Don’t let John5’s stage persona fool you. Underneath that peroxide-white hair, sinister colored contact lenses and high-priest-of-evil wardrobe breathes one impressive and versatile guitarist. True, the Michigan-born guitarist (real name John Lowery) is most well-known for his 5-plus years as guitarist for the notorious Marilyn Manson, during which time he adopted the requisite ghoul costume that comes standard with the shock-metal band.
But take a deeper look into his background, and you discover he not only played with Rob Halford and David Lee Roth (not surprising), he has toured with k.d.lang (very surprising). Which seems to say there’s something more than stage spectacle going on. Indeed, consider the praise recently heaped on him from both Steve Vai and Les Paul. (After jamming with John5 at his one of his weekly New York dates, Paul was impressed enough to invite the guitarist to perform at a Christmas show.) Then there’s the John5 Telecaster signature model from Fender, and they don’t just hand those things out like new AOL discs.
John5’s six-string skill mix finally gets its public due with his new solo instrumental CD, Vertigo (Shrapnel). Loaded with the blistering metallic riffery and frenetic soloing you’d expect from Marilyn Manson’s former guitarist, the CD is also a showcase for John’s “country-metal” stylings. Atomic chicken pickin’ and pedal steel-like train drones on arrangements of “Sugar Foot Rag,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” and others will make you swear he’s got a cowboy hat in his closet.
We recently spoke with John5 about his new solo career.
Vintage Guitar: What spurred you to record a solo album? And why an instrumental guitar album? They’ve never burned up the charts.
John5: When I was on the road last year with Manson on our world tour, I had three family members die. And it hit me like a truck, literally freaked me out for days. In the midst of it all, I decided I wanted to do something for myself, and I decided to do a solo record. I wanted to accomplish something under my name, “while I’m still on the planet” kinda thing. And not just a “solo” record, an instrumental record. Because most people didn’t know I could play anything other than (Manson’s) “Beautiful People.”
I thought it’d be good to release this record now because some people know my name, so it’d have a chance to actually get out there and be heard. And then hopefully the reaction is, “Oh my god, I had no idea he could play that way…” type of thing.
People are definitely going to be surprised when they hear the country-styled tracks on Vertigo.
When you hear “Needles, CA.,” the first track, you’re like, “Okay, this makes sense, it hard-rocking, it’s mean, it’s aggressive.” Then when you hear “Sugar Foot Rag,” you’re like, “Hmmm.” And “Sugar Foot Rag” and the other country arrangements are what everyone seems to gravitate to. Because everyone’s heard hard rock instrumental songs from hard rock players like me, but when you put in a real country song – well, maybe more exactly, songs with real country riffs, not rock licks countrified, that throws you for a loop.
What’s the scoop as far as recording, players, etc.?
When I got off tour this past January, I started writing and recording with Kevin Savigar, who’s played a long time with Rod Stewart. We recorded the record in 21/2 months. It was amazingly smooth and fast. Billy Sherwood, who has played with Yes, produced some of the country tracks and played bass.
How did you decide on the album’s direction? Did you have any kind of a road map?
I didn’t want the songs too long and I didn’t want all rock songs, because I didn’t want the listener to get bored. On instrumental records, you usually get one thing, that’s it, there you go. So I started thinking, “How can I keep people from getting bored? Make all the songs uptempo, not make them too long, don’t repeat licks, and – especially – change up the style of music.”
And that’s exactly what I did. All the guitar parts were pretty much doubled, which was really tough, too, like Randy Rhoads used to do. That’s what I did to make it sound thick.
What’s your playing background? When did you develop an interest in country music?
