Guitar, Solo

Johnny A. celebrates the British songbook of the ’60s

While Johnny A. isn’t performing with a band, he still carries the weight of a full ensemble.
While Johnny A. isn’t performing with a band, he still carries the weight of a full ensemble.
The last time Johnny A.performed in Tucson, he played guitar in the Yardbirds. He's returning to town as a solo performer, but that's not to say he'll be alone on stage. The "Just Me... And My Guitars" tour features Johnny A. covering a wide range of classic British songs from the '60s, performed with his signature blend of technicality and grooviness, a style accentuated as a solo performer.

"It's something I've been toying with for a real long time, but couldn't figure out the equation to make it something that would be entertaining and appealing," A. said. "Being an instrumental artist, I'm in the minority already. And then being a solo instrumental artist requires a lot from an audience, but I've been fortunate that my audiences are very musical- and artist-friendly."

Johnny A. (his last name being Antonopoulos, which he was tired of having mispronounced) has performed as both a band leader and solo artist for three decades, showcasing a virtuosity in guitar jumping from rock classics to improvisational jazz to mellow blues. His guitar prowess even landed him the honor of having his name placed on a signature Gibson guitar: the Johnny A. Gibson.

From leading multiple Boston-based bands to performing with the Yardbirds to releasing solo albums throughout the 2000s, Johnny has always been inspired by the music of the British Invasion. But in recent years, he's focused his work on a different early inspiration: He can recall seeing piano players at lounges when he was young, and was captivated to see how a single musician could deliver entire songs to an audience. He's toured as a solo artist for two years now.

"I'm putting a show together that celebrates my influences growing up, which is a lot of British Invasion and British songbook music. It's all based on artists that molded me as a musician," A. said. "They're all vocally based songs, I'm not doing any that were originally instrumental, so right off the bat, they're totally reimagined... The format is totally different than what the original format of that music was. So when you take a song by The Hollies or The Beatles or Steve Winwood, that is steeped in lyrics and background vocals, you have to reimagine it all in a single guitar arrangement to try to pull out all the hooks. That way you keep it interesting, and people can grab onto it."

Recomposing classic rock songs into solo guitar pieces comes with a special set of challenges, especially when performing without using any backing tracks, pre-recorded loops or samples. Shows on this solo tour often range more than 90 minutes, a length which A. says requires a wide variety of tempos, keys, genres and playing styles to keep audiences engaged.

"It's extremely difficult," he says. "You're trying to deliver the backing, the chords, assimilate a bass line in there, you're delivering a melody, the background vocals, and key lines that were in the original that you know people are going to respond to. It's not possible to capture everything, because I'm only one person with two hands and two feet. It is challenging, but it's a lot of fun."

While technicality is one thing, A. says his goal isn't simply to impress people with how good he is at guitar. He says that with many of his favorite guitarists, he was always able to pick their playing style out of a crowd. So for him, when playing instrumental music, it's all the more important for his melodies and playing style to have a voice. It also helps that many of the songs he's covering leave room for improvisation.

"I've gone back and forth about whether or not I even want to record this format," A. said. "The reason to [perform solo] was not a financial decision, it was an emotional decision, but that's not to say it doesn't have its benefits... There's a lot of stories that go along with these songs, and the reasons I play them. I'd welcome people to take a chance and come and see it, I think they'll be pleasantly surprised by the music and the type of show.