Jimmy Johnson: Guitar Tech for Styx
Published in PM March 2009
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
This month PM hangs out with Jimmy Johnson, long-standing guitar tech for US arena rockers Styx. Jimmy gives us the run-down on what makes Styx tick, spending 20 years with Rush, and what you need to do to keep your own axes in tip-top condition.
Jimmy Johnson has been plying his main trade as a guitar tech since 1974, when he scored a job on the backline of fellow Canadians and soon-to-be rising high rockers, Rush — a role he would continue off and on for almost a quarter of a century. As well as working solidly as personal guitar tech to Tommy Shaw of Styx since 1997, Jimmys career has also seen him support a slew of other on-the-road stars with his tech-ing expertise, including Todd Rundgren, Peter Frampton, Metallica, Tom Cochrane, the Cars, Glass Tiger, Tesla, Collective Soul and Damn Yankees — while a few unique one-off jobs have also fallen into his lap, such as tech-ing at Eric Claptons 2004 Crossroads Festival and on the Blues Brothers 2000 movie.
The last few years have seen Jimmy balancing his heavy Styx touring load with running his own company, Gorgomyte, which manufactures and markets a unique guitar fret and fingerboard cleaning product (see box on page 64). 2008 once again offered no slow down on the Styx front. “We did a co-headlining show with Boston throughout the US and it was terrific,” enthuses Jimmy. “Theres a bit of growing pains when you do a tour like that, but once we all got into the groove of it, it was terrific, and a nicer bunch of people we couldnt have met. We did huge business all over the country, and chances are if you like Styx then youre probably a fan of Boston and vice versa, so for the audience it was really great. But like all good things, it ended too soon!”
One particular show in Las Vegas showed just what a huge crowd-puller Styx still are in their native US. “We played the Thomas & Mack Center, which is at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas,” says Jimmy. “Its the largest venue in town, and on the night we did that there were 74 other big shows in the city! Thats Vegas for you. But ours was sold out and we had more people than any of the others!”
Jimmy Johnsons move into the world of Canadian rock & roll, and more specifically tech-ing, came via the friendship he had soldered at school with a certain later-to-be-famous sticksman.
“I was in high school and a friend was a drummer in a band,” explains Jimmy. “He asked me if I wanted to help them set up their stuff on a weekend gig. Im a technician, not a musician, and I like getting my hands dirty building things and modifying stuff. One thing led to another and as the years passed I was still doing it, even after Id finished college. I was working for them on weekends all the time, and then my friend had an audition with Rush and he became the drummer! Of course, it was Neil Peart, and I was part of the package! He told them, Id love to join the band, but also my friend Jimmy is a good tech! Rush were another local band and everybody knows everybody in this business, and they were like, Sure, we know Jimmy! And the next thing you know, we were on tour!”
When Jimmy was offered the backline job with Rush, he didnt actually have any specific knowledge about guitars, but his reputation as a great technician went before him. He credits Rushs axe hero, Alex Lifeson, with passing on a lot of his insightful knowledge about the instrument. “I knew nothing about guitars, but I was asked to come along, and I guess they figured I could probably handle it!” Jimmy says. “And thanks to Alex Lifeson and his patience, I learned a lot. He is an amazing man and a terrific player, but hes also an inventor, a very hands-on fella. He would give me tasks and would be right in there with me, and the next thing you know we were doing just about anything there was to do! I learned a lot and was then calling myself a guitar technician.”
There was one person, however, who didnt feel as excited as his son did about this new career choice, but looking back 35 years on, Jimmy knows he made the right decision, however much he hadnt actually consciously planned it.
“It wasnt a conscious decision to be in this business and, of course, it drove my father crazy!” he laughs. “And, living in an automotive town with General Motors and Ford and everybody, he was like, Theyre hiring, Jim. You should be going down there! But, of course, in hindsight I made the right decision, because the automotive industrys really hurting people I know. Theyre getting laid off and the plants are closing, but Im still working!”
The 20-odd years that he spent with Rush and Alex Lifeson will always hold a special place in Jimmys heart. As well as being a tremendously fun time, those two decades continually provided the technical challenges that Jimmy just loves to thrive on.
“Alex is the funniest man Ive ever met and hes also a mad professor!” says Jimmy. “When it was time to go on tour, he would start talking and he had very specific ideas on what he wanted. And it would be nothing like the last time we went out. Hed say, This is what Id like to make happen. What do you think? When I had something that was close, Id give him a call and he would come by and play through it, and wed polish it a little bit. And hed say, Thats close, but maybe if we can do this So over the course of anything from a week to a month, wed get a guitar rig together that was suitable for him.
