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Eric Johnson: In Full Bloom
Feature by: Matt Pinson
Photos by: Max Crace
In the guitar world, few musicians command the respect and admiration bestowed upon Eric Johnson. A man universally recognized for not just his virtuosic musicianship, but also his incomparable tone, he continues to defy industry categorization with his unique blend of rock, blues, country, and pop stylings. He is legend among guitarists of all genres for his level of dedication and perfectionism on stage, in the studio, and in carefully putting the pieces together that make up his trademark sound. In fact, it is his unmistakable violin-like, richly sustaining, overdriven guitar tone that has earned him consideration as the guitar world’s “Patron Saint of Tone.” Knowing fans, though, have long realized that there is much more to Eric Johnson’s music than incredible guitar tone.
While Eric already had one fully realized and awe-inspiring solo album under his belt with Tones, it was his breakthrough multi-platinum album, Ah Via Musicom, which propelled Eric into widespread notoriety and onto the covers of music magazines around the globe. Austin’s best kept secret since Stevie Ray Vaughan had quickly become part of guitardom’s collective consciousness and his liquid, lighting-fast pentatonic lines became a matter for instant recognition and appreciation by soulful blues players and technical shredders alike. His G3 performances with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, both live and captured on video, have further expanded his devoted audience.
His latest releases, Bloom and Alien Love Child, stand together as a marked statement to the eclecticism of the artist, while at the same time, offer an intimate glimpse into the ever-changing eyes of his muse. Bloom itself is testament to the flexibility of the artist and the nomadic nature of his current musical wanderings. Eloquently divided into three sections; Prelude, Courante, and Allemande, the album showcases a wide range of sounds from catchy, modern, electronic-infused grooves ala Jeff Beck’s later work to more delicate blues-tinged jazz textures that underscore one of his earliest influences, Wes Montgomery. Lest some fans wonder if he has indeed outgrown his bluesier roots ala Clapton and Hendrix, Alien Love Child casts such nonsense quickly to the side and places Johnson in a live blues setting and in particularly rare form. Soulful, fiery, melodic, and inspired, Eric’s playing is simply transcendent, much like the man himself.
In this rare opportunity, MusicPlayers.com sits down with Eric Johnson to discuss the finer nuances of his playing, his tone, and his creative journey.
MPc: You have an instantly recognizable sound. This is the result of not just your beautiful guitar tone, but also of your unique amalgamation of stylistic influences. Not only are the influences of Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, and Jimi Hendrix easily heard, but an eclectic range of other influences, too. Sometimes I wonder if a certain degree of the influence contributing to your intervallic lead playing can be attributed to some classical influence.
EJ: Piano was my first instrument – I played piano for about 7 years. I did study classical piano as a kid.
MPc: One of the most quickly identifiable trademarks of your playing is the frequent use of fast pentatonic minor scale sequences, which descend like waterfalls and lend a very fluid feel to your phrasing. Can you offer insight into how you construct these sequences, whether you use patterns other than the typical box fingerings to help facilitate the speed and flow of these lines, how you typically pick these lines (alternate picking or legato), and what advice you would impart to someone who wished to add some of this to their own playing.
EJ: I tend to stay away from the box fingerings a bit. Instead, I kind of connect different things together and try to be a little bit methodical in my approach. I jump around as per the string tension and the kind of sound and tonality I want. I try not to get too curtailed into one little section of the guitar. So, to stay out of the riff areas, I just like to stay open and play whatever comes through.
MPc: Some of the faster fingerings that I’ve seen for pentatonic scales, which some players refer to as “speed pentatonics,” are scale fingerings where the patterns are divided into alternating sets of three notes per one string and one note on the following string, rather than the typical two note per string box patterns. “Economy picking” is usually employed to quickly pick through these fingerings, whereby you alternate pick the three note per string sections and then sweep through the one note per string section, landing onto the first note of the next three note per string sections. Do you do anything like that, or are you instead just connecting the typical two note per string patterns with standard alternate picking or legato approaches?
