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Eric Johnson: 360 Degrees​ of a Guitar Master



In this Jazz Guitar Today interview, Eric Johnson discusses guitar technique, tone, songwriting, Montgomery, McLaughlin, and the inspiration behind his new album.

Jazz guitarist Ede Wright remembers the summer of 86… My childhood guitar buddy Ralph Santola called me up and said, “dude you gotta come over and check out this record I just got”. So I went to his place and Ralph put the record on, I had no idea the “Tones” I was in for.  As I remember, it was Eric Johnson’s “Tones” that made the guitar world start to use the word tone to describe their sound, and rightly so. The introduction of that little word into the electric guitar lexicon was nothing short of being hit over the head with a hundred-pound violin. Eric had chops for days but it was his sound that knocked Ralph and me out. I had guitar heroes I loved for their tunes, and for their chops, and he had all of that, but it was Eric Johnson’s “Tones” that sparked my lifelong journey to find my tone. Thanks Eric.

Top Photo: Eric Johnson, March 11, 2020 Atlanta, GA – Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today: Eric Johnson is a Grammy-winning musical creative genius.  He is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and his playing, composing and legendary tone palette puts him in the rarified air as “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet” – Guitar Player.  Eric is known primarily as a rock player and is considered the “Tone King” as Keith Williams of “Five Watt World” described him.  But, he has heavy influences from the jazz world including Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery.  He has composed and recorded pieces as tributes to Wes Montgomery,  “East Wes” and my favorite “Manhattan”.   Enjoy our conversation as Eric talks about his philosophy and approach to music.

Bob Bakert: When I hear you play, there are a whole lot of things… but one key thing I notice, you have intellectual curiosity. Are you aware of that or is that something that you nurture?

Eric Johnson: Well, I think I’m always interested in trying to expound on what I might know. I think the expanding or dilating or including other stuff, that’s what really expands your potential repertoire and is really a better definition of improving your music – obviously more than becoming more perfect or being more technical. So I’ve always had an interest in trying to learn more so you have a better way of articulating what you’re saying. So you have better choices to really hone in – or what’s the best choice.

Bob: You kind of look like a guy that been locked away with a chemistry set in his room, going musically nuts, a musical chemistry set, creating all the stuff.  ‘Oh my God, I can do this. I can do that.’ It’s like the dance you’re able to do on your pedalboard from measure to measure, changing the tone for maybe a couple of beats of one measure and then coming back to something else. I mean, who does that?

Eric: Nobody in their right mind, for sure… Yeah, it’s from a long, long period of time playing in a three-piece band – trying to make it more creative. 

Eric Johnson, March 11, 2020 Atlanta, GA – Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: Your music is full of orchestration. You’ve got a very elegant nature to the harmony and the phrases – and you’re blending all these things. You probably have one of the world’s most sophisticated guitar palettes. How aware of that you are versus other contemporaries?

Eric: There are so many great players and there’s nobody that holds the trophy of ‘the’ player or the ‘best’ player. Obviously, anything I do or anything that might happen, there’s always somebody that could play it, that could take it farther than I take it. I think that’s when I first got into music. I think I just realized there was great music in every style. When I looked behind the manifestation of the style of music and I looked to the spirit or the energy behind it, you could find this amazing stuff in every style. And I think what I attached to is that energy and spirit behind the music, more so than maybe the style of music. And, I just realized, wow, you can get an evoked feeling from anything that’s done well.

If somebody chooses to do that, it can open themselves up to some criticism. When we look at the less deep face of everything, we make decisions. It’s the same as in life. We look at a person that’s not the same as us. And we make a decision, or we look at this official part of their spirituality or their religion or their skin color. And we think, ‘oh, well, they’re this and that’. But when we look deeper into the energy and the manifestation behind it, we realize the connectivity. I don’t know why it was, but I just always felt this connectivity with all music. 

You can listen to Stockhausen or Penderecki, and then you can listen to like Richard Carpenter, Carpenter’s voicings on keyboards that he translocated to background vocals, and in the end, you see an inner working spirit. That’s just beautiful. And it’s nice to get on that wavelength and travel that wave. So I just went, wow, I’d like to stay open to learning about every type of music. I’ll never be a master of any style.  But my fun and joy are being able to learn from everything and then put your own thing together.