“Working with Rush was fabulous and I was very fortunate also to be asked to join them for their studio sessions, whether it was at the pre-production stage or the recordings. I was always there doing anything from making lunches to rewiring things or coming up with goofy new ways to make things happen!”
One of the things that Jimmy feels has really helped his corner as far as guitar tech-ing goes is the fact he hasnt and never has had any aspirations to be any kind of a rock star in his own right. He just wants to be a top tech! “From my experience, a lot of musicians that are at that level in their career like having a guy over on the side of the stage that isnt a frustrated musician.” Jimmy explains. “But I didnt settle for this; this is what I aspired to! And I have found that whether its Alex Lifeson or Peter Frampton or whoever, theyre really comfortable with that! Im extremely happy when the soldering irons out and theres hot cable everywhere and Im gonna come up with something really cool, rather than, This is something Ive gotta do instead of bringing a guitar and playing it myself!”
Jimmy Johnson finally left the Rush camp in 97, once the band entered an understandable sabbatical period following some personal tragedies suffered by his old friend, Neil Peart. By the time Rush decided to get on the road again in 2001, Jimmy was already working full-time for Tommy Shaw and Styx, but hell never forget the way Alex Lifeson handled the situation. “I finally got an email one day and Alex said, Listen, Ive written you a message rather than calling you, because I dont want to put you on the spot. If you want to come and work again, were about to start up, but I know youre in a place with Tommy, and whatever you decide were still what we were together. Do whats right for you! I was almost in tears and thats just what I needed to hear! Were still very close. Hes a big part of my life, but life has to go on”
Styx and tones
Jimmy had worked occasionally with Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw since about 1996 on certain occasions when Rush werent touring, but once the two hooked up full-time in 1999, Jimmy introduced one important change to Shaws on-stage setup — control of his effects.
“The one thing that I really changed was taking care of his effects patches,” explains Jimmy. “He was doing that originally, but a player like Tommy only wants to be at his microphone position when hes singing, otherwise hes somewhere else. He would have to keep dashing back to switch his effects, so it wasnt long before I said to him, I can do that for you. You want to be Tommy Shaw! I do all his switching for him, and in my rack I have a drawer with all the pedals in there. He leaves them all up to me. I might decide we could use a little bit of delay on this solo, so I punch it in for him and he might look over his shoulder and give me a wink, and thats always a good thing! He leaves all of that up to me and its nice to have that kind of trust from the master!”
Tommy Shaw also leaves it down to Jimmy to seek out, try and test any new effects that he feels might add some bounce to his tone. One recent acquisition was a DigiTech Bad Monkey overdrive pedal.
“Im always looking for new ways to hopefully make the tone even better,” says Jimmy. “Quite often, youll try a new thing, but you go back to what you had. But the DigiTech Bad Monkey is an incredible little pedal, and in the US you can buy it for $35! I was turned on to it by a friend, Rick Gould, whos a photographer to the stars, and he started turning a lot of people on to it. I know Jeff Beck uses one, Billy Gibbons uses one It works fantastically and has got such a smooth saturated tube tone to it!”
Free up space
One major change that Jimmy Johnson has made to Tommy Shaws guitar rig in the last year or so is introducing two Palmer PDI-03 speaker simulators, which have not only saved space on the truck, but have also improved Shaws tone! Jimmy used to use the original Palmer simulators when working with Rush, but a tricky legal wrangle meant that they went out of production for quite some time.
“I started using them actually back in the late 80s and early 90s,” explains Jimmy, “What had happened was that the Groove Tubes corporation took Palmer to court, saying that they stole their speaker emulator circuit. As long as it was in litigation, they had to stop production, and the Palmer fellow could only stop production for so long before he went out of business. This made the Palmers very desirable, in that they were so hard to find. But the court case ran its course, nothing really happened and the Groove Tubes patent expired. When that happened, he started remaking these things. I actually gave [Palmer] a call in Nashville one night because we were considering getting these new models, but I was concerned they wouldnt be as good as the old vintage pieces. And he said to me, The only difference is theyre a little more heat-seeking. They do run warm, but other than that theyre exactly the same.
“So I talked to Tommy and JY [James Young] about them. Were always looking to pick up more space in the truck so we can get other things out here, and at the time I was using these isolation boxes. I had two for JY and two for Tommy, and they took up a good six feet of space — each of them had a Marshall 4 x 12 in them. I said to them, We can pick up a lot of space and the consistency of your tone will remain day after day after day, and therell be no worries about blowing speakers! As soon as I plugged them in, they loved them, and they almost sound better than a Marshall 4 x 12, if thats possible, so we loaded up on them. Ive even got our bass player on them now!”
