Johnny A Driven
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Vintage Guitar Magazine

Johnny A. is not exactly your household name. But late last year he released a wonderful instrumental album that featured great originals, very cool covers, and more soulful, heartfelt licks and technique than a dozen major-label releases.If Johnny is familiar to some, it would be through his work with former J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf's solo work in the '90s. We sat with Johnny and found a musician and guitarist whose love of the instrument and music are truly refreshing.

Vintage Guitar: Let's start with your history.
Johnny A.: Well, I was brought up in the north shore of Boston and I kicked around that area a lot. I played high school dances, church functions, battles of the bands, and all those things. I graduated to the Boston music scene and traveled a little bit. I went to the West Coast for the first time when I encountered Bobby Whitlock, the B-3 player from Derek and the Dominoes. We were trying to put a band together. The drummer was Doug Clifford from Credence. I was in a local band back in Boston called The Streets. It was a heavy rock band and was very close to getting signed by some New York management. We had done some touring with Aerosmith, and I just couldn't make the break to leave the band to put all the time into the thing with Whitlock and Clifford, even though I knew at the time that they were heavyweight cats. I just felt strong about The Streets because it was my band, my material, and I was trying to launch them.

What happened after The Streets.
I ended up going through a lot of bands. I went through a heavy fusion period where I was listening to Bill Connors, John McLaughlin, and Robert Fripp...all the art-rock guys like Steve Howe, and early Genesis with Peter Gabriel. I wasn't really listening to that much rock. I had a band called Hearts On Fire, and a band called Hidden Secrets. They were in the upper echelon of local bands. We played big clubs and opened for acts like Joe Perry, David Johannson, Bob Seger, Smithereens, Dave Edmunds, Marshall Crenshaw. After that I hooked up again with Bobby Whitlock. I was kind of his musical director. I put a band together for him and he did a few gigs in the northeast.

Where is Bobby from?
Mississippi. I still keep in touch with him. We might do a couple of gigs in the future. It was a lot of fun. We did a lot of his stuff from Derek and the Dominoes, which was such great material. So that was a real thrill to be in that band and hear a guy like that play a B-3 and hear his voice onstage. After that, he went back south and I was doing pick-up blues gigs and others. I did a session for a Christmas album for WBCN. I was called in to do some slide acoustic work for Peter Wolf's track on that album. That really was all I did with Wolf at the time.

Did you know him?
Yeah, we crossed paths. As a matter of fact, when he was going to go out in support of Come As You Are, Jeff Golub (VG, April '99), who did a lot of the guitar work on it, suggested me as a guitarist for the live gig. So, Wolf and Jeff came to see me at a gig. From what Pete says, Jeff and I were so much alike as players that he wanted to get someone else. He wanted someone that brought something else. Even now he thinks we have similar approaches.

Did you know Jeff at that time?
Oh yeah, Jeff's a good friend.

So you didn't end up with Wolf?
Yeah, the Christmas album is way after that. I ended up playing with him when the attorney who was shopping my band was working with Peter. A Harley-Davidson dealership had approached Peter to do Laconia Weekend. Pete didn't have a band and I was called to audition. We'd rehearse, put a band together, everyone would make a bunch of money, and that would be it. It would be a one-gig bit.

I got the gig and we put the band together and rehearsed for about six weeks. At the last minute, the dealership couldn't get the permit to do the event. The whole thing fell apart. Wolf said, "Look man, everybody's put so much time into this, let me see if I can book a half a dozen dates so everybody can get some dough, and then we'll call it a day."

Well, it was a really good band. It was called Peter Wolf and the House Party Five. We did the dates and it just turned into more and more dates. The demand was pretty feverish and we ended up playing all over the place for five years! We went to Japan, then he got the deal with Reprise Records and asked me to co-produce it with him. I did and it got a four-star review in Rolling Stone. That was Long Line. We toured behind it, all over the country, and the band just kind of stopped after that. The band just kind of broke up. But we were still doing some acoustic was me, Wolf, a couple background singers, a percussionist, and another guitar player. We did six or seven months of acoustic shows.

That takes us to now. I was knockin' around, not doing much, and I got a call to do a couple tracks on Wolf's Fools Parade. I wasn't sure if he was going to tour, and people were saying, "Why don't you put your own thing together and just get out there and rock." But I'm not interested in doing something unless it's got a sound. To just be in another blues band or be another rock guy just doesn't mean anything to me. If I can't create a unique sound or do a project with a unique fingerprint, I'm not really interested from a solo standpoint. As a gun for hire, I go in and do the best I can. If it's a guy like Whitlock who wants southern-style rock, that's what I go for. If it's a guy like Wolf who wants Curtis Mayfield, Steve Cropper, or Bobby Womack, that's what I go for there.

