Eric Johnson is a name that may not be as synonymous with guitar aficionados as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen, but the man is utterly in the same pantheon as these legendary guitar greats. Johnson’s CV includes enthusiastic endorsements from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa and Billy Gibbons. Eric has been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards, winning for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Cliffs of Dover” in 1992. He’s often written about in Guitar Player and Musician magazine and was named Guitarist of the Year in 2010 by Guitar International.
Eric has recorded and/or performed with such other notable guitar players as Chet Atkins, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, James Burton, Jerry Reed, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani (on the original G3 tour), John McLaughlin, Jimmie Vaughan, Sonny Landreth, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Dweezil Zappa, Adrian Legg, Peppino D’Agostino, Andy McKee, John Petrucci and others. He was tapped by Eric Clapton to play the first Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004 and has appeared on four Experience Hendrix tours.
Taking an audio stroll through Eric’s expansive collection of material (an active musician since his mid-teens in 1969) will show a diversity of styles that few guitarists can touch. The man can perform in almost any style he chooses – and do it with total style.
Eric has been playing acoustically in support of his 2016 release EJ, but a recent run of 2017 dates is going to see him stepping back into some electric performances. He heads out on his Great Northern Tour 2017 this week and will touch down in Toronto on May 25th at the Rockpile (5555 Dundas St W, Etobicoke, ON M9B 1B8). TICKETS HERE! Accompanying him for this run will be Chris Maresh, Joe Travers, and Arielle (who will also open the show).
Eric took 15 minutes to talk with PureGrainAudio about this upcoming tour, teaching guitar, his writing process and that time he shared the stage with a cow.
There aren’t many guitar players who can boast a quote from Stevie Ray Vaughan on their CV. That in and of itself is simply amazing.
Johnson: Well, Stevie was such a nice guy. He enjoyed all types of music. Such a good, good guy. Very kind.
Did you ever get to perform with him?
Johnson: Uh, yeah. We did a few short tours together. We jammed a little bit. Not a whole lot. But a little bit.
Incredible. I just got shivers. I don’t have any words. That’s just amazing.
Johnson: Yeah. It was a great experience for me.
What exactly can fans expect on your upcoming Great Northern Tour 2017 Eric?
Johnson: Well, I’ve been doing a bunch of acoustic stuff. So now I’m just kind of returning to electric. I’m trying to change it up a little bit. I’m writing some new songs, and I’m trying to make it a bit more of a varied show with incorporating the acoustic guitar and piano as well as the electric guitar so it can be more of a diverse and varied set instead of just electric guitar.
Have you done any rehearsals with Chris Maresh, Joe Travers and Arielle yet?
Johnson: Not yet, no. We’re going to start in about 5 or 6 days. I’ve just been working on my own, trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing. (laughs) I don’t even know what I’m doing yet. But I’m trying to get it together.
When did you first meet Chris?
Johnson: I first met Chris many, many years ago. Twenty years I think? We never played together then. We started playing together off and on for 15 years now I guess.
What were you like as a young boy, Eric? Would you describe yourself as someone who was quiet? Or were you like the class-clown type?
Johnson: I was pretty quiet. I went through a period in junior high school where I became kind of a nuisance. A bothersome kind of cut-up kid for that time. I was quiet before that and then quiet again afterwards. I just kind of went through a weird period there for a while. Other than that, I was pretty quiet. That’s why I like to play loud, I guess. (laughs)
Would you describe yourself as someone who is self-taught, as far as your guitaring goes?
Johnson: Well, I kind of play by ear. I learned off listening to other people. I was taught by all sorts of other people that I admired and loved. I guess it was that I sat down and kind of learned their stuff. It was pretty much by myself. I took piano lessons when I was really young and transposed what I had learned from that to guitar. Most of the guitar stuff was just me figuring it all out by myself.
Do you think you are somebody who learns easily?
Johnson: Ah, not particularly. Not really easy. Sometimes you have to break your old patterns to be open and neutral to learn new stuff. My ear can hear the stuff pretty easily. But then trying to learn the mechanics just takes time.
