Taste, Tone, and a heart of Rock 'n' Roll

Epiphone's new Ltd. Ed. Johnny A. Custom pays tribute to one of the most recognized signature models in the history of both Gibson and Epiphone. But the story of Johnny A., the man behind the design, is the story of one of the great rock 'n' roll guitarists of our time. Johnny A. has been a life long fixture of the Boston music scene since the early 70s first as a fan, and then as a friend, bandleader, and songwriter for a music scene that included Peter Wolf, the J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, and many more.

John Lennon once welcomed Chuck Berry to the Mike Douglas show with the now-immortal introduction: "If you had to give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.' And today, serious rock fans think of Johnny A. as the very same kind of troubadour. (Johnny was probably watching Lennon host the Mike Douglas show that cold afternoon in February 1972). Johnny A.'s fans cross over many generations of musicians, producers, and critics, including Premier Guitar. "Johnny A.'s magic crosses over because, like [Bill] Frisell, he doesn't just play he plays music." Rock 'n' Roll and the electric guitar could not ask for a more passionate advocate than Johnny A.

Johnny A.'s latest album, Driven, has received rave reviews. And while touring with his own band, Johnny is also working with the Yardbirds ("my second favorite band growing up behind The Beatles"). The Yardbirds recently announced that legendary producer Jack Douglas--whose credits include Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and John Lennon--will take the band in the studio later this year for a new album with Johnny A. in the lead guitar seat once occupied by Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.

Epiphone.com spoke with Johnny A. the very week that J. Geils and Boston drummer Sib Hashian passed away, which inspired a look back at the storied Boston scene that helped forge Johnny A.'s life as a musician, songwriter, and bandleader. Be sure to visit Johnny A.'s website at www.johnnya.com for more info on Driven and his current tour schedule.

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When you were starting out, it seems like record companies were willing to develop an act over time more than they are today. You were a young musician when the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith were starting out. Was the record business different in the 70s?

When we think about how the music business has changed and people say 'it's not the same as it used to be and it seems disposable and there's no artist development,' to be quite honest with you, I think that period of time--the 70s/80s period--was really more the exception than the norm. I grew up in the late 50s and early 60s. If you look at the record business at that time--in the 50s before The Beatles--it was about disposable singles. It was kind of like it is now where they really didn't develop acts. I was a big fan of Elvis and Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers. My Mom bought me a 45 record player and I would spin Little Willie John's "Fever" over and over. She thought I was insane. And she might not have been far from wrong. But there would also be pop hits like Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans" or "Sting Ray" by The Routers and you'd never hear from them again. They would have a hit song and then they'd be gone.

And then in the 60s, with The Beatles and the British Invasion, the impact of that whole wave of music just changed everything. And as those people matured and they got a chance to put out multiple records and they experimented and expanded, it became a much more album-oriented culture. Take Aerosmith: you can read about those guys where they were going to get dropped after the Get Your Wings album--the second album. Look at how successful that band became and imagine if they had been dropped.

But now it's not so much that the music business has changed. I think it's almost reverted back to what it was. All these stories about guys like Chuck Berry who never made any money on their records--nobody is making money on their record sales now! There was a brief 25-year period in the middle when it was different, which happened to be the time I was growing up. But in reality, it's more akin to how things are now.

When did you know that you wanted to become a musician?

That's probably as old a thought process as I can remember. I never wanted to be anything else. I started playing drums at 6 years old. And I was playing drums in a band--my very first paying gig--for a party for the New England Telephone Company that my Dad worked for when I was still a kid. And my band played and I made $25. So I had been gigging and practicing forever. This was what I wanted to do. I never had a plan to be anything else but a professional musician. Now, I didn't know how that worked. And it took a long time to navigate the ropes of the music business. And I'm still navigating the ropes of the music business--50 something years later. I always wanted to be a musician and I was never discouraged from my Mom. She was always passionate and supportive of me and still is.

I graduated from high school in 1970 and went to Grahm Junior College for one year, dropped out, and then the next year I spent about a semester and a half at the Berklee College of Music. I was never a good book student. I am a student of things that I'm passionate about but in more of an organic way than a book-study way. When I was in grade school and I had to do book reports, I hated to read so much that I would just make up a title, I'd make up an author's name, and I'd make up a story and write a book report.

