Interview with Mark Johnson in the ToneQuest Report

The ToneQuest Report

We have known Mark Johnson for a long time now, and he has been playing the guitar in the band known as Delta Moon even longer. He never really stops thinking about playing… His heart was given over to the guitar long ago. He and the band have produced over ten albums and they tour Europe at least twice each year, from Italy to Spain, Germany and France. The entire time we have known Mark he has remained a hopeless gear freak – guitars, acoustic and electric, effects and amps. We have observed various acquisitions of his and used them as a guide at times, and at other times he has done the same with us. Our jams here are LL8A0882often revealing and thought provoking, prompting deep thought into the art of crafting exceptional guitar tones, and little wonder, since the volume of new and vintage gear we have auditioned together over the years is truly monumental. You can imagine… Mark is a chameleon on the guitar. Where most slide players rely on familiar themes created by familiar players, Mark is a music historian with a deep knowledge of obscure and familiar players of the past. He can easily explain how a certain guitar player held and played the guitar to get unique tone, and he has studied different tunings and techniques as a means of understanding the past. He has done the same with gear, deciphering how certain elusive tones were squeezed from a guitar and amplifier until they become a part of his vocabulary. Thousands of gigs have honed his chops yet he still looks forward to playing every show as much as the last. Trips to Europe are always rewarding because he gets to see people who are very different from the crowds at home react to the music with the same unbridled enthusiasm and zest for life. When you play a gig in Atlanta and then in Germany with the same result, you begin to keenly understand the universal appeal of music and how similar we really are.

I called Mark recently and said, “It’s time we told your story the way it deserves to be told. When can you talk? We met for lunch and discussed how we might embark on such a quest, and the next day we spoke for the record. Enjoy…

TQR: When did you start playing in earnest and what was your first rig?

I started playing around 13 or 14 years old. I grew up in a trailer park near Kent, Ohio. Kent State University was a real liberal place and was known internationally for its student activism in opposition to the Vietnam War. The Kent State students were shot in 1970 by national guardsmen deployed from Ravenna, Ohio, my home town. So protest, rebellion, and mayhem were in the air and in my young mind, the sound track to all that was happening was rock and roll. I wanted to be a part of it. That whole era including Joe Walsh was really important. My dad worked construction all week in Pennsylvania and he would often come home with a box of promotional records from a friend who owned a record store in Pittsburg and it was like Christmas morning. My dad didn’t play, but I think he was a musician at heart, and the minute one of us showed any interest in music he was there. I have 3 brothers, so there are four boys and he wanted to keep us busy. My first real guitar and amp… I kinda struck gold right off the bat. My dad bought me a cherry Epiphone 335 and a Princeton Reverb amp. After a year, I traded the Epiphone for an early 70s, all maple Stratocaster with the big headstock and I played that for a long time. I took lessons and just worked on getting it together, and then that guitar was stolen and I bought another all maple one, but it never sounded as good as that first one. I was playing in bands in high school and I bought a fawn Marshall 50 watt head and 4×12 cabinet. It was the late ‘70s but it was an early ‘70s amp and it sounded like God.

TQR: How did your understanding of the guitar begin to shape and change your choice of instruments, amps and effects? Were you paying attention to what players of the past had used?

I always thought the Stratocaster looked the coolest and Eric Clapton played one so I pretty much stuck with that for a long time. When I went to college I sold the Marshall, and I really didn’t get back into playing and gear until I moved to Atlanta after seeing Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit at the Little 5 Points Pub. It was Jeff  Sipe on drums, Jimmy Herring on guitar, Oteil on bass, Reverend Mosier on electric banjo and Hampton playing this crazy 4-string mando guitar. The whole thing just blew my mind and I decided I had to move there. So I moved down and I joined this band called the Rude Northerners that was made up of guys from Minneapolis. We started playing a lot of places like the Beacon Lounge on Sweet Auburn Avenue, where you could only buy beer by the quart. It was loose and crazy and I fell in love with playing music in Atlanta. That’s also when I met Dave Tiller when he had his first music store on Cheshire Bridge Road. I bought an early ‘60s Vibrolux Reverb and that’s the amp I used in that band and on into my next band that was called the Crawdads. I also bought a couple of early Fender ‘63 reissue Fender Stratocasters, and I had an early ‘60s 335.

TQR: Who were our most significant guitar heroes?

