John Sykes

Groupology

  • Tygers of Pan Tang
  • Thin Lizzy
  • Whitesnake
  • Blue Murder
  • Sykes

Jurassic

Watch John Sykes in Action at the bottom of this page!

Famous / Infamous for

Long, golden blond hair and a black, 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom with a mirrored pickguard, and probably the sexiest finger vibrato in the business. He's also famous for being the last, great Thin Lizzy guitarist and for co-writing and playing on 99% of the 1987 Whitesnake album that became a huge commercial success. Unfortunately, by the time the album broke big, John was no longer in the band. It took two guitarists to replace him on the tour, and they never replaced his songwriting contribution on follow up albums.

Influences

Obvious: John Sykes is a graduate of the Thin Lizzy School of guitar players and has British, rock blues-based roots. Though John certainly has his own thing, you can pick up a Gary Moore influence in his lead playing, particularly in the Lizzy material. Compositionally, he's clearly learned his craft listening to all of the great classic British rock metal groups: Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. Add to that, the influence of actually being in Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake, and it's quite clear where John Sykes' music is coming from.

Not-so-obvious: Dig a little deeper and there's also a Beatles influence at play in John's melodic sense and compositional style — there's something Beatle-like about the way his chord progressions resolve themselves so beautifully and logically. While this is true of all of John's songs, it is easiest to detect this influence in the ballads on things like Loveland.

Strengths

What the hell isn't a strength of John Sykes?

He's the all-around total package. If you want a baseball analogy, he'd be Willie Mays. He's a phenomenally flashy and tasty guitar player, yet his greatest strength is his songwriting. John is just a brilliant songwriter. He has a fantastic melodic sense that is apparent in all aspects of his music — from the song composition, to the guitar playing, to the vocals. To this melodic sense, he adds an innate, compositional understanding of what works in a song vs. what doesn't, and why. He is a master of song dynamics and a very good lyricist. He is equally facile at writing fast, frantic rockers, heavy, riff-laden grinders, or stunningly beautifully melodic ballads. And he is an absolute master of creating majestic, Dinosaur Rock riffs in Drop-D tuning. Great examples include Valley of the Kings, Blue Murder, and Talking Bout Love. On his 2000 CD, Nuclear Cowboy, John proved it possible to lay heavy guitars over modern and hip-hop rhythms without without sacrificing balls, or melody. More importantly he didn't lose himself or any aspects of his guitar style in the process. If that weren't enough, he's a great singer too — better than 99% of the singers out there who don't even play guitar! He has an expressive voice, plenty of range, and ability to add a melodic and dynamic vocal element to his music. He can sing Still of the Night quite well! Need more? I found out recently that John's also an accomplished pianist. On top of that he's got the classic, rockstar/guitar hero looks too. It's just not fair!

And oh yeah, did I mention he's a total monster on guitar? I did? Well it's worth repeating: A phenomenal lead and rhythm player. He's fast and flashy, but he tempers it with lots of slow, emotional, melodic playing. He can tear your head off or break your heart.

Weaknesses

Sorry, I can't find any. That said, John hasn't delivered any new music since 2000's Nuclear Cowboy. His 2005 Bad Boy Live album was terrific, but John Sykes fans want some new music from him! Unfortunately, the money seems to be in touring and fronting the reformed Thin Lizzy.

Tone

John's base tone is almost always Les Paul - Marshall (modded 50 watt JCM800s) Though he's used/uses Mesas too, John's tone has remained pretty consistent over the years. (For details, see the excellent gear section at www.johnsykes.com.) He typically uses a lot of gain, but not so much that his tone is buzzy — more than Gary Moore, less than Steve Lukather. He typically uses chorus on his rhythm sound, but whether you hear John live or on CD, you're hearing stereo, and the chorus effect is subtle — used to add overall depth rather than to create a "chorus effect."

Though he has many guitars (including some beautiful, vintage Les Pauls), John is most closely associated with his black, 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom (shown above). This guitar features a mirrored pickguard, chrome hardware and a brass nut. John had Gibson Dirty Fingers pickups in the guitar for many years — including the Lizzy, Whitesnake, and Blue Murder periods — but the pickups eventually crapped out and were replaced with a lower output Gibson PAF re-issue pickup a few years ago. In 2006, the Gibson Custom Shop unveiled a Limited Edition John Sykes signature model Les Paul based John's black Custom as part of their Inspired By series.