I’m curious if you feel that being musical or having musicality is something that an be learned or if you feel it’s more of an inherent ability.
Johnson: I think that people might be born with certain inclinings to things. You know like some people are better at math than others? I think some people have maybe a stronger potential. I think a lot of it is just what you love, you know? If you hear music and you have a real passion towards it for wanting to play it, then your attention is focused and you have put out this thought train that can manifest, you know? I think when we do that, we can kind of help create and mould our own reality, you know? It depends on the intensity of our passion and desire and our will and intention.
This could be a bit of an obvious question. Have you ever taught guitar? I know you have put instructional videos out, but I’m talking face-to-face teaching.
Johnson: Yeah. Every once in a while I’ll do classes. The have these classes around the U.S. called Master Classes with three or four different musicians. I’ve done a few of them. They go on for like three days. I’ve done a few of them now.
How do you feel about them after you do them? When you see other people struggling to hone their craft and ultimately learning from you – steering them on their way?
Johnson: It’s great. And I end up learning something too. Because I get to hear myself talking about what I’m talking about. You re-familiarize yourself with a lot of the important pillar-stones of what you do. But also other people, the other guitar players, and musicians that are there, a lot of times they will do something you didn’t know how to do or be talking about something where you realize you hadn’t approached it that way. Interestingly enough, a lot of times students that come to those classes actually play really well. And sometimes they just want to learn a different style of guitar. I remember I was teaching guitar classes where there some people in there who just wanted to learn more rock guitar type stuff. And then during the day when they weren’t at classes, they were practising all of this incredible jazz stuff that just floored me. I went to this one guy and asked him what he was doing here? (laughs) He was amazing. And he said he just wanted to come and learn different stuff, you know? I think a lot of times people just want to learn stuff. I learn just as much as they do a lot of the times.
You mentioned that you’d been doing some acoustic stuff. Your most recent album, the EJ album, is very much an acoustic recording. Do you think your next album will be in that vein? Or are you going to step it into something more electrical?
Johnson: Oh, I have a bunch of electric stuff as well as acoustic. So I’d like to do both. I’d love to make another acoustic record. That would be swell.
I was first introduced to your playing via G3. I’m a Satriani and Steve Vai fan. It was interesting seeing you on stage with those guys and then learning afterwards that you’d had this robust career that precedes both of theirs. There were almost three decades of your work prior to the first time that I got to see you that I got to dig my way through. I’m curious how you first encountered those guys.
Johnson: Well, I first met Steve many many years ago. Back in the eighties. And Joe, you know, I did some shows with Joe back in the eighties as well. So we did a few things here and there. A few gigs. I remember doing a tour with Joe many years ago. And then It was Joe’s idea to put this G3 thing together in the nineties. That’s when we started doing more playing together.
Check out this classic “Cliffs of Dover” clip, live from Austin Dec 14, 1988:
You’ve done a huge amount of session work with other musicians. What is it about collaborating with other musicians that appeals to you so much?
Johnson: Well, I think it’s interesting to try and figure out a way to try and play guitar that suits their songs, help the song or service the song. To not bleed too much attention away from the song just for gratuitousness, you know? It’s an opportunity to just think about orchestration. Doing what you do and then trying to make the music better. It’s a nice thing to do that. Work in the studio and learn the recording process and then getting to go through the production on all of these different songs.
What do you consider to be your most challenging musical undertaking to date Eric? And what made it such a challenge for you?
Johnson: Just trying to raise the bar on what I do. Just trying to get a little more focused. Trying to sing better and trying to learn to sing and play at the same time better. Sometimes doing both of those things at the same time, it can get a bit unfocused. A regular challenge for me is just trying to get a little more focused. To have more of an emotional impact in my stuff, and to do a better job of playing stuff live. I’m always trying to learn to play live better, so there’s more continuity. And make sure I’m seeing the big picture better.
You’ve got almost 50 years of making music commercially to your name Eric. Can I perhaps ask if you might summarize in decades, good or bad, what you got out of the seventies, the eighties, the nineties and then 2000-2009 and 2010 onwards?
