Eric Johnson's Ascending Spiral

March 22, 2011

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AFTER GUITAR PLAYER PUT ERIC JOHNSON ON THE cover of the December 1982 issue, the previously unheralded musician from Austin, Texas, quickly ascended to the rarified realms of guitar greatness that he continues to occupy to the present day. Fabled for his uncompromising pursuit of tonal perfection—some might say too uncompromising— Johnson entices listeners with seductive sounds and soulful playing rather than seeking to impress solely with displays of technical virtuosity.

Johnson is joined by a bevy of great players including some high-profile guests on his latest release, Up Close [Vortexan], an album that encompasses full-on rockers to pop ballads, with tasty splashes of blues, jazz, country, and even ambient coloration throughout. Steve Miller contributes vocals to the disc’s only cover (a smoking version of the Electric Flag’s “Texas” that also features guitarist Jimmie Vaughan), Sonny Landreth’s subtle slide work graces the lovely “Your Book,” Jonny Lang and Malford Milligan each add vocals to a piece, and Steve Hennig infuses “On the Way” with countrified pedal-guitar twang à la Phil Baugh.

Despite the esteemed company, however, it is Johnson’s spectacular guitar work— augmented by the brilliant mixes of legendary producer and engineer Andy Johns— that elevates the record to empyrean heights. Johnson credits a new perspective toward working for the vitality and directness of the music. “I tried to let go a little bit more on this record, and to be more spontaneous,” he enthuses. “I also tried to be more honest, more personal, and to put more heart and soul into what I was doing. At some point I realized that everything has a life force of its own, and sometimes things go according to plan and sometimes they change, often for the better.”

You recorded the entire record in your studio?

Yeah. This is the first album that I’ve recorded and mixed from start to finish in my studio. We used a Tonelux analog mixer and an AMD Athlon MP processor-based workstation running Steinberg Nuendo software. I prefer the top end on Nuendo to that of other digital platforms. We mixed to both analog tape and digitally using Direct Stream Digital technology, which is like another notch above in digital sound, and we wound up preferring the DSD mixes. Andy Johns mixed most of the songs, and he brought a certain intuitive magic to the project that melded all the disparate material together into a single musical event.

Did your signal chain differ for each piece or was there a basic rig that you worked from and modified?

It was pretty much my basic rig that I always use, and I would change it up a little bit sometimes. I used two Fender Twins for my clean rhythm tone, sometimes adding an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man if I wanted the sound to be really wet. I also sometimes added in a TC Electronic stereo chorus or an Echoplex, though I’ve been using an old Boss DD-2 delay for my rhythm sound instead of the Echoplex lately. For my dirty rhythm tone I used a 50- or 100-watt Marshall and a 4x12 cab, or sometimes a Dumble or a Fulton-Webb, with a Fuzz Face or some other fuzz, such as an old Colorsound or a Prescription Electronics The Experience, if I wanted more distortion. I got my lead sound from one of the 50- or 100-watt Marshalls through a 4x12 cab, with a Tube Driver, an Echoplex, and a Cry Baby.

I played some Gibsons—an ES-335 and a Les Paul—and some other guitars on the record, but I mostly played my signature Strats, my ’57 Strat, or a ’62 Strat that I don’t own anymore.

Given your long association with Stratocasters. Did Fender get it right in the beginning and is the Strat the best solidbody electric guitar ever made?

Conceptually it really is in terms of being able to cover as many bases as possible. The stock models from 50 years ago don’t really work for me as is, so I like to change them up a little—but you have three pickups that can range from bass-y to treble-y, with several different rhythm sounds and two good lead sounds. I find it easier to get a good lead tone from a single-coil than to get a good rhythm tone from a humbucker. Some instruments can do specific things better, but as a universal instrument that works as a tonal home base it is the best. And you could say that about old Fender Twins and Twin Reverbs, too. If I had to, I could play an entire gig on one of those, and I can’t say that about many other amplifiers.

Do you utilize a lot of different control and pickup settings on Strats, or are there a few that you gravitate towards?

I pretty much use the neck pickup, the bridge pickup, or a combination of the middle and bridge pickups. I seldom use the neck pickup tone control unless I roll it all the way down to get a Clapton woman tone sound, but I do use the bridge pickup tone control to deemphasize some of the top end to balance out the EQ between the neck and the bridge pickups. I use the volume control for swell effects, but otherwise I just leave it all the way up.

