Interview:John 5 talks about recording Holy Wood, Tuning, & Technique
"When you're a sideman, you must remember who the boss is, because it's their gig," says John 5. "You're not there to be the star, you're there to make the star sound better."
By Lisa Sharken
John Lowery's metamorphosis into John 5 didn't begin with a passion for shock rock, cosmetics, pyrotechnics, or gothic fashion. It started -- quite simply and purely -- with the guitar, as well as an almost fan-like appreciation for all styles of music. Before joining drummer Ginger Fish, bassist Twiggy Ramirez, and keyboardist M.W. Gacy in one of the most controversial bands of the past few years, 5 was an L.A. session player working with artists such as John Wetton, Robin Zander, Wilson Phillips, and Rick Springfield.
When he wanted to try working with a full-time band, 5 landed gigs with ex-Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, rocker David Lee Roth, and country diva k.d. lang. The Manson gig was an unexpected surprise.
"Although I had never seen him play live, I was already a huge Manson fan," explains 5. "I had a chance to see him perform in '98, when I was playing in Europe with Halford, but Manson canceled the show. I was crushed. When I got home from the tour, Manson's manager called and asked if I would like to meet Manson for lunch. Absolutely! So I met him at the Gaucho Grill in L.A., and he told me about all the trouble he'd been having with guitar players. Then he asked me to join the band -- right there -- and gave me the name 'John 5.' It was very exciting how quickly it all happened."
The guitarist signed on in time to perform on the band's Mechanical Animals tour and participate in composing material for Manson's latest release, Holy Wood [Nothing/Interscope]. "The album is a concept work," says 5. "The songs stream together with musical themes and recurring melodies. Making the album was an intense experience because there was a bit of voodoo surrounding the recording process. But all the weird places we worked in, and all the unusual ways we recorded sounds, help make Holy Wood a really interesting record to listen to."
All 5's experience playing with a diverse array of artists didn't quite prepare him for Manson's auto-destruct stage shows, tracking Holy Wood in the allegedly haunted Harry Houdini house, or recording parts out in the rain. Here is the story of a guitarist rising to a number of challenges, maintaining his sanity, and playing some great stuff.
What was your first gig with Manson like?
It was live -- in front of the whole world -- on the MTV Video Music Awards. I had no idea what Manson was like onstage because I had never been to a gig. When I watch the video of the performance, I can tell I had no idea what was going to happen. But it was a great first show.
How does working with Manson differ from your previous musical experiences?
Every situation is different, and there are different levels of enjoyment. The k.d. lang gig was fun because I love playing country music. Writing songs and playing with David Lee Roth was a childhood dream come true, and working with Rob Halford was an amazing experience. He is the metal god. But working with Manson is the first time in my life where I've felt like I'm part of the band and not just a sideman.
Did you have to adjust your style to fit into Manson's band?
No, but only because I take a unique approach to practicing -- I always work on a different style of music from that of the band I'm playing with. For example, if I'm in a country band, I'll play metal or jazz. Now that I'm in this heavy band, I play bluegrass and country music all day. Playing styles that are very different from the band allows me to cover all the bases, keep up my chops, and maintain a fresh approach to the instrument. I also try to learn something new every day -- I'm always reading books on music theory.
Describe the writing process for Holy Wood.
It was a group-oriented process because we wanted the record to have a real band sound. Manson said this was the first time the band actually jammed on the songs before recording them. That was very cool.
How was the album recorded?
Instead of going into a regular studio, we rented the Houdini house in Laurel Canyon. We brought in an old-school analog tape machine and a vintage Neve console for tracking, and we used Pro Tools for editing. It was a trip because the house is believed to be haunted, and weird things were happening all the time. One night, our drummer Ginger slept in the house and woke up hearing piano music. It was about 8 a.m., and the band usually arrived around 1 p.m., so he thought someone had shown up early. He went downstairs and walked over to the piano, which was behind a curtain. He pulled back the curtain to see who was playing, and the music stopped. No one was there. If that was me, I'd be pretty frightened! Other strange things happened, too -- like the control room would flood for no reason. It was a very weird place. We did some additional tracking at Manson's house, which was where the Rolling Stones did Let It Bleed.
How did you approach the guitar tracks?
We did everything in an old-school, '70s-style way with a few powerful guitar tracks turned up real loud. At the most, there are three or four layered guitar parts on each song, each with very different sounds. I'm really proud of the sounds on Holy Wood, and the tracks sound great when you lie back and listen to them wearing headphones.
Did you have a general setup for lead and rhythm sounds?
I wish there was, but we changed gear for every single song and performance -- guitars, amps, effects, mics, rooms, and everything -- so I can't recall everything that was used on each track or the way it was recorded. We did a lot of off-the-wall stuff, too. We'd sometimes play the guitar track through headphones, crank up the volume, and mic the headphones. We used every part of the house to record. I played in the kitchen, bathroom, backyard, and everywhere possible, and it often took hours of placing mics to get the sounds together.
