Four years before the release of his debut solo album Tones, Eric Johnson and I sat down to do an extensive interview. At the time it was unusual for me to interview a guitarist who didn’t have national recognition or even an album to promote, but all it took was a pair of ears to hear that Johnson already was an extraordinary musician.
As a staff editor for Guitar Player magazine, I was continually hearing about superb guitarists who, for various reasons, were largely unknown. What instantly set Eric apart was who was talking about him. In 1980, I asked Jeff Baxter, studio legend and lead guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, if he knew of any guitarists deserving of more fame. “Eric Johnson is just amazing!” Jeff responded. “When I heard a tape of him, I went ape. 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.”
The next voice to sing his praises to me was Steve Morse of the Dixie Dregs, in June 1982: “Eric Johnson is one of the best electric guitarists anywhere. He’s so good it’s ridiculous. I’m not kidding – he’s better than Jeff Beck. Eric destroys people when he plays. We’ve played gigs with him, and it put a lot of pressure on me when it came our turn to play. All I can say is that if he had an album out, he’d be the first one on my list of required listening.”
Eric had recorded an album in 1975 with the Electromagnets, but by 1982 that regional release had been long out of print. But, I learned, he did have an unreleased cassette called Seven Worlds. I called Eric at his home in Austin, Texas, and asked for a copy. When I played it, my reaction was similar to Baxter’s: I was floored. The tape began with the original versions of “Zap” and “Emerald Eyes,” followed by eight other stellar tracks. Eric’s playing certainly held up to the hype, but it would be another 16 years before Seven Worlds would be issued on CD. My editor Tom Wheeler loved the tape as much as I did, and we agreed that Eric was worth covering. The interview took place on September 27, 1982. Portions of Eric’s answers were used for a feature article in the December 1982 Guitar Player, but the complete Q/A has never before been published.
So many famous players have talked about you – Jeff Baxter, Billy Gibbons, Steve Morse, Johnny Winter. Why is it that you’re still fairly unknown to the general public?
Well, I think it might be just a case of the method of getting known. I’ve submitted quite a few tapes, and there’s always been some facet of them that’s been kind of rough, I guess. Sometimes I feel they were in the right direction that should have been accepted. But I think the main thing that I’m doing that maybe I shouldn’t be doing is I’m trying to do what I want to do at this point, rather than trying to get some credentials playing with other people. I haven’t gone the route of playing with well-known bands, which is probably a more assured way of being recognized. I’m trying to develop a certain style of my own, and that necessitates me following my own career at this point.
Have you had offers to join bands?
Yeah, I have. Let’s see. I had an offer to play with Stan Clarke, which I really wanted to do. But at the time there was some business things going down, and I’d just recorded the Seven Worlds tape that I sent you. I was told at the time that the album was coming out and all this, and everybody was saying, “You’ve got to do this and that – it wouldn’t be a good time to go on the road.” And so I didn’t do it. I always kind of regretted that because I thought that would have been fun.
Since not much has been published about you, let’s start at the beginning. When were you born?
August 17, 1954.
When did you start playing music?
I started playing piano when I was five. I took private lessons studying the classical canon until I was 13. When I was 11, I started playing guitar.
So you have a fairly good background in formal music education?
Pretty well, yeah. I always tended toward learning from ear rather than from sight-reading, although I can sight-read a little. I always liked picking up stuff off of records. Even when I was young, playing piano, I’d like to sit down and kind of jam around on it.
How did you become interested in guitar?
I had a friend named Jimmy Schade – he was quite a fine player around this area in the mid ’60s. He was a friend of my brother’s when I was just about 11, and he would come over and play all this great stuff. I started hearing the Ventures real early – that was a real big influence when I was about ten. And then the Stones and the Kinks. I just got real enamored by rock at that particular time. It slighted my piano playing somewhat – I felt like, “This is where it’s at, to be rocking out on the guitar.” And sometimes I wish I’d kept up the classical piano training, but it was just all those initial influences that really got me into it. This friend of mine, Jimmy, he taught me the first things I ever learned on guitar. We’d sit around and jam.
