Sometimes, great players go too unnoticed — even in the Internet age. Johnny A is one. A supreme talent, Johnny is one of the best instrumental guitar players you’ll likely hear, but he’s still not a household name. 2014 could and should change that. He melds jazz, blues and rock with deftness, all with a delicately lyrical touch and great tone.
Gibson.com asked Boston-born Johnny about his forthcoming new album, recording methods, guitars and how to cover classic songs….
Johnny, you recently posted that your new album is “wrapped.” Tell us about it…
“We have two songs left to mix, then it’s mastering with Bob Ludwig. This album is a real departure from the way I’ve done things in the past. Mastering is a real key process in the release of a recording. I’ve worked with Bob before when I co-produced an album with Peter Wolf (of the J Geils Band) in 1996, so working with Bob again is brilliant. He’s worked with over 1500 artists – from the Stones, to Bon Jovi to Dylan to Sting — he’s been there and done it.”
When is the album out?
“March 2014. The album is called Driven. It started out as I usually make albums – bring a rhythm section in and cut new tunes for a couple of days. And work with an engineer in a studio I like. But this time, I changed.
“I’ve tracked this whole record in my house. I have a walk-out area in the lower level of my house which is about 1400 square feet, and it’s been rebuilt. It has odd walls, curved walls… not a place you would normally think would be good aurally. But it was. The engineer I was first working with told me how John Mayer recorded his first album in his producer’s house. And that was a successful record, right? So we went with home recording. I got a big SSL console and, in the end, I engineered all the tracks myself. I mixed it, too.
“I haven’t used other musicians much at all. I play guitar, drums and bass on everything. I wrote 17 songs for the record, it’s down to 11. There were a couple of covers in there, songs that inspire me from my youth. In the end, there’s one cover on the album, 10 originals.”
A truly “solo” record like this must be hard work?
“It’s laborious, yes. I’ve worked on this for a year, at least. I’m not ‘intellectually’ attached to gear: I just know how to twist knobs and get a great tone. I’m not a guy that reads a manual! Back in school days, I never did my homework but I still got B+s without too much work. It’s just how I am.
“So, I got all this gear, digital and analog, and I just worked it. But I’m a freak about sound, so that’s all fun. Tweaking, tweaking tweaking!”
What’s your guitar recording set-up?
“Well, I’m still playing my Gibson Johnny A Signature models, they’re on every track. But I used a Firebird VII, a Les Paul, a Gibson Chet Atkins SST, a Rickenbacker, my Gibson ES-295…. Those guitars are generally for color.
“I don’t use any speakers. All my albums are recorded direct. I use a Marshall 30th Anniversary amp but it has an XLR connector in the back and I generally run that straight into a ‘60s Neve console, a 1058. Pretty rare, I think. For Driven, I’m using Logic software, not Pro Tools, but that’s it. So the whole album has been quite a journey, I’m not sure I knew what I was biting off! I’m nearly there now.”
Your last album/DVD, One November Night, was live – this is obviously a big change in approach?
“One November Night was a bridge record, I think. To turn the page from where I was to where I wanted to go. I had a great ensemble on that, but it was time for a change. It was good to capture that, though. There was no doctoring on overdubs on that at all.”
You say there’s one cover tune — care to say what it is?
“I’d rather not say! People like to leak stuff on Facebook or whatever, but I’m old-school. I always liked waiting for the new Beatles or Jeff Beck album and finding a surprise. So, that’s what you’re getting — a surprise. That song by Buggles, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” is kinda true. There’s too much leaking these days.”
OK, so how do you approach a cover version? In the past you’ve done Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” - uptempo and jazzy. You’ve done “Wichita Lineman” - pretty faithful to the Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell version…
“I just choose songs I love. It’s like riding a motorcycle and you smell fresh-cut grass… it reminds you of being 10 years old on a baseball field, or whatever. It brings you back, same things with songs. I can be driving along in my car and my iPod shuffles onto a song from ’66, or whenever. I think: I could do that song.
“The way I produce or perform songs always differs. “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell is a pretty mournful song, but there’s brightness in the melody. When I started working on that, I didn’t even have a Glen Campbell version of that song. I kinda figured it out from memory. I eventually bought a Greatest Hits of Glen’s to work it out.
“At the same time I bought Jimmy Webb’s Ten Easy Pieces – duets and solo versions of his own songs. On Jimmy’s own version I was struck that “Wichita Lineman” was slow — it mirrored my take on it, even though I’d never heard his own version. So that was interesting, how people see songs.
“I got a nice call from Jimmy Webb later, saying mine was his favorite version of “Wichita Lineman.” That struck me, as there’s no lyrics on mine!”
And you covered Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” in quite a bold fashion?
“Well, yeah. How do you cover a Jimi Hendrix song? It’s always going to be hard, the guy is so revered. For example, The Smithereens did a recent album covering early Beatles, and it captured the spirit. But it sounded too much the same, to me. Trying to step into the shoes of artists like that? I’m not down with it. So, for “The Wind Cries Mary” — a signature song of Jimi’s, to me — I had to make it different. I’m not going to go toe-to-toe with the original. That would be kinda silly.
“But the song has been part of my live playlist for years, so we did it. It’s a familiar tune but I was trying to set myself apart from other quote/unquote “guitar heroes” and it worked.
“For “The Wind Cries Mary” I was into this quirky, lounge-y West Coast vibe. Over the years, the sound I’ve got playing that song has got bigger. But the new record is 180-degree turn from my first records. They have a lot of shuffles, swing, even the backbeat had some swing. This new album, Driven, is really backbeat — in the groove.”
Are you still happy working as an instrumental guitar player with no singer?
“I am. I’m trying to become a guitarist as a vocalist, if that makes sense? Les Paul and Chet Atkins still inspire me in that way. The way those guys played — to me, they were ‘singers’ with a guitar. So that’s the path I want to take, but without being retro. Well-crafted arrangements, good tone, with the guitar as the singer. That’s what I’m after.
“I’ve never tried to compete with the Joe Satriani/Jeff Beck routine. Those guys are so great at what they do, why bother? Even if I did it, I’d be Johnny-come-lately or an also-ran. So what’s the sense?
“I want to be like the guy in the piano bar: sit there in the corner and create the whole song myself. I want to be the anti anti-guitar hero I guess!”
In Part 2 of our Gibson.com interview, Johnny A talks in-depth about his unique Gibson Johnny A Signature model, Bigsbys, jazz inspirations and much more.