An Underground Legend Surfaces
By Jas Obrecht
From Guitar Player, May '86
With Tones, the promise of Eric Johnson is finally fulfilled. For years, esteemed players have proclaimed him one of rock's best guitarists. Yet apart from a stunning performance on Austin City Limits last year, few people outside of his hometown of Austin, Texas, have ever seen or heard him play. With the release of his long-awaited debut album Tones, the underground guitar legend has a chance to change all that.
How talented is Johnson? Eric's so good it's ridiculous," insists Steve Morse, who on several occasions has asked him to join his band. "He is extremely expressive on the electric guitar, and that's not easy to do. He's a great writer and singer, and he has an incredible solo style. Not only does he have a lot of flash, but he also finesses these amazing, complex lines with very intricate fingerings. He creates great rhythm parts and has fabulous tones. On to of all that, he's the kind of person that people like right away and want the best for."
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric have known each other since their mid teens, when they used to consider the possibilities of playing in a group together. "Eric is a wonderful cat," Stevie says. "He's always been one of my favorite people in the world, as well as one of my favorite guitar players. The guy has done more trying to be the best that he can be than anybody I've ever seen. He plays all the time, and tries to get his instruments in perfect shape all the time. He works hard on his tone, sound, techniques. He does incredible things with all kinds of guitars--electric, lap steel, acoustic, everything.
"Few people understand that when the guy was 15, he was playing Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery stuff, and he was doing it right--that's pretty cool! If the record that he made years ago, The Seven Worlds, had come out at the time it was ready, instead of being held back for the reason of dollars and pennies--someone besides Eric was holding out for too much money for a deal--he would have been as big as Jeff Beck. He would have been very much in the public eye for modern jazz, rock, and fusion. The guy deserves a lot more recognition than he's ever gotten. Eric is an honest human being, and he cares about everything. Just listen to him and learn." Fellow Texan Billy Gibbons sums his view in seven words: "Eric Johnson? Damn, that guy can play!"
For Johnson, whose career was stalled for six years due to management disagreements, Tones is an important contribution toward his goal of producing music that both entertains and heals. His playing is on a par with Steve Morse's, blending deep emotion with wide-ranging technical finesse. He often highlights intriguing chord voicings, and his solos are consistently brilliant and packed with feeling. The album's collage of guitar tones range from purest-of-pure Strat to Hendrix psychedelie to majestic, voilin-like textures. Nearly half of Tones is instrumental. "Victory" pays homage to Eric's primary influence, Jimi Hendrix. "Zap" and "Soulful Terrain" are exciting fusion rockers, while "Desert Song" is played on classical guitar. Five strong vocal tunes--"Off My Mind" may be issued as the first single--prove Eric to be a gifted lyricist with a gentle, appealing voice.
the son of an Austin physician, Eric Johnson was born on August 17, 1954. He and his three sisters studied piano for several years, and his older brother played guitar. By the time he took up guitar at age 11, Eric already had six years of music lessons behind him. He progressed quickly, moving from Ventures songs to Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and Django Reinhardt material. His first experience with a semi-professional group came at 15, when he joined Mariani, a four-piece rock ensemble headed by drummer Vince Mariani. "We were pretty innovative for the time," Eric recalls. "It was high-energy rock. We were together a couple of years and played about 20 gigs, but we rehearsed for a long time and wrote a lot of music." One night Eric's manager, Bill Josie, invited him over to jam with Johnny Winter. "When I heard Eric," Johnny later recalled, "he was only 16, and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age."
Stevie Ray Vaughan reports that by the time Eric reached his late teens, he was so advanced that it was difficult for him to find musicians who could keep up. Keyboard magazine assistant editor Bob Doerschuk was a staff writer for the Austin American-Statesmen and a musician in the city's club scene when he wrote up Eric's first interview in 1972. "While most forward-thinking players in Austin were studying highly structured art-rock of Keith Emerson and Yes," Bob recalls, "Eric was trying to break loose from form, playing out meter, tearing songs apart by the sheer force of his authority on guitar. Every musician I knew who heard him came away humbled by the experience. Though he had a lot of chops, he never came across as a player who surrendered his emotional expression to them or to the prevailing trends. When it came to style, he was true to himself, even it if cost him gigs."
