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QRD #42 - Guitarist Series
about this issue
Guitarist Interviews with:
Ashkelon Sain
Zac Keiller
Eric Muhs
Patrick Vega
Russ Stedman
Bret Hart
Rick Ray
John William Gordon
Evan Peta
Evgeny Zheyda
Dave Halverson
Charles Rice Goff III
Calvin Johnson
Kim Chee
John G Sosnowski
Michael Walton
Annelies Monseré
Eric Quach
Robert Poss
Sarah June
Ted Johnson
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Guitarist Interview with John William Gordon 
July 2010

Name: John William Gordon
Bands: John William Gordon, Theloni On Wry
Websites: www.johnwilliamgordon.com - www.mutantjazztrio.com - www.myspace.com/johnwilliamgordon
Listen to "Harm Alarm"
Listen to "Quarter of Nothing"
Listen to "Technot"
Listen to "Belly's Bounce"
Listen to "SOS Wrong Reality"

QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?

John – My first guitar was a Gibson ES-335, which I bought after working all summer for it when I was 15. I didn’t really like it but couldn’t wait to try out other guitars after working all summer away from home just to buy an electric guitar. I traded it in a year later for a Yamaha SG-2000. Before all this I borrowed an acoustic guitar.

QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?

John – Gibson ES-446 (I LOVE IT!), & for recording, a Fender Vibroverb Custom (w/15” speaker); for live, the same Fender Amp plus a little old Supro tube amp; I use both amps together through a “SignalFlex SF-DAB ‘The Connection’” splitter (very simple device for such a long name). I use an eBow sometimes. Monster rock cables. That’s it. No effects except a little reverb in the amps. I love listening to guitar with crazy effects, but I don’t like to use them myself because they make me feel separated from my guitar & music. That’s why I like the eBow: it’s not an automatic effect & I have to work it. I very recently started messing with a PRS guitar with a whammy bar.  I also just started experimenting with two YellowJackets in my Fender & just received a 100-watt Weber Mass attenuator to try on my Fender Amp with its regular power tubes (not the Yellow Jackets).

QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?

John – The guitar, then amp, then cables.

QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?

John – Same as I mentioned above. Fender Vibroverb Custom: point-to-point wiring, clean tone with some edge starting with the volume at about 3.5 - 4.5. Its nice tone doesn’t start until the volume reaches about 3.

QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?

John – Like I described above, my Gibson ES-446. I fell in love with it the first time I played it. A guitar storeowner recommended it. It’s got a hybrid sound to my ears: kinda jazz but not fat classical jazz tone (though I love Jim Hall et al.!) but also a little edgy. It’s honest & doesn’t make everything sound perfect if it isn’t played that way.

QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?

John – I was thinking about that the other day. I’d love to have a Gibson ES-446 with a killer whammy bar that would let me dive bomb!  Oh, yeah!  But completely bottoming out a whammy bar on a fragile hollow body is a fantasy, I guess. I’m still new to whammy bar use, but my head’s full of whammy bar stuff & I’m working on some tunes with it now.  I thought about wearing my 446 & my PRS whammy guitars at the same time so I could swing them around my body & go back & forth, but decided against it.

QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?

John – A volume pedal that didn’t degrade the tone ONE BIT. I have a nice volume pedal but don’t use it because I can hear the tone change just plugging through it, & it’s supposed to be one of the really good ones.

QRD – How many guitars do you own?

John – Four electric guitars & one acoustic.

QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?

John – They hang on hooks in their gig bags in my closet except for my 446, which stays in its hard-shell case here & there in my practice room for fast access. I don’t store any of my guitars on stands because I live in earthquake country & heard some guitar-stand horror stories from the last big quake. I can’t stand the thought of losing my 446. I actually prefer leaving guitars on stands so I can pick ‘em up right away, but even a medium earthquake might shift something. You know, after answering this question I may start to use stands in my practice room because that sounds too paranoid, heh heh.

QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?

John – I have an insanely heavy flight case that meets airline standards. I wish someone made the same strength case but much lighter, only a few pounds.

QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?

John – Love. I have to love it. I try not to buy guitars I just like. I need to go WOW & just dig playing the heck out of it with a silly grin on my face. Also, I really like a high D (or higher), a medium neck, a cutaway & lightness. That Yamaha SG-2000 I had weighed a ton & really made me appreciate lighter guitars.

QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?

John – I don’t know.  Depends what you’re doing, what you like, & what you find used. Mexican Fender Telecasters make a lot of people happy & cost $600 or so but the low-end of the really good guitars seems to start around $1600. I’ve never been a gear head. Most guitarists know way, way more about gear than I.

QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?

John – So far, just stock, except I put Gibson humbuckers on my little PRS whammy experiment.

QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?

John – I play it & see if I have a crush on it.  99% of the time I simply think, that’s nice ? & that’s not good enough. I need to love playing it & listening to it.  I don’t care about articles & reviews. I haven’t picked up a guitar magazine since I was 17.  Friends & trusted stores give me important info about stuff I might like. I guess they keep up with researching gear. I guess I’ve started researching guitars some, now that I think about it. I’ll search on the Internet for info on TheGearPage & other sites, but not very much.

QRD – Do you change your rig around often?

John – Rarely, though I’m messing with the YellowJackets & Mass Attenuator on my Fender amp & the whammy bar on a cheap PRS.  Did I mention the whammy bar?  I LOVE it!

QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?

John – I like to listen to many different players’ tones & tone-shifting players, but for me I’ve pretty much settled on a clean tone that lets strong, weak, dirty & clean playing come through honestly. A tone without too much varnish, just some reverb, though verb can mask crud somewhat.

QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?

John – None. I’m happy except I’d love my dream signature guitar, which doesn’t exist.

QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person‚s first guitar that aren’t always there?

John – First, decent intonation. So many cheap guitars, especially acoustic ones, have insanely crappy intonation, if I’m using that term right. I mean the spacing between the frets & the nut & the bridge so a note an octave away on the same string is really an octave apart.  How lazy are the cheap guitar makers?  It doesn’t cost anything more to space the frets & bridge correctly.  I bought a Ukrainian acoustic guitar for $100 while in Russia & its intonation is pretty good. It’s a great $100 guitar in my opinion, a really good beater. Lazy pathetic guitar makers assume beginning guitarists just hang out by the nut playing open chords & don’t stumble up the neck where the manufacturer’s crappiness goes splat.
Second, decent action. Not crazy high. You know, in high school some of us picked up a friend’s crap guitar with strings 3/4 of inch off the fingerboard (not counting slide guitars). After an hour your left hand was super tired (no jokes, please).

QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?

John – My Gibson ES-446 was my best by a continent. I didn’t realize Gibson’s Custom Shop stopped making them until it was too late. I begged them to make some more & even put a deposit down through a local dealer, but after a year I got my deposit back. My worst purchase was a used 2nd ES-446 from across the country. The seller was very cool & let me check it out for a day or two after I received it, but I was so excited to have another 446 I didn’t really check it out properly. It turned out to have a post mod installed inside, plus I stupidly ignored its heavy locking tuners, which made the light ES-446 horribly unbalanced. The post messed up the sound to my taste. I didn’t sober up until a few weeks after I bought it, then realized I hated it. I traded it in locally for a backup guitar, a big-body Eastman, just to have a traditional-sounding jazz guitar handy. The local storeowner pointed out the post mod in the 446. That explained part of why I didn’t like its sound.  Playing a guitar you don’t love really sucks, especially when not relying on effects to smooth out the sound.  It’s weird how the same models can vary guitar to guitar. You gotta play ‘em, not just read about ‘em.

QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?

John – It varies by model within brands. I’ve never been a gear head & instead focus on playing, practicing, & writing.

QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?

John – It varies. New tunes pretty much keep flowing so I might play something new or something old.  With my own guitar, I might pick it up & start with difficult mental practicing.

QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?

John – Fourteen ? freshman in high school.

QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?

John – I haven’t plateaued ever since I started practicing a really hard slow mental workout that automatically improves my physical playing, too. After learning that, I’ve continued to progress steadily. I tried to get friends to practice this way but they don’t like the drudgery.

QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?

John – I don’t know. I’d love to play drums & bass, really. The guitar lets you play harmony & melody (chords & individual notes). It allows bending & slurs & glisses etc.  It’s more portable than a piano but not a harmonica. Hmmmmm.... I don’t know.  The chick-magnet thing, that wasn’t it for me, though my girlfriend really likes my music.

