Interview: Eric Johnson
Throughout the history of the electric guitar, there has been a long and ever-growing list of guitar heroes.
In any "greatest guitarists of all time" survey, the usual suspects will always be included: Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai and Dimebag Darrel -- among countless others.
One name that surely could be included on such a list is Eric Johnson. While the name might not have the mainstream recognition as some of his contemporaries, guitar players throughout the world know Johnson as one the greatest players alive with a tone, feel and technique that's instantly recognizable and second to none.
Some guitarists might be content to rest on their reputation and rely on older material. Eric Johnson, however, isn't one of those guitarists.
In December 2010, he released Up Close, his first record in five years. Highlights include the instrumentals "Fatdaddy" and "Vortexan," plus a cover of Electric Flag's "Texas," featuring fellow Texans Jimmie Vaughan and Steve Miller.
He’ll also be continuing his Up Close this summer with Miller and Buddy Guy.
Guitar World spoke with Johnson about the above -- and more.
GUITAR WORLD: You were on this year’s Experience Hendrix tour, which featured a lot of great musicians such as Steve Vai, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Billy Cox and Chris Layton. What was it like playing with guys like Cox and Layton, people who have played with two of the biggest blues-rock guitarists of all time?
Yeah man, it’s a real trip. Billy is such a nice guy, and he’s a great emcee for the whole tour. It’s just wonderful to be around somebody who was a close friend of Jimi and played music with him and who is such a nice guy. He’s just happy to be out there and have fun playing music.
How did all of the musicians on the tour decide who got to play what song? Did you all pick the songs you wanted to do, or did they rotate each night?
Usually it’s whoever decides what, whenever they turn in their list first and those get taken. Then you have to just find stuff that somebody else isn’t doing yet.
Did you have any favorites that you did each night or that you wanted to do?
Yeah I kind of went with “House Burning Down” or “One Rainy Wish” or “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Axis Bold as Love,” and “Are You Experienced.”
On your new album, Up Close, you worked with Jimmie Vaughan and Jonny Lang. How did did those sessions come about?
Well, I just kind of asked them if they’d come in and sit in on something. It was cool to just get some different musical stuff going on instead of me just playing everything.
There was about five years between Up Close and your last album, Bloom. Was it a matter of working out the material as far as writing it, or was it more about getting the recording the way you wanted it? Or did you just want to take a break?
Yeah, it was just touring and doing other stuff.
At this point in your career, you’ve won countless awards and are widely regarded as one of the best guitarists in the world. Is it hard to find new ways to express yourself on the guitar or to keep your music and writing fresh?
No. I think that, if that’s what you want to do, and you can put that as your goal, there are ways it can happen. One of the things I want to try to do is just kind of let go of whatever preconceived way you think of how you should play or what you know and try to open up, learn something new and do something different. I just want to be able to be excited and enthusiastic about playing. It’s easy to do that if you don’t box yourself in, and it’s as simple as just choosing to not box yourself in.
Just put the question out to the universe and somehow or another you’ll stumble upon something just because you have that mindset that you’re open.
How did "Cliffs of Dover" end up being included in the Guitar Hero video game, and have you ever tried playing that song on the game?
When they first started that game many years ago, they just called and said, "Hey, can we put that on?" and I thought, sure whatever. We just thought it’d be some little game somebody did, but it ended up being a successful thing. I don’t even know how to play Guitar Hero. I think I’d choose to play in real life before being able to play a video game.