This interview took place on October 4, 2010, while Eric Johnson was on the road with the Acoustic Guitar Masters tour. Later that month he switched to electric guitar for the Experience Hendrix tour. His new album, Up Close, was scheduled to come out in November, featuring 14 original songs and a cover of Electric Flag’s “Texas.” While Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan, Jonny Lang, and Sonny Landreth made guest appearances on the album, Eric’s first in five years, his heartfelt singing and transcendent guitar playing remained the heart and soul of his music.
I’ve been lucky to know Eric for many years. At the time of our first interview, for the December 1982 issue of Guitar Player magazine, he was unsigned and virtually unknown outside of Austin, Texas. This was followed by our Guitar Player cover stories in May 1986, January 1993, and May 1996, as well as a March 1990 interview about the Ah Via Musicom sessions, which he invited me to attend. I have always found Eric to be charming, intelligent, guileless, and deeply self-reflective. He’s also worked harder at the craft of guitar playing than anyone I’ve ever met – and it shows.
The night before our interview, the Acoustic Guitar Masters tour, featuring Eric Johnson, Andy McKee, and Peppino D’Agostino, played in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Peppino opened with an inspirational set featuring an Italian tarantella, jazz song, Brazilian music, some originals, and a killer rendition of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Andy McKee, the youtube sensation, proved himself a wizard of rhythm and slapping, and announced that hearing Eric Johnson was his original inspiration for taking up guitar. Then Eric delivered a magnificent all-acoustic set. Sitting down and keeping time with his left leg, he began with the speedy country romp “Dusty,” followed by the sublime “My Finest Champion,” “Debonnet,” and masterful “Tribute to Jerry Reed.” He moved to grand piano to expertly cover Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” and his own “Invited.” Back on guitar, he paid tribute to Les Paul with “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” His new song “Promised Man” rivaled the best of his early work on the Seven Worlds and Tones albums. Eric wrapped up his set with “Once Upon a Time in Texas” and then all three musicians played “All the Way,” Andy’s “Blue Liquid” and Peppino’s “Nine White Kites.” A fabulous night of guitar.
After the show, Eric invited me to come by the next morning to do our interview in his hotel room.
Isn’t that just wild? Doesn’t it seem like yesterday we were in our twenties? I mean, it goes quick, doesn’t it? Like [snaps fingers].
And if you’re happy, it goes even faster.
Yeah, yeah. That cover story helped me big time. That stuff y’all did was one of the pivotal things that got me going. That’s why I was always indebted to you and to the Guitar Player staff – more than any other magazine or promo or anything. I always told [longtime manager] Joe Priesnitz and other people that. In the old days, that was #1. What you guys did opened all the doors. Guitar Player is such a different magazine now.
The style of journalism we practiced in the 1970s and ’80s is nearly gone from print magazines. Today you interview someone and have to fit it into a few hundred words.
So you think magazines are just going to disappear eventually?
A print magazine is static. On a website, you can add film, music, links. Kids are growing up with that, and the world is shifting to electronic media. As your partner on the tour can tell you, there’s a lot of power in the draw of the internet.
Yeah. Andy McKee has had a song or two that have 33 million hits. It’s like he’s up there with Lady Gaga with a couple of his acoustic pieces. He’s like one of the top five hits of all time or something.
Do you notice any difference in your approach to the art as you get older?
Right now, I feel like I have more distractions. I feel life was simpler when I was a kid. It could just be a phase. I don’t know. When you’re younger, there’s a certain element of passion and energy that just comes for free – you just wake up and you have it. As you get older, you have to work a little bit at keeping that passion alive and that work ethic. To me, it’s well worth it. But I have to put in the effort. By passion, I mean stay fresh, stay open, and don’t encase yourself in everything you’ve been and become defined by your past. When we were kids, we were not so much defined by our past as much as just taking it all in in the moment. And that’s the best creative posture to have. It’s critical to stay that way when you get older. When you’ve encased all this history, it becomes more of a challenge.
One thing that stood out when you were young was your discipline – the meditation, spiritual exercises, the time you’d put in on your instrument. Is this still a central part of your life?