After graduating from Holy Cross High School, Eric briefly attended the University of Texas. He then traveled with his family to Africa, and spent some time in New York. In early 1974, he joined Austin's first notable fusion band, the Electromagnets, and the following year played on The Electromagnets. Released regionally by EGM, the album failed to attract a major-label deal. "My favorite tracks on that are 'Crusades,' 'Blackhole' 'Motion,' and 'Dry Ice,'" Eric stated in his Dec.'82 Guitar Player feature. "As a cult underground album, it did interestingly well, but it never took off. A lot of the aspects of my playing on that album are still with me. We were going for some wild sound effects." After a four-year struggle for success, the Magnets (by then they had shortened the name) decided to call it quits.
Soon after the breakup, Eric unveiled the Eric Johnson Group with Bill Maddox on drums and Kyle Brock on bass. The trio recorded an album-lengh master tape in 1978, The Seven Worlds, which has never been released. (Its songs "Zap" and "Emerald Eyes" were recut for Tones.) In December '80 Guitar Player, former Doobie Brother-turned-producer Jeff Baxter recounted his hearing of The Seven Worlds tape: "I went ape! Eric Johnson is amazing. This might sound silly, but if Jimi Hendrix had gone on to study with Howard Roberts for about eight years, you'd have what this kid strikes me as."
For the next few years, Eric concentrated his efforts on the Eric Johnson Group, occasionally touring through Texas and the South and Southwest. "It was another version of what happened with the Magnets," he sighs. "We had a lot of hopes and aspirations, and fortunately the music was our enjoyment, but we were unable to achieve the necessary connections." After turning to solo acoustic guitar for a while in 1981, Eric began an three-year association with bassist/vocalist Rob Alexander and drummer Steve Meador. He also picked up some session work, adding electric guitar to Christopher Cross' self-titled solo LP and to Cat Stevens' Back to the Earth. In 1982, Carole King showcased Eric on guitar and piano for her One to One album. Johnson accompanied the singer on her April '82 European tour, and he appears in her film One to One (currently available on video cassette.) Last summer, Eric made his most recent appearance as a sideman, co-writing, singing, and soloing on the cut "Distant Star" on the Steve Morse Band's Stand Up LP.
Johnson's current band, billed as Eric Johnson with Roscoe Beck and Tommy Taylor, came together last year. Beck plays bass, Taylor drums. After hearing the trio's demo tape last summer, Warner Bros. signed Johnson and honored his request that, like his hero Jimi Hendrix, his album be issued on its Reprise label. David Tickle, who's worked with Prince, Blondie, and Peter Gabriel, handled the production of Tones. At the time of his interview, Eric was home in Austin, awaiting the LP's release. Listening to his gentle Texas drawl, one is quickly impressed by his humble, straightforward nature.
You've been well known among players for many years, and yet Tones is your first solo album. Why did it take so long?
Probably because the situations I was in business-wise didn't really arrive at any kind of creative outlet, such as a record or a great touring show. It was all sporadic. Hopefully, the wait has taught me some temperance and allowed me to reflect on my art and what I want to do with my musical aspirations, rather than getting sidetracked by any kind of peripheral things.
What do you want to accomplish?
I've started what I've always dreamed, and that is to have an outlet for my music. I've always wanted to do records and write music and try to do something a little different with the guitar. I'd like to keep growing, and maybe give the electric guitar a classical-type violin brilliance. Violin players have treat tones, styles, and inflections in their playing that give it that traditional classical elegance. It would be neat to put that kind of coating on electric guitar playing, to give it that royalty of sound.
Have you ever played violin?
I've tried it and couldn't do it at all [laughs].
Do you view yourself as part of the "Texas guitar tradition"?
I do, because I'm from Texas, and I'm proud to be from here. I love Texas. There is a lot of inherent beauty and style just living here. It's very much a part of me. My music reflects that to me, but I suppose some listeners might not feel it.
What's the origin of Austin's reputation for sharpshooter guitarists?
I don't know. I've thought about that before. It's interesting, because there's Stevie Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan, and several others from here. I guess it's one of the more nature spots of Texas, and it has a high interchange of cultural activities. I think the combination of those two make it an ideal place for Texas.
Do you feel competitive with other guitarists?
If I was to be all honest, maybe I do a little bit on a personal inner level, but it's a good competition. If I hear somebody great, it really excites me to go practice. I hear a lick and think, "Gol, I want to learn how to do that!" But I try to bear in mind that I should retain a constructive sense of competition. It would be an illusion if I was to try to get competitive on any other level, because there are always people who are better than you. There are always people who know stuff that you don't. It's just different people use different colors in their paintings. You can't say red is better than blue. It's the same with guitar.
Is there much of an exchange of information among the Austin players?