Two handy gadgets that form part of Tommy Shaws rig are two Lake Butler MIDI Mitigators, although theyre utilised purely to jog Tommy Shaws memory when it comes to Styxs set list. “I first started using them in the early 90s with the Damn Yankees when Tommy was there,” says Jimmy. “And the reason I use them is that when the lights go down, hes got to think about what the next song is. Its the only pedal Ive found with this many large characters so I can actually dial up the name of the song and not have to abbreviate it. Ive got one on my end and hes got one down at his microphone position, so when those lights go down, he can look down and Ive already put the name of the song on the display for him!”
Jimmy axe world
Styx currently take a crew of 12 on the road with them. In addition to Jimmy Johnson, theres another guitar tech who looks after James Youngs guitars and Rick Phillips basses, a keyboard tech, a drum tech, a carpenter, a production manager, a lighting girl, a front-of-house engineer, two drivers and two people in merchandise. On the day of a gig, it doesnt take Jimmy and the other crewmembers long to get the guitar world set up and ready to check. “Load in for us is usually around 11.00am, and our truck empties fairly quickly,” explains Jimmy. “After half an hour, everything is in the building, and from that point we pull the lids off and get our stuff up. Ive got it down to a pretty quick art right now. I can have our world up and running in maybe another half an hour. From there, I go through all the guitars one at a time, make sure everythings still working, listen to them, then decide whos gonna get re-strung that day. Its about half of them each day.”
Of the 11 axes Tommy Shaw takes on tour with him, its only his main guitar, the 1998 Gibson 1959 Historic Les Paul reissue — which he plays for five or so songs per night —that gets re-strung every single day. Jimmy still sticks loyally to what he refers to as “real strobe tuners”: a Peterson R450 and a Peterson 490 Auto Strobe. “Being an old-timer, Im also a little old-school,” he laughs. “I just find they respond much more accurately than the so-called virtual strobes. I have to have a real strobe tuner. Ive tried the other ones and if anything new comes out I give it a shot, but quite often it just goes straight back to the store!”
To ensure all of Tommy Shaws guitars stay in tune once they hit the stage, Jimmy also utilises a couple of domestic temperature sensors. “I saw them and I thought, I know what I can use them for! Ive got one remote sensor down by Tommys MIDI Mitigator on the floor by his microphone position, and then Ive got the other one in my guitar vault so I can look at that at any time to see if theres, like, a jurassic temperature difference between the two positions. Theres always going to be some kind of a difference and it doesnt usually matter too much, but if hes in the throw of the air conditioning or if hes got a lot of lights on him, then it could be important. Temperature change is usually a guitar players worst enemy as far as tuning goes!”
During show time, Jimmy always has a pen and paper to make notes about any maintenance issues he may have to take a look at the following day. “If something comes to me, I have a pad and make a note of it, because, sure as shooting, the next day Im gonna forget until its too late. Theres normally not too much, but I do like to stay on top of routine maintenance!”
If something does fall down and require some keyhole maintenance, Jimmy packs enough spares in his work box to deal with any eventuality. “Ive got a very comprehensive work box, which most people say is over the top, but thats OK, thats who I am!” says Jimmy. “I would rather be looking at it than looking for it. Ive got spare tubes for everything, guitar parts for everything, including stuff for a lot of things I dont even have any more, but I dont wanna be caught short in any situation!
“I carry spare heads, spare Palmers, spare pedals, cabling, lots of guitars, lots of [Samson UR-5D] radio packs. Im fortunate in my radio packs, in that I dont have a guy whos playing on his back, spinning around and crushing the radio transmitter! Tommy does play them and there are marks on them, but as far as the electronics go, hes not smashing things and destroying stuff like a Nine Inch Nails kind of a set! But I do carry spares of everything and, the occasion permitting, I try to keep them as close to me as possible during performances, because they dont do you any good if theyre sitting in the truck!”
Jimmy also has a load of great advice for any guitar player who doesnt have the luxury of having a guitar technician waiting at his side, including some NASA inside tips. “The first thing I do when I grab a guitar is make sure everything is as tight as possible,” says Jimmy. “Because of what I do for a living, my friends want me to look at their guitars for them, which Im happy to do, and the first thing I notice with a lot of guys is when I pull the strings off the machine heads will get a little loose, and the neck joints if youve got a Telecaster or a Strat. Make sure those smaller screws are tight! This is common sense stuff too, but you dont think about it. When things are loose, everything suffers.
“Make sure things are clean. When you pull the pickguard off and you look underneath, blow all the dust out and contact clean everything. Over 90 percent of the time, a lot of repairs come down to the dirt in the system somewhere, and there are lots of products out there now. DeoxIT is something I use religiously, and it was originally developed for the production industry, not for musicians. A friend of mine who actually worked at NASA in Texas told me that every electrical contact of the Space Shuttle is treated with DeoxIT, which at the time was called Cramoline. Crackly sound when you wiggle a chord or something like that? Put a drop of this stuff on and its gone! Its terrific stuff and its readily available now from most electrical spares shops.”
