Eric Johnson On His Most Revealing Album: 'Up Close'
GW As you get older, does it become easier to trust your emotional instincts?
JOHNSON Absolutely. As you go through life, you get to a place where you can trust your feelings and not be afraid to share them. It might have taken me a while longer than a lot of artists, but I feel as though I’m finding that place, for sure. You know, when you’re young, you can’t show all your cards to people; you gotta be cool and stuff. But now, I’m at a place where if I see a flower and it turns me on, I’m going to say, “Hey, isn’t that a beautiful flower?” And I know it’s all right to say that. I’m having an experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
GW Let’s talk gear. As far as guitars and amps go, what combination of instruments and gear works best for you?
JOHNSON My amps are really well put together by Bill Webb [of Fullton-Webb], [high-end audio products designer] George Alessandro or [Austin Tone Lab founder] Bill Ussery. Those three guys are amazing when it comes to tuning stuff and making everything just right. But the amps are pretty much stock. I use Blackface Twin Reverbs. For dirty rhythm, I’ll use either a Fulton-Webb dirty rhythm amp or a Dumble amp. For leads, I’ll use either a 50- or a 100-watt Marshall head.
These days I rely pretty exclusively on my signature Fender Strats. I worked with Michael Braun [principal engineer, guitar design] at Fender to design my own pickups. I wanted to get them balanced, and I wanted the bridge pickup to be hot but not at the sake of losing the clean tone. That’s really the key—having just enough clean and dirty going at the same time.
GW Besides your signature Strats, you do have some vintage models, though, right?
JOHNSON Right now, I only have a ’57. [He leans right into the recorder, cups his hand at the mic] But I am looking for a ’54! [laughs] I had a real nice ’54, but I sold it. Oh, but I do have a fantastic Gibson ES-335 from 1964. That’s a really beautiful instrument. I don’t need a lot of guitars, though. I used to have a bunch, but I found that I wasn’t using them.
GW How did you record the solos on the new record? Did you do multiple takes and comp them?
JOHNSON Actually, on this record, I trusted my first instincts more than I ever had before. The three sound pieces, that whole thing was one giant take—just me going for it. “Texas” was a first-take solo. The ending solo on “Arithmetic,” I did that probably 10 times and I was never happy with it. So one day, I just said, “Hey, it’s just a bunch of notes. Let’s roll tape.” And whatever came out was what I stuck with. I had to beat myself up a bit to reach that point of spontaneity. It’s a process I’m exploring. [pauses, smiles] But you know, there’s still one little note that bugs me in that solo…
GW You’ll never be satisfied.
JOHNSON [laughs] No, I’m cool with it. I’m learning. I’m trusting that what comes out is what’s meant to come out. I’m believing that what’s going on is bigger than me. I’m seeing the value in that. This record, like I said, is a starting point for so much of what’s to come. And I know my best work is ahead of me because of where I am mentally.
GW Do you practice the guitar much, or are you at the point where you don’t really need to?
JOHNSON Oh, no. I definitely need to play and practice. I practice every day, in fact. If I don’t, I get rusty. [laughs]
GW Are there specific areas of your playing you want to try to improve?
JOHNSON Yeah, I’d like to learn more chords. I feel pretty good about my soloing and all that, but chords… There’s so many I still don’t know. I think if I was more versed in that aspect of the guitar, my music would grow exponentially.
GW Going back to your sound, let me ask you something: Do you ever feel pressure to reproduce that famous tone? Does the weight of people’s expectations ever get to you?
JOHNSON It’s funny: I was talking to my girlfriend, Erin, about that very thing last night. I think it all comes down to ego. I know when I go onstage I sometimes have that feeling: I gotta blow these people away tonight. But it’s a two-way street. It’s based on your own perception of yourself, and then it comes down to what you think people expect of you. So what you have to do is remove yourself and just be. Be in the moment. I’ve had a couple of nights on the Hendrix tour where I really enjoyed every second of it, but I think what made that possible is that I didn’t think of anything—I just played.
I know what you’re talking about, though. It’s hard to get out of the way of your ego, particularly once you start becoming known for whatever. I think the important thing is not to think of people’s expectations as a burden, and not to think of your own expectations as a burden, either. You just have to try to enjoy the experience of playing music. More and more, that’s where I want to be.
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