Boston guitar maestro Johnny A is currently busy putting the finishing touches to his forthcoming March 2014 album, Driven. If you haven’t heard or seen Johnny A, do your ears a favor and listen. From slick jazz-motifs to rock licks to inventive cover versions, Johnny is one of modern guitar’s instrumental masters.
In Part 2 of his extensive talk with Gibson.com, Johnny A talks more about his signature Gibson Custom Johnny A model, Bigsbys, his jazz influences, the importance of monitors in the studio and more. For updates, go to JohnnyA.com or Johnny’s Facebook.
Johnny, you have a jazzy style but do you consider yourself a “jazz guitarist?”
“No, not at all. I’m not insulted if someone says that – I’d love to be! – but I don’t have that facility. I sometimes wish I’d studied jazz more. I probably have the dexterity and chops to go there, but I basically love pop music. 1960s British Invasion music is massive for me. The Beatles, The Animals, The Dave Clark 5… I’m a huge Everly Brothers fan. A three minute song that’s complete in such a short period of time, that’s my true love.
“I do listen to a lot of jazz, though. Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell. But I listen to a lot of rock and blues guys too. Jeff Beck, early Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green. And I like country – James Burton, Brad Paisley, all of everything. But I like songs more than anything.”
Did you ever take guitar lessons, though, as your tunes often seem quite complex?
“I’m self-taught. Do I know music theory? Not really. I went to Berklee for half a semester. It was very traditional… I realized soon I didn’t have an interest. I was into Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin at the time. I had no interest in learning “On Green Dolphin Street.”
“I rarely went to the classes, and I failed miserably. But I guess I have an ear for chords and melody. It’s a street sense, I guess.”
You’re a Gibson fan – when did that start?
“My first great guitar was an ES-295. I still play it, I still love it. It’s the ‘Scotty Moore’ guitar, an ES-175 with P-90s and gold. Then I got a Les Paul… I don’t like to change guitars when I play live. I like, if I can, to play one guitar all night. I have a few, as I use open tunings on some songs, but I like to play just one guitar if I can.”
And was that the ethos for your Gibson Custom Signature?
“Yes. It can do mellow, like “Wichita Lineman,” and it can scream for a song like “Jimi Jam.” My signature was designed to do all that. It’s a design that tries to combine the best of other guitars I have – my Gibson Les Pauls, my Gibson ES-295.”
Your Gibson Custom signature is quite a bold design…
“Yeah, it’s totally hollow. And it’s all solid wood, no laminates. I wanted it to have that percussive sound, which is why it has a 25.5-inch scale and an ebony fretboard. But I needed it to scream like a Les Paul when I wanted, and it does that, too.
“It was the first ground-up design that Gibson had done for an artists since, I think, 1961. The double Florentine cutaways are similar to a Barney Kessel model, but that wasn’t the intention. I just wanted full access to the neck. Even on a Les Paul, getting to the high-end on the bass side is tricky because of the upper bout, right? I love ES-335s, but the neck joins the body at the 19th fret, and 335s are big guitars with a 16-inch body.
“I’m 5-foot 6-and-a-half, I’m a small guy. An ES-336 is smaller, but even that’s hard for me to get great top fret access because of the shape of the cutaways. It’s personal preference. Florentine cutaways just work better for me.”
A 25.5-inch scale length on a Gibson electric isn’t common, though…
“With my guitar’s scale length, there’s a lot of separation in the strings, chords sound very distinct, and it rings really well. I just love it. I’m very lucky to have worked with Gibson and have Gibson make the guitars for me.”
And you have a Bigsby on your main signature models. Why?
“I just love Bigsbys. I feel they are akin to a vocalist’s vibrato. Totally expressive, but in a subtle way. Almost everything I do involves a Bigsby.
“The Bigsby use came from my dad. He had an old ‘50s Gretsch that had a Bigsby. It helped me find my voice as a guitar player. I grew up, pretty much, as a wannabe ‘60s blues-rock player - British Invasion again. But I grew into a more melodic approach and I wanted my own sound. I’ve had so many guitars over the years.
“A Bigsby is a pretty primitive piece of equipment. You have to muscle it to get the best out of it. But that’s OK. A Bigsby is maybe not capable of doing what a Fender, Floyd Rose or Paul Reed Smith vibrato does, but that’s not important. To me, those are too extreme. A Bigsby has a lot of mass to it, and you have to ‘travel’ more to get the effect. But I love that.”
You use KRK monitors – with your direct recording methods, are monitors particularly important?
“I use KRK, but I use a lot of monitors – they’re my main monitors as much as many others. If you’re in the studio, mixing, you need several reference points, I think. You can’t rely on any one tone-print to make an intelligent decision. But KRKs are great. I have about five sets of monitors.
“The way I record, direct with speaker emulation, you need a true flat-response monitor. If you’re not standing in-front of a Marshall, Tweed Deluxe, or AC-30 and not hearing the speakers, you need good monitors to assess what your amplifier is really producing. So good monitors are really important to me.”
What your plans to tour when Driven is released?
“I’m always doing gigs. But I’ve been light on shows recently because of making this album, but I’m now looking to get out again. I may add a second guitarist to tour this record, as it’s a little more involved. I need someone to cover acoustic parts, rhythm electric, even trigger some sounds that I’ve got on this album – strings, horns, stuff like that.
“Everything I do is with the hope that it lasts. I hope that if you put on an album of mine in 10-years’ time it still sounds fresh. Sometimes there’s a new guitar hero ‘face.’ But it can be like candy. Eat it all and it’s sweet… but eventually you spit it out because it’s too sweet, too much!
“I don’t want to be candy. Maybe popcorn? Not so intense, but you know you still love it!”
Read The Gibson Interview: Johnny A (Part 1).
Visit JohnnyA.com or Johnny’s Facebook for more.