But my own thing had to have its own sound. I spent about a year working on an instrumental thing, but it really wasn't cohesive. On my record you hear elements of Wes, Chet, Jeff Beck...but when I started doing it, one thing really sounded like rock, one sounded like jazz, and so forth. They were all elements, but they didn't have one personality. Eventually, I was able to be diverse but still have a signature sound.

Were you gigging while doing the album?
Just pickup gigs - bluesy, jazzy things. I'm self-taught - always played by ear. All through my life, I would go into bars or watch TV and see a guitarist or piano player, and he could be playing, whether it's "Shadow of Your Smile," or "Moon River." It sounds like hokey stuff, but I really dig seeing a guy just playing and giving you the sense of the song. I've always admired a cat who could do that, and I always wanted to be able to do it. So, I had all this time on my hands and I pulled out this music book someone gave me years ago, The Complete Beatles, a two-volume set. The first song was "Till There Was You." I was trying to take the chord clusters and figuring out fingerings to go with the melodies. Unbeknownst to me, because I really didn't know what I was doing, I was reading the piano charts. I really started to like what I was hearing. I thought I could fuse my style with this chordal-melody thing that was happening.

At first, my hands were a mess. They were cramping and I was using finger muscles and forearm muscles I'd never used, and I'd been playing a long time. But the more I did it, the more I wanted to do it. I learned one song, then another, and then it was six songs, and then it was 40. It just started to develop into a style. That's what happened.

I love a lot of different people's playing - that's where the diversity comes in. I'm not a blues Nazi, I'm not a jazz snob. I love pop music. I love jazz music, I love atonal music. Opera might be the only thing I don't dig. I like McCoy Tyner, Robert Fripp, John Mclaughlin, George Harrison, Chet Atkins, and Jimi Hendrix.

Was the choice of "Yes It Is" for the album left over from The Complete Beatles studies?
That's where I learned it, but I really like songwriters and songs. I like hearing Pat Martino as much as Gerry Rafferty songs. For the longest times, I couldn't get that happy blend of guitar playing and songwriting. If I was in a pick-up band, I'd be the burning guitar player. If I had my own band, I'd be writing songs and never able to let the guitar playing work to my satisfaction. This is the first time where I feel like I've had a project where I've been able to fuse the playing with the song.

What about the covers? There are killer covers of "You Don't Love Me," "Walk Don't Run," and my particular favorite, "Wichita Lineman."
The choice of covers was a way to pay tribute to songs and writers who left impressions on me. One was John Lennon. I'm a huge fan, and the influence of the Beatles I can't even measure. And "Yes It Is" is just such a deep song. It's so heavy. You hear that emotion and you get chills. It was a B-side, but to me it was always an A-side. It's just a great record. That was kind of my tip of the hat to Lennon.

The "You Don't Love Me" thing was my hats-off to the blues thing. I got turned on to that song via Mike Bloomfield when he did it with Stephen Stills and Al Kooper. I know a lot of people know it from the Allman Brothers, but I heard the Bloomfield thing first.

"Walk Don't Run" comes from when I was a kid and played all the surf stuff. And "Wichita Lineman" is one of my favorite songs of all time. I don't know if it gets any better.

That was the first thing I put on when I listened to do the review. I loved it, and the rest was equally impressive.
Thanks. The funny thing about that cut is I actually worked on it and arranged it without having the Glen Campbell version around. I did it at the tempo on the album. That's the feel and vibe that song always hit me at. Then I got the original because I wasn't sure about a couple of the chord changes. I put it on, heard the beginning, and said to my wife, "This must be a different version. I don't remember this intro like this." And the tempo just didn't seem right. But then I heard something in the song that made me think it was the original.

Then, in the record store I see Jimmy Webb's Ten Easy Pieces. He did solo versions or duet, versions of a lot of his hits. I picked it up and played "Wichita Lineman." It's almost all piano, and wouldn't you know it, it's dead-on to the tempo I arranged it. In my head, now I'm saying I may have captured the feel he wanted. I'm sure he's a huge fan of Glen Campbell's version, but I feel my version is real reflective of his.

