Eric Johnson Goes All Acoustic for the First time on 'EJ'

Like Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, and Carlos Santana, Eric Johnson’s signature style is so closely associated with his electric-guitar tone that it’s particularly interesting to hear him go acoustic.
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Like Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, and Carlos Santana, Eric Johnson’s signature style is so closely associated with his electric-guitar tone that it’s particularly interesting to hear him go acoustic. He has been incorporating acostic guitars into his live act more and more for about a decade, but he has never gone all in on an acoustic album until now. EJ [Provogue] is about as stripped down a setting as one can imagine for one of the guitar community’s most notoriously finicky recording artists.

“My approach was straight ahead—like a live performance,” says Johnson. “If I didn’t get the take, I would try it again in a few days, rather than doing punch-ins to death.”

Taking such a tack was particularly brave for Johnson, because he transformed himself from being a very precise electric pick player to a full-on fingerstylist. In addition to several singer-songwriter originals, Johnson lets his folk flag fly on a fab solo-acoustic arrangement of “Mrs. Robinson,” as well as on a compelling interpretation of Hendrix’s lovely “One Rainy Wish” (where Johnson also plays some pretty sweet piano solos). Doyle Dykes lends a pair of helping hands on a barn-burning, dual-acoustic arrangement of Les Paul’s impossibly ahead of its time, “The World is Waiting on the Sunrise.”

Can you speak to the challenge of retaining your recognizable style without your favorite electric tools?

It comes down to a player’s personality, intention, and the way they play melody lines and chord voicings. In a way, it’s easier for me, because I prefer to go straight ahead on acoustic. There’s a little bit of a relief in not having to deal with all the cords and electronics. Playing straightforward acoustic guitar can be more consistent—it kind of sounds the same every day.

Going acoustic is kind of the great guitar-player equalizer, isn’t it?

That’s a good point. You hear a bit of difference in terms of a player’s touch, fingering, and the way they pick or strum on electric, but the acoustic is truly more of an equalizer.

What is the primary difference in your attack?

I mostly use my fingers to pluck an acoustic, so it’s a whole different ball game. Trying to get that together is pretty challenging for me coming mostly from a career as an electric-guitar player. I incorporate my fingers on electric, as well, but you have to work out all sorts of finger independence if you’re fully going for that style on acoustic— which is humbling.

Who are your plucking influences, and how did you dial in your technique?

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I started out loving Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor. I’m a big fan of Michael Hedges, and Tommy Emmanuel is awesome—one of the best. I listened to a lot of players from the Merle Travis school, and I also appreciate early folk fingerpickers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and, from there, Doc Watson. Dialing it in starts with the realization that the plucking hand is kind of an orchestra in and of itself. You can use your fingers to pluck or leave space in order to get a rhythm-and-lead thing happening. You develop a sense of independence sort of like a drummer managing the snare, hi-hat, and everything else simultaneously.

Do you grow out or augment your natural nails, or do you favor the flesh of your fingertips?

It’s mostly flesh. I would probably enjoy the sound of having nails—I just don’t do that. Every once in a while I’ll use a pick or a thumbpick.

Do you use the same Dunlop Jazz III picks that you use on electric?

I usually use the Jazz III, but I like to use thin picks if I’m strumming a part in the studio, because thin picks seem to strum real nice.

The primary guitar on these sessions was a 1980 Martin D-45 given to you by your father. Can you please share some insights?

I got it brand new in ’81. It’s a reissue of the pre-World War II D-45 with a snowflake inlay. When you try several instruments in the studio, it’s the one that just works. It plays so well, and it has a real balanced sound.

Is the dreadnought your favorite kind of acoustic, or is that particular one simply special?

My D-45 is particularly nice. It doesn’t have a lot of boomy frequencies that can be cantankerous when you’re recording. Other dreadnoughts typically have a pronounced hot spot at about 160Hz or 200Hz that becomes a problem, because when you try to equalize it out, you take away the energy of the guitar. It’s better to get something balanced that you don’t have to treat as much.

What kind of strings do you use on your D-45?

I like D’Addario EJ-16s. It’s a light- to medium-gauge bronze set that I appreciate, because they string up nice and consistent. I really wanted to use coated strings to reduce string noise, but I haven’t found a model that doesn’t compromise the energy of the guitar sound a little bit, so I deal with the noise.

What’s your advice for capturing acoustic tones in the studio?

