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Eric Johnson ascended into the pantheon of guitar luminaries in the mid 1980s, when his native Austin took center stage in the country's musical consciousness. Coming up around the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, and Jimmie Vaughan, Johnson first received national attention at the age of 20—in 1974—lighting it up with the fiery fusion of The Electromagnets. But since the age of 16 he'd already been a member of Mariani—a hard-driving rock band that shared stages with the likes of ZZ Top and Deep Purple.
His work with The Electromagnets was so . . . electric and . . . magnetic that it got Eric on the cover of Guitar Player magazine. Since then his star has steadily risen with early studio gigs on the albums of major artists like Christopher Cross, Carole King, and Cat Stevens; collaborations with heavyweights like Chet Atkins, Steve Morse, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Adrian Legg, and Dweezil Zappa; and a growing body of top-notch solo work, both acoustic and electric.
Johnson won a Grammy for "Cliffs of Dover," (not to mention a number of nominations) and was the only artist ever to have three instrumentals from the same album reach top ten status. From his Austin home, Johnson spoke with Musician's Friend about his new album, his musical loves, his signature Strat, and how he consistently gets better tone than any guitarist alive. His laid-back manner is more like that of a favorite cousin than a man with three decades' tenure as a musical icon.
In Part One, Johnson tells us about his guitar tone, jamming around with Stevie Ray, cutting an album that has to be perfect, and transferring his piano knowledge to the guitar.
Musician's Friend: How did you get the gig with G-3?
Eric Johnson: They just called me and asked me to do it. I think it was Joe's idea. They decided to put it together and they just called me. We did a couple of tours.
MF: So were you with them on the first G-3 tour?
EJ: On the first one, yeah.
MF: Did you know Joe before that?
EJ: Yes. A couple of years before that I did a U.S. tour with him.
MF: You two were playing together just on the same ticket?
EJ: Same ticket. We just didn't really play together. Each band. I played and then he played.
MF: Good player and he's a really nice guy, too.
MF: You're known as the King of Tone. Of course we all try to get different sounds for different songs, but your tone seems to always be distinctively yours. Are there any special tonal qualities you're looking for across the board?
EJ: Well, I just try to go for a tone as pure as I can get. Just a nice big warm sound that's really natural.
MF: So by "natural" you mean you're trying to get the sound of the guitar rather than the sound of the equipment in between?
EJ: Yeah, just where the EQ's flattened out natural, like trying to mimic an acoustical instrument, like a saxophone or piano or violin. I use those acoustic instruments as points of reference to mold what I want to do. So you know it's electric but it doesn't sound processed or too electric. Unless I'm going for a specifically processed effect, I want the sound to be as natural as possible.
MF: You grew up in Austin when that scene was really heating up. Tell us about those early days in Austin.
EJ: It was great! Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and I hung out and played different clubs. Christopher Cross is from Austin. Johnny Winter used to play here all the time. There were all sorts of different styles of music, too. It was country, blues, jazz—pretty much everything.
MF: What years are you thinking of?
EJ: Late '70s or '80s, the old period in there.
MF: Do or did you have close personal friendships with any of those guys?
EJ: Yeah, most of them I did. I knew Stevie. We weren't close personal friends, but we were friends. I knew him and we hung out a little. He was a really warm and really nice guy. We had a lot of mutual friends so we saw each other pretty often. A lot of people knew him better than I did.
MF: You jammed with him some.
EJ: Yeah, we did a little tour then I'd come out and play with him on his shows. And we did a little jamming sitting around a couple of times—that kind of thing.
MF: Were your styles very compatible? Was he a fun guy to play with?
EJ: Oh yeah! I'd go out to hear him play at Soap Creek Saloon a lot. We had different styles but we appreciated and enjoyed the same kind of music.
MF: You had some similar roots, some of the same heroes.
MF: Speaking of heroes, I've read that you were a big Hendrix fan and a Clapton fan.
EJ: Right, definitely!
MF: How have you incorporated those influences in your playing?
EJ: The people that I really loved, I just took all the different styles and sort of molded them together to make my own style. Anybody that I really admired I wouldn't really be afraid of copying them note for note, which doesn't do much for an original thing. But it teaches you how to understand and digest where they're coming from. Once you've done that, you can move on to another place which is developing your own style. I would just study a lot of people and try to copy them note for note and then turn it into my own thing.
