Thursday June 28th, 2001

Eric Johnson: Chasing the Tone Carrot

Johnson's vintage Gibson guitar arsenal includes a Firebird I, SG Standard and ES-335. Johnson was recently presented a Custom Shop '59 Les Paul Reissue built to his own specifications. He also plays through a Gibson Goldtone GA30RVS amp.

by Brian Vance for

Notorious for his often ridiculous quest for the ultimate tone and performance, Eric Johnson averages only one record every four to six years and has taken to completely re-recording records in order to satisfy his discerning ear.

However, his newest guitar-slinging CD, Live and Beyond, was planned, recorded, mixed and released in what would be considered record time for him - less than a year. It is Johnson's first full-length live release and possibly opens a new chapter in his recording career. It offers a new creative outlet for him, thanks to its lack of heavy post-production and its looser, more spontaneous feel. Eric is close to coming full-circle in his tonal views and realizing the pitfalls of always trying to achieve perfection, and instead accepts sometimes technically-flawed performances in exchange for those mystical moments that only happen when a group of musicians create uninhibited and impulsive magic together. Live and Beyond delivers everything you could hope for in a new Eric Johnson record - great new songs, a tight band, an intimate club vibe, stellar performances, a singing guitar tone, an angelic voice and a completely unadulterated recording (well almost).

There's another side to this story, as well. With the carrot of success and monumental guitar tone now in his grasp, and a Grammy in his pocket, Eric surprisingly finds himself in an industry that is in the middle of what many might view as a guitar slump-currently favoring boy bands and rap over guitar-based music. After more than ten years with the majors, Eric has a new record label, Steve Vai's Favored Nations, and a cautious, yet optimistic outlook on where he and his instrument are going. Here he speaks out on a wide variety of topics, including being a master musician on a major label full of pop stars; on the possibilities of recording a slew of new, stylistically diverse recordings; on his newly scaled-back rig; and on adding humbucker-equipped Gibsons to his arsenal of guitar tones. (mm): Your reputation as a perfectionist is legendary. How difficult was it for you to strip down and commit to a live recording for Live and Beyond?

Eric Johnson (EJ): It wasn't really that hard once I set my mind to doing a live record. When I did decide to do it, I wanted to try to keep it as live as possible and make it what it really is and not take it in and fix it. Save for one song, the whole thing really is live. There's one studio track ("World of Trouble") that actually is live in the studio, but we did overdub on it. The only other song that's doctored in anyway, and I just redid some of the guitar, is "Once a Part of Me." But everything else is pretty much what it is.

mm: How much did you have to compromise between getting a great performance and accepting that the execution might not be perfect?

EJ: Interestingly, it really was a good learning experience for me because in the places where that did happen, and there are plenty of them, there is equally something else happening that was kind of nicer than a lot of what I do on my studio records. I think it woke me up a little bit to another very important facet that can't be overstated, that is, trying to get that energy and spontaneity. I think in the future, I want to try to get more of that on my studio recordings.

mm: For the location of your live performance, you picked Antone's which has such a great vibe and history. How did the club itself affect the overall sound and feel?

EJ: It was nice. The crowd was real receptive and the acoustics there have a nice reverberance [sic] to them. It was a nice sounding place.

mm: What are the technical challenges to achieving "your tone" in a live environment?

Fortunately, I've always worked with Richard Mullen and he's really figured out how to get my sound on tape. In a way, it was kind of like being in the studio, he just put a Shure SM-57 in front of the cabinets and went for it.

mm: Knowing of your continued quest for the ultimate tone, just miking the cabs sounds amazingly simple. Can you elaborate on that?

EJ: I think that things are starting to get a little simpler for me because I've done some work adjusting my amps to get them a little more pure right out of the speaker. Typically, you hear the room sounding good because you're hearing the reverberance, but what comes right out of the speaker is not quite as pure. Consequently, when you record, then go in the control room to mix you say, 'Oh, that doesn't sound quite like my amp did.' Because on stage, you're listening to the room, as well. We didn't do a serious high-end mobile recording, we used (Tascam) DA-88 machines and Shure mics, but we did dump it all into Pro Tools so we could do automated mixes.

mm: Did the G3 tour and subsequent live record have anything to do with you deciding it was time to do a live album or was it just time?

