John Denner Interview: The Enigma
US guitarist John Denner is a true musical phenomenon: a man born without a right hand who has nevertheless overcome adversity and mastered advanced rock techniques that would make many fully able-bodied guitarists weep with envy! Howard Stern - famed US ‘Shock Jock’ DJ and occasional film star - was so taken with John that he’s seemingly taken up the role of being almost a one man promotional organisation dedicated to spreading the message about John’s miraculous story and playing to a world wide audience.
Since his fateful appearance on the Howard Stern Show, John’s been
feted by some of the best guitarists on the planet, had support from
companies such as Music Man, and is becoming a prominent figurehead in
a number of campaigns from leading US based organisations involved with
the rehabilitation of soldiers who've lost limbs as well as working to
get changes in current policies from US Medical Insurance companies.
For clear evidence of what John is capable of look no further than this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvYA4TbdNUs 'Eruption Video'
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuepuSokn9M Guitar Techniques Magazine
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to both meet and play with John at Phil ‘The Gov’nor’ Hilborne’s acclaimed Widdle Studios in deepest Essex.
Phil had called up, and warned me to bring my axe as he was in the process of working on a track he'd written for John’s forthcoming solo album. John had flown over from the States to work with Phil, as he'd been an inspiration to John over many years through Phil’s hundreds of articles and CD’s in Guitar Techniques magazine. John’s album promises to features a truly amazing array of guest artists including: Phil Hilborne, Jamie Humphries, Brett Garsed, Ivan Michaljevic, Johnny Hiland, Billy Sheehan, Gary Hoey... and of course Owen Edwards! With more set to be announced soon this will be one to look out for!
When I arrived Phil and I sat down to work on ‘Is This Thing On?’ - a pile-driving melodic riff-fest that already had some scorching solos from Phil, John and Jamie Humphries. So, with just enough time to tune up, I was thrown in at the deep end with the instructions "Here you go - C# minor..." and was laying down some of my patented fave licks and hoping I could keep up! A couple of takes and Phil nodded "Good enough for me" and it was in the can. Oh, that all sessions flowed so easily...!
When John walked in, suffering from a migraine (not, I am assured, due to being coerced into one of Phil’s famed drinking and curry sessions!) we got the low down on the enigma that is John Denner
EDDIE, MARK & PHIL
OWEN EDWARDS: It’s customary in these sorts of interviews to ask how you started - I imagine your tale is more complex than most!
You could say that! When I originally wanted to play guitar - about 15/20 years ago - there weren't any role models for what I wanted to do, so I came up with the idea that as long as I had something that would enable me to strum a note with my right arm, I could make it happen with my left hand and be able to fret the actual notes.
So, I came up with the concept of literally taping a pick to my right arm. For about six months I tried it on and off, but I was a little worried about what people might think - as I said I really didn't have any role models: and I really didn't know how it would be accepted. So I stopped - y’know out of fear basically.
Then, close to three years ago I realised that I still loved the guitar: I'd spent the last 15 years staring at pictures and being fascinated by the whole thing. I'd listen to people like Phil Hilborne in the guitar magazines showing how to play these impossible riffs!
No - that’s sincere! I was always a big Eddie Van Halen fan, and I'd always thought those lick were impossible to play - y’know, no one else will ever be able to really do all that! Then I heard Phil in Guitar Techniques play the ‘Beat It’ solo and it was flawless man! Just like Eddie, so I thought: "Well, maybe this is all possible..." and the love I'd had for the instrument had kept growing and growing. I knew I needed to revisit all of this and try it again. Just to see...
PHIL HILBORNE: You were saying yesterday that you'd learnt ‘Eruption’ from Jamie Humphries..
Yeah - I learnt ‘Eruption’ from Jamie on www.licklibrary.com. And some by ear. That was another thing: now, with the Internet being so big and part of all our lives there were doors open to me that weren't before. Hey - for the first time I could actually see someone play all those scary licks!
OE Which makes a BIG difference...
Absolutely! The Internet now gave me a ‘real’ teacher, but in the privacy of my own home - and I could really dig deep into this thing: the time was right to start looking into ways to actually achieve my dream of playing hot rock guitar. I quickly realised that I needed more than just a pick at the and of my arm: I had to be able to emulate, like, a thumb and first finger to actually hold it. So, I made this sort of ‘extension’ to my arm and just used masking tape (that felt the nearest approximation to ‘skin’) and I molded it to get the pick at a 45 degree angle...I pressed it down and got myself a ‘thumb’!
Then I got some Eddie Van Halen stripes on my picking ‘apparatus’, and now I have a sleeve that I can change when I need to - it’s all functionality, y’know?
