Eric Johnson: Doing His Own Thing

By Justin Beckner

Guitar legend Eric Johnson is back with a new album that will tantalize his fans.  Why?  Because Johnson’s latest release is titled Live in Europe.  Johnson’s fans realize that new music is always a treat but the thing they love the most about this guy is the way he pulls it off live.

Johnson is a ‘guitar player’s guitar player,' he does it all, makes it look easy and then does it again.  This live effort is no exception and is often jaw-dropping.  This guy is the real deal and like a fine wine only gets better with age. 

In the interview that follows Mr. Johnson opens up about his guitar tone, his heroes, and his new album Live in Europe.

What made you decide that it was time to put out a new live album?

Well, I was in Europe doing this tour and the record label that I work with asked if I wanted to record some of the shows’ just for the heck of it’ and I said, “Sure.” I didn’t really think of it like we were going to release a record. The crew that came just set up their computer gear backstage with a couple lines off-stage, and I didn’t even think about it. I don’t even say anything about ‘recording live’ on the record. I almost completely forgot we were doing it. They followed us around for three days in a truck with all their gear. So I didn’t think of it as doing a live record, we were just recording some live takes for fun, in my mind. Then, when we got home and put them on, there was some stuff that wasn’t that good and some of it was really cool, but we figured we had enough material to make a record, and the label from Europe wanted to do it. It was a good process for me, because I kind of study that vibe of playing live and it made me interested in playing live more... even when in the studio, playing live more rather than a ton of overdubs. There’s a vibe that happens, and I think people appreciate that. They don’t want to just remark on something that’s been polished into oblivion. They want to feel it.

Why do you feel it’s important to leave room for improv in the studio?

Yeah, I want to, because in the studio I’ve always had this perfectionistic tendency to do everything over and over and over until you get it just right. But by the time it’s just right, there’s not as much feeling in it. People would even tell me that it sounded just right, but it didn’t have much feeling in it… and they were right. I would do a little improv jam in the studio and have people come in here and tell me they liked that better than the stuff I spent a month on! It kind of burst my bubble, but they were right.

Did you use the same gear in Europe on this record as you normally use in the US? Some people don’t risk flying their full pedal boards and everything.

 No, I took my whole rig over there, so we were doing our same thing we do in the states.

Can we expect a new studio album anytime soon?

Yeah, I’ve been releasing a few things on iTunes, just some little fun things. I actually just finished a collaboration record with Mike Stern and that should be out in November. I’m also working on some solo electric stuff and some acoustic pieces. 

How did you get hooked up with Mike?

Well, I played on one of his records years ago, and we’d always talked about doing some more stuff together. Then the Blue Note in Manhattan asked us to do a few collaborative gigs there, so we did, and that turned out really well and we had a lot of fun. So we decided to do a little two-week tour. Then after that, Concord, the jazz label, called us up and asked us to do a record; so we made this record and now we’ve got a couple more short tours booked. It’s fun playing with him, he’s a really fine guitar player and I learn a lot from him.

What are some specific things you’ve learned from Mike?

Yeah, he’s gone to school and studied and he’s played with Miles Davis and all sorts of stuff like that. He’s a real musicologist and a great jazz guitar player, and I’m just learning more about music from him, which is really nice.

You’ve always seemed to me to have a medley of styles that you draw from. I think that’s great.

It’s important to me because I love all different kinds of music, and the more I learn about it, the more I can be invested in my art. Learning something new is how I stay connected, because it requires you to have to take stock in yourself periodically and not just rest on your laurels. So you keep pushing and get your sound more creative and your tone more interesting and learn more about music. Not to be verbose, but it’s always nice when you have more library books to choose from.

Jazz has always been interesting to me, both the music itself and the fact that a lot of people don’t like it, particularly those stuck in the rock or metal genre. Why do some people find jazz difficult to listen to?

There is jazz that I don’t like. I like the deep musical, improvisational stuff. I prefer it, personally, when there is a great song to go with the music. It really has an impact that way, rather than just listening to the someone showcasing great musicianship. If you can get both of those in a balance, that’s when jazz is really interesting and engaging. It’s hard for some people to listen to, though. There is some jazz that is so esoteric and so redefined to where you don’t hear the song at all, you just hear a bunch of chord changes. It takes a certain listener to really get into that kind of music. For me, it’s really got to have a song to go with it.

How have you been pushing yourself as a guitar player lately? Are there some specific things that you’ve been practicing on the guitar?

Yeah, I’m trying to learn more about harmonies and harmonics and chords that you find in jazz music. I love playing rock guitar, but I like to learn about theory and scales so that I’m not feeling imprisoned to just play the standard rock patterns on the guitar. My goal is to not get stuck in that rut.

When you think of people who broke out of that rut, you’ve got to think of Jimi Hendrix. How has the Experience Hendrix Tour gone?