MF: Cream is doing some shows in the UK in May, maybe they'll extend it and do some dates in the U.S.
EJ: Yeah that would be great. Is Clapton going to use a Gibson? [laughs]
EJ: Oh good!
MF: In an interview in 1986 you said that you felt your playing was too regimented and that you wanted to learn to relax and really expand your boundaries. Would you say 19 years later that you've accomplished that?
EJ: To a certain extent. I think it's an ongoing process and I'm always in the process of learning different stuff. Different scales and concepts and stuff. But I've still got a ways to go, that's for sure. I think that ultimately that's the place you want to be—where you're freer. You develop the scope of what you can do to the point where you can step into that freedom and kind of forget about what you've learned because it's there at your disposal. You have the wherewithall to pull it off.
MF: Do you feel like you can do that a lot better now?
EJ: I feel like I can always do it better than it used to be, but there's still a lot of room for growth. I'm learning more all the time. And sometimes you learn that what you learned was not the best way to learn it. So then you take a back step and you wind up farther along than you were because you took a back step. You rethink it or redo it and then you go to the next step.
MF: A lot of fans who put your playing on a pedestal will be surprised to find out that you're still learning and that you're sometimes taking back steps.
EJ: Yeah, I think we are all still learning and the moment we think we are not that's not a good place to be, because you've kind of stifled yourself. It's humorous, the moment you start to think it's all coming together is like the moment you've started building your own little glass illusion. You live an illusion, which becomes clear when you break that bubble and look at reality. Any given day, any given place, you can go out and hear any guitarist and there's something to learn from them. It doesn't matter if they do one chord or 10,000 or if they are fastest player in the world. If you open your eyes, you're going to see something. And you'll go, "Wow, I didn't think about it that way." But accepting reality, rather than our illusions of ourselves as players, can make it more exhilarating and more fun to play.
MF: Do you remember the last time you got in a situation where you thought you were totally out of your depth?
EJ: Oh yeah, like when I go jam with a jazz band on some complicated thing with tons of chord changes. And I'm crawling to the bathroom or something. [general laughter] Feel like you're treading water. [more laughter] Yeah, but uh, it's good to get yourself in those situations.
MF: You do that very often? Go and jam with some hot jazz guys?
EJ: Not as often as I should. I do a little bit, though. Whenever I have the nerve for it. That makes you start learning more and you get better at it.
MF: Over the years you've been an opening act for other people and you've had plenty of opening acts for you. How does the opening band or the band you're opening for affect your playing?
EJ: Well, it can kick you to do a better show if the opening band is really good. I usually I like it when the other act is a different kind of music so that you don't overwhelm people with the same kind of stuff. It's like banging people over the head if I come out and do the trio thing for two hours with the amps on 10. Sometimes it's nice if you have a different type of music to start it off with. On the other hand, when I do acoustic touring it's usually better if the opener is acoustic as well. In that case it seems to work better when it's kind of the same kind of music.
MF: I saw Willy Porter open for you this year.
EJ: It was great! Yeah, he did a bunch of shows with us.
MF: Did you guys get a chance to play together?
EJ: No not this time, but I hope sometime. It was so quick we just never got the opportunity.
MF: Speaking of heavy-duty guys, we were talking with Steve Morse a few weeks ago. You played on his album Stand Up?
EJ: Oh yeah. Right.
MF: What was it like playing with Steve Morse?
EJ: He's great. Yeah definitely, he's a hero of mine, too. He's so versatile. He's just so good at everything he does. I really enjoyed playing on that. I haven't talked to him in a while. I'd like to talk to him. We've crossed paths here several times in the last couple years but you know like he'll be in the same town I'm in the same night. But then I don't see him for a while.
MF: You ought to give him a call. He's a really nice guy. Fun to talk to.
EJ: Yeah, maybe. Do you have his number by chance?
MF: Yeah, I'd be glad to give it to you. I'm sure he'd love that.
