Eric Johnson Cuts Loose on a Rockin' Live Album
By Adam Levy
GP has featured Eric Johnson many times. Beginning in 1982 (four years before the release of his major-label debut, Tones), we've followed him through his '90 Grammy-winning album, Ah Via Musicom, and his late-'90s G3 tour with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Each time, Johnson has invited GP readers into his inner sanctum, and revealed the gory details of his faultless technique and exquisite tones. Occasionally, he seemed to take his search for the sonic Holy Grail way beyond the call of duty -- citing things such as particular battery brands and the exact positioning of stompboxes on his pedalboard as being crucial elements of his heavenly sound. Johnson has also confessed to spending oodles of time in the studio -- recording, trashing, and rerecording tracks, and putting a tremendous strain on the music and his physical health -- in the hopes of capturing perfect tones and performances.
So when I first heard that Johnson was releasing a live record, I was cautiously enthused. Surely Johnson couldn't be releasing a real live record -- warts and all. It was more likely that he took some basic live tracks into the studio and polished them until the performances gleamed like perfect little jewels, right?
Wrong! With the exceptions of one live-in-the-studio cut and one live track that Johnson touched up a bit, Live and Beyond [Favored Nations] is all-the-way live. A legit bootleg, if you please, culled from a three-night run at Antone's in Johnson's hometown of Austin, Texas.
Considering your reputation as a perfectionist in the studio, making a live album is a major change of pace.
I've had a tendency to get in the studio and start turning and unturning every stone. It was a cathartic experience for me to put a little bit of that "go with the flow" vibe into what I do -- to just sit back and see where the sail takes the boat.
When did the Live and Beyond project start to take shape?
When I was finishing up the recording of Venus Isle in 1995, it was a hard time for me. There were so many logistical problems, and I got frustrated trying to make everything come together just right. I began to feel like I needed to get out and just play. So I hooked up with a couple of old friends -- [drummer] Bill Maddox and [bassist] Chris Maresh -- to play unadvertised shows and just jam. We'd include a handful of Hendrix tunes, or Cream tunes, or old blues tunes -- even a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes. As we kept doing those gigs, more people started coming out to hear us, and the project took on a life of its own. Also, people have suggested that I do a live record -- in contrast to my polished studio albums -- for years. This was clearly the band to do it, because our whole thing was playing live.
How did you capture the live spirit of the band in a way that still met your notoriously high sonic standards?
When we first started, it was gonna be, like, "Let's put out this little novelty thing." We were going to record to DAT, using just two microphones to capture everything. But as we got into the project, it became less of a live bootleg and more of a real record. We decided to rehearse the band a little harder, and then record three shows for real. We miked almost everything and recorded 24 tracks onto Tascam DA88s.
Are there really no fixes on the record?
What you hear is exactly what happened -- except for "Once a Part of Me." I retouched some of the guitar on that song. Initially, there were some pitch problems between the guitar and the vocal, but everybody involved felt strongly about including that track because it was such a great overall performance. I just fixed a few real trouble spots, and left the rest as it was. Also, "World of Trouble" was cut live in the studio. Then Steve Barber overdubbed a Hammond organ part, and I went back and added piano and a slide solo.
Do you play slide in standard tuning or open tuning?
Standard. One of my favorite slide players is Jeff Beck. He's awesome, and he always just uses normal tuning. I used an old Flying V on "World of Trouble." That guitar sounds huge -- the pickups are pretty hot.
What other guitars did you use on the album?
For most of the record, I used a mid-'50s Fender Strat or a Gibson ES-335 -- the same guitars I've been using for a while. I used the 335 through the Marshalls for the Cream sorts of things -- like "Last House on the Block" and "Don't Cha Know" -- and played the Strat on the clean-toned stuff and the Hendrix-style stuff. I used the 335 and my Deluxe Reverb amps for the solo-guitar piece, "Elevator Sky Movie." The 335 sounds more velvety than the Strat because the humbuckers have a softer attack. It's an unusual tone for me.