QRD – Do you think guitar should be people‚s first instrument as often as it is?

John – Everyone should choose the instrument they love. Some people benefited greatly by switching to another instrument to fill a spot in their friends’ bands. But, really, I don’t think it’s ever good to force a child to play any instrument. I know a few people who were forced to play piano until they were 18. They got quite good, but HATED it & abruptly stopped at age 18.  You gotta LOVE it to play & work hard. It’s music, not brick laying. Don’t bother if you don’t love it. Let a kid pick his or her own instrument. If that’s the guitar, that’s fine.

QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?

John – My ALLY completely. What? My Adversary? Huh?  If you know the ENTIRE fretboard & not just a couple of familiar zones, then the guitar becomes your ally & a source of infinite ideas, inspiration, & comfort.

QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?

John – I started playing guitar at age 14 after some friends played Mahavishnu Orchestra for me. Mahavishnu had disbanded long before I first heard them but they were THE reason I started playing guitar. Their punk intensity & crazy multi peaks blew me away. My mom worried about me listening to them so much.  I’ve never been into lyrics, but I’m growing to like lyrics more & more. After John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) I listened to many horn & piano players, especially Monk.  I never tried to play like Van Halen, but like his playing; his swinging on his early CDs I owned is like no other rock guitarist’s in my opinion. Even my early guitar teacher, who graduated from New England Conservatory & studied a little with Mick Goodrick, said, “Eddie Van Halen swings like a mother fucker!” (In a good way.) I’ve listened to a huge range of guitarists, from the extremely out to the extremely in: Derek Bailey, Joe Morris, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, John McLaughlin, Alan Holdsworth, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Jeff Beck, Andy Summers (one of his short Police solos is one of my favorite guitar solos), Jim Hall, George Benson (early kick-ass stuff), Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Charlie Christian, Leo Kottke, Paco de Lucia. They’ve all been in my CD collection at one time, along with many others. I’ve seen many others live & dug their shows.  By far, though, after John McLaughlin, I focused on Charlie Parker, then Monk & more Monk, with some Lester Young, Coltrane & Davis & Monk again.

QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?

John – Go for it. I don’t do it, but I think it’s cool. If you feel it, do it.  That’s never worked for me. I’ve never been able to do it with cars, guitars, or anything. I tried once & just dropped it because it felt unnatural. I like to use my guitars as tools & not baby them to the point I’m holding back my playing or thinking about the thing instead of my playing. I want them to serve me, not the other way around. They’re things, not people or animals or even insects. But I think it’s cool & usually funny when other people do it & that’s why I tried it, too. It just flopped for me.

QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?

John – Long-term acidic sweat damage. It seems like I practically melt guitars with my right forearm if I don’t wipe them down. That might have to do some of my long practice sessions. But I’ve never broken a guitar.

QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?

John – Lots of hard mental exercises: practicing church (Ionian, etc.) & melodic minor modes in ALL 12 keys ONE string at a time UP & DOWN while thinking the notes instead of using geometric patterns; plus, moving entire tunes through 12 keys. That’s the MAGIC mental work that effects EVERY aspect of your playing by some sort of indirect brain neuron building (who knows?); it’s weird how fast you improve if you do it. It’ll move you 10 years forward in just 1 year (but an exhausting year). I wish I knew about it when I started! I heard a few heavy players & teachers mention that they’ve never seen musicians progress so fast as when they practiced playing tunes in all 12 keys.  It’s hard work & your head will steam & you’ll need naps, then you’ll improve, then improve faster & faster over a year or two & keep improving even faster after that.

QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?

John – It moves around. Some weeks 30 hours or more, some weeks only 5 hours. Mostly in between. I think it’s good to take breaks. Our minds keep working on things even when we’re not doing them consciously, so breaks can be great.

QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?

John – Clayton 1.52mm tear drop (they’re small). I think I started using them because I read John McLaughlin made his own thick small plastic picks. They’re pretty tricky in some ways. I can coax threatening or gliding sounds from the strings much more than with a medium Fender pick in my opinion. But big medium picks make strumming infinitely easier for me & that’s pretty fun, too.  There are no rules.  Use whatever you want. There are so many great players who use all sorts of things. Did you hear about the Bulgarian virtuoso who uses a goat’s tooth for a pick? Neither have I, but he or she COULD exist. Probably be a bad ass.

QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?

John – Kinda weird: 13, 16, wound 24, 32, 36, 46.  Playing cleanly & not very loud, thin strings don’t pack enough tone for me. But I don’t want too much fatness down low. I settled on my current set years ago after experimenting with lots of gauges.

QRD – How often do you change strings?

John – Live: every night or every other if the set was short & I wiped them down well. For recording, I change them the night before & play them very briefly then wipe them down to get a little chemical reaction of some kind. My recording engineer & I like that approach.  When just practicing, I push strings much longer. If I wipe them down a lot, maybe 2 weeks, otherwise weekly.

QRD – How often do you break strings?

John – Very, very rarely. I don’t use light strings. But on my whammy guitar, I just broke a few.  I recently started using BigBends Nut Sauce to stabilize tuning, & it’s also supposed to help prevent string breakage.  Also, I use reinforced steel strings for the 13 & 16 (they’re reinforced on the bridge end).

QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?

John – I work on both. Sometimes one is better than the other, but I made a huge jump in technique in the last 18 months. Seeing a video of me about 2 years ago shocked me because my left hand position sucked. So I adjusted & practiced much better positioning & have noticed from photos that it’s become normal for me. Then I learned something else I call “dead hands” that caused a huge leap in my speed. It freaked me out. I learned it playing a video game that’d I’d plateaued; I broke through my plateau immediately then practically ran over to my guitar to try it & it worked there, too.  That’s pretty recent -- just 2 years ago.

QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?

John – A tech sets up my guitar initially then I maintain it. A tech also does fret jobs (honing or replacing). A good tech is awesome, opening up new beauty in your hands, really.

QRD – What tunings do you use & why?

John – Regular old tuning. But I’ll mess with each tuner for effect on occasion (“Low Tide Happens,” the last tune on my second CD, Technot, is an extreme example). The whammy bar lets me drop way, way down & I’ll stay down for seconds, but I haven’t imposed that on listeners yet.

QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?

John – I go off memory for new tunes. If I can’t remember it, it must have been unmemorable!  Survival of the fittest for new tunes in my mind.  If it haunts me, then it’s staying alive & grows. But, hey, I’m not writing pop hits, so this isn’t a formula for success, just the way I like to do it. I write the tunes I like. After my tune solidifies, I write it using Sibelius & print sheet music for my bassist & drummer. I write the notes & sometimes chord symbols, which in my case are really suggestions.

QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?

John – Pretty high. I’ve never been very susceptible to peer pressure & feel comfortable with whatever look brings me the most facility.

QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?

John – I pretty much squashed a really bad left-hand habit about 18-24 months ago & since then the same old steady hard mental work continues to slowly & consistently crush obstacles.

QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?

John – I don’t know. The guitar, bass, violin, & viola all have the crazy unfriendly note layout compared to the piano, so any of the former might help directly. The piano can really help indirectly for visualizing & giving theory some life with real sound. I really don’t know. I’m just Bee Essing.

QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?

John – Flamenco!  What bad-ass cats! & what kick-ass music. Not the mild stuff, but the balls-out kind. Whew. That’s wild. Some of those guys are like one-man armies.

QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?

John – Picking harmonic arpeggios of chords. I’m not even close. I’ve heard & seen some amazing harmonic arpeggio playing. People show me how to do it, but I can’t seem to get it. I’d like to pick-plus-finger-ring them with my right hand while voicing them with my left like I saw Jack Wilkins do once. So what I do sometimes is just hammer a chord’s octave harmonics for atmospherics. But to be able to move chords around & rip harmonic arpeggios like I heard & saw Jack Wilkins do would be beyond the beyond. But it’s not a priority.

QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?

John – Hmmm.... I don’t know. What tricks can you show me? I’d like to learn one.

QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?

John – eBow for sure. It’s an effect, but doesn’t do anything automatically, but you can misuse it on purpose & get shrieks, etc.

QRD – What’s a guitar technique you‚d like to master, but haven’t?

John – Same as above: picking harmonics an octave up from each note in any chord voiced with my left hand. I can’t even get off the ground with that.

QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?