What about amps? Do you have some basic settings for them, too?

Generally speaking, for clean rhythm sounds I’ll push the tone controls way up and keep the volume low, and for dirtier rhythm sounds and lead tones I’ll keep the tone controls at halfway or less and push the volume up. For really distorted tones, with the volume up high, I’ll often turn the tone controls down even more for a tighter sound.

You have a lot of Fuzz Faces. What do you look or listen for when purchasing one?

On a really good Fuzz Face you can turn the Fuzz control up high and the sound doesn’t lose its focus and definition. Other than that, I’m not sure what makes a good one, because you can get one that has all the best components, all perfectly matched, and it still sounds horrible. And conversely, you can get one that has what aren’t considered to be the best quality transistors and other components, and it will sound great.

Many years ago you commented on how different types of batteries affect the sound of effects pedals, and that became a part of the Eric Johnson mythos that people still comment on all these years later. Do you find that amusing or annoying?

First off, nothing has happened with that for 30 years. It’s become such a thing and really, it was a two-minute decision on my part, and I’ve never looked back. Apparently some people think that I sit around and saw batteries in half, or whatever—but the fact is that different types of batteries sound a bit different, and you can verify it for yourself. A battery is a lot like a transformer. If you change the transformer in your amp, it’s going to change the tone. And if you use five or six effects and you add all that up, it will make a substantial difference at least to the point of saying, “Well, this Duracell is a little better than the others so I’ll just stick with it.” It has to do with the amount of energy produced by the battery—there are different ways they are made and that affects the electrical pulse, which affects the transient top end, and that is a very sensitive issue when it comes to a lot of distortion. It’s just that simple and can be seen on a scope.

What three things should guitarists focus on to improve their sound and feel?

First, they have to get their gear together and adjusted to where it’s working correctly. You can go too deep and spend too much time on that, which I have been known to do, and ultimately it is of finite importance— but it is essential to facilitate the intention of your playing. Second is the way that they pick the string, because that’s what causes the initial sound. If you have a piano and the hammers aren’t adjusted correctly and don’t strike the strings right, it sounds very different than if they are correctly adjusted. And it is the same with guitar strings—how you strike them makes all the difference, and also directly interacts with the way in which you finger the notes. Third, they need to cultivate a discerning ear, and marry that with making sure that they are having fun playing and that they are achieving joy, because that’s the thing that will keep them coming back again and again—and then their playing can become an upward spiral.

Speaking of picking, you use a lot of upstrokes and have a lighter touch than many rock guitarists.

I try to emulate the way steel guitarists play more outwardly from the surface of the steel instead of going across the strings. As for playing lightly, when you hit a string straight on really hard, the percentage of note to noise isn’t particularly good, especially in high-volume situations with lots of distortion. It is more desirable to brush the string in a way that activates it with the least amount of non-musical noise.

Do you use different parts of the pick for different sounds and textures?

No, I pretty much hold the pick the same way at all times, though I’ll frequently curl it up in my first finger and just play with my fingers, or a combination of the pick and my fingers when I want to play two or more strings simultaneously, especially on rhythm parts, but also on leads. Sometimes I’ll strum, but I like to have the option of playing more like you’d play a piano.

Do you fingerpick in more of a folk or a classical style?

I have been working with playing in the classical style, where you hold your wrist up high on the guitar, but only on acoustic. That technique is a little easier with nylon strings, which is where it is obviously most used, but it also works really well on steel-string acoustic. It isn’t quite as bouncy, though, and therefore tougher to do.

You also use your right hand to fret fairly frequently, though you aren’t exactly tapping are you?

There are many great two-hand tappers out there, but I never really got into developing that technique. I’ll fret with a right-hand finger if I’m playing a passage where I need to add a note or two, or, more frequently, to add a passing note to tie things together while changing from one scale to another, so that there isn’t a gulf between notes while I’m shifting left-hand positions.

Are there any particular scales that you tend to favor or do you just change them up to fit the shifting harmony of a song?

I just try to fit the harmony of the song. I know how to play a lot of scales, but I don’t really know what they are called. I’ve been working a lot with minor sixth and minor ninth tonalities, and also diminished and whole-tone things—but I mostly just play by ear.