Well, Mick Taylor with the Stones for one, and David Lindley on Jackson Brown’s
Runnin’ on Empty. I didn’t know that he was using a lapsteel at the time but I learned that song note for note on the bottleneck and it sounded pretty good. I recently heard Running on Empty in a gas station on the road and it’s still incredible, really the holy grail of slide sounds. Another early one I learned was Mick Taylor’s slide part on The Stone’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” on Get Your Ya Ya’s Out. I read an article when I was in college about Ry Cooder and I got some of his records like Into The Purple Valley. His playing on the soundtrack to the movie Johnny Handsome was real important and really blew my mind. I also heard the Crossroads soundtrack and I went out and bought a Telecaster. I learned “Feelin Bad Blues” note for note. That song and his sound on the sound track to the movie Southern Comfort…. that was the sound I was searching for…. so swampy! And of course, that’s the sound of his Coodercaster. I think the Johnny Handsome sound is mostly the from the Teisco gold foil pickup. I actually tried to make a Coodercaster out of one of those 63 re-issues, didn’t work. That’s the last time I tried really modifying an already perfectly good guitar! Then when I joined the Crawdads,the bass player, Pete Fuller, was really into Little Feat and I hadn’t really been exposed to them, somehow I missed it, but Lowell became a big influence, not just his slide playing, but especially his rhythm playing which is really percussive and minimal is tic in open A tuning. So good!

TQR: And you were tuning to D and G for the most part?

Yeah, at this point I had abandoned regular tuning completely and was using open D and G. Early on in Delta Moon I used DADGAD a little, but for the most part I’ll use D and G. Sometimes I’ll capo up to the 5th fret in D tuning , to the key of G, while Tom Gray will be in open G on the steel. Or I will play in the key of C or D, but tuned to open G, no capo. You get cool, chord inversions against the other player and you think and phrase differently. That’s another thing I got from Ry Cooder. It keeps things interesting – we call it cross tuning. We work really hard staying out of each other’s way and really listening, playing off each other. We are going for intertwining parts with space, one big guitar sound like in the style of early Fleetwood Mack and the way Peter Green and Danny Kerwin put songs together. Listen to Fleetwood Mac Live at the Boston Tea Party Volumes 1 and 2. That’s really where we formed our sound – those records were a big influence.

TQR: Like many of us I would imagine Midtown Music was an important stop… Let’s talk about the guitar and amps that you have really leaned on…

Yeah, Dave’s place was one of those incredible brick and mortar music stores and Dave made it really easy to trade. We would just hang out here all afternoon talking gear. I got a 3×10 Custom Shop Vibro-King and it was a great amp but just too loud for me. Then I started reading about Dumble amps which I couldn’t afford. I talked to Sonny Landreth at Midtown Music Festival and I wound up buying an early Demeter TGA-2 head and ran that through a Matchless 2×12 cabinet. It had the Matchless signature speakers and it was great. That was heading down the Dumble path, still playing Stratocasters. It wasn’t until I found an early Jerry Jones guitar that I departed from the Strat. Also bought a Two Rock Opal, and it had a great lead sound, so I was using one or the other. But even though it had a great lead, Dumble sound it didn’t really fit with the band. I was always into Fred McDowell, but I was getting more and more into R.L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill and all the other Mississippi Hill Country Blues artists and those amps sounded too good! Too smooth and refined, and not percussive enough. So I bought an early Victoria 3×10 Bandmaster and after about 6 months I sold it and bought a Victoria 4×10 Bassman and that was a big mistake. The Bandmaster was the perfect volume. About that time I walked into Midtown and there was the Balls M18 2×12 amp. I asked Dave what it was and he said it was one of the best sounding amps he had ever heard. I played the shit out of that amp for 5-6 years.

TQR: Meanwhile you were experimenting with other things…

Yeah, I bought the Divided By 13 amps and they were great sounding amps but at full power they seemed too loud and at half power it wasn’t cutting it. I also had a lot of RF problems with the Divided By 13 amps that never got resolved so I eventually sold them. I had a Dr. Z Route 66 – another gorgeous sounding amp but again too squishy. A great lead sound but a lot of those amps just don’t cover all the bases for me, I play a lot of rhythm guitar. I also had a Clark Beufort and sometimes I would run those amps together. The Balls eventually got stolen in Ft. Lauderdale, and Danny Gork was so kind to build me another amp. I eventually got the original Balls back with half the tolex torn off. I still use it.

TQR: What was going on with guitars?

Always a Stratocaster in the mix, but I when bought a Jerry Jones at Clark Music and it eventually became my main guitar, Old Red. It sat in the closet the first 6 months, then I brought it out one night and Tom’s wife Janet really liked it. She got me thinking about that Jerry Jones a lot, it sounded and looked different. I was so used to the scale and feel of the Stratocaster, but I eventually fell in love with the 25” scale, the lipstick pickups, everything. I love Jerry Jones guitars, especiallythe early ones, when he was tooling his own bridges, before he went to the string though, strat style bridge. I now have six, two of the double cutaways and four of the single cuts, plus a 12 string mandoguitar. He’s not making them anymore so I kinda freaked and grabbed them! They are semihollow – a Danelectro made right, really.

