Since ditching his spot backing alternative-metal singer Marilyn Manson 10 years ago, superhuman guitarist John 5 has used his skills to spread the gospel of guitar far and wide while artfully dodging the pigeonhole of “rock shredder.”
At just 17 years of age, John Lowery moved to Los Angeles from his Michigan home. There, he found work as a session guitarist and gigs with bassist Rudy Sarzo and producer Bob Marlette, through whom he recorded TV and movie soundtracks as well as themes for commercials.
Marlette also introduced him to Lita Ford, who hired Lowery for her band. In 1996, he just missed getting a gig with Manson, but took a gig with Judas Priest front man Rob Halford’s side project, 2wo. Shortly thereafter, he sent a handful of songs to former Van Halen front man David Lee Roth, who was sufficiently impressed to hire Lowery to play on the 1998 release, DLR Band. which includes seven songs co-written by the guitarist, including the hit “Slam Dunk.” Later that year, Manson dismissed guitarist Timothy Linton (stage name Zim Zum), and called to offer the spot to Lowery.
It was there Lowery experienced his first real dose of rock-star fame. Adopting the stage name John 5, he was aboard as Manson’s performing career reached its apex, and he stayed on through 2004.
After leaving Manson, he turned his attention to writing songs for himself and others, including as a member of Chrysalis Records’ staff. In 2005, he began playing in the band backing Rob Zombie; that gig continues today and led to his scoring of Zombie’s acclaimed horror films.
The new studio album, Careful With That Axe, may deal the death blow to the notion that Lowery is simply a Tele-wielding metalhead. He describes the disc – seventh solo effort on his resumé – as chock full of “crazy stuff.” The de rigueur metal-infused explorations are present, but there are also enough Telecaster-inspired licks to conjure the ghost of Jerry Reed. And that’s not all! You dig hearing a banjo? Mr. 5 has some licks for you, too. A bit of classical/Spanish guitar, perhaps? Done.
“There were no rules, and what you hear on the album is the music I like to play at home,” he says. “It describes who I am, and is exactly what I want to do.”
Its title, he notes, derives from his first days enjoying the feel of a guitar (a blond ’77 Strat) in his hands. “I thought, ‘What will this instrument do? Where will it take me?’
“Much of the album is attributed to the people I loved growing up, such as Jerry Reed, and there are references to songs I listened to as a kid – there’s touches of Al Di Meola, Clarence White, and the Spanish stuff. It was all being played in my house when I started on guitar. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I enjoyed it. And it was the inspiration for the album title; the song titles are references to axe murderers – like ‘Portrait of Sidney Sloane’ – which keeps it fun and interesting. There are no songs called ‘Wood Tree,’ you know? They all have a deeper meaning, and as a grouping they’re about what happens when you get that guitar in your hands. What will it bring you? That’s what it means, even it sounds like something terrible.”
Any similarity to the Pink Floyd tune “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” he says, is pure coincidence. “Mine means something a little cooler (laughs)! Because it is a guitar record.”
When you compose, is there a particular element that tends to draw your focus? For instance, the intro, the main melody, or the solo?
No, it’s more like I think, “I want to do a rock tune,” or something like that, and I start to pick a riff and try to make it interesting for myself, first, and see how far I can take it. With my solo albums, I want to push the boundaries. I want to inspire young players like I was inspired. Traveling the world, people say to me, “I started playing guitar because I heard you,” or “I’m playing a Telecaster because of you,” and that’s what’s most important. I don’t do it for the money. It’s for the pure enjoyment of the instrument.
Do melodies randomly pop into your head?
Yes. I write for so many people, so the easy part are the melodies, and I think this record is… it has melody of course, but it doesn’t rely on melodies as much as my other records. This one is pretty much full-blown craziness.
Which tracks will draw the most interest from your longtime fans?
Well, I think “This Is My Rifle” and “Jerry’s Breakdown” will give them both of the things I really enjoy doing, and what fans really enjoy. I love Jerry Reed, so hopefully people will check out some of the players I love, like Joe Maphis, who was a monster, but a lot people don’t know who he is. I try to educate other players on who these greats were.
As the album came together, were there creative elements that surprised even you, or maybe sent you in a direction you had never taken?
Yes. Incorporating the bass the way we did. I told [bassist] Matt Bissonette, “Go completely crazy and just really play.” I love when bass players kinda overplay along with the guitar, and his playing on the record is absolutely ridiculous!
This was definitely a band effort; on other albums, someone would come in and I was more like, “Stay out of my way!” But this is definitely a band situation, and it was incredible, because there’s so much going on; even on songs like “Jiffy Jam” or “El Cucuy,” it’s all live – everything – which is really cool. I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed, and we recorded it live, which you can really hear. I posted a video of us playing “This Is My Rifle” on youtube; at that time, Matt was on tour with Elton John, so we brought in Dylan Wilson, who was great. It got 30,000 views the first day. I love playing this stuff live. It’s very exciting.
How did you get hooked up with Matt and drummer Rodger Carter?
I’ve known Rodger for a long time; I met him when we were playing with Lita Ford back in ’92 or ’93 and we’ve stayed close. At that time, we were all scrounging for work, didn’t understand how the music business worked, and he was the guy who had a house and a studio in his back yard. He is so smart, and he’s a great drummer. So, we did all the work for Careful With That Axe at his studio. He’s had Def Leppard, Glen Campbell – all sorts of people – in his studio, which he built. It’s beautiful – Doghouse Studios.