EJ: That would be great. Do you have the numbers for N-Sync and Jennifer Lopez, as well? I've got to call them. I was going see if Jennifer Lopez wanted to do a version of "Spoonful." [laughs]
MF: She'd like to do it, but she wants Ben Affleck. [general laughter]
EJ: Who are the top three musicians or composers of whatever type who've influenced your personal style?
EJ: I would say Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Hendrix, and then early Joni Mitchell as far as the acoustic stuff.
MF: Joni Mitchell.
EJ: Yeah, when I'm doing acoustic stuff.
MF: Joni's one of the most creative and accomplished artists ever, but you don't hear guitarists citing her as an influence much. So, what's happening with your new record Bloom, is it out or what?
EJ: It's all finished and it's been finished for a while. It's scheduled to come out early June. I think actually June 14 will be when it's in the stores.
EJ: It's on Favored Nations, Steve Vai's label. 16 songs. About a third of it is vocal and the rest of it is instrumental. It goes through all different styles of music. It's probably the most diverse record I've ever made. Which—I don't know—that could be a marketing nightmare. But that's OK.
MF: Have you been working on it for a long time or did you just crank it out?
EJ: I have been working on it a long time but the actual recording time has been surprisingly less than usual. I've been working on it for about five or six years. But only in little pockets.
MF: You had been doing the composition for five or six years? But you haven't been really been recording that long have you?
EJ: Well, I'll work on it a little bit, cut a couple tunes and then I'll go off and do something else. We did that live record in between it and stuff. It was 23 songs, it was going to be a double CD. Then I sat down and had an honest listen to it and I took seven of the songs off because they were just kind of mediocre. And it ended up with 16. 16 pieces that I'm pretty happy with.
MF: Wow, that's going to be a great record.
EJ: You know, I like it. I think it turned out good.
MF: Who all you got on there?
EJ: Bill Maddox and Chris Maresh played on it. Tommy Taylor played drums and Roscoe Beck played bass, Tom Breckline played drums, Tal Bergman played drums, and Shawn Colvin did a little singing. Adrian Legg did a little guest spot.
MF: Tell us about Adrian Legg. I've never seen him. But I have one of his CDs that somebody gave me. Just blew my mind.
EJ: He's great. We toured together and he actually did one of the G-3 tours. Then we did some touring on our own. And it was great fun, I really enjoyed it. He was a storyteller. And he imparts humor into his guitar playing. There's this country piece on the new record called "Tribute to Jerry Reed." He's in the middle of it and he as soon as he comes in he sounds like a laughing hyena.
EJ: A laughing hyena the way he plays. [Laughs] He's just got this kind of humor to it. It's great, you know, "Don't take things too seriously."
MF: I read something about an acoustic album you were recording. It's not the same album right?
EJ: No, totally different record with totally different music. Yeah, I've cut 13 pieces for it.
MF: How many pieces are you going to cut? That sounds like a record to me.
EJ: Well, it is. And I just got some rough mixes of it and I don't know. True to form as I always do. I'm like, "I've got to redo it." I want to pass out some CDs to some friends and my manager and get their feedback rather than just immediately decide to redo it. But my initial thought was I nailed maybe three or four of the pieces and the rest of it I need to redo. Recording goes quicker because it's just me on an acoustic guitar, obviously. But the tough part is I've really committed to making this the beginning of a new concept of trying to record more performance-oriented. So I'm actually playing and singing the stuff live in the studio.
MF: Yeah, if you do it all with overdubs you kind of lose that. Don't you?
EJ: Well, you can. The really hard thing for me is to get from the beginning to the end of the song without sucking. [laughs]
MF: But usually the guy who's playing hears these things that nobody else hears.
EJ: Well, that's why I want to make five or six tapes of these rough mixes. I'm going to pass them out and get some honest feedback from people. So it's not just me not being able to see the forest for the trees. But there's some good stuff on it. If I can get this performance thing it's going to be breathtaking. It's going to be great because there's so much more vibe in it. I want to start recording everything this way. It's worth it, even if you have to go back and fix a little or overdub a little bit. Go for that big picture of just recording the vibe, like they used to in the old days before they didn't have any choice. Unfortunately we have the choice now with all this hoopla gear. We can paste our lives together and make us look good, like plastic surgery or something.
MF: All the digital pitch correction and quantizing.
EJ: I'm beginning to think we pay a very expensive price for that luxury.
