Music Notes: Quest to Stay Satisfied

Eric Johnson’s reputation as one of the world’s most adventurous and groundbreaking guitarists wasn’t gained by accident. 

Eric Johnson co-headlines with Mike Stern at the Birchmere. (Photo courtesy Max Crace)

Eric Johnson co-headlines with Mike Stern at the Birchmere. (Photo courtesy Max Crace)

You’d think such a revered, respected and just plain out-of-this-world guitarist like Eric Johnson would be fine being just who he always has been musically. Ya know, routinely turning out the kind of groundbreaking music that is expected of him, the music he is best known for. Yeah, you’d think that.

But with his standing as one of popular music’s most daring and dynamic guitar players, Johnson is hell bent on keeping things fresh and new, even if that means breaking the mold from time to time. What kind of adaptation and discipline does acquiring that kind of freedom take?

“Just trying to reach and maybe just let go of whatever I’ve done, or whatever I am, or whatever the alphabet I use musically is,” said Johnson last week from his home in Austin. “And to be brave enough to step out on a limb and kinda come up with something new and fresh, and take a different approach as if you didn’t already have a buncha stuff in your history bag. I think whenever you do that, you get pleasantly surprised, and you get inspired, and it becomes like a thrill, a much more enthusiastic thing. It’s just whether we allow ourselves to do it. So whenever I have the bravery to allow myself to do that, I think that’s really exciting.”

Johnson, 60, is in that class of uber-rare guitarists who have gained a sterling reputation for taking the art of guitar playing to a new and different level. And the accolades and achievements are many, including Guitar Player magazine once labeling Johnson as “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet,” collaborating with the likes of Christopher Cross, Carole King and Cat Stevens, garnering the Best Rock Instrumental Grammy for his astonishing 1990 tour de force album, Ah Vie Musicom, and jamming live frequently with other guitar gods like Eric Clapton and BB King.

All that is great, but along with that kind of immense and varied talent comes a reputation for pretty intense perfectionism, and Johnson certainly has lived up to that rep. He has only recorded seven albums between 1978 and 2010 and took three years alone to start, abort and return to Ah Vie Musicom’s follow-up Venus Isle. Johnson admits he probably deserves this rap, and agrees that even at this stage, his outlook could maybe use a bit of a revamp.

“I think my process has usually been to belabor over stuff in the studio forever and not think it was good enough,” said the affable and candid Johnson. “But it’s all so subjective. It’s hard to see all the attributes and aspects of what might make music good to the listener when you’re just looking at it through a magnifying glass. You have to leave a little bit to chance, a little bit to mystery, and a little bit to just the ‘spontaneousness’ of the moment and the human interaction. The best way to do that is to record more spontaneously, more live. But yeah, I should kinda maybe speed all of that up a little bit.

“But I do think I’m in a transition period,” he continued, “where I’ve just lost interest in trying to spend two years making a record over and over and over, thinking it’s gonna turn into something great. It could end up being good, but to make something really better in an emotional sense you gotta leave a little bit to the mystery, because we don’t have all the answers. You spend your life with a clenched fist and all of a sudden you just go, you know what, I’m just gonna have to let this go, and just let it happen. And if you do that, you can make records quicker, and you can make more records and have a bigger discography of music.”

As for the well-known almost O.C.D.-esque tinkering Johnson does with his equipment? It’s all in the quest for the betterment of the sound he’s trying to achieve, and judging by the sheer brilliance of his work, it’s a very forgivable sin.

“I guess it’s from when I was a kid and the records I listened to always had really great guitar tone, so it always kinda stuck in my mind that the first note you hit is what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s like, does it sound great, is it inviting, and does it make people want to listen to the thing.”

Those records Johnson listened to were part of the music-filled house in Austin in which he grew up, and as with many great musicians, that ever-present influence helped pave the way for his love of music and what would come after.

“I used to watch my Dad when I was 3 years old,” said Johnson. “He’d be dancing around and whistling and singing along to all these records. He was constantly playing records, a lot of great records, old swing music and great show tunes and rock and roll. He loved Elvis Presley. … I could see how much it meant to him and how happy it made him. I remember being always really on him to get me a little plastic record player so I could just play records all the time.”

Johnson began his playing life on the piano, but because of the burgeoning era of guitar-driven music, he shifted his focus to the axe after six years using the piano as a guide, and thankfully for music history, never looked back.

“The Ventures, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Yardbirds, all that stuff was happening, so it was just the thing to do,” he said. “Soon as I saw catalogs of electric guitars, I thought, oh man, this is what I wanna do. I think at some point I figured out hey, wait a second, these frets, I can sit down at the piano and I can find these notes from the piano, so I kinda sat down and transposed what I had learned from piano onto the guitar.”

Johnson is in the midst of a tour co-headlining with longtime collaborator Mike Stern, who himself is also regarded as one of music’s top guitarists and has played with giants like Miles Davis among others. The appropriately titled “Eclectic Guitars” tour brings the two virtuosos to the Birchmere on November 6th. Playing with Stern gives Johnson a chance to bounce things off someone else both in the studio and on stage, and speaks to the ever-changing challenges he always puts himself up to.

Eric Johnson (L) co-headlines with Mike Stern on their current tour. (Photo courtesy Max Crace)

Eric Johnson (left) co-headlines with Mike Stern on their current tour. (Photo courtesy Max Crace)

“I think that’s why Mike Stern and I got together, “Johnson confided. “It’s always nice to get with other people and have that dynamic, to where you’re part of a bigger picture. You’re still doing your thing, but there’s another counterbalance to the band. That’s always kind of challenging and I enjoy it.”

As people continue to discover him and his relatively small yet highly regarded body of work, Eric Johnson continues to gain more fans both in and out of the music industry. But it all comes back to keeping things new and fresh that motivates him the most. If he can do that, it’s great news for the millions of those who appreciate his artistry.

“I try to count my blessings, and be happy I get to do what I love to do for a career,” he said. “But I mean, artistically and creatively, I’d like to become more free, where you just kinda play anything that might be in your imagination. It’s hard to get to that point, some people maybe have it natural, other people have to blow down all those walls. I’d just like to get more free, and be able to play…whatever.”

Eric Johnson and Mike Stern perform November 6, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.

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