I was six years old and watching “Hee Haw” with my father. I saw a young kid come on and he played his banjo like I had never seen. I mean, when you’re young, you’re impressed when you see a kid stand on his hands or something. But this kid played banjo, [it] was just amazing. I was like, “That’s what I want to do!” So I started playing guitar, and I was learning some country stuff. But then I discovered Jimi Hendrix and Kiss and Van Halen, and I was going “Alright!‘ I’m gonna play Van Halen I, dressed up like Ace Frehley, and I’m gonna put an Afro on to look like Jimi Hendrix.” I wanted to be those three guys so bad (laughs). And I was pretty much that character for 15 years. Then years later, in the mid ’90s, I went on tour with k.d. lang, and I played with Larry Campbell, an amazing musician who plays pedal steel, mandolin, fiddle, everything basically, and he practiced like I practiced, literally hours and hours every day, and it really inspired me.
So for a while all I did was study, study, study bluegrass, Western swing, and old country. I hardly slept because I really want to be able to play like that. I wanted it to be real. But I never really played it for anybody.
Well, a few. I’ve got another cool story related to that. Manson was playing Ozzfest, and I kinda tested myself. I decided to play some country riffs backstage. Korn was back there, and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), and all these bands. I played some hard rock stuff, and people were like, “Oh, cool,” whatever. And then I started playing the country riffs, and all those guys went nuts. And I was like, “You know what? We’ve got something here.” And playing that country stuff is really re-learning the guitar for rock players. It’s different scales, most of it’s in majors, and the riffs are different. It’s been a real challenge, and I’ve totally loved it.
What was your first guitar?
My first guitar was a Stratocaster, which I got because I loved Jimi Hendrix, I loved his whole vibe. My mom got me a ’77 Stratocaster, cream, like Hendrix’s, but with a black pickguard. It was kind of an odd-looking Strat. That’s what I really learned on. And now the funny thing is, I’m not really a Strat man, because once I started seeing pictures of Keith Richards with his Telecaster, I immediately wanted one of those. I got my first Tele when I was 14 or 15, and I just loved everything about the instrument. It was like “This is my instrument.” It really started my love for the Telecaster. And now I have about 30 of them.
This is a perfect point to talk about your guitar collection.
Let’s see, I have a beautiful blond ’66 Esquire with a rosewood fingerboard. I have a ’61 gold sparkle Esquire, which is really nice and really rare. I have a ’68 blond with a white pickguard and maple cap. A ’69 Thinline, a beautiful, beautiful ’71 Telecaster, it just looks like it just came out of the store. I have a beautiful ’72 Telecaster Deluxe, a beautiful ’73 Fender Custom with the humbucker, and a ’78 Antigua. My dream is to get a Telecaster from each year. SG-wise, I have a ’61 and ’62, the ’61 is the Les Paul Junior. I have about eight or nine Les Pauls. I have close to 80 guitars now.
Fill us in on the John5 signature Fender Telecaster.
It’s black with a rosewood fingerboard, and the headstock is different, it’s the first time they’ve changed the Telecaster headstock in 50 years. It’s really cool; chrome pickguard and hardware. [One Custom Shop version] has a Seymour Duncan Hot Rail bridge pickup and the headstock is carved out so you can do the behind-the-nut bends. It has a Bigsby, and white binding. The other models have a Fender Enforcer Humbucker bridge pickup, no Bigsby, and a pickup toggle switch.
The headstock looks like a mean mofo. But you can play country music with it, or you can go onstage with Manson.
How did the deal with Fender come about?
I was endorsing Ibanez for a while, and playing in all those hard rock bands – and you don’t really play Telecasters with Halford or David Lee Roth or Manson. I was at a NAMM show, and Ibanez didn’t have my picture up with all their other endorsers. I thought, “Hmmm, that’s weird.” Then I walked by the Fender booth and they had this huge picture of me playing a Telecaster, one of the couple times I played one with Halford, actually up on the wall! So we started talking and they knew my playing style was broader than the Manson stuff, and they said they wanted to give me my own signature line. I was like, absolutely. I was pretty much signing contracts with Fender a week later.
What was the design process like? How involved were you?