MF: You have some guests on the acoustic record?
EJ: I will probably have some guest artists. I'm still kind of feeling it out, trying to figure out what I'm going to do on that.
MF: Have you got a name for this thing?
EJ: I don't yet. I was thinking about Are You Experienced. What do you think?
MF: I've never heard of that.
EJ: Yeah, I was thinking that might work. I knew it had a successful ring to it. I don't know. [laughs]
MF: [laughs] How about Wheels of Fire? [laughs]. I can't wait to hear that. Send us one of those tapes and we'll tell you what we think. We sure would.
EJ: OK. Well, I might do that.
MF: What kind of stuff is on it? What's it like?
EJ: You know it's totally different stuff. It's kind of folky classical stuff I've written over the years. And there's a couple of covers. I'm doing a Beatles tune and a couple of Simon and Garfunkel tunes.
MF: And you're singing on these?
EJ: Yeah, I'm singing on it. That's the big holdup. [laughs] If it weren't for that it would have been out months ago.
MF: You telling us you can't sing like Art Garfunkel?
EJ: [laughs] No, nowhere near it.
MF: Is it because it's hard to play it and sing it?
EJ: Well, that's part of it. Yeah, it's tough. This has really been an eyeopener for me to try to improve my vocals. With solo music, or with anything you do, whether it's for a 20-piece band or three-piece band, I think that it should be able to hold up qualitatively just with a single guitar and a voice. And then you know you have something rather than hiding behind all the production or whatever. But, having said that, on this record my voice is really up front and it's like all of a sudden you go, "Wow, I've got to really sing like a vocalist." Because you don't have anything to hide behind. You can't just kind of tuck it in the mix and say, "Well, that's good enough." Regardless of whether it's technically perfect or not, it's got to have a persona or some kind of thing about it that makes it cool. It's uncomfortable, but that can be good because then you start looking at what you can do to build the song better. Whatever somebody can learn in their own moment by themselves with just their voice and their instrument and their composition, they always take that for the better when they do the big band thing. It just makes it all the better.
MF: When you started out years ago were you singing much or did you picture yourself just as a guitar player?
EJ: I was mainly just a guitarist. I kind of starting singing by default.
MF: If a new listener is going to pick up only one of your albums, which one would you recommend? Don't say the new one. [laughs] Or you can say it if you want.
EJ: Ah, I can't say that one, can I? I think it would probably be Ah Via Musicom because that has the best honking guitar playing of any record I've done.
MF: What was your favorite on that album? Is there a song that you still love to play every time you play it?
EJ: I like playing "Trademark." I got tired of "Cliffs of Dover," although I still play it because I pretty much have to play it as part of my set. But for some reason "Trademark" is always kind of fun to play. And "East Wes," we've been playing that lately, that's kind of fun. And I still like "Forty Mile Town."
MF: Yeah. "Forty Mile Town" is a really cool tune. That one really caught me.
EJ: Well, thank you.
MF: When you're playing over chord changes, do you work mostly from arpeggios, do you work from chord shapes on the guitar, or are you just doing it by feel? How do you get your ideas?
EJ: Well, I think originally I would just play scales over a song and now slowly but surely I'm starting to play through the chord changes. That's making it a little bit more colorful and more fun for me, as I gradually learn to interweave the soloing harmonically and melodically through the given chord changes.
MF: So, when you do that are you doing it mostly with arpeggios or just with chord shapes within the scales, or how do you think about it visually?
EJ: Well, I try to mix it all up so that you can either have scales or arpeggios or you can invert the arpeggios or invert the scales or play the notes of the chords. Then the way you pick it or the way you tremolo it or stretch the string or play it soft or play it fast. Play it up near the neck or down where the bridge is. I just try to develop all of the ways that you can produce a note. Then you can just weave them all together. Kind of use them for the particular motion you're trying to convey.
MF: How much do you practice now? Or do you practice? And if so, what does your practice consist of?
EJ: I'm trying to practice several hours a day at least. And if I don't I can get bad real fast. [laughs] In no time at all. Within two or three days I'll be back to the folk chords. My repertoire will be "Kumbaya," and "On Top of Old Smoky." [general laughter] And that's it. That's all she wrote.
