By Tony Grassi
Eric Johnson's latest studio album, Up Close [Vortexan], was released in December 2010.
While many guitarists might have found a year of promoting and touring -- not to mention working tirelessly on a line of signature music equipment -- reason enough to take a break and enjoy the holidays, Johnson is gearing up to hit the road.
Johnson, 57, and his band -- bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann -- will be touring stateside for almost all of January, kicking things off January 4 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Plans are in the works for even more dates in the spring.
Johnson is known for his tonal scrutiny and devotion to live performance. An admitted perfectionist, Johnson recently has adopted a looser attitude toward his music. Although he often has let years pass between studio albums, he now seems determined to produce regular work at a faster pace. He's already begun recording new studio tracks; whether these tracks are set for another album or digital singles remains unknown.
One thing that is certain is Johnson's dedication to pushing himself musically and being able to deliver -- on stage -- what he creates in the studio.
Johnson recently discussed some of the secrets of his recording process, the musicians he works with and how he embraces music's ever-changing digital frontier.
GUITAR WORLD: You mentioned in a recent interview you’ve pared down your live rig. Can you tell us a bit about your current set-up?
I just sold off some vintage guitars and amps, just trying to have less gear -- just keep what I’m really using. As far as my setup, I think it’s pretty much the same. There’s two Twins for rhythm and then a Marshall head for dirty rhythm, or another Marshall head for lead. It’s the same thing I’ve kind of always used.
Are you still using vintage guitars?
I still use them. I just got rid of stuff I had that I didn’t use and just tried to keep the ones I like playing and I feel like make good music for me, personally. I just don’t want to collect a bunch of stuff I don’t use. I’m kind of just thinning it out. You know, the more you complicate your life, the more of a custodian you are to all this stuff. I started going, ‘I don’t really want to be a slave to all that maintenance and upkeep and contemplation of all this extra stuff.’ So yeah, I’m just trying to keep it a little less out of control.
A friend who works at the Fender factory in Corona, California, says the Eric Johnson Signature Strat might be the best guitar Fender makes. What are your thoughts?
Probably, but maybe not for everybody else. For me it works because it’s so designed for me. But beyond that, Michael Braun [Fender Custom Shop designer] did some really cool things. We tried to get back to some of that original '50s stuff that Leo Fender had, and the changes we did make were ones that kind of support the growth of the instrument in a better way than it was. But a lot of it is just stuff from the way it was from the '50s. We just put back a couple things. From that aspect, I think it really is a nice instrument.
I would love to keep experimenting with it a little bit. I would love to keep tweaking it, but we’ll see what happens. It works pretty good the way it is, though.
You’re known for being meticulous in regards to your tone. Is that something you still work on?
Yeah, I spend probably too much time doing that. Recently, it’s becoming less time. I’m kind of getting more happy the way it is. I’m letting go a little bit and letting it be what it is. But it’s kind of a challenge, just dealing with electricity and distortion and stuff. It’s kind of an unbridled monster, in a certain way. Trying to keep it something you can count on consistently is a bit of a challenge. And if you write music that requires it to be a certain way, you kind of really are searching for that consistency.
You have quite a large line of signature equipment, which you’ve branded “The Future of Tradition.” What was the genesis of this brand?
Well, we got a Fuzz Face coming out with Jim Dunlop in January, and then a speaker is coming out with Eminence that I’m really excited about. We’re just trying to get a speaker that would really reproduce what some of the old, really nice speakers did as far as all the even harmonics and stuff. But that slogan was just kind of something to come up with, like a slogan that there was room in the future to carry on that traditional sound, but use it in a new modern way.
You’re known as a rock guitarist, but your upcoming tour features musicians with lots of formal jazz training. Do you prefer working with jazz musicians?
I am right now enjoying people that know a lot about that because it’s teaching me a lot; it’s opening me up and pushing me to learn more, which I really want to do. I just want to broaden my horizons. Not necessarily land and stop at any place, but just build up your repertoire. I think in a rock context, powerful rock guitar could use an infusion of some other musical approaches, just to give it a little bit of freshness. I’m trying to push myself to discover some of that stuff.
Another famous Texas guitar player, Jimmie Vaughan, appeared on your last album, Up Close, on the song "Texas," which also features Steve Miller. What was it like working with Vaughan, and are you guys friends outside the studio?