EJ: Basically, I think it was the process and approach of how to do my next record rather than saying let's just do a live record. I wanted to try to move forward with new music, but at the same time try a new approach to how it was made. Over the years people have always asked me if I would do a live record because they enjoyed the live shows more than the record. A few years ago, we put Alien Love Child together with Chris Maresh (bass) and Bill Maddox (drums), which was this improvisation, blues-influenced thing and went out and did it for fun. It seemed like the perfect kind of band to do a live record with.

mm: Do you have any plans in the future to move more into acoustic music or to do an all acoustic record? Have your fans asked for one?

EJ: Yeah, I would like to. I have a whole CD's worth of acoustic songs written. It's kind of neat to get feedback from fans and friends because you can put a lot of weight on what people have to say. A listener has to be extremely hip to know what touches them or doesn't touch them. People have asked me to do an acoustic record. It makes me address the more of the core of music when I play acoustic. With electric I tend to go wild and tend to noodle. I did a series of acoustic shows recently that really made people come out and say, 'You really should do this.' There are so many things I want to try to do, but I am just so slow, which is the problem. I wish I could work faster because I've got tons of new songs and have been approached to do a chicken pickin' style country record. I'm just really slow, but I'm trying to figure out a way to get all of this stuff done. It's hard to do it all.

mm: What brought You to Steve Vai's Favored Nations label?

EJ: I've always stayed in contact with Steve and thought it was great that he was starting his own label. The whole business premise and the way he set it up was kind of neat and he secured worldwide distribution, so it's a first class operation. His ultimate goal is to do all types of music, but he's starting it out with more musician type of stuff. He is a very smart businessman, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up becoming the new Herb Alpert. We did this record as a one-off after my deal with Capitol disintegrated and it was time to make a change.

mm: When you're on a major label like Capitol, what pressures are there as a musician to compete with more mainstream pop artists? And, were there pressures?

EJ: Oh absolutely, you deal with that everyday. You're kind of stuck between a rock and hard place-at least I feel that-because I may have a song that's more of a "song," but they reject that because you're more known as a guitarist. But now, the guitar god thing, where you wear the Viking hat and have your hair blowing all over (laughs), is no longer. There is so much prejudice and they want to file everyone into a certain little category and when you get older it's almost like 'what value are you worth to us now?'

mm: Pardon the pun, but that's the "age" old story. With the sprouting of smaller, more artist-driven labels like Favored Nations and the endless possibilities of self-promotion on the web, we can only hope that things will end up in the artist's favor.

EJ: I think in spite of and alongside the major labels, it will. With the Internet and hip labels, it's going to work out fine. Sometimes when you desperately grab real quick for that big pile of cash, you think you're getting ahead… I think there is some of that mentality with the major record companies. They are just clamoring for that immediate hit, but where is the long-term career development? It's a boomerang and it will come back to the artists.

mm: Basically, as an artist, you have to find your own way to connect with your audience.

EJ: Right, you've got to keep going and when plan A doesn't work, you switch to plan B, keep going, and have fun with it. It's a reality check as to remember why you're playing music in the first place.

mm: You are so recognized for your playing, yet as a complete artist you write beautiful, melodic ballads and catchy pop songs, as well as riff heavy rock stuff. Do you think your playing overshadows your songs or inhibits people from recognizing the quality of your songs?

EJ: To me, it's funny, you have to find that center inside yourself and know how you feel. And, to me, that's very important. Yet, I'm constantly surrounded by people who, I guess, don't think I do that. They don't even think that's part of my makeup. Maybe a lot of it is my own doing, because when I play live shows I have a tendency to overplay, so I think I leave a taste in people's mouth that that's what I am and maybe all I am. I probably would do well to practice a little restraint (laughs). But then, it's also a sign of the times, because unfortunately, you can have a player with a lot of finesse and have another that just has a very verbose musical vocabulary and not a lot of finesse, but the novice listener will just throw both of them out. God forbid that happen in jazz or blues music. You can search jazz and blues and find people that use a verbose vocabulary without overcomplicating things. And you can also find John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, the list goes on and on, where the whole lifeblood is people creating in the moment, spontaneously.

mm: Speaking of spontaneity, do you record jams and use those as resources for songwriting?