Yeah, it is.
Do you still meditate?
Yeah. I try to do it every day.
What are the benefits of meditation?
Just as human beings, we’re always having to visualize. With our senses – namely, what we see, what we hear – we’re always taking it in. So every time we’re not sleeping, and even when we’re sleeping sometimes, we’re always thinking about things, listening to things, looking at things. There’s such an endless bombardment of that that it just becomes like 10,000 radio stations playing at once. So sometimes it’s good just to spend a little bit of time where you just try to turn that all off and get back to a source point inside yourself where you’re not being bombarded by that. We have that source point 24/7, it’s just it’s hard for us to be aligned with it because we’re so busy receiving all these broadcasts. And it becomes habitual. Just by our biological makeup, we’re always extending and gravitating and desiring all that. So it’s almost like a catch-22. We put these fishing nets out, and then we retrieve all this cacophony. And then we wonder why we have the cacophony, but we’re still putting the nets out. So it’s trying to break that cycle. It’s interesting – a lot of people are extremely adept at meditating or being in that source, and I’ve never achieved any great status at it. But with just the mere aspiring or attempt at sitting alone and being quiet for 15 minutes or two hours or whatever you do, you get an abundance of benefits, regardless of whether you’re not good at it or you’re great at it.
I do, yeah.
What do you think happens at the end of one’s life?
There’s been so much talk about what happens. People talk about the same thing – they go through a tunnel, they see light. There must be some kind of symmetry to that because so many people have talked about that. So many people have been in life-threatening situations where all of a sudden they’re looking down and seeing their body. If it was just one case, or if it was different cases that had different experiences, it’d be different, but there’s such a synchronicity to it, I think there’s something to it. I don’t know, really. I think some people have experiences where they realize they’re more than just their body – while they’re still living here. But I guess ultimately whenever we go to where we go, we’ll realize that we are more than our physical body.
Imagine that you’re at that moment of transition. So here’s Eric Johnson walking up to the Pearly Gates and the gatekeeper hands you a guitar and says, “Okay, Johnson, you get to play one song to see if you can come in or not.” What would you play?
Oh, gosh. I’d probably play “May This Be Love” by Jimi Hendrix – or try!
For you, what’s the enduring appeal of Jimi Hendrix?
The voyage of guitar in pop culture, or just in modern culture, has been very interesting, and it’s changed so much from when I was a kid. By necessity, it was a new, fresh instrument of the ’50s and ’60s. And by not having a lot of other options, people had to use that to orchestrate songs. They had to use this new instrument – they didn’t have synthesizers or a lot of computer gear to be an option. The guitar was really the new, upcoming thing. It sounded different and could really be plugged in to pop music and be cutting edge. Having said that, though, the whole mindset was still, “Let’s write great songs. Let’s write melodies. Let’s just write music, and oh, by the way, we’re gonna use this guitar to orchestrate all this music.” When Jimi Hendrix came along, I think that was really his agenda. It’s true he was a great guitar player – great in maybe a different definition than now. He wrote great songs and great lyrics and melodies. It was about the music. It was about the song. And it just happened that within that song, you had this terrific, emotional, passionate guitar that became timeless. And as guitar went through its evolution and other options became available, guitar started taking on this persona of being more iconic verging on gratuitous. It changed some of the function or the concept that people had about guitar. With people like Jimi Hendrix, regardless of what era they would be in, I don’t think that would have been the case.
When we were young, Jimi Hendrix was a springboard to playing guitar. Stevie Ray Vaughan had the same effect a generation later. And now we see Andy McKee, Gretchen Menn, Joe Bonamassa, and many others who were inspired by you to play guitar.
It shows you that it all comes from that original source. It’s kind of takes me back a little bit. I don’t expect it, really.
Do you hear people copping your style?
Mm hmm. It is a compliment. I never really thought of my style as so uniquely original. All I did was just kind of put together all these different styles that I liked. And then when I did that, it kind of sounded unique. If you really study it, you can hear where I took from other people and put it together, which I guess is the case with anybody.
