Heavy metal and bluegrass guitarist John 5 on his musical obsessions
He's become one of the most acclaimed guitarists today of heavy metal — and bluegrass. John Lowery, performing under the stage name John 5, has played with Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and David Lee Roth, and recorded with Lynyrd Skynyrd. But he traces his appreciation for the guitar to watching "Hee Haw" as a kid.
The musicianship he saw performing country tunes inspired him to pursue a virtuosity that is as much at home in a heavy metal club as it is at a hootenanny. During concerts with his group, John 5 and the Creatures, he will riff tunes ranging from rock to country, which only seems weird when you factor in his stage makeup.
"I love Roy Clark," he told CBS News' Jake Barlow. "I started playing guitar at the age of seven. My parents would always watch 'Hee Haw.' Everything comes to when you're a young child, your brain develops in what you want to do, what you like, what you don't like. And I remember seeing this young boy, he was probably a little older than me, but he was an incredible banjo player. I was like, 'Whoa, this is incredible!'" [The boy, Jimmy Henley, won a bluegrass banjo world championship at age 10, and would go on to appear as a regular cast member of "Hee Haw" for more than 25 years.]
"And I knew I wanted to play electric guitar, so I thought, well, instead of banjo I'll play electric guitar. I was so obsessed with playing guitar. I don't know what I would be doing other than guitar because I've been playing guitar for so long. The only other thing I like to do is clean a house. I know that sounds odd, but I feel very organized, so, maybe I would be a male maid if I wasn't a guitar player."
To watch an interview with John 5 click on the video player below:
He described a rather sheltered life growing up, and moving to California to give it the old "high school try." High school try? "'Cause I didn't go to college," he said.
"I went to L.A. and I was, like, looking around and figured everything out and met a couple of people, and first night I was there I got all my money and everything stolen. But I never give up with anything. So, I was like, OK, we move on.
"I just was meeting people, and I said, 'I play guitar,' and they're like, 'Oh, we're doing a session for this.' I said, 'Oh, well, I'll charge this' — because I knew what people were getting, what people were charging for these sessions, and I thought for myself, I will do it for half the price and half the time. Because they want to get you in and out. So, I got this little reputation of, here's this kid who will do it for half the price and it only takes him half an hour to do his stuff.
"I just wanted to be a session musician because I hated to travel. I was doing Rick Springfield and Wilson Phillips and TV shows like 'Baywatch,' 'Jay Leno Show,' 'Mortal Combat' movie. I did all these things, every day it was something else. And I got a lot of work, 'cause it doesn't matter what you do in life, you always want to save a dollar, so I was doing it for cheaper than everyone else. And I knew people would go for that. I tried to do the best for them, and it really worked."
A fan of Marilyn Manson, Lowery played with David Lee Roth, and had just returned from a European tour with Rob Halford in 1998 when he received a call from Manson's manager, Tony Ciulla, who said they were having problems with their guitar player and asked if he could meet with Manson. "And I said, sure!
"We went to Gaucho Grill on Ventura, and I remember pulling up there, and I've never seen Manson, I've never met him or anything, never saw him in concert, but I remember looking in his car — I was like, this must be his car — there's a David Lee Roth CD and a Rob Halford CD on the back seat. That's quite a coincidence!
"So, I go upstairs, and he's wearing big red sunglasses and Loverboy T-shirt: 'I want you to be in the band. Your name is going to be John 5 — I want to do everything with numbers.'
"And I was like, 'OK. Yeah, I love your music, and I would love to be a part of it.'
"And he goes, 'You just have to shave your eyebrows off and you're in.'
"And I was like, 'OK. … Here? ' 'No, no, no, later!'"
In fact, the first time John saw Manson live was the first time he played with him, at the 1998 Video Music Awards. He would perform with Manson's band for six years, before moving off on his own.
"After I left Marilyn Manson, I didn't really know what to do, so I was like, well, maybe I'll make an instrumental record. And I wanted to make if for my friends at Christmas time and give it to them as a gift. I thought that'll be a fun gift. And this small record company said, 'We want to release this.' I thought. 'Oh that's odd, you know? But OK, cool!' And they put it out. And it was so, it's just amazing, but it had such a great response. They put me on the cover of Guitar Player and all this stuff, because it was different. I played this heavy metal music and country, all these crazy styles. And people just loved it.
"And I didn't do it for anything but just to give it to my friends. And I love playing guitar and appreciate music and, it was just done from the heart.
"But I never wanted to tour. Every interviewer asked me, 'Are you gonna go on tour? ' I said, 'No,' because really in the back of my mind I thought, Nobody will want to see this. Nobody wants to see this stuff! I really thought that. I'm being honest. My wife was like, 'You should go out and play shows.' Really? And it was just so successful, and I thank the crowd every night, and I was shocked but people really enjoy it, maybe because I enjoy it so much, I love it."
In addition to his recordings with Zombie, Roth, 2wo, Paul Stanley, Sebastian Bach and others, John 5 has recorded 13 albums solo and with his band, the Creatures. His repertoire ranges from hard tracks, like "Midnight Mass" (from the album "Invasion"):
… to the very un-metal track "Howdy":
… and the bluesy-urban track "I Like the Funk":
His latest album, "Sinner," mixes heavy metal with jazz standards, including "How High the Moon" and "Georgia On My Mind":
"I always look for inspiration, and I've gone through epiphanies, always, starting with 'Hee Haw' [and] Roy Clark," he said. "And seeing Jimi Hendrix when they were playing the movie 'Woodstock' on cable, I got obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. And then I got into Kiss, and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is the greatest.' And then I was so obsessed with Kiss, I got the first Van Halen record 'cause on the back it said 'Gene Simmons.' I was getting anything I could Kiss. And then going from Kiss to Van Halen, then Yngwie Malmsteen, then Chet Atkins, the list goes on and on. But I'm always, always looking for inspiration.
"I think nowadays Instagram is such a wonderful tool for that. Because if you look up, like, a guitar player in your feed, you'll see other guitar players. Just like if you look up cooking you will get in your feed a bunch of cooking stuff. So, I use that as a tool, not just promoting yourself or having your own TV channel if you will, but for education, to see other guitar players, learn things. It's a wonderful tool."
John 5 and the Creatures are currently embarking on a North American tour.
"I never dreamt about any of this. I didn't even think anyone would ever want to talk to me, I just wanted to be a session musician. So, I never dreamt or hoped for any of this at all. I just wanted to play guitar. I love guitar and music so much, that's all I wanted to do. Now doing what I do, it doesn't matter how cold, or how rainy, or anything like that — anywhere I am, if I have a guitar in my hand, playing for people, I just appreciate it so much.
"I practice all the time. If I wouldn't be talking to you I would be playing right now," he said. "It's a terrible, terrible thing, because it's really kind of taken over my life so much. Sometimes I'll be playing and I'll start in the morning, and I'll be like, it's dark; I better eat and go to the bathroom. That will happen when no one is around. Like, if I'm on tour and no one is with me and I have the day off, I just lose track of time. It's a crazy obsession, but it's a good obsession, at least I'm not doing anything to hurt anybody or hurt myself or anything like that. So I'm OK with it and hopefully making a couple of people smile along the way.
"I just love going out playing for people. And I love meeting the people and hearing their stories. It really is a dream. I really think the meaning of life is just doing what you love. It's been wonderful."
John 5 and the Creatures are now on their "Sinner" tour, which continues this week with dates in California (Roseville, Garden Grove and San Diego) and in Las Vegas. The tour runs through July 17 in the U.S. and Canada, and then continues in Australia in December.
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Story produced by Jake Barlow and David Morgan.
David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.