Eric Johnson has a very interesting guitar playing style. It’s unusual for a guitarist with a signature sound, one so distinguished and unmistakable, to be saturated in variety and multi genre flavor. Because of this, he has the remarkable ability to play music that appeals to the young, the old, and music lovers of all types. Not only is he known for his amazing techno wizardry, easily fitting into that group of prestigious and celebrated icons, but he’s also known for his interchangeable playing styles of basic rock, progressive rock, rockabilly, jazz, country, classical, and blues, and for his ability to sound as though he was born and brought up in almost any area of the globe.
The fact he’s from Texas is reason enough to understand his diligence and determination as a player. It’s the region where more celebrated and amazing guitarists have reigned from than any other spot in the USA, maybe even the world. The competition is incredible and the roots are deep. It was probably only a matter of time before a contemporary electric player of this nature came on the scene from that area.
Eric grew up listening to all types of music, and he learned to incorporate it all into his playing. His 1990 release, 'Ah Via Musicom’, is not only a perfect display of this remarkable diversity, but it’s acknowledged as being one of the greatest electric guitar albums of all time. The icing on the cake was Eric’s vocal ability on it, very good yet shadowed by instrumental proficiency. His fourth and latest studio release, 'Bloom’, is further display of his perfectionist demeanor and growing talent. The arrangements on the CD delve even deeper into the mature and obsessive nature that fuels the Eric Johnson prowess. Easily noticeable throughout is his love for all genres of music. But the CDs finest trait is that it once again plays host to the amazing guitar tones, chops, chordal ability, and fluid lead runs of Eric Johnson.
I recently caught Eric live, opening for friend Joe Satriani. The set was short, but with enough time to entertain fans with the typical diversity he’s known for. He showcased much of 'Bloom’, including 'Summer Jam’, Dylan’s 'My Back Pages’, and 'Good To Me’, along with 'Cliff Of Dover’, Trademark’, Hendrix’s 'Love Or Confusion’, and 'SRV’, as well as a bunch of new songs. The band was tight, and his Fender guitar through Marshall and Fender amp signature tone was fantastic. Though the best way to see Eric, or anyone for that matter, is as headliner, as the set is longer and the music is the main attraction, Eric’s modest and humbling manner is inspirational. Many entertainers could learn from him. As other greats who play the support role, his presence at a show often provides the deciding boost to the status of a concert ticket. As fans know, Satriani is aware of that factor as well; his legendary G3 tours have been recognized for bringing the talent of three renowned guitarists to one stage each night.
I spoke with Eric during the tour:
Brian D. Holland: For a guitarist from Texas, an area where there are quite a few well knowns, your style is one that’s diverse and technical, yet combines the roots of country, rock, and blues. Are you just one of a new generation of players with expanded influences?
|"I think I grew up with influences in all types of music."|
Eric Johnson: I think I grew up with influences in all types of music. My parents really loved all types, and they instilled in me the value and appreciation of all types of music at a very early age. When I got interested in the guitar I wanted to mimic and learn all the different styles I was accustomed to hearing.
Are you self-taught or did you take lessons?
I took piano lessons for quite a while and a little bit of guitar lessons. But I mainly kind of transposed what I had learned from keyboards on to the guitar.
Do you still play keyboards?
Yeah. I do.
Who are your main influences?
It’s hard to say. I guess Hendrix, Beck, and Clapton are the main influences. But I really love Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin, B.B. King and all the old blues stuff. Some of the early George Benson stuff I really like. I love the steel guitar players like Buddy Emmons.
Your father was quite an inspiration, too.
|"My father really was my inspiration. It was really a big part of his life."|
He really was. He loved music. It was really a big part of his life.
Who are your favorite guitar players?
Again, probably Hendrix, Beck, Clapton, Wes Montgomery, and maybe Joni Mitchell. I love her stuff.
What is your favorite concert memory?
That’s hard to say. I remember seeing a Peter Gabriel concert when the 'Security’ record came out. It was just absolutely unbelievable. That left an indelible mark in my psyche.
Supposedly, Johnny Winter had once said something like this: "When I first heard Eric Johnson, he was only 16 years old. I remember wishing I could have played like that at his age." Are you familiar with that?
Yeah. I’ve heard that quote before.
How did that make you feel?
It was flattering that he’d feel that way. I had met him many years ago when I was real young. I used to go hear him play in Austin, right before he got really famous. He’d play down at these clubs. He was just amazing.
I’ve heard that you were kind of an obsessed perfectionist at one time. Is that true?
|"Sometimes you just keep pushing, in trying to develop your own signature sound and style."|
Well, yeah, I guess it is. I still have leanings that way now. But it’s not really my ultimate goal. It’s just trying to find something, somewhere to go, somewhere different, or a reinvention of the guitar. So sometimes you just keep pushing, in trying to develop your own signature sound and style. You just kind of keep turning over rocks until you find it. If you’re really driven to do that because you’ve got a sound in your head, and you’re really looking for something, you just keep going for it. Then, at the same time, someone’s standing beside you, looking at you turning over the rocks because you’re obsessed, you know. [Laughing] There are two different perspectives.
The CD, 'Seven Worlds’, in my opinion, displayed a more pop side to Eric Johnson, vocally as well as instrumentally. Was that the initial idea?
Yeah. I’d been playing in the Electromagnets, which I really enjoyed doing. We did that for like three years. I think that kind of went all the way over on another side because I had been playing the jazz-rock stuff for years. I just wanted to do something totally different. I guess it leaned a little pop or something.
'Ah Via Musicom’ is considered to be one of the greatest rock guitar albums of all time. Were you aware of just how successful that album was going to be when you finished recording it?
No, not really. I just pushed myself pretty hard and tried to play as well as I could when making that record.
Though you have a signature Strat, as well as a signature Strat sound, are you ever drawn to something different like some of your contemporaries, maybe a lighter instrument with different pickups?
|"I grew up on Fender and that’s what I’m comfortable with."|
No. I’m kind of used to it. I grew up on Fender and that’s what I’m comfortable with.
Is the tone in your fingers or is it in the Strat?
It’s mostly in the fingers. But you can facilitate your equipment to help reproduce it better.
Does touring with Satriani and Vai ever become a competitive thing, or is it more of an equality thing?
I think it’s more equality. It keeps you on your toes because you’re playing with fine players. You try to play your best and be at the top of your game as far as the production of your whole guitar thing. But I think it’s less competition than one might think. The tour with Joe right now is a six-week thing. It’s fun and he sounds great. I’m glad to be on the tour.
Does it feel kind of like a G2 thing?
No. It really doesn’t. It’s pretty much I do my set and he does his.
Read the second part of this exclusive interview tomorrow, June 17!
Brian D. Holland © 2006