Oh yeah. I've picked up a lot just by listening to people's styles. I haven't ever really sat down with Jimmie [Vaughan], but I have with Stevie--very casually. We've talked and jammed, and we've played onstage at each other's shows. Stevie has a certain power and fierness that so few players have. It's so reminiscent of Hendrix. He's a very inspiring player to see live. He always turns me on.
After years of studying piano, why did you become a guitarist?
I don't know. I still enjoy playing keyboards, although I don't get the opportunity to play as much as I want. I hope to venture into keyboards more and study them. But when I was young and playing piano, I was real enamored by rock guitar. I just thought it was the greatest. When I was three or four years old, my folks had a gentleman come over to put up a TV antenna. After he was finished, he whipped out a guitar and an amp and started playing some great blues. I definitely was moved, but I didn't start playing guitar until I was 11 years old. Jimmy Schade, a neighborhood friend, taught me a lot. He was a bit older than me and ran around with my brother and his friends, but he also loved playing guitar, so he and I struck it off, too. He was better than me and would always show me licks.
Did you learn quickly?
Some of the stuff I learned real quick. I got Ventures records and picked out all the songs off of them when I was about 11. Then a friend of mine, Jim Mings, turned me on to the blues, and I got all sorts of records and studied that. I took guitar lessons very shortly from a guy in Austin named Wayne Wood.
Are you a good reader?
I don't read very well. I learned to read piano music, and I know notes, time signatures, chords, and all the ways stuff's written out, but I'm very slow. I wish I was better.
Do you consider yourself more of a guitarist or a singer?
Well, I've just been arriving into vocals. I haven't been a real lead vocalist in the true sense of the term, although I am enjoying learning how to sing. Hopefully, my music is predominantly in a guitar idiom, but it's fun to do vocals, too. In the future, I'd like to be a little bit more experimental. Even if it does have vocals, maybe it will take on something akin to what the instrumentals are like. Right now, there's either the instrumental stuff or the vocal stuff, and there needs to be more of a bridge.
Have any records ever had a dramatic impact on your playing?
Yeah, that's happened a lot. One of the first milestones was John Mayall's Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. Just the tone Eric got was so great: It's like the guitar took on a whole new light because of the tone. Hendrix--he made the guitar sound like it was from outer space. Those were milestones as far as really being an impetus for change in my playing. And then Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds and in the Truth era, as well as now. His tones are so amazing.
Were you aware of this material as it was being released?
I was a little late to get the Blues Breakers and Truth albums, but the Hendrix stuff I listened to right when it came out. It really knocked down doors, changed the definition of what the guitar was. That was so exciting--it was almost the energy behind the guitar playing more than the actual playing that made it so incredible. There's a certain energy people have that could be in whatever they do, a universal energy that others can feel. With Hendrix, it happened to be voiced through the guitar, and that made it more special to me because I love guitar.
What records would you recommend to young players who are unfamiliar with Hendrix's music?
Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. Those three albums--every single cut on them is incredible. Just to point out some guitar technique highlights: Listen to the feedback vibrato stuff on Are You Experienced's "Love or Confusion"--it's just amazing. The things he does on "Third Stone from the Sun," the feedback on "I Don't Live Today," and the solo in "Manic Depression." On Axis, listen to the chordal work. It's like the alchemy of Motown with the rhythm and blues stuff he learned, mixed with a jazzier type of rock style. The tone he gets on the lead of "Bold as Love" is so amazing. On Electric Ladyland--I don't know, it's all so great. The ending of "House Burning Down," his tones in "All Along the Watchtower." When kids listen to this, they have to bear in mind that the recording technique in the mid '60s wasn't anywhere up to par with where it is now, but if you tune into the gems, you'll find so much incredible music.
Does Jimi's music still inspire you?
Oh, absolutely. Every few months, I still sit down and learn a new Hendrix tune, just to study it. Some of them are real difficult. You can learn the notes, but it's tough to learn his inflections, attitudes, and the informal spontaneity he had when he recorded that stuff. His playing was almost like a beautiful dance; it was so free, and there's such a wealth of information to learn. I've just been learning "One Rainy Wish" [Axis: Bold as Love], studying all of his chord things. It's not only his notes, but where he puts the glissandos and slides. He mutes the strings and then comes in on the 3 1/2 [second eighth-note of the third beat] of the measure and plays a certain chord and hangs it over. I don't think he was so much thinking of his guitar playing sometimes; he was just attuned to that energy within himself that gave this incredible spontaneity to his music. It's like all the notes are there in their regimentation, but it's all just chance and happenstance. I learned a lot from studying that, because I have a tendency to be more regimented. I wish I wasn't that way so much, that I could allow myself to relax and really expand the barriers.