Let's talk more about influences, guitar or otherwise.
I played drums for about five years, then switched to guitar when I was about 12. I actually was playing drums in a band, and practicing guitar on the side. All the guys in my band quit and joined a rival band. Once, they were playing in a parking lot and I went to see them. I was still a drummer at the time, but I was practicing guitar like hell, learning Jorma Kaukonen solos. Well, their guitar player didn't show up, so they asked me to play! I knew their first set, it was stuff like "Incense and Peppermints," "Somebody to Love," "White Rabbit," and all these songs. So somebody drove me home and I got my guitar and amp. I did the first set. During the break, they taught me the second set. After the gig, I was the guitar player in the band, and I never played drums again.

What kind of guitar did you have for that gig?
My first decent guitar was an $88 Vox Clubman, a student model, Strat-shaped guitar with an old fashioned can opener-shaped headstock. I swept floors at my aunt's beauty shop to save enough to buy it. It's in pieces, but I still have it. After that, my dad bought me a Gretsch Viking, which I also still have. Then the first guitar I bought, I took my Gretsch drums and traded them and $90 for a '68 Les Paul Deluxe. I also had a Hagstrom 3 I ended up putting a bunch of day-glo @#%!& on. Anyway, that's how I ended up making the change from drummer to guitarist.

When this transformation started, what players were you listening to?
Well, there was Todd Rundgren from the Nazz, and George Harrison. But the players who really got me going were Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds, Clapton and Cream. For rock/blues guitar, one of the best tones ever is the live "Crossroads." I don't know if there's ever been a better rock guitar tone recorded.

The other obvious one was "Are You Experienced." It took a month to get my jaw off the floor, and I was lucky enough to see Hendrix live in a very small place called The Carousel, in Framingham, Massachusetts. My mom took me to the show, which was in a tent. My seats ended up being in back, behind his stacks. I couldn't really see him, and I was like "Oh man, this sucks." So, I'm wandering around trying to get in front, and I get friendly with a guy from the opening act who took a liking to me and he walked me right by the cops and security and he put me in the orchestra pit. I was sitting no more than six feet from Hendrix for the whole show. In fact, that's how I learned to play the beginning of "Foxey Lady," from watching him that close. He had two Marshall stacks, one Vox wah, and two FuzzFaces - one was red and one was gray. He opened with an instrumental version of "Sunshine of Your Love."

What was the Pete Townshend quote about thinking about quitting when he first saw Hendrix?
For me it was kind of a religious experience. It just made me want to play more. I can remember him wiping his guitar down with a rebel flag towel and he had these cool black bellbottoms with white inserts, wearing a great black shirt, and he was just so cool.

Sounds like quite the experience for a kid.
Oh yeah, and the other was seeing the Beatles.

Where'd you see them?
Suffolk Downes. I was as close as you could get to them, which was against the cyclone fence. It was probably 500 feet from them, but I did get to see them.

I guess if I had to pick a guy who really expanded electric guitar, to me it would be Jeff Beck. He's changed his style so many times, but still he's able to come back and do something like "Crazy Legs." You listen to that, and then Blow By Blow, and Guitar Shop, and you say, "There's no way this is the same guy."

What about genres other than rock?
Well, there's Pat Martino. He's a great player. Kenny Burrell...

You mentioned Chet.
Yeah, Chet. You know, it's funny; I didn't realize when I was a kid listening to music from the jukebox at my grandmother and grandfather's little restaurant...I'd hear the Everly Brothers, Motown, and the Yardbirds. So the idea of songs also had an influence on me. Even if I didn't know at the time who Bobby Womack, Steve Cropper, or Curtis Mayfield were, I heard them constantly on all these great songs. So it was kind of a process of osmosis. Even when I was trying to do the power trio thing and listening to Cream or Grand Funk, I was also listening to Diana Ross or the Temps, Smokey Robinson, and still hearing all the other great stuff like the Everly Brothers. Plus, my dad had stuff like Little Willie John doing "Fever," right next to Earl Bostic doing "Harlem Nocturne."

You had a very hip family.
Every weekend, there'd be a huge party at one of the uncles' houses, and all we'd be listening to is Middle-Eastern music. My dad was a bartender at this big Middle-Eastern club in Boston, and I used to go in, and the belly dancers would be going, with the guys playing bozoukis. So I love that, too.

You earlier talked up to your Les Paul; have you always been a Gibson guy?
I've always played a lot of guitars. When I started, it was the '69 Les Paul. I had a '68 paisley Tele for awhile, and that's the one I wish I'd never sold. Mom bought it when I was a kid, paid $229 for it, and I traded it for some Rickenbackers. I've been sorry ever since.

