Johnny A may well be on his way to a having a household name, the question is which will get him there first? His brilliant instrumental songs which show off his mastery of the guitar or the custom made Gibson guitar that's named after him.
That's right, he actually has a guitar named after him. How cool is that?
"I continue to pinch myself about that," said Johnny A. "It's something I never really aspired to and never expected or anticipated. I've had a long standing relationship with the custom shop at Gibson since 1993 or 1994. They started to endorse me when I was working with Peter Wolf (former J. Geils Band frontman.) When my solo record came out, I started getting a lot of critical acclaim for having a unique voice on the guitar - maybe something that wasn't happening at this point in time.
"When I went to play live with the guitars that I was using in the studio - these big hollowed bodies - they were giving me a lot of problems with feedback and stuff, so I couldn't use them. I switched to solid body guitars, Les Pauls to be exact, but as much as I loved those guitars and they sounded great, I missed that hollow tone. That's when Gibson and I got together and talked about a signature model guitar. They're a fan of what I'm doing with the guitar and obviously they're happy I'm using Gibson guitars. So we started to talk about designing a guitar."
After the project got the go-ahead, Gibson had a design team assembled for Johnny. Research and development took about a year. The guitar came out in July 2003 and it's been an extremely successful guitar. In fact, he says it's one of the best selling custom guitar models for Gibson.
"Guitar Player gave it rave reviews as did Jazz Times," said Johnny. "I'm excited because I was hoping to help design an instrument that would transcend the fact that I was using an instrument, much like Les Paul did. When I originally bought a Les Paul way back in the sixties, I had no idea who Les Paul was. It could have said phantom on it. Les Paul just seemed to be the model of the guitar. I wasn't aware of the man when I was young. So, for me, the Johnny A Signature is such a good guitar that I'd love for the guitar to be able to stand alone. Even if nobody knew who I was, that would be exciting for me."
Johnny A first began getting noticed on a national level when he worked with Peter Wolf. He was the band leader and music director of Peter's band and also produced the album "Long Line" with him. Wolf stopped touring around 1998, which left Johnny A out of work. Uncomfortable with his singing ability, the situation forced Johnny to make a decision about his future.
"I had come to the realization that the person that delivers the melody is really the voice of a band," explained Johnny. "And once you lose that voice you're basically out of business. I didn't want a lead singer, because the sound of the singer is the sound of the band. This time, I wanted to be the one with the voice. So, I just turned to the thing that I figured I could do the best, which was play guitar."
The answer was in writing instrumentals that were based around strong melodies. This led to the creation of his first solo record, "Sometime Tuesday Morning." Johnny A released it himself and watched as it not only sold thousands of copies and was nominated for a Boston Music Award as best debut album of 2000 on an indie label.
Unlike many modern instrumental records where guitar gods try to blaze a path as fast as they can, Johnny's songs blended jazz with blues, rockabilly and pop melodies.
"It was really about celebrating my influences," said Johnny. "It wasn't about trying to get a record deal. It wasn't about chasing a musical genre. It was that this might be the only solo CD I ever record. I want to be true to myself as an artist and just play exactly what I want to play, write exactly what I want to write, and record it exactly the way I want to record it. And if I sell two copies that's ok because I'm just leaving something behind that was a true reflection of what I am and what I do as an artist... Fortunately for me it caught on."
The record caught the attention of Steve Vai, whose Favored Nations label acquired the rights and released the record nationally. To date, over 75,000 copies have been sold and the label has since worked out a deal to release three more records by Johnny. "Get Inside," which was released earlier in 2004 is the first of these releases.
"What makes a great song is the melody," he explained. "So, for me, that's basically my approach to being an instrumentalist. It's more in the tradition of a guitarist as a vocalist or in the tradition of a Johnny Smith or Chet Atkins or Les Paul, where as much as they were giants on their instruments, they really kind of played within a song form context.
"I've always been a song guy. I've always written songs and always liked songs. I appreciate great instrumentalists and I aspire to be as good as I can be as an instrumentalist, but the bottom line for me is that I need to have a great song first. I've never been concerned or compelled to write music that is basically a platform for me to solo. I'm more interested in composition, arrangement, production and execution. That's where my head's at."
The songs on his records somewhat defy classification making them a difficult sell for radio airplay. It's not often that modern instrumentalists get played on the radio but Johnny A has been able to make do. Usually people will hear him on specialty shows - either jazz or blues or instrumental shows. Triple-A stations have been somewhat receptive as well. Many very big Triple-A stations across the country play his latest record.
"I probably get more than my fair share as opposed to other guitar instrumentalists," he said.
Johnny A has been touring the country as a trio featuring him and a rhythm section (bass and drums.) In recent months they've played the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas; Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival in Dallas; the Manchester Jazz and Blues Fest in Manchester, New Hampshire; the WFUV South Street Seaport Festival in New York City; and dozens of club dates from New York to Colorado.
You can catch a free performance by Johnny A on Sunday, April 22nd at 6pm in the park across from Convention Hall in Asbury Park. The show is part of the Guitarbeque festival, a three-day celebration of great guitarists. Visit ecmeguitarbeque.com for more info.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.