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Eric Johnson: “Prioritizing perfectionism is not how you make emotionally meaningful music“

(Image credit: Fender)

Eric Johnson has been thinking a lot lately. Thinking about the creative and technical choices he’s made; thinking about what makes a great guitar valuable in the first place; and how we can be more friendly to ourselves as players and people. 

The result of that introspection is the gentle, acoustic guitar- and piano-driven EJ II, which finds one of the world’s acknowledged Zen masters of jazz-rock tone and technique stepping back from the kind of blinding fuzz-tone quintuplet runs and post-fusion high-wire shredding of classics like Cliffs of Dover and Western Flier, or more recent throwdowns like the arpeggio-driven Stratagem [from 2017’s Collage] and the Meters-meets-Mahavishnu fatback of Fatdaddy [from 2010’s excellent Up Close].  

Instead, EJ II is the second chapter in the fingerstyle acoustic, piano and songsmith narrative Johnson started on 2016’s EJ.

I still want to play well, of course, but I want it to be more about the songcraft, and the underlying harmony

Like that album – which featured solo covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson and Scarborough Fair – EJ II features Eric’s own spiritually inquisitive folk-jazz songs alongside a small clutch of acoustic-driven classics, notably the Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and English folk hero Bert Jansch’s DADGAD-tuning vehicle Black Waterside (famously pillaged by Jimmy Page on Zep’s Black Mountain Side). 

Still, there’s plenty of EJ’s trademark gorgeous Stratocaster phrasing, lovely “koto” style harmonics, and, of course, fastidiously finessed tones and elegant chops. (Check out the solo in Different Folks or the softly Hendrix-inspired lead lines of Golden Way for a taste.) 

The shift is in what those chops are serving: in the case of EJ II, it’s a collection of fluid, poetic and often pastoral tone-poems that aim to speak to the human condition far more than to the rock guitar pantheon; a rarified club of which EJ has long since been an esteemed member.

There’s a real shift here in the role of the electric guitar; it’s in a supporting role, not a featured one.

”That’s exactly what I wanted to do – find the best place for the electric guitar to live in the context of writing songs. Right before I went in to record this record, I went to a James Taylor concert, and I was amazed at how fantastic the whole band was, but while I’ve seen [guitar great] Michael Landau do his own thing many times, and he’s amazing, hearing him play inside these great James Taylor songs was just beautiful. 

”Because he’s such a great pocket player, and you could just feel the way he was breathing in and out of the melodies, and his great impulses all at work, working so beautifully with James’ vocals and songs. Mike and the whole band just sounded superb. So that really impressed me right before I went in to do this record, and really has a lot to do with how I approached the album.”

Axology

 GUITARS
1954 Fender Stratocaster, early Eighties Martin D-18, late-Fifties Gibson J-45, Martin MC-40 Eric Johnson Signature

• AMP
Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature, 1968 Marshall 50-watt Plexi, Fender Bandmaster Reverb

• EFFECTS Chandler Tube Driver, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz-Face, Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer, MXR M-113 Digital Delay, TC Electronic Stereo Chorus + Flanger, Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man

One could also say that the album feels lighter, more direct and less labored than some of your epic lead guitar-driven albums like, say, Venus Isle. Is that fair? 

”If I were to try to take a snapshot of my records over the years and ask myself how I could make – for lack of a better word – 'better' music, the first thing that comes to mind for me is that, despite what I’ve believed has been an attempt to look at all the apertures of making music, what always superseded everything was, 'Did I play this just right?'

”These days, I’m looking at things in a way that I suppose many folks realize from the get-go, and that I just happen to be learning later in my career: that while it’s fine to have perfectionism be part of your approach, to have it as the first priority is maybe not the ideal way to make deeper, more emotionally meaningful music. 

”So for EJ II, I wanted to change that priority structure. I still want to play well, of course, but I want it to be more about the songcraft, and the underlying harmony, and if nothing else, about the emotional connection and emotional delivery of the music. That’s 99 percent of what matters to most people with music in the first place.”