Did you start out on electric?
Uh-huh, I did.
So you were learning more toward innovation than imitation.
When I first started playing guitar? No, I was more of an imitator. I would be a little innovative, but not really. I was so in love with the way a guitar sounded. I remember when I was like three or four years old, the very first time I ever heard an electric guitar, and it was just like that was it!
What was the occasion?
Well, it was this friend of the family that was doing some construction work around the house. After he finished work, he had this guitar. There was this AC outlet on the wall outside of the house, and he just plugged it in. We had like this little party outside, and he played some just really great blues. He was playing Elmore James and stuff, and I thought it was great. I just went, “God! What is this!?”
Were your folks musicians?
No, not really.
How many brothers and sisters?
I have one brother and three sisters.
Do any of them play?
Uh-huh. In fact, we all took piano lessons, except my brother – he took guitar lessons.
Did you take guitar lessons?
I did for a while. I guess I was a little bit in touch with the guitar because I’d taken so many piano lessons. I’d learned some theory over the seven years that I took piano – I know your basic 2+2 stuff. Once I acquired a guitar and played it, I didn’t accelerate knowledge-wise on the guitar, but I was able to transpose theory that I learned on piano to the guitar. In other words, I knew the frets and what the notes were, and I just sat down and figured that out. And once I figured that out – although there was still a big veil over trying to really break into the guitar as a soloist – at least I understood why I could do certain things and I could grasp why I couldn’t do other things. So at that point, it was just a question of discipline – you know, sitting down and trying to uncover all the many veils. I took lessons for a few months and learned “Walk – Don’t Run” and stuff like that.
So mostly you’re self-taught.
Pretty much. Just listening to a lot of records.
How much time did you spend with the instrument when you were a teenager?
As much as I could. Usually at least four or five hours a day.
Were any solos particularly inspirational to you?
Solos. [Pauses.] God, there’s so many of ’em! You mean like when I very first started?
Yeah, or over the years.
Several of Wes Montgomery’s solos are real landmarks to me. A lot of the Hendrix solos. A lot of the Django solos.
You were exposed to that when you were very young?
No, I wasn’t. When I was real young, I liked Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. And I liked the Ventures. And then just a little after that, I heard the Blues Breakers with Clapton, and that was great.
Did you learn chords and leads simultaneously?
Could you transfer a lot of the piano to the guitar?
Uh-huh. In fact, a lot of times nowadays I’ll write on piano and then transpose it to guitar.
Do you still play piano as much?
Presently I don’t play it a whole lot, but I go through periods where I play it a lot.
Oh, I think as far as ability goes, I would say guitar. As far as a root instrument goes, the essence would maybe tend towards piano. But I guess in all ways guitar would be it.
What were your earliest playing experiences? Would that be Mariani?
Right. Yeah, I was in a couple of bands before that did commercial music – copy bands. I was only 15 when I joined Mariani, a four-piece group with a bassist named James Bullock and a lead singer named Jay Aaron. The drummer, Vince Mariani, was real innovative, and he wanted to do something original. At that time, I wasn’t used to doing original music. It was pretty innovative for the time. It really was. It was a real high-energy rock thing, and that was the first contact I had with an original concert showcase type group.
Did you do many gigs?
We did about twenty gigs, I guess. I were together a couple of years, but we rehearsed for a long time and wrote all this music, and then we went out and played.
Is this around the time you jammed with Johnny Winter?
Yeah, it was.
Can you tell me about that?
Sure. At the time, we were working with a man named Bill Josey. He and Johnny Winter had had some business dealings initially in Johnny’s career. He was over there one day and Bill called us up and said, “Come on over.” We just came over. Johnny just picked up my guitar and started playing all this outrageous stuff. I wish I’d gotten to meet with him a little more, but we just jammed around a little bit. He just felt real at ease just sitting down and playing whatever he felt, and I pretty much just sat there and watched him. In fact, I remember at 13 or 14, I used to sneak into the Vulcan Gas Company and hear Johnny Winter for 50 cents. He would play a [Fender] Mustang and two or three [Fender] Twins. It was really neat.
