By Thomas S. Orwat, Jr.
Eric Johnson is one of the most original and accomplished guitarists in the world. The 56 year old, Texan born guitarist/composer/songwriter created a unique style and sound that was derivative of his early musical influences that consisted of rock, jazz fusion, country and bluegrass.
In 1990, Johnson released his most critically and commercially successful recording, “Ah Via Musicom.” This release sold over 1 million copies and in 1991 won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Eric Johnson is currently performing with the “Experience Hendrix” tour which features an all-star line-up of guitarist’s such as Steve Vai, Johnny Lang, Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Brad Whitford and many more. Johnson will also be releasing a new Cd, which is scheduled for release in either late November or early December of this year.
We caught up with Eric for this exclusive RockMusicStar interview. During our conversation, we discussed the “Experience Hendrix” tour, his plans for a new Cd and his recording difficulties he faced while trying to obtain his self imposed high standard of perfection.
RockMusicStar: Eric, I appreciate you calling us at RockMusicStar. You will be playing here in Buffalo on Nov 2 with the “Experience Hendrix” tour. This show is already sold out. Simply put, this is going to be an amazing event.
Eric Johnson: Yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun.
RMS: Logistically, how do you pull off a show like that with all of those performers?
EJ: Well, everything is set up in the afternoon, so nothing has to be set up during the show. For most of the night it’s Scott Nelson on drums and Chris Layton on bass. So just different artists come and play with the rhythm section.
RMS: How many songs will you be performing?
EJ: Anywhere from 3 to 5.
RMS: During the show, when you’re not playing do you go in the audience and watch the performance of the other guitarists or do you just hang backstage?
EJ: I’m usually backstage listening.
RMS: You’ve been out on the “Experience Hendrix” tour two times already now. But, did you have any apprehensions of joining the tour when you were first asked?
EJ: Yes, the first time I was a little curious as to what it was all about. So I did it, and had a lot of fun doing it. So then I signed on to do it again. And then when it rolled around this third time, I said sure why not.
RMS: From listening to your guitar work, it is obvious that you had many different musicial influences. How much of an influence was Jimi Hendrix to you?
EJ: He was one of the biggest because he was such a complete musician. He was a great songwriter, lyricist and obviously a great guitarist. The whole package was so complete. His music to me has a timeless integrity to it.
RMS: I agree. With all of the many amazing all-star musicians that perform on the “Experience Hendrix” tour, do you guys ever get together and have massive jam sessions backstage or before the shows?
EJ: Oh yeah, we usually have jam sessions during the afternoon during sound check. Some times after hours, some of us will go to a club and sit in.
RMS: That would be very cool to see. When you had to prepare for this tour, did you discover anything new about the songs, such as any little special nuances that you weren’t aware of before?
EJ: Yeah, that’s a good question. I definitely did. There are certain core Hendrix songs that I’ve performed for years. But for this tour, I wanted to learn some of his material that I didn’t know. And that was very revealing. There is always something unique about the way Jimi played. When you look into the inner workings of the songs and the orchestration or the way his did his rhythm work it’s all very original. I always found something new when I was learning the songs.
RMS: Did any of those new discoveries inspired you in your playing or composing?
EJ: I think all of that kind of goes into the mix. What I really took away from it was the importance of trying to write good songs that are viable and valid pieces of music that people can relate to or be touched by.
RMS: Currently, you are wrapping up the “Guitar Masters” acoustic tour, which in addition to you, features Andy McKee and Peppino D’Agostino. How has that tour been going over?
EJ: It’s been going great. Both Andy and Peppino are great players. All three of us do short sets ourselves, then we all get together at the end of the night and play together. The tour has been well received and the audiences have been having fun and we’re having fun. It’s been great. We are actually going to be adding a second leg to the tour in California in January.
RMS: That’s great. Do you have any plans on releasing a live DVD or CD from that tour?
EJ: I don’t know. But, we have talked about making some recordings with the three of us. I have an electric record that’s all finished that I will be releasing in late November, early December. And I already started an acoustic album and I would like to get that out next year.
RMS: That’s great. Especially, since you have a reputation of taking quite a bit of time between releases, which leads to my next question. Why have you taken so long between releases? Is it a case of maybe being too much of a perfectionist?
EJ: I think that it’s just maybe trying to raise the bar on what I do. I think that it’s all good intentions, but left unchecked it can be detrimental, because you can get caught in a catch 22. I think that I’m beginning to realize that a little more. But, I’m not looking to obliterate that tendency. I’m looking to enhance it and use it correctly. It’s a balance and that’s the lesson that I’m learning currently. Hopefully, what will come out of it, will be me still striving for integrity, but realizing when it’s beneficial and when it’s detrimental.
RMS: Did you feel an overwhelming amount of pressure when following up your Grammy award winning release “Ah Via Musicom”?
EJ: Yeah, I did. It got me in a whirlwind when recording the follow up “Venus Isle.” I recorded that album two or three times trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go in. I didn’t want it to be exactly like “Ah Via Musicom,” but I wanted it to be good. I got caught second guessing myself, chasing some carrot on the outside. But you have to stay in touch with that wand inside yourself and know where to navigate
RMS: Well, you music is very complex and sophisticated. Actually, I can understand why writing and recording is such a lengthy and time consuming process for you.
EJ: Half of it is legitimate and half of it is just me doing stuff over and over again, which probably isn’t necessary. It’s a valuable effort, but just needs to be monitor. It’s like you have a garden and you put fertilizer on it. It’s not going to be helpful to put two tons of fertilizer on. It may even damage the plants. Our reaction a lot of the times in that situation is that fertilizer is bad, but that’s not really true if it’s in moderation. There is a good medicinal side to trying to achieve a high water mark. But you don’t want to over fertilize, which I’ve been definitely guilty of doing. But, it takes a lot of time to orchestrate all the guitar tracks to make them fit or work, and stuff like that. It’s all very time consuming, When you take that curriculum and you do it one-hundred times, that’s not beneficial.
RMS: Are you obsessed with your craft, composing music and playing guitar? Do you think about it all the time, non-stop?
EJ: No, not really. I use to be like that, sort of. But I don’t anymore. I’m a little more detached, but not in a non-caring way, but just in a way in which I don’t want it to rule my mind.
RMS : Over the years have you ever been asked to join an established band ?
EJ: Yeah, I played with Cat Stevens for a while. I was asked by UK to play with them after Allan Holdsworth left. I was asked by Stanley Clarke to play in his band. There have been a few.
RMS: Would you ever consider joining a conventional rock band like a band such as MR BIG or something along the lines of that?
EJ: I would definitely do something like that if I felt that I could contribute to it in a way that would make it work for everybody.
RMS: Do you have a real desire to do that or are you content with what you’re currently doing?
EJ: I think that I do have that desire. With my new electric record, I brought in a lot of people to work with me in the studio. I had another people come in and sing on it and play guitar. I think that I’m definitely interested in joining forces with other people to do projects together. So it’s really wide open as far as any possibilities.
for more on Eric Johnson, please vist his site. www.ericjohnson.com