Bob: Yeah, it’s funny. You mentioned Richard Carpenter. I’m a big fan. 

Eric: He was amazing, and he started a whole thing of it. He was ahead of his time. It was a lot of jazz chords – that easy listening thing, but it was so layered and so cool. You think about 10 CC or Christopher Cross or all those other guys that made beautiful pop music, you can tell they learned a lot from him. 

Eric Johnson, March 11, 2020 Atlanta, GA – Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: I know you’re a huge fan of Wes Montgomery and John McLaughlin. First, what have you drawn from Wes? 

Eric: I think it’s when an artist includes in his presentation something more than just the amazingness of his talent. Just the storyboard of the note selection that Wes would use is so beautiful. So tasteful, and he just played like so fluid and effortlessly, just naturally. And, as important as that, just the sound of his guitar. I remember when I was 13 years old, the first time I heard him, a friend turned me on to him. I heard two or three notes and it was totally different than anything I was doing at the time, but I just heard two or three notes and went, God, that’s a nice sounding guitar I want to hear more of that. And there’s a lot of great jazz players but he’s my favorite because of the storyboard and the way he plays and his tone. I keep going back to trying to learn from that because it’s really exhilarating to me and very inspiring.

Bob: Yeah. Just as an aside, I did some transcriptions of some Wes solos and it was unlike anything else that anybody else plays.

Eric: Yeah, yeah. And maybe, you can find such validity in going to school and learning, music.  Everybody learns it in their own way, whether it is ear training or from books, but Wes just taught himself to play just by ear. And maybe that’s part of what you’re saying.

Eric Johnson, March 11, 2020 Atlanta, GA – Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: What about McLaughlin – what did you draw from McLaughlin?

Eric: Well, he (John) and Bill Connors, who was the first guy that played with Chick Corea – those guys played electric fusion guitar through like Marshalls and Hiwatts with distortion and they got this really cool tone and they’re bending strings. I was coming from that kind of Clapton/ Beck thing where I really liked that good distortion and that rock sound and that blues inflection. Maybe Bill Connors had more than John, but John put it into something really cool. He took the really good aspects of rock guitar sound and playing, and he put it in his jazz thing. It made it a really interesting and easy bridge for me to walk across from rock from those two guys.

I think there are other players that were like super jazzy and they were like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get a fuzzbox and play my jazz stuff’. And it was like, no…  You could tell Bill Connors really knew about the blues-rock era. He took it and he went with jazz. I think John obviously did too. And so those guys had that extra special blues/rock inflection element in their fusion plan. 

Bob: I think of Larry Coryell  – here was a guy that had chops up the yin yang and jazz language, but I always thought his rock-influenced material was never convincingly rock. Whereas John sounds like a rock player playing jazz or a jazz player playing rock. 

Eric: Yeah, I know what you mean. 

Bob: You play harmonically and polyphonically as adeptly, as you do single-note lines. In some of your pieces, you’re doing a lot of chordal work that emulates a horn section. Have you ever considered orchestrating some of your songs with horns and maybe with strings?

Eric: I have…not expansively, but it’d be fun to do a project with a chamber orchestra or something. I’ve talked to people about that and have done it yet. But it would be a nice project to do. I think the approach with that is probably simply just because starting on piano, I kind of got it ingrained in me that you have this ability to play multiple notes at once. The guitar is one of the few instruments, just like piano, that you can do that. And so it’s nice to have that ability to do that. 

Eric Johnson, March 11, 2020 Atlanta, GA – Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: Many players play single-note lines more like a horn player or a vocalist. Jeff Beck for example can emulate an opera singer, I’m thinking “Nessun Dorma”. You, on the other hand, have the whole orchestra going on. Both single-note lines, chordal harmony, add to that what you’re doing with changing your tone by patching in pedals and amps sometimes as often as measure by measure, it seems like you’re giving the audience a symphonic version of a guitar trio. 

Eric: Yeah. It’s what I try to do. I mean, it’s kind of like orchestrating the music and also realizing you can use all of these different guitar tones. So, I’ll use that tone here. I want to use that tone there. It appeals to me to be able to go around all these different sounds.