EJ: It’s a little bit of everything.
MPc: Do you find that you most often tend to alternate pick through these patterns or are you most frequently employing more of a legato approach of hammer-ons and pull-offs?
EJ: I’ll approach it in different ways. Sometimes. I’ll just pull them off with my fingers. Sometimes I’ll pick every note. Sometimes I’ll pick every other note. It’s dependant on the sound that I’m going for. I try to utilize any of the different ways of doing it.
MPc: What advice would you offer for someone who wanted to add some of that to their own playing?
EJ: It’s good to practice playing parts where you pick every note. When I do that, I try to pick up to the guitar instead of sideways, where you’re brushing the string like a paintbrush. Practicing picking every note is good. Once you get good at it, then I think it’s advisable to not always play that way. It has a certain sound and I personally don’t like to do it every time that I play licks. It sounds a little more legato or “smoother” if I don’t do it a lot. I think it is good practice, though, simply because you can pick and choose where you want to pick and where you don’t because you’ve practiced the ability to alternate pick everything.
MPc: Another beautiful aspect to your playing is your use of intervallic lead lines and melodies. Where some players would simply play up or down a scale in stepwise fashion, you instead leap over wider intervals and create a fresh sound. Can you help us to understand your method for playing this way, and describe for us which intervals and patters you most often gravitate towards?
EJ: It’s really just inversions. If you have the tonic, and the third, the fifth, sixth, seventh, whatever... you can flip the order of those around and put the seventh on the bottom or put the fifth on the bottom and then you can widen out the phrase by transposing the individual notes up or down an octave, for example. It’s really about utilizing the different octaves that will happen in those intervals of scales. You can mix them up in countless ways and you come up with a complete different sound by doing so. It doesn’t sound like you’re just running through an interval of scales.
MPc: Besides the pentatonic minor and major, what other scales do you tend to use most often in your lead phrasing?
EJ: I like the minor scales and I’ve been fooling around with the half-tone, whole-tone scales; the diminished scales. I try to just learn more of all of it. There are passing tones, where if you are playing a pentatonic scale, you can move in to the fifth by playing the flat five right before it, or the major seventh right before it, if it’s really quick. The third can go into the minor third. You can use every other note of the 12-tone scale. Even if you’re just playing pentatonic rock music, you can hear that each note of the pentatonic scale has passing tones going into it.
MPc: Something that I might do if I’m playing principally within pentatonic scales is to include a note from a diatonic scale that isn’t normally included in the pentatonic scale that I’m playing at the moment. If I’m playing in pentatonic minor, I might reference the natural sixth, in order to lend it that Dorian flavor, for instance. Something else I might do is to avoid a particular note in the pentatonic, such as the 3rd in a major pentatonic scale, which leaves the major versus minor tonality ambiguous.
EJ: Exactly, yeah.
MPc: Something else that you are quite gifted at is writing lush, colorful chord arrangements. Do you have any favorite chord voicings or movements that you care to share?
EJ: Thanks. I sometimes like to borrow chords voicings from the piano. Either that or I will play around on the guitar and change notes here and there until I come up with a chord that’s a little bit atypical. For some reason, I like the sound of that more than just playing the same “stock” chords over and over.
MPc: Do you have any favorites? Do you tend to prefer, maybe, minor ninths or have an affinity for flatted elevenths? Is there anything that you really love?
EJ: You know, really, I just experiment until I find a voicing that just sounds good to me.
MPc: Not too long ago you worked closely with Fender to develop your signature series Stratocaster. I actually just finished reviewing these for our online magazine and have one on order for myself. What is your overall feeling regarding these instruments? Do the ones you personally use have any modifications or differences from the ones that appear in the stores?
EJ: I like them a lot. There are a couple of changes, minor changes, that we implemented in this design, such as a little bit flatter fingerboard and thicker frets. Also, having the tone control hooked up to the bridge so that I can balance out the EQ curve of the bridge somewhat with the neck where it’s still on the spectrum. And the headstock being at a little bit different angle so I can get rid of the string trees. You know, string trees are a real source of tuning problems.
