Interview with John Booker of I Was Totally Destroying It
Bands: I Was Totally Destroying It (previously - but always as a bass player or drummer, not a guitarist: Strunken White, io, On The Beach, Erie Choir, Sorry About Dresden, Des Ark ...to name a few)
Listen to “Beneath You All The Way”
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
John – My first acoustic guitar was a birthday gift from my parents in 1994, a Yamaha FG-401. 6 months later at Christmas I got a ‘94 Japanese Fender Stratocaster. The Yamaha is hanging on my bedroom wall, hurts like hell to play & is basically a piece of crap. The Fender works great & has actually gone up in value since it was issued. A Strat isn’t my usual go-to tone, but it definitely gets used here & there for special occasions - it’s popped up on a song or two on our last couple of albums.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
John – I currently I run an early 2000s Gibson Les Paul Special Double Cutaway through a full board of effects (Boss GigaDelay, MXR Micro Amp, MXR EVH Phase 90, Boss RV-5 Reverb, Boss Super Shifter, & recently a Line 6 M13- to name a few) to an early 2000s Orange AD140 head, run through a Marshall mid-90s “Lead-1936” 2x12 cabinet. I switch out guitars for certain songs though. Lately, it’s been an early 70’s Les Paul recording, which is incredible, or an ‘89 Paul Reed Smith (very rare model/look- I can’t figure out the exact name- maybe a “studio” or “special”?).
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig – guitar, amplifier, or effects?
John – Ooh, tough one, but I’d have to go with whatever guitar I’m using at the time. I love effects & I wish I used them even more, but I’m more of a songwriter than a player so they’re never 100% crucial. A good amp is super important, but I like lots of different guitar tones so if it’s a half decent model, I’ll be able to get something I can use. But a guitar that is poorly intonated (or has any other technical issues) can kill the mood for me instantly. Playability is super important as well, so yeah, I’d say the guitar, being the most temperamental of all the elements of the rig, is the most important.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
John – The Orange AD140, but I’ve fallen out of love with it a bit recently. I’m sure it’s just a phase, but for example we just finished recording our new album & in the past the Orange AD140 or AD30 were the main amplifiers on every recording, but it’s barely on this latest album. We ended up using a Vox AC30 almost exclusively & I think it sounds way better than the older recordings with the Oranges. I go back & forth though. Sometimes I want the sound of a Fender Reverb, sometimes I want a Marshall 900 crunch, sometimes I want a Roland Jazz Chorus & sometimes I want our usual Orange rock sound. It just depends. I’m way too picky, yes.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
John – Currently it’s that Gibson Double Cutaway. It actually belongs to our bass player Joe Mazzitelli - he has done a lot of modifications on it over the years, constantly tweaking the factory setups to make it better & better. I absolutely love the sound of the P-90s - I had never played a guitar with P-90’s until I played this one - now I’m hooked. So it’s a combination of the super powerful, clear tone, as well as one of the best playing necks I’ve ever touched, great intonation, lightweight body, & so on. It’s a fantastic guitar & I’m lucky our bassist let’s me play it so much.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
John – This is something I have never thought about. I’m more inclined to just find what I like that already exists.
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
John – A pedal that was constantly oscillating & morphing an input sound in a very synthetic & unpredictable way- just incredibly out there sounds that never repeat themselves.
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
John – We have over 30 in our house, between the 3 guitarists that live here; but I personally own 3 acoustics, 3 basses, 6 electrics, & a few guitar-related odds & ends like a 1920s resonator.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
John – We just use some of those multi-racks, or “boats” for easy access at band practice. I have my acoustics wall-mounted in my bedroom.
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
John – Climate control for when we’re on the road!
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
John – Playability, low-enough action (but not too low!), great intonation, sturdy hardware, & a tone that fits what I’m looking for at the time.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
John – I’d love it if they cost $5, but seriously it’s a tough call. I’d say the $800 & up neighborhood is where you start dealing with real quality pieces of craftsmanship, though.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
John – Absolutely upgrade & customize. I’m not a stickler for needing all original components on a vintage guitar, for example. If it needs an upgrade to play or stay in tune or sound better, I’ll do it. I’ve spent tons of money on various upgrades - usually through a local luthier.