Bob: Have you ever considered tackling the Caprices or Paganini?

Eric: Yeah. I’ve thought about it. Actually, I have a new piece that I wrote. That’s kind of my own version of one of those that I’d like to play, but I’ve never actually done the Paganini ones. 

Bob: How important is a music theory to you?

Eric: Well, I think it’s extremely important and I’m trying to learn more and more all the time so I have more of a choice of harmony, etc. I think music theory can either come in books or it can come by ear. For me, 98% comes by ear. But I think, somebody that’s, self-taught by ear, it’s still music theory. It’s just, they’ve developed differently. Yeah, I think it’s really important. It’s like if you’re a poet, you know a lot of different and beautiful words – it only helps you. It doesn’t mean you have to use them all, but the more you know, the more you can maybe select the right thing to emote what you want. So I’m always trying to learn more about that. 

Bob: There’s a lot of guys that have been to school. There’s a lot of guys that have not been to school. Everybody’s valid. When you’re, working on a composition, are you thinking about it from an intellectual point of view? Or is it mostly coming from your heart and your ear?

Eric: Well, that’s a great question. And to be really honest with myself, I think when I first started playing guitar, it came completely from the heart because I didn’t know what I was doing. I might play three chords, but I was so excited about it. 

I think the more we learn, the more we’re aware of what we know. The more we’re in the business of being a professional musician, the more we’ve learned all these little ways all we do –  we do things this way. You come out, you play the show, you play that, your first song here, you wait and play the one that everybody, there’s all this architecture stuff that you just, you collate over the years. So I think the one thing that’s risky is you become more mental about everything. And to be totally honest, you know, I think when I was really young, 80% of my gigs were just, oh, I don’t know what’s happening. It’s like the skateboard that’s out of control and all these things happen. And then, later on, you may get a little safer and you think about it cause you have a system and you have a legacy, you have a history and then it becomes the other way around. 

So in a way that’s as risky – when there’s too much thought into it. It’s just like that saying – don’t be childish, but you behoove yourself to stay childlike your whole life.  Not childish, but childlike. And to me and music that translates to just keep that sense of wonderment, to learn when and where to turn the mind off and just go out and be excited. That’s another reason that, to me, there’s a connection between what you’re saying and our judgment of music.  When we first learn music we don’t judge, we just go out, you know, you play E chord and I turn on a fuzz tone. Oh my God, this is great. Well, no, it’s only great if you have this tone and you do this. And then you go, well, you didn’t play the E chord right. And it’s like, all that stuff is really just flypaper.

It just holds you back. I think you think about it when you rehearse, when it’s time to play, you just play. And that’s something I’m trying to recalibrate with myself to get back to that childlike wonderment.  I don’t feel like I ever lost it, but I feel like it’s sometimes gets muted just because of all the history of living. You know what I mean?  So it’s important to kind of like shed all that stuff. It has its own value in a certain place. 

Bob: In watching you perform, you often will anchor a line with a bass note on either your E or your A string –  you’ll hit a note and then you’ll play a line or arpeggio. You’ll hit a note on a string that anchors  – that’s the tonal center of this next line. It’s very classical, very classically oriented. 

Eric: I think it’s just, instead of combining all the notes together in one place, you can jump around and put a root note or a third or somewhere else, you can kind of fan it out and put it wherever you want. 

Bob: I had never heard anybody do until I heard you do it years ago. 

Eric: If you listen to Chet Atkins, he’s doing that all the time – although it’s more finger-picking.

Bob: The note choices give it kind of a classical violin, viola, or cello feel.  Do you have any idea where you developed that technic?

Eric: I don’t know. I don’t know where it, I think just exploring and experimenting. 

Bob: How much time you spent listening to new music these days you spend any time listening to like new stuff?

Eric: Yeah, a little bit. I mean, I like to listen to some bluegrass stuff. Oh, man. Yeah. I like that gal, Molly Tuttle. I like her– I’ve been listening to her recently. But, yeah, I probably listen to a lot of old music, more than new music. But I do hear some new music now and then. 

March 11, 2020 Atlanta, GA – Photo Credit: Drew Stawin

Bob: You seem to have a lot of stuff really worked out with your rhythm section. Is that something where you’ve guided and direct? Or is it something your guys fall into?