Did you do much jamming with the other players in Austin?
I did within the realm of people I was involved with. A lot of the more known musicians around Texas at the time, I never got to jam with. I was pretty much just an apprentice. There was in particular one real fine player who now lives in South Carolina now, and his name is Jim Mings. He started out as a rock player, and then he got into the blues real early, and then he got into the jazz thing real early. Now he’s into a real hybrid of everything. He was the first guy to turn me on to the blues, and he was a really well-accepted player around here that was really, really kind to me and really helped nurture my playing. He invited me over to jam with him and stuff, and I hung around him some. I am appreciative of that, because I always respected and looked up to him. It was real neat that he kind of took me under his wing for a while. I still stay in contact with him. He still sends me tapes, and I send him stuff.
What did you do between the breakup of Mariani and when you put out the Electromagnets album?
I went to school some. I graduated from Holy Cross High School here in Austin, and I went to U.T. for a little bit. I traveled around pretty much. I went to Africa. My sister’s husband was from there, and now he lives in the States. We flew in for a while and went to a lot of the game parks. I spent a little bit of time in New York – not very much at that particular time, though. I was kind of traveling around trying to find a music school to go to. I was checking out Berklee, North Texas, Eastman, and stuff. I had a problem in that I really leaned toward the ear-training, and it was hard for me to grok a lot of the stuff they were saying. Although I understood it, they were coming from a theoretical thing on paper, so it was kind of frustrating to me because I couldn’t quite find the environment that I wanted to become a part of. That’s when I started learning to write songs – or at least started attempting to write songs. And I just practiced a bunch and played with several different musicians.
When did the Electromagnets come together?
Let’s see. We first jammed in ’73. We jammed several times in early ’74. It was in about December of ’74 that we decided to play together. They had been playing together before I joined them. They were a little more eccentric jazz. I had a sax player named Tomas Ramirez – he’s quite a fine player.
Is the Electromagnets album fairly representative of your style at the time?
I think that a lot of that playing at the time, a lot of the aspects of that are still with me. At the moment, I’m probably doing more of a rock thing and pop thing, for the large part.
How would you describe the Electromagnets project?
It was a fusion band. It was really inspired by [John] McLaughlin and Chick Corea – you know, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.
Is the Electromagnets album still available?
No, not really. There’s a few copies left, but I don’t think that you can buy ’em.
Do you have favorite tracks on that album?
Yeah, I do. “Crusades.” Let’s see. “Blackhole,” “Motion.” Maybe “Dry Ice.”
What about “Hawaiian Punch”?
I like it. I love the keyboard part at the end, especially. It is a nice cut.
Did that album do anything?
We failed to get any major interest in it at the time. We originally wanted to put it out nationally, but we couldn’t get anybody interested in it, so we put it out regionally. JEM Records distributed it Europe some. It kind of as a cult underground album did interestingly well, but it never took off or anything.
Do you still play any of the songs?
Up to about a year ago I was doing “Motion” and “Dry Ice,” but no, I really don’t play any of them anymore.
There are quite a few flashy guitar effects on that album.
Yeah, I guess. We were kind of going for a really wild sound effect sometimes.
Well, I used some backwards guitar sound – I blended it in with forwards guitar, to make it sound a bit Eastern without coming out and being backwards. I used a Hi-Watt amp on those sessions, and some of the effects, like on “Crusades,” were really just using the Strat and feedback and tremolo, and then also putting the pickups at a certain position on the transformer of the amp. You can get a lot of machine-gun-type effects.
Could you describe how you do that?
I don’t know if it does it with all amps – I don’t do it much anymore – but there’s a way if you put the pickups of the Strat to the back of an amp – especially a Hi-Watt amplifier – the transformer makes this weird screech. Depending on how you move it, it will make all sorts of outrageous sounds! [Laughs.]