I had a big part in it, which was so cool. I worked with Mike Eldred, Richard McDonald, Red Dave, and Chris Fleming. I hung out a lot with them, we’d go to lunch and have fun and talk about the guitar, what we wanted from it, how we wanted it to look, etc. And it came out just exactly how we all thought it would. Those guys have been making guitars forever, and they all had great ideas. It came about so perfectly. It’s a well-built, beautiful guitar. You know, playing live with Manson, it’s brutal out there. Sometimes you have people throwing syringes at you and all kinds of crap, and you gotta watch out. (Laughs) I’ve been hit with everything, and that guitar’s been a good shield. The ol’ Tele has saved my life a few times.
Talk about jamming with Les Paul. That had to be a thrill.
Last summer, I was in New York and saw Les Paul. And he invited me up onstage. And we jammed, and I did my crazy rock stuff, and then I did some country stuff. I was so nervous, it was just him with a stand-up bass and a piano player; you wouldn’t have been able to hide behind the drums or anything, you know? But I put out this country stuff and he seemed to be truly into it. He invited me to play at his Christmas show, and I was so blown away. That experience was the one single thing that ultimately inspired me to get this record finished and out.
Now I wanna try and make one each year for as long as I can, as long as people will allow me to make them. And each is going to be crazier then the other. I’m already three songs into the new one.
What’s the story on the split with Manson? Did you have a big blowup?
(laughs) At the end of the last tour, I decided I really wanted to do this solo thing and that I had to devote all my time to it. The split with Manson was totally amicable. It wasn’t one of those big breakups. We’re friends. I wish there was some good dirt, but there’s not (laughs)!
What are your plans for the next year?
I’m focusing on my stuff at the moment. But let’s face it, putting out instrumental rock records, I’m not going to be living the high life. So I also have a rock radio-ish band called Loser, with good songs, a great singer, and strong players, that’s kinda going to pay the bills. That’s the plan. But I swear, as long as I can make these instrumental records, I will. And I might be a little spoiled, but I really get the best of both worlds.
Are you going to do any solo live dates?
I want to try and do dates with certain acts, I’d love to open some shows for someone like Steve Vai or Black Label Society. I want to get on a good bill rather than doing a small solo club tour. And that might take until the second record or so, but I really want to get out there and make as big a spectacle of it as I can (laughs). Maybe I’ll have, like, six guitar players onstage at the same time, something weird. Maybe have the drummer look like a robot. You know, good clean fun.
Don’t you do session work in Los Angeles? You stay pretty busy from what I can tell.
Yeah, I do a lot of session work. And I write with a lot of artists, as well. I’m a staff writer at Chrysalis. But that’s why I’m doing Loser, because I thought, “I’m writing for so many other artists, why not write for myself and make it the best I can.”
But wouldn’t it be funny if everything failed on all levels, and I’m broke and in the gutter (laughs)! But I’m doing everything I want to do this year, so I’m really happy.
The John5 Telecaster
Fender’s John5 Telecaster is available in three versions, including two from the Fender Custom Shop.
The standard model is equipped with a Fender Enforcer humbucking pickup in the bridge position.
The Custom Shop J5 HB model boasts a double-bound ash body with a shaved maple neck with rosewood fingerboard. It’s equipped with an Enforcer humbucking bridge pickup, hard-tail bridge, and two-volume wiring with a three-way toggle switch.
The Custom Shop J5 Bigsby features a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails humbucking bridge pickup and a Bigsby-licensed vibrato tailpiece.
All three guitars employ a Custom Shop
Twisted Tele neck pickup, a three-way pickup selector switch, chrome hardware, and a radical new headstock finished in black with an over/under modified Tele XII shape, a bound top, chromed brass pickguard,chrome switch tip, and dot fretboard markers.
Neck Maple ’60s C-shape
Machine heads Fender/Schaller Deluxe staggered cast/sealed machines
Fingerboard Rosewood, 12″ radius
Bridge American Tele six-saddle humbucker bridge with chromed brass saddles or Bigsby vibrato tailpiece.
Pickup Switching Three-position toggle.
Pickguard 1-ply chrome
Scale Length 25.5″ (648 mm)
Width at Nut 1.6875″ (43 mm)
Photo by Rick Gould
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.