Maimed Les Pauls and Endless Pickup Swaps: The Guitars of Hot Snakes’ John Reis

Hot Snakes are a band that manage to cram a career's worth of catchy guitar parts and changes into a single album. The San Diego, California quintet makes it sound deceptively simple, with pounding drums, furiously down-stroked guitars, and Rick Froberg's raspy delivery of intriguing lyrics. Combined, they give us short, blasting LPs of fast, garage-punk songs that you catch yourself humming long after the platter is back on the shelf.

But pull the curtain back even slightly and you can see there is so much more to what Hot Snakes do. There's a harmonic complexity and dexterity of musicianship in their music that, when you think about it, seems astounding for a two-minute guitar song.

The heart of all of this is the guitar playing of John Reis. Also known as Speedo, Slasher, and The Swami, Reis first hooked up with Froberg in late-'80s hardcore outfit Pitchfork. But their mark on music was most felt with the legendary Drive Like Jehu.

Through both their self-titled album and 1994's masterpiece, Yank Crime, Jehu are one of those bands that have a lasting influence on anyone who hears them, but especially guitarists. Their fingerprints are all over so much of the guitar racket being made in the underground from the second half of the '90s onwards.

Yet that's not all of the John Reis story. He's known to many as the charismatic frontperson of '90s rock 'n' roll (with horn section) party soundtrack band Rocket From The Crypt—a group that has inspired legions of devoted fans (and logo tattoos) worldwide. He's also found the time to undertake numerous side projects, all filled to the brim with riffs, ideas, and hooks that would make most of us jealous. A particular standout is garage-rock masterminds Sultans.

Speedo has spent the last half-decade touring with a revitalised Jehu and Hot Snakes, who returned to the stage in 2011 after breaking up in 2005. Then, after re-releasing the band's original three albums, Sub Pop released Hot Snakes' fourth studio LP, Jericho Sirens, in March of this year.

Packed with everything that makes the Froberg/Reis partnership so special, Jericho Sirens is one of those rare reunion records that equals—and maybe even bests—the band's original run of recordings. Central to it all is Reis' idiosyncratic guitar playing and non-standard gear choices. We caught up with The Swami himself to talk about his gear history.

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"My first guitar ever was a Japanese Les Paul knockoff that was sold through the Sears catalogue. It was a cool guitar—it had these built-in effects that were in the guitar itself. If I remember correctly, it definitely had a fuzz, distortion, and two other effects—I want to say some kind of auto-wah kind of thing," Reis says. "My second guitar was a Fender Lead II," the oft-overlooked model most known in the underground as the choice of Mission of Burma's Roger Miller. "And since that guitar I've had… more than a couple."

Reis is known mostly for playing heavily customized Les Pauls. "I think, ultimately, [playing Les Pauls] had something to do with Ace Frehley—I'm sure that was part of the initial inspiration. And then I kind of got used to them. I think it was one of those things where I just got really used to the neck, and the way they play, specifically—there's something about the way the guitar plays. Although it's kind of a weighty guitar, it's very easy if it's set up properly. You can glide around very fast."

Here's Reis' take on some of his most well known guitars

The Dragon Les Paul

"I purchased that in San Francisco because I broke a guitar and then woke up the next day needing a guitar, so I went down to the guitar shop and bought this guitar that had this obviously homemade dragon, but done in a manner that was permanent. Whoever had done it had obviously taken the care so that it wouldn't fade."

A cream-coloured Les Paul previously owned by the guitarist in San Francisco hair metal group Vain, the Les Paul was unmistakably marked with a gold dragon and Kanji Script applied by that band's guitarist.

"I played that guitar for a while, and it wasn't until James Hetfield came to a Rocket From The Crypt show, and he was like, 'Dude, you're playing the Vain guitar.' And I had never heard of them. I was like, 'What's Vain?' And he said, 'That's Dave Vain's guitar—it's a band—he used to play that guitar all the time… everyone, metal people know that guitar.' He found it very ironic."

Reis's 'dragon' Les Paul in its final incarnation, before it was traded for the Tym Swami Scimitar.
Reis's approach to weight relief. (Photos by Tony Giacca)

Speedo modified the guitar with various pickups in the bridge position throughout the '90s ("Man, I tried just about everything,"), most notably with a passive EMG humbucker. In its final form, the guitar sported a humbucker in the bridge and a DeArmond gold foil pickup in the neck position. Each pickup is wired to a separate output, so each can be plugged straight into its own separate amplifier. This Les Paul was also subjected to Reis' DIY approach to weight relief, which no doubt has had some effect on the tone.

The Tym Swami Scimitar

Reis with the Tym Guitars Swami Scimitar.
(Photo credit: unknown)

Reis ended up trading the dragon Les Paul for his Swami Scimitar, a guitar custom made by Tym Guitars in Brisbane, Australia. Shaped liked a Tokai Hummingbird, but with the body and neck larger overall, this guitar is huge. Fitted with an original Danelectro lipstick pickup in the neck, a DeArmond gold foil in the middle position, and a P90 in the bridge, the guitar is wired up like a three-pickup Les Paul, with the ability to isolate the middle position to just the gold foil pickup. The neck is based on an '80s Les Paul custom.