After the Electromagnets album came out, what happened with the band?
We were together about three-and-half, four years. We played all over the place. We were really inspired just playing together. That was what we kept, that was our whole sustenance, just playing musically. Inevitably we were a bit disillusioned with the success we had. We were not ever able to make that jump to really sustain the band. We just stayed on one level. We kept having a lot of exciting news where we though, “Oh, this is what’s gonna really get us to that next level so we can play to larger audiences and record the types of albums we want to,” but we never made that connection. We started to just want to play other types of music. The Electromagnets was a real tight unit of a certain sound, and at that point it was necessary for us to pursue the avenue that led to the right type of music that we wanted to do.
Did you use some of the Electromagnets lineup on the Seven Worlds tape?
Right, it was. Yeah, we enjoyed playing so much together. I was offered some nice, attractive offers, and I asked Bill Maddox, the drummer, and Kyle Brock, the bass player, if they would consider playing with me on these projects that I had going. We all liked playing together a lot, and at the time they were free from commitments, so we decided to get together and do that recording and some gigs I had. Steve Barber, meanwhile, had moved to New York. He still lives there now, and he’s doing quite well. He’s done a lot of work with videos and TV productions that he’s doing the soundtrack for. He’s writing a whole lot.
Is the band still together at all?
No, we’re not. Since about a year ago, Kyle the bass player has a group in town called X-Spand-X, and Bill Maddox has a group called the Project. They’re both regional groups from around here that play all over. They’re both quite good.
What led Kyle and Bill to go their own way?
Well, I think it was kind of another version of what happened with the Magnets. We had a lot of hopes and aspirations. Fortunately, the music was our enjoyment. But that was like another four years, so it was kind of a combination of seven years, in a way. There was a brief hiatus between the times of the Mags and the time they played with me on the project I was involved with, but we were just unable to achieve the necessary connections.
So the original band was called the Electromagnets, and then the name changed to the Magnets?
Well, it was the Magnets for a while, and I was involved in a solo project that they helped me with, so it was billed as my name – it was just called the Eric Johnson Group.
And this is when you made the Seven Worlds tape?
Right. It’s confusing, isn’t it?
During all this time, were you a full-time musician?
Uh-huh. I was. Ever since the Magnets, I have been.
You haven’t had other jobs?
Well, I worked in a music store briefly at the time of the Magnets and the group that was my project.
What’s your main project now?
I’ve been practicing acoustic a lot – well, not lately, but I was. I wrote some songs on acoustic and did a few gigs like that, just in the interim of trying to find some musicians to play with. I presently am playing with a bass player/vocalist named Rob Alexander, and I’m looking forward to working with him. We’re about to start some things.
What’s the name of the band?
I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be called.
Right. I was on a tune called “Minstrel Gigolo” – it’s the last cut on the second side.
I have a Carole King album you’re on. Are you on other albums besides the Chris Cross, Carole King, and Electromagnets?
Well, I was on two of Carole’s albums – the last two [Pearls and One to One]. Not really very much. I played on one cut with Cat Stevens – a thing called “Bad Brakes” on the Back to Earth album. I played on the newest Alessi Brothers album [Long Time Friends].
Did you play much on the Alessi Brothers album?
Not a lot. I really haven’t played on any albums where I’ve been free to experiment that much.
How would you describe your current style or type of music?
One thing I really, really like to do is I’m trying to perfect a picking technique where you brush the strings rather than picking it. You use the side of the pick and you pick vertically – you kind of just brush the string, and it gets kind of a violin-type quality. It takes all that picking attack out and makes the notes open up rather than have a lot of attack. And the style I’m working on now is I want to be really high-energy and real rock- approved, but I want to be able to put a lot of inflections into it, a lot of the jazz and classical and even somewhat of a country thing.
Do you feel equally at home with all those styles?