Do you often play at the outside edge of your ability?
I do when I'm playing my best. It seems that when I play from a mental standpoint of what I think I can and cannot do, I create a corral that limits me to the way it was in the past. I play my best when I can turn everything off and go to that edge.
Some guitarists claim that their best moments occur when they aren't consciously focused on what they're doing.
I think that's true. Sometimes it becomes like words or tape generations--something's copied and copied and copied. Some feeling might come into you, then it goes into a generation of the mind, and then it's transferred to words, and then the words are transferred back to what you feel is your musical parameter. It would seem much more beneficial to stop some of those metaphorical tape generations and go direct from the source--let the feelings go straight to your musical ability in its highest form, which is the appreciation and love.
How can you encourage that state of mind?
I've wondered about that for years. Sometimes I think maybe it's what you don't do. I've often thought, "God, what do I have to do?" And then I buy a new amp or get another color guitar and think, "Now it'll work." It seems better if you don't put too much exterior energy into all the incidental things that are really just preoccupying distractions. If you quit trying with the rational mind to develop a blueprint for that tapping of your inherent unlimited musical ability, then you have to work more from the other hemisphere of the brain, the creative side. It's hard for the rational mind to even think about that because then you're transferring it into words.
Do you ever get frustrated while you play?
Aw, absolutely. Sometimes I get into a rut of playing patterns. And when you do that, you're basically practicing what you know, rather then trying to create an opening to something new. You're uncomfortable with yourself because you realize you're just going over the same stuff again. If you face that discipline of doing something unfamiliar, you create a situation that can take you out of the rut. It's kind of hard to do that: there's a bit of hurt and pain involved. It's like moving into a new house, and the floor's cold.
Is the guitar an unlimited instrument?
Oh yeah. Somebody like Stanley Jordan has shown a whole new realm to play in. There's a whole lot of things that can be done with it.
What's your relationship with the instrument on a day-to-day basis?
I try to practice every day, because if I don't, I get rusty real fast. I guess some players have it all the time at their fingertips, but I have to stay in touch with it. If I have enough time, I like to practice at least four hours a day. Some days I only get an hour; some days I do eight or nine hours.
Do you play along with pre-recorded tracks?
I've been doing some of that recently, just putting together demo tapes on my own. When I'm working on lead or rhythm guitar ideas for a song I'm writing, instead of jumping right into what I would first think of, I find it's better to be patient and lets the music arise like a new thought process or feeling. Otherwise, I'm quick to jump in with a guitar lick or lead that I did on another song. It's like having a library that never has a new book: You just go to file X to get an old book for a new song.
What's your method of composing?
I sit down at the piano or pick up a guitar and just write--usually chord changes first. "Emerald Eyes," "Friends," and a lot of the music for "Trail of Fears" were written on piano. I try not to barrel myself into a corner where I start working on an idea, and all of a sudden I think to myself, "Oh, I'm writing a song now." If I avoid that realization, I can leave the door open and just fool around. The best songs are the ones that come from making a lot of mistakes and playing a lot of garbage. You have the humility to make mistakes and ridiculous sounds, and still you're getting to the essence. That's the most paramount thing of all. When I don't allow myself to go out on a limb and make mistakes, I end up using the same old books from the library.
During a concert, do you ever play things you've never tried before?
I do that when I play my best. That's why I'd like to be a little looser and less regimented onstage, because I worry. I know if the E string is two cents [hundredths of a semitone] out of tune, or that he third Celestion from the right in the Marshall cabinet just broke up on a high E. It's okay to be concerned about that, but you can't let it become the priority. It's better to keep that essence and go ahead out on a limb. The final question before you have a free ticket to reach for way beyond is, "Are you going to let it bum you out, if you make a mistake?" If that doesn't bum you out, if you have the humility to accept mistakes, then you have a free ticket to take chances and play your best. I don't do that enough now; I tend to stay around the backyard too much [laughs].
What do you expect from an Eric Johnson solo?
I want it to have a good tone, whether it's rhythmy or distorted. Once I have that certain tone, I like to pull the licks off right to where they kind of have a skimming-across-the-water sound. As far as theme or content go, I hope it's something that can move me when I hear it back. It should say something and have some lyricism.
Is it natural for you to sing and solo at the same time?
Pretty much so. Sometimes it's hard. I have to practice the song to learn the parts.
Are you happy with the way Tones turned out?
In retrospect, there are a couple of things I wish I'd have done a bit differently, but for the most part, I'm happy with it.
What were your main guitars on the album?