We had lots of equipment in the studio -- all sorts of weird stuff I would never use live. For amps, we had an old European Davoli, some '70s Marshalls, a Fender Twin, a Laney, and a few Oranges. For guitars, we had several '70s Gibson Les Pauls and doublenecks. But the main guitars used on the album were Manson's Ibanez Artist, a Les Paul, and a Jackson Randy Rhoads model from Twiggy's collection. Also, the second engineer had a great '70s Les Paul. It had such a great tone that it was used at one time or another on every song. For effects, we had all these old Foxx and Electro-Harmonix effects pedals from the '70s. We would just experiment with everything until we found the perfect sound. The actual performances didn't take long at all.
How did you record the acoustic sounds on "Lamb of God"?
I used a beat-up '52 Gibson acoustic, which I also used to record the parts on "The Fall of Adam" and "In the Shadow of the Valley of Death." For "Lamb of God," we miked the guitar in a very unusual way. There were about seven mics set up around me and then more mics set up around the guitar. There were so many mics that I couldn't move an inch. To make things even worse, they put this big blanket over me to deaden the sound. It was so hot under there that I was sweating and couldn't breathe. I knew I'd have to get the part right, or I was going to die if I had to keep doing it over. Luckily, I was able to cut the track quickly. In contrast to that experience, I recorded "The Fall of Adam" outside in the pouring rain. We did a lot of odd things to make all the parts sound very different -- even if we were using the same gear.
Did you use any alternate tunings?
I used a few open tunings for certain parts. In "Godeatgod" I used a very strange tuning -- [low to high] B, D, D, G, B, E, and for the intro of "The Fall Of Adam," I tuned [low to high] F, A, F, Ab, C, F. Having played in a lot of country bands, I've learned that alternate tunings sometimes sound better because the strings ring out on certain chords and produce a sweeter sound. I would figure something out, do the track, and then write down the tuning so I wouldn't forget it. When I play any of those songs that I recorded in open tunings onstage, I transpose them to standard tuning and make the best of it. I can't really switch guitars in the middle of a song.
How does your live rig differ from the gear you used in the studio?
My live rig is fairly simple compared to the pile of vintage gear we had in the studio. I use two Laney VH100 heads -- one is a backup -- and Laney 4x12 cabinets. They've proven to be extremely tough. The vintage stuff would never survive a live Manson show! He'll come over and smash my amps or light them on fire, and the Laneys just keep going. It's hilarious! I've also put all my pedals in rack drawers behind the stage, because on the last tour, Manson smashed up my pedalboard. And there's nothing more stressful than having your guitar sound snuffed out. For this tour, I'm using a Rocktron MIDI pedalboard, which is as tough as nails.
In the pedal rack, I have a Boss Super Overdrive, an Ibanez Smash Box, a Boss Chorus, an Ibanez Chorus/Flanger -- which was the most used pedal on Holy Wood -- set for a very warbly sound, a Guyatone Tremolo and Wah-Rocker, a prototype Ibanez Lo-Fi pedal, a Guyatone Phaser, an Ibanez digital delay, a Line 6 delay, and a Dunlop wah and a volume pedal.
How do you set your amp's tone controls for live shows?
I go for a very light distortion and a real deep, bassy tone. I set the gain around 3, the volume around 6, bass on 10, middle on 4, and treble on 8. I always change the tone slightly for every arena or hall because they all sound different. I'm also using a Palmer direct system -- instead of miking the cabinets -- so when Manson trashes the stage, I don't have to worry about mics going down and cutting out my guitar sound.
What guitars do you take on the road?
I'm always changing guitars during the show, so I bring a lot of them on tour. My main guitar is an Ibanez AX. It's a great guitar with a very full tone. I have four of those and backups for everything else. I'm also using an Ibanez Iceman and three Les Pauls -- a tobacco sunburst Standard, a black three-pickup Custom, and a cherry sunburst Standard. For acoustic parts I use a Taylor 914, but for the times when I have to switch between electric and acoustic sounds during the same song, I use an Ibanez RG electric with a piezo system.
How do you like your guitars set up?
I like the action very low because I have a very light touch. I never break strings. I use D'Addario .009s on most of the Ibanez guitars, and .010s on the three-pickup Les Paul. I've got .011s on one of the Ibanez guitars that's tuned down to C#. I also adjust my guitar strap higher up -- like a jazz guy would play. It makes a big difference in your hand position if the guitar isn't hanging below your waist. Some guys can play that way, but I can't.
What things have you learned that have helped you become a better musician?
One thing you have to understand is that the tone is in your fingers. Page, Van Halen, Hendrix -- their sound is in the way they fret notes and pick. Also, when I was younger and I saw Rush or early Who, I could hear each instrument very well, and the band didn't sound like a bunch of noise -- that inspired the kind of sound I want. It's really important to me that the audience can hear every note. My rhythm guitar tone is very clean, and, for solos, I'll click on a heavier distortion, but I make sure the sound isn't muddy. If you ever go to a Manson show, you'll hear every little squeak my guitar makes.
What goals have you set for the future?
Who knows what will come in the future, but when I'm much older, you may be flipping through the channels one Saturday night and see me playing at the Grand Ole Opry. And Manson will probably be there, too -- throwing water bottles at me!