Oh, no, not really. I wish! I’ve had influences from them all. I can pretty much cover those bases, but when it comes to jazz and classical, I have to think it out. I can’t just sit down and wail at those styles as well as I would like to be able to, although I’m learning more about them all the time.
Has your approach to the guitar changed over the last ten years?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, it has. I’m trying for a more universal approach now in using chords and rhythm, and chords and lead, and even both at the same time. I’m trying to even take from other nationalities of music. Like I really love koto music, and there’s a way that you can play the guitar and it sounds like a koto. [To hear a beautiful example of this technique, listen to “Bristol Shore” on the Tones album, especially the solo at 3:14 to 3:39.]
How do you create that koto-type sound?
Well, you use your index finger of your right hand to fret a note, and you also play with your left hand – kind of like the Stick by Emmett Chapman, that way. If you know the really nice technique of the Lenny Breau harmonics, where it’s the chromatic thing, like Ted Greene and Lenny Breau and Chet Atkins do, where you put notes on top of each other – it’s that kind of technique, but you actually fret the harmonic, and then you pick it with your thumb behind it on the right hand. And that note is like a second or third or whatever from the note you’re playing with your left hand, and you move real fast. So it’s like the Chapman Stick technique, where you fret the note with your right hand. You can use this technique and employ a fast vibrato. You can do a lot of seconds, and you can do the same notes and bend them with quarter tones and give them real weird vibrato. It’s real neat-sounding. It’s kind of like Beck’s playing. He sometimes intentionally plays out of key, so it sounds Eastern and Mecca-approved. It’s a little out of key, but it’s purposely out of key and it sounds like some strange Asian instrument but it’s played on guitar. It’s really a hip effect, and there’s a whole world there. There’s so much on the guitar that hasn’t been done yet. Sometimes you get bogged down and think, “God, has it all been reached?” But it’s like taking the veils off one at a time, and the light gets brighter. There’s just so many things to do with it, because it’s such a new instrument.
Can you play most everything you can hear in your imagination?
No. No, I wish I could. I can do a lot of it, maybe, if I sit down and really tune myself into what I’m feeling inside. In fact, that’s what I try to do. It’s real frustrating for me, and I’m usually not happy with my playing because of that. I always have to sit down and try to connect myself with what I’m feeling inside and hearing inside. I think that’s the best way to try to achieve your own feel for the guitar. It’s like intuition, you know. “Intuition” is like the “tuition from inside.” And if you get with that, your own self will show you how to play guitar. If you just really tune in and have the discipline and the will.
How do you prepare yourself to play your best?
I try to be real concentrated. I always try to remind myself that I’m free to feel great instead of feeling reserved or insecure. That if I want, I can just attach myself to a very enlightening feeling. And the more I try to do that, the more it promotes feeling like that. I just try to get in tune with what I really want to do if I have my choice of doing my best – which really we all do.
Will you take chances onstage when you’re feeling that way?
When I’m feeling that way, I will, yeah. I really will. And if I make a bunch of mistakes, it doesn’t matter. It’s almost like, if you’ve got that feeling – that you’re the instrument, and it’s flowing through you, like electricity – then it doesn’t matter what you do. If you make some errors, it’s very unimportant. But if you don’t have that feeling, that can be really bad, to be standing up there and then you don’t want to take any chances and you come off sounding very contrived. I mean, I do.
Can you psyche yourself out of that?
Sometimes I can. Yeah, I’m trying to learn to do that more and more. Like John Coltrane always inferred, there’s a certain part of being a musician where the most paramount thing for you to do is to try to be a better human being, to try to get more in touch and more in tune. And when you do that, it’s like returning to the center and everything emanates from there. You automatically become a better musician in becoming a more aware individual.
Will you sacrifice technique for emotion?