MF: [laughing] So what do you do when you're practicing? Do you have exercises or do you just work through your repertoire?
EJ: You can practice a whole bunch and not learn much. And then there's the more efficient, smarter practice where you can practice one fourth the time and get five times as much done. And that is pushing yourself beyond the corral of where you are. And the best way for me to do that is to work on new songs but kind of inadvertently have in the back of my head pushing guitar techniques. That works for me because then I can work on music which provides me with more fun. But I'm indirectly working on technique. If I just sit down and spend hours on technique alone I get too bored too fast. I'll stick with it maybe three or four days, but ultimately I'll just not want to do it because it's not fun.
MF: Some people say if you practice scales too much, you'll just sound like you're playing scales when you're soloing.
EJ: I totally agree. Obviously the best of both worlds is if you're a schooled player who also plays beautifully. Like Steve Morse went to school and he plays beautifully. Pat Metheny went to school; he plays beautifully. I think more often than not, there's that danger. Just as there's the danger of somebody that never studies music. They get stuck in a tunnel view if they don't study at all. But the person who studies constantly is just like you said, you hear it in the way they produce their music. So there are two sides of the fence. But ultimately you've got to put the music first.
MF: What is your formal musical education? Where have you picked up your theory and stuff?
EJ: I don't know if theory comes from ear training and so I'm not really good at knowing scales or names of stuff. I studied for seven years playing piano. And one of the most interesting things that was stressed by my piano teacher which, I don't know why, but every time we had a piano lesson she'd be behind the piano and we would be in the class and we couldn't see the keyboard and she'd say "What note is this? What note is that?" Basically she was trying to develop in us perfect pitch. Which I think you can develop. I don't think it's necessarily just something that you're born with. You can develop it, and she was really able to make us develop it. And then she'd play a fourth, a fifth, a seventh, "What is this? What is that?" She tried to develop us so that we'd really understand on a musical level what we were hearing. I think you can understand it more completely if by your ear you know why it sounds the way it does. Rather than just knowing to look at a symbol or read music. I can read music but I'm very poor at it. I really wish I was better if for no other reason than you can sit down and just go through all sorts of literature and learn from it. It's a real chore for me just to read single lines let alone multiple lines.
MF: Do you ever write out guitar parts when you're developing your ideas like in tab or something?
EJ: If I have to write out a guitar part I usually notate it out. Just as a note to myself. If I need to write chord charts or notations for other players, I'll do that. But I'll do it kind of grimacing because I'd rather just not do it. And the only way you get better is to do it more.
MF: Aside from your piano training all those years, did you ever have any specific guitar training?
EJ: No. Because I played piano, when I got my first guitar I sat down and I just played every fret on the guitar. And then I played the note on the keyboard. I would sit there and do it over and over until I could memorize what notes were what on the guitar. It only took a few months to do it. If you've already studied an instrument, then I think it's just sitting down and translating that to the mechanics of the other instrument. That part was relatively simple. But then obviously developing technique takes a lifetime.
MF: Learning the names of every note on the fretboard by heart sounds like an important thing to know, and it's something I don't know. When you lay your hand anywhere on the neck in a chord you can look real quickly and tell which note you're on with each finger, right?
EJ: Absolutely. I do clinics sometimes. When I'm touring if we have the opportunity I'll give a talk and play songs. It's important, but not critical to develop ear theory. If you can, develop it to where you can say, "That's F," or "That's C#." It's also good to get to where you can hear a fifth or a fourth or a sixth and know what it is. The second most important thing is if you look at any fret on any string on that guitar, by process of association and repetition you get to a point where you just automatically know it. You don't even have to think about it. It's kind of like breathing. Anybody can do that. It might sound more insurmountable than it really is. It's just a matter of repetition and association and doing it over and over and over.
MF: But still having fun! [laughs]
EJ: Well, no, fun doesn't have anything to do with it.
MF: It's kind of like multiplication tables, huh? You've got to memorize stuff.
EJ: [laughs] We're not talking about fun. We're talking about the search for excellence or something. Just kidding. That's true. It's gotta be fun. Thanks for reminding me. [laughs]
Be sure to come back next week for Part II, when Eric talks truth about the tools he uses to get that inimitable tone.
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