John 5's top 5 tips for guitarists
Anybody who writes songs about axe murders and serial killers, and whose musical predilections run the gamut from Chet Atkins-inspired Western swing to industrial-strength heavy metal, isn’t likely to sit around and complain about being bored. “How could I ever get bored?” guitarist John 5 says with a laugh. “There’s always too many crazy and interesting things I’m trying to do.”
Since 2005, the flamboyant Telecaster master has maintained a dual career as solo star and main-man guitarist for Rob Zombie. John notes that having a wealth of creative outlets helps to stave off playing ruts; so, too, does a steady flow of songwriting.
“I’m always working on my new tunes, so my mind and fingers are always going to different places,” he explains. “The instrumental music that I write is pretty complicated and it presents so many challenges. I love trying to come up with new licks, solos, techniques – each song should have a surprise.”
On the following pages, John offers his top five tips for guitarists – and when it comes to receiving a little constructive criticism, he’s all ears. “I love getting advice,” he enthuses. “Some people close up whenever anybody tries to give them pointers, but I say, ‘Bring it on.’
"I was talking to Kirk Hammet the other day, and he had a few thoughts about picking. I was like, ‘Hell yeah! I’m gonna try that.’ But you can get good advice from anybody. The fountain of information should never, ever stop.”
Learn what you love
“Let’s say you want to learn arpeggios or how to play a certain band’s music. If you can do that on your own or with your guitar teacher, you’ll be so excited about moving forward that you won’t want to put the guitar down. You’ll be doing something that’s interesting to you.
“Likewise, if you’re learning something that isn’t exciting for you at all, you’re not going to be inspired to keep going. This is what was so good about my guitar teacher when I was a kid.
"He asked me what I wanted to learn, and he would walk me through everything slowly, all the little bits and pieces. That really blew me away, and it kept me interested.
“If your teacher can show you what excites you, you’ll get what you want and what you need at the same time. You’ll be getting familiar with the guitar, the pick, the strings – sometimes that’s enough to keep you going.”
“In all areas of life, but of course, it’s important for playing the guitar. Try to play every note cleanly. Be efficient and articulate with what you’re playing, and pay attention to your technique at all times.
“I try to play everything as if I’m playing it on one string – that’s how clean I want it to sound. Whether I’m playing live or in the studio, I want each note to stand out and be heard. Slow or super-fast, your notes should ring out and sound well-formed.
“I would go see certain bands play – big, world-famous bands – and they would sound so messy on stage. I couldn’t really understand why they didn’t sound like their records. But then I would see other bands play – Rush is a good example – and they sounded incredible, just like their records. Not that they weren’t being spontaneous and in the moment, but they were really paying attention to the notes they played. They sounded clean and professional.
“That made a big impression on me, and it was something I’ve always strived for, to sound just like the record when I’m on stage. Of course, when you’re cutting a record, you really have to pay attention to how cleanly you’re playing. Sloppiness doesn’t cut it.”
Establish a good practice regimen
“We’re so busy in our daily lives – we have to do this, that and the other thing. But always find time to practice. Even if you’re just sitting on the couch, have the guitar with you. You can always find time to play if you have the guitar nearby.
“Practice, practice, practice – I can’t stress it enough. But one thing that’s really important is variety. Once a week, try to play something new. I try to do this every other day. If you give yourself a new challenge, you’ll have an arsenal of mind-boggling licks. Your understanding of music and what you can do on the guitar will be incredible.
“You can take the guitar anywhere. You can play with an amp or without an amp. You can play pretty much anywhere in the house. Practice makes perfect – there’s a reason why that saying still holds true.”
“It’s vital to have a diverse sound and a well-rounded approach to playing. This is especially important if you want to be a session guitarist, because you’re going to be called on to play so many styles and genres.
“It’s great to want to be a rock or metal player, and if that’s your thing, that’s your thing. In my own case, I’ve received so much work over the years because I have a bit more diversity to my playing.
“Knowledge is power – another old saying that still applies. If you’re educated about different styles of music, your opportunities will be a lot greater than if you can only play one genre well. Plus, it’s just fun to be able to play a lot of things. If you start investigating other forms of music, you’ll probably surprise yourself and find that you really like them. There’s a whole world of sounds and styles out there, so dive in.”
Buy the right guitar
“You’ll always have this image of the guitar you want. Particularly when you’re a kid or a young player, you’ll see something in a magazine or online, and you’ll say, ‘I want that guitar.’ You’ll have your mind set on it, whether it’s a Flying V, a Les Paul or whatever.
“You might have built up this idea in your head, but sometimes that guitar you think you want isn’t the right guitar for you. Go to your local music store and play all different makes of guitars. Jackson, Fender, Ibanez, Gibson, you name it – just see what feels right to you. You might be surprised that it’s something completely different than what you’d imagined.
“You’re going to be the one playing this guitar for years and years, so you need to buy it right. Especially if you’re playing a lot for it – you don’t want to make a costly mistake. Take your time, test out a lot of guitars and choose wisely.”
Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists forGuitar World,Guitar Player,MusicRadarandClassic Rock. He is also a former editor ofGuitar World, contributing writer forGuitar Aficionadoand VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.