OE When you had all this ready what was the first thing you tried - did you go through the normal route of chords and everything? Or go straight in at the deep end with some Van Halen?!!
Guess what - I went straight into it with some hot Van Halen! I didn't have a teacher telling me "You need to start here, and learn notes" and all of that I didn't - I just wanted to get in there and riff!
So, I would pick musical pieces that I thought were fun - like my older brother liked that Dire Straits stuff from the first album (John plays Knopfler’s opening licks over Sultans) and I loved that so I went straight into that.
‘Sultans of The Swing’ was the first song I ever tried to play back 15 years ago - and y’know, even then, I knew it was possible as soon as I'd got a lick and a chord to sound.
But back then I didn't have the mental strength to do it: I was too concerned about things that didn't really matter: like what ‘other people’ would think of me, and everything...
I'd got myself to a certain point back then - trying those cool Mark Knopfler licks... but then something stopped me.
OE: So what was the catalyst for your ‘reawakening’ 3 years ago? you've already mentioned the Internet as providing you with visual teachers for the first time, but there must have been more?
Well, I met my wife!! It’s so important to have someone who believes in you, and when we first got together she couldn't help but notice that I loved music. I'd always be reading guitar magazines and listening to all these hot players.
So, she was like: "What’s going on? Do you just like music - what is it about the guitar?" And one day - on my birthday - there it was: in December 2005 she left a guitar in the house because she knew that if she just left it there, and didn't talk about it, I would be driven to it - she was smart! I'd be staring at it and soon enough I knew that it was time to go get some masking tape and a pick and start up again where I left off 15 years ago!
And, of course with the Internet being what it is now - things like Licklibrary.com and everything - it was all so different!
Of course, I think what's happening now is that so many kids at home - and people like myself - are getting all these big chops, but not getting the theory behind how to really apply them. So, I think that it would be really cool now for sites to make sure they get across the theoretical side of things in order for people to learn how to apply all those chops...
Personally, I had to take the physical path to begin with - but now the learning part is what I need to focus on: so I'm sort of having to go backward in my leaning a bit!
OE: Like a lot of people do! So with your rebirth what song did you start with?
Guess what - ’Sultans of The Swing!’
OE: so you went back and finished it off then?!
Oh yeah - I just still really like the licks there! So, I tried to get all of that down - and then went straight to ‘Eruption!’ (John plays the famous tremolo picking part) I guess it doesn't make any sense when you don't even know what an ‘A’ chord is - but you're able to trem pick at high speed - but that’s the way I did it! I remember when Jamie was saying on the video: "Don't worry if you're having difficulty on this - it’s Van Halen!" - and yet it’s like the first thing I'm learning!
O.E: So when learning ‘Eruption’ which bits did you find the trickiest (I know that most of students I've taught find the fast pentatonic/blues scale parts in section two a son of a bitch!)
Oh, you mean this bit? (John plays said section) Yeah... that’s a little tricky for me because of the muting. I think Eddie uses a lot of left hand hammer-ons here as well - but, I actually found the trem picking to be the trickiest part!
OE: Why - because of the muting aspect on the bass strings?
Well, I don't know...
OE: Because here you are playing almost like Eddie in your physical picking - and a lot of us whenever we try that find that the other strings go off like hell!
I really worked on that because initially when you listen to that solo - particularly with ‘non musical’ or ‘non guitarist’ ears - well, that’s the part that always stuck out to me. Y’ know, it’s fast as hell - but also a real tune in there!
Howard & Les
OE: So when did you get the courage to actually go and play to some people?
OE: First time ever?!
Yeah - I know! He called me up as he'd got wind of it that I was playing ‘Eruption’ the way I do it. I'd done an online guitar lesson thing going: I'd done a couple of audio clips at home and learnt how to send an MP3 over the Internet: I think after a couple of months I got to Number One on this web site Forum, and then they wanted to actually show people how I was doing all of this.
So I swallowed my fear and decided to just throw it up there - and the forum went crazy! No one believed it, and through the power of the Internet Howard Stern got wind of it, and on April 10th 2007 I was on Howard Stern playing ‘Eruption’!
PH: How many people listened to that?
Oh God... I betcha I hit at least 10,000,000 people in one morning! Literally all over the world!
They told me in the morning that it would be a good idea for me to throw up something online on Youtube - I got 80,000 hits on the morning of the Stern show!
OE: That’s pretty amazing!
Yeah - I looked on the Youtube page - they have like the most discussed and watched video - and I was like in the top 3 of everything: within ONE morning!
Then I put up a MySpace page and the digits just went up and up - I couldn't keep up with it: so I took it down again that same night...