I don’t really know him that well, but I’ve hung around him a little bit. He’s a great guy, and I’m real fan of his playing. I think he’s a really fine player. I was just happy that he could come by and put that solo on. That was cool.
You also got to work with Jonny Lang.
Yeah, I always liked Jonny’s singing. He’s got a great voice.
How was it working with someone who probably grew up listening to your albums?
Oh, he’s real comfortable. I think he’s been around a lot of really successful people in the business. Probably many more than I have, actually. I know he’s worked with Prince before and a bunch of other people -- he’s worked with Herbie Hancock. Yeah, he’s totally comfortable around anybody, I think.
You’re going out as trio on your upcoming tour. Do you prefer this to a large ensemble?
I’m comfortable with it as far as improvisation and all the wonderful benefits it has. On the other hand, it is limiting. It’s hard to keep the textures really going to where it really stays interesting. I do think it would be cool, at some point, to have more different things happening and more orchestration. Especially because it’s sometimes hard if you do stuff in the studio that has more than one part -- it’s hard to replicate live.
In the past, you talked of doing an all-acoustic album. Is that still in your plans?
I did record about three songs for it, and then I got busy making Up Close and touring and stuff and never got back to it. But I really would like to make that record. I just recently started recording some new electric pieces and kind of got off on that now. But yeah, I’ve been thinking about that acoustic record and trying to figure out when I’m going to do that. [laughs]
Up Close came out five years after your last album, Bloom. Do you plan on taking another five years to release your next record?
I really would like to do things quicker. This new stuff I’ve been doing in the studio has been a little bit more live -- just cut in the studio with the whole band just going for it. If I follow that premise for the most part and try to do a little less overdubbing -- a little less production for the sake of production -- and keep it a little more simpler and soulful and honest, I think it would lend itself to being considerably quicker.
Plus I was thinking it might be a good idea just to finish a couple tunes and put ‘em up on iTunes and the website or whatever other places. Rather than waiting till you have 10 or 12 songs for a record, just go and start putting them out one or two at a time.
A lot of artists are going the singles route. Do you think that takes away from the larger canvas of the album format?
I think there’s something nice about the opus -- just so you can sit down and listen to a whole story happen. But maybe the attention span of people right now is where they'd almost rather have just two, three songs at the most. It seems like when you do put out CDs, a lot of people just cherry pick the ones they want, anyhow, and then they don’t buy the CD. They just want this song or that song, so there’s a real market for just putting out less stuff.
And then once you get too many things, you can always compile it on a CD or whatever format was happening at the time. I guess the thing for me, waiting around till I have 12 new pieces, then putting it out, I’m creating a thing where it’s going to take me longer. It almost makes sense to just put ‘em out just one or two at a time, and just keep rolling through it and not get hung up on anything.
Two of your songs have been featured in Guitar Hero [Activision]. What’s it like to be part of the video game/rock music phenomenon? Have you ever played it?
No, I’ve never played; I don’t even know how to play it! But I think it’s cool. I guess Guitar [Hero’s]become a household thing now. It’s a go-to thing for anybody and everybody now, and so it has a different function than it used to. It was more of a renegade thing years ago. But I think sometimes it leads people to playing an instrument.
It’s nice. I mean, when they first put that out, they really didn’t know -- when they called, [they] said, ‘Hey, we want to use this song; we’re using a bunch of people’s songs, and we don’t know what this game will do, but we’re just gonna put it out and see what happens.’ Of course, it blew up. I think the people who designed it, I don’t think they ever expected it to be as successful as it was.
Do you ever get tired of playing “Cliffs of Dover?”
I think I went through a period where I didn’t play it. Which, I don’t know if that’s really very wise. I started playing it again a couple years ago. And I enjoy playing it; it’s fine. Fortunately, it has a lot of room in it to improvise and stuff, which is nice.
But if I get that tired of playing it, then I guess it’s my responsibility to try to write some more songs that could be as successful as that one, rather than complain about playing it. It’s really up to me. ‘OK, you don’t want to play it all the time, well then write two or three more that people like as much and you’ll have a choice.’ [laughs] I can’t really point fingers except at myself. And I should happy that I have a song that everybody likes to hear, so it could be worse. They could be screaming “On Top of Old Smokey” or something and not want to hear “Cliffs of Dover.”
Eric Johnson’s "Evening With” Tour begins January 4 at Showcase Live in Foxborough, MA. For more information, visit ericjohnson.com.