Talk with the Guitar Masters: Eric Johnson

By Ivan Chopik
Contributing Writer

Eric Johnson is a remarkable artist who makes no compromises with any aspect of his music – from the well-crafted songwriting that spans various styles, to the carefully-selected chord voicings and wide-interval leads that are always delivered with some of the most exceptional tones in the business.

Eric first gained widespread success with his 1991 Grammy-award winning single ‘Cliff of Dover’ from the platinum-selling album Ah Via Musicom. Since then Eric has released a number of acclaimed albums and live performance DVDs, as well as a series of comprehensive instructional videos that dissect his style and influences. He was also featured on a number of G3 tours, including the first ever G3 tour in 1996 with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.

In 2008, Eric joined a group of other renowned musicians in celebrating the music of Jimi Hendrix as a part of the Experience Hendrix tour. I had the opportunity to speak with him at the Boston, MA stop of the tour:

IC: What’s going on right now in your world?
EJ: Just doing this Hendrix tour for fun. It’s like three and a half weeks, which is mainly East Coast and West Coast.
IC: How’s it been so far?
EJ: It’s good. I’m hanging out with all of these guys, we’re all getting along great, all friends. Everybody’s really a nice player in all sorts of different ways. Everybody has a different style, so it adds a different facet to the whole thing. It’s kinda more just a fun thing. You know, we get together and just jam and play wonderful music by Jimi Hendrix and just have fun with it.
IC: How close do you stay to the original material? I’m sure you put your own spin on it.
EJ: You know, in my set, some of the stuff I try to play just like the record. Just because to me, it’s become so historical. Some of [Hendrix’s] leads were so lyrical, that I figure they’re part of the composition. Not in the true sense – I guess they were improvised, but for me some of it’s fun to sort of attempt to recreate that vibe, because it’s really cool. But then I’ll veer off, as well.
IC: On a day like today, after you’re done with the interviews and press, what goes on right before the show? Do you have any rituals or anything that you do before you go on?
EJ: You know, I’ll just kind of practice a little bit, and just get ready – tune up and make sure everything’s working right. Nothing really, other than just playing a little bit. That’s all.
IC: Cool. New record: any titles yet in the works?
EJ: I’m still thinking about what I’m gonna call it, but I’m probably 2/3 finished with it, 3/4 finished with it. We’re gonna have it out sometime early next year.
IC: Are you recording this in your home studio?
EJ: I am, yeah. I started building this place about fifteen years ago, and I’ve just slowly just built it up. It was basically usable within the first year, but we’ve kind of finished it off, and built the control room up and stuff. So this is the first record where I’ve literally done the whole record in the finished studio.
IC: I would imagine, being a tone purist, that you have a lot of analog equipment there.
EJ: I do have some analog gear. I’ve kind of really enjoyed the Nuendo stuff. To me, I like the way it sounds. Pro Tools has it’s own sound, but to me, the Nuendo stuff is a little bit more analog sounding. So I’m kind of digging on using that right now. But I still have analog machines. On this record, I really haven’t used the analog machines. I’m dealing more with just working on the songs, I haven’t really given it much thought.
IC: When you say that you’re 3/4 of the way through – is that recording also, or have you just been writing up to this point?
EJ: No, no, I’ve got all of the tracks cut and probably 2/3 of the overdubs done. I’ve got maybe 30% of the overdubs left to do on it, and I’ve gotta get it mixed. So in another ten or twenty years, I’ll be done (laughs).
IC: Speaking of that, you’ve mentioned before that you took so long to work out each detail – from the tone to the performance and takes. And you also mentioned that you’ve kinda relaxed over the last few years on that, trying to get more things out.
EJ: Yeah, and this record’s… Bloom [Eric’s 2005 release] was a lot quicker than Venus Isle, this record’s a lot quicker than Bloom. It’s getting quicker all the time. I’ve still spent like, eleven months on it – not solid, but off and on. I still feel that that’s… well, there’s no real right or wrong to it, but my goal is to spend less time on records. So the next record I’m gonna spend less time on.
I want to get it where it’s more where you do a record in a few months. I wanna get back into that. It’s a slow thing for me, I mean, I’m getting there eventually. This one still took longer than I wanted it to, but it’s a lot quicker than the other ones were (laughs). So I think I’m walking in the right direction, at least! I’m kind of trying to build on that.
There’s more performances on it, but getting in the studio is a challenge for me, because it’s so austere. As soon as I get in there and you put the mic an inch away from the cabinet, it’s like ‘What happened? It sounded so great at the gig.’ There you’ve got the audience to feed off of. Some people, they’re just a natural in the studio. I have trouble getting that… where you just forget about everything and just play. I get kind of, a little bit…
IC: Red light syndrome?
EJ: Yeah, a little bit. It’s getting better, though. I just wanna be patient with it, and as long as I’m walking in the right direction, I think I’ll get there.
IC: What was the writing process for this one like, and musically how would you say this album is different from Bloom?
EJ: It’s a little bit more performance-oriented on this record. I cut like 22 tunes, and then I ended up finishing up about twelve or thirteen, something like that. It’s just a little bit more playing, it’s not so much pieced together. It’s pretty song-oriented – we do have some blowing sections on it, but it’s a lot of songs.
IC: I’ve noticed a pull in that direction in general over the last couple of years, especially checking out the new instructional video. I noticed actually that you hold back a lot of times. So I wasn’t sure if that was so people could actually comprehend what you’re doing and kind of catch up, or whether or not you’re consciously holding back on your playing a little bit.
EJ: To be really honest, when I listen to my records, I think I hold back a little too much. But when I listen to my live gigs, I think I noodle around too much. I mean, just being honest.

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