The guitar is also quite weighty. "The Swami Scimitar is a really, really badass guitar," Reis says. "I don't play it [live] often just because it is a bit heavy, but I have used it on quite a few records. It's such a badass guitar, kind of one of a kind."

The guitar is all over See You in Magic, the first record by The Night Marchers, Reis' project that also features Hot Snakes' Gar Wood on guitar.

The Black Les Paul Pro

The black Les Paul Pro. Reis has since replaced the bridge
pickup with the original humbucker. (Photo by Tony Giacca)

Reis' touring machine for much of Hot Snakes' recent run has been a black, late-'70s Les Paul Pro. "That one has the lipstick pickup, a Curtis Novak lipstick in the neck position, and in the bridge … I had the Gibson [P90] that was originally in it put back in the guitar. It looks a bit strange, because it had been routed out for a different pickup. So it's still the same pickup, but with a wider box around it."

The guitar has also been subject to Reis' weight-relieving process, with several chunks carved out of the body from the back. When asked if he'd considered the less hefty Gibson SG, rather than carving apart numerous vintage Les Pauls, he replies, "I've had about four SGs over the years, and I can just look at a SG and break it. [The headstock design] is like a spring, it's just really tightly wound, and it's just ready to pop at any moment."

It is also wired up with stereo outputs like the Dragon Les Paul. The guitar not only features heavily on the initial tracking of Jericho Sirens, but, Reis says, "That was the guitar that I used on the first two Hot Snakes records."

The Telecaster

"I don't know the year—it's somewhere between '69 and '71," Reis says. It originally belonged to Pen Rollings, guitarist from late-'80s hardcore's best-kept secret Honor Role and original math rock outfits Butterglove and Breadwinner. The guitar also spent some time in the hands of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan. Rollings had originally fitted the guitar with an EMG in the bridge position. In Speedo's hands, it received a Rio Grande Bastard P90 in the bridge and a Danelectro lipstick pickup in the neck.

This guitar was also used heavily on the first two Hot Snakes records. "Basically I would use the lipstick pickup that I had in the Telecaster and the P90 that I had in the Les Paul and double-track it," Reis says.

Reis' tele, formerly owned by Pen Rollings. Note the lipstick pickup in the neck position. (Photo by Chris Woo)

But the Telecaster is perhaps best represented on Sultans second LP, Shipwrecked. Combined with a DiPinto Mach IV, one of his battered Marshall JCM800s, and a Traynor 2x12 combo that he described as "super fucking take your head off, bright, clean." A lesser-known part of the Reis discography, this record is a masterclass in garage-rock guitar tones, melodic sensibility, and economical songwriting. Reis also used this guitar live with Sultans for some time.

The Madrid Kon-Tiki

Reis' custom made Kon-Tiki by Madrid Guitars.
(Photo by Brandon Madrid)

This guitar was made for Speedo by luthier Brandon Madrid, with a body design based on his vintage Silvertones—guitars known for their raucous garage tone, but not for their reliability or longevity. The body is made from poplar and Masonite, and the neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard. A Lollar overwound P90 pickup is in the neck position, and a pickup constructed by Curtis Novak in a vintage gold foil case with a new alnico 5 magnet in the neck. Both pickups were custom made for the guitar.

Madrid took an acoustic guitar builder's approach to the "box" design of the body, reflecting both the vintage Silvertone-style construction (and the sustain it produces) and trying to keep weight down on the guitar. Madrid has stated that to attempt to replicate the "junky, boxy tone" of the original Silvertone bodies, weight was a big issue, and the final, finished guitar came in at 6.3 pounds. To avoid neck dive, parts of the neck itself are also chambered.

Speedo used this guitar on the initial tracking for Jericho Sirens, particularly the title track. However, an incident with one of his Les Pauls led to his re-evaluating the gear choices for the record…

The Sparkle-Finish Les Paul

"I purchased it in '92. I got it right before going on tour and toured a lot with it and played it in both Rocket and Drive Like Jehu. From when I purchased that guitar, it was pretty much the main guitar I played," Reis says of this late-'70s Les Paul Custom. "I went to Japan with it, and Ono [Ching]—the singer and guitar player for this band called the Jet Boys—did cartoons and drew all over it, did all this really cool artwork all over it."

The lost, then recovered sparkle finish Les Paul Custom.
(Photo from Reis' Instagram)

Some of this work, though faded from years of touring and sweat, is visible still on the back of the guitar. The front is a different story: "When I got home I decided, 'I've kinda always wanted a sparkle guitar,' so I took it to this guy in town who gave me a quote to refinish the guitar, and I couldn't afford it—I could only afford to do the front of it, hence why it's only [finished] on the front."