I met Matt through David Lee Roth, and he’s really close with Rodger. He’s one of the greats, so I wanted him on the record.
Matt’s work with Roth involved some heavy guitar-and-bass syncopation. Do you do some of that on Careful?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I was going for, and you can hear him riffing right along with me. It puts a smile on my face just thinking about it!
Given your preparedness going in and preference for recording the songs while you’re all in the room together, were the songs mostly done in a take or two?
Believe it or not, yes. I rehearsed my ass off at home; in the studio, I was paying the guys an hourly rate, so I wanted to be very prepared. We were so well-rehearsed that everything came together in one or two takes.
You paying Matt and Rodger hourly implies the album was self-financed…
Yeah, everything came out of my pocket, which is the new way of the music business. If you know how, you can mix, master, record, shoot photos – all that stuff – yourself.
Which guitars and amps did you use most?
I used my gold [signature model] Telecaster on 95 percent of the album, and overdubbed just a few parts with some of my other John 5 models. I wanted to keep it so simple and capture something magical.
The amp I used most was this little Marshall JTM 2×12 combo. It’s heavy as hell – it should be called “Scoliosis” because it’s so heavy. I’m not exaggerating! It’s like carrying a cabinet with a head on top of it. But, it sounds great – so good, in fact, I’m contemplating how I could have it carted around.
The overall mix seems pretty light on effects…
There’s hardly any effects on it. I used my Boss Super Overdrive. There’s a song called “Villisca” where you hear a lot of weird sounds, but I did it that with my hands – I’ll bounce the low-E string off the neck pickup to create this cool sound. And, I have a bypass button on the guitar.
Simply using the guitar is very important to me. I love walking into a music store or a friend’s music room with a cord into an amp. Some players, you ask them, “Hey, you wanna jam?” and they’ll say, “Yeah, I’ll have cartage send my stuff over.” I’m like, “Dude, just bring a pick! It’ll be good.”
What’s the classical guitar we hear on “El Cucuy?”
It’s a Martin nylon-string, and I did the fast leads on my [steel-string] D-45. I think the track is cool – the title means “boogie man” in Spanish. I love that kind of music, it’s just so cool. It’s such an art form, and I’ll never stop learning about it. I love playing like that and really studying it, because it’s so far away from bluegrass or fingerstyle, Western swing… it’s like learning another language or something with completely different motor skills. It’s very interesting.
Do you remember your first exposure to flamenco?
For some reason my mom really enjoyed it, and I remember seeing Charro play classical guitar on a TV talk show.
Is there any correlation between that song and the story behind Eddie Van Halen recording “Spanish Fly” to address naysayers who dismissed “Eruption” by saying, “Turn the amp up and anybody can sound fast.”?
I could see where someone might think there was some of that, and Eddie Van Halen was a huge inspiration, but “Spanish Fly” was never really part of it, for me.
Again, we did the song live. It doesn’t sound great – I think the miking wasn’t great on the guitar, but I thought, “You know what? It’s such a solid performance and everybody did so well. Let’s keep it.”
Which banjo did you use on “Jiffy Jam”?
It’s a Deering six-string model that was later stolen from my house, which just kills me. They took a bunch of guitars and that banjo. It was such a shame.
How was it tuned for the record?
There are some rhythm parts that use a banjo tuning, but at times I tuned it like a guitar to make it easier to double a guitar line, doing a Western-swing-type thing.
Which guitar did you use on the country-pickin’/Jerry-Reed-style songs on the album?
I used a ’53 blackguard Tele, and I thought it came out great. It sounded really good; I was really happy with it.
Do you recall the model name of your nylon-string Martin?
I don’t, sorry. But, I think it’s converted from steel-string, and it has a really cool sound. I bought it years ago at a music store. It’s old… kinda reminds me of Willie Nelson’s [Martin N-20], Trigger.
For years, you’ve been on a quest to obtain a Telecaster from every year. What is the root of your Tele obsession, and what’s the status of the collection?
I own well over 100 Telecasters now. They’re my passion; when I first saw pictures of Keith Richards with a Tele, I immediately wanted one. I was 14 or 15 when I got my first, and I knew right away it was “my instrument.”
The only ones I’m missing are a “nocaster” and one from 1955. I have everything else. After I track down those two, I’ll probably look for some ’80s guitars, like the bowling ball finishes. There’s also the black-and-gold model from ’83 or so that I really like. Right now, I’m working on a Tele with an iPad mini in it, so I can play movies while I’m onstage; I call it the “Tele vision,” and it’s really cool.
What’s in the works, tour-wise?
In September, I’ll be touring the U.S., and we have dates listed at john-5.com. Then, on October 18, I’m doing a concert that will be webcast through LiveCast Entertainment. We’re partnering with Boss, Fender, and Dean Markely Strings, and it’ll be shown in the Americas at 7 p.m. Pacific Time, in Europe at 7 p.m. BST, and in the Pacific Rim at 7 p.m. HKT. It’s a pay-per-view event and people can sign up beginning August 18. The band will be Rodger on drums and Larry Dennison on bass, and the webcast will be hosted by Chris Broderick, of Megadeth. It’s gonna be rad.
Be sure to check out VG’s video interview with John 5. Go to youtube.com and search for “Vintage Guitar magazine John 5.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s November 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.