Did you use the ES-335 on "Rain"?
Actually, that was my Les Paul. For some reason, my Paul has more treble than the ES-335. It should be the other way around, but with these particular guitars, it isn't. The Paul sounded better for the clean rhythm parts on "Rain." The 335 was a little too dark for that song.
What about your amp rig?
I don't play as loud as I used to. It used to be crazy -- I'd run two Marshall stacks onstage and crank the monitors. I started using Fender Deluxe Reverb amps and 50-watt Marshalls around '97, after I started having some problems with tinnitus. It was my own doing -- being irresponsible and thinking I was invincible. I'm better now, but I don't know if I'll ever have the threshold to take outrageous volume like I used to. Now I don't use monitors onstage, and if the volume is too loud I'll use earplugs.
How are you able to maintain your big tones with the smaller rig.
It would be silly for me to go into what I've had to do. It's the kind of stuff people don't really want to hear from me anymore. They think, "Oh, there you go again. You're wearing the blue shoes to get a better tone." Let's just say the tone is getting pretty close now. I used the 50-watt Marshalls on Live and Beyond because Antone's isn't that big. It seats about 750 people.
However, if I played you live tapes of the band from my 100-watt Marshall days, you'd hear a major difference. I have a love/hate relationship with 50-watt Marshalls. They can sound dirty and buzzy. It's not nearly as much work to get a good, old 100-watt to sound good, and they've got way more headroom. When you lean into the guitar, they don't hit the wall.
To get something with half the power to have the same ferocity -- and sound like it's blowing up -- has been quite a challenge. I've spent the past three years trying to get the smaller amps to sound almost as good as the big amps. I'll still use the 100-watts if the club is big enough, and I don't have to stand too close to the amps.
You recorded three nights of shows for Live and Beyond, so I'm assuming some performances didn't make the record.
We had much more music than we needed, and we ended up cutting about half the music. There was also some other stuff that I thought was really good, but it would have necessitated fixing my guitar or vocal. I had already decided, "If we're going to make a live record, let's really make a live record," so that stuff was cut, as well. I wanted the album to be as organic as possible.
Was there anything that got cut that you wished you had kept?
A couple of Hendrix tunes -- "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Spanish Castle Magic." We cut "Spanish" because the recording quality wasn't very good. And I took "The Wind Cries Mary" off because -- well, it was okay, but I was copping every single lick off the original Hendrix record. I don't really know what purpose there'd be in releasing a Hendrix song where I'm playing everything just like he played it.
Jeff "Skunk" Baxter once said, "If Jimi Hendrix had studied with Howard Roberts for eight years, you'd get Eric Johnson."
That's probably going a little too far [laughs]. I've learned what I know by listening to records and watching great guitarists play live. But I think that comment touches on the fact that I'm a product of the era I grew up in. I heard Hendrix and Cream in the late '60s, when it was new music. Then in the '70s, the jazz-rock thing became prevalent -- with John McLaughlin and Bill Connors -- and all that stuff shaped my style.
The jazz influence seems to have rubbed off. Your chordal concept is certainly more advanced than anything Hendrix or Clapton ever played. How did your harmonic approach develop?
Years ago, I started fooling around with hitting a bass note with my thumb while playing melody things on top. Originally, I got that from watching Jeff Beck. He'll do this thing where he's playing one note with his thumb and another note with another finger, and he'll trill back and forth between the two notes -- or work them both at the same time. After a while, I started experimenting with changing the bottom note to another note, and moving around the neck, contrapuntally. Also, I've listened to a lot of J.S. Bach's music -- which is all counterpoint.
His music for solo violin is especially interesting because it has some chords in it that are voiced with really wide intervals -- fifths and sixths -- and you seem to gravitate toward those sounds.
Have you tried to play that music?
