Eric Johnson can perhaps be described as the lone survivor of the hair bands/shredder conflagration of the mid 80’s; an era which saw the rise and fall of guitar pimps like Yngwie Malmsteen. Of the swaggering bunch Eric Johnson, also known as E.J., was perhaps the more restrained traditionalist – a guitar geek of sorts who fretted about his tone and hewed to a more resonant and accessible melodicism. Yes, Eric wore his hair long and donned puffy shirts and brocaded jackets along with everyone else – but while he did that, he remained grounded musically even as he answered the siren call of instrumental rock, a genre that had within its excesses, the seeds of its own destruction. (“Cliffs of Dover” remains one of the most sterile sound-scapes of the genre despite the many accolades it has garnered. But to be fair, the live performance of this song, along with a few others at Eric Johnson’s Austin City Limits show, still packs the wallop that live music packs. The reverb/delay ridden tone and soaring operatic melodies make the performance all very engaging, but without the visuals and real or simulated verisimilitude, it is basically elevator music; and one that would not feel out of place on the Weather Channel. )
But we digress, because Eric Johnson as a guitar player cannot and will not be defined by “Cliffs of Dover.” And the reason has all to do with the fact that Eric Johnson is too transcendent a musical figure to be defined by an airy instrumental ballad. That fact is also the secret behind Eric Johnson’s longevity and continuing relevance at a time most of his compadres are clinging to the flotsam of a bloviated decade. E. J. continues to be relevant because, even as ran with the shredder pack, he continued to be rooted in the terra firma of his native Texas and elements of the music of legends like Eric Clapton, Chet Atkins, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Jerry Reed, and Django Reinhardt. If these mercurial influences lent uncommon substance to E.J.’s music, his meticulous attention to tone gave him an edge that was lacking in his more blustery contemporaries.
“There Is A Red House For Me Yonder Babe … ”
This edge shows up in the featured G3 cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House.” The occasion was the North American leg of Joe Satriani’s G3 Guitar Tour in 1996. The song squares off Eric Johnson with two of the baddest mofo’s of the ’90s, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Eric Johnson, without Malmesteen-esque fuss or muss obliterates them. Johnson stands out both in terms of his vocals, riffing and soloing. The feral howl of his Gibson ES 335 guitar comes close to defining the holy grail of blues tone – which is something of a tall order given the high bar Stevie Ray Vaughn set. From short punchy phrases to quick pentatonic runs, Eric Johnson puts on a show for the shredder generation on how the blues should be played. (The French have a phrase for it. Savoire faire. Qui, qui monsieur.)
I do not mean to diss Vai or Satriani in this, but their guitar tone falls far short of the gold standard for this kind of tune. Without stuffing a live ghost in both the guitar and amp, it is hard to make an Ibanez howl and growl the way an ES 335 can. But that having been said I cannot get over how well this song turned out overall, from the “Wailing Wall” groove to the bluesy solos and and conversational back and forth with E.J. as the grandmaster. ( In Biblical parlance he is like “the good shepherd” who leads the sheep to where the water flows. For sheer perspective, compare this performance to another G3 take of the same song with Yngwie Malmsteen presiding: A totally different approach with a regrettably different result.) And as if to not be outdone, the bass player in this performance ups the ante and flips his line at 6.20″ for 4 solid measures before climaxing with everyone at about 6.50″. If that is not drop-dead-tension-and-release virtuosity, then I don’t know what is.
El Capitan: Johnson’s helicopter pilot headphones on stage are a bit over the top, but that is E.J. for you. Notice how he blows through a song that is certifiably a blues “torch” classic without as much as a single guitar face. (Compare this with Gary Moore’s virtuoso performance of the same song live at Wembley Stadium on YouTube. ) Amazing huh! Besides it being an achievement in and of itself, it perhaps affords us an intriguing peek into the mind and meticulous method behind Johnson’s sound. In this particular clip it extends to his vocals which come in carefully measured cadences that are as on key and as pitch perfect as Johnson’s guitar voice. This is the paradoxical secret behind Eric Johnson; and one that he has struggled with, especially in the latter part of his career.
He freely talks about clean power and dirty power and how he can tell the difference between a guitar signal put through a battery powered stomp box and one put through an A.C. powered one. Go figure.
The interview that Eric Johnson gave to Guitar Player in August of 2005 is a telling peek into the evolving mind of a fretboard technician. The interview done at the cusp of the “Bloom” album tour is a must read for any Eric Johnson aficianado. Telling quotes:
“How can one learn to approach the fretboard the way you do? I try to instantly recognize each and every note on the fretboard. You can start very methodically, and work your way up each string. Once note recognition is as second nature as breathing, you’ve created a launchpad. I’m now learning to read chord charts, but I’m really a beginner as far as the actual “book” theory of guitar, so I try to develop my ear theory. I try to recognize intervals, because the more I learn them, the more I hear how they relate and where there is cohesion.
“Even at your ability level, you keep using the word “try.” Do you still work harder than people might think? Definitely. Some people might think that my inherent ability put me at the top of the ladder. No. Inherently, I’m not a particularly good player. I’ve groveled my way up by learning things, and practicing them a lot. I still practice two to three hours a day, although I’m trying to practice things that are fun for me to play, such as classical music or developing songs. I work on technique inadvertently as I’m working on music.
“How did you move past your influences and nail the essence of your unique voice? For me, it was about becoming aware of particular musical qualities, assimilating them, and combining them. For example, I would really hone in on one aspect of Jeff Beck’s playing, such as his inventive use of semitones. I also noticed how the tone of the steel guitar really jumps out, so I studied the way steel guitar players pick up and away from the [guitar] body. I might try to play semitones like Beck, but I’ll try to pick them like a steel guitarist, and, all of a sudden, it’s a new thing.
“What are a few things that everybody can do to improve their tone? I’m trying to put less emphasis on gear, because I think tone has more to do with touch. The most important thing is dampening anywhere you’re not playing. Dampening can be done underneath your fretting fingers or thumb, or with the outside of your strumming-hand palm or thumb. Also, the way your finger makes contact with the frets makes a big difference. You need to learn the sweet spots on your guitar, like a violin player would approach his or her instrument. And then there’s the way you pick. I tend to pick up and away from the guitar in order to make the notes pop out.
“Why are you willing to go to such great lengths to achieve your tone? To me, tone is the fundamental thing. If the sound is not alluring, then I’m not interested in playing the guitar. I’m trying to find a sound on the electric guitar that has the elegance of a violin, a saxophone, or an acoustic piano. It’s a challenge when you’re fighting variables such as electricity and tubes. My personal quest has been trying to improve my tone so it can serve as a vehicle for changing the music I love.” (Jimmy Leslie, ‘Obsessive Perfectionist, Eric Johnson Is Trying To Go With The Flow,’ Guitar Player Magazine, August of 2005)
While you are at it, check out the section about Eric Johnson’s rig too.