For a while I used Fenders - I had a '64 black ash-body Strat, a '65 Lake Placid Blue, and I had an original '52 Tele - poodle case, the whole thing. So I used a lot of Fenders for awhile, and then some Paul Reed Smiths and stuff like that, but I'd always kind of end up going back to Fender or Gibson.

It's funny, you play a Fender and you take the guitar off and put on a Gibson and you don't even have to touch the amp. But whenever you play something else...go from a Fender to a Paul Reed Smith or a B.C. Rich, you have to twiddle the knobs.

So there was a period where I used Fenders [because] Gibson wasn't really making very good guitars. Then Stevie Ray Vaughan came out, and that's the tone, you know, the Hendrix tone, the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone, that's the classic Strat tone. I was playing Fenders at the time, so that was my tone. People would say, "Wow, you're really into Stevie Ray, huh?" It was a compliment, but suddenly people were thinking I'm trying to cop this guys' thing, when I've been playing this way all my life.

Lucky for me, Gibson started making good guitars again (laughs).

Good timing.
So I switched back to Gibson. I bought a Historic Collection goldtop in '93, sold it, and bought my first flametop in '94. On the strength of my work with Wolf, I got endorsed by Gibson in early '95. Mike McGuire at the Custom Shop has been great to me. They made a ton of beautiful guitars. For a guy like me who's not on the level of a Joe Perry or a Joe Walsh, they really treat me right. I have three flametop '59 reissues, one with a factory Bigsby. I have a '59 reissue 335 with a Bigsby, and the 295.

The other guitar I've drooled over for years was a Firebird VII. I had a '64 and a '63, both Firebird Vs. But I've always wanted a VII. So I asked if they would make me one. Phil Jones, who was at the Custom Shop at the time, was also a Firebird player and told me they never made a reissue so close to the original. They borrowed a '64 from a doctor in Nashville, and Phil built my guitar by hand. When I opened this case, it took my breath away.

You're kind of spoiled.
Yeah, it's an awesome guitar. And it's funny, at the time they didn't have the Maestro vibrolas - they were all made with stops. I knew they put vibrolas on some, so I searched to find an NOS vibrola. I found one in Canada. It was nickel, not gold. But it was new in the box. I paid a ton to have it shipped from Canada, then a ton to have it gold plated. Then I found a gold NOS '64 arm in Seattle and bought that. I shipped all of that to Gibson and they put it on the guitar. They calibrated a special set of pickups so the guitar is very well-balanced. It looks stock, but I have it wired in a custom configuration that allows me to get all combinations of the pickups.

What about amps; what do you like?
It depends on what I'm doing. For my record and the live act, I use Marshall 6101s or 6100s - the 30th anniversary amp. They made them one year, in '92, in blue, and I have five of them - two half-stacks and three combos. I recorded the whole record direct. The amp is equipped with really good speaker emulation.

When I first tried to make the record, I had an old Deluxe, a Vibro-King, an old AC-30, and an old Super, but I'd been gigging and put the band together with this Marshall. I'm kind of a purist - my favorite tones are tweed Fenders, AC-30s, and stuff. But when I went to do the record, I didn't really get a good sound. I had all the best equipment, the whole record was recorded analog with the old amps, and it didn't really sound like me. I recorded a couple of keeper tracks, listened to the tape at home, and said, "You know, this just doesn't sound right." I scrapped all the tracks and started over with the Marshall.

And all was well.
Well, the other thing that really helped the record was Monster Cable. It made a tremendous difference. I was one of these guys who never really thought a cable made a difference. Everybody kept saying, "Try Monster Cable," and I thought it was just bull@#%& - a gimmick or something. I went to a shop, plugged my 295 in with Monster Cable, and it was like night and day. It sounded like 3-D. The whole record was recorded with Monster Cable, not just the guitar. We did all the drum mic things, the bass, the DI, everything. It made a huge difference.

Johnny's Sometime Tuesday Morning was released independently and is selling well, especially in the Boston area. He is hoping it will be picked up by a larger label. And any label would be smart to grab hold of a player and album of this caliber. You can pick it up at, phone 800-448-6369, or at Johnny's website, In Boston, it's available at Tower Records or Newbury Comic Stores. You can write to Johnny at PO Box 550, Salem, MA 01970.

-John Heidt

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