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
John – I have been known to be an impulse buyer, but I try to sit with a guitar as long as I can - make sure it doesn’t fall out of tune every 30 seconds, make sure it sounds how I want it to sound when I play a variety of my guitar parts on it, etc. I’ve made some bad eBay purchases, but usually if the guitar is in front of me when I’m considering buying, I make a choice I’m happy with in the end.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
John – Not for live applications. Familiarity is really important for me. The rooms we play from night to night sound so different, I need to have as many controlled factors as possible.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
John – If I had the resources, I’d run an insane rig with 5 different amps I could switch between, tons of outboard gear, etc.- but with my current two-channel amp & a few pedals, there’s only so far that you can take it. I try to maintain a middle ground - a median sound between all the sounds I’ve gotten on past albums, so that I can approximate them live.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
John – This list could get real long real fast. Guitars: 70s Gibson ES-335, any Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, I’d love to get a Reverend someday, a Fender Thinline. Amps: Roland Jazz Chorus, any classic Fender Reverb, an antique Vox AC30. Pedals: all of them.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
John – A lot of entry-level guitars are really tough to play & can have major issues. Maybe this is a good thing, because it breaks you in & can make you a more versatile & adaptable player, but it can also be discouraging. It’d suck to give up guitar just because you never knew a better guitar would feel way more comfortable in your hands than some cheapo beginner model.
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
John – The best would have to be my Martin DX1K acoustic I bought in 2005. It sounds incredible & is the very bottom line of Martin guitars ($500). I have friends with top of the line or vintage Martins, & they often prefer my DX1K. I just lucked out hard on that one, I write almost all of my songs on that thing. The worst purchase was probably about a year later when I won a ‘73 Gibson ES-335 on an eBay auction. I got it at a STEAL price & was so excited because it’s kind of my dream guitar & it looked incredible in all the pictures. It previously had a headstock repair, but the seller swore it had never been an issue in his many years of ownership. The guitar arrived at my house, & I opened up the beautiful vintage case to find the headstock snapped off. The seller had not released the tension on the strings before shipping, because he was an idiot, but he had insurance on the package & was able to convince UPS it was their fault (I wanted to argue that it was obviously his, but it would have been a lot tougher for me to get my money back that way). So UPS took the guitar & gave me my money back & I’ve never found an ES-335 for anywhere near that price since. In retrospect, I should have just kept the guitar, taken it to my luthier, Andy Danser, & had him fix the headstock for a couple hundred bucks & I’d still have that gorgeous guitar today...
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
John – Just focusing on pedals - MXR is super reliable & makes some great stuff, but Electro-Harmonix are horrible. They have great ideas & make really cool sounding pedals, but they all break to such a degree that you wonder how they get away with it. I went through 4 Holy Grail reverb pedals before giving up & using a nice Boss RV-5.
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
John – I generally strum a big open E or D - just something so familiar to check the tuning, then I maybe play some more jazzy chords that I like up & down the neck to get an idea of the intonation & fret-wear in the different areas.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
John – I was 13 when I got my first guitar & started lessons.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
John – Man, I feel like I was better maybe 5 years ago, so roughly 24-25 years old. I was playing non-stop around that time & playing a bunch of different styles, as well as playing bass in a bunch of bands. Now I just play the songs I write & don’t do much practicing on my own. I feel like if I was playing a bunch of covers & still jamming along with my favorite CDs I’d be better. The amount of time this band eats up has maybe turned me into less of a musician & more of a performer, if that makes sense.
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
John – I wouldn’t say that it does, necessarily. I’ve always thought of bass as my main instrument & I might even be a little better at drums (I started on drums before anything else) when I’m well-practiced than on guitar. But guitar is my songwriting instrument, so I have a more special connection with it. I can maybe be more of a “player” on other instruments, but with a guitar I’m a “songwriter” & that inspires me a little more, so I’ve stuck with it.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
John – I can definitely see how it can limit your understanding of some other instruments if you focus too heavily on it, but yeah it’s definitely a good way to introduce a budding musician to the way music works - they just need to keep an open mind & keep learning about all the differences between a fretboard & keyboard, for example.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
John – Ooh, good question - both. It’s becoming more & more limiting to me. I often think I’m “done with guitars” & I’m only interested in synthesizers, etc - but I always come right back, because with a guitar is how I write music, plain & simple. It’s my gateway that works the most often so I have to just embrace it.
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
John – I’d say I learned the most from people I’ve been in bands with - seeing what they’d do as I was playing bass with them. Ben Flanagan from a band called The Trophy Fire taught me a lot about music in general & Joe Hall from a band called Hammer No More The Fingers has a very distinct chord style that I learned a lot of strange jazz chords from when we were kids. I also seem to have stolen a lot from bands I used to cover in high school - Foo Fighters, Weezer, NOFX, Hot Water Music, & The Who.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
John – I’ve never done it myself, so yeah, I guess a little silly, but more power to ‘em!