Sometimes. Bill Maddox, the drummer I used to play with, always was telling me to do that. Not to sacrifice technique, but to be more in touch with emotion. I think I always want to be in touch with emotion, but sometimes I’m a real stickler for something to be just perfectly, grammatically, technically right. I’m trying to be a little bit more flexible about that – if the heart’s there, not to be so concerned about sterile perfection. I’d like to maybe do both, if the perfection were subservient to the emotion. But I guess the emotion is much more important. In fact, when I record now, I think maybe I should go for that first take that has that feeling. I have a habit sometimes of wanting to do it 300 times so that the notes are just right. I don’t know if that’s good! [Laughs.]
What do you think a solo should do?
In a lot of songs, it should be somewhat concise. If you’re going to do a pop idiom, I think it should not ramble at all. It should tell a story and paint a real 3-D picture. I’ve been experimenting with trying to notate-out solos to a certain extent. I know a lot of people would go, “Then it’s not a solo,” but it’s not like note-for-note. Even if you’re notating out a concept – and not necessarily note-for-note – it should have a lot of dynamics and be something like a sound painting.
How much does equipment matter musically?
Personally, equipment matters a whole lot musically. To me, it’s a whole lot of me in the sound. If the sound’s not right, it’s real hard for me to play.
Will you hear a sound in your imagination and then try to find the equipment for it, or does the equipment suggest sounds to you?
I think it works both ways – for me it does, at least. A lot of times it’s a sound in my head.
What’s your favorite sound?
I always liked the sounds that Hendrix would get. I like his lead tones and rhythm tones – I like the way he played guitar completely. Hendrix got the greatest rhythm sound ever, like on “Hey, Joe” and “Wind Cries Mary” – just that sound of a Strat with that real fat, not perfectly clean but real clean kind of rhythm tone. Twin Reverbs and Dual Showmans get that sound – it’s just great. It also has a lot to do with Hendrix. I love Wes Montgomery’s tone. He really had a great tone. I love the tone Ted Greene gets, that smoother type of rhythm sound. I like more of the early Clapton-type lead tone. And then the Hendrix lead tones – not too much treble, kind of a real fat, violin, woody-type lead tone that kind of huffs its way out of the guitar rather than have too much pick attack.
There are four amps – that’s all I’ve used for ten years. They’re Boogies, Marshalls, Twin Reverbs, and Dual Showmans. Right at the moment, I’m using a couple of Dual Showmans for rhythm. In fact, I use two Dual Showmans through one Marshall box. Each Dual Showman drives a pair of 12s. That’s wired for stereo chorus for rhythm. And then for lead I’ll use just like an old Marshall stack that has 80-watt Celestions in it.
Will you switch onstage between the amps?
Yeah. I use an A-B switch for rhythm and lead. One’s set real clean, one’s set dirty.
Do you have a pedalboard?
What’s in it?
There’s an MXR Stereo Chorus. I use a couple of old Fender Reverb units. I use a Korg echo, and then an Echoplex. The Korg’s for rhythm and the Echoplex is for lead. And then I use those Mini Boogies – they’re made by Audio Matrix, or at least they used to be. They’re like these tube fuzz tones. They sound real great through Marshalls and Twins. And then if I ever use a Boogie, I don’t use that – I just use the switch.
Are you a guitar collector?
Yeah, pretty much. I’m not really into it that much now. I used to have more guitars than I do now. I had quite a few, but they’re not with me anymore. I had about seven really fine instruments ripped off. That was a little less than a year ago, and ever since then I haven’t been financially in a position to go out and get a lot of old guitars. I’ve kind of gotten to the point now where I want to use something new.
Did you used to play vintage?
Oh, yeah, and I still do now. There’s a guitar in Houston that’s called a Robin guitar – it’s a brand-new guitar that’s really fine. It’s a variation on the Erlewine guitar, which is also real fine. And there’s a cat in town named Mike Stevens that makes a great instrument. Those are several of the new instruments that not only have a good sound, but they look real good. They don’t look like old instruments. They’re a new design, and they don’t look like copies. If and when I start using a new instrument, that would really be a strong prerequisite for me. What I use is old vintage Strats almost all the time, but I wouldn’t want a brand-new guitar that is a copy of a Strat. I’d rather have something that was new-looking, but then I don’t want it to look like a kitchen sink. So I’ve been having trouble trying to find the right thing.
