Eric Johnson: Six-Strings, Songs, and the Journey Inward
For Eric Johnson, the creation of sublime music has always been about the journey inward – an approach shared by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and others who’ve risen to the top of their art.
Thirty years ago, during our first interview together, Eric Johnson explained, “I always try to connect myself with what I’m feeling inside and hearing inside. I think that’s the best way to try to achieve your own feel for the guitar. It’s like intuition: ‘Intuition’ is like the ‘tuition from inside.’ And if you get with that, your own self will show you how to play guitar.”
During the decades since the then-nationally-unknown Johnson spoke those words, his devotion to his art has become legendary. It’s evident in his songs, interviews, instruments, and the way he plays guitar. To those who knew him early on, this quality was evident from the start. As Stevie Ray Vaughan said in 1986, “The guy has done more trying to be the best that he can be than anybody I’ve ever seen. He plays all the time, and tries to get his instrument in perfect shape all the time. He works hard on his tone, sound, techniques. Eric is a wonderful cat. He’s always been one of my favorite people in the world, as well as one of my favorite guitar players.”
Eric’s dedication has paid off with astoundingly good albums – Tones, Ah Via Musicom, Venus Isle, and Up Close among them – as well as the old-school-meets-state-of-the-art Fender Signature Stratocaster that bears his name. (In preparation for our interview, I spoke at length with Fender lead engineer Michael Frank-Braun, who spent more than a year co-designing the guitar with Eric.)
Near the end of our first interview all those years ago, I asked Eric about what he’d like to accomplish. “I’d like to have my own studio,” he responded, “and be able to record albums the way I want, which is really experimenting with guitar. I’d just like to contribute some new things for guitar.” Our Pure Guitar interview took place on October 13, 2012, in – you guessed it – Eric’s own studio in Austin, Texas. Joining us were Ryan Rhea, on hand to make our audio and video recordings, and Eric’s longtime friend and our staff photographer, Max Crace. We began our afternoon sitting around a table in the kitchen area of Eric’s studio, doing the main interview. Then we moved into the spacious main room, where Eric showed and played us his favorite guitars, including some Fender Stratocasters, a Gibson ES-335, a Martin D-45, and a rare Brazilian Del Vecchio that Chet Atkins gave him.
The full audio interview and transcript:
What is it about Stratocasters from 1954, 1957, and 1958 that is so special for you?
That’s a really good question. I think it’s several things. I’ve always wondered what it was. I think that they had a shipment of wood at Fender that was real special – that was one thing. I think that kind of wood is really hard to get nowadays, and even though it’s a solidbody guitar, it makes a difference in the way the sound travels. You know, when you go out to a restaurant and you eat a meal and you feel really good, it might have been because the person preparing the meal had all this great emotion and vibes. It’s like whatever we do goes into what we do. You know what I mean? On a very subtle level we can feel that. People probably build the guitar with the same kind of love and excitement, but I think there’s two factors that you can’t deny, and that is it has become more CNC and more computer and more mass-produced. So it’s hard to infuse that same amount of personal touch that was there that would, perhaps – depending on the individual – permeate the instrument to have that old violin thing.
And the other thing that’s kind of undeniable is it was a point in time where the electric guitar was so new, and every week you’d hear somebody on the radio or on a record and say, “I’ve never heard that!” It was so new that people’s vibe about doing it was just like brand new. It had that kind of birth energy to it. It’s almost like you’re in the studio and you record that first track, and it’s got this magic. And then you go back and do it ten times, and it’s, “Oh, it’s actually better now, but it’s not as fun to listen to or it’s not as good.” So I think those two factors play into it. They’re still making great instruments, but it’s hard to recapture those two issues as time rolls on.
Do you think it’s possible that the fact that they’re more than a half-century old and have aged and become more of a unit . . . .
One unit – yeah, I think so. Yeah, you’re right. That – definitely. That’s why whenever I see a vintage instrument, I always think it’s cool if somebody doesn’t take all the parts off and put them in a big box and put everything back together somewhere else, because it’s had 40 years to be the way it is and grow into that entity. I’m kind