Undoubtedly one of the most respected guitarists on the planet, Eric Johnson kicked off his solo career as the leader of the Eric Johnson Group in the late 1970s.
While still a working session musician—his early credits include Carole King, Christopher Cross and Cat Stevens—the Austin native's first studio effort was 1978's Seven Worlds. Less than a decade later, Johnson received his first Grammy nod, as "Zap" was nominated for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1987.
Ah Via Musicom (1990), however, was his first taste of mainstream acceptance as the Capitol Records-released album sold platinum and its track "Cliffs of Dover" won a Grammy.
The Nineties brought another acclaimed album for Johnson, 1996's Venus Isle, which charted in the U.S. and Japan. The same year Venus Isle hit stores, Johnson won over plenty of new fans as a featured player on the inaugural G3 tour; the home video of this tour sold platinum. Just a few years later, Martin Guitars would release a limited-edition Eric Johnson Signature MC-40 model that built to his specifications. Since then, Fender has put out an Eric Johnson Signature Fender Strat, and Roland has issued the Eric Johnson Tone Capsule.
In support of Johnson’s latest studio effort, 2016’s EJ, he's now on the road. GuitarWorld.com recently caught up with him to talk EJ, signature gear and training. More info can be found at ericjohnson.com.
Is there something you wish more people knew about Eric Johnson?
There’s a more mixed bag of music coming up on the horizon.
I’ve read that you started playing guitar when you were 11, and joined your first band at 15. How instrumental were lessons and formal training in your development as a guitarist?
I took piano lessons for seven years, and that was very instrumental. I took guitar lessons for a month or two. Because of the piano lessons, I was able to learn the guitar myself through records and listening to other people play.
Do you remember the first song you initially sought out to learn?
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams.
At what point did you transition from being a rhythm player to a lead player?
I kinda learned both at the same time.
When did singing come into play for you?
I always enjoyed trying to sing privately, but I started to sing publicly when I was 22.
You’re also known to be a great pianist. Do you do all of your writing on guitar, or does piano also factor into your creative process?
Well first off, I’m not a great pianist, but I can play pretty well. There are a whole list of great ones, and I can’t say I am one of them. I love playing piano, and I have always written songs on piano. The lion’s share of my music is written on it, then transposed to guitar. Most of the instrumental guitar pieces however, do begin on guitar.
Martin put out a limited edition guitar for you in 2001, Fender released a Strat in 2005 and Roland released the Eric Johnson Tone Capsule in 2015. Do you exclusively use all of your own signature models?
Yes, I do use my signature Martin and Stratocaster. I'm currently not using the Roland Tone Capsule, although I think it’s a good inexpensive tool for having a versatile amplifier for a fraction of the cost. This was the initial concept, anyhow. The sound potential of Roland’s design, being that it’s not really guitar modeling but actual analog voicing, has a bright future to getting better and better in the years ahead. I’m also looking forward to releasing a new version of the EJ Signature Strat in 2018, which will be a semi-hollow body of the signature Strat.
Right now, you’re touring in support of EJ. How much new material will you be playing?
I’ll be playing a good deal of new material, on both guitar and piano.
Do you have a favorite song to perform live?
That’s a hard one. Maybe one of my new tunes, like “Doorstep.”
After this tour wraps, what’s coming up for you?
I want to do a "Volume II" acoustic record, and I have a good deal of electric music as well.
When not busy with music, how do you like to spend your time?
I like to explore nature and hang out with friends.
Finally, any last words for the kids?
Let your spirit and enthusiasm and passion for playing be your guide. Don’t force yourself to play guitar the way you think you should—or others think you should. Be your own unique voice that captures your particular spirit and taps into your well-spring of enthusiasm. If you respect and nourish that, practicing will always be fun, and it will never feel like work.
NOW ON TOUR
TUES 5/23 Rochester, NY - Montage Music Hall
THURS 5/25 Toronto, Ontario - The Rockpile
FRI 5/26 Montreal, Quebec - Corona Theatre
SAT 5/27 Rouyn-Noranda Quebec - Festival des Guitars
SUN 5/28 Ottawa, Ontario - The Brass Monkey
TUES 5/30 State College, PA - State Theatre
WED 5/31 New York, NY - B.B. King Blues Club
THURS 6/1 Hartford, CT - Infinity Music Hall
FRI 6/2 Fairfield, CT - The Warehouse
SAT 6/3 Shirley, MA - The Bull Run
SUN 6/4 Portland, ME - Aura
SUN 6/5 Sellersville, PA - Sellersville Theater
TUES 6/6 Alexandria, VA - The Birchmere
THURS 6/8 Atlanta, GA - Variety Playhouse
SAT 6/10 Bastrop, TX - Jerry Fay Wilhelm PAC