Well, I was feeling like: "What is this for?" It was like too much attention for just one shot. But Howard was great: he loved what I did, he supported me - he still does - and then Jackie 'The Jokeman' Martling showed the Youtube ‘Eruption’ clip to Les Paul. Les then invited me down to his club to play live - and that was the first time I ever played a band: sitting in with the Les Paul!!!
OE: Not quite like most of us, down at the local ‘Dog and Duck’!!!!
So, now I play there from time to time Monday night at the ‘Iridium Jazz Club’ in New York City - down on Times Square and Broadway - right literally across from where they shoot ‘Late Night With David Letterman’!
It can seem like a Batman movie in downtown New York - giant colours and there I am walking into the ‘Iridium’ through a private door to play with the man who invented the electric guitar! It doesn't seem real, y'know?
I went from fearing this, to thinking "I don't think it’s possible..." to "I wonder what people might think of it..." to Howard Stern embracing it... to PLAYING WITH THE INVENTOR OF THE ELECTRIC GUITAR!!
I can't really get much more credibility or reassurance than that: so now I'm working extra hard!!
INTO THE FUTURE
OE: So, what are your plans now?
My plans now are to record this album and to get as much credibility as I can behind what I am doing. I want to give it that sort of image that when people see it for the first time it’s not about the ‘disability’ but about the ‘possibility’. That when you get brilliant musicians behind you, you can really create something worth listening to - and, who knows: maybe change things for the better.
PH: Who've you got on this record then?
So far I've got - at least officially! - Johnny Hiland doing a couple of tracks and singing, Phil Hilborne, Brett Garsed, Ivan Michaljevic, Johnny Hiland, Billy Sheehan, Gary Hoey Jamie Humphires - of course you Owen! - and we've got the amazing Billy Sheehan on board ...
Also, Hal Leonard (music publisher) has recently asked me to do something online too some lessons for a new web site: http://www.guitarinstructor.com I'm just totally overwhelmed that so may people re accepting this: I feel that I haven't worked hard enough, you know?!
I should have put more work into this! Quitting my job for a year and playing night and day just doesn't seem good enough!
PH: But you should mention that you've given up your employment and worked on this.
Well, yeah: I decided that - about a year ago - while I was learning some cool licks and was getting my playing down, I was really sort of sitting on the fence... Y’ know, I want to do this but - like all of us - I've got life responsibilities and then I realised that I'll never be happy unless I really give this thing a go: I love guitar more than I can ever express, without sounding like I'm going to cry on Barbra Walters TV Special!
But it’s true! I love everything about the guitar. And so I sat down with my wife, and we talked it through - and she asked me what did I think was possible?
You see, I've always known what it was like to be that little kid who feels different. I think I can work in an arena and make it available to all sorts of people. Try to be an inspiration y’know teach children how to play, start bringing in other musicians and start networking with great guitar players and let people all around the world know exactly what it is I'm doing.
Derek from Ernie Ball has been the most amazing help from the beginning: I called him up and told him my idea and he said straight away "I'm behind you: lets see where it goes." And they've helped ever since - even this week doing these sessions he shipped this guitar here (John’s Ernie Ball Axis).
It was the following year when I decided that day and night I'd concentrate on actually playing. In a way that took me away from my actual practising because you've got top remember that I'd never actually played in front of people so I needed to get with it on amps and gear: y’know - what does a chorus actually do? What sort of amp should I get? How do I get a proper sound? I hadn't got a lot of musician friends who could advise me on all that.
For example this POD XT (and I don't endorse them or anything) is a great unit because it’s all in there - so I could get learn about what’s going on, about compression, about how to hook it up to my computer and get a little knowledge about how to record. So, it’s been a journey about not just taping a pick on, but everything: about getting a sound and applying these techniques to create myself as a guitarist: anything I've accomplished to date is really still in the early stages: I see it going way further!
Like these couple of days: playing through that Cornford amp of Phil’s: I would have never tried that and experienced that amazing ‘real’ sound had Phil not plugged me into it: I haven't been going to loads of music stores and tried stuff out - which I may do now as I'm gaining day by day the confidence in my playing to enable me to do simple things like that
PH: Well, its not just that amp - that’s an amazing pedal you're plugged into as well!! (Laughter - we've been using the Phil Hilborne pedal) Y’ know, I've got to get a little product placement in there!!
Well yeah!!! I'm trying not to kiss up a little here, but honestly when he plugged that in as well I was thinking to myself "Oh, just another pedal...but that thing gave it that boost that someone like me needs. It gives you the punch, but keeps it sort of warm and high at the same time - it doesn't muffle your tone - or get that horrible fuzziness to the distortion. You don't want that: you want to be able to have enough gain to pull off all those hot licks but also have it clean enough that the natural character of the guitar come through. It's an amazing pedal and nothing else I've tried comes even close!