What are your main guitars now?
I have two Strats that I use. One’s a ’63 rosewood, and I have a ’54 maple-neck Strat.
Do you have other guitars that you use a lot?
Oh, yeah, I do. I have a real nice Martin that I use a lot. It’s a D-45, but it’s a custom-made one that’s a copy of the pre-World War II. It’s got the snowflake inlay. It’s a new one, but it’s real nice. There’s a guy in town who picked it out for me. In fact, there’s a great country player in town named Steve Hennig. He does not play gigs, but he’s quite a fine player, and he selected this guitar. Speaking of guitar, have you ever heard Danny Gatton play?
Oh, yeah. He’s great.
God! Oh, man. That guy can play! He’s from Washington, D.C. He was playing with Roger Miller when I met him – he was passing through town.
Is Austin still much of a music center?
I think it is to a certain point. It’s heading towards becoming more connected. There’s a lot of music happening. It fluctuates. Right now, there’s a pretty good scene happening. I don’t think it’s really genuinely connected to the East and West Coasts, though. There are some people that think Austin is the new music capital, so they’ll move down there, and sometimes they can be a bit disillusioned. It’s a great place and it’s a beautiful place and it’s a nice place to create, but it’s pretty necessary to go elsewhere to establish a milestone in your career.
Have you ever considered moving to Los Angeles?
I have. I very much have.
What stopped you?
Well, when I started working with the manager in Houston, it was based out of Texas, and we were just giving it a go from this base. I’ve considered it. I’m looking very much forward to working with this new band, and I hope to maybe leave Austin eventually, for a while or for a long time, however it may be. I do look forward to getting out and playing more. I lived in New York for a while, which I really enjoyed. I guess I’ve always wanted to have it really together before I just go off and move somewhere. And also I’ve been lucky to make a good living here playing, so I’ve been hesitant to go somewhere.
Have you played much outside of Texas?
Not a whole lot. I’ve only played once in L.A. and once in New York. I’ve played a lot through the South, like from South Carolina and all the states out to Arizona, but I’ve never really played in the North much. Last April I went to Europe with Carole King to do a tour.
Have you ever met any of your musical heroes, like Jeff Beck?
Yeah, I have. I’ve never met Beck – I want to meet Beck real bad.
I met him when we did an interview last year.
Oh, did you?! God!
I was surprised. I thought Jeff would be kind of an intimidating character, but he was a perfect gentleman. In fact, I had laryngitis the day I was supposed to fly to L.A. to do the interview, so he sent word not to wear myself out, that he’d fly up to where I was – there was also a car show in San Jose that he wanted to see. When my voice began giving out during the interview, he took my list of questions and began reading them and answering them himself.
That’s great! Wow. Yeah, I’ve heard that that’s the way he is. That’s nice to know, that people that are that heavy as far as contributing such great music are also great people. But I’ve always wanted to meet him. Oh, I always wanted to meet Hendrix, but that I never got to do. I’ve visited a little bit – not a lot – but I know John McLaughlin a little bit. We’ve had a couple of real short raps, and he’s really inspirational to me. I have the utmost respect for him, because I think he always goes a direction and path with music that inspires him to pioneer and explore. Like when he did Shakti, he just went off and did it. And that’s so beautiful. It was really nice meeting him, and he’s a great player.
I’m sure there’s a lot. I am sure there are a lot of players. Danny Gatton, who is getting to be pretty well known now, he’s just an excellent player. When it comes to the Jerry Reed country stuff, he can just tear it up. He burns the rug off the floor. This guy in town named Steve Hennig is real good. He’s a Danny Gattonish-type player. [Shrapnel Records producer] Mike Varney played me some stuff over the phone that sounded really good. Ted Greene is incredible. He should be President! [Laughs.] No. I think he’s a really fine player. Of course, he’s well known, I guess. But I think if a lot of people had the opportunity to hear cats like that, it would really touch them in their lives.