I can only speak to my approach— which was pretty simple. It used a couple of small-diaphragm Neumanns KM-56 microphones. I placed one near the middle of the fretboard about a foot-and-a-half back, and then another at the same distance near the bell of the guitar, down at the bottom between the bridge and the bout. I ran them through API mic preamps, and then I added a bit of reverb and compression. I didn’t want to use guitar electronics, and the compression seemed to add a little energy that I might otherwise have gotten by blending in an undersaddle pickup.

How did you record the songs for EJ?

My tactic was to cut each tune three times and pick the best take. If there were a couple places I didn’t like, I’d edit one of the other takes into the master performance using Steinberg Nuendo, but at least half the record is complete takes.

“Once Upon a Time in Texas” is a standout solo instrumental with a shimmering tone and your signature chord voicings. It sounds like you’re playing G major to E minor in a unique fashion, or perhaps a unique tuning?

It’s just regular tuning, but I’m kind of popping off the strings and letting certain ones ring out. When I was playing the G chord, I’d let the A string ring out to get that weird 2nd in there. It might sound unintentional, but I purposefully did that, because I was going for a “Black Mountain Side” Zeppelin vibe with a modal, open-string sound. In fact, I was going to cut “Once Upon a Time in Texas” with a tabla player, but I veered away from that, thinking it might be too much like “Black Mountain Side.”

“All Things You Are” sounds as if it’s based in an E to an A chord change, but, once again, there’s some added chiming tones that make me wonder about your tuning.

I dropped the low E string to a D, and then I capoed at the second fret, which put the song back in E. That song is straight-ahead, non-stop fingerpicking.

How did you track the nylon-string number, “Serinidad?”

I used a Ramirez to record it. I wanted to have a nylon piece on the record for atmosphere, but I didn’t have anything written, so I improvised for about seven minutes, and then edited it down to what worked best. I love the sound of it. I’m trying to learn how to adjust my right hand to be on top of the guitar like a classical or flamenco approach. That’s cool too add to your vocabulary, but I’m not very good at it right now, so I fingerpick the nylon the same as I would a steel-string.

You play a significant amount of piano on EJ. Can you describe how your experience on the ivories informs your guitar playing?

You can see the whole song orchestration on a piano. You have more versatility to make louder voicings, and can immediately see where the bass or the melody is going. It’s almost like rolling out the complete schematic of a house you’re building. It was the first instrument I learned how to play, so I developed that kind of overview. I try to extract some of that from the piano and bring it to the guitar.

Did you base your version of “One Rainy Wish” on the piano part, or the guitar?

I cut the guitar live, and then I added the piano. I always learn something beneficial when I do a Hendrix tune, and, in this case, what stood out was how fabulous he was as a rhythm player. That’s missing so much in our approach to electric guitar now. He used a bigger view to make magic music, and to showcase songs. There are beautiful melodies inside all his little rhythm parts on “One Rainy Wish.” The way he plays those cool chords and moves them around is awesome. It’s extremely visionary, considering he was in the pop world when he cut that in 1968.

Along those lines, it’s unbelievable to watch video of Les Paul playing “The World Is Waiting on the Sunrise” from 1951! How did you make it your own, and how did you work out the parts with Doyle Dykes?

I put my version in the key of A, figuring it would allow more opportunity to incorporate the bass lines, and I played it with a thumbpick for a more solid way of executing that Chet Atkins style. I sent a demo to Doyle, and he showed up with three ways to play each of his parts on a beautiful Olson guitar—like the one James Taylor uses, but with a cutaway. They all sounded great, so I just told him to do whatever he wanted. We cut it live in the studio, and about 90 percent of what you hear on the record is from one take.

What’s your live-performance rig for solo-acoustic sets?

My guitar is either a custom Maton— which is a hair bigger than a triple O and has a built-in undersaddle pickup and microphone system—or my signature Martin. I put a K&K Pure Mini triple transducer pickup in that. It has a nice, natural sound, but it can get boomy without a bit of EQ. The K&K is weird. It works well on some guitars, but not others. It depends on the grain nuances of the top wood. The Maton with its own system is a little more dependable, and it’s probably my favorite for sounding naturally acoustic on stage. For amplification, I use an L.R. Baggs Venue D.I. preamp into an AER Compact XL amplifier, which has a real sweet top-end tone. I send a direct signal from that to the house.

Can you share a thought on the challenge of solo-acoustic performance?

It’s challenging in a lot of ways. Initially, the song must be good. It becomes apparent pretty quickly if it really works or not. Once I know the song works, the reality is that I have to focus on putting in the practice, because nothing extra is going on. It’s pretty much straight ahead facing the dragon.