Eric Johnson – the Texas Tone Ranger
Multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson has been hailed by Guitar Player magazine as “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet”. While he is a highly proficient acoustic, lap steel, resonator, and bass guitarist as well as an accomplished pianist and vocalist, it is his electric guitar playing he is most renowned for. He has found universal praise from his peers and fans as one of the few musicians to achieve that rarity in music—a signature sound and style. His sound, a unique combination of clean and dirty tones coupled with a piercing yet joyous violin-like finger vibrato, has been highly influential on a range of younger guitarists including Joe Bonamassa who has hailed Johnson as “one of the greatest guitar players of all time” and fellow interviewee from this magazine Mitch Laddie.
Gaining early prominence as a session guitarist for the likes of Cat Stevens, Carole King, and Christopher Cross, Johnson then experienced commercial success with ‘Cliffs of Dover’ from his 1990’s platinum selling release “Ah Via Musicom”. The song also won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, and later appeared in Guitar Hero 3 – Legends of Rock.
In 1996 he was invited to join Joe Satriani and Steve Vai for the original and legendary G3 tour that garnered a worldwide audience with the platinum selling CD and DVD release. Then in 2004, Eric Clapton invited Johnson to perform at his first successful Crossroads Guitar Festival. While he’s famous for his perfectionism, Eric Johnson has presented his most spontaneous and revealing music of his career with his latest album. ”Up Close,” released in 2010 features contributions from Jimmy Vaughan, Jonny Lang and Steve Miller amongst others.
Now at the age of 57, Johnson is ready to embark on his first full UK tour. In his soft, easy going Texas drawl, Johnson took time out from the Experience Hendrix Concert Tour to speak on a range of subjects, and provide some valuable advice to young guitarists.
So Eric thanks for taking the call. You’re currently on a three week run of shows performing the Experience Hendrix Concert Tour with artists including Buddy Guy, Dweezil Zappa, Billy Cox, Robby Kreiger, Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb’ Mo, Brad Whitford and Chris Layton. How is the tour going, how do you chose which songs each artist plays?
Yes this is us halfway through the tour. It’s been going really well. I tend to choose the lesser known songs and trey to learn them for the tour. We have to check with the production manager to make sure no one else is playing them. I’m playing ‘Burning Of The Midnight Lamp’ ‘Love & Confusion’, ‘Power Of Soul’,’ Little Miss Lover’ and ‘Are You Experienced?’ I’ve also been appearing on stage with Dweezil Zappa and Eric Gales.
Your most recent album “Up Close” was released in 2010, your sixth studio release over. I’d say it has a looser vibe than your earlier albums. Did you take a different approach to the recording?
I did, a little bit, I’ve been trying to do more of that, make it a looser feel. I still hope to do more that way.
There’s some very emotive material on the album, which make the title apt, such as Arithmetic, on which you sing some very personal lyrics?
Yes I really wanted to do that and will look to tell more about myself in my songs. People resonate with emotions it gives that personal connection, something that people can relate to, it has more resonance for the listener.
In terms of subject matter, the state of Texas looms large on the album. You cover the Electric Flag song ‘Texas’ and of course you have ‘Austin’ and the song ‘Vortexan’… Was that intentional?
It just kind of happened. I was working with Steve Miller and he really wanted to do that song and I’ve listened to the Electric Flag album since I was young. Overall though it was not a theme, it was more a coincidence.
The album featured such special guests as Sonny Landreth, Malford Milligan, Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan, and Jonny Lang. How did it all come together?
Really it came through what musicians do best, hanging out. Steve and I were doing a tour together and Jimmy Vaughan joined us one night so we went into the studio after that and recorded the song. Johnny was playing in the town one evening so we recorded the song when he was there. Malford lives near me and Sonny and I are in regular contact, I’ve just recorded a track for his next record.
Have you and Jimmy Vaughan been friends for a while?
I don’t actually know Jimmy that well. We’ve met a few times. I’m a big fan of his playing and he does a great job in keeping that traditional style of blues alive.
In your career to date, you’ve recorded 7 albums. Which was the most enjoyable album you recorded between “Tones”, “AH Via Musicom” and “Venus Isle?”
I’d say AH Via Musicom. It was fun to make. That was the most satisfying to make, although it was very hard work.
If you had to revisit any of your recordings and rework, which would it be?
This is a hard question. I was in a room where I heard ‘Bloom’ recently, and listening back to it I feel I would have done it differently, even with the same tracks, I’d have recorded them with more reckless abandon than I did at the time.
“Up Close” came out five years after your “Bloom”, your previous album. Do you plan on taking another five years to release your next record?
I’ve already recorded a couple of tracks, and put some down here and there. At the end of this tour in April I hope to put some more songs down then.