Electric guitar-wise, all the rhythm stuff and 30% of the leads were done with my '58 Strat. Most of the other solos were done with my '54 Strat. On "Sap" and a couple of leads throughout, I used Roscoe Becks' nice old Gibson ES-335. I got he '58 Strat about a year ago. It's a beat-up sunburst that's coming in for second place on Stevie Ray's beat-up guitar [laughs]. It has real big frets, and I wired the middle-pickup tone control to the bridge pickup, so I can even it out more with the neck pickup. At the time of the album, it had all-original pickups, although since then I've dropped a mid-'60s pickup into the middle position so I can have hum-cancel in the two out-of-phrase positions. The '54 is also a sunburst; I've had it since 1977. The fingerboard has been flattened and refretted, so it's quite as flat as a Gibson's. It has Fender pickups, with the exception of a DiMarzio stack in the bridge position. However, the stack portion has been unhooked, so it works as a single-coil.
Do you have special tremolo bar systems?
They're just stock. I've tried the locking systems, and they work great and stay in tune so well, but I prefer the tone with the original Fender bar. It seems I can get more bass response with it. I don't really use the tremolo that much live, because the guitar goes out of tune so much. I wish there was a bar that sounded like the Fender tremolo but worked like the others. I just use the whammy when I don't care if I go out of tune [laughs]--on the last song at the end of the night. When I don't use the tremolo, I can play for hours without going out of tune.
Can you get various tones with any Strat?
Well, not always. Every Strat definitely sounds different, which is amazing considering it's a solidbody guitar. For me, maple fingerboards are much better than rosewood because they have a tighter, punchier tone. It seems smoother; when you think of the whole outer parameter of the EQ, there aren't as many jagged edges. The late-'50s Strat pickups are my favorites. They seem to be the hottest, yet still sound smooth. Wherever possible, I try to push the polepieces into the pickups so they are not quite as staggered, so you don't get goo much of that jiggly, double-note sound with the third and sixth strings. I try to get the polepieces just a little flatter--not necessarily all the way flat. People probably shouldn't try this, though, because it'll break the bobbins [the plastic around which the wire is wound] every once in a while. This is especially true with most of the '50s pickups.
What else do you look for when you're shopping for a Strat?
I like real light wood, and I prefer one-piece bodies if at all possible. I like to play it acoustically to check how well it resonates. I hold my hands on the body to feel if the wood is really transforming the sound, and also at the top of the headstock to make sure that there's a lot of vibration of the sound going through the neck. Even before you crank it through a familiar amp, you can tell so much about it just by strumming the open strings. Some Strats have kind of a fat, round, velvety-type vibration, and others have more of that twangy stuff. Sometimes the twangy ones sound great for rhythm, but unfortunately, when you rank those up real high to play some faster lead licks, they usually have a square-wavy sound. It seems easier if you get one that has a smoother, rounder type of vibration because you can always turn the treble up on the rhythm and get that twang tone. But vice versa doesn't work as well. I change electronics here and there, and frets and all, but I usually like to find one that's pretty much original so that I can take it from home base, rather then get one that's been all messed with.
You used to play a Gibson Les Paul Standard. Why did you switch?
I played a Les Paul a lot with the Electromagnets, and after that band, I started playing more rhythm and lead at the same time. I just found that the single-coil pickups lent themselves more for doing rhythm and lead tones, whereas a Les Paul actually had a better lead tone, but the rhythm tone was a bit dark and muffled. I sold that Les Paul. I wish I still had it.
Do you do anything special when you string a Strat?
Yeah. I use GHS strings, .010 through .046, and instead of wrapping one wrap over the top of the posthole and then the rest down below the hole, I wrap one under and then the rest up to the very top of the peg for the low E and the A. On the D and G strings, I wrap once over and once under; this creates less of an angle at the headstock. Sometimes a severe angle at the headstock can cause tuning problems or breakage. I wrap the B and high E strings all the way to the bottom of the peg, so I don't have to use the string trees, although they're still there. I also put pencil lead in the nut. [Ed. Note: Pencil lead contains graphite, which acts as a lubricant.]
Did you ever recover any of the guitars that were stolen from your apartment in 1982?
Yeah, a couple, but I'd like to mention one of them that I didn't get back. This one guitar is real special to me. It's a '58 Fender Strat, original black, serial number 0282255. It has numerous scratches in the finish, and a maple neck with large frets. I'd be happy to pay whatever I had to to get it back--sell my car and take a loan [laughs]. That was the greatest-sounding Strat I ever owned; it had a special violin-type sound. [Ed. Note: Eric's other missing instruments include a sunburst '62 Strat, serial number 88495, and a Jose Ramirez classical labeled "Guitarras de Estudio, Ano 1976." If you know of their whereabouts, contact Guitar Player.]
