Eric Johnson Energizes His Sound on ‘Up Close’
Jan. 5, 2011 – Chrissy Mauck
Grammy-award winning musician and Fender signature artist Eric Johnson embarked on his professional career more than four decades ago when he joining psychedelic rock act Mariani at age 15. Tagged by Guitar Player magazine in 2006 as “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet,” Johnson recently recalled for Fender News the moment when the guitar first rocked his world.
“I remember going out to dinner with my folks when I was 10 years old, and there was this band in the corner of a restaurant and the guy was playing a white Fender Jaguar, and I just freaked out because that was just so rare to see,” Johnson shared. “I was totally coming unglued. This was, like, 1966, and he’s got this groovy Fender Jaguar. Nowadays, nobody would turn their head because everybody has seen a guitar. It’s in almost every home in the world. But at the time there was such a mystique and romance to the electric guitar. Clapton came out and then the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and then Jimi Hendrix, and there was an endless display of unique guitar sounds. And then to see this cool-looking guitar as a kid, it was just really dramatic and so that really inspired me to want to be a guitarist and do it for my life.”
As for his other Influences: “I started listening to the Ventures and the Rolling Stones when I was young. And I fell in love with Clapton’s guitar tone and Jeff Beck’s tone; how graceful John McLaughlin would play lead lines or Chet Atkins’ or Jerry Reed’s clean tones. Jimi Hendrix’s clean tone as well as his distorted fuzz tone, Wes Montgomery’s jazz tone, the acoustic tone of Django Reinhardt or Michael Hedges, James Taylor, just a whole bunch of them all over the place. I kind of just really enjoyed all of them, and then I’d figure out ways to piece it all together for my own little recipe that’s made up of a lot of people who are my heroes.”
While performing on the fall 2010 Experience Hendrix tour, the Austin, Texas, guitar ace immensely enjoyed the opportunity to play his interpretation of “Are You Experienced” on one of the most iconic Fender guitars in rock history — the white Strat Hendrix played at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
“That was really an honor,” Johnson said. “The guitar usually resides at the museum in Seattle, but they brought it to New York for some of the artists to play and that was just so cool. It was a wonderful instrument and extra special just knowing that he owned it. I really enjoyed that.”
So much so that for a brief moment Johnson considered taking off with it.
“I thought about running out the back of the auditorium with it, but I figured I wouldn’t get very far,” he joked. “I could just see running down 9th Avenue screaming and trying to get a cab before anyone notices me.”
Rest assured that Johnson committed no crime, and that the Woodstock Strat was safely returned to the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle. He did, however, conjure a bit of Hendrix’s magical and timeless guitar tone on new song “A Change Has Come” off December 2010 album Up Close.
“I always loved the way (Hendrix) did ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ so I copped some of that vibe for the rhythm guitar parts,” Johnson recently said to mysanantonio.com. “It took a while to get it to sound loose and relaxed. Once we got in the groove, it was easy.”
Chasing that perfect tone is sometimes problematic for Johnson, who admits that his pursuit for excellence can get in his own way in the recording studio.
“I have to have men in white coats come and pry it out of my hands,” he said of letting go of a song. “I’m trying to learn a new balance on that because you can keep working on it for forever, and I’ve approached it that way in the past on other projects. I enjoy striving for doing the best I can, but that energy and tendency can also curve around and work to your disfavor. You’ve got to be really vigilant about how it can serve you and how it cannot. It’s a matter of striking a different balance point where you don’t go as far.”
Johnson diligently sought that balance on Up Close, his sixth studio album and first since 2005’s Bloom.
“I was trying to take an honest look at some of the music I’ve done in the past and trying to think what I could do to grow and do a better job of what I’m doing,” he said. “What really seemed to be immediately apparent to me was to make it more personal and honest — more open. As that process started happening on this record, I noticed that there was an improvement in the brightness of the vibe.”
Considered a musician’s musician widely praised for his formidable chops and meticulous guitar work, Johnson captured that energetic vibe on his latest effort by simply being less polished. Doses of organic spontaneity are sprinkled throughout the album, with musical interludes such as opener “Awaken,” “Traverse” and “The Sea and the Mountain.”
“They were just total improvs,” he shared. “It was just coming straight from whatever muse or inspiration I felt at the moment. Also, on some of the solo work, like at the end of ‘Soul Surprise’ or ‘Arithmetic,’ those were both just improv performances that I was able to catch live in the studio.”
The same is true of his rework of Electric Flag classic “Texas,” which features guest appearances by Jimmie Vaughan and Sonny Landreth on guitars and Steve Miller on vocals.
“That was just a live jam that we captured on tape,” Johnson said of the bluesy track. “We cut it live and so I think it has this energy and spirit to it.”
Johnson’s latest effort also features collaborations with vocalist Malford Milligan and Jonny Lang.
“I really enjoy working with other musicians,” he said. “It’s something I’ve done a little bit in the past and am trying to do more of now because you get that dynamic of that interpersonal reaction and people working off each other. A lot of times there will be certain songs that somebody might play better or come up with a different part on. Or somebody might sing better, and maybe ‘better’ is not the right word, but more appropriate for the voracity of the tune. When you go with that, it’s kind of an alchemy thing that keeps spiraling and hopefully elevates itself into something magical.”
For instance, Johnson felt that Lang, a young Grammy-award winning blues prodigy, would be ideal for “Austin,” a track that lyrically speaks to the growth of his hometown and pays musical tribute to one of his favorite R&B/soul artists.
“I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan and I think it’s got that vibe to it because of these Stevie Wonder-type chords in it,” said Johnson. “And man, Jonny sings so great on it. But the song is about me growing up in Austin and it reflects on how the city has changed. It’s still amazing, but it’s not quite the pristine preserve-aquifer-greenbelt it was 30 or 40 years ago. It’s been compromised somewhat.”
Up Close likewise demonstrates Johnson’s own search for change and compromise, undertaken for the broadening and enrichment of his music.
“Even though it’s a heavily used term, I thought it fit what I was trying to inculcate in my music, which is just showing a little bit more of my personality and emotion,” explained Johnson. “I wanted to try not to be too guarded or detached or divorced from my creations and instead try to let it be a reflection on a more personal and honest level.”
True to form, Johnson meanders across his melodic influences, encompassing rock, blues, pop, country, jazz and classic styles for that signature sound, but to underscore his “up-close” theme, his lyrics are deeply personal and revelatory. He penned “Arithmetic,” a song about the value of a lifetime friendship, for a close friend, while album closer “Your Book” is an emotional tribute to his father.
“I wrote ‘Your Book’ when my father passed away a few years ago, and it’s a metaphor for how when we go see a movie, we almost always go, ‘Yeah the movie was great, but it wasn’t as good as the book,’” explained Johnson. “It’s like no matter how much you talk or write secondhand about someone’s life, unless you are inside their heart and their experiences — their book — it’s always going to pale in comparison to the actual intimate living that the person did. This was my way of honoring that special majestic story of my father and his book.”
With the stunning compositions featured on Up Close, Johnson has added yet another indelible chapter to his own book.