Other than that I really just wanted to make an instrument that retained as much of that old fifties vintage as possible. It’s pretty much flat-on like Leo Fender had it in the old days, except for those several changes that I thought were somewhat passing changes in so much that they weren’t altering the guitar, they were just trying to make it a little more “modern” without taking away the magic from the inception of the original instrument.
MPc: You specified a lot of changes that many guitarists were extremely happy to see; for instance the nitrocellulose lacquer finish. The nitro doesn’t have an undercoat, does it?
EJ: No, and the guitar has been received really well. If there has been any criticism of the guitar, it’s been the finish. That’s because we’ve gotten so used to the big thick, plastic finishes that have come to be associated with guitars. But if you look at old violins and the way violins are made, they are finished with a very thin varnish. They are fragile and that’s just kind of the way it is. The point of that is to let the guitar breathe more. It comes with the territory that the finish is going to be just a little bit more fragile.
I have some old Strats, and they’re like that. They’re not painted to oblivion, but there’s a merit to that. Some people have been like “Oh man, this finish is too fragile.”
MPc: Well, if it sounds good, that’s the point right?
EJ: Yeah, yeah. Plus I like it when the finish gets funky anyhow (laughing).
MPc: Obviously some compromises have to be made when building an instrument for large-scale production and also in order to be offered in a particular price range. Where did Fender “hit the nail on the head” and where, if these compromises didn’t exist, would you have liked to see some differences?
EJ: Well, the weight thing. It fluctuates a little more than I would like it to. There is a ceiling on the weight, they can’t go over a certain weight and if it was many years ago when they had more availability of wood, then we could bring that ceiling down a little bit more. More than half of them out there are extremely lightweight, which is wonderful. But every now and then, from time to time, some of them are a little heavier than I’d like to see. But it’s just the availability of wood; it’s just tough nowadays. Unless we wanted to jack the price up crazy.
Actually, the price was going to be cheaper than it is now and we wanted to do the lightweight, grade A alder wood. And I wanted to do the extra contouring on the side and I wanted to do the quarter sawn, high-quality maple neck. Those were issues that I had two choices with when the guitar came out, either I was going to have to let go of some of the quality of that or we had to raise the price. I just elected to raise the price because that would be defeating the whole purpose of it; to put it out and let those things go. That’s the quality that those instruments used to be and I wanted to stick with that.
That’s why it’s whatever the list price is now, because even though it’s a production guitar, there are elements of the guitar that at the end had to be done by hand, which is a little different than some of their other production guitars. There is some hand sanding required for the extra contours and things like that. I guess the only thing is that I think we could have been a little more discriminating about the wood weight. But then the guitar would have been even more expensive.
MPc: When I was doing the research for my review of the Eric Johnson signature Stratocaster, I was trying to discern how consistent they were, and one of the things that I was doing was weighing them. They seemed to vary a bit; the one that I fell in love with was probably the one you would have fell in love with. It was probably under 7 pounds. It really bloomed when you played it.
In further discussion of the Strat bodies, I know that at one time you had said that you prefer one piece bodies whenever available. As the Eric Johnson Strat features a two-piece body, I wondered would it have been pretty hard for Fender to specify one-piece bodies instead for these guitars?
EJ: It would have, and I have kind of come off of that a little bit because I noticed that some of my old Strats are two-piece, and they happen to be great sounding. Sometimes I don’t know if once you figure out ,“Oh, this is what makes something sound good,” if tomorrow will come and prove you wrong. It’s almost as if it’s mojo. I really think it’s the inter-relationship of the sum of all the parts that makes it a beautiful instrument more than saying, “This one part needs to be like that,” because tomorrow you may be proven wrong (laughing).
MPc: You are often looked upon like the “Patron Saint of Tone” and I wonder if that sometimes doesn’t get a little old for you, where you might feel it distracts people from your actual playing. Do you ever want to just say, “Forget about my sound for a minute and just look at my playing?”