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
John – Not much - all my guitars are pretty damn fancy so I treat them as such. Just a few dings here & there.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
John – I should do a lot more - I really don’t have any routines currently. I basically only pick up a guitar at band practice or when I’m writing a song. Luckily, I do both of those VERY frequently.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
John – Somewhere between 8 & 10 hours a week. I should & could play way more.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
John – I’ve been messing around with some super light picks lately, but usually it’s just whatever medium-ish gauge is laying around.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
John – I usually use Ernie Ball “Regular Slinky” 10s because it’s what Joe, our bassist & resident guitar tech, suggests. I use 10s on everything except my Strat with a tremolo bar, because the 9s on there bend way better for that shoegazey My Bloody Valentine sound.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
John – We change strings super frequently - if we are on tour & playing shows every night - at least once a week. If we’re home & practicing twice a week but we have a show about once every two or three weeks - we’ll change them before each show. & if we’re home & not playing out at all, but still practicing twice a week - we’ll change them at least once a month. I am just obsessive about having that new string sound, but I am very slow with it - so Joe changes my strings for me! He likes to get all zen & zone out having re-stringing sessions.…
QRD – How often do you break strings?
John – Pretty much never, because they are always new.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
John – I’d have to say my strumming hand - I’ve got a lot more technique with strumming & rhythm than say, fast fretting/soloing. I’m a lefty who plays righty, by the way. I wonder if I had learned the proper way if I’d be better at fretting than strumming?
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
John – Our bassist Joe does the small repairs, & our luthier Andy Danser does the big jobs. We take guitars to Andy once or twice a year for various reasons & he always fixes things up nicely.
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
John – We are usually in standard tuning, but we have maybe a dozen songs (out of 80 or so - yeah, we have a lot of songs) that are in dropped D, a couple of songs that are tuned a half-step down, & a few tunes where we use capos. There’s also 2 or 3 where I drop the high E to a D as well.
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
John – I don’t really write down my own ideas, but if I had to it’d be tablature. I knew how to read sheet music a long time ago... not so much now.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
John – Right over my beer belly.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
John – I want to find ways to break out of my personal style/go-to tricks. I’d love to be more versatile.
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
John – Playing bass can make your hands stronger & make you strum & fret with better aggression, or piano can give you an understanding of an instrument that’s not set up by 5ths.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
John – Being able to solo way faster than I can.…
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
John – Being able to solo way faster than I can.…
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
John – Wow, ha-ha, probably pinch harmonics or something like that, but that was 12 years ago, ha-ha.
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
John – I love them all, but I’m very big on capos - been using them a lot lately.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
John – Being able to solo way faster than I can...
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
John – I started taking lessons when I was 13, I had a great teacher, he taught me all the right basics to get me started. I stayed with him for a number of years, & even switched to bass, violin, & piano lessons with him at various stages. I was horrible with piano & violin, but I learned a ton & got way better at bass in a very small span of time.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
John – Hmm, maybe thrust them into a band setting sooner - let kids pair off & have to collaborate & see what happens - a lot of people don’t learn how to leave room for other players & focus on the song instead of the riff.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
John – Suffer a severe head injury? Hmm, I don’t know. I just play really hard & clean & evenly with my strumming hand & I play a lot of jazz-infused power chords with my fretting hand. Pretty much just copy the same people as me.…
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
John – I love them & wish they were on more guitars, but they create tuning issues & stuff so it’s probably best that they aren’t.
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
John – Never. They’re at 10 all the time.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
John – I am 100% a rhythm guitarist. I am horrible with lead/soloing work. So I guess the difference is that lead guitarists are better than me?
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
John – No. I’m a songwriting guy. The songs & melodies need to be in place first, then I’ll pay attention to the individual elements.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
John – I’d love to steal various pieces of gear from The Edge... because he’s The Edge.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
John – It’s still The Edge, he invented a particular style of playing an it can be heard from the smallest indie bands on college radio to the biggest hits out there right now - & that’s been the case for a couple of decades. But no one can touch him; they just vaguely emulate his tricks.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
John – I’d say the best guitar sounds & playing for I Was Totally Destroying It, as a whole, can be heard on our upcoming album, Preludes, out April 12th 2011 on Greyday Records.
QRD – Anything else?
John – Thanks for the questions!!