Johnny A.

On the fast track
On the fast track

When VG first caught up with guitarist Johnny A. in 2001, his instrumental release, Sometime Tuesday Morning, was perking ears all over the place. Before he signed to Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label, Mr. A. had sold about 8,500 copies of the record. With the signing, the count quickly rose, and has now approached 10 times that number.

His second release, Get Inside, streets February 24. And Gibson recently launched it’s Johnny A. signature guitar. Suffice to say, the man has got it goin’ on. We recently caught up with Johnny for an update on all the good stuff swirling around him.

Vintage Guitar: What meaning does the album’s title have for you?
Johnny A.: I like ambiguity. You can take it a lot of different ways; getting inside the music… or getting inside the personality or soul of a person and seeing what makes them tick.

Tell us about the B-3 and horn parts on the record.
The material dictates where it goes. Although I’m not carrying a B-3 player or horn players live, the studio and the stage are two different animals. As a producer, that’s just how I heard it in my head. I wanted to represent the material properly. And even though there is some added instrumentation, I think that they’re very subliminal to the trio. It has the same timbre as Sometime Tuesday Morning in that it sounds like a core band. The other instruments are just flavoring – it’s not like all of a sudden there’s a six-piece band there. It’s not unlike how the Beatles sometimes used other things to embellish the music – like the trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.”

The music and the melody dictates where I’m going, and I wanted a bit of a different approach for this record. I wanted a bit of an R&B feel and texture, especially on “I Had to Laugh” and the title track. On that one, I tried to accomplish a Memphis Horns or Al Green vibe.

What other factors distinguish this record from the first one?
It’s whole different group of musicians, therefore a different chemistry. Different studios, different guitars, different writing. And Get Inside came after three years on the road, playing the material from Sometime Tuesday Morning and material that ended up on this record. So playing some of these songs live gave this record a bit more of an edge. I didn’t abandon what I was doing previously, but there’s a reflection here of going from the stage to the studio. With the first record, I was trying to define a stylistic approach, and the band wasn’t really a working band at that time, so we didn’t take too many liberties. And it was me in the very embryonic stages of that guitar style.

The cover selections are great!
I’ve been playing those live for awhile. I love Johnny Rivers; “Poor Side of Town” is just one of those songs – not unlike “Wichita Lineman” from my first record – that I think is just beautiful. The melodies have always resounded with me, and they’re so beautiful you don’t need the lyrics to make them sound like they have words.

And Hendrix has always been a big influence. I wanted to get kind of an urban/Manhatten/Miles Davis kind of thing going on “Wind Cries Mary.”

Which guitars did you use?
Three of my Gibson signature models. I also used my ES-295 on “Poor Side of Town,” on the rhythm track of “Ignorance is Bliss,” and in several other spots. And I used an ES-335, five Les Pauls, two Firebirds, a ’35 Martin HD-28 reissue, a Rickenbacker 360/12, my 1960 Gibson lap steel, and my Fender bajo sexto. The recording amps were a ’92 Marshall 6100 and a vintage Neve mic preamp.

How long did the signature guitar take from concept to complete?
Probably two years. Tweaking the working prototype took about a year.

The guitar fits my requirements for live application. The design, comfort factor, scale length, woods, pickups, pick guard, fret inlays, headstock inlays… even the location of the switches and the angle at which they move, are all specific to me. That said, it happens to be a fantastic instrument that I think a lot of people will dig. From what I understand, Gibson has never had an artist as intensely involved with every detail of the guitar.

Why a hollowbody?
I love the sound of my 295, but live, it just has too much feedback. I love that hollow tone, but I started using the Les Pauls, which were fabulous – super versatile, great tone – but I missed that hollow sound, and the body was a little small for me. I play sitting on a stool and I was hunching over it, which was hurting my back. This guitar is a little bigger, and it’s hollow. The idea was to get as close to my 295 tone as possible, but with a smaller-body guitar.

My 295 has P-90 pickups, which have a very bright attack that goes away quickly, leaving [the note to] sustain. Humbuckers don’t usually do that – they have a midrange type of attack, and it’s long. We got the P-90 sound [by using] a long-scale neck and an ebony fretboard, which is a very bright-sounding wood. Those two elements, combined with the PAF pickups, really got me close to emulating the sound of the P-90s on the 295.

Any other special considerations on the guitar?
We offer a Bigsby or the stop-bar tailpiece. And aesthetically, I wanted the guitar to be reminiscent of a ’50s or early-’60s Gibson. The appointments, the machine heads, the binding, the dish of the top, the carving, neck shape, depth of the taper of the head stock… they all accomplish that.

When will you start touring behind Get Inside, and what will your live rig consist of?
Probably around the end of March. I’ll be using three of the signature models and a ’92 Marshall 6101. I’ll also have a Boss TU-2, two DD-3s, an OC-2, a CS-2, a Trem/Pan, and a Dunlop 535Q wah.

Johnny A.’s new album, Get Inside, is set for release February 24 on Favored Nations. Johnny A. photo: Neil Zlozower.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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