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Canadian musician and composer Nick Johnston is currently one of the most talked about guitarists on the planet and lucky for us, he’s appearing at the 2017 Melbourne Guitar Show. His current instrumental album Remarkably Human showcases a wonderful fluidity on the fretboard and his tasteful note choices on some gorgeous melodies make for a most enjoyable listen. While clearly he can play ALL the notes, he displays such emotional intelligence in his judgement on when and where to play them. Ahead of his Melbourne Guitar Show visit, Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Nick for a chat.

Hi Nick. What have you been up to recently?
I’ve been doing a crazy amount of touring lately.

I guess that means your playing gets to be pretty slick when you’re playing a lot?
It’s weird, it is up and down. It’s consistently inconsistent. I find the guitar to be such a mystery from day to day. It’s almost like … I thought I was better than this! It depends on the guitar tone, the people you are playing with … it’s rolling the dice every time.

You sound like a golfer. They say similar things.
They do yes. It’s funny… people that I know who are avid golfers, who are also musicians, they will say that there is such a correlation between learning how to golf with some proficiency and learning the guitar.

What have you been told about the Melbourne Guitar Show?
Not much but I’ve heard it’s a young festival, still in its early days. Everyone I talk to say that it is evolving at a quick pace and getting bigger and bigger. I’ve done a lot of trade shows and I think I kinda have an idea of what it is going to be like but at the same time I have no clue! But I am very excited. I had a chance to do some playing in Australia in March or February this year and man what an amazing country and way of life. Everything was incredible and it reminded me a lot about Canada, so I cannot believe I am going back already.

Was that the first time you had hooked up with Australian guitarist Plini?
It was the first time we’d shared a bill. I’ve known him for a number of years. A lot of the ‘quote, unquote’ younger instrumental guys, like the internet boom guys … we all kind of know each other through talking online and about music and how to grow that side of the industry.

When was the first time you noticed guitar tone as opposed to a solo or a riff or song?
Oh wow that’s a great question. I think the main thing was that … as soon as I started getting more serious with the guitar and I use this term very loosely … but going from rig to rig… one guitar plugged into one amp and then going to a friend’s house and using his guitar plugged into his amp. I thought, man I don’t sound as good in your practice room. Is it because your amp is different or your guitar is different? And then I’d go through this again and again and eventually I noticed … wow… I sound a lot better and play a lot better when I have a sound that is maybe a little richer, has less gain and I can dig in a little bit more. It took me a long time to shape my tone and how I play with the pick up selector and volume knob. It was a very slow process but every little step forward was a revelation for me. Watching Yngwie Malmsteen play in the early days, I saw that he was using a Strat with single coil pickups but I can’t get that sound. What is he doing? Maybe he is using a ton of gain and maybe he has noise cancelling pickups? All of these things started to take on a new meaning. In fact I didn’t know anything about pickups. I didn’t even believe the concept of changing pickups for different tone until I was twenty and I started playing when I was fourteen. But also with a lot of this gear related stuff, I had no money for so long. I didn’t even want to go down that path because there’s really no point. But yeah, probably when I was 16 or 17 I started to really notice why there were so many different types of guitars and why certain players favoured certain guitars, endorsement or otherwise and it was because the guitar had a voice. Once I got into that more, I started to figure out what worked for me and I have stayed with that for the last 14 years or so.

What were the main albums you listened to as a teenager… albums that you still go back to?
I will always love In Step, the Stevie Ray Vaughan record. I will always go back and listen to some of the Jeff Beck records like the Guitar Shop record. I like that one a lot and obviously Blow By Blow. Van Halen II is my favourite Van Halen record, I can’ t tell you how many times I have played that. The first three Yngwie records. Those 4 guitar players, Yngwie, Jeff Beck, SRV, Eddie Van Halen, those guys shaped the guitar player I am now … with other influences of course but those are the four main guys. You know what though … I don’t think I listen to any instrumental guitar records anymore. I just don’t get that much out of it anymore. I like writing it. I think it is always a challenge to do something that is maybe not overly technical but still musical and melodic and harmonically interesting with guitar… which always ends up me writing instrumental music but I find I don’t live too much in that world in terms of listening. But those records, I spent countless hours learning everything. All that Van Halen stuff and Yngwie stuff, I had that down. One guy I could never play like was Paul Gilbert, I could never pick like him. My picking has always been horrendous which is why I always loved Eddie because he was such an off the cuff, borderline sloppy player sometimes but he would just go for it and I found that inspiring.

You just turned 30. What did you do for your 30th birthday?
I wrote a song. I woke up and it was kinda bad weather so I came into my studio here and just started playing. In the morning I usually play for a couple of hours. I had my acoustic guitar and just sort of heard something and I basically sat in here for the entirety of the day and flushed out a new track and one of the best tracks I have ever written I think. I am a very low key person. I don’t really get up to much in terms of partying. I’d rather just sit in here and play guitar.

Remarkably Human is your current album. Is it hard coming up with song titles for an instrumental album because you don’t have lyrics that you can borrow from?
No not really. I’ve always had a pretty easy time with that. What I do … with my phone I always use the notepad app and anytime I get an idea or I see something or overhear someone saying something in conversation, If I think it is an interesting set of words I will write it down. I have a list of maybe 300 song titles that I have cultivated over the years. I read a lot of books, a lot of comic books. I watch a lot of movies, science fiction and I find that there is a lot of interesting imagery and metaphors and odd dialogue that lends it self to instrumental music. For example there is a track off Remarkably Human called Fear Had Him By The Throat and that’s actually from a Stephen King book that term.