Eric: The way that usually happens – sometimes the drummer just comes up with a great part and we’re done.  And sometimes, I’ll extrapolate all this stuff and we’ll get it together and then I’ll go, damn, what you had, in the beginning, was the best. What happens mostly is I’ll come up with a bunch of ideas and then the drummer I work with will go, ‘Oh, I see what you’re trying to do.’ And then they’ll take it and do something different to where it’s like one plus one equals three. So what I was talking about isn’t necessarily what we end up with, but it’s a catalyst to where they’re coming from. I think it’s important the rhythm section understands your intention rather than them copying what you want. At least with improvisation. 

Maybe if you’re working an orchestration it is a different deal, but for improvised music, the rhythm section should understand the climate or the intention and the atmosphere of what you’re trying to do.  It’s much more important than ‘I want you to play this’. Because then you get the vibe and you get the flow. But if, but if they don’t understand that, then the two things can happen. They either come up with something way better than what you ever thought of or the song doesn’t quite get the vibe.

Bob: How much of your solos are improvised vs. solos you have been playing for years? 

Eric: Mostly totally improvised, certain solos have certain trademark licks. That will be part of it – play exactly the same. There are a few songs, but mostly it’s just improvised. 

EJ Volume Two

Bob: In EJ Volume Two, you are the singer, the songwriter, the producer – you’re playing all the part. Some great stuff in there – great layers. What has the record meant to you in terms of your own personal expression? 

Eric: Well, it’s stuff that always has been a part of me ever since I was a kid. I didn’t include it on a real prominent level on my stuff because I got so interested in just playing guitar – which I always want to keep doing. I definitely want to keep playing high energy guitar. I got so into that and we were so caught up in that. And then I had a little bit of success with the playing instrumental guitar and I just kind of took the ball ran with it. But I’ve always at home played acoustic guitar and piano. And I love singer-songwriters that have great songs. And I think I just wanted to take a moment to try to strengthen something that I really loved doing. In the process, getting it out to use certain attributes that I thought were a little weaker in me than I wanted them to be. 

I wanted to strengthen them but still capture a performance where you perform the piece of music – which a lot off that record is me just playing – finishing and doing as little amount of punching-in as possible. I don’t really have a feeling one way or another about punching in. But what I do have a feeling about is the  – and I have witnessed it with my own music – there’s always a price to pay for going back over something over and over and over.   If you capture the moment, you capture the chi. And if I was to constructively criticize some of my records, I think some of that chi was kind of smeared over by me doing things over, re-doing, incessantly. 

Then it’s like what ruler do you use to judge when you’ve arrived at something. And on the topic of music, what ruler do I use to decide when, Oh no, I’ve got it?  The music is right. Yeah. But how do you know the ruler you use is the best ruler or what do you use to make the decisions you make?  So I’m just realizing, I need to throw out my toolbox because there’s a limitation to the toolbox that, mandates that I have to do everything just a certain way. And, oh, there’s I forgot to try to create that chi and not disturb it. Like, you know, calm serene water, and somebody takes their fist and they slam it into the water. You get these repercussions. So this record is an exercise in that alongside trying to strengthen my songwriting. 

Bob: What makes one guy better than the better or why do I feel connected to this guy and not that guy. And it’s so small because so many guys can play the notes. You made a funny joke earlier – any 12 year old can play music… 

Eric: Yeah, they can play better than me too! 

Bob: I hate those kids.  Ha!

Eric: 12 years old was last year. This year, it’s more like seven years old. 

Bob: Makes me crazy… 

Bob: The nuances – there are so many players that are great. What makes me want to listen to this guy – and not that guy. It’s not the way he looks because I’m listening to it. It can be just that millisecond difference in delay. It can be something so slightly different that it brings you in and it connects your heart to whatever it is that you’re doing. I think in vocal music, it’s even more paramount that you connect the heart to the audio,

Eric: Yeah, I totally agree. And I heard somebody say some really interesting thing. It’s very simple and it really hit home with me. They said, don’t show off, show yourself.

Bob: Exactly. Yeah. 

Eric: God, that is so, I mean, you couldn’t say it more simply or more powerfully.


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