You’ve always had the respect of your peers; you were invited on the first G3 tour with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai in 1996 and performed by the invite of Eric Clapton at the first Crossroads festival in 2004. Does it ever become a challenge to maintain those high expectations?
People are there primarily to hear you play guitar and I guess there is an expectation on you: To play something free and unique that has not been played before, to play something from the heart with emotion and take the viewers on a ride with you. As far as technique goes, you could lock yourself away in a room for ten years and still come out and find that other guitar players can do something that you cannot.
You’ve a big supporter in Joe Bonamassa. He and many other younger guitarists have named you as an influence…. Have you found this has been a boost to your own career?
Yes. It’s very nice to be recognised. Joe is a fantastic guitar player and he’s also a great singer.
Have you heard of Mitch Laddie’s tribute to you, ‘Mr Johnson?’
No I’ve not heard of him yet. Perhaps I can meet up with him when I’m in the UK.
Two of your songs have been featured in Guitar Hero. Since its inclusion in Guitar Hero III in 2007, ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ has been one of the most popular tracks of the game franchise. What’s it like to be part of the video game/rock music phenomenon?
I think it’s good. It’s helped younger people get interested in guitar playing, whether they choose to learn a conventional guitar or not. It has expanded the exposure of the music to really young people and hopefully this will introduce them to the joys of playing.
The blues is one element within your guitar playing. In which ways has the blues influenced your guitar playing?
Yes I love the blues. There was once I time I played nothing but blues. I listened to guys like Freddie King, BB King, early Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield and Albert King from an early age. Really there is so much the blues can teach you about tone and bending the strings right which can benefit your technique whatever style of music you decide to play.
Jimi Hendrix was such an influence on your playing style. Do you think it’s possible, in this day and age, that somebody can come along and have the same impact that he did on guitarists in 1967?
Good question. It’s really hard to see how someone can come from in in such a unique way as to make that possible. Basically we’ve all been rehashing the same riffs for the last 50 years! Hendrix was so special, as he took his music from sources that had not already been amalgamated in that way. Yet while his use of guitar was special, it was also because he recorded great songs. When you listen to his work, it’s not solely the guitar playing that stands out; it’s the great songs he wrote that makes the music so special.
Yes I need to practice all the time. If I don’t practice I can get bad pretty quickly. You have to practice, but in a smart way. That way you gain more knowledge and more retention
Do you practice the guitar much, or are you at the point where you don’t really need to?
Yes I need to practice all the time. If I don’t practice I can get bad pretty quickly. You have to practice, but in a smart way. That way you gain more knowledge and more retention. You need to make sure that the practice is giving you joy. If it’s boring, you don’t want to practice and your retention is reduced.
What do you believe is the most important factor in becoming a great guitar player, is it a natural born gift, instruction or practice and performing?
I’d say it was a combination of all of them. You really need to know though where you want to go and provide yourself with maps and plans to get there. You need to have a vision. If you’re travelling aimlessly you will go nowhere. So you have to decide what kind of player you want to be. You need the vision, to hear the sound in your head and in people you admire. Listen to 10 guitarists that you like and figure out what you like in their sound to create that vision in your head.
You’ve recently toured the USA with bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann. So you’ve finally got your first UK tour in July this year. It’s been a long time coming. Are you looking forward to the shows?
Yes I’m really looking forward to it. Why has it been so long? Well I’ve just been kind of busy every place else. The last time I was over, the promotion wasn’t right and I lost a whole lot of money, so the time had to be right and it had to be worthwhile to do so.
Can you tell me what to expect, will you be they be full electric shows? Will you be performing fully with the band; will there be an acoustic slot?
I’ll be coming over with my band, Chris and Wayne Salzmann, and most songs will be performed as a trio. Although I think I’ll probably do a few acoustic songs as well.
Will there be any surprises in the set list? As well as performing your own songs, you’re known to play Hendrix, The Beatles, John Coltrane and Bob Dylan.
At the moment I’ve not decided, I’ll have to give it some thought after this tour ends in April and I’ll maybe work out some new things over the couple of months before the tour. I’m very excited to come over and play a good number of shows.
Already there’s been an additional show added on 11th July as the previous night at the London Leicester Square Theatre has sold out, so that’s a good sign. I’ll be coming to see you in Glasgow on July 7th. Thank you very much for the interview.
Thank you. Please come over at the show and say hello.
Eric Johnson’s “Up Close” July 2012 UK Tour
24 Hour Box Office: 0844 478 0898, www.thegigcartel.com.
- Holmfirth Picturedrome (July 6)
- Glasgow O2 ABC (July 7)
- The Sage Gateshead (July 8)
- Bath Komedia (July 9)
- London Leicester Square Theatre (July 10) (SOLD OUT)
- London Leicester Square Theatre (July 11)