No, but I've listened to it. I've also listened a lot to [pianist] Glenn Gould's recordings of Bach's music. Gould blows my mind -- he was so in the zone. I have a record of his, and in the CD booklet there's a close-up of his feet at the pedals of his piano. Right in front of the footpedals are two bald spots in the carpet. He practiced so hard that he wore the carpet down! That in itself is enough to make you think, "Wow, that guy really woodshedded." But what's really amazing is he practiced in his socks.
Do you practice as fervently as Gould?
I do practice pretty hard, but now I'm rethinking my approach to music. You can spend a lot of time honing your craft, but that mindset needs to stay in the practice room -- you can't bring it into the studio when you're making a record. That's where I've gotten hung up in the past. I tended to think, "This is the way it's gonna be, and this is what I'm gonna play." But when it comes to performing and recording, the creative window needs to be wide open to all the possibilities.
Wes Montgomery understood that. I mean, nobody could say that he wasn't a perfectionist -- he would practice all night long. But he left that mindset behind when he was in the studio or onstage, so that he could be in the moment with his music. That's the big light that went off for me in the wake of Venus Isle -- there's nothing wrong with intensity or perfectionism, but everything has its right place and time.
Johnson's Essential Tones
"Over the past year," says Johnson, "my focus has been on trying to hone in on my essential tones -- sounds that I would call my 'trademark' tones. I want to really define my palette, and use those sounds as I'm writing music. I want to get to a point where I don't labor over them -- they're intrinsically there."
Johnson's barest tone is his Strat into a pair of blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb amps loaded with JBL speakers. "Sometimes I'll fatten that up a little with a T.C. Electronic Stereo Chorus+ Pitch Modulator & Flanger -- or a mid-'70s solid-state Maestro Echoplex -- for that big, chunky Curtis Mayfield sound," he says. "I also think of it as Hendrix's rhythm tone from 'Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)' or 'The Wind Cries Mary.'
"The next step up," Johnson continues, "is switching over to a late-'60s Marshall 50-watt head with a 4x12 cabinet for my dirty rhythm sound. I guess it's sort of like Keith Richards' 'Start Me Up' vibe, or Paul Kossoff's rhythm tone on the early Free records. After that, I'll add a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face for the Hendrix lead thing -- that 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)' tone. Then there's my ES-335-into-a-Marshall -- that Cream-era Clapton tone -- which I use a fair amount on Live and Beyond, like on 'Last House on the Block.' I use a 50-watt Marshall Super Lead head with a 4x12 cab for that. For the grand finale, I add a Tube Driver for a little more gain. [Johnson's Tube Driver was hand-built by the pedal's designer and Tube Works founder, B.K. Butler.] That's my 'Cliffs of Dover' sound -- the singing, violin-like tone."
Johnson strings all his guitars with custom sets of GHS Nickel Rockers, gauged .010, .013, .018, .026, .038, .050. "I started with a .010 set years ago," he says, "and wherever I could, I went a little thicker. The thicker the string, the more vibrant sound you get out of the guitar. Nickel Rockers have a more contained sound, with less peaky treble. GHS does something in the winding process that mellows them." -- AL
Last year, Johnson set aside his high-maintenance pedals and amp rig and did a series of solo-acoustic shows. Hard as it is to imagine Johnson without his signature electric tones, he says that playing acoustic is one of his favorite things to do.
"It can be hard work," he elaborates, "especially if you're singing at the same time. But I love the fact that I don't have to worry about the equipment factor. I've spent so much time refining my electric distortion thing, but on acoustic gigs the biggest problem is finding a cord so I can plug into my Trace Acoustic amp. I actually did a solo-acoustic tour once -- opening for Jeff Berlin -- way back in 1984. It was really satisfying. I'm hoping to do an acoustic record before too long." -- AL
For Eric Johnson's touring schedule, mp3 clips, and the straight dope on his ever-changing rig, drop by ericjohnson.com, or visit his record company's site,
Photos: Max Crace © 1999 All rights reserved.