the venue and were asked if we wanted to cut it live. The answer was, ‘Absolutely!’ and that’s how it all came about.”
For the live shows with the solo band, the guitarist chose to strip his rig right down to the core minimum. He’s the first to admit the venues differed greatly to the festivals and arenas he’s used to headlining with Rob Zombie, and the same could be said for the music itself…
“You know, for this I wanted to keep my setup really simple. It’s just Telecasters going into a 100-Watt Marshall JVM, which I also use for my mandolin, too – it sounds great. There’s a Boss Super Overdrive, with a Noise Suppressor to cut some of the unwanted sounds out, and I used a digital delay for Hell Haw for that slapback kinda sound, and that’s basically it.
“The only other thing about my rig with The Creatures was that I ran everything through an iso-cab. I wanted my sound controlled like that, because you know what? We don’t have a soundman - we can’t really afford to bring one! We just go into these venues and at the moment this is a small thing… hopefully turning into a big thing.”
Here, the session master tells us about the 10 guitarists who blew his mind…
John 5 And The Creatures' new live album, It's Alive!, is out now.
1. Eddie Van Halen
“The first time I heard Eddie playing, I was shocked… I couldn’t believe my ears! It must have been the first album because that’s what my teacher gave to me. And right from the get-go, it was unbelievable. He had it all – the playing, the tone, the songs – and that’s why I was completely blown away.
“I must have heard it when it came out, though I was really quite young at the time. I loved KISS so much and remember it said Gene Simmons somewhere on the back, which made me even more intrigued about this guitar player… who, of course, would go on to change my life!”
2. Scotty Anderson
“I don’t think a lot of people know about Scotty Anderson, but he’s someone that really influenced me a lot over the years. Seriously, you all have to look him up if you haven’t heard of him… he’s absolutely mind-melting. It will be like seeing something you’ve never even imagined before.
“I would say the reason for that is because he’s like the Yngwie Malmsteen of country! You will look at his hands and think, ‘What the hell is going on there?!’ He doesn’t use a pick, he just plays with his fingers and the sounds that come out are simply incredible.”
3. Yngwie Malmsteen
“Of course, Yngwie has been a huge influence on me since very early on. I actually first heard Yngwie when he was in Alcatrazz on the radio, back when they played only one hour of metal.
"The moment he came into the song was pretty inspiring to say the least, because back then, there was just nothing like that.
“So obviously after hearing that I would get stuck into Rising Force, Marching Out, Trilogy, Odyssey and all the rest as soon as they would come out. His playing has always been so fluid, and I think that’s what I really enjoyed about it.
"It’s like there’s no effort involved, almost as if it was the same as walking or breathing to him. Those early albums especially, they were all ridiculously effortless!”
4. Paul Gilbert
“Paul was another one who took that style to another place. He chose to use more string skipping in his arpeggios to make them very musical… it wasn’t just crazy, crazy shredding. I think that’s really important.
"Say, with Van Halen, not only was Eddie an amazing guitarist and inventor, he was a brilliant songwriter. That’s what Paul brought to it too; he was just a brilliant composer.
“From Mr. Big to all the Racer X stuff, I really am a big fan of Paul’s and he’s had such a big influence on me. That’s really important – there are so many amazing guitar players out there but maybe we’ll never discover them because there’s no songs or music behind it.”
5. Joe Maphis
“Now Joe is someone that I got a lot of my style from. Sure, there’s that crazy metal shredding thing in my set, but a lot of it is also in his style. The guy was really fast, just blazing away back in the 50s…
“Him and Scotty Anderson are two country players that will really impress any rock guys reading this… what they were doing back then was insane. At that time, Joe was like the Eddie Van Halen of country rock guitar.”
6. Ace Frehley
“Ace Frehley is quite possibly the reason I ended up playing guitar. I was really into [American television show] Monsters, and then I got into KISS because it felt like Monsters with guitars.
"He just looked so cool and played so cool… and when you think about it, cool is a really hard word to describe, almost like the colour red. You can’t seem to put your finger on why it fits…
“He was such a big influence on me, and I still love him today. I think that goes for any musician – ask anybody, even Paul McCartney, who their heroes are and he’d probably say someone like Little Richard or whoever. You never forget the people that got you started and Ace Frehley was very much the guy for me.”
7. Chet Atkins
“When it comes to that whole Western Swing style of picking, you’re doing the basslines and melody lines at the same time. I utilise that approach on the live album, it’s on Jiffy Jam and Hell Haw.
"He was a big influence because he kinda invented a whole different style, worlds apart from anything else on this list or anything that came before him. He was one of the true pioneers. There was Merle Travis but Chet took it to this whole other level.
“Take any rock player, they might be absolutely amazing, if you get them to check out guys like Scotty Anderson and ask them to learn a solo… it would probably take them years rather than months. I say that because it’s such a different technique… he still has that burning Paul Gilbert speed, but there’s no pick; it’s all with the fingers on his right hand.”
8. Steve Vai
“I mean, what a musician! He’s an amazing guitar player and inspiration to not just me but us all as guitarists. The solos, the songs, the technique and the emotion in what he’s put out is pretty much unbeatable. His fierce overall musicianship really did change my life big-time.
“Passion And Warfare was my record. I wore it out because of the pure perfection about it, from the songs to the chord changes to the production. It really, really is something else.”
9. Jerry Reed
“Even if you think you don’t know who Jerry Reed is, you probably still will. If you’ve ever seen the movie Smokey And The Bandit – the Bandit’s partner who is driving in a truck with a dog called Fred is played by Jerry Reed.
"He’s a very successful actor; he was in The Waterboy with Adam Sandler and been on every television show you could imagine. Everyone knows Jerry Reed, but mostly they should know him for his unbelievable guitar playing.
“He’s one of the most incredible guitar players of all time, especially when it comes to fingerpicking. Jiffy Jam is one of his songs; I also covered a song called Jerry’s Breakdown on one of my records [Careful With That Axe, 2014].
"He’s another guy that didn’t use a pick - he just did it all with his fingers. It’s an incredible technique. My believe is that if you can get that down as well as using a pick, you’re doing really, really well. Some situations ask for fingers, others call for a pick; it just depends on how the music sits.”
10. Al Di Meola
“He’s a real genius and an unbelievable player that’s been doing it for as long as I can remember, but has always been blazing the whole time. Friday Night In San Francisco? Oh my god, that is one life-changing record right there…
“Playing that fast on an acoustic really is something else. You can only do that if you have the technique 100% down. He’s the perfect person to end this list that really comes from the heart. All of these guys really did change my life!”