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Eric Johnson on Breaking Patterns to Play with More Freedom

Photo by Jon R. Luini

On the road during his EJ Vol. II tour, the guitar giant talks about the rewards of varying technique, acoustic versus electric playing, balancing spontaneity and perfectionism, why he chose the pickups for his new “Virginia” signature Strat, and owning the first guitar he ever heard.

Anyone who lives in the New York metro area knows that driving across the Long Island Expressway is a punishment reserved for only the most extreme masochists. But the first area appearance of Eric Johnson’s Classics: Present and Past Tour at the YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore was compelling enough for me to make the painful trek.

Determined to avoid traffic, I got a head start and ended up arriving at the venue hours early, when it was eerily empty. There were no signs of life other than the flurry of notes from Johnson doing a soundcheck, and a pair of siblings waiting by the box office. I soon found out that the brother and sister I had just met endured even more torturous travelling conditions than traversing the LIE at any hour of the day. They took a grueling 16-hour flight from Tahiti solely to see Johnson (they even had front row seats!)—and rented a car to get around to four of Johnson’s Northeast shows from places as far flung as Fairfield, Connecticut, and Albany, New York. That’s the sort of hardcore dedication you see from Phishheads, but might not expect for Johnson, whose fan base was, for a long time, strictly tone-obsessed guitar geeks enamored by Johnson’s virtuosity.

Over the decades, Johnson’s music has broadened in scope considerably and now has a much wider appeal. The audience at the Boulton Center consisted of a diverse array of folks—hipsters, young kids, rich lawyer types, and musicians who resembled electronics guru Larry Hartke—who, over the course of a three-hour show (with only a very brief intermission), enjoyed hearing Johnson singing and playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and piano on everything from classics like “Zap” and “Cliffs of Dover” to vocal-driven songs from his latest release EJ Vol. II. (It’s the sequel to the 2016 all-acoustic EJ, and adds in electric elements.)

While Johnson burned through many of the electric selections with his trademark lightning-speed pentatonic sequences, he also captivated the audience equally with his sensitive vocals and jazzy piano playing on “Over the Moon,” which also featured rhythm guitarist Dave Scher lightly hybrid-picking volume-swelled, chordal fragments. Of course, Johnson is aware that many in the audience were there for the shred, and though he opened the second set with an acoustic in hand, he started right off the bat with the jaw-dropping “Lake Travis,” a burning instrumental highlight of EJ Vol. II.

For this tour, Johnson brought out his new signature “Virginia” guitar, from the Fender Stories Collection. The instrument is based on his favorite 1954 Strat that was used on iconic albums like Tones and Ah Via Musicom, but had, sadly, been sold years back. “Virginia” was released after EJ Vol. II was recorded, so the model doesn’t appear on the album, but Johnson is extremely pleased with the instrument, so you can expect to hear it on future recordings. “That was my favorite guitar I ever owned, so with this one being so close, it really fulfills everything I need,” he says. Fender’s Carlos Lopez, the master builder behind the “Virginia” model, has publicly stated that when he first took on the project he was a little intimidated, which, given Johnson’s legendary history of gear neuroticism, makes complete sense.

Decades ago, when guitarists read that Johnson could hear microscopic differences in the batteries used in his pedals, a kind of urban myth was born. And with the advent of guitar forums, many gearheads have come to believe that every single piece—no matter how seemingly unrelated (like a screw)—has an impact on tone. In fact, as I watched Johnson’s show I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a tonal reason why Johnson’s two Bandmaster Reverb heads had different colored power lights—the top head green and the bottom red. This nagged me so much that I had to follow up with Johnson. To which he simply replied that there is “no tonal difference between the amps due to the color of the lights. It’s just a way to identify them.”

“It’s better to be secure, have faith, practice, and just go for that magical performance.”

Is the fan of Eric Johnson the virtuoso guitarist the same person as the fan of Johnson the acoustic singer/songwriter?
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of people that seem to like both things. As there are people that would rather hear me get going and hear a lot of guitar playing, I think similarly there are people that want to hear all the other stuff. There’s some crossover, but I’m sure there’s some people that just favor one or the other.

