John is a Nashville-based, 100% Chet Atkins-bestowed Certified Guitar Player (or was it Country Guitar Picker?), a passionate teacher, and a lifelong student of music and his craft – as well as a recipient of an advanced degree in Physics from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. After plying that degree working for Texas Instruments for a short time, he and his wife had a son, so John naturally figured he’d better knock off the pie in the sky physics stuff and enter the real, working world, with a guitar in his hands once again…
What led you to a doctorate in physics and subsequent career in tech, and what led you away from it to play music?
I attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and they wouldn’t let me major in music. They didn’t consider the guitar a legitimate instrument at that time. I was pretty good at mathematics so I majored in physics. After I earned my PhD, I worked in the research lab at Texas Instruments in Dallas for a couple of years.
When our son Jay was born, I got a dose of real life. I realized if I was going to be a real dad, I needed to be a real person. And the real person in me was a musician. So Becky and I sat down and decided we would switch over from physics to music and see how it worked out. I remember the conversation went, “I’ll teach some guitar lessons, and we’ll see what happens…” Six-and-half years later, we had moved to Nashville where our daughter Jackson was born. We’ve never looked back or wished we’d decided things differently.
Tell us about being a CGP (Certified Guitar Player) and what that means to you.
I remember when Chet started calling himself Chet Atkins, CGP– as if he had an advanced degree. He wouldn’t tell us what it stood for, so we all started guessing. Someone guessed “Certified Guitar Player,” so he said, “Yeah, that could be it.” It turns out he was thinking “Country Guitar Picker.” He wasn’t going to tell anybody. He was just going to let it be a mystery, you know. He’d had several tags like Country Gentleman and Mr. Guitar during his career, and he wanted to move forward. So that’s where CGP came from.
Later on, he gave that honor to a handful of us. Mine looks like a proclamation – “Whereas John Knowles…” like a degree, and then at the end it reads “Therefore, by the power I have vested in myself…” Each one of our awards is different. Tommy Emmanuel’s looks like the Washington Monument, and says “For lifetime contribution…” And the one he gave Steve Warner looks like a gold record. It wasn’t a specific thing as much as it was a way of him expressing something to his pals. That’s the closest thing I have to a music degree – that moment when Chet called me up and said, “You stand here and let me read this!”
What current projects are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about my work with TrueFire – video instruction. I’m keeping all 40 issues of my FingerStyle Quarterly (music/TAB with audio) in print and now with TrueFire, people can see what I’m doing. And I’m sharing what I’ve learned from being in the room with some amazing players. I’ve had the chance to ask them questions, write articles, and do interviews. I’ve basically had guitar lessons with my heroes. I’ve tried hard to be as good a player as I could and as good a teacher as I could. I don’t think of myself as the most stunning player in the world or the best teacher in the world, but I try to be good enough to be in the room with the best players and teachers… good enough to be at the table.
Every now and again I’ll run into someone who’s 60 year old, saying I’m so old, I can’t learn. I’m in my 70s and I’m still learning. I don’t want to use age or circumstance as the reason I can’t do something. The reason most of us can’t do something is because it’s hard, and we don’t want it enough! But if you can pass those two barriers, there’s still ground to be gained.
What are the best and worst things an amplifier can do for you?
I come at this from being a nylon-string player, since I was 28, and not having any amplification at first… aside from microphones. I’ve had to learn how to sound good amplified, which is distinct from how to sound good acoustically. The benchmark for me has been to listen to an amp at a low volume and bring it up little by little until the sound becomes more electronic. The thing about being a musician is, can you play musically and with dynamics… can you express yourself? And if an amp will let you do all that, you’re way over the starting line.
When you’re playing for 75 people, I think it’s pretty easy to get an amp to start helping you out. But when you’re playing for 750 people, the amp starts replacing you; it’s your whole sound. When that happens, it shifts from being just about playing an acoustic guitar to, “is this allowing me to express myself and reach the audience at the same time?”
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of live performance?
Fighting a bad amplifier or bad amplified sound, as I mentioned, is mainly it. My dad and granddad were preachers, so I kind of grew up in the family business – where you stand up in front of people and do something. Performing has always felt like the family business to me. That connection is easy for me to make. But when you start having to struggle with the sound you’re using, that’s difficult.
Recently, Tommy Emmanuel, who really knows how to play loud and who I’ve been the most comfortable playing loudly with, and I were on the road, and our first night out, someone broke into our van and stole a lot of our gear, including my amp. And the next place we played had a Henriksen Bud. So I played with a Bud three gigs in a row without having done anything to learn how to use it; I just set it up flat, plugged in, and went direct to the board, and it just did everything I needed it to do. It did that job of helping me communicate with people without irritating me or frustrating me for having to deal with an amp. Since then, I’ve had a chance to sit down and do my “if you have an hour to play with an amp, what will it do?” thing. I played with the Bud and the Bud Ten, and they’re both very natural, effortless sounding amps.
Who would you most like to play with today, living or not?
I looked at this question and thought, “oh my gosh!” But I also knew the answer very quickly, and that’s Lenny Breau. I had such good times with him. After his death, I realized how many fundamental things I’d learned from him and how much they were present in my playing. I’d just like to get with him again and ask him some more questions! I think he was, still, the most adventurous player I ever played with, and a great musician to boot. He was really something! When I first came to Nashville, I took him around to gigs, we did a book together – we did a lot of things, and he was very generous with what he knew. I look now at what I do and I realize I built on what I learned from him, and… I would really like another helping!
What kind of music would people be surprised to discover you enjoy?
People know me as pretty diverse, but I’d say contemporary (as in last century) classical composer Charles Ives. He was a New England insurance salesman who composed on the side! You can find a lot of his music on YouTube. And the other one would be Harry Partch, who invented instruments so that he could play with microtonal scales. Those two guys really just stretched out and did things that nobody else was doing. When I listen to them I hear real artists at work. I don’t know how much it influences me, but it satisfies me to listen to it.