The thing to note about John's gear choices is that he has crafted a tone that is truly perfect for showing off the best aspects of his guitar style. The gain of the modded Marshalls let him produce all of his 80s metal flash tricks with ease. The natural sustain of the Les Paul and the characteristic thick sound of its neck pickup enhances John's slow, melodic lead work and vibrato like no other model guitar would. The Custom's ebony fingerboard and maple neck combine with the Marshall's top end to provide enough bite to cut through the mix and provide definition on complex, muted rhythms, and very fast lead runs. Yet there's still characteristic Les Paul warmth, and no glaring trebly harshness.

In addition to his signal processing effects, John actually uses a fair amount of wah, but he's usually subtle about it.

Guitar Style

John is a terrific rhythm player — much better than he is typically given credit for. John rarely plays regular bar chords. More often he will find some other way to voice the chord. For example on a G chord, he usually ends up using his thumb on the low E string so he can leave the G string open. However, most of John's rhythmic flair comes from his right hand's alternate picking prowess. Many of his songs such as Holy War, Bad Boys, Billy, and We All Fall Down, have complex rhythmic parts based on muted, single-string riffs that are alternate picked in almost an arpeggiated manner. These constructs are particularly characteristic Sykes rhythmic trademarks. Amazingly, John can play such rhythms while singing lead vocal parts that often feature completely different melodies and phrasings.

Another John Sykes rhythmic trademark is using very melodic harmony lines. Though this device comes straight from his time with Thin Lizzy, John often employs these harmonies as a structural enhancement to an underlying clean, arpeggiated progression. You can hear this device used to great effect in many of John's ballads, such as Is this Love, Don't Hurt Me this Way, and I Need an Angel. His duet with Glenn Hughes, Heaven's Missing an Angel features a great example of these harmonies, as well as many other John Sykes trademarks.

There's a ton of sex in John's lead playing. He aims for the crotch, not the brain. It's hot, emotional, and tasty rather than a chops/technique clinic. He combines melodies with layovers and repetitive licks rather than playing stuff that sounds like scale exercises. He's an alternate picker — not much legato, and definitely not a sweep picker. He stays primarily in the Blues, Aeolian Minor and Pentatonic Major scales, though he sometimes uses some harsher sounding scales to introduce a purposely discordant flavor or tension.

His solos are composed, and tend to mirror the overall song flavor. On fast songs, you get fast, furious solos. However, one of John's biggest strengths is his ability to play beautifully, slowly — as demonstrated in any live version of John playing Lizzy's Still In Love with You. On mid tempo songs, John often begins with slow, beautifully melodic phrases that really show off his vibrato and his fat Les Paul tone. He then builds to a fiery crescendo. Great examples of this approach include songs like Blue Murder, Itchycoo Park. You don't get endless wanking. He gets in, blows his load and gets out. Occasionally, he'll take a longer outro solo, but in general, he doesn't over-play.

That said, he can, and does play fast and flashy as hell. He employs all of the 80s metal tricks in the Guitar Hero arsenal: pick scrapes, heavy palm muting, squealing false harmonics, rapid-fire pulloffs and even the occasional two-handed tap. One particular Sykes "flash trademark" is achieved by squealing the false harmonic on the A string, 5th fret, and bending the hell out it with finger vibrato. The resulting sound is a sort of a wuh-wahh-wahhhhhh sound that John probably uses too frequently — particularly live. It's like John's personal "Les Paul version" of whammy abuse. But John is also a very mature player who has never been afraid to play slow. Some of his most beautiful solos feature slow, soaring melodic playing. Like many Les Paul players, John typically likes to use the neck pickup for lead work above the 12th fret to achieve the characteristic fat sound.

Vibrato:

John Sykes has the sexiest finger vibrato around. Slow, wide, even and controlled, it is an instantly recognizable trademark. While present on all of John's songs, you'll hear it to its best effect in the ballads like Still in Love with You and all over the Loveland CD. The ballads typically feature slower solos. And with more room to breath, John often takes the opportunity to really milk that slow, sexy vibrato. Combined with a fat, Les Paul tone and endless sustain, it's positively devastating.

John Sykes in Action

Recommended listening

Thin Lizzy

Whitesnake

Blue Murder

Sykes

Profile by Dinosaur David B. Copyright ©2002 All rights reserved.

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