Eric Johnson sheds perfection, paints tuneful Collage

By A. Lee Graham

One might call Eric Johnson a recovering perfectionist.

Known for his ability to discern the sonic qualities of battery brands, the Texas virtuoso also spends countless studio hours crafting guitar tones — or used to.

“I’m trying to take a more direct approach these days,” says Johnson, happy with Collage, his 10th studio outing and latest effort to shed his perfectionist tendencies.

But perfection aplenty awaits fans as Johnson hits the road to support Collage. The tour also features Ah Via Musicom performed in its entirety, a prospect sure to please fans almost 30 years after the Grammy-winning opus hit record racks.

To hear its creator tell it, perfection can carry a price. It paid off with Ah Via Musicom yet kept its successor, Venus Isle, in production limbo following Ah Via Musicom’s critical and commercial acclaim. The 1990 fan favorite boasted “Cliffs of Dover,” which won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Performance. Yet prolonged studio time stalled momentum attained while touring Ah Via Musicom.

When finally released in 1996, Venus Isle impressed listeners with its arrangements, atmosphere and, of course, stellar musicianship. But it proved too little, too late, prompting Capitol Records to drop the artist.

Years before label headaches and studio deadlines entered his life, Johnson discovered what would become the love of his life: the guitar. The 11-year-old phenom devoured the instrument, soon turning heads with violin-smooth technique and for fusing rock, blues and jazz.

Johnson cut his teeth with Austin fusion group The Electromagnets in the mid-‘70s and built a reputation as a player transcending technique, an artist fueled as much by tone as technique.

After forming The Eric Johnson Band, featuring drummer Bill Maddox and bassist Kyle Brock, the guitarist recorded Seven Worlds in the late ‘70s, a debut mired on contractual disputes that delayed its release until 1998.

What really sealed Johnson’s reputation was Tones, the 1986 album that brought the guitarist worldwide acclaim. Instrumental “Zap” was nominated for the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

The attention was not misplaced, with Ah Via Musicom, Souvenir, Bloom, Up Close, Eclectic (a collaboration with fellow six-stringer Mike Stern) and EJ, not to mention several live releases, cementing Johnson’s stature as a guitarist’s guitarist.

And with Collage the latest sampling of Johnson’s musicality, fans can expect a few cover tunes, many originals and an entire album performed on a tour that begins on Jan. 23 in Tuscon, Ariz. Eric discusses the tour and what lays ahead with Classic Rock Revisited.

Lee: What made you decide to showcase Ah Via Musicom on this tour?

Eric: It’s become a thing to do. With the 20th anniversary of Tones, we just never did, and it’s just … there are a lot of bands going out and playing entire albums live. It’s a thing, so someone suggested to me, why don’t you do that for Ah Via Musicom?

I went on the [Eric Johnson] website, and we had such an overwhelming response. That was something they really wanted to see, so I thought, yeah, let’s do it. We didn’t really go with 10, 15, 20 years or whatever. We just decided to tour it.

Lee: Some cuts have been a part of your live set for years, but there are some from Ah Via Musicom that may seem new to you after all this time. Did any of those catch you by surprise, like some parts that caught you off guard, perhaps?

Eric: I would say there are several songs, I kind of played them through the years, but I didn’t play “Steve’s Boogie,” for example. To be honest, I didn’t really know how: I’ve got to relearn it! About 85 percent I know but still have to brush up on it. Aside from “Steve’s Boogie,” “High Landrons,” the rest of them I know.


Lee: The album was released in a golden age for instrumental rock music. From Joe Satriani’s Surfing With The Alien to the various releases on Mike Varney’s Shrapnel label, the decade virtually exploded with impressive material. Yet Ah Via Musicom stood out as perhaps a more timeless work rooted in jazz, blues and rock. Would you agree that its roots helped it stand the test of time?

Eric: You know, that’s a really good question. Maybe having a mix of different styles made it interesting to people. Maybe it kept it from being too stylized in one idiom, I guess.

Lee: Are you going to perform Ah Via Musicom in its entirely front to back, or will you break up the material throughout the set?

Eric: We’ll do a short set of different songs, then take a break and do the second set: Ah Via Musicom, front to back.

Lee: I understand you’re taking out the musicians who actually performed on the album on this tour. How important was including them on this run?

Eric: They were my first choices. Tom [Tommy Taylor, drummer] was open to it and Kyle made himself available for this tour.

Lee: What do they bring to the table that another rhythm section couldn’t?

Eric: Tommy is a tasty drummer, really articulate. He knows how to project his drum playing. And Kyle is a great player, too. He knows how to get in the cracks and make things really work. They both have a real sensitivity to the material. And yeah, we’re happy and honored to be doing this with them.

Lee: You’ve been far from idle since then, having released Bloom, Venus Isle, EJ and so many other albums. Yet none of them have trod the same course, with EJ being an obvious example of you trying something different. What can fans expect from Collage?

Eric: My focus on it was to be more honest and genuine. On the performance of the record, I tried to made it as live as possible. I tried to stay away from painting by numbers, so to speak.

Lee: I haven’t heard it yet, but I noticed “We Can Work It Out.” Is that a Beatles cover?

Eric: Yes, I also have a Stevie Wonder tune.

Lee: What led you to choose a Beatles song and a Stevie Wonder song? Come to think of it, you did perform a Stevie song on your last electric tour, which came off really great.