Did you intentionally avoid learning theory?

It’s great to learn that stuff, but I think in some ways it may be better to play by ear—not that you can’t do both, as long as you don’t intellectualize your ear too much. For example, I’m pretty sure that Wes Montgomery played by ear, but he had such a good ear that he could play over changes magnificently, while at the same time retaining a certain mystical innocence. He heard on a different level, and I wish I could do half of what he did. So, if you can assimilate theory while holding onto the mystery and the sublimity, that is probably the best of both worlds, but I know that sometimes when I’ve tried to assimilate theory I’ve found myself thinking too much.

It is curious that more and more people graduate from guitar schools every year, and yet we haven’t exactly been inundated with innovative or revolutionary guitar playing as a result.

Yeah. It’s highly advantageous, but risky at the same time. Do you ever notice that if there’s a song that you have always really loved and you decide to learn it, once you get inside it and get all the notes and the verses and the choruses, that afterward the song doesn’t have quite the same affect on you? Some songs I’m hesitant to learn because I don’t really want to know what’s going on, and that may be a similar kind of thing.

What sorts of things do you practice?

It’s always shifting and morphing just to stay open to what is most efficient. Obviously, the best practice scenario will get you closer to the music and get that music more underneath your fingertips and readily available to play. I often try to practice long arcs of passages. For example, sometimes I’ll work on a chord progression, or I’ll begin with a melody and play through changes while trying to think of ways to alter that melody so that it fits over particular chords rather than remaining stationary. And if I am getting ready to go on the road I’ll typically just practice the songs I’m going to play, and hopefully that will indirectly improve my guitar playing.

When you are playing over changes either live or when recording, are you thinking about which notes will harmonize best with particular chords, or are you past that, where something else is happening?

Sometimes I get past that, but a lot of the time I am thinking about the chords. In one sense I’m trying to get beyond having grown up as a rock guitar player, which kind of defined me, so that I can play more freely and naturally. I’m still working through that process.

What’s happening internally at those times when you do manage to get free?

I experience a connectedness, where I am enjoying what I am doing and feeling joy, kind of like riding a sled or surfing a wave. There’s a force-momentum or self-perpetuating energy that I get caught up in that both comprises me and is beyond me, and while I’m connected to it things begin to happen more intuitively.

What do you think the source of creativity at that level is?

You can find all sorts of names that you could attach to it, but it’s really that Rainbow Bridge that connects our heart and higher being to a universal energy field intelligence— it comes from God.

Mr. Johnson Details Up Close Song by Song

“Awaken”
“Oliver Rajamani sang and played sitar, sarod, and tablas, joined by Tom Burritt and Tommy Taylor on additional percussion. I played bass, a Vincent Bell remake of the Coral Sitar, and my ’62 Strat. Everything was recorded direct other than the solo, for which I used a 50-watt Marshall. I like Ravi Shankar and listen to a lot of Indian-influenced music, and I just improvised all my parts, using the vibrato bar to add some of the microtonal inflections. This is the first of three mostly improvised soundscapes created by layering guitars and various other instruments.”

“Fat Daddy”
“I had part of this song for years but didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t decide to include it on the album until the very end, after I listened through to the whole thing and felt like it was weighted a little too much toward vocal pop ballads, and needed another rocker. It has a sort of Jan Hammer-type feel to it. I played the ’57 Strat through a Tube Driver, an Echoplex, and a 100-watt Marshall.”

“Brilliant Room”
“I played a signature Strat through a 100-watt Marshall for the solo parts. The rhythm tones were a combination of the Twin Reverbs for the cleaner layer and a Dumble for the dirtier layer. In the solo section I layered a lot of tracks to get an ‘A Day In the Life’ sort of buildup, using a bunch of different fuzzboxes, an Electro-Harmonix octave pedal, a glass slide, and Hendrix-like feedback with the Marshall and a TC Electronic Nova delay on a backward-echo setting. We got the over-thetop flange sound by first recording DI with two MXR Flanger/Doublers, and then using a flanger plug-in to double-flange those parts.”