John – Yeah. First I took a class in school where I learned basic open chords. Then Mahavishnu hit me. Pretty rough on a beginner, actually. I lived in the burbs & drove all over trying different teachers. I looked for a jazz teacher, but didn’t really know what jazz guitar was. Most of the teachers I tried for a lesson or two just strummed a few chords while I jammed. Then I found Harry Andrew, who graduated from the New England Conservatory & studied with Mick Goodrick.  My hour lesson would often go 2 hours. He’d loan me recordings to educate me. I did that for one year then kept referring to the lessons for a few years after that. Then I heard Adam Levy play jazz standards in a super trippy way that blew me away. So I took about 5 - 10 lessons with him. He had me go through two Ted Greene books, then taught the shape concept, which I’ve used ever since & love mightily. Since then, I took ideas from different players on other instruments. I also referred to Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano Book frequently & still look at it sometimes.

QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?

John – The hard mental work of thinking the name of each note as you play through each scale one string at a time, up & down the whole fret board, making sure to not use geometric patterns & instead think each note name as you play it (even say it out loud).

QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?

John – Find chord shapes (any grouping of notes you like without worrying about the formal name of the chord) then move those shapes up & down the neck diatonically (within a scale, forcing slight shape changes to stay in the scale). You’ll get your own personality because you’ll choose your own “shapes” instead of stock chords. Guitarist Adam Levy taught me that years ago. I think he teaches at the New School in NY now.

QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?

John – I’m a tremolo newbie, but I don’t like the older type with only shallow, mild tremolo. I like to push the whammy bar all the way down. So far, I stick with a one-way setup (only slackening strings below their normal tuning). The locking systems, man, everybody including my guitar tech warned me off those. I’m totally green with whammy, but might change something else. My friend with a Jaguar showed me a common mod for those & I liked playing it. I’d actually like to own a Jaguar or Jazzmaster just to play with its tremolo.

QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?

John – Never.

QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?

John – From my genres of jazz & fusion, there’s no difference. We play it all. However, Freddie Green in the old jazz world stuck with rhythm back in the day & that worked for him even in jazz! I like to play chords & single notes.

QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?

John – I don’t know. Probably not, but who knows what will happen when I listen to something.  Music is really about emotional response. You never know how you might respond honestly. I admit I like my Sex Pistols CDs even though they can’t play their instruments very well. I like passion, energy & sincerity in music, regardless of type. For some reason, I also like Mexican pop music on the radio. I can’t explain it, though I can BS an intellectual defense after the fact, such as “Mexican pop music still uses horn players who are real musicians who produce nice tone & the singers really sing.” I don’t even speak Spanish!  Go figure. But really, I just like it.  Also, I heard a local college’s classical orchestra play some way crazy Ligeti once & it entranced me. Maybe a first-rate orchestra includes more guile & stress that are absent from innocent college players just doing their best for the love of it; they didn’t stink, by the way, they just weren’t first-rate, only better. That’s a digression but not really.

QRD – What famous musician‚s guitar would you like to own & why?

John – Hmmmm..... I don’t know. Nothing comes to mind. Now if you asked about what guitarist would I like to be able to play like, I could rattle off at least a dozen I’d Frankenstein.

QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?

John – I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t really listen to much guitar music. I guess innovation can be physical or musical or both.  Someone might go faster, or play more than six strings or pluck or tap with both hands ? that’s physical innovation. If the sound is different, too, then it’s also musical innovation. Slide guitar was an innovation at one time, both physically & musically texture-wise. Some musical innovation is textural, like playing with a new effect or switching between effects (textures) a lot. Then there’s rhythm, harmony or melodic innovation, perhaps combining rhythms & voicings from different genres, like playing upper-Mongolian music with African rhythms on a peddle-steel guitar.
I think anyone with his or her own sound should be appreciated even if you don’t love it, & even if very simple. That’s the whole of art in my opinion.  Self-expression. If you can hear a few notes of someone & know who it is immediately, that’s pretty amazing, even if simple.  A musician should be respected just for that.  I think Jerry Garcia said, “Don’t be the best at what you do. Be the ONLY one doing what you do.” 
Beyond that, I think we should all strive to honestly express ourselves through our instruments without worrying about what other people think.

QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?

John – iTunes: 2 CDs:  “John William Gordon” & “Technot.”

QRD – Anything else?

John – Nope. Thank you.