The disclaimer: I like music. I will listen to any type of music but there are some genres I can take or leave. I have listened to enough Punk rock, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, and hard core metal bands like Slipknot to know they aren’t my cup of tea. I understand why legions of fans are attracted to that style of music while others are not. In my younger years, bands like Black Sabbath were in a similar ‘I love them / I hate them’ career arc. Because I do not listen to the short list of bands mentioned above, I missed out on an amazing guitarist known as John 5 who played with both Zombie and Manson. He has become a hot topic now that he has replaced Motley Crue guitarist Mick Mars who left the band because touring with his health problems has become too difficult to manage (more on this a bit later).
John 5 was born William Lowery in Grosse Pointe, Michigan on July 31, 1970. His first introduction to the guitar came courtesy of watching Buck Owens and Roy Clark on TV’s country cornpone show Hee Haw with his father. His inspiration for picking up the guitar at age 7 was seeing Jimmy Henley playing banjo on the show. His guitar teacher, Robert Gillespie, took an extra step; he joined him performing so young William could play evenings at adult bars. John 5 cites the Monkees, Kiss, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, and country music as his early musical influences.
At the age of 17, William moved to Los Angeles to begin a career as a session guitarist. Lowery was playing with his first L.A. band Alligator Soup when he first met Whitesnake bassist Rudy Szarzo. Szazo recruited him for the band Sun King which also put William in touch with producer Bob Marlette. Through Marlette, Lowery worked on projects for both TV and movie soundtracks and also scored the chance to play with Lita Ford opening a concert for KISS. William became close friends with Paul Stanley and guested on Stanley’s Live to Win album. Drummer Randy Castillo (Ozzy Osbourne solo band) worked with Lowery on several projects that never got off the ground before the guitarist was picked to tour with k.d.lang.
In 1996, Lowery tried and failed to get an audition for Marilyn Manson’s band – the slot had already been filled by Zim Zum. He went on to work with Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford in a group called 2wo (Two) while continuing an impressive amount of session work. William’s big break came when David Lee Roth tabbed him to play lead guitar on his well-received album, DLR Band (1998). Lowery had always liked Roth so when the vocalist left Van Halen for a solo career (or was drummed out of Van Halen, your pick), Lowery decided to call Roth’s manager to offer DLR a few songs. It was probably fortunate that Roth picked Lowery for his band. The other guitarist DLR was considering, Mike Hartman, died of Cystic Fibrosis in 2000. Lowery’s greatest take away from his DLR Band experience was the lead singer’s advice, “If you can’t do it in two takes, you can’t do it.”
Manson would come into the picture again when Zim Zum was dismissed from his band during the recording of Mechanical Animals. Lowery had lunch with the singer and was immediately asked to join the band. “Right then and there, it was obviously something he’d been thinking about,” because Manson also gave William the name ‘John 5’. The moniker comes from both the Biblical passage and the fact the guitarist is the fifth member of Manson’s band. After an on-stage incident at the 2003 Rock AM Ring festival there were indications J5 would be departing that band in the near future. When Manson kicked John 5’s guitar, J5 screamed at the singer and tossed his guitar at him. Both later downplayed the whole incident. John 5 blamed the stress of the tour and the losses of some very close family members for the outburst, later commenting his behavior had been ‘unprofessional’. Both claim there was no bad blood and it was a mutual decision when John 5 finally did leave the band in 2004.
In the wake of the Manson band, John 5 formed a group called Loser. The name is a reference to his days attending a fairly posh school but sporting rock tee shirts (rather than the ‘Polo’ and ‘Brooks Brothers’ brands favored by the other students), thus earning him the nickname, ‘Loser’. During this time period, he got to know Rob Zombie who was just getting started with his film career. Zombie asked John 5 if he wanted to play Thunder Kiss with him for a Camp Freddy benefit and the guitarist jumped at the chance. They hit it off from the get go and Rob asked if John 5 wanted to play with him at Ozzfest 2005. Rumor has it Zombie was going to get out of the music business to concentrate on making films until he played with John 5. With his new band Loser just getting some traction, John 5 tried to do both for a while but it was a brutal schedule. John 5 ended up picking Zombie’s band for his next gig and Island Records, the company that had signed Loser, dropped them, figuring they were not the same band without him. Though he felt bad for the loss of Loser’s contract, John 5 said he made the right decision and has never looked back. As J5 put it, “I found it impossible to be in two places at once.”