Did you do much doubling on Tones?
Some songs we did. "Off My Mind" had a little bit, not much. "Victory" had a little bit. I guess "Zap" is the only one we cut head on; we recorded that as a three-piece, and I added just a very little bit of overdubs. "Friends," "Emerald Eyes," "Trail of Fears," and "Bristol Shore" have pretty many overdubs.
What was your strategy for recording solos? Did you do several takes?
Yes, I tried to do a solo live when we were cutting the basic tracks. Actually, the "Soulful Terrain," "Zap," and "Victory" solos were all cut on the basic tracks. I went back and added the rhythm later. I enjoy doing it this way because you're able to course with the band and have a special energy that gets into your solos. Even if you spent days working out a perfect lead and then cut it, it might not have that same magic. When I didn't get a lead I liked, I went back and redid it--"Friends," Trail of Fears," and "Bristol Shore" were like that. When I was recording them, I tried to just play off the top of my head, but each time I heard it back, I thought, "Oh, change this note or that note." Most of the solos came pretty quick. The lead in "Friends" took a long time. By the time I got it the way I wanted it, I had almost worked it out note-for-note.
Had you played all of these songs in concert prior to recording them?
Yeah, but I never really had a set solo for them. Sometimes in the studio, I might combine a bunch of ideas I've always had, just to create a concise solo statement. I don't think there's anything wrong with working a solo out note-for-note, although ideally it would be nice to play off the top of your head all the time. But if you wanted to record a timeless solo with a certain effect on it, it would be really pushing yourself to do it spontaneously. I don't think people should have an attitude of "Oh, you can never work it out," because that can work as well as doing something off the top of your head.
Some classic solos are very simple.
Yeah. There were some things when were cutting the record where I might have played something a little faster or crazier, and it was okay, but could you listen to it 50 times? Sometimes the more lyrical things with just the right tone and inflection are really a better statement in more of a longevity-type way. A lot of times, we opted for that rather than sheer technique.
In many of your solos--"Friends," for instance--you seem to make long intervallic skips.
I skip strings. I go from maybe the B string to the A string. Every string has its own tightness of sound; some are more relaxed than others. You can play a D, say, on all the different strings, and every string has a different-sounding D. When you want a certain sound on a passage, you might have to play on certain strings. Sometimes it's worth jumping all the way down to a D note, rather then just hitting it on a lower string up high where you might be.
Steve Morse and other players claim it's best to change pickups selection as you move higher up the neck. Do you do this?
Not unless I want to change the tone. Typically I don't.
You sometimes strum way up the neck near your fretting hand.
Yeah, because it has a different sound. Closed-voiced chords sound a little tighter when you strum them above the frets. As you strum further away from your fretting hand, the strings move more and the notes have a tendency to intermodulate more. As you go up the neck, they are a little cleaner and the voices ring out better. It's a give-and-take, though, because you don't get quite the richness.
Does your vibrato come more from the wrist or elbow?
More from the wrist. It's an up-and-down motion, like bending a string. I usually use either the 1st or 3rd finger for this.
What's the best way to speed pick?
It's important to develop down-and-up strokes. As you're picking down, instead of going from top to bottom, try to pick at an angle so that you go diagonally from the left horn of the guitar down to the control knobs. On the way back up, do the opposite diagonal. If you were to look at someone doing that real fast, it would be a circular technique. This way, you don't hit the strings dead-on, therefore minimizing the amount of extra noise and friction. You are more like skimming over the string. I hold the pick with my thumb and 1st finger, and I don't use the point end as much as the side of the pick to brush the note. As you pick diagonally, you also pick from the guitar's body up into the air, up and down, perpendicular to the string. You have to have a bounce in your wrist. It's hard to do and it almost works against playing fast sometimes, but that bounce gives you all the tone of the fretted note without getting all of the extraneous noise.
Do you ever use a pick and your other right-hand fingers at the same time?
Yeah. Sometimes I palm the pick with my index finger and hold it up out of the way if I want to do some Chet Atkins-type stuff. But most of the time when I play with a pick, I also use my 3rd and 4th fingers.
Let's discuss some specific parts on Tones. What's the pulsing effect that begins "Soulful Terrain"?