TQR: Back to amps…

A couple of things happened. We recorded a live video in Athens, where I used the Balls and the Clark together, and I wound up mixing the Balls completely out. I think I was getting tired of the EL84 sound. The second thing that happened was we did a gig with Damon Fowler at Skipper’s in Tampa and he was using a blackface Super and just sounded so good. So I decided to go back to 6L6s and 6V6s again, and that’s when I found the Headstrong Vibroverb. It’s just a great package – 35 watts, and we still play some venues where we don’t mic the amps at all. Tom is using a Fender Vibrolux Custom reissue and those two amps sound perfect together. That’s my main amp now, but in smaller clubs or radio, I’ll use my Swart Atomic Spacetone. They sound great and I got into those amps by going over to your place and checking them out. They are really hard not to like. TQR: Now we’re leaving out the amp you last took on tour in Europe…

Yeah that’s my latest addition, The BC Audio Number 7. In the studio I’ll use the Gibson GA20 , and those larger preamp tubes really make the difference. You turned me on to the BC Audio #7 because you had one that I tried at your house. The interesting thing about the BC Audio amp is it sounds so good as a lead sound but it also has the punch and attack for rhythm.. The big thing for me is amps with master volumes just don’t work. It has to be the right wattage turned up and them I’ll hit it with a Klon or my latest, the Analogman King of Tone, and that’s really all I do. I’m also really into the Sacred Steel players, especially the Campbell brothers and I am into Earl Hooker, so I use a wah with the slide. The Jerry Jones with a wah into one of these amps and wow – that’s the set up. I’m 53 now and I’ve been playing since high school, and you go through all this stuff, but in a way I’ve come full circle. I also have a Gibson Skylark and a couple of Jeff Bakos amps – the Plus 45 which is a Marshall inspired beast and on this last record I used Jeff’s 8 Ball which is his version of a Gibson Skylark. Whenever we go in the studio I always bring the Skylark, a GA20 and I used the Atomic Spacetone on a couple of songs.

On this last record I used all kinds of stuff. An early 30s National style O, a Supro semi-hollow Ranchero guitar, and a recent custom shop Fender Esquire that is just incredible. I also used a couple of early Rickenbackers – an early B6 lapsteel that I played lapsteel on, and I have a Rick Spanishelectro that I used. I also used a Kay Custom Craft with a gold foil pickup. I typically don’t use Strats in the studio and all this stuff from under the bed starts coming out. I actually used an Analog Man bicompressor on this record lot. I used an Crucianelli guitar, made in Italy in the 60s, which are also sometimes called Nobels or Imperial and you can still find them in two, three and 4 pickup models. They are really cool, although playing them live would be a problem with feedback.

TQR: It’s really interesting how you have chased your tone.

You are always searching for the holy grail and I’m not sure there is one! You just want something that sounds warm and can be heard, and I guess I’m into the classic American sound. I guess I’m always looking for a sound with an edge – kind of a gorgeous, juke joint sound. It has to have some edge to it.

TQR: You have never really leaned on a Deluxe Reverb very hard.

No, I’ve had them, and I have always liked the tweed Deluxe but I prefer the Princeton. Your tweed Tremolux… I have an iPhone recording of you playing one of your Juniors through your Tremolux in Charleston and whoah! That’s a sound and I have never forgotten. I’m a big Mike Campbell fan and what’s he using? A Princeton. A tweed Deluxe.

TQR: Yeah, I remember him playing here and he had two big Vox rigs just for looks and a blackface Princeton miked in the back.

Yeah, always used the Klon and now I’m using the King of Tone pedal a lot, but, sometimes I use an original Way Huge Green Rhino, I got that from studying Campbell. Another great pedal always on my board, the Greer Ghetto stomp which Rick Holmstrom uses. By the way, I think a looper pedal is very useful. I use it for practice at home all the time. The TC Electronics Ditto X2 is the one. I used it live in Colorado with my brother and it was perfect. There is nothing like playing with your brother.

TQR: Well, you and I hear things pretty much the same. You’ve always been very easy to play with.

Thanks. I have always prided myself in being good support player. Listen to how Rick Holmstrom backs Mavis Staple on Live at The Hideout. That’s good guitar playing!

(Photo credit: Romin Dawson)

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