You were songwriting!

Right!

But I met J. Geils, I was working at EU Wurlitzer's in Boston. The 'Geils band would come in--this was around '72. And Aerosmith would come in. I'm kind of a fixture in the Boston scene.

The music scene in Boston at that time-- jazz, rock, folk--was incredible.

The Boston music scene at that time rivals any music scene in the country at any period. It probably rivals the LA scene in the 80s or the New York scene in the 70s. In the late 60s you had Ultimate Spinach with Skunk Baxter and the Colwell-Winfield Blues Band and then later on you had the Cars, Nervous Eaters, the Atlantics, the Stompers. The clubs were all over the place. The radio was super supportive of local talent. And they played unsigned musicians. I had extremely big hit singles with my band The Streets and Hearts On Fire in those days. It was a great place to live, it was a great place to hang, and it was a great place to play music. And it was always a very diversified music scene. It wasn't just a New York punk scene. You had rock, folk, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt. Even Van Morrison lived there for a while. And you had an unbelievable blues scene. There was everybody. And WBCN-FM was a great underground radio station.

That was when radio was radio and you could put on the station in any given hour and hear the Mama's and the Papa's and The Beatles and Miles Davis and Frank Zappa and Sly and the Family Stone all that in an hour.

Are there sounds from that time that you think about revisiting in terms of how you lead a band or how you play guitar?

I think that's apparent in all I do. I still revisit all the same stuff going back to the Everly Brothers days. I do have a very wide-ranging palate. I'll like a song by Duffy, I'll like a song by Gerry Rafferty, Chris Whitley--I like a lot of different stuff. My music collection is all over the place. I grew up in that time when music was diverse and that's how my ears were trained. And there was more mystery at that time, too. You'd go in a store and buy a record because you liked the cover. For instance, when I bought Frank Zappa's Freak Out, I'd never heard any of it but I loved the cover. And then you listen to the music or read the liner notes--which were important back then--and then you'd hear the music and you have to sit there and absorb it all. The bands I liked were never on tv and a lot of those bands weren't even on the radio. You'd have to guess as to what kind of guitar they used, what kind of amplifier. And then they'd come to town and you'd try to check out the gear. It was great.

Congratulations on your new Epiphone Ltd. Ed. Johnny A.

I think Epiphone did a fantastic job on it. I'm honored to have an Epiphone version of the guitar as well as the Gibson Custom. I'm really psyched about that. It's nice that (Epiphone President) Jim Rosenberg and the company believe in me enough to put the product out. And I'm really amazed at what a great job Epiphone did and not because of how I view Epiphone as a company but I know the difficulties in putting that guitar together. It's a tough guitar to build because of the multi-ply binding and the four mited cutaways to deal with. So the fact that Epiphone came along and duplicated my guitar at the price point that they are--it's befuddling to me. I don't even know how they do it.

What was your inspiration for the design?

It was based on that most of my first record was recorded with an ES-295 with two P-90s--what we think of as a Scotty Moore guitar. That was a very snappy, percussive guitar due to the P-90s and the tension. So I was trying to come close to being able to duplicate the sound and the feel of my 295. But the 295 presents a lot of issues performing live at loud volumes. So I wanted a guitar that would give me the qualities of the 295 when I wanted it but not feed back, plus be able to scream like a Les Paul. Getting that snap attack and that feel was what I was after. I choose humbuckers over P-90s because of the noise and the Ebony fretboard brought back some of the attack. The combinations of the long scale and the Ebony and the humbuckers gave me a tool that brought me close to mimicking what my 295 would do for me. I love it.

You've been touring with the Yardbirds, which must be terrific since you've been a fan for so long.

I've been in the band slightly over two years now. Longer than Jeff Beck was in the band (laughs). It's a lot of fun for me. Life is a funny thing. Here I am a little kid from Malden, Massachusetts, growing up listening to this music, seeing all these great guitars and I end up being an artist for these major companies that I always drooled over. And now my name is on the headstock of what I consider the Cadillac of guitars makers. And that's one thing that I pinch myself for. Plus, the band that made me want to be that aggressive lead guitarist was the Yardbirds in 1965 and 1966. Here I am today, that same kid, and now I'm in the band. It's so crazy how life is.