EJ: If it does, it’s all my fault because I’ve spent way too much time trying to improve my tone. Actually in the last year, I’m not spending as much time as I used to. I’m trying to let go of that because life’s short and it’s time to start making records and making music.
Although, I feel it has been meritable to chase that tone thing because I really want the guitar to sound a certain way and I’m pretty pleased with the sound I’m getting now. I think over the years, it wasn’t that my sound wasn’t good; it was just so inconsistent night to night, and I had been unrelenting on discovering some sort of an alphabet or a blueprint for myself, and there has been no other reason to keep my sound consistent.
In the last year, I’ve gone, “Ok, good enough. Let’s let it go and just go with what we got.” But yeah, in a way maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if I decided that ten years ago and put out more music. Hopefully now I’ll keep on the path and keep going forward and make more music.
MPc: What you’ve always put out sounds incredible so I would personally not change a thing. I think you’re doing a great job!
EJ: I fell in love with the guitar sound in the old days and I’m trying to keep some of that persona. That’s my mission in life, as far as a musician, to give a gift, hopefully to make more and better music, but it’s to retain some of the special persona that the guitar that I fell in love with had.
MPc: When I saw you most recently on stage, for your lead tones, you were using a pair of late ‘60’s Marshall Plexi heads running into some closed back Marshall 4x12 cabs loaded with Celestion Greenbacks. Pedal wise, I saw a vintage blue Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, a Boss DS-1, and a Tube Driver pedal. I’ve been in recent communication with BK Butler, designer of the Tube Driver, and he mentioned that he had recently built some new Tube Drivers with his variable Bias Mod. What are your thoughts on this pedal?
EJ: They’re great! I just got one, and it sounds great. I’m scared that he’ll quit making them (laughing)! I want to get several more. I actually think I like it better than the old ones. That guy, you know, and those pedals are really great, I really like them. They have a little bit of a hum, but no big deal.
MPc: The tone that you had for the Red House encores with Joe Satriani and Johnny A was especially happening. Which pedals were you using for this? I saw a Boss DS-1 in your pedal board. The Boss DS-1 that Joe Satriani frequently uses is modified. Are any of your pedals modified, and if so, in what ways?
EJ: I’ve never used a DS-1 before this. I was in Canada a few weeks ago and I saw one in a pawnshop and I thought what the heck, I’ll try it out. It’s just real smooth and creamy and fat sounding. I thought I remembered trying them in the past and they were sort of middy and bright. I am probably going to try to pick up another one.
MPc: A lot of our readers are very technically minded and pretty gear savvy. I’m sure some of them are asking, “How does he get that particular sound? Did he pull out his tone control in his Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and replace the 100k pot with the 500k?” I don’t know if there are any little secrets that you want to share or just some words of encouragement?
EJ: To be honest with you, I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’ve gotten a few pieces of gear that sound right to me now. Everything I’m using is stock. I don’t think there is anything I have that’s modded. I put JBLs in one of my [Fender] Twins and the other one doesn’t even have JBLs in it anymore, it just has the Jensens. That Marshall head I’m using is a brand new one that I didn’t mod apart from having George Alesandro putting a handful of old caps [capacitors] in it where they were really important. Then I put some different filter caps in it, but they’re all stock values [for capacitance].
MPc: We were talking to Andy Timmons and he said that you really stunned him when he looked off of the stage and, when he looked at you, you gave him a thumbs up. He said that you were really digging his tone coming through his Mesa/Boogie Stiletto Aces and Lone Stars. [Reviews of the Lone Star and Stiletto amps, and an in-depth interview with Andy Timmons can be found by clicking these links.]
Do you ever get a wild hair and decide, “Hey I’m going to try some completely new things out?” like maybe some Mesa/Boogie stuff?
EJ: Yeah, I’d like to do that. I was actually talking to them that night about trying one. They make a re-issue of the Mark I. I used to use those amps and I really enjoyed them in the old days. I know it would be neat to try some different stuff.