Being aware of that, as you worked on EJ and EJ Vol. II, did you worry about what the “Cliffs of Dover” guy would be expecting in an EJ record?
I thought about some of the stuff that some people might not like as much, but I’ve always enjoyed songs. Trying to write a song has always been a part of my thing since I started playing music. I guess I was fortunate enough to get something working for me and it turned out to be the guitar thing. But I’ve always enjoyed the whole spectrum.

Live, when going from acoustic to electric, is it a tricky transition in terms of touch?
Yeah, it takes a little different touch on the acoustic. That’s true. On acoustic, a lot of times I use my fingers. But there are songs where I use a pick and, yeah, there’s a little bit more resistance on the acoustic. It’s not too hard of an adjustment if I’m on tour and I’m used to doing it. If I’ve been playing electric for a few weeks and haven’t been playing acoustic, it can be a hard adjustment. But if I’m in the groove of doing it, it’s not too hard.

You’ve released a good amount of albums over the past few years, whereas there were six years between Ah Via Musicom and Venus Isle. Are you clinging less to your perfectionist tendencies?
Yeah, I think it is that. Just kind of realizing that the extra belaboring over the record not only takes an exorbitant amount of time, but it doesn’t really produce any better quality. And, in many cases, it makes it worse [laughs]. Or, you know, maybe it makes it better, grammatically, but it makes it not as potent, emotionally. So I’m trying to learn that and practice that more.

TIDBIT: Johnson prefers recording acoustic guitars with “just a couple of mics,” he says. “I prefer not to use the electronics on an acoustic in the studio.”

I mean, I wrote “Cliffs of Dover”really quickly. It just came to me. But I had several years to play it live, over and over and over, to get all the notes the way I wanted. Then when I went into the studio … yeah, I really spent a lot of time trying to get the right take.

How much of your live solos are improvised versus composed?

It’s probably about half and half. Sometimes they're just completely off the cuff, but sometimes they have certain guidelines to them.

I imagine there are many subtle things you hear that a fan might not pick up on. But if you hadn’t labored over “Cliffs of Dover” 30 years ago, looking back, would the result have been that much different?
It’s interesting that you say that. I think if you rehearse and you’re in shape, and you do the discipline of practice, and then you capture a magic performance—then no, I don’t think so. I have that version from Austin City Limits that’s totally live, and I guess a lot of people like that better than the studio version. That would be the answer to your question right there. And then it’s also just a matter of your mindset and believing you can do it.

Sometimes insecurity is another form of ego because you don’t think that you can do something so you have to hands-on everything and try to control the universe, which is impossible to do anyhow. It’s better to be secure, have faith, practice, and just go for that magical performance.

Were songs on EJ Vol. II cut live or did you do a lot of overdubbing?
I cut the parts live in the studio. One of the songs, “Black Waterslide,” actually did come from a live performance at a gig, and I took it back to the studio and overdubbed percussion to it.

In your live set, you jam on John Coltrane’s “Impressions.” Are you free enough to push yourself to go for new things, or are you inhibited knowing that someone will likely be filming it and putting it on YouTube?
No, I try to experiment. I’m still learning about all of that so it’s definitely not way out and deep and crazy like Eric Dolphy (saxophonist) or Coltrane, but I’m trying to learn more about harmony. I just want to do what I do, but I would like to learn more about harmony, so I’d rather push myself in a situation like that.

Watch our latest Rig Rundown with Eric talking about his signature Thinline Strat

Among the guitars on Johnson’s current tour is his semi-hollow signature Fender Thinline Stratocaster. The model debuted in early 2018 and sports his signature EJH single-coil pickups. Photo by Ken Settle

Has your technique changed over the years?
I guess I’m trying to learn to be able to pick forward or backward at any moment on any lick, and on any string, so you’re completely free to play anything at any moment, which is really difficult for me. If I really study what I’m doing, I notice I have a certain ingrained picking pattern that I do, and if I challenge myself to go, “Oh, this is what I do. Okay, let me try to do a mirror image of that and make it all backstrokes, and downstrokes that are opposite of the way I always do it” … I’m falling flat on my face. I’m like, “Wow, I can’t do this very well.” You would assume that if you could do that then you’d be super free, or a lot freer than you are.