It’s been great. You get really young kids as well as old people coming to the show, which really goes to show the widespread appreciation people have for Jimi’s music. His music is very timeless because he was a great guitar player, but it was within the scope of these great songs; it wasn’t just somebody playing guitar, he had something he was trying to say in a song. That made it stand out from other stuff. I love that tour, because it honors a great musician.

There are always some amazing artists on that tour. Who are some of your favorites?

Yeah, Doyle Bramhall is real cool. He always does an interesting set. Jonny Lang is great. Kenny Wayne Shepherd plays some great blues stuff. All those guys have their thing that they do, we all bring something different to the table and it’s cool because you get to see all these different sides of Jimi Hendrix. It really shows how versatile Jimi was.

Do you remember the first time you heard Jimi Hendrix?

Yeah, I was like 13 years old and a friend gave me a copy of Are You Experienced and told me I had to hear it. When I first put it on and listened to it -and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it- it just sounded so bizarre to me. In perspective of the time, because I’m older, and I know it’s hard for kids to understand, but when you heard that when it first came out, it was so new and so weird because nobody had done that on guitar yet with all the feedback and fuzz and crazy playing. Jeff Beck did it a little bit in the Yardbirds, but to have it out front was amazing. When I first heard the record, I didn’t even know that it was guitar. I was like what the heck is that? It sounded like some instrument from Mars. There was nothing to base it on; it wasn’t like today where there are millions of things like that. It was just completely out of left field. It was bizarre; I didn’t know what it was or what he was doing. I listened to it the second time through and was like, man, this is incredible.

That’s saying a lot – you grew up in Austin, which is a town that is no stranger to amazing talent.

Yeah, it was a great music scene. I remember seeing Johnny Winter when I was like 13. He was playing a club called Vulcan Gas Company and you could get in for 50 cents. That was before anyone knew who he was. He was just a kid, he was older than me but he was still pretty young. He was just amazing. There were maybe 50 people in the audience, but you could just tell that he was going to be big someday. I remember that made a big impression on me. There were a lot of bands in Austin that were very influential.

What is it about Texas that allows it to produce so much great music? What secrets are you hiding down there?

It’s just a melting pot; you’ve got Louisiana real close and Mexico real close. I think Austin is kind of the center oasis or hub for all those different styles of music, kind of like Mississippi or Chicago was with the blues.

Texas had some great blues too, let us not forget SRV. You knew Stevie, right?

Yeah, we did some shows together and I knew him a little bit. He was a very sweet guy and a very nice person.

So, in my high school, we didn’t have jocks and nerds, we just had those who liked Jimi Hendrix and those who liked Stevie Ray Vaughn. There were also a couple that liked Limp Bizkit as I recall, but we would have many debates in math class about who was the better artist, Jimi or SRV. In fact, that’s probably why I’m terrible at math. Would you care to weigh in on that debate?   

Interesting… well, Stevie got a lot of his effect from Jimi. They both came from Muddy Waters and Albert King, and BB, and those blues guys. Stevie did his own thing that was amazing. The places where he would augment his effect by doing the Jimi thing, that was cool too. It was different than how Jimi did it. But Jimi originated all that stuff many years before any of us did. I think if you want to talk about straight ahead blues and singing, Stevie was an incredible singer. Then there’s the psychedelic blues thing that Jimi did that was blues but it was metaphysical. It was blues, but it was reaching for this mystic song thing. He would really push any boundary when it came to guitar tone. Like on the Jimi version of “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, it’s a different vibe than Stevie’s. He would spare no note as an opportunity to experiment with tone. The tone is super-gainy and overdriven. It’s just incredible. Comparing Jimi and Stevie is like comparing apples to oranges in a way, because they both played the blues but they did it in such great and different ways.

I think your guitar playing could be described in the same vein of those guys.

Well, both of those guys were very inspiring to me. Both of those guys played guitar to serve the message or the song they were doing. It wasn’t like someone just going nuts on the guitar; it was showcased within a cool song with lyrics and stuff. I think that’s why those two will stand the test of time. Its appreciable music and you also get to enjoy the guitar playing.

When you first came on the scene, I believe people said that your tone was pretty innovative. 

My thing is that I just kind of took from all these different artists and created my own thing. It’s not that my thing is that original. It’s just a combination of four or five people that I thought really had a pinnacle sound. Then when you combine those things, it’s like 1=1+3; you end up with something different. But if you were to break down my sound it would be real obvious where the certain parts came from.

Do you have any advice to that kid who is buying his first guitar today?

Don’t put pressure on yourself. Whatever style of music you choose to play, have fun doing it. That’s the key thing… if you don’t have fun, you might practice for a day or a year but after a while you’ll become despondent and stop playing it. But if you’re having fun, you’re always going to want to pick it up. So find the style of music that you want to play and that really excites you. You need to also be open to being unique and doing your own thing. 

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