If that snare drum from Sears hadn’t been so expensive, John Bushnell might have become a drummer. The veteran guitarist originally had an interest in the drums, but his non-musical family didn’t know where to acquire a set. So they decided to call Sears because, as the slogan used to says, “Sears has everything.”
“I remember hearing my mother talk to the guy from Sears on the phone and heard her say ‘65 dollars for a snare drum?’” he says. “By the time I got cymbals and sticks, it would have been up to about $80. So I said ‘how about a guitar?’ My mom said, ‘OK, but are you sure it won’t be sitting in the closet after two weeks?’”
One thing for sure about Bushnell’s guitars: they don’t sit in the closet. On Saturday, August 28, he’ll be bringing his axe (make that axes) to the Record Collector in Bordentown. The all-ages concert also features Ed Wall on keyboards and vocals, Greg Bacsik on bass, Mark Sacco on drums, and Mary Fowle on vocals.
Like many musicians his age (55), Bushnell was first inspired to play after he saw the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February, 1964. “That was the mind-blower,” he says. “I’d never seen an electric guitar, they wrote their own songs, they changed all the rules. They were idols to look up to, and it just snowballed from there.”
Growing up on Elm Ridge in rural Hopewell Township, Bushnell took up the guitar just shy of age nine. He met Peter Browne, a musical soulmate, while attending Princeton Day School, and figures he had his first band by the fifth grade. Bushnell says songwriter and producer Carl Sturken, known today for his work with Kelly Clarkson, Christine Aguilera, and especially Rihanna, was also going to school there around the same time.
“We were driven,” Bushnell says. “At PDS, they gave us a practice room, and we just played. It wasn’t like some kids who play music, who say, ‘oh I have to go practice for two hours.’ Whatever free time I had, playing music is what I wanted to do. I needed to do it. I’m self-taught, and learned from watching other people play. But I also have the ear to figure things out. I knew three chords, and if you knew three chords, that meant you could play 15 Beatles songs. Then it progressed from there, when I discovered blues-based players like Clapton, Hendrix, and Jeff Beck. I just watched the whole (rock) thing progress throughout the years, right through Van Halen. I like all kinds of music, and I’ve been able to incorporate all the styles I’ve heard through the years into my songs.”
The road to a career in music was rolled out like a red carpet when, after graduating from PDS in 1973, Bushnell took a part time job as a stagehand and guitar technician at McCarter Theater and other venues around the Princeton University campus. (His friend, Peter Browne, also worked at McCarter.) The venerable Bill Lockwood — then and still the special programming director at McCarter — was way ahead of his time, booking cutting edge artists like Bruce Springsteen long before he became famous.
“Genesis used to come and play at Alexander Hall (now Richardson Auditorium),” Bushnell says. “I worked with people like the Beach Boys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Meatloaf before he got big, Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was super exciting to be there with my heroes. We did things like outloading the trucks, bringing the gear in. One time when the Marshall Tucker Band was playing there, the drummer forgot his cymbals, so Peter drove him over to Farrington’s Music to pick up some cymbals.”
Bushnell was also busy playing around the area with the Castle Browne Band and has fond memories of City Gardens in Trenton, where he once opened for Billy Idol.
After leaving the Castle Browne Band in the early 1980s Bushnell played briefly with RCA artist Tom Bleck but quickly moved on to join the band Bricks Mortar. This group included some heavy hitters, including Charles Collins, the house drummer for Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, and Michael Tschudin, producer and a touring keyboardist for David Bowie.
It was around this time that another career started to open up for Bushnell: demonstrating a variety of Ibanez guitars. “I was playing in Bricks Mortar, mostly in Pennsylvania, and Ibanez was looking for someone to play their guitars and do an ad,” Bushnell says. “They came to me and asked if I would like to try one of their new guitars. They also wanted me to do a photo shoot, and I ended up in Guitar Player Magazine. What they had made was a semi-hollow bodied guitar that could be used for jazz and rock. I demonstrated their guitar at the Guitar and Music Expo at Madison Square Garden.
“I’ve continued to work with Ibanez, demonstrating a long list of guitars, including a seven-string guitar developed by Steve Vai (Frank Zappa, Public Image Ltd., David Lee Roth),” he adds. “They gave me one and asked if I would demonstrate a seven-string acoustic guitar as well. I fooled around with that for awhile and they said, ‘might as well keep that one, too.’ They’ve always been really good to me.”
In honor of his new seven-stringed instruments, Bushnell recorded his first solo album and titled it “Seventh Sense.” He says he is working on new songs for a forthcoming album, hoping to introduce some of his original material by the time he plays at the Record Collector.
Bushnell next formed the group Adrian Dodz, with Hal Selzer on bass. They played relentlessly around the tri-state area, recording a CD of hard rocking material, which got the band signed to Epic Records. Years later, the recordings from this band were picked up by Escape Records and released in Europe and Japan under the name “Silent Witness.”
Bushnell has also been involved in recording soundtracks for corporate and industrial films, “the kind of things you’d see in science class,” Bushnell says.
The multi-instrumentalist, who lives in Pennington, doesn’t really know where his musical talents come from, unless you consider an ancestor, who, according to family lore, studied piano with Franz Lizst. Bushnell’s father, now deceased, worked at Johnson & Johnson, and his mother kept herself busy raising four children. Bushnell has a 23-year old daughter, Kendal, a graduate of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and a 20-year old son, Jesse, a student at Five Towns College in Dix Hills, NY.
“Lo and behold, Jesse plays guitar, too,” Bushnell says. “He’s a graduate of the Pennington School and had a band there called Big Foot, which won many Battle of the Bands contests. In fact, Jesse recorded an album before he graduated from high school.”
Currently Bushnell works at the Pennington School, where he teaches the blues/rock/pop ensemble and shares his knowledge of recording and the music business. When the school was planning its new arts center, he worked with the architects on the construction of a recording studio, which is now put to good use by the students.
“They have a great music program at Pennington,” he says. “It’s not a passive class (where I lecture and they take notes). What we do is sit down and learn how to improvise, use the microphones, learn how to understand the technical aspects of the business. I share all my experience, all my guitars and equipment, so the kids get their hands on everything. I have so many guitars, I could do ‘guitar of the week.’”
He gives a heartfelt thanks to Dusty Jones, the mother of the late Mike Jones, a former student at the Pennington School. After the young man’s unexpected death, his mother donated his recording equipment to the school’s studio. “She was so appreciative, she gave it all to us, and it’s all computerized, state-of-the-art equipment,” Bushnell says. “We owe a big debt to Mrs. Jones.”
Bushnell says he is pleased to be playing in such an intimate venue as the Record Collector. “There’s no clinking of glasses and people talking over your music,” he says. “They’re there to see you play, and they hear every nuance, every note.”
John Bushnell Band, The Record Collector Store, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, August 28, 8 p.m., doors open at 7:30 p.m. All ages show. $10 in advance; $12 at the door. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.