For music lovers who see live music around town, John O. Shively is a familiar sight. He plays mandolin with Cardinal Sims, plucks a violin in Mal Scoppa and the Tall Tales and makes one of his six strings sing as the guitarist in John Oliver and the Distinguished (JOD). In the Sun-Gazette's second installment of "Musicians and their Gear," Shively discusses his proficiency on those stringed instruments and how he creates their sounds onstage and in the studio.
"I started playing violin when I was in third grade," Shively said. "I became interested in the violin after they brought a bunch of people into our elementary school and they kind of put on a mini concert for us, showcasing each instrument. They said that if you want to play something, then pick something they showcased. I went with the violin."
Oliver was classically trained on the violin during high school using the Suzuki method, a Japanese method of skill progression. It starts students out with classical music on an easy scale and then works them up through different books.
John O. Shively, who plays in John Oliver and the Distinguished, Cardinal Sims and Mal Scoppa and the Tall Tales, is seen performing.
"I played in a youth symphony, the Strolling Strings and my high school orchestra," Shively said. "I played violin in a Dave Matthews cover band when I was just out of high school. That was the first time I sort of slopped up the violin and kind of went against everything I was taught all those years - 'Hold your bow this way' and 'Run it across the strings this way.' Proper posture and all that went right out of the window. It was fun, kind of defiant. I felt like I was breaking the law or something.
"When it comes to creating the sound for the violin I'm a simple person," he said. "I have just a bridge pickup. The bridge is what the strings run across and keeps them tight. That has a magnetic pick up in it that resonates the sound. I run it into a direct box and that doesn't affect the sound whatsoever. I don't put any FX on it. I'm definitely a less-is-more kind of person when it comes to that sort of thing."
Shively always is on the hunt for different ways to color the sounds of his music and a few years ago, he just grabbed a mandolin and started playing it.
"I've always been interested in playing one because it's the same tuning as the violin," he said. "It came naturally to me. 'What would sound good here in a song?' [he thought] 'What would work?' That usually is based upon the overall feel of the material. If it's a song in a folkier vein, then the mandolin might be the way to go or even plucking the violin or playing during the chorus with the bow. When I play the mandolin live, it's clean just like the violin. I figure they spend all of this time making an instrument sound the way it sounds, [so] why mess with it?"
"As far as the amps I use for my guitar at my JOD gigs, I have an Orange Dual Terror - an all-tube, 30-watt portable guitar amp head," he said. "It's a stand-alone amplifier, which does not include a speaker, but rather passes the signal to a speaker cabinet. I use it through an Orange 212 cabinet. For Mal Scoppa and the Tall Tales, I put the Dual Terror through a 1-by-10 box. It's easier to carry and still has that good sound to it. But the 212 is a big cabinet that takes two people to carry it. While playing on the second floor in Harrisburg at the Appalachian Brewing Co., I realized that I needed to get something a little smaller."
Because JOD is a relatively straight-ahead, three-piece rock 'n' roll band, Shively tries to fill up the sound as much as possible with his guitar. In Mal Scoppa and the Tall Tales, he has a Les Paul he likes to use.
"It's crunchy sounding, but has a decent twang to it," he said. "It's got mini-Humbucker pickups on it. Humbuckers are a type of guitar pickup that gives the instrument a crunchy sound - nasty, dirty. They range to a very clean and soft tone, depending upon if you're picking strings with your fingers or a heavy pick. It's a good variation. The mini-Humbuckers are great. I'm a Humbucker-kind-of-guy."
He also has some semi-hollow body guitars that he uses in all three of the bands. On a hollow body guitar, the sound comes out of it through two f-shaped holes or sound boxes as well as from the pickups mounted under the strings on the guitar's body.
"They really resonate and fill up the sound," he said. "With Cardinal Sims, I use a different hollow body guitar. They are Gibson brand semi-hollow body electric guitars. One's a smaller model and one's bigger. The smaller guitar I put a Bigsby on that gives a bit of vibrato, that tremolo. The Bigsby I added is the tail piece, it's like a whammy bar but it's different because the Bigsby just adds a tiny variation to the tone and sound.
"My first guitar was an Alvarez that I bought at Robert M. Sides circa 1992 when I didn't have any idea how to play the guitar but thought it would be cool to try and learn," he said. "It doesn't work very well but I still have it. I don't think I could get rid of it. It's not worth anything moneywise but it holds great sentimental value. I played in a lot of really bad bands with that guitar."
Adding to instrumental repertoire, Shively received a banjo for his birthday in October.
"It was a gift from my wife," he said. "I've been playing it quite a bit. It's a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be. Banjos are Open G tuning. It's different. That fifth string on it is so goofy - it's shorter than other strings, which creates some difficulties. But I'm getting the hang of it. I'm shooting for debuting it after the New Year - bringing it out for some Tall Tales and Cardinal Sims' gigs."
Despite his virtuosity on various stringed instruments Shively doesn't consider himself a mult-instrumentalist per se.
"Nah, I love playing and really I just play the instruments I enjoy playing," he said.