“Texas”
“I had recorded a blues tune live in the studio, just goofing off, and it came out pretty well. Later, Steve Miller and Jimmie Vaughan came by the studio and Steve had the idea of singing ‘Texas’ over the top of it, and that was great because I love that tune, which was written by Buddy Miles and Mike Bloomfield. My tracks were done pretty much with an old Les Paul plugged straight into the Bright channel of a Marshall, though I kicked in a Fuzz Face to get a little more gain in a few places. The guitar and amp are from the same era as Fresh Cream, so I’m essentially stealing Clapton’s tone.”

“Gem”
“The arrangement is orchestrated using different tones for the various rhythm and lead sections. A lot of the time it would be the same guitar, but I’d adjust the amp or change effects or switch to a totally clean sound, and there are some places where there’s acoustic guitar buried in the background to add texture. I mostly played Strats through Twins and Marshalls, with a Fuzz Face for the leads, but I also played through a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx using a volume pedal to get some echo-y, shimmery sounds. The ascending chord sequence at the end was improvised during one of the takes, and I liked it so I kept it.”

“Traverse”
“This is the second soundscape. I recorded 16 or more guitar parts in the various sections, though there are only about five or six up at any given time. I would cut one track and then do another and another for fun just to see where it would end up. I didn’t have a bass guitar, so I used an octave box to simulate a bass. I also improvised a little percussion, some of which actually worked. To get different sounds, I used an Ebow and a Line 6 FM4 filter pedal. I also flipped some of the tracks around so they played in reverse.”

“Austin”
“This is a song about how much Austin has changed since I was a kid, and I was going for a Stevie Wonder-type feel, because he is one of my favorite artists. I sang it originally, but I wasn’t entirely enamored with the results, so I asked Jonny Lang to sing it, and I really like how it turned out. The dirty rhythm parts were done with a combination of Dumble and Fulton- Webb amps, the clean tones are the Twins, and I used a Marshall for the leads.”

“Soul Surprise”
This was originally going to be a vocal piece, and I was actually considering asking Paul Rogers to sing it—but I could never get the lyrics and the melody up to the level where I felt they would be worthy, so I made it an instrumental. There’s one track of chorused guitar, a dirty rhythm track playing power chords through the Twins, and I played an ES- 335 for a lot of the distorted barre chords and lead lines, most of which were done with a Marshall. The nasty auto-wah sounds were done with the Line 6 FM4, and there’s also some textural slide playing. The improvised blues-rock solos at the end were my way of pilfering from Cream’s ‘Politician,’ where you have several overlapping solos.”

“On the Way”
“This is another song that was originally going to have vocals, and in fact I had a vocal melody for it, but I never got the lyrics together. I’m a big fan of country and bluegrass players, and I had a lot of fun writing this. I’m playing my ’57 Strat through a couple of Twins with JBL speakers to get a Tele-like tone. I’ve tried to play Teles before, but never felt comfortable with them. Steve Hennig played a pedal-guitar through a Fender Princeton on the track. It has a cable with string-pulls attached to it and six pedals, and sounds sort of like a pedal-steel.”

“Arithmetic”
“I wrote this song for a friend, just to show how much I valued our friendship. For the clean tone I played my ’57 Strat through a TC Electronic stereo chorus into the JBL-loaded Twin combos. The lead parts were done with a Strat into a Tube Driver and a Marshall.”

“The Sea and the Mountain”
“This is the third section of the improvised piece. There are some stacked chord things going on, and there’s some feedback. It was mixed manually like the other two sections, playing the faders on the console like an instrument.”

“Vortexan”
“I was in Sedona, Arizona, and someone who was talking about vortexes looked at me and said, ‘He’s the Texan, the Vortexan,’ and that’s the origin of the title. This is my take on the ‘Cat’s Squirrel’ riff, and the instruments used are the same as on ‘Texas,’ for that Clapton sound. I had been working on that song for years, but couldn’t get it to sound right until I re-voiced the chords high up on the neck on the thinner strings to keep it from sounding too thick and muddy.”

“A Change Has Come to Me”
“The lyrics on this song are about letting go of old habits and letting something new happen, or at least being open to that potential. I played one of my signature Strats, or possibly the ’62 Strat that I used to own, through a 100- watt Marshall. The huge flange sound was created with two old MXR Flanger/Doublers.”

