Eric Johnson On His Most Revealing Album: 'Up Close'
And Johnson isn’t averse to reaching fans via unconventional routes, such as video games. Since its inclusion in Guitar Hero III in 2007, “Cliffs of Dover” has been one of the most popular tracks of the game franchise. “I don’t have a problem with the whole video game thing,” he says. “Whether or not people pick up real guitars after playing the games, I can’t say. But it’s interesting to me how the guitar has become this iconic image in pop culture. The instrument and its application in music are constantly evolving. I’m just trying to find my own way.”
With the release of Up Close, Johnson’s fans are simply hoping that the guitarist finds his way to the stage. Not that he’s been a total recluse. Since 2008, he’s taken part in three Experience Hendrix tours, and come January he’s set to embark on the second leg of the all-acoustic Guitar Masters tour (which also features Peppino D’Agostino and YouTube phenom Andy McKee). But hearing their hero perform a full set of his own galvanizing electric music is what the guitarist’s admirers are clamoring for. Johnson says an Up Close tour is in the works but not imminent. “I do plan on hitting the road for the new record, probably in the spring,” he says. “I’ve got to put a new band together and get out there. The guys I was playing with have sort’ve moved on, so I’ve got to find some people and see if I can get some chemistry going. And I think it might be fun to find somebody else to sing and play some guitar and keyboards —you know, shake things up a bit. Right now, I don’t want to repeat what I’ve done before. I’ve gotta go somewhere new.”
GUITAR WORLD Before we talk about Up Close, I want to ask you about Jimi Hendrix, who has been such an influence on your playing style. Do you think it’s possible, in this day and age, that somebody can come along and have the same impact that he did on guitarists in 1967?
ERIC JOHNSON I do think somebody can still have that kind of impact on musicians. I’d hate to think that it’s all been done. Will that person be playing the guitar? I don’t know. Possibly. But to do that, that person is going to have to throw out a large portion of the rulebook. There’s so much that’s been established on the guitar—accepted patterns and norms—and it’s all one big comfort zone. Face it: the foundations of rock guitar are based so much on the pentatonic scale. We all use it. We come out and play patterns and licks and solos that mix up that same set of notes. So whoever changes things around is going to have to do something radically different.
GW But Hendrix adhered to certain established “rules” as well. He was schooled in the blues, and a lot of his playing had its foundation in the very thing you’re talking about, the pentatonic scale.
JOHNSON Yeah, but he amped things up to such a degree. He made it seem so different. And it wasn’t so much that he made it seem different; he was different. He was one of the first generation of guys who cranked up the fuzz and the feedback and turned things inside out. B.B. King was experimenting with that, and so were guys like Link Wray and Jeff Beck. But to blow it all to pieces in such a psychedelic way, with rock and blues and some jazz coming together as one—it was extraordinary.
Plus there was his tone: I remember when I first heard the album Are You Experienced, I wasn’t even sure I was hearing a guy play the guitar. [laughs] I was just getting past surf music and the early British rock, and here came this guy who just blew everyone away. Can somebody do that again? I hope so. It’d be cool to have that happen again. Will it happen during my lifetime? Time will tell.
GW The title Up Close is sort of generic, but in fact the title has a very specific and important meaning to you.
JOHNSON Yeah, it does. It’s basically me saying, Okay, I’m going to expose more of myself than I have before. It’s time that I let the gates down and show myself, you know? Even with the lyrics to the vocal tunes, they’re probably some of the most personal and intimate things I’ve ever written. This record is the beginning in many ways. It’s me trying to play more, show more, just be in the moment more than I ever have been.
GW Five years have passed between Bloom and Up Close. Were there any changes to how you approached recording?
JOHNSON Yeah, there were. Even though I did spend a bunch of time on the new record, I know I spent much less time than on other records, which is a step in the right direction. I just tried to let go, to be more open to spontaneity and intimacy.
GW Is that hard for you, though? I get the feeling that letting go doesn’t come easily to you. You like to hold on to your recordings and labor over them, almost to the point of what some have called “obsessiveness.”
JOHNSON [laughs] That could be true. With me, I have to satisfy the intellect. Without a doubt, though, I have to realize that certain applications just won’t pay off the dividends that I thought they would. With this record, I had to understand that the most important thing I had to do was make better music and play the guitar to the best of my ability, but not at the expense of the songs themselves. The more I crystallized that priority in my life, the more it became comfortable for me to be open and let things happen naturally.
It’s weird: I got to a place mentally where I said, I don’t always want to react to life. You know what I mean? I don’t always want to be acting or reacting; I want to be breathing life. We create our own reality by what we think and project. It sounds trite, but the truth is, if you can change your own life then you can change the world. I guess that’s a funny way of saying that I know I have to be free with what I’m doing and not beat stuff to death.