For his latest album, EJ (Provogue), Texas guitar great Eric Johnson let go of his sonic perfectionist streak and instead made room for what he describes as “a different filtering process.”
“I wanted [the album] to be more of an organic thing, where I captured an event rather than put a record together piece by piece,” Johnson says. “Some of my records, where I’ve tried to get everything right . . . I mean, they sound OK, but they don’t have as much vibe as some of the demos and funkier stuff I’ve done.”
Those who know Johnson only for his scorching, Grammy Award-winning rock instrumental “Cliffs of Dover”—made even more famous by the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock—may be shocked by EJ, the guitarist’s first all-acoustic set. Born and raised in Austin, the 62-year-old Johnson is among the pantheon of such Texas electric guitar masters as Johnny Winter, Albert King, and Billy Gibbons. But Johnson has always embraced a wide range of musical styles, and he’s played whatever instrument was best suited for his music. As the late Stevie Ray Vaughan once said of Johnson, “He does incredible things with all kinds of guitars—electric, lap steel, acoustic, everything.”
Over the course of eight studio albums and four live recordings, Johnson has treated his fans to several acoustic-guitar instrumentals, including the poignant “Song for George” (dedicated to an 80-year-old guitar-playing friend) or Johnson’s fingerpicking homage, “Tribute to Jerry Reed.” In 2004, Johnson hit the road playing just acoustic guitar and piano in support of his (mostly) electric album Souvenir. On EJ, he performs a 13-track collection of originals and covers, instrumentals, and vocal songs, often accompanied by his startlingly youthful, tenor voice and his treasured 1981 Martin D-45. Adding to the album’s organic textures are guests Molly Emerman on violin and John Hagen on cello. The rhythm section consists of Tommy Taylor and Wayne Salzmann on drums and Roscoe Beck and Chris Maresh on acoustic bass, each a veteran of Johnson’s bands. The resulting album is a concise statement that proudly references the folk music of the 1960s and ’70s, which was among Johnson’s earliest inspirations as a budding guitarist and songwriter.
‘I’d pick up an acoustic every once in a while and sort of fiddle around with it, but I never really thought about playing acoustic until years after
I started playing electric.’
“Growing up, I loved Simon and Garfunkel, and all the Joni Mitchell stuff,” Johnson says. “Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Song to a Seagull… I knew those records backward and forward. It kind of got ingrained in me, just that whole vibe of music.”
Johnson’s listening as a young man also included British rock ’n’ roll, jazz, Texas swing, and everything in between, thanks in part to his father’s extensive record collection. “My dad got me into listening to all styles of music when I was really, really young,” Johnson says. “He loved everything. He didn’t really play an instrument. He just listened to music constantly and sang and whistled and stuff.”
It was Johnson’s father who gave him that Martin D-45, in 1982, after several of his guitars were stolen. He’s played it ever since.
Johnson studied piano first before picking up the electric guitar, but the acoustic did not come into his life until much later. “I’d pick up an acoustic every once in a while and sort of fiddle around with it,” Johnson says. “But I never really thought about playing acoustic until years after I started playing electric.”
Johnson’s eventual mastery of the acoustic guitar inspired a signature Martin, created in collaboration with the company’s historian, Dick Boak. The Martin MC-40 Eric Johnson Signature Model, jumbo shape with 000 depth, features frets marked with inlaid images of the nine planets and a beautifully rendered image of an angel on the headstock.
But on nine of the new album’s 13 tracks, Johnson plays his Martin D-45 strung with D’Addario EJ16s. “I just think they have a nice balanced sound,” he says of the strings. “The intonation is good, and they’re pretty consistent. I wish I could use coated strings, because I get a lot of noise, especially live, when using the internal mic in the guitar. But I haven’t found a way to make the coated strings work for me.”
On the album’s title track, a pensive, yet ultimately joyful waltz, Johnson sings his elliptical poetry over a gossamer mix of acoustic guitars, piano, upright bass, cello, and drums. That Johnson chose to build this lush song around what he describes as a “funky little demo track” speaks to his newfound commitment to vibe over perfection.
“The guitar and voice for [the single] ‘Wrapped in a Cloud’ were recorded at home, and I liked the way it turned out,” says Johnson, who still resides in Austin. “It was kind of ‘demo-y.’ I played guitar and added the piano. I used a crummy mic, just one mic on the piano, in mono. When I got to the studio, I started overdubbing better sounds and positioning them in a way so that the lo-tech thing would be of value, rather than
“When I listen to that song,” he adds, “I still feel the emotions from it that I originally felt.”