Although your stuff is more distinctively you than, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan. With Stevie, you could say, “Okay, here’s Albert King. Here comes Jimi Hendrix. Here comes Larry Davis,” who did the original “Texas Flood.” With you, it’s harder to hear that.
Really? Stevie’s thing that was so unique was his package. I always thought he was as great a singer as he was guitar player. Fabulous voice! And the way he put it all together. I was talking to Richard [Mullen, producer and engineer of Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan albums] about how they cut those records, how he’d do it in just a couple of takes – and such soul.
It’s like sparks were flying off the guy.
I admired that Stevie always gave credit where credit was due. He always shone the light on other musicians who’d influenced him.
Yeah, and he was a sweet guy.
What can you tell me about your new album, Up Close?
It’s a step in the right direction. I’m not sure why, but I think that with my belaboring over records, I pay a high price for just getting them too orderly. It’s a battle I have: Trying to raise the benchmark musically, or guitar-wise, with what I do, and trying to make music. If you look at stuff too close, you can decide, “Oh, this is not good,” “This is good.” But really, it’s all good. The whole package is a worthwhile effort. In other words, if I want to achieve a high benchmark of guitar playing, the place to do that is when I’m just sitting and practicing my playing. And then you bring that into the music when you perform or go in the studio. There are certain places in the evolution to put certain energy. And if you put the right energy in the right placement of evolution, then it’s all good. You know, you can’t say that it’s bad that Yo-Yo Ma practices eight hours a day, that he’s a perfectionist. It’s not bad; it’s good. It’s in the right placement.
With Up Close, I started making the record, and in the first part of it, I was following the same suit that I had in the last couple of records, where it’s “Let’s just do this over and over and over.” And it was kind of taking on the same tone. About halfway through, I caught myself – I had kind of an epiphany. I went “Whoa, what is this? I’m just doing the same thing.” So I changed it, and started bringing other people in to play on it and started performing. I did this blues track, “Texas,” where we just cut it live, and Steve Miller came in and sang on it. We just did it, and it has this energy and spirit. I think that’s what people miss or comment on when they say that I make records that are a little too subdued or a little too thought-out. I’m not saying this very well, but thinking things out and working them out – there’s a viable place for that. It’s just you have to have everything in the right perspective.
I want to go this way more in the future. If I’m so concerned about trying to nail the part just right, then let me figure that out in advance rather than get in the studio and go, “Oh, no, let me figure it out now.” Because that gives a different tone or vibe to it. So you want to work that out ahead of time. It’s almost like if you’re writing a story, you want to do your homework before you go in and do it if it’s on something you’re quite not up to speed with. A lot of times when I go into the studio, I might not be up to speed with a particular song or the particular licks or the particular thing I’m trying to do, so I’m trying to hash it out there on the moment, and what happens then is other people are waiting on you or you’re taking too long. So that’s what happened on this record.
We’re just trying to use a mike as much as possible. I’m trying to keep the stage volume down on those little amps that I use. I do use a pickup under it, but I try to keep those down as much as possible so that we can use the mike more because I am just so burned out on the piezo pickup. I still use a piezo pickup, but I just don’t really like ’em that much. But everything else I try has all these weird resonances and feedback things, and sounds kind of like you’re playing through a metal tube or something. This is the first time I’ve done the acoustic thing in about three years, and I’m kind of curious. I am sure things have changed in the last few years. But I think it’s relying on a microphone as much as possible.
What’s a good guitar mike?
Right now I’m just using a clone of the Neumann KM 54. It’s just something we use on the road, a little pencil Ocktava mike. It’s like a $100 mike.
I assume your electric guitars have changed, since last month your ’62 Stratocaster was up for auction for a $90,000 opening price.
It may have been the guitar on your 1986 Guitar Player cover.
[Looks at the cover.] No, that’s the ’54 Strat. That’s one I wish I’d never sold. Yeah, I should never have sold that guitar.
Which one is “Virginia”?