EJ: Yeah, more so now than I used to. Bill Maddox, the drummer I've been playing with, is a real advocate of that and it's been neat to do. I think doing that keeps you cognizant of that spontaneity, which I've tended to veer off course from in the studio.

mm: Who were your earliest influences?

EJ: Probably Scotty Moore, Nokie Edwards, Brian Jones and, of course, Clapton, Beck, Hendrix…

mm: So many players of your generation were inspired by the British blues invasion of the late '60s. How were you able to create your own sound and style compared to a lot of other players who sound somewhat derivative?

EJ: I think any originality I have is from going between a lot of different styles. I use a bunch of different idioms and throw them together.

mm: Even on your '70s recordings your basic sound and style was intact, where did your complex chording and advanced harmonic knowledge come from?

EJ: Probably starting to listen to jazz stuff by way of the fusion thing: Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Bill Connors. In fact, if it weren't for Bill Connors, I would have had a reluctant entrance into jazz-rock, because he had that bluesy flavor and edge to his playing. What followed later, in my opinion, was more of a homogenous type of guitar in fusion, except for maybe John McLaughlin--he's in a world all his own.

mm: How did you get involved with doing sessions for Carole King, Christopher Cross and Cat Stevens?

EJ: A manager I was working with at the time in New York worked with Cat Stevens and played him some tapes. Carole King just came through Austin to do a record and I was hired as a session man and from that I did a tour with her.

mm: At the time were you ever concerned about the possibility of being stereotyped as a soft-rock session guy?

EJ: I didn't really stick with it very long because of that. I know I never ever got offers to play in a band like Free or something.

mm: Would you have taken that gig?

EJ: I probably would have, especially when I was younger, if it had been an outlet where I could have done more of my thing. I did get an offer to play with Stanley Clarke and it was probably a mistake not doing that.

mm: With all of today's high-tech processing devices and amp modeling technology, have you ventured into the non-tubular world in search of tone?

EJ: Yeah, actually, I have a POD and used it on one of the tracks on my new studio record and it worked out great. I think they sound really good and are pretty happening.

mm: You are associated image-wise and tone-wise with Strats, but I have seen you playing Les Pauls, an ES-335 and a Flying V. Do you prefer humbuckers more now and what brought about the change?

EJ: Humbuckers are nice because you don't have to use any effects. They overdrive the amp and have great rhythm sound. A lot of the Alien Love Child stuff is more orientated towards that kind of tone.

mm: You mentioned Pro Tools earlier. Is this the system you use in your home studio? Are you comfortable working in the digital domain and fusing it with vintage and analog gear?

EJ: I am comfortable with Pro Tools, but I don't think other digital formats sound quite right. I prefer analog, though.

Just a click away. . .

Eric Johnson
Alien Love Child
Alien Love Child concert video
Listen to Live and Beyond

Eric's new Custom Shop '59 Les Paul Reissue
'59 Les Paul Flametop Reissue
Gibson Custom Shop

Goldtone GA30RVS
Gibson Goldtone amps

mm: What do you think about the current state of guitar playing and players and where things are going?

EJ: I think there are some great players like Dean Deleo from Stone Temple Pilots, the guy from Green Day [Billy Joe Armstrong] is great and I loved Kurt Cobain. I don't know where it's going. It's truly hard to say. I think it would be nice if we would stay open minded because there is room to have all of those visions together. I don't think we have to get on a mindset where only this will work or that will work; but I'm sure somebody will come along someday and turn it all around.

mm: What advice do you have on how to get started and avoid some of the pitfalls along the way?

EJ: Just try to follow your heart and try to play music that really passionately inspires you. Tape yourself, listen to what you're doing and try to be discerning about what you're doing. Try to improve your playing, but in a way that musically makes sense, not necessarily technically makes sense. You might want to break the rules and rewrite the book, but make sure it makes great music and inspires you. If it inspires you, it will probably inspire somebody else. Also, find people that resonate with the same visions you have. You might go out and play a gig where there are only three people, but that doesn't matter because next time there will be four people and so on. Just keep at it and don't put the emphasis or the validity of what you do on whether people say you're good or not, except for the people who are sitting there listening to you. Are you turning them on? Don't worry about what a record label says or the business thing per se, because you end up chasing the carrot and all of a sudden you've spent your whole life chasing the carrot.



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