The Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik

InterviewNovember 9, 2007Gibson

Russell Hall

Hard to believe, but more than 20 years have passed since then-aspiring guitarist Johnny Rzeznik and his bass-player pal Robby Takac formed the Goo Goo Dolls. Sitting atop the mid ’80s post-punk wave, the Buffalo, New York-based group wasted no time establishing their indie credibility with a series of albums awash in thrashy guitars and garage pop sensibility. Critical raves came early, but only with “Name” and “Iris”―two change-of-pace acoustic ballads penned by Rzeznik in the mid ’90s―did the Goo Goo Dolls’ commercial fortunes match the heaps of praise.

In the decade since, Rzeznik and his bandmates have happily built on that success while holding true to their indie roots. The evidence is there on Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 - The Singles, the band’s just-released first-ever compilation disc. Listening to the Goo Goo Dolls’ Top 10 hits anew, one can’t help marveling at the spot-on mix of radio pop jangle (“Slide,” “Broadway”), sprite balladry (“Sympathy,” “Black Balloon”), and wall-of-guitar bluster (“Stay With You,” “Dizzy”).

Throughout the album, Rzeznik’s versatility as a guitarist and his predilection for alternate tunings form the backbone for songwriting steeped in old-school rock melodies. With the Goo Goo Dolls’ retrospective set to hit record stores, an odds and sods collection in the works, and Rzeznik’s just-begun stint as a guest judge on Fox TV’s The Next Great American Band, it’s a fine time to assess the group’s career thus far.

What made this an appropriate time to release a “greatest hits” CD, along with the rarities collection that’s coming out early next year?

It’s really just a case of being between albums and realizing that we had 14 Top 10 hits. We didn’t want to make a “greatest hits” record until we had enough hits to fill it. As for the rarities disc, we’re digging through piles of recordings, trying to find cool stuff and fun stuff. That album will be more fan-oriented. We don’t know yet what all the tracks will be. We’ve got some B-sides and some acoustic things we’ve been listening to. There’s a lot of video material that we hope to stitch together as well.

The Goo Goo Dolls have been together for 22 years. Do you feel the band has aged gracefully?

I do. I feel that we’ve aged and progressed in the way we’re supposed to. Things have really sort of followed their own path. It’s been more a case of that path leading me, rather than me trying to lead it. I certainly don’t feel the same way I did when I was banging things out in a garage.

What’s different now? Are the things that make music exciting for you today different from what they were in the early days?

Yes. What excites me now is just the challenge of putting something together that’s unique, and then sitting back and listening to it after it’s come to fruition. It’s the challenge of hearing something in my head and getting that onto tape, and thinking, “Wow, that’s exactly what I had in mind.” That’s what blows me away today. It did early on too, but in those days the excitement was more about being in a studio, and recording, and being on-stage in front of people. These days, the actual process and craft is the exciting part.

Let’s talk guitars. When did you begin playing Gibson electrics?

That happened around the time I recorded “Let Love In.” I found myself using Gibsons for everything. In my opinion, they’re the best guitars being made right now. I’m a huge fan of 335s. I love the tone of those guitars. You can get some crunch, but then there’s also a lot of definition within that. I have a cherry red ES-335 and a sunburst as well. And of course I have the Les Pauls. I have a ’73 Goldtop with mini humbuckers in it, that I especially love to play. If I’m looking for a bit of a tighter tone, that’s the guitar I go to. Each of those guitars is a different animal. I love them all.

What determines which Gibson electric you go to for any given song?

When I’m doing a heavier rock song, or doing a solo, I always head right for the Les Paul. That’s my go-to guitar for big, chunky rhythms. Whereas if I’m trying to capture something more ambient, I’ll go with either the ES-335 or a Wes Montgomery Gibson. I play those when I’m doing thick, creamy arpeggioed stuff. The ES-335 is an amazing guitar. You can get really heavy with it and yet still get the definition, with all the notes. You can hear all the notes within the chord. And when you switch it into the bass position—the neck pickup—the tone is really fat and creamy. It’s just beautiful.

Who are you main influences as a guitarist?

It’s a strange mix. I love Ace Frehley, and Bob Mould. I also love Robert Smith, of the Cure. Those are the types of guitar players I really like.

You’ve talked in the past about listening to Yes, as well.

That’s funny. I've been listening to those Yes records again lately. Those albums still hold up. The bass tone on those records is very unique

Do alternate tunings still open up new channels for you?

Absolutely. With alternate tunings, every time you pick up the guitar it’s as if you have to relearn how to play. I think it adds to the uniqueness of a guitar tone. Messing around with different string gauges, and with different tunings, adds a texture to the music. I talk with a lot of guitar players who tell me they can’t get the sound they hear on our records. I’m like, “Well, yeah, that’s because the song has a crazy tuning.” Some of it’s about being able to drone a lot of different notes. That definitely adds to or changes the flavor of a song. I hear guys play my songs on acoustic guitar, in standard tuning, and I’m thinking, “God, I don’t know how you do that.” But then again it never sounds the same as the record. It never sounds right.

Beginning with “Iris,” you’ve written quite a few songs for films. Is it easier to write a song when you have a template like that to work toward?

Actually it is. When you have your subject matter in front of you, the project is a lot easier to complete. It’s much more difficult when you’re just digging around in your own head, trying to sort out your own feelings or emotions about a subject. Writing “Iris” got me out of a severe case of writer’s block. I’ve since found the cure for writer’s block is to just keep writing. Even if you don’t like the results, you’re still writing. It’s just that it’s necessary to wade through piles of garbage before you get to something good. Writer’s block, for me, is nothing more than being impatient.

You’ve agreed to act as a judge on the new Fox TV show, The Next Great American Band. What attracted you to that project?

I talked with the producers, and basically they said they wouldn’t try to coach me, or push me in any direction. I was assured I could speak my mind in any way I wanted. I also liked the fact that they’re real bands—bands like you might see at any local club. Most of the groups write their own music.

After all these years, is it easy to feel empathy with bands trying to gain a foothold?

Absolutely. I think it’s a great opportunity for actual bands to get noticed again, as opposed to maybe some pre-manufactured diva with a bunch of studio musicians playing behind her. It will be a chance to actually feel the chemistry that exists between a group of musicians. I still find that appealing.