Eric: Thanks. I’ve been a [Stevie Wonder] fan for years. I’ve always enjoyed playing that song. I wanted to do a more rave-up version of it. I decided to finally record it. The premise of Collage is half the record was songs I wrote and had were other people’s songs. I did “Pipeline” by the Chantays, “Rock Me” by B.B. King, “We Can Work It Out” and another one. Yeah, it’s got five tunes by other people on it.

Lee: Collage follows EJ, which was a covers album. Are you sort of going over the music that informed your own career at this point?

Eric: Yeah, I just have fun playing other people’s stuff. There’s a Hendrix piece on there, too. That’s what it was. Anyway, I enjoy playing other people’s styles and rearranging songs in a particular way that you play it that still honors their tunes. I don’t feel as compelled to have every single song that I have to write anymore.

Lee: How to you think your playing has changed since Seven Worlds? Did your style ever undergo a big reinvention or has your growth or evolution been more gradual, would you say?

Eric: More gradual.

Lee: How so?

Eric: A lot of elements about what I do, even if you listen to Seven Worlds, you hear some the sounds I get now. I think originally I kept a concept of how I wanted my guitar to sound with five or seven sounds I wanted to use, and I just kind of return to those. I’ll ad lib in the studio, but there’s a certain genre of sounds I like to use.

Lee: Could you could explain some of those and what fans might find familiar?

Eric: Sure. I just love the clean tone of Wes Montgomery or the dirty or crunch rhythm of Keith Richards or Paul Kossoff from Free. I love fuzz and am a big fan of Hendrix and his beautiful lead tone and Eric Clapton’s stuff in Cream. If you put all those together, that’s what I try to go for with all my sounds.

Lee: Moving up a few years, your Eclectic collaboration with Mike Stern saw you retreat from your meticulous approach in the studio and be more spontaneous, more improvisational. Are you still following that direction, or have you returned to a more planned-out approach?

Eric: Yeah, yeah. I am.

Lee: Is that because you think it produces better results, or does it just not drive you as crazy?

Eric: Not as crazy. It can bring better results, and in some cases, you get stuff that’s not quite as polished. Some people say polished is bad, some say it isn’t. It depends. There’s nothing wrong with polish or shooting for perfection. It’s not necessarily great, either. Getting on a bandwagon of over-perfection is bad. The question is what price do you pay in going for a high watermark.

If I’m going for a high watermark on a piece of music, great, but what price are you paying? In other words, if I can get it in three or four takes, great. If 300 takes, I pay too high a price.

I think to say simpler and not be so long-winded, it’s a matter of taking an approach that takes more humanity in the performance and that’s the approach I’m taking now.

Lee: You’ve always used different guitars, from Gibson ESs to SGs yet the Strat has remained your main guitar. In fact, Fender’s releasing a semi-hollow body Strat next year as its next Eric Johnson signature model. Even with your flirtation with different models, do you still consider the Fender Stratocaster your main workhorse?

Eric: Yeah, I think I do. It’s the most versatile instrument. There’s something about it that doesn’t sound as good as other guitars, but when you try to cover a wider range of real estate, a Strat seems to work really well. That’s why.

Lee: What was your first guitar and how old were you when you took up guitar?

Eric: I was 11 and it was a white Fender Musicmaster.

Lee: A Fender man from the start.

Eric: (laughs) Yeah.

Lee: Was this in Dallas or Austin?

Eric: Austin.

Lee: You toured with G3. What led you to join the tour, and was did participating mean to you?

Eric: Joe [Satriani] asked me to open a few shows for him before that, and that was a great opportunity. And in the ‘90s, he decided to put this three-guitar thing together I did the first few with Steve [Vai] and Joe.

Lee: Growing up, who were your first guitar heroes and who are some of the newer players impressing you these days?

Eric: Mine were Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jerry Reed, Buddy Emmons, Julian Tharpe, Nokie Edwards, Andy Summers, George Harrison, Brian Jones, all those guys.

Lee: Anyone recently?

Eric: Yeah, Matt King. He’s a great blues player, great singer, too. And Joe Bonamasa, Carson Brock.

Lee: I ask this to every guitarist I interview. What’s the one thing you go without on tour?

Eric: Like my gear?

Lee: Aside from guitars, gear.

Eric: If I’m totally honest, it would be my cellphone, which is kind of hard to admit.

Lee: It’s good and bad, kind of central to our lives these days.

Eric: Kind of sad, but yeah.

Lee: Closing things out, inquiring minds want to know: Eveready or Duracell?

Eric: i just use Duracell.

Lee: Why Duracell?

Eric: Because I just tried them once and they sounded great and I never looked back or never changed. At one point a few years ago, I tried one of those super, super high-intensity batteries and my fuzz was sharp and edgy sounding. I said, I know my fuzz. I opened it up and it had one of those batteries and I replaced it with a Duracell and it sounded great. That’s it. That’s the complete story. It was a one-and-a-half-minute story turned into a big, huge story.

Lee: It’s this big urban myth.

Eric: It was really this one-minute thing. I don’t know much about batteries. All I know is these extra-long, extra-life ones sound different than a regular battery. I’ve used them ever since.

Lee: Thanks for taking time to chat, Eric. In closing, anything you want to tell your fans?

Eric: Thanks for the support and for giving me the opportunity to play.