The beginning of 2009 is ticking along in typical fashion for Jimmy Johnson, with quite a few US Styx shows under his belt already. In March, hes going to be working with Peter Frampton making a new record, and then itll be back on the road with Tommy Shaw and the guys. When we ask Jimmy if theres any other guitarists he wished he had the opportunity to work with, he hesitates and exclaims that there actually isnt. Working with Styx and Tommy is his dream job.
“Im not saying this because Im working for him right now, but Tommys such a sweet guy, and thats all I ask! I dont want to work in a position doing what I do if your stomachs in a knot because you know the guys gonna be barking at you at dawn! Life is too short for that, and I cant think of anybody right now who I wish Id worked for and havent. Ive turned down positions even if I need the work before because Ive done my homework on who they are. I dont need that in my life, to work for somebody whos constantly miserable, and they are out there. Im happy to be working with a guy who gives me full reign, a guy that makes you smile when he comes in, no matter how bad your day is. I know theres nobody Id rather work for!” 0
Tommy Shaws Styx rig
1998 Gibson 1959 Historic Les Paul reissue.
Taylor SolidBody Custom.
Fender Custom Shop Relic Telecaster.
Bill Nash Stratocaster.
Fender Custom Shop Relic Baritone Jazzmaster.
Gibson Custom Shop ES-356.
1986 Gibson ES-335.
1966 Fender Electric 12-string.
Taylor GA8 12-string.
Taylor GS8 six-string.
Two Marshall TSL 100s with Groove Tubes Mullard EL34s with a six grade.
Two Palmer PDI-03 passive speaker simulators.
In the rack/drawer
Samson UR 5D wireless receiver.
Dunlop DCR 2SR remote wah with two VCA controllers.
Keeley-modified Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer pedal.
DigiTech Bad Monkey overdrive pedal.
Boss BF-3 flanger pedal.
Boss CE-5 chorus pedal.
Boss DD-6 delay pedal.
Keeley Compressor pedal.
Keeley Katana clean boost pedal.
Dunlop Uni-Vibe pedal.
Lake Butler MIDI Mitigator controllers.
The legend of Gorgomyte
A few years back, Jimmy Johnson started the Gorgomyte company to market a new fret-cleaning product he had helped to develop. The product is now endorsed by a whos who of some of the top guitarists and guitar bands right across the world, including Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Megadeth, Ted Nugent, Lou Reed, the Black Crowes, Bullet For My Valentine, ZZ Top, Foo Fighters, Trivium and Aerosmith, to name just a smattering. The origins of the product were relatively straightforward.
“A friend whos a chemist said, Is there any sort of stuff that you think you would love to have that you dont have?” explains Jimmy. “I said, Well, there are so many different polishes and waxes and oils for a guitarist, but one part of a guitar that just doesnt get taken care of is the neck of a guitar and the fingerboard and frets. Between the two of us kicking it back and forth for a while, we finally came up with a finished product that I was happy with!”
Originally, Jimmy wasnt planning to start a business and market the product to other guitarists. That is, until a chance meeting with US country guitar god James Burton at Eric Claptons Crossroads charity festival back in 2004. Jimmy was working as a general guitar tech for anybody that needed him, and after explaining to Burton why he was at the festival the legend gave him his famous vintage Telecaster to clean.
“The first thing I did was open the case and Im looking at the holy grail of Telecasters, but it needed love. I said to him, I have this stuff that I like to use for polishing the frets and Id like to use it on this! He said, Son, you can do anything you want to this! So I started work on it. The whole process only takes a few minutes and the guitar came out great! He said, Have you any idea how long Ive had this guitar? Well, its never looked the way it does now!”
James Burton and country singer Marty Stuart, who was with him at the time, consequently talked Jimmy into making a go of it and starting a company to market it. Since then, he hasnt looked back, and has never yet found anybody who hasnt been duly impressed by what Gorgomyte can do to a guitars fret and fingerboards.
“I make this guarantee to everybody that I talk to about it: I will make your guitar better than new! Ive gone to many shops on days off on the road, given demos and right out said, Give me the guitar youll give to some young fella on a Saturday morning whos gonna bug you all day by playing out of tune. The guitar thats never had the strings changed and has never had a drop of polish on it Ill make that your best guitar in the store in under five minutes! I have yet to find anybody who hasnt said, Wow!”
To find out more about Gorgomyte and how it works, check out www.gorgomyte.com
Published in PM March 2009
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