John 5 has continued to work on Zombie’s albums and film scores throughout the 2010s. In May 2021, John 5, Nikki Sixx, Rob Zombie and drummer Tommy Clufetos formed a supergroup dubbed L.A.Rats. Their track I’ve Been Everywhere was used in Liam Neeson’s film The Ice Road. The grouping was instigated by record company executive Scott Borchetta who had been put in charge of the soundtrack for the Netflix action thriller. The title may sound familiar but the Rats gave the tune previously recorded by Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, and Asleep at the Wheel a decidedly heavy metal flavor. It is unclear if the group will record again or if this was just a one off movie project – only time will tell.
Never one to stand still, John 5 has released thirteen solo albums through 2021. He also has been gigging regularly with his band The Creatures. How he has managed his personal life while jumping between multiple projects is another one of those mysteries one can only understand if they have been similarly busy. With that said, it is worth noting his first marriage to actress Aria Giovanni only lasted a year (2005-2006) but they have two children together, Jeremy and Nicole. His union to hair stylist Rita Lowery in 2009 added step-son Andre to the brood. John 5 also has a grandson. J5 is an avid collector of KISS merchandise. He concentrates on merchandise, clothing, and promotional items from 1973 to 1983 which he chronicles on his Instagram account labeled ‘knightsinsatansservice’ (a tweak at the debunked origin of the KISS band name).
On October 26, 2022, another door of opportunity opened for the guitarist when it was announced that Motley Crue’s guitarist Mick Mars was retiring from the road due to ill health. Mars disputes some of the ‘health’ angle bluntly accusing the Crue of firing him from the band even though he said he only wanted to pull back from extensive touring. Mars further claimed they had been trying to get rid of him for years. During some of the angry back and forth dialog, Mars accused the band of using ‘a lot of backing tracks’ during their most recent live shows. Mars claims he can still do the job but, “I would rather play live than pretend.” Crue bassist Sixx commented, “[The lawsuit] represents a sad day for us. We don’t deserve this considering how many years we’ve been propping him up.” Sixx has explained to various media sources that the band only used backing tracks of Mick’s guitar parts when he was physically unable to perform them live. We will leave it to you to decide who done who wrong.
Regardless, the day after they announced Mars’ retirement, Sixx called his old friend John 5 to see if he would be interested in filling the now open guitar slot in Motley Crue. Nikki called him and said, “You know, I think Mick’s going to retire. A tour’s coming up. We’re gonna go to Europe and South America and do all this touring. Is this something you’d be interested in?” As John 5 related the tale to Guitar World (October 2023, Vo. 44, No. 10), “To be honest with you, I look at this as ‘life is very short, and I want to experience as much as I can.’ I was like, ‘Well, of course!’” There was no hesitation on his part: “I said, ‘I’m interested’ right away. This is how to say it: I’m still very, very hungry. I’m not ready to go, ‘Boy, what a great life.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m very interested and I want to do this.’” J5 said it was a tough decision to leave Zombie because they are still close friends, but as he told GW, “[Rob] understood because he is a professional. I had to look out for myself and I had to take this opportunity.”
Was the transition to Motley Crue difficult? John 5 already had a strong relationship with Sixx and Crue drummer Tommy Lee, but he had never met singer Vince Neal. Their first introduction came at Lee’s birthday party where J5 told Vince, ‘Hey, you have a birthday coming up, and I think it’s when we’re going to be rehearsing. I’m gonna get you a really cool gift.” Neal said, “Hey man, we’re gonna have such a great time. You’re the best gift I could have ever gotten.” It may have been a tough gig for any guitarist to replace Mick Mars because his iconic playing was the backbone of their sound. It didn’t hurt one bit that J5 was a lifelong fan of the band and knew their catalog inside and out. He also has a tendency to practice, practice, practice, so the first time they got together to try out the new combo, even the veteran Crue guys were surprised.