That’s the ’54 Strat. You know, recently I’m getting back to a lot of the stuff I did in the past. I’m trying to go back to certain cabinets and stuff I did in the old days. I listened to Ah Via Musicom the other day, and there was something about the sound. There were aspects of the sound that sounded better to me than some of the stuff I’m doing now – which people have told me before. I think maybe a lot of that sound had come from just letting things happen, whereas in recent years, my whole thing has been, “We can do this. Let’s build this ourselves. Let’s put this piece together.” It’s interesting. You realize you have to go with the flow, you have to go with the unfolding that happens naturally. It’s like being in a canoe – you’ve got to paddle. You have an element of free will or you have an element of control, but in the bigger picture, you’re really part of that current. So there’s only so much your paddle can do. You can really be part of it and kind of direct things, but you can’t separate yourself from all the elements and go, “I’m gonna completely control this.”
To do that, you have to look at everything in pieces. It’s like, “Oh, this first step – I’m gonna build a great guitar tone, so I’m gonna get this really good fuzz. And now I’m gonna get this really good cord, and then I’m gonna get these strings.” You’re myopically thinking of every little piece, but what I found out is that a really beautiful recipe isn’t made up of all great pieces. It’s relativity. And with a lot of it, it’s the relationships of the pieces. If you take a close look at one piece, you would say, “No, that’s totally wrong,” but it’s not. It’s relative to other pieces. It’s not really a right or wrong answer or choice, it’s like a yin and yang thing. If you look too close at something that’s yang, you go, “Oh, no. That’s horrible. That’s not gonna work.” And maybe if you only listen to it, it is. But that yang is in relativity to the yin, and it makes this recipe that makes up the whole thing, in the case of guitar, that would give you a great sound. But if you didn’t have what you thought was wrong when you looked at it soloed out, you wouldn’t have as good a tone. In other words, if you’ve got everything one way, it’s never going to be as good as the natural happenstance of something just being yin and yang. So I’m really in the process of letting go of trying to piece by piece make it what I think is “right,” because we can’t see that vision. That 360 degrees is too big, you know. It’s an interesting realization.
I don’t know if that whole process of spending years with that philosophy was worthwhile or not. It wasn’t really worthwhile as far as a successful outcome goes. It’s almost like that was my field of realization in life, where you go, “You just gotta just let go a little bit,” and then use your paddle to direct yourself to being congruent with that flow that you want to be in.
Yeah. I’ve sold a lot of guitars. I only own one vintage Strat now. I’ve lost interest in owning a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really serve me. Like, if it’s not an instrument that I go, “Man, I wanna pick this up, this is pullin’ me in, I want to write a song, I want to practice, it’s turning me on,” I don’t own it. Collecting is fine, if somebody wants to do it, but to me it’s more about trying to simplify life and just use the pieces that really work. So now if there’s amps or guitars that are just like, “Well, that’s cool, yeah, and it does this one thing really well,” I’m not interested anymore. I just want a guitar that’s like a Stradivari, that really is perfect for me. And I have one old Strat that really approaches that. I just realized the others worked, but they weren’t really putting me there.
Describe the one that you’ve kept.
The one I’ve kept is a ’57 Strat, and it’s just a real resonant guitar. I finally realized that just using stock instruments is not really my thing. You know, I like to put big frets on ’em and switch-out the 3-way switch. And actually switch out the bridge pickup. I went through a period where here’s this old ’50s Strat that’s all original, and I would sit there and play through my amps and think, “It’s a cool guitar, and I can’t change it.” I finally realized, “Forget it, I don’t care about that anymore.” It’s like I’m holding myself back musically because I’m owning this guitar that’s really clean and hasn’t had the pickup changed. It’s like, I don’t care. So I put a DiMarzio HS2 in it, like I had in the ’54 Strat, and it was like, voila! All of a sudden, “Ah! I want to play this now!” I just realized that it’s more important to me to try to make the music.
I’ve recently gone through a similar progression. I saw my father gather all these possessions toward the end of his life, and that made me want to let go of everything I’d collected.