At some point the guitar was modified with an EMG pickup in the bridge position. As mentioned above, this was a modification Reis did to many of his '90s Les Pauls, and the reasons were twofold. Firstly, the range of aftermarket and boutique replacement pickups in the '90s was somewhat more limited than we enjoy today. And secondly, the way the magnetic field of this particular pickup interacts with the magnetic field of Speedo's JCM800's transformers produces a bizarre kind of chirping feedback, like the tweeting of cartoon birds. (Check out the 1:38 mark in Drive Like Jehu track "Golden Brown' for a great example of this.)

Drive Like Jehu - "Golden Brown"

"I was recording the new Hot Snakes record and had it in my car while I was in the studio," Speedo says. "And somebody stole it … I was really bummed. You know, I didn't really realise how much it meant to me until I didn't have it, as is often the case." The guitar showed up on a website for sale and Reis, with the help of some friends, arranged to meet up with the sellers ostensibly to "buy" the guitar. When he met them in the parking lot and saw the Les Paul in their car, it was quickly re-claimed.

"When I finally retrieved it, it was one of those things like, 'Yeah, I think I should just be playing this guitar,' so I ended up using it on the rest of the Hot Snakes record."

Amplifiers, Pickups, Pedals, and Junk Guitars

For almost all of his musical career Reis has relied on Marshall JCM800s, modified by having the head shells stripped open in the front and back and the amplifier chassis reversed in the shell so that the rear plate is facing the front of the stage. Reis has explained that this allows the heads to run a bit cooler—essential for the sweaty marathon shows for which Rocket From The Crypt were known. It also allows him easier access to the amplifier's transformer to make the feedback described above.

For cabinets, he has used various options in the studio and now, live with Jehu, mostly relies on various Marshall cabinets. For most of the '90s, however, he used Mesa oversized cabinets, which were modified to run in stereo, allowing him to use his stereo output Les Pauls.

Sometime during Hot Snakes' run, he recorded with a '60s Vox AC30 head and fell in love, eventually acquiring his own '67 head. All the guitars on Jericho Sirens were recorded with this head and a closed-back cabinet, and his live rig for the band usually consists of some combination of Vox and Marshall, depending on backline availability. Reis and Froberg both don't really use pedals, although The Swami has been known to mess around with the odd vibrato pedal or vintage fuzz in the studio.

Most of the distinctive guitar sounds from the Hot Snakes seem to come from the pickup modifications in Reis' guitars, although it's a process he will admit isn't particularly refined.

"I'm always experimenting with different pickups, and especially in a Les Paul," he notes. "It's curious how, a lot of guitars—I was really into [Harmony] Bobkats, with the gold foil pickup—and I was thinking that pickup would sound so great in the Les Paul. Which, it does sound great, don't get me wrong. I did a lot of experimenting with it, a lot of the pickups, you take it out of the guitar and put it in another one because you like and you have to realise, you're changing the context," Reis says.

"Like, that pickup sounds good in that guitar, it's the two things working together. So Les Pauls, I've always kind of being looking for the perfect combination, but that said, I've realised there's no such thing, because even when you find it you get bored of it after a while," Reis continues.

While Speedo is the heart of the Hot Snakes' sound, and responsible for a large percentage of their distinctive riffs, much of the magic of the band comes from the guitar interplay with vocalist/guitarist Rick Froberg. First picking up a guitar in Drive Like Jehu, Froberg gets the most attention for his vocals and lyrics. And it's his graphic design talents that have largely defined the band's aesthetic. However, you only need to see the band live to understand how much his guitar-playing contributes to the band, with his contorted, bent chords weaving in and out of Reis's relentless downstrokes.

Live, Froberg has been known to use a Fender Twin or a Marshall half stack, again depending on backline. But Reis tells us that, for Jericho Sirens, he used a 100-watt Marshall JMP, through a 4x12 cabinet with Celestion Greenbacks. Froberg also spent time with modified guitars in Jehu and Hot Snakes, particularly a double-cut Les Paul Jr and, later, a Telecaster with P90s. But he has been the one that picked up, and stuck with, the Harmony Bobkat.

One of Rick Froberg's Harmony Bobkats. (Photo by Tony Giacca)
The DeArmond Goldfoil pickup, central to so much of Reis and Froberg's sound. (Photo by Tony Giacca)

Intended as a cheap, student model in the '60s, the Bobkat has gained in popularity in recent years thanks to its small, light, yet surprisingly resonant offset bodies, along with comfortably chunky necks and those gold foil pickups.

"You can only get that sound with that guitar," Reis says. However, part of what makes their sound so distinctive is also part of what makes them difficult to play some 50 years later. "That floating bridge and that scale length makes its kinda hard to keep the intonation on. I mean, you hear it when we play—it's not perfect, it never will be. But yesterday's trash is today's treasure, and unfortunately I'm going to see a day where today's trash is tomorrow's treasure, which will be a very sad day!"

Special thanks to Tony "Guitarnerd" Giacca for many of the photos in the interview. Jericho Sirens is available from Sub Pop now.

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