Johnny Rao -  Studio To Stage


By Chris Röckson

Ok, so you need a guitarist for a tour....who ya gonna Call? We asked some top players to tell us about their gear and sounds for both stage and studio's what they told us...

Johnny Rao is one name you'd want on your list of top ten favourite guitar players. He's a solid performer, steady, reliable and as nice a guy you could ever want to meet. He's played in bands for a lifetime, toured the world and discovered the sheer delights of the Japanese Guitar world. I caught up with Johnny to find out about his choice of gear for stage and studio, and get all technical about shit that matters to us know how it is?

Sit back and chill out to the words and music of Johnny Rao.....

Pic : Catherine Corsi

Tell me a little about your choice of amp, for both studio and stage?

For gigs:   I've been using a Bogner Alchemist 112 exclusively. For small clubs set to 20 watts, for larger clubs  40 watts, it  has one 12 in. speaker but it cuts and has tons of bottom end, it's kind of a clean sound but yet crunchy. I get nothing but compliments on this amp, the Bogner has a foot petal with a channel switcher/reverb switch/delay switch; aside from the tuner pedal, and this is all I use live. 

How many guitars do you take out on the road at any one time?

My main gigging guitar is a late 80's Burny Les Paul Jr. double cut. The Burny has the quality feel that I remember my 56' Les Paul special having. Saw it on line selling for $300 in Japan. (Had a Japanese guitar trader friend buy it and send it over about 2 years ago) And also a 83’ JV Tele (copy of a 52), which I also love, and use mainly for open tuning.

Finding these vintage Japanese guitars are like getting in a time machine and going back to the 50's and 60's and buying up Gibson’s and Fenders when they were the best, which they are NOT any more to say the least, I went a little over board and bought several flavors. (see pic. left to right: Sunburst Greco Jr., blue Burny rock and rock model Jr, Gibson 58 Jr, TV yellow Burny Jr.) but I do have a Gibson 58 LP Jr. which I love. 


In the studio, I'm doing a record now with Thommy Price, (Joan Jett's drummer) this is a straight ahead Rock record. So far for this one I've only used my Burny Jr. with Marshall Mark2 50 watt head (81) ran through a pair of Celestion alnico blue from a Vox Brian May amp, we borrowed  (thanks Joan). The sound is  gritty with lots of bite, also using an  old reverbarocket with a replaced Celestion G 12-65 speaker, this amp is amazing. I keep it  in a closet cause its has a open back, but an amazing tone, great clean tones but will break up if turned up past halfway, this is the amp I use in my home studio as well. I haven't used the Bogner yet to record. 

In my home studio, Having more time to experiment, I break out my Greco Les Paul Jr. which has this really amazing cheap honky tone to it. You can hear this tone on an instrumental I recorded called "Smokin Gun Blues". For the slide guitar stuff I used an old Danelectro and  the Rickenbacker on the cleaner guitar parts, like for my spaghetti westerns type tracks. I tend to use my  58 LP Jr. more at home and combine it with the Greco, the 58' is fat and the Greco is kind of thin.(good combo) and of course the Tele when I need a guitar part with a sharp attack. (percussive guitar parts don’t seem to work without a Tele.)

Fender stratocaster (96') mainly for the tremolo arm.

Amps-  50 watt Marshall mark2  head though one 12 celestion G 12-65

The reverbarocket, a 73' super reverb for really clean parts, and a modded Fender champ , disconnected the bass and tone controls, changed a resistor and put a 4 ohm Weber speaker in there, now the amp kicks ass. I use the vox Jimi Hendrix wah fuzz for an occasional wah wah part or feedback.

For rehearsals the 72’ Fender vibrolux reverb, with a boss overdrive. This amp is awesome, I have two 10 in. Weber speakers, one alnico for clean sustain and one ceramic for more of a Marshall grit. 

Some say it doesn't make a difference, I say it does....tell me about your choice of string gauge? And why….

Strings are all 10 gauge medium, even on my guild acoustic guitar. ( 9's are too light,11's are too heavy)

Ok Johnny, you've 'been there, done that and got the T-Shirt, any advice to the budding guitarists out there?

My advice to anyone starting out after you do learn the basics, don't do what your friends are doing, expose yourself to the great players, do your own thing, and mix it up. There's as much to learn from James Bond soundtrack as there is from 30 Seconds to Mars. If you ever get the chance to go to Japan...BUY SOME GUITARS!.

TOKAI, BURNY, ORVILLE, GRECO. Is the way to go! As far as the new guitars sold in the major corporate music supermarkets.....don't like them!

Tell me, if you had to choose your all-time favourite guitar part, which one would it be and why? 

Johnny Thunders, played by pure feel, there’s one note he plays in the top of "Chinese Rocks” where he slides up the neck on the D string....that might be one of the single best sounding notes in Rock and Roll.

On that note too, who would you say had the most influence over your playing style?

Keith Richards is at the top of my list because his playing, sound, and guitar parts just make the band sound great, his rhythms are amazing. And good rhythm guitarists are vastly underrated. He's way ahead of his time; love what he does with open tuning and his tele's. 

Townsend is right up there also. 

Jeff Beck. The "Truth” LP was a revelation, one that introduced me to a Les Paul plugged directly into a Marshall ...pure and simple, loved that raw sparse sound. And of course Beck’s style.  It just hit home with me, more so than Page and Hendrix for whatever reason. 

Mick Ronson, the solo in "Moonage Daydream" is one of the best guitar solos ever played. And I was glad to have the chance to work with him on a record that he co-produced. 

Buddy Miller- he plays in Robert Plant's new "Band of Joy". Being a big fan of Alternative Country, this guy is one of the most creative guitarists out there. Love his tones. 

Keith Urban, He's the reason I went with a Bogner, his playing is amazing but more than that I love the tones he gets, whether it be from a Tele or a Les Paul he goes for a very meaty and crisp sound, but not really distorted.  Great choice of guitars right down to a Kay that he used, and still managed to get his sound. 


Ok, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us Johnny, what a great pleasure it has been catching up with you and talkin' shop! We'll see you out there with your band 'The Dead Cowboys' real soon. Take Care!