PH: You know what? The thing that has amazed me about your playing has been how you achieve the muting (JD plays a chugging power chord/open position rock riff with muted single notes in between the chords) how did you get that down?
Well, it’s a combination of what I'm doing with my left hand, but also how I developed the pick holder - if you see it’s really acting as a thumb, and I keep back up’s. For example: if I really want to do some powerful tapping, I'll use one that’s really stable - whereas a looser rhythm feel might need something with a bit more give. It’s been - and still is - a real trial and error process: I'm limited in certain areas where I can palm mute, but that’s where creativity comes in...
PH: Most people don't actually really think about the angle of the pick, or where they pick a string and all those fine details - so that’s actually helped you... just thought I'd just mention that, as Owen hasn't!!!! (Laughter)
Oh yeah, well that’s what’s great about doing things like this so I can get the views of outsiders looking in to all of this: I need to know about stuff like this!
That’s why I didn't want to go to a ‘normal’ guitar teacher, because they wouldn't have any reference points either - its not like their fault or anything - but I really feel that I can help change a lot of people out there overcome adversity.
PH: I remember telling you, when you first got in touch with me, that there’s a guy I teach who came to me after trying three other guitar teachers - and no one else had agreed to take him because he had a very damaged hand, but I was like why? You want to play guitar? I'll help you as much as I can. This guy knows he’s never going to be the best guitarist on earth, but why should that stop anyone? If you enjoy it that should be enough...
Well, y’know, some of my favourite songs on the radio are by some of the worst guitarists - and some of the most successful songs ever written have been with the simplest of guitar parts.
PH: Like ‘Mull O’Kyntyre’!
Yeah! It’s like what I'm doing here: maybe I'm choosing to demonstrate how to overcome all of this with a ‘technical’ guitar style, but what I'm doing here is showing what is possible.
Like, when Hendrix first picked it up no one was doing that - so you need someone to be little reckless: go for the untouchable and the next guy will take it further!
Remember it just took one man to first run the 4 minute mile!
PH We discussed Django Reinhardt yseterday and you were talking about Les Paul - I didn't realise he can only use 2 fingers now...
Yeah, he’s 93 years old, not only that but he almost lost his right arm in a car crash years ago - so it’s a little smaller and its bent - but he’s still pushing on with two fingers, a bad shoulder, and arthritic everything! - and he’s laughing his ass off and still having the best of times playing music. And, he winds me up as well: he'll take off my pick and will say like: "Ok what are you gonna do now?!"
It’s like he’s forced me into doing blues jams as well - y’know getting me away from all these Van Halen licks I know and putting me on the spot with a 'clean tone!' But, it’s how you learn... and afterwards he said to me: "That’s great John - and next time it'll be better!"
OE: So when this album’s finished are you going to try and get a team together and take it out on the road?
I'm real open to what people want me to do. (expand upon this with whatever developments have occurred since I saw you) It’s also about learning now: I'm learning my theory with people already doing it in the real world, and I'm learning loads of stuff like how a CD’s recorded, how you put down lines, how best to approach phrasing and building your own solos: all stuff to make me a better musician.
But at the end of the day I'm still playing the chops on the CD, so when someone else hears this with a disability - or a kid like I was years ago thinking about doing something with the guitar - well, now there’s a reference, someone to show that it’s possible.
Right at the beginning I think that one of the things that held me back when I started was theta there were no role models. If there is no one to show the way, you can end up thinking that maybe you're crazy thinking this is possible: I want it, but everyone else does this with two hands - so maybe I better go and do something else!
I want to be the one to show that anything is possible if you have the belief in yourself and the guts to go for it. I want to be that role model. A positive one that looks good, play’s reasonably well and is doing his best.
I truly believe that there’s another person just behind me who will come up who can even put someone like Phil here to shame!!!! There might be another Yngwie or Eddie out there with loss of limbs - you never know!
Summer 2008 Update:
Note From John July 30th:
Here's an update about whats happened since we were at Phil's: I'm now an Artist Endorsed by Ernie Ball! Check out http://www.music-man.com
i've also got an amazing new Amplifier from Bugera again as an Endorsed Artist - and there is a fantastic Hal Leonard DVD - 75 minutes with me! - called John Denner 'Legato Licks and Fretboard Tricks'.
I'll keep you guys informed about me speaking and performing at the Mac Expo in LA January 5th - 9th 2009 on the power of Music...
I'm also working on a soundtrack for an upcoming Television News show here in Connecticut - and of course the album is coming soon!
I think that's the lot for now....but I would also like to thank Phil, Jamie, You and Neville Martin for taking such great care of me while in the UK!