When you’re writing music, do you think in terms of guitar or are you just writing music with parts that could become either piano or guitar or whatever?
Yes absolutely. When I was younger, up to when I was 22 or so, I was writing music as a guitar player. I was very interested in demonstrating my chops and showing what i had been working on in my bedroom for 8 hours a day for 10 years. Somewhere along the line I fell out of love with that … the guitar for the sake of being technical. I was having a conversation with a friend who also writes instrumental music and he said, I want you to write me a song. Come back tomorrow with a brand new song that has no guitar solo in it. And over night that changed everything. It made me rethink things. Can I write a melody that can be played on any instrument and can stand without a guitar solo, without being super flashy? From there it has just been trying to be better at that, trying get more intelligent with harmony.

Where are you at with new material? Do you have some songs? Do you have a direction in mind?
Remarkably Human came out about 8 months ago. I’m pretty much always writing music so there is always stuff percolating. I probably have about 6 new songs confirmed that I am happy with that are done, that I will probably put on the next record. I will probably do 8 songs again. They are a little bit longer this time around, a little more adventurous and exploratory. Right now it is all about having something new to say. I have released 4 instrumental albums so it is about how do you keep that fresh and keep moving forward while still sounding like yourself, being musical and raising the bar and you know, it’s hard! It’s been quite the challenge but I think this is the best stuff I have written … but you know … ask me again in 3 months!

Are you likely to play any of that new material in Australia?
No definitely not. The way I approach it is that I will do the first demo and live with that demo for a few months. I’ll listen to it again and again and think, is that still good? Do I still feel something inside that tells me this is really good? If that is a yes, I will live with it more. Usually from the inception to the final product I live with the music for at least a year. Like I said, these songs are good now but we’ll see in a few months how I feel about them.

Do you feel that sometimes you need a producer involved to give you direction and make some decisions for you?
Yes and no. I am lucky in a sense that I have a lot of really great musicians friends that are world class players and I have a couple of great producer friends. I will send them stuff and ask their opinions on it. Is this bad or good? Does it have potential? Sometimes I will get responses like, yeah this is no good or pretty cool but what if you try this? My girlfriend is sometimes to a fault honest with me. Sometimes I will play her something and she will say this is not good, not up to your standard. The reality too is that I can’t afford to work with a producer. To work with a producer that I would want to work with, it’s crazy, so expensive. I’m not there yet.

When did your association with Schecter guitars begin?
I have been working with Schecter for about three and half years now. Way back in 2010 or so, again being part of the internet thing and knowing other musicians, I got in touch with another player, Keith Merrow another Schecter guy. We became friends just talking about music. Eventually he asked me if I was working with any guitar company and I was not. To be honest with you, Schecter was not even on my radar because I knew them more for the Nu Metal side of things, their Diamond Series pointy guitars. Primarily I am just a rock guitar player so when he said that I thought, I dunno man it is kind of a weird choice. But then he put me in touch with the VP at Schecter and he told me about this S type model… let’s just be honest here … Strat style model called the Traditional. He sent me one to try and I immediately fell in love with it. Jeff Loomis had just joined a band called Arch Enemy. As Schecter’s primary clinician he was going to be busy with the band so they didn’t have a clinician, so they asked me to do it. This was great because they were kind of rejigging the custom shop and they didn’t have anyone playing a guitar like that for Schecter. So I did a lot of clinics and took the guitar all over the world and then they were interested in doing a model together with me and that did pretty well. They’ve just done another model with me and it just keeps growing.

What are the elements of your signature model guitar which are most important? Is it a slick neck or how it feels in your hands, what’s important to you?
I think the neck is the main focus. When I am playing the guitar, it’s how the neck feels in my hands, the shape of it, the weight of the guitar. Even down to the unfinished neck, the size of the frets. The new model has this really nice wood grain that you can feel. They designed some Nick Johnston pickups for the guitar but other than that it is a Californian made custom shop guitar. Beyond that, the quality was already there. It was just a matter of adding some modern twists on something that has been around since the 70s.

Do you have a favourite pedal at the moment?
I find the one pedal I always take with me is that new black MXR reverb pedal. Usually I just use the amp gain so nothing in terms of distortion or drive, it is very simple. Very modest in terms of gear.

And the Mesa Boogie is your amp choice?
Yeah the Triple Crown. They are modern, simplified amp in a lot of ways suited to bluesy rock. It also has great tones, 3 channel. It’s a little more forgiving. Mesa Boogie stuff always scared the crap out of me because you change one thing on one pot and all of a sudden the amp sounds wildly different and you have to go back and adjust things, whereas with this new one, the EQ curve is a lot more forgiving and it’s not as specific. You can paint in broader strokes with the EQ section, the gain is really responsive and I am having a lot of fun with that amp right now.

You’ll be playing at the Melbourne Guitar Show in August. Is it different playing in front of a bunch of real guitar aficionados than a regular gig?
At first it was. At first it was terrifying. The first time I went to NAMM I was mid 20s and Seymour Duncan asked me to play at their booth and that was the first time I had been around that many guitar players. I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t really know anything about NAMM either … anyway … it all boils down to the fact that it was terrifying. Then I got up there and just started playing and it’s all good now. You just play and if you mess up you mess up. Also I have seen some of the best guitar players in the world butcher something. Everybody makes mistakes, you’re a human being. So anytime I get to play in front of people I just try to enjoy it. The fact that I am there playing guitar and it’s what I get to do with my life, are you kidding me? So I do my best to think, well I get to play more guitar and I love it. I can’t wait to get down there and play.

Nick Johnston is playing the Melbourne Guitar Show courtesy of Schecter Guitars Australia

Nick Johnston Melbourne Guitar Show appearances:
Saturday August 5 at 1.45pm
In Concert
Sunday August 6 at 1.30pm
Schecter guitar clinic
Sunday August 6 at 3pm
Triple M Finale Jam

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