Johnson: I think in the seventies I was just learning a lot and playing in jazz-rock bands and electronic bands and then I just kind of started doing my own thing at the end of the seventies. I think it was just having fun and not having any real expectations. Just growing and learning and playing a lot of really small and cool clubs. It was tons of fun with no real worries or responsibilities. The eighties was where I started having a little bit of success and I was able to play some nicer places and I was able to have more of a career with it. That’s when I was trying to put more of a show together of it, where it was more of a musical experience. In the nineties I just kind of carried on with bigger and better records and playing with all sorts of different people and going all over the world. I think all of the decades have been good. I’ve enjoyed it all. It’s just been kind of a metamorphosis, you know?
Have you ever appeared in films or scored films.
Johnson: No, I haven’t.
Interesting. I totally think that some of the stuff that you have done. Especially the different styles of music that you’ve attempted, would fit in really well with films or even with television projects.
Johnson: Well, I did do one television program, on a series many years ago. Stephen Barber, a keyboard player and composer and I did it together. I’ve never done any other stuff. I’d love to give it a shot someday. It would be fun.
Do you think that it gets harder to write music as you get older? Or is it easier with all of your years of history?
Johnson: I think maybe the harder part is that you want to try and have it be more expansive and to build on what you have already done. When I was younger, I’d just have an idea and try and do it. Just throw it out there. Now it’s more like me thinking “Does this have any weight? What’s the reason for people to listen to it?” Maybe you worry about being more discerning about what you try to write?
Most artists have a favourite zone to create in. That can be a certain room, a certain time of the day, a certain instrument of preference, or a combination of things. Call it totemism. Are you guilty of that? Do you feel like you have a particular zone where you feel particularly creative?
Johnson: Not really. I just need to be able to concentrate. A little bit of peace and quiet. Having some time to just focus on what you are doing and not have many distractions. It can be anywhere.
What is the last truly great concert that you attended?
Johnson: Well, just a few nights ago I saw Bill Frisell. And it was awesome. He was great. That’s the first time that I’ve ever seen him live. He was really great. I loved it. He’s a very original, organic, emotional and atmospheric player.
What’s the book that you are currently reading?
Johnson: I’m not reading anything right now. I haven’t read anything for a couple of months now, actually. I just got a new Jas Obrecht book called Talking Guitar. It’s a collection of interviews over fourty years. But I just got it in the mail. I haven’t read it yet.
How about a super power that you would want if you could have it and it was possible?
Johnson: A super power? Oh man. You know, I can think of a million things that would be cool. Flying or whatever. But I think maybe it would be cool to be able to control the mind. Not other people’s minds, I don’t mean that. I mean controlling my own mind – where I can stay in a higher octave for 24 hours a day. And I think what would come out of that is a lot of healing things. That would be a great super power to have.
What’s your Spinal Tap moment? Have you got something you can share that is derivative of that film?
Johnson: You know, I always think of this one thing because it was the most hilarious, crazy thing. It was kinda dangerous but I wasn’t hurt. And the really crazy thing is that my guitar wasn’t hurt either. And this is totally true – it’s so bizarre. I was playing in this old opera theatre in… I think it was Corpus Cristi. It was somewhere down on the coast of Texas. It was an old stage where the people can come up from the floor. Like an old Vaudeville theatre. And somebody forgot to close the trap door. It was towards the front of the stage. It was like a three foot by three-foot opening that went down underneath the stage probably eight or ten feet.
I was playing and it was a dark stage and I walked out towards the audience and I literally fell in this hole. I completely disappeared up to my neck. Somehow or another, when I fell the guitar cord plugged into my guitar caught the edge, so I didn’t go all the way down. It broke the guitar cord but it didn’t break my guitar and it didn’t really hurt me either. It was like I was playing and all of a sudden I disappeared. (laughs) The drummer laughed so hard he fell off his stool and the whole song fell apart. That was probably the craziest moment that’s ever happened. There’s a lot of them though. There was once I was playing a county fair where a prize cow came on stage while I was playing. That was very Spinal Tap. (laughs)