By Ray Chelstowski
GOLDMINE: It seems like most tours today that are built around a single album are tied to an anniversary like The Joshua Tree’s 30th. What made you decide that this year was the year to go out in support of Ah Via Musicom?
ERIC JOHNSON: There really wasn’t (one thing). We had been talking about this commemoration tour. We just never did it. We were busy doing other stuff, and then it was suggested to me that maybe it would be a cool thing because a lot of folks are doing the same thing where they go out and play a record of theirs. And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I thought if I did it I should probably use Musicom, that’s the one people like the most. And so then we just did a poll on my website and we got a lot of response that people would really love to see this. So I said okay, if this is something that people really want to see then I’m on board. One thing just kind of led to another and it just happened at a time when it was on the tinge of the 25th year mark and so I thought let’s do it!
GM: When you head out, will there be any members of the original recording lineup with you on stage?
EJ: Yeah, Tommy Taylor and Kyle Brock the original drummer and bass player.
GM: You have always been very open about your equipment. Will you be using your new Fender signature strat with the F-hole on this tour or sticking with your solid signature model? If so, how do you expect the sound to change?
EJ: No, I’m gonna play the F-Hole a lot. I’ll probably use the solid body, too, but I’m definitely going to play the F-hole. I really like the guitar. It’s kind of a different guitar and kind of addicting. I’ve always been a fan of the Gibson 335 which as you know is a F-hole guitar. And I always wanted to combine a strat with a 335 so finally I had the chance to do it and it does have a bit of the nuance of the 335 built into it. For me I like it better than a solid body strat.
GM: Does it ever surprise you how critically acclaimed Ah Via Musicom, and especially the track “Cliffs of Dover,” have been. I mean, how does it feel when you see Guitar Magazine rank it No. 17 in their list of 100 greatest guitar solos, smack dab in between Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and Jimi’s “Little Wing”?
EJ: I guess I really never think about it that much. I mean it’s an honor, and I appreciate it. It’s nice to be part of the gang because these are all my heroes. I mean I still look at them as the guys who were closer to inventing the whole thing and a lot of us just kind of carried on with what they kinda invented.
GM: “Cliffs of Dover” won a Grammy in 1992 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. When I first heard this album, and especially the track “Steve’s Boogie,” I immediately thought of Danny Gatton. So it was incredibly ironic to see you matched up against Danny for this award that year. Were you friends and or did his style influence you at all?
EJ: Yeah totally! I knew Danny Gatton, not well, but we jammed together once and hung out a little bit. He was just an incredible player. Some of the recordings he did were just like nothing anyone has done since. It’s just incredible. Great player and so versatile!
GM: On Ah Via Musicom you namecheck a number of people in songs that are tributes. From Wes Montgomery, to Steve Hennig, to George Washington. Even your Wes tribute sneaks in a nod to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. How did that come about?
EJ: I think that it just arrived that way. Those were the people that I really loved, and who taught me how to really play guitar. So it was pretty easy to just end up there.
GM: One of the areas that I don’t think that you get enough credit for are your vocals. They are really strong and seem to set your material apart from most of your peers. How do you decide which songs get vocals and which don’t?
EJ: I think that the song kind of spells out whether the song would work best as an instrumental or if it needs vocals. I just kinda let it dictate where it’s gonna go and try to just kinda stay out of the way and see what the message is.
GM: So you have this new LP Collage coming out. How do you see it fitting into the Ah Via Musicom tour?
EJ: Yeah, we’re gonna do a short set of newer stuff and then we’ll take a short break and come back and play the second set of Ah Via Musicom start to finish.
GM: I think it’s fairly easy to predict who in your space you admire. But I was wondering, do you like (and if you do, who do you like) the work of players whose best known riffs are not technical at all but instead are very simple but timeless. Say for example a Pete Townshend or a Keith Richards.
EJ: Keith Richards absolutely. His rhythm sound. And just the way he did all that stuff on Let It Bleed. Brian Jones’ fuzz parts. And George Harrison on “Nowhere Man.” You know, all sorts of stuff that Hendrix, Beck, Clapton and Wes Montgomery did. It’s like signature stuff that I play over and over and over again. I just love it.
GM: Do you ever pull from non-guitar players for inspiration?
EJ: Yeah, I love listening to vocalists, just the way they phrase. And you know Benny Goodman and the clarinet. I love listening to pianists like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, George Shearing, there’s a million. I like listening to pianists, Herbie Hancock and the early stuff he did with Wes. Because to me I almost like doing that more than listening to other guitarists. There are some great guitarists that I admire tremendously like Tommy Emmanuel. But sometimes if I go to another instrument it gives me a different concept of guitar. Plus, part of it is because I started on piano so I kind of relate to piano more than guitar. So when I play guitar I kind of approach it like piano a little bit.
GM: You have collaborated with a wide range of people. Everyone from Christopher Cross to Mike Stern. What makes for one that gets your interest, attention?