“Change (Revisited)”
“This is actually just the last part of the previous song. Andy Johns said, ‘You’ve got to fade this out,’ but I really liked some of the licks that happen during the last part, which reference ‘Third Stone From the Sun” and other Hendrix riffs, so I decided to make it into a separate song. We wound up mixing in bits of Jonny Lang’s backup singer, Jason Eskridge, doing some rap and crazy stuff, and then we ran the entire thing through yet another flanger. At the end it just falls apart, kind of like on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’”

“Your Book”
“I wrote this song for my father when he passed away. Someone’s life story is hard to encapsulate in words, but this was my way of paying respect to his life. Sonny Landreth plays on it, and he had just lost his father, so he kind of resonated with the song. Sonny’s great. He’s a very musical player, and he really thinks about how he arranges his playing. I’d played on his album, and he returned the favor.” —BC

Johns on Johnson

Legendary producer and engineer Andy Johns (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, the Rolling Stones, Free, Joe Satriani) shares some thoughts on working with Eric Johnson. —BC

“Joe Satriani introduced me to Eric at a G3 concert, and he asked me if I would mix his album. He was practically hiding behind his Marshall stack with his cherry 335 and I thought, ‘He’s okay I suppose. Good-looking boy. Plays the Texas stuff.’ But I wasn’t blown away. Then he sent me his tracks and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is fabulous!’ The more I got inside of the music, the more I could see how brilliantly arranged it was, apart from the fact that the songs were very cool. The man is very thoughtful and as bright as a new pin.

“We mixed at Eric’s studio and it was a little strange because his Tonelux mixer has got a bit of stuff over here and a bit of stuff over there—but everything worked out fine. I brought my JBL LSR6332 speakers so I could tell exactly what I was doing, but other than that we used his outboard gear and on a few occasions we used software plug-ins, such as a channel strip with a cool EQ and a side chain. I also cheated a bit by using a GML equalizer and an SSL compressor on the master stereo bus. For years I thought, ‘I never used to have to do this and I have made many hit records’—but with Eric I did do it and it worked.

“Eric was definitely involved in the mixing. He gave me a lot of leeway, but he was quite definite about what he wanted, and he is capable of hearing very subtle things. I’d be doing what I wanted to do and then he would say, ‘Well, what about this and what about that?’ So I would try to apply those things for him and I don’t remember him ever being wrong about anything. Sometimes it was a little like tag teaming, and when I was working he would be extremely patient. He’d just be sitting in another room and you know what he’d be doing? Practicing. That’s a rare thing these days, and I admire him for it because if you’re going to be an expert at something, you’d better bloody well have practiced.

“Eric Johnson happens to be one of the best musicians that I’ve ever worked with—he really is. A lot of guitar players have technique, but often they get so technical that they lack soul. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they are like Jimmy Page, where it’s just a big mish-mash of notes, but rock and roll comes out. Eric is sort of in the middle of that. He’s quite technical, but at the same time he is soulful. Sometimes I wish he’d bash around a little bit more, but I’m not complaining. To be in a room with a man with that kind of expertise is truly wonderful.”

A Few of E.J.’s Studio Accomplices

Guitars
’57 Fender Stratocaster with DiMarzio HS-2 bridge pickup
’62 Fender Stratocaster Fender Eric Johnson Stratocaster Maple (first prototype)
Fender Eric Johnson Stratocaster Rosewood with Super VTremolo
’64 Gibson SG Standard
’60s Gibson Les Paul
’60s Gibson ES-335

Amplifiers
Fender Twin Reverb heads/ stereo Marshall 4x12 cabinet
Fender Twin Reverb 2x12 combos (with JBL speakers)
’68 Marshall 50-watt head/late- ’60s Marshall 4x12 cabinet
’60s Marshall 100-watt head/late-’60s Marshall 4x12 cabinet
Dumble Steel String Singer

Effects
MXR 1500 Digital Delay
MXR Flanger/Doubler
Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
TC Electronic Nova Delay
TC Electronic Stereo Chorus+ Pitch Modulator & Flanger
Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man
Mid-’80s B.K. Butler/Chandler Tube Driver
Late-’60s Vox Cry Baby
Mid-’70s Maestro EP-3 Echoplex
Boss DD-2 Digital Delay
Toadworks Barracuda Flanger
Prescription Electronics The Experience
’60s Colorsound fuzz

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