Your acoustic fingerstyle playing was no joke on EJ: here you sound arguably even stronger and deeper, especially on virtuosic tracks like Lake Travis. Who are your key inspirations and mentors in the acoustic realm?

“Originally my biggest inspirations on the acoustic guitar were Bert Jansch, Paul Simon and James Taylor, and later I discovered Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. I learned an enormous amount by studying those guys. But I also got a lot out of listening to my friend Doyle Dykes, who plays a duet with me on EJ II on a song called Charldron’s Boat

“He’s a really great finger-picker. And I’m sure I’ll continue to learn new things from Tommy Emmanuel for years to come. I’m constantly gleaning new things from people like that. I mean, you can hand any tune to Doyle, and he can instantly start playing the melody and harmony together finger-style, without even taking a second to work anything up, like it’s just part of his DNA. It’s pretty amazing.“

I’m sure I’ll continue to learn new things from Tommy Emmanuel for years to come. I’m constantly gleaning new things from people like that

Like one of your other heroes, Jimi Hendrix, your lyrics increasingly address issues of consciousness. The word “clarity” comes up a few times on the record.

“It’s become very apparent to me in the last few years that we all set up these repeating thought patterns, and they become like a radio broadcast coming back to us, and then we assume the position of the reactive victim. So we’re caught in this continual drama or dance of cause and effect in the mind. 

“People have talked for eons about how if you can change your mind, you can change your world. I mean, I’m constantly limiting myself, putting up roadblocks in terms of what and how I think, and what I dare to imagine I can or can’t do.

“Changing that starts with just bringing awareness to these chaotic radio signals that your mind is churning out that you end up doing battle with. Look, your mind can be your worst enemy or your best friend. You’ve got the option to choose which one it’s going to be.“

Sweet Virginia: The Eric Johnson Stratocaster

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(Image credit: Fender)
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(Image credit: Fender)

The Eric Johnson “Virginia“ Strat that kicks off Fender's Stories Collection

Eric Johnson’s “Virginia” – a 1954 Fender Stratocaster with a Sassafras wood body and maple neck – is one of those storied guitars that, in the hands of its master, made history; in Eric’s case, on his classic early albums Tones and Ah Via Musicom. (Though it was actually a Gibson ES-335 that EJ played on the iconic Cliffs of Dover). 

As the kickoff to their new “Stories Collection,” which recreates the look, feel and sound of similarly classic axes, the new Fender “Virginia” Stratocaster features a quarter-sawn Sassafras body: a wood similar to walnut and mahogany, which Fender lauds for its “creamy mids and lows, and shimmering high end.” 

Though meant to model EJ’s 1954 Virginia (which Johnson regrets having sold many years ago) the new Virginia is arguably more of a vintage/modern hybrid than a straight replica. 

The quarter-sawn maple neck boasts a comfortable “soft-V” shape, but a very flat modern 12” fingerboard radius. And the bridge is a relatively hot stacked DiMarzio HS-2 with an active top-coil, albeit paired with a Fender original ’57/’62 Strat pickup set, which were reverse-engineered from a 1963 example, complete with Alnico V magnets, Formvar-coated wire, and other authentic components. 

The custom-wiring places the middle and neck pickups out-of-phase with the bridge pickup, lending itself to EJ’s signature “koto” tones in pickup position #2.

Says Eric, “One thing I love about this guitar is that it definitely captures what I loved about my old Virginia ’54 Strat – it’s the same wood, and has that sound and feel, but it’s also a modern guitar that just really feels right for now. 

“I went through years where I was collecting vintage Strats, and thinking it was so important that, ‘This one is all-original!’ But then someone would point out, ‘Actually, you’re struggling to play that guitar. You’re not playing as well as you do when it’s a flatter radius with big frets.’ I guess you could say I finally came to terms with that. And, honestly, I’m having more fun now.”