How versatile is John 5 as a guitarist? As I was searching for clips of his solo band, I found him doing a guitar solo at an outdoor gig at the Dallas Guitar Festival in May of 2022. Instead of doing the usual flashy, hands moving in a blur, shredder type solo, J5 used the occasion to reveal his influences. His band was performing without their bass player (who was ill) and technical difficulties had taken his pedalboard effects offline. It was an impressive performance during which he touched on iconic guitar riffs from Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, KISS, AC/DC, Alice in Chains, Foo Fighters and many, many more. Without so much as a hiccup, John segues smoothly from Zeppelin to AC/DC’s opening riff for Thunderstruck before he led the band into ZZ TOP (La Grange) and then into The Final Countdown by Europe. The crowd hooted their approval at every turn. Through the burst of a confetti cannon blast that ended the show, John 5 was clearly happy with the result as he thanked the crowd at the end of the set.
Guitar World asked him how the first show with the Crue went, noting, “There’s always that thing – ‘He’s not Mick’.” John explained, “I wasn’t nervous about the show. I was like, ‘Yay, let’s do this!” Everybody was like, ‘Are you nervous?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ Because I was prepared. If somebody said, ‘Give me bar 22 of Shout at the Devil,’ I would say, ‘OK’. That’s how prepared I was. But of the people wanting to accept me? If they said, ‘He’s not Mick Mars,’ it’s like, ‘I’m not Mick Mars, I’m John 5.’ It would be silly if I came out with a long black wig and a hat, you know? I’m my own person. For instance, I love KISS, right? I love KISS. But I would never put on Ace’s makeup. Never. I’d create my own character, and if they said I couldn’t do that, I’d say, ‘The I’m not the guy (you want in the band).’”
Delving further into the John 5 / Mick Mars connection, GW asked, “Has being in the band given you a different or renewed appreciation for Mick Mars’ work?” J5 replied, “Oh, no, no, no. I’ve had a beyond appreciation for Mick Mars ever since I was a little kid. I love Mick Mars. Nothing has changed. Knowing these songs as a kid is how I know them now. I used to play at Harpo’s and the Ritz (both Detroit hotspots for live music) and all these clubs, and we’d play Motley Crue songs. I have such a high appreciation for Mars, of course. I always have and I always will. I just want to play these songs to where the guys are proud.”
Soon after he was asked to join the band, John 5 began posting videos of himself playing through some of their songs. Whether it was a pre-emptive strike to win over the Mick fans or just a fun way for him to re-acquaint himself with the catalog, his knowledge of their set list came through loud and clear. The first time he did a run through with the band, they were going to cherry pick a few tunes from their show to see how it went. They started with their opening song and ended up playing the whole set from top to bottom. The Crue guys gave John the freedom to play their songs as he saw fit but he simply said, “If it is okay with you, I will play them like they are on the record. When I do my solo slot, then I can go nuts.” The Motley Crue fan in J5 comes out when they are doing sound checks and he tosses out the titles of deep cuts that are not usually part of the show. No doubt his vast knowledge of their catalog keeps the other guys on their toes.
How is it working out? Have they had to make adjustments to the Crue sound with John 5 in the band? According to Sixx, “I think, in general, the band – bass, drums, and guitar – is a rock band at our core. Anytime you play with another musician, it’s going to change a little bit. I guess we’re more aware because suddenly John is playing the songs, and we’re hearing John and us . . . and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, it sounds right. It sounds tight. It sounds right on the money.’ And it feels energized, It feels positive.”
What does the future hold? John 5 won’t commit to what is next because he is having a great time touring with the Crue. He hinted they may be recording some new material in the near future. With that said, when the next opportunity comes along, he won’t be shy about chasing it down. In the meantime, Motley Crue is his main focus.
Top Piece Video: We mentioned John 5 at the Dallas Guitar Fest – well what could be more appropriate?