EJ: Well, I think if it’s someone you admire and like their music, you can summon and inspire the other person to kind of come to a platform where you all can kind of forget about yourself and get out of the way and join together and make music. No matter how diverse your styles are, you can find common ground because your most important interest is to find that common ground that will make good music and not so much a place where you can grandstand.
GM: Do you think there’s any more room in the future for albums or touring with Mike Stern?
EJ: I’d love to, yeah. We’ve talked about doing some more stuff. We talk about it then we get real busy. But I think it would be fun. A lot of people really enjoyed that tour we did together. Obviously Mike is a really fine guitarist but what I really love about him is he is such a good musician and he writes good songs. His songs are beautiful. He really knows how to write a great song because he puts more interesting harmony, or melody that makes them left of center. I think people unfortunately overlook how good a songwriter he is. He has a couple of ballads that brought tears to my eyes. They’re just magnificent.
GM: A buddy just turned me onto Philip Sayce who was discovered by Jeff Healey in Toronto. Do you have an interest in finding the next Eric Johnson and handing him the torch at some point?
EJ: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a guy in Austin named Carson Brock who’s a real fine guitar player. He does his own thing now. I mean originally he was kind of reminiscent of me but think he’s more his own man now. Have you heard that blues player Matt King? He’s good! I really enjoy discovering his stuff and saying “OK great! There’s some really young cats who can carry on the tradition of the blues. I mean he’s a little left of center on his blues playing but he’s got a great voice. I’m listening to this guy and he sounds a little bit like Stevie Ray but a little bit like Freddie King, but then like Derek Trucks maybe. And then he opens his mouth and I’m like, “Oh gee! Here’s a 21-year-old who doesn’t sound 21 when he’s singing.” I think he’s gonna be one of the major players that carries on the blues. It’s good to hear these talented kids.
GM: My guitar playing friends all are very envious of this interview. Across the board, everyone has asked me how you get that guitar tone of yours. It’s so unique, to the point that you almost make your guitar at times sound like a violin. Any chance you might share some trade secrets with us?
EJ: It’s kind of a really difficult thing. And I get frustrated with it a lot because I try to keep it up. It’s not easy to be honest. First off it’s about the way you mute the strings and the way you finger the fret and especially the way you pick the string. That’s a huge part of it, and then finding an instrument that will facilitate the particular way that you fret and pick a note. In other words the envelope of the way the wood responds. In a way just like people, we are breathing all of the time, so when you put your intention into your articulation and your technique into fingering and picking the strings how does that instrument breathe with you. Is it inhaling or exhaling in symmetry with what you’re doing. That’s the biggest part of it. The next part is trying to get electronics that promote more pure tone than a lot of hash and garbage, and trashy electronic sound. While there’s a place for that, I actually like a lot of that really angst, trashy guitar sound when it’s used for an application for certain songs. Like with Kurt Cobain I actually think he got an awesome guitar tone. And I don’t think it should have been any different. It just depends on what you’re trying to paint with the picture. With what I’m trying to do there’s a certain prerequisite of content of what you have to have. If you listen to a saxophone and the pure tonality of it, or a violin like you mentioned, it’s like for me my path is to try to facilitate that as much as possible, to carry on whatever symmetry of breathing and inhaling I find in the instrument. And that can be difficult because as we enter the digital age where everything is a copy of a copy, it’s not even about trying to get an amplifier to perform with a pure tonality. It was never easy, but it’s harder now. I’m not a fan of amps that have a lot of bells and whistles, and forty knobs and they can do everything under the sun. It’s the same like when you go into the studio and you’re at a recording console. It’s pretty inarguable if you have a guy come in with a violin and he goes in front of a tube U47 mic into a tube console like The Beatles used and then you record that, and you use a solid state mic into a digital console with tons of bells and whistles that can do everything under the sun, you play it back. There’s gonna be a difference in sound. Somebody might enjoy the other sound better but if your directive and your inspiration and your journey is to get that pure analog tonality it’s gonna be pretty obvious that one accentuates that more than the others.
GM: Jeff Beck places guitars all over his house. It’s a way he forces himself to practice. What’s your practice regimen like?
EJ: I try to go to the studio every day and spend hours and hours, and some of that is messing with my gear trying to make it sound better. Other times it’s listening to music if I want to learn something. The art of learning to play through a song with the pedal board so I can learn all of the choreography with the switches and all of that. But some of it is just playing guitar. I have always just liked to play guitar. In the back of your mind you always want to play stuff that’s just a bit challenging so you don’t just sit and rehash stuff you already know, just to widen your musicality. I’d rather do that and work on scales.
GM: So after this tour, what’s next? Any dream project you’d like to pursue or collaboration?
EJ: Well, I put out an acoustic album last year and I’d like to release a ‘Volume 2’ acoustic piano record. That’s something on the books to do. I’ll be doing that.