So you’d practice a phrase that you normally start with, say, a downstroke and do it starting on an upstroke?
Exactly. If I’m onstage, I don’t want to do that. I just want to play whatever I know, and how I play. But if I’m practicing, sometimes I’ll notice how I’m playing and try to see if I could do it the other way. The more I do that, the more it makes me a little bit more malleable to change it up a little bit. But I’m still pretty stuck in a certain way of doing it, so I’m trying to break that stigma to where I’m a little freer.

Have you watched any of those videos like Troy Grady’s Cracking the Code series that try to dissect your technique?

I’ve seen a little bit of it and I’ve met the guy that does it. They’re really cool videos, man.

Are they close?
Yeah, totally. He’s figured it out.

Tell us about your use of economy picking. It seems like you use downward sweeps when playing fast, but you don’t use upward sweeps.
I use upstrokes, but I guess I do a lot of downstrokes. That’s sometimes because of the tone. There’s a little bit of difference in the tone. I like to pick away from the guitar, like up-and-down rather than sideways, so sometimes I will do multiple upstrokes even though it’s a little more difficult and probably inefficient to do, but it has a certain sound to it.

“I’m trying to learn to able to pick forward or backward at any moment on any lick, and on any string.”

Is tone ultimately more important than efficiency?
The technique enters into how it sounds. How you finger the note and how you pick the note is huge in how it does sound. I think it’s always intertwined, but I don’t know, that’s a good question. I find that if you were to solo out some guitar parts and listen to them real carefully, they might not sound that good, but in the picture of the recording, they’re really great. If it’s a solo instrument that’s out front carrying the whole tune then I think sound is one of the most important things of all. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Like maybe sometimes you want a real thin, trebly, ratty-sounding guitar to do chords in the distance. And in its context, it sounds good. Music is sound, so I guess sound is what allures us to what the music is.

Let’s talk gear now. How many vintage Strats do you have left?

Just one or two, really. I don’t have very many anymore. Just a couple.

Did you sell them off?
Yeah, just trying to downsize. I don’t own as much gear as I used to. I still have plenty to do my thing. I have several new Strats and a couple of old Strats, and that really is plenty. This new Strat I’m doing with Fender, which I used on the whole last leg of the tour, I’m so happy with it.

Yeah, it’s really got everything that I’m looking for.

What happened to the original “Virginia?”
I got frustrated with it and sold it, and I should’ve put it in the closet and kept it, and waited until I was not frustrated and got it back out.

I saw a vintage Strat that belonged to you listed for something like $98,000 on Reverb.
Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I pretty much all but quit signing my name on stuff anymore because of that. Because it’s like every time I sell this stuff, I sell it for exactly what it’s worth. I don’t sell it for an elevated price like everybody. At first, I thought everyone wanted a piece of paper just for the heck of it—that I toured with it or recorded with it. But now I understand that some of the people just wanted it so they can charge an exorbitant amount of money, which I never did when I sold it to them. I never sold it like it was “my” guitar, you know what I mean? I just sold it for what it was worth. It’s kind of an irritating subject, to be honest.

Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster “Virginia”
Fender Signature Thinline Stratocaster
Fender Stratocaster production “Virginia”
Gibson 1959 Les Paul
Two Maton Custom Shop acoustic guitars

1966 Marshall JTM45
Marshall 1959T JTM45 Super Tremolo 100W
1968 Marshall 100W Super Lead
Four Marshall 4x12 cabinets
Two-Rock Classic Reverb Signature
Two Fender Bandmaster Reverbs (1968 and 1969)
Two Fender Deluxe Reverbs (for smaller venues and clinics)
Marshall 1968 Plexi 50W head (for smaller venues and clinics)
Two AER Compact XL acoustic guitar amps

Two MXR Time Delays
MXR Flanger/Doubler
Two Echoplexes modified by Bill Webb of Austin Vintage Guitars
Catalinbread Belle Epoch
Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man
Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face
TC Electronic Stereo Chorus + Pitch Modulator & Flanger
BK Butler Tube Driver
Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer
Custom-made switchers

Strings and Picks
D’Addario XL Pure Nickel (.010, .013, .017, .026, .038, .048)
D’Addario EJ16 Phosphor Bronze Light Acoustic (.012–.053)
Jim Dunlop Eric Johnson Jazz III

Sorry to bring it up.
Oh no, no. It’s cool.