That's just the repeat hold on my MXR digital delay. That song was cut with my '58 Strat, except for the solo, which was done with my '54 Strat on the bridge pickup. When I did that, I was using the Dumble Overdrive Special amp into a Marshall speaker box.
What's going on during the "Friends" fade-out?
Actually, that's two guitars. I fretted a C note at the 5th fret on the G string, created a harmonic 12 frets up with my thumb and index finger, and stretched it up to a D. At the moment that hangs out, I faded in a second guitar with a feedback D harmonic at the 12th fret on the D string, and I used the tremolo bar.
The opening lines of "Emerald Eyes" feature very pure Strat tones.
That's the tone between the middle and bridge pickup on my 5-way switch, direct into the board.
How do you process the distorted chords in "Off My Mind"?
That's the MIXR digital echo through the Dumble amp.
Is there backwards guitar tracked into the "Off My Mind" break?
Yeah. I just flipped the tape over and played a solo while I was listening to the whole track backwards. You could do it different ways. You could actually map out a solo and play it backwards, so that when you played it back, it would be forwards, but with the sound of each note's decay leading into the pick attack. But for "Off My Mind," I learned where all the backwards drum parts were and where the lead stopped, and that was where I started. I did several different leads, and ended up having three that I liked. Then we flipped the tape over and chose the one that seemed the best. The last half of that solo is forwards: A feedback note was happening on the backwards track, and we just brought in the other guitar.
How did you record your nylon-string instrumental, "Desert Song"?
I used a cutaway Takamine for that, and [producer] Dave Tickle recorded it with a special technique that he's used for violins in orchestras. He used a couple of old AKG tube mikes a couple of feet away in front, so that as I go up the fretboard, it changes panorama in the speakers. And then he used a back mike way up in the air behind me.
Do you ever play in open tunings?
Yes, but there aren't any on this album.
Does your visualization of the fingerboard change when you go from acoustic guitar to electric?
No, but I play them a little differently. I usually play acoustic with my fingers. I'm just as comfortable on each instrument, but I sometimes have a different style when I play acoustic. I like to do more double-note stuff.
Is that a keyboard playing the fade of "Desert Song"?
Yeah. That's actually an acoustic guitar sampled into a Fairlight keyboard synthesizer. Most of the keyboards--the acoustic piano and the Fairlight--were played by Steve Barber, who was in the Electromagnets. Dave Tickle did all of the programming for the Fairlight. He put together the intro to "Trail of Fears," which is predominately Fairlight and volume-pedal guitar.
Did you use a wah-wah in the last part of the "Trail of Fears" solo?
Yes. I wasn't really wah-wahing the device as much as I was using it back and forth for tone. That solo was cut with the '54 Strat through a 100-watt Marshall head.
What's going on during the break that segues from "Trail of Fears" into "Bristol Shore"?
That's the ES-335 feeding back right next to a Marshall amp without my picking any of the notes. I play the melody with my left hand, and use the side of my right hand to mute the strings I'm not playing. It starts with the guitar feedback, and then Roscoe comes in with bass feedback.
In the opening of "Bristol Shore," your guitar sound resembles a Japanese koto.
That's basically a two-handed fretboard technique. You fret a note with your left hand, and at the same time use your right-hand 1st finger to fret a note near it on the same string. You use your right-hand 1st finger to fret a note near it on the same string. The idea is to pluck the note as close to where you're fretting as possible. Therefore, you get a very tinny, thin, koto-like sound; you don't pick way back by the pickups where it's fuller sounding. As I pluck the string, I use my left hand to vibrato the note. So the 1st finger on the right hand frets behind the note and adds vibrato.
"Zap" is a fairy complex instrumental. Was it difficult to record?
No, we cut it pretty quick. We did several takes and just chose one. It was a real fun one to cut, too, because we opted for just setting up and playing, no holds barred. There's a real magic to recording that way. It'd like to do more of it.
Was the Hendrixy end solo of "Victory" done in a single take?
Yeah, it was just a spontaneous thing that the band did. We ended the song, and instead of just stopping, we went into this jam. Music can be so special when it's spontaneous.
You begin our Soundpage, "Cliffs of Dover" from the Austin City Limits show, with some fiery licks. Do you typically start songs like this?
Sometimes, yeah. Live, I just start with a spontaneous riff and then jump into it when I play the cue riff that starts the song. On that particular cut, I used the '54 Strat. I think that had an Ibanez Tube Screamer through a 100-watt Marshall with a 4x12 cabinet. It's all bridge pickup, with the tone backed off just a little bit. That piece was written a couple of years ago.
Was the Austin City Limits show a typical Eric Johnson performance?