Absolutely, yeah. And it’s a psychic thing too. It fills up our head with stuff. I think the more we can simplify our being, whether it’s external or internal, the more we create a beautiful space to fill it with something loftier.
Speaking of that, that song you played last night, “Promised Man,” was one of the most perfect songs I’ve heard from you.
Everything’s there. I could see people wanting to use it for weddings.
[Laughs.] I’ve already had a couple people ask me that on this tour! We’ve done three gigs on this tour, and a couple of people have come up to me and said, “We’re getting married, and we want to use it.” I wrote that song for my girlfriend, who’ve I’ve been dating for a while.
Did it come quickly?
Pretty quickly, yeah. I’m still working on it, trying to learn to fingerpick it and sing at the same time, but it did come quickly. It comes from the heart, and I think that’s where everything should come from. Maybe sometimes songs come so fast, they don’t even get a chance to go through your heart. Like, when I wrote “Cliffs of Dover,” I wrote it in five minutes. It just fell into my lap from the cosmos. I think the best songs do that. Maybe the ones that take a little longer that are still the best ones are the ones that sort of do that, and then you really feel them and you have that conviction and it comes from your heart. So there’s a trueness to it.
Can you think of any songs on, say, Tones or Seven Worlds that came that way?
“Bristol Shore” was really quick. “Missing Key” was really quick. “Zap” was pretty quick.
Do you have songs you’ve spent years working on?
Yeah, and most of them I throw away – they sound like I spent years on ’em. Some of them have been around for years, but usually the ones that I’ve belabored over and really tried to make work, more often than not they don’t work. There’s just too much fingerprint of the mind over them.
Absolutely. It’s almost like you’re an antenna. I don’t know if songs are complete like that, but I think the ideas maybe go through us with our own experiences, and we shuffle around the notes to make a certain order. Just like when somebody invented the vacuum tube – it’s just so bizarre! It’s like, wow! I mean, you can’t say that one just like shoooo [swoops his hand to indicate something descending from above]. “I’m gonna invent a tube, and it’s gonna have these filaments and stuff, and it’s gonna change the world.” I think there’s some kind of divine inspiration here. And it’s available to every single person on the planet. It’s just whether we’ve had the blessing to learn the instrument or a vocation or a language or a science or whatever. If we learn it in a certain way that dilates that window to where we can receive it, it’s there for everybody.
While we’re on the subject of vacuum tubes, what’s going on with your amplification?
When it comes to amplification, I’ve pretty much gotten a lot of that old stuff back. I’ve taken out some of the speakers and put in these speakers from the ’80s that I liked back then. Kind of combination of the old stuff and the new stuff. I’m just finding a balance.
Didn’t you have a triple amp setup for a while?
Yeah, I still do that.
Is there still a Dumble amp?
Yeah, I do have a Dumble. It’s at Alexander’s right now, and I’m waiting to get it back.
What’s your favorite amp?
Man, I don’t know. With me, I just like the different sounds. I like a Fender Twin Reverb for the clean tone. Then I like a nice old Marshall for my lead tone.
The violin-like sound?
There’s been a renaissance of boutique amps. Anything that appeals to you there, or is that outside of your wavelength?
I have a Fulton Webb amp. Actually, the gentleman who works for me, Bill Webb, he built it. They’re very nice amps. The particular model I have is a 100-watt amp, kind of designed off of those really early Marshalls like Hendrix used, but it’s made in a very musical way – very simple wiring and kind of more old-school.
You’re soon going to be doing a Hendrix tour with Billy Cox.
Yeah. He’s a great guy. He’s just the nicest guy. He’s a sweetheart. He’s kind of the whole emcee of the Hendrix tour – he’s the guy. It’s interesting to talk to him about the old days, both his experiences and his experiences with Jimi. There’s a very unique atmosphere with him and Hendrix, because they were really close friends. And it was before Hendrix ever became successful.
They met in a canteen in the army.
Yeah! So when he talks about him, he’s talking about Jimi his friend. It’s coming from a totally different place than anybody that worked with him or knew him later, or when I talk about him. He’s talking about his close buddy.
Who’s the drummer?