Johnson may not be as much of a perfectionist these days, but that doesn’t mean he’s casual when it comes to recording the rich and resonant sound of his favored instruments. You can hear the attention to detail on the new album’s solo-guitar tracks, such as his fingerpicking arrangement of the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Mrs. Robinson,” which opens the album, and the cinematic “Once Upon a Time in Texas.”
“It’s tough, you know?” says Johnson, who recorded and produced the album at his Saucer Sound Studio. “You’re always dealing with the 150-, 200-cycle ‘woofy’ frequencies. I’ve found that small-diaphragm mics work the best for me. I use KM 56 Neumanns, one near the fretboard, one a little bit away from the body. They’re a little cleaner, a little punchier. There are a couple of tunes where I used a pickup to blend in with the mics. But I prefer an old-school microphone approach.”
In addition to the paired Neumanns, Johnson used a separate room mic to provide additional ambiance to the tracks.
And there’s a nod to Jimi Hendrix. Johnson has repeatedly paid tribute to Hendrix over the years, most recently on Eclectic (Concord), his collaboration with former Miles Davis shredmeister Mike Stern. Johnson and Stern trade vocals and solos on a Gibson ES-335 and Yamaha Telecaster, respectively, in a down-and-dirty cover of “Red House.” In 2013, Johnson brought Hendrix’s compositional voice into relief with a piano-and-vocals version of “The Wind Cries Mary,” which he released as a single. On EJ, he includes a surprising “unplugged” arrangement of “One Rainy Wish,” with a classic country boom-chuck bridge followed by an extended jazzy piano solo, played by Johnson. The arrangement illuminates the depth and range of Hendrix’s rhythmic and harmonic language.
‘Growing up, I loved Simon and Garfunkel, and all the Joni Mitchell stuff.’
“I think that’s why people will remember Jimi Hendrix hundreds of years from now,” Johnson says of the rock icon’s range. Interestingly, Johnson recently recorded what he calls a “neo-classical, steel-string” solo instrumental version of “One Rainy Wish” for a projected “Volume Two” of his all-acoustic music. “It’s kind of a study of that tune,” Johnson says, “to see how you can take it to different places.”
Johnson plays a Ramirez nylon-string classical guitar on the meditative, Spanish-influenced solo instrumental “Serinidad,” as well as at the very end of the Paul McCartney-esque ballad “November.” The former track, in particular, provides further evidence of Johnson’s commitment to using spontaneity as inspiration, albeit with just the right amount of self-editing. “I just rolled the tape and made it up in the moment,” Johnson says of the performance. “I played for about five minutes, and then I went back and took out a couple of sections where I just kind of rambled . . . it’s really a somewhat condensed version of a total improv.”
On the album’s final solo instrumental, “Song for Irene,” Johnson plays a late-’50s or possibly early-’60s Silvertone, completely redone by Austin luthier Ed Reynolds, who shaved the braces and added a new fingerboard, bridge, and saddle.
Johnson’s mission to ensure EJ be a “performance-oriented record” speaks to the importance he places on self-realization, and how the journey to that goal can be articulated in musical terms. Technology, be it a single “crummy mic” or a pair of meticulously positioned Neumanns, is simply a means for capturing what Johnson’s calls “the emotional impact” of his music.
“You go to a museum and look at a painting, and everybody can deliberate all the day long on what’s good and what’s not,” Johnson says. “But what is important is, ‘Does it impact you?’ If it does, in what way does it impact you? Is it something that really touches you or uplifts you or changes your life and really gives you new perspective? If that’s my motive, then I have to look at what it is that I need to do to try to make better records. So I’m trying to take another look at what I do, and put more priority on the emotional impact. Because that’s what art should be.”
What Eric Johnson Plays
On EJ, Eric Johnson plays a 1981 Martin D-45 strung with D’Addario EJ16s. Other instruments include a vintage Silvertone, and a Ramirez nylon-string classical guitar. For the Ramirez, Johnson prefers D’Addario, Savarez, or Augustine classical strings. On “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” Johnson is joined by Doyle Dykes playing an Olson steel string.
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Johnson is partial to a Paige capo, which allows him to adjust the pressure on the strings using a screw on the back of the capo. “It has the best tone,” Johnson says, “but I’m still searching for a capo that doesn’t change the tuning and has a good tone.”
For his upcoming solo tour, Johnson will bring his Martin D-45, his signature Martin MC-40, a Maton C.S. Classic and C.S. Classic cutaway model, and the Silvertone. The Martin signature is equipped with a K&K pickup, while the Matons each have a built-in piezo and internal mic. Johnson plays through an L.R. Baggs “Venue” preamp and an AER Compact 60 acoustic amplifier.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.