Eric Johnson on Breaking Patterns to Play with More Freedom – Premier Guitar

Photo by Jon R. Luini

Anyone who lives in the New York metro area knows that driving across the Long Island Expressway is a punishment reserved for only the most extreme masochists. But the first area appearance of Eric Johnsons Classics: Present and Past Tour at the YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore was compelling enough for me to make the painful trek.

Determined to avoid traffic, I got a head start and ended up arriving at the venue hours early, when it was eerily empty. There were no signs of life other than the flurry of notes from Johnson doing a soundcheck, and a pair of siblings waiting by the box office. I soon found out that the brother and sister I had just met endured even more torturous travelling conditions than traversing the LIE at any hour of the day. They took a grueling 16-hour flight from Tahiti solely to see Johnson (they even had front row seats!)and rented a car to get around to four of Johnsons Northeast shows from places as far flung as Fairfield, Connecticut, and Albany, New York. Thats the sort of hardcore dedication you see from Phishheads, but might not expect for Johnson, whose fan base was, for a long time, strictly tone-obsessed guitar geeks enamored by Johnsons virtuosity.

Over the decades, Johnsons music has broadened in scope considerably and now has a much wider appeal. The audience at the Boulton Center consisted of a diverse array of folkshipsters, young kids, rich lawyer types, and musicians who resembled electronics guru Larry Hartkewho, over the course of a three-hour show (with only a very brief intermission), enjoyed hearing Johnson singing and playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and piano on everything from classics like Zap and Cliffs of Dover to vocal-driven songs from his latest release EJ Vol. II. (Its the sequel to the 2016 all-acoustic EJ, and adds in electric elements.)

While Johnson burned through many of the electric selections with his trademark lightning-speed pentatonic sequences, he also captivated the audience equally with his sensitive vocals and jazzy piano playing on Over the Moon, which also featured rhythm guitarist Dave Scher lightly hybrid-picking volume-swelled, chordal fragments. Of course, Johnson is aware that many in the audience were there for the shred, and though he opened the second set with an acoustic in hand, he started right off the bat with the jaw-dropping Lake Travis, a burning instrumental highlight of EJ Vol. II.

For this tour, Johnson brought out his new signature Virginia guitar, from the Fender Stories Collection. The instrument is based on his favorite 1954 Strat that was used on iconic albums like Tones and Ah Via Musicom, but had, sadly, been sold years back. Virginia was released after EJ Vol. II was recorded, so the model doesnt appear on the album, but Johnson is extremely pleased with the instrument, so you can expect to hear it on future recordings. That was my favorite guitar I ever owned, so with this one being so close, it really fulfills everything I need, he says. Fenders Carlos Lopez, the master builder behind the Virginia model, has publicly stated that when he first took on the project he was a little intimidated, which, given Johnsons legendary history of gear neuroticism, makes complete sense.

Decades ago, when guitarists read that Johnson could hear microscopic differences in the batteries used in his pedals, a kind of urban myth was born. And with the advent of guitar forums, many gearheads have come to believe that every single pieceno matter how seemingly unrelated (like a screw)has an impact on tone. In fact, as I watched Johnsons show I couldnt help but wonder if there was a tonal reason why Johnsons two Bandmaster Reverb heads had different colored power lightsthe top head green and the bottom red. This nagged me so much that I had to follow up with Johnson. To which he simply replied that there is no tonal difference between the amps due to the color of the lights. Its just a way to identify them.

Its better to be secure, have faith, practice, and just go for that magical performance.

Is the fan of Eric Johnson the virtuoso guitarist the same person as the fan of Johnson the acoustic singer/songwriter?Yeah, Ive had a lot of people that seem to like both things. As there are people that would rather hear me get going and hear a lot of guitar playing, I think similarly there are people that want to hear all the other stuff. Theres some crossover, but Im sure theres some people that just favor one or the other.

Being aware of that, as you worked on EJ and EJ Vol. II, did you worry about what the Cliffs of Dover guy would be expecting in an EJ record?I thought about some of the stuff that some people might not like as much, but Ive always enjoyed songs. Trying to write a song has always been a part of my thing since I started playing music. I guess I was fortunate enough to get something working for me and it turned out to be the guitar thing. But Ive always enjoyed the whole spectrum.

Live, when going from acoustic to electric, is it a tricky transition in terms of touch?Yeah, it takes a little different touch on the acoustic. Thats true. On acoustic, a lot of times I use my fingers. But there are songs where I use a pick and, yeah, theres a little bit more resistance on the acoustic. Its not too hard of an adjustment if Im on tour and Im used to doing it. If Ive been playing electric for a few weeks and havent been playing acoustic, it can be a hard adjustment. But if Im in the groove of doing it, its not too hard.

Youve released a good amount of albums over the past few years, whereas there were six years between Ah Via Musicom and Venus Isle. Are you clinging less to your perfectionist tendencies?Yeah, I think it is that. Just kind of realizing that the extra belaboring over the record not only takes an exorbitant amount of time, but it doesnt really produce any better quality. And, in many cases, it makes it worse [laughs]. Or, you know, maybe it makes it better, grammatically, but it makes it not as potent, emotionally. So Im trying to learn that and practice that more.

I mean, I wrote Cliffs of Doverreally quickly. It just came to me. But I had several years to play it live, over and over and over, to get all the notes the way I wanted. Then when I went into the studio yeah, I really spent a lot of time trying to get the right take.

How much of your live solos are improvised versus composed?

Its probably about half and half. Sometimes they're just completely off the cuff, but sometimes they have certain guidelines to them.

I imagine there are many subtle things you hear that a fan might not pick up on. But if you hadnt labored over Cliffs of Dover 30 years ago, looking back, would the result have been that much different?Its interesting that you say that. I think if you rehearse and youre in shape, and you do the discipline of practice, and then you capture a magic performancethen no, I dont think so. I have that version from Austin City Limits thats totally live, and I guess a lot of people like that better than the studio version. That would be the answer to your question right there. And then its also just a matter of your mindset and believing you can do it.

Sometimes insecurity is another form of ego because you dont think that you can do something so you have to hands-on everything and try to control the universe, which is impossible to do anyhow. Its better to be secure, have faith, practice, and just go for that magical performance.

Were songs on EJ Vol. II cut live or did you do a lot of overdubbing?I cut the parts live in the studio. One of the songs, Black Waterslide, actually did come from a live performance at a gig, and I took it back to the studio and overdubbed percussion to it.

In your live set, you jam on John Coltranes Impressions. Are you free enough to push yourself to go for new things, or are you inhibited knowing that someone will likely be filming it and putting it on YouTube?No, I try to experiment. Im still learning about all of that so its definitely not way out and deep and crazy like Eric Dolphy (saxophonist) or Coltrane, but Im trying to learn more about harmony. I just want to do what I do, but I would like to learn more about harmony, so Id rather push myself in a situation like that.

Watch our latest Rig Rundown with Eric talking about his signature Thinline Strat

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Eric Johnson on Breaking Patterns to Play with More Freedom - Premier Guitar

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