Chris Layton. Mitch Mitchell passed away. He was on the first tour I did, and then he passed away at the end of the tour I did a couple of years ago.
Are there any songs that you love so much, that are so perfect, that you wouldn’t consider covering them?
I almost felt that was about [Joni Mitchell’s] “For Free.” I’ve always loved that song, and I was hesitant to do it. Sometimes when you learn a song, you have to get inside the alphabet of it. And then the next time you hear it, you’re more aware of what they’re doing from an alphabetical way, rather than just hearing it. It’s a piece that you’ve got inside of. Sometimes I don’t like to even decipher – I’d rather just let it be an entity.
What do you think about Joni’s song “Blue”?
It’s great. I think all of that stuff is just so magnificent. You were talking about where it kind of comes through and it just happens. It’s like electricity is looking for a place to come out, it’s looking for an avenue. And if it finds the right vessel, it goes down and goes into that. Those albums she did – Blue and Ladies of the Canyon and Song to a Seagull – they’re just amazing folk records.
Yeah, it’s great! And he’s a great guitar player. I have always loved guitar players that are really great at what they do and it’s uniquely amazing. It doesn’t jump out and say, “Yeah, I’m a really great player.”
It’s perfect for the song.
Yeah! Have you heard that guy Tallest Man on Earth? He’s a new guy from Sweden, and that’s what he calls himself. He’s a folk singer, and he’s another guy. A really, really great guitarist, and he sings. He’s like a modern Bob Dylan. I think he’s gonna be huge. He’s done two records, and he’s really, really good. He’s got a great guitar style, but he’s worked it out just to back him up while he’s singing. You listen to what he’s doing on guitar and go, “Man!” That’s like James Taylor – same deal. I think that song I wrote, “Promised Man,” some of the guitar playing is like a James kind of deal, where you’re picking the notes and they’re harmonizing with the vocal. I’m still struggling with that song to play and sing it at the same time, and it just gives you respect for somebody like James Taylor, because it’s not like, “Oh, they’re just sitting there.” It’s a challenging way to play guitar, even though it doesn’t sound as challenging as someone just whittling away.
Listen to James Taylor’s chord buildup in “Up on the Roof.”
Oh, I love that! Yeah. It’s great. For a long time, that was my favorite song to play to test out stereos. In the old days, when I was really into getting tube stereo gear, I would put on James’ version of “Up on the Roof,” because it’s a great recording. There might be better sonic recordings, but there’s something about that recording with the warmness of the guitar. You know, like people put on Steely Dan to test out P.A.’s., I would always want to use “Up on the Roof” by James.
Hearing you play that beautiful Joni Mitchell song on piano last night, I remembered being in her manager’s office one time and seeing her paintings on the wall. And I thought about Tony Bennett being an artist.
It made me wonder if you have artistic endeavors outside of music.
I have been thinking about doing a book. I do a lot of poems, so I have a whole stash of poems and stuff. And I’ve been thinking about some kind of visual that could go with that. I’m not sure what, but I thought maybe I might try some way of doing some kind of art with it. I’m not sure what that would be.
Have you ever put your poems to music and created a song that way?
Yeah, very rarely, but it’s happened before.
One last question. B.B. King, 85 years old, still plays all the time. Les Paul played into his nineties. Do you see yourself doing this?
I really would like to. I feel I’ve been given this gift by God, and I’d just like to keep doing it. I’d like to stay open to understand the best possible way that I could do it in the opportunity I’ve been given. I think that it’s all been a voyage, and sometimes I’ve not been quite on the best way to do it. But that’s part of journey. So I’m really committed to trying to figure out how to do it the best I can. But I’d like to, yeah. Plus, if I die onstage, everybody could leave going, “Man, that was a killer show!” [Laughs.]
For more on Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson: Six-Strings, Songs, and the Journey Inward (This 2012 Pure Guitar magazine cover story includes the hour-plus audio of Eric’s conversation with Jas Obrecht, as well as videos of Eric demonstrating his favorite guitars.)
Max Crace photos used with permission. © Max Crace.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.