Johnny A’s debut solo album Sometime Tuesday Morning instantly lifted the gifted Boston-based guitarist out of the rock ‘n’ roll trenches in 1999, with its melody driven approach to instrumental tunes spanning blues, rock, jazz, funk and country — often tackling several of those genres at once. The tracks “Oh Yeah” and “Two Wheel Horse” were radio breakouts, and his rendition of the Jimmy Webb classic “Wichita Lineman” was simply gorgeous.
Since then Johnny has continued to refine his approach and his sound across the world’s stages and with a sequel solo album, Get Inside, and the DVD-CD set One November Night, plus the brand new disc Driven, which lives up to its name via a burly backbeat propelled approach. The album is full of Johnny’s usual beefy, shimmering tones, thanks to his belief in the classic mating of Gibson and Marshall and, of course, to his approach, which delivers big melodies in smartly crafted phrases, and benefits from his hybrid picking and his voice-like deployment of the Bigsby tremolo bar.
Highlights include the biting opener “Ghost,” the moody “The Night I Said Goodbye,” and the elegantly fingerpicked “From a Dark Place” and “The Arizona Man.” There’s also a reworking of “To Love Somebody” that balances the melodic delicacy of the Bee Gees original version with the deep soul of James Carr’s classic 1967 rendition. And — spoiler alert — for the first time, Johnny cut all of the guitar, bass and drum tracks on the album himself and recorded it in his home studio.
In addition to celebrating Driven’s release, Johnny is also marking the 11th anniversary of the Gibson Johnny A Signature Model, a beautiful hollowbody tone machine that was a culmination, in 2003, of his then-decade-long relationship with Gibson as an endorser.
“My goal was to get the tone of my Gibson ES-295 in a compact body design, with the stability of a Les Paul, but with humbuckers instead of P-90s,” he explains. In 2007 Gibson unveiled that guitar’s sequel, the Johnny A Standard. “The Standard was not quite as blinged out — more like a Les Paul Standard, but with a mahogany top,” he explains. “Now we’re considering reintroducing the Standard again, but with a maple top. I just got a prototype from the Custom Shop last week, and it’s a really great sounding guitar.”
Johnny also explains that Gibson has updated his Signature Model with bumblebee capacitors and CTS pots, “just like I’ve had in my guitars that are built for me.
“I love my Signature model,” he adds. “It does everything I could ask a guitar to do.”
Given that observation, guitars seemed like a good starting point for our conversation about Driven.
What guitars did you use on Driven?
I played several different Johnny A models. I used my Firebird VII on a couple tracks — the clean melody for “The Night I Said Goodbye” and the left channel on the rhythm of “Backbone Slip.” I used a Les Paul and my ES-295. I also used three different Gibson acoustics. But all the melodies were played on the Johnny A’s except for “To Love Somebody,” which is the 295, and the Firebird VII on “The Night I Said Goodbye.”
How difficult was making the transition from being a lyric-based rock songwriter to a composer of instrumentals?
A couple things forced me onto the instrumental path. While I was on the road with Peter Wolf in the late ’90s I developed a bad bronchial infection that gave me a terrible case of laryngitis, and my voice never fully recovered. That forced me into not being able to sing. I also came to the realization that the sound of any act is the thing that delivers the melody — whether it’s Mick Jagger singing or Booker T. on organ. That realization coupled with the fact that I couldn’t sing anymore forced me into being an instrumental artist. That also helped me redefine the type of guitar player I wanted to be. Until then, I was pretty much a stylist influenced by British Invasion and British rock guys. I needed to progress as a total guitarist, and that’s where the whole melody chord driven approach came into play. That’s how I defined my style of playing guitar.
My approach to writing an instrumental is really no different than writing a vocal tune. I still love a good song with a good arrangement. When I’m writing a song I don’t come at it from a riff; it is the melody and chord base I focus on. I often imagine vocals, so it might be the hook of a lyric line that ends up shaping the melody, and the song takes form from there.
What’s your composing regimen, and did it differ for Drive?
I write when I’m inspired. This album was different than the others. When it was time to do an album in the past, I’d collect up all these pieces of songs — some might be finished and already in the set, others might just be an idea for a melody. Then I’d put the band together, hold some preproduction rehearsals, go into the studio and try to execute the tracks as good as possible and then do overdubs and go into mixing. In that scenario, there’s not much experimentation that goes on because you’re always watching the clock.