Could you get the original “Virginia” back?
No. The guy that has it will never sell it back.

On the new “Virginia,” you have the DiMarzio HS-2 stacked humbucker in the bridge, but only set in single-coil mode.
Yeah. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know what it is, but that HS-2 stacked pickup is real strong in single-coil mode so it has a gainier lead tone. I don’t know why it does that. And when you play it through a clean tone, it’s still nice and chimey and clean. Most overwrapped pickups don’t sound that good on the clean tone, but for some reason it just works for the clean tone and has more gain for the lead, because it’s a more powerful pickup. And then just having that stack underneath it, even though it’s not hooked up, the proximity cuts out about 25 percent of the hum.

It’s not completely noise-free though, is it?
No. It’s not even in stacked mode. It’s still single-coil but having that proximity will cut a little bit of the hum.

What was your acoustic setup on EJ Vol. II?
I like to keep it as simple as possible. A couple of microphones and that’s it. I prefer not to use the electronics on an acoustic in the studio. I just like to use the mics. There might be one or two songs where I used a tiny bit of the pickup in the acoustic, but I would find that almost always I would hardly even put it in the mix. I would end up just using the microphones, which is hard to do live. You can’t really do that live.

In a Guitar Center Q&A on YouTube, you used the Mad Professor Golden Cello. Other pedals like the Dover Drive are supposed to be “EJ in a box.”
I actually have a Dover Drive. They’re pretty cool.

Could you get by with one of those pedals and a Deluxe Reverb, if you had to?
If I had to, I could. But it’s not quite the same. I’d love to try some new pedals to see if there’s something that would do that. I haven’t found anything that gets the exact same thing.

Have you ever checked out any of the modeling stuff?
I’ve checked out a little bit of it. It seems to sound really good, but it’s kind of two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional to me. But maybe eventually they’ll get that together even better.

Even if they got it together perfectly, could you be converted?
Probably. If it got to where it sounded 99 percent as good I’d probably be cool with that. But if you do a test right next to each other, there’s a pretty substantial difference.

On Facebook you recently posted that you were looking for a 1966 Marshall Super 100 JTM45/100. Did you find it?

No, they’re impossible to find. Well, I found a couple, but that year had different transformers and I’m looking for one with a certain kind of transformer in it.

You played a burning solo on “Minstrel Gigolo” from Christopher Cross’ 1979 debut album, which won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Since then you’ve played on just about every one of his albums. How did you and Cross hook up?
You know, it’s crazy. I was in a rock band called Mariani when I was like 15 or 16 years old, and we were opening for Deep Purple. It was in San Antonio where Chris lived and he was an avid, die-hard Deep Purple fan. He knew all the Ritchie Blackmore licks, which is really interesting because he went on to be a songwriter. But when I first met him, he was a rocker and had a Marshall stack and a Flying V. He was actually filling in for Ritchie Blackmore that night because Ritchie was in the hospital with food poisoning. Joe Miller, the concert promoter, had gotten Chris so that they wouldn’t have to cancel the show. He played Ritchie’s parts and did a good job. I met him that night when that was going on. It was 1970 or 1971 or something.

One classic Eric Johnson story is that when you were a toddler, a guy came to install a TV antenna and pulled out a guitar and amp, and played the blues. How did this happen? Did the guy just randomly happen to have the guitar in his work van?
That was the first time I ever heard a guitar. He was a guitarist and singer, and he played all this old blues stuff. He was a family friend that actually worked at the hospital where my dad practiced medicine. He asked him if he could come over and help him put up the antenna, and he said, “Sure.” Then there was a little get together afterwards where we all just sat around and he played guitar.

Was that a defining moment for you?Yeah, it really was. It’s interesting because, years ago, his widow gave me the guitar that he played that day. It’s an ES-125—the thick body one. It’s got one P-90 in the neck.

An iconic live rendition of “Cliffs of Dover” from Eric Johnson’s 1988 performance at Austin City Limits. With its electrifying unaccompanied intro, some EJ fans consider this to be the best version of “Cliffs” ever recorded.