Catching Up with John 5: "I Have a Tele from Each Year"

John 5 is one of the most accomplished guitar players of the last two decades with one of the most unconventional styles. But for one reason or another, his unique blend of metal and bluegrass just seems to work, making him one of the most popular and sought–after guitarists around.

When we spoke with John 5 last year, he was just getting ready to start touring in support of his most recent album with Rob Zombie, The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser.

This time around, we had a chance to chat about another of John 5’s recent albums, Season of the Witch, this time released under his instrumental solo project.

So I just spent the better half of the last 48 hours listening to the new record. And with this record and your older records, too, there are a lot of different styles that all meld together in such a unique way. I wonder if, with all of those seemingly disparate elements, there is a through–line that ties it all together?

John 5 - Season of the Witch

Well, here’s what it is. [Blending these styles] is totally who I am, it’s totally from the heart, it’s what I do. I sit on a couch, and I’ll play bluegrass music or western swing or metal. You can look on my Instagram to see that I do all of these things. It’s just what is comforting to me, and it’s why I put these records out.

And when I [switch into different styles] live, it’s so cool because it’s such a breath of fresh air. Here you are getting slammed in the face for like an hour and a half with this blistering music, and then when I break into western swing or bluegrass, the people just go crazy. It really has worked out surprisingly well, and I’m so happy about it.

Yeah, you should be proud of this stuff — it’s unbelievable. I remember a friend of mine sent me a tune called “Game with Envy” a while back, and it just absolutely blew my mind. Knowing that you played with Manson, I thought I was going to get a metal tune, and then I got this crazy Zappa–esque bluegrass thing.

On the new album, there was that tune, “Behind the Nut Love,” which sounds like it could be straight out of a Nashville hot shot session. Do you serve country and bluegrass as the same master you do with metal? Or is one your first love and then you kind of moved on to the other stuff?

Definitely rock is my first love. I mean, I was influenced by that show Hee Haw, and that’s really what made me want to play guitar. But my very first love was metal and rock.

With “Behind the Nut Love,” I play 70% of the song behind the nut of the guitar and suspend the notes that way, so I don’t really even have my hands on the fretboard. It’s like my tribute to the pedal steel guitar, blending all of the notes behind the nut. It’s neat.

But just things like that. I’m just trying to be a little bit more creative and to inspire some people along the way because that’s what it is all about. Inspiration is so important. You might see or listen to something today that could change your life forever. It happened to me with music and TV — I watched a TV show, and it’s what made me want to play guitar.

John 5 - "Behind The Nut Love" (Official Video)

Yeah, that’s for sure. The new record is all instrumental, which actually isn’t all that common in today’s music. I’m sure you approach certain tunes differently, but I wonder if you generally have any elements of lyricism in mind while you’re writing guitar parts?

Well, I love melodies, so I always have melodies in my head for choruses or things like that, but I’m never going to have a singer because I already have a singer that goes by the last name of Zombie.

It really works out perfectly, and Rob is supportive of this [project], but if I ever got a singer (and I never would), that’s where it would be weird because it would be like two bands, and I don’t want it to be like that.

This is instrumental craziness that [Rob is] proud of, too, because he’s like “There’s my guitar player up there.” So it really is a thing that was slowly and carefully calculated and with communication and all of that stuff, and that’s what I really like.

Are there instrumental records that have influenced you more than some, whether it’s early Link Wray or later Zappa?

Fender John 5 Signature Telecaster

Well, when I was growing up, everybody loved TV, so I was influenced by Hee Haw and Monkees and Happy Days and all of that stuff before records or even radio. I would watch anyone with a guitar.

With instrumental players, I guess it started with Joe Maphis from the ‘50s. My uncle played me a clip of him and I was so blown away. He did this song called “Singing and Picking,” and it’s so phenomenal because he’s singing and playing the guitar but then he goes to mandolin and then banjo and then upright bass and then fiddle and all in less than two minutes. That blew me away as a kid.

Totally. Joe is unbelievable. He played those crazy old Mosrite guitars — he had a signature. Speaking of which, I wanted to ask about your signature Tele. In most of the pictures I’ve seen of you, you’re always playing a Tele. Are you a vintage guitar guy, too?

I have a Tele from each year, starting with the first year of production — 1950.

Wow. How long did it take you to build up that collection?

About 15 to 16 years, a long time. It started with the Broadcaster, which was the first solidbody electric guitar, and goes all the way. It’s endless.

That’s unbelievable. Are there any years or models that you have that really stick out as the flagship? I’m obviously thinking about the ‘52 Blackguard that is kindly regarding in the pantheon of the greatest guitars of all time.

I would say the Broadcaster number one, and of course all of the Blackguards of ‘51, ‘52, ‘53, ‘54, and then the Telecaster Customs are amazing. I have one from 1970 that is candy apple red, and it’s just beautiful. All of these Teles are in mint condition, so it’s really a fun thing.

So do you have a process for picking instruments that you’re going to record individual songs with or do you just do an entire record with one guitar?

I did “Behind the Nut Love” with the Broadcaster, and I did “Hell Haw” with the ‘53 Blackguard.

John 5 - "Black Grass Plague" (Official Video)

How involved are you in the production side of the record? Some of the transitions in between tunes almost feels like a mixtape.

Very involved. I am involved in every little sound and note and beat that is on these records, along with the artwork.

This last record was really cool because starting in January of last year, I released a new song and a new video on the first of every month. That way, listeners could listen to the song and see the video and decide whether they wanted to pay 99 cents for the song or not, since most people are just cherry picking from records, which is such a drag.

It was a great way to do things because the videos were really successful with over a couple million views and there’s no way I would have gotten two million plays on radio ever. I’m really happy with how all of that turned out. Fender Telecaster Shop Now on Reverb

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