MPc: I have had a great relationship with Mesa/Boogie over the years. I actually have Prince’s Lone Star (that I am reviewing) in my living room, which is an incredible amp. I’ve been a Mark series player for a long time. I was just interested to know if you’ve found what you like or if there was that nagging itch to know, “I wonder what else is out there?”
EJ: I pretty much found what I like. I’m always interested in hearing something out there if it’s really great. But I think I’m, for therapeutic reasons, not interested in chasing it too deep anymore. You just get totally sidetracked and three weeks go by and I’ve seen that happen to me so much. I’m really waning myself away from that because it really ultimately is important to just make music. I’m pushing that on myself big and hard these days.
If something falls in your lap, that’s fine and great. You can get on with the music in five minutes. But if it’s something that you’re chasing down and you spend four days chasing, you spend one week fixing and then you spend another week adjusting. It’s chasing something that’s down a rabbit hole.
MPc: We’ve talked a lot about Strats, but I know you’re a big ES-335 fan as well. Any plans on working with Gibson on a signature 335?
EJ: I don’t know if there would be a point to it because I would just do it exactly like the old ’64 335. There is nothing about that guitar (I think) that I don’t like. It wouldn’t be very original. I did hear that from time to time they make one of those.
MPc: They made one for Eric Clapton. There’s the Clapton Crossroads 335.
EJ: I’ve seen one of those but I’ve never plugged one in.
MPc: I’ve got a ’59 reissue that I dig. I really love it! There’s something special about a 335.
EJ: 335’s are just great. You know what’s so funny is the whole time I spent copying Clapton note for note, I’d see him in pictures with an SG or Les Paul. And I had a 335, and I thought, “Oh man, getting close. But I wish I had a guitar like Clapton!” Then I come to find out that most of the stuff he did was on a 335 (laughing)! And I just never saw pictures of him with it, so I never knew that I was closer than I thought all those years trying to copy him because I already had the 335 (laughing). They are one of my favorite guitars ever made.
MPc: Speaking of 335’s… Both your playing and your guitar tone on the Alien Love Child album were amazing! Are you going to do anything more with the musicians from Alien Love Child?
EJ: I’d love to. I’ve got to get a 6’8” dominatrix with a big whip and a black leather hood on, no later than 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning, and start hearing the whip crack on the floor (laughing)!
MPc: That’s a hilarious visual (laughing)! So, what do we have to look forward to now? We’ve got the new album, we’ve got the recent instructional video with a little bit of live performance on that…
EJ: We did this HDTV show with Joe [Satriani] on the tour so that will be coming out on TV. Then I’ll be sending a DVD of an hour-long concert footage as well. I’ve still got plans for an acoustic record and an electric record. I’ve got the music together; I just have to get to work!
MPc: Well, I guess we’d better wrap things up here let you get started, then! Thank you so much for your generous time, your incredible insight, and most of all for the many years of beautiful and inspiring music! We look forward to many more!
For those who may have missed Eric’s incredible performances with fellow guitar hero, Joe Satriani [click here for the MusicPlayers.com interview with Joe], or for those who simply can’t get enough of Eric’s amazing playing, he will be kicking off his “Return of Big Texans from Outer Space” tour with a special appearance on July 15th with Sammy Hagar & The Wabos.
For a select number of dates only, Johnson will appear as the Steve Miller Band’s special guest, performing songs off his recent album Bloom as well as favorites from his repertoire. These dates will mark a reunion of sorts for Johnson, as the rhythm section that appeared on Eric’s 1986 debut, Tones, is back on board – bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tommy Taylor.
For more details, visit the official Eric Johnson website at http://www.ericjohnson.com.
Equipment photos by Matt Pinson.
Matt Pinson, former MusicPlayers.com senior editor, is an accomplished musician and engineer based in the San Francisco Bay area. His production audio engineering talents are used by television networks and motion picture companies, and he consults on equipment and music technology for professional musicians.
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