Recording the band in one take. Inviting guests to just do their thing. Selling a bunch of stuff he doesn’t use. Is the dedicated and particular Eric Johnson starting to loosen up? Interview by Martyn Casserly
For nearly three decades now Eric Johnson has been known as a player with exquisite taste, enviable talent, and an almost pathological attention to detail in all elements of his equipment. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that while we listen to his lazy Texan drawl recount the experiences of recording his last album, it seems like he’s had something of an epiphany. To borrow the title from one of the songs on the album, ‘a change has come to me’.
‘Yeah, it did,’ Johnson admits, ‘and it’s changing even more now. I think a lot of it is just taking a good look at what I’m doing, where I am, and where I think I need to put some emphasis.’
While recording Up Close, his sixth solo studio effort, Johnson loosened the bonds on his clinically precise playing and embraced a more live feel, often prompted by friends joining him on the sessions.
‘Steve Miller just happened to be around… Jonny Lang too. It just kinda went that if a friend was in town I’d call them up and see if they wanted to come over. I think it made me more malleable. If somebody wanted to sing I was like okay, great… let them sing or do a solo here. It was a little bit of a wake-up call, because on the tracks where I did that I started hearing an interesting, animated kind of spirit to it, and I thought, well, I’ve just got to get into this more.
‘Since that record I’ve recorded a couple of new tunes, and we kind of cut them live in the studio. I played them for some people and they went “Well, it’s not quite as polished as some of your stuff… but it’s much more enjoyable to listen to,”’ Eric laughs. ‘I thought “Okay, I guess I’m on the right track.”’
It’s not just his attitude to playing that Johnson is addressing: he’s also delving deeper into his famous technique to see what adjustments can be made.
‘It’s like reviewing the whole thing, seeing what you’re doing well and finding something you could make stronger. It’s that stronger thing that I’m looking at – trying to capture that essence and spontaneousness. If you spend time with your instrument and do your homework in as far as practicing, developing your technique and your performance level, it frees you up later to take more chances. You’re more comfortable with everything under your fingertips.’
Johnson’s reputation as a perfectionist has seen some pretty strange urban legends spread among the guitar community. We wondered if he now saw his previous attention to detail as something that might of held him back rather than released him…
‘There are really two sides to it,’ he says. ‘I mean, it helps a lot, but at the same time it can get in the way. If I polarise myself in either of those ways then I’m not seeing the full picture. If I was to go, “Oh, that’s totally a hindrance,” and I suddenly didn’t care anymore about detail or quality or integrity or hitting a high watermark, then I’m missing something. But if I care so much that I don’t get enough of a live performance, then I’m missing something too. I think it’s really how you use that energy, how you use the musicality of keeping it at a high integrity.’
The fruits of this introspection is a man who seems to be really enjoying his playing. ‘I’m starting to hear some things, voicings and chords, trying to get a little freer,’ he adds. ‘The sky’s the limit. If you reposition yourself as a student of the guitar, open up and think “What if?”, then there’s so much.
‘A lot of it is the way you tie chord voicings or soloing together. If you’re really playing through the changes you’re freeing up your playing to kind of “italic” the song as you go through it, rather than just “Here’s the solo, I’ll play this boxed in.” And there’s so much you can do with rhythm… you don’t even have to play lead, just melodic stuff with the rhythm part.’
Eric’s often been seen toting some rather desirable equipment. He regularly tours with a ’57 Strat, vintage Fender and Marshall amps, and a pedalboard populated with bruised and battered examples of classic effects. But not even these prized possessions have escaped the renaissance that is moving through Johnson’s life.
‘I’ve sold a lot of guitars and amps and stuff. I’m trying to zero in on inspirational guitars, ones that really work for me. For a while I was enjoying some guitars that didn’t quite work for me musically. Because they were cool I wanted to play them, but when I did, I was struggling to do my style on them. After a while it was, like, “Why am I doing this?” I think if you’re really trying to get on with music then you want to be careful not to get too much into things that are cool, or rare, or whatever. It doesn’t mean it’s a vehicle to make you play at your highest benchmark.’
A few years ago Eric teamed up with Fender to release his own signature Strat, and it’s gone on to be seen by many as a particularly fine examples of Leo’s masterpiece. So how did he try to improve an icon?
‘Well, I just tried to return to some of the stuff they had in the ’50s,’ Johnson explains. ‘For instance the tremolo block had changed a bit, so we tried to put that back. We wanted to select the right kind of wood – quarter-sawn for the maple neck. We tried to deal with some tuning issues as far as the headstock angle went… and then we made the fretboard a little flatter, added bigger frets, put the tone control on the bridge pickup and made the bridge pickup a little hotter. A lot of these things were just from the ’50s. The things we changed were pretty much things that essentially makes a Strat play and sound better. ‘
Now Eric is joining forces with Dunlop to do the same with another legendary figure in the musical pantheon… the Fuzz Face.
‘I wanted to come up with something because all those old fuzzes are becoming impossible to find,’ he points out. ‘There was a certain thing about a good old Fuzz Face that worked really well for me, and I went about trying to recreate that as closely as possible. I think the original Fuzz Face was a happy accident. They didn’t use particularly good wire, they were cheap pots, everything was low-tech, but because it was low-tech and not really stout it ended up translating the fuzz better. If you go back and build the Fuzz Face better then it doesn’t sound as good. Part of the new pedal was to build it with low-tech parts.’
In many ways the pedal is representative of Johnson’s current outlook – a return to basics with the mantra of doing the right things right. As Eric prepares for his European tour and new recording sessions, he’s philosophical about where he is on his musical path.
‘With so many players and so much music there needs to be a unique flavour to what you do,’ he offers. ‘People want to hear your joy in that. When something turns you on, you can turn other people on. I think people just want to hear your spirit.’