Is it frustrating to be so talented but unrecognized? What do you feel when you see less-talented people getting more fame and recognition?
Well, it’s probably a combination of both sides – somebody being at the right place, like everybody says, at the right moment. Some people do so much with whatever they have, however little it is, that it’s really focused and it really shines. I guess people who have a lot of talent and a lot of energy have a double responsibility to try to focus it and polish it extra well to where it really shines through. It’s kind of like negotiating the rapids – if you have some ability, it’s just a matter of putting it in a context that will receive recognition. Although it is frustrating, and I do see people who are extremely talented, but they don’t ever seem to be able to break through that fog. It’s frustrating for me, but what I always try to do, which I found is very important for me, is that I always try to remember my priorities. When I play music, I do it because I love the music. I let that be my enjoyment and uplift me, rather than trying to depend on, “Oh, if I have this, then I’ll be happy” or “I won’t be frustrated if I have this major recording deal.” I’m trying to keep that priority number two and three, so that the one thing that I can always depend on – which is me enjoying the music – is something nobody can take that away from me.
What are your views on the pursuit of commercialism vs. art?
I like all different types of music. I enjoy the challenge of trying to write a tune that will be popular.
Has your devotion to your art prevented you from becoming more commercial?
Oh, I think maybe a little bit. There are certain guidelines and there’s a certain point that I don’t like to venture from. I try to maintain some type of originality and pioneering aspect to everything I go for, but I enjoy trying to do a pop sound. It’s so relative, what a lot of people think is popular-sounding. Even if you get something where you think, “Oh, this is really on the money,” everybody might think it’s some German import or something from Mars. One frustrating thing for a lot of artists is the way the business is set up, because it’s gotten so huge. It would be nice if they were a little bit more open-minded and some companies would look at the mere talent. And if the concept is focused and it’s really nice, they should let that float through their housing of a record label and let people decide for themselves, because I think a lot of things that never get to make it to vinyl are great. If they were presented right, they would do extremely well, if people would just have faith that the public can think for themselves. To a certain extent, the public is fed a certain style and a certain batch of music without really being able to make decisions on their own about what they want to hear.
Does it bother you to be playing in clubs when lesser talents are packing arenas?
Yeah, I guess it’s a responsibility for me to properly package it. I just feel that I’ve got to negotiate those rapids, and I’ll just have to learn by my mistakes and figure out what I need to do to get to where I want to be. I’m just trying to dig the music.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I just want to give everything I have to guitar and try to achieve the artistry to be able to do something really different with it. I think there was a lot of explosive things happening with guitar in rock in the ’60s, and I think there are some cats like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Morse who are doing some really neat stuff. I’d like to see more innovation, and that’s what I’d like to do in a rock idiom, especially now. I don’t know about later. I’d like to employ all sorts of styles and give a booster shot and just uplift it, if I can. I want to make the attempt to try to do stuff that hasn’t been done. It kind of heals me to hear really cool, great guitar playing. I just hope that maybe it rubs off on me a little bit. I just want to contribute something.
Ultimately, where would you like to be?
I’d like to have my own studio and be able to record albums the way I want, which is really experimenting with guitar. I’d like to think that people would be interested in hearing ’em. I’d just like to be free to create and contribute some new things for guitar.
What advice would you give players in a similar position?
To just always sustain that high feeling that they derive from the guitar and remember that that’s the jewel that they’ll always receive from their effort. And to always try to attain those goals that they want to do, and don’t lose their composure and get overly excited when things start happening. At the same time, don’t get really disappointed and disillusioned and negate their attitude when things don’t happen. Just keep persevering. Sooner or later, they’ll see by their own reflection what they need to create and what they need to do. I hope that’s right! I hope that formula works.
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 of Eric Johnson, 2010, used with permission. © Max Crace. All rights reserved. Thanks, Max!
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.