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Published: Thursday, 7/2/2009

Johnny A: Master guitarist develops unique sound

BY ROD LOCKWOOD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's impossible not to stick the word "master" in front of "guitarist" to describe Johnny A.

Otherwise, you're stuck in music classification limbo, throwing out all sorts of adjectives and descriptors that don't quite do him justice. He's a jazzy player who doesn't work in jazz circles. He's got a style that makes it natural for the Black Swamp Blues Society to bring him to Toledo tonight, but you'd never say he's a blues guy. For years he was former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf's musical sidekick on his pop and R&B projects, but A's sound shares little in common with Wolf.

So let's just call Johnny A a master guitarist and move on.

As he says in a telephone interview earlier this week, "I do have a penchant for cool blues, and I like jazz and I like pop songs and I like country, so I do a little bit of everything."

His two solo instrumental albums, "Sometime Tuesday Morning" from 1999 and 2004's "Get Inside," are hailed throughout guitar circles as masterworks of melody and tone, spanning styles and showing off A's distinctive genre-bending approach. The most apt comparison is to Jeff Beck's classic "Wired" and "Blow by Blow" albums, but with a quieter, nuanced approach similar to Wes Montgomery.

A grew up in the Boston area in the '60s, soaking up as much music as possible and playing in any number of bands, ranging from pop to fusion to rock and roots country. He became Wolf's sideman for seven years in the '90s, but found himself at a crossroads in his career when Wolf decided to stop touring.

A - he goes by simply A as his last name, shedding a much longer Greek surname - needed to find his own gig, either as a sideman or as an instrumentalist leading his own band. He chose the latter and began working on developing his sound.

"I had a very definite approach in that I wanted my thing to be a guitarist as a vocalist in the tradition of someone like Chet Atkins or Les Paul or the guitar players of the '50s," he said. "I didn't necessarily want it to be a retro thing or a throwback thing but I wanted to capture the essence of what those guys did."

The key for anyone who goes this route is to be able to play melodies on the guitar that stand on their own and don't require a singer. And that ability comes from a combination of technical skill and the ability to subtly impose your emotional will on the instrument.

"I think the secret to tone is to really have a clear, clear vision of what you want and what you want to sound like," A said. "The tone is defined within you before it even comes out, if you have a clear kind of feel of what you want to sound like or what your voice is and then the wherewithal to try to discover it."

A married father of two children, he made ends meet by selling "Sometime Tuesday Morning" out of the trunk of his car and at shows, building a buzz in the Northeast and eventually selling 9,000 of them on his own before being signed to a record label. He ended up on the Favored Nations label formed by guitar player Steve Vai and sold about 145,000 copies of "Tuesday" - which contains his definitive version of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" - and "Get Inside."

A is one of only seven musicians to have their own Signature series of guitars through Gibson - "I pinch myself on a daily basis about that" - thanks to a long-standing relationship with the company.

He tours regularly, playing 100 shows a year, and is building his own studio and beginning work on a new CD. In the meantime, he'll release a DVD/CD package of live music in August.

Exactly what you'd expect from a master guitarist.

Johnny A is playing tonight at the Speedway Bar & Grill, 5625 Benore Rd. The show starts at 8 p.m. with the Frostbite Band. Tickets are $15 for the general public and $12 for members of the Black Swamp Blues Society and the Toledo Jazz Society. Tickets are on sale at Culture Clash Records and Durdel's Music, and by calling 419-866-8977.

Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.



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