For this record, my inspiration was how the Beatles approached the Revolver album. That was the first time they used the studio as a creative tool. So I wrote the songs specifically for this record and I had an idea of where I wanted to go stylistically. I wrote 16 or 17 songs and had two or three covers picked out, and I pared it down to 10 originals and one cover.
I did initially bring in other musicians and did some preproduction recordings, but I was not hearing the sound that I envisioned for this album. At the same time, I was acquiring studio equipment that I didn’t really know how to use. There was a steep learning curve, but I used the experience to record demos myself, and the sound started to shape itself on those demos. They were realizing the vision I had in my head.
So is that when you abandoned the idea of using other musicians for Driven?
I had no intention to do it that way. I was going to hire musicians and an engineer to record in my own studio, so I’d have the time and freedom with the process that I wanted. But budget constraints crept in, so I chose not to hire an engineer and then I felt that I didn’t need the musicians, so I had total artistic freedom. And it was a joy to do it this way. It was daunting and exhausting, but I’m really proud of it.
Did you track from the drums up?
I usually have a tempo going on and the click track locked in. At that point I lay down the melodies and sketch the arrangement. The first thing that goes down as a keeper is the bass. I establish a feel and the foundation of the track with that, and go back and start layering guitars. There are not real drums anywhere on Driven. I spent close to 350 hours programming every drum stroke and cymbal hit, and all the variables of the kit. I was a drummer first, so I understand the physicality of how drummers play. So I visualized playing the drums and visualized what drummers I’d like to hear on different tracks, like, “This is a Charlie Watts thing,” or “I’d like to hear Mickey Curry here.” It required easily 24 to 36 hours a song for each song’s drum tracks. The only song that has a rhythm loop kind of effect was “Ghost.” But with all the others tunes, I think it’s quite believable that there’s somebody playing. Unlike my other records, this one is all backbeat, too. There isn’t one shuffle on the record. I wanted to go in a different direction!
How did you track guitars?
It’s the same path I’ve used on all three albums and the same gear. I have an old Neve germanium 1068 mike preamp that’s for all the lead guitar, and I used my Marshall 30th Anniversary amplifier on almost all the tracks. I did use a Fractal Ax-FX II on two or three of the guitar parts on the record. I used it for the demos and I ended up taking a couple rhythm parts and solos from the demos and dropping them into the keeper tracks — just because they had more grease. That’s another reason why it’s important to be in tune and have the tempo where you want it to be, even on demos.
Is “Out of Nowhere” the first time you’ve used an E-Bow on your recordings?
Yes. There’s a lot of firsts on this record. It’s the first time I’ve featured acoustic guitar along with the electric guitars. The only slide I’d done before was the solo on “Get Inside,” and there’s a lot of slide on this record. There’s 12-string guitar on this one, too. I’ve had an E-Bow for years! That solo got flown in from the demo, and it was the first take. It just had this “thing” about it.
You’re a master of the Bigsby tremolo bar. What’s your approach?
A Bigsby, a Floyd Rose, a standard type of tremolo piece — they all have their own personalities. You have to find your center with whatever you use. To me, a Bigsby is a very subtle, vocal-like tailpiece — more than any of the others, which are too extreme. By its mechanism, you’d have to muscle a Bigsby to get any kind of pitch sifting with it. A Bigsby does what a vocalist trailing off a word and adding a little vibrato to it does. The human voice is the inspiration for how I use it. I don’t hold it very firmly in my grip. It rests in between the fleshy part of my palm and my little finger, very loose. For me it’s very natural. The first Bigsby I had was in 1967, when my dad bought me a guitar with a Bigsby on it, that I still own. I’ve always loved it. And I love Chet Atkins. And growing up in the ’60s, the Bigsby was a pretty apparent sound. When I did my first solo album and changed my direction, I knew I wanted to use the Bigsby. It was a matter of finding the right guitar, with the tone I wanted. That’s when I happened to stumble upon the ES-295, walking into Mr. Music [a guitar shop in Allston, Massachusetts]. I found that guitar and bought it. It was like a key that unlocked a lot of things for me, and made me realize it was the sound of a Gibson and the sound of a Bigsby that I heard in my head.
For further reading:
The Gibson Interview: Johnny A (Part 1)
The Gibson Interview: Johnny A (Part 2)