Sometimes. I seemed to be a little drab that night. I didn't have much stage presence, and I was kind of nervous about it. I was real happy with the way it came off musically.
What do you look for in your bassist and drummer?
I like to have a musical rapport and language between the people I play with. I like it when we all have a common appreciation of similar style and skills, so I don't have to say so much what I want someone to play, although when you're writing songs, there are always those times when you have to talk about what you hear. The guys I play with, Tommy Taylor and Roscoe Beck, are really adept. They come up with a lot of their own parts and construct a lot of different sounds.
How did your participation on Steve Morse's "Distant Star" cut come about?
Steve asked me to write some lyrics and sing a song. He had the music written, and the basic track was completed. He sent me a copy, and I just started humming along with it. When I hit the road to go to his studio, I had no idea what I was going to write about. I composed about half the lyrics on the drive, and then I had to hole up in a hotel room in Alabama until I finished the song.
Didn't Morse invite you to join the Dregs before he hired Mark O'Connor to play violin and guitar?
I guess that's true. I loved the band, and Steve's a great player. I have a lot of respect for his playing and enjoy listening to him. In a way, though, Steve says so much on his own. There's a certain beauty in the singularity of his playing because he covers so many styles and tones.
Have you been asked to join other prominent bands?
I got asked to do a tour with [bassist] Stanley Clarke, and I was asked to work with U.K. years ago, but I had my band together and thought that The Seven Worlds LP was coming out. I should have done those projects, actually, especially because I have a lot of respect for all those people. I was flattered that they asked me. I'd love to work with Stanley. Maybe someday in the future we can do something together.
Was it always in your mind to be the leader of your own band?
Not necessarily. I'm enjoying that now. If I were in somebody else's band, I'd want to be in a situation where I could really grow and have a lot of freedom to play guitar. I'd like it to be a real challenge. With some of the situations I've pondered in the past, I was concerned about having an outlet where I would have to practice diligently and work hard on guitar.
What would you most like to improve about your playing?
I'd like to learn more about classical and jazz music--their chord progressions and harmonic majesty--and use that in a rock context. I'd like to refine and add a special class to the tone of the guitar. I'd like to learn more about scales--not to particularly play them, but to be able to draw upon them freely from feeling. I want to become freer to where I can play whatever I feel or hear. I'd like to write music that is a little more universally reaching and, hopefully, healing to people. Rather than just writing music that's cute and interesting, I'd like to actually touch someone deeply.
If you could go back and jam with any musician, who would it be?
I'd so much love to jam with Wes Montgomery! I'd love to jam with Jimi Hendrix and talk with him. I'd just like to be with him and experience his whole aura, which I think was so beautiful and special.
Do you know of any very good unknown players?
David Spann is a really fine guitarist from Austin: he plays high-energy rock. He's in his early twenties and has a lot of talent. People will definitely hear about him in the future. Shawn Lane in Memphis is another fine player. Scott Henderson is also very good, but he's pretty well known now.
What advice would you give a musician who is frustrated by not having an outlet for sharing his or her art with others?
Always let the energy and appreciation of having that something special be your beacon and enjoyment. Nothing else can even compare with that. All the money and fame in the world--nothing is ever going to replace somebody's own inner enjoyment and love that they get back from their dedication and work in music. Sometimes, because the grass looks greener on the other side when we chase after mirages, we think maybe there would be something else. And then all of a sudden we realize we've got things turned inside out. You can always have faith in and lean on your talent. Let your spirit stay unbroken. And when you embark on chances to promote your career, always have a great lawyer [laughs]. Hopefully, maybe the lawyer has a bit of feeling for your music, so that he can convey and protect it on a special level.
Is your talent a big responsibility?
Yes, and I believe it would be beneficial to me and hopefully someone else if I did assume that responsibility. It is a gift from God. I'm fortunate to have it, and I'd like to use it for a good purpose and maybe generate a little bit of magic healing through sound.
Are you concerned about achieving vast commercial success?
No, I'm not. I'm concerned about paying back all it took in the past to make this record. I'd like to get out of all the debts I've incurred to get to this point. I'd like to have a studio someday, like a laboratory where I have the implements to experiment. Other than that, getting a lot of extra notoriety and fame can be hazardous. Whether you have it or not shouldn't make any difference. Ideally, the attitude should be--if you become famous, what the heck? And if you don't, that's no big deal, too. And the higher percentage of that ideal that can actually be made a part of your makeup, the better. This way, you keep the vessel clean for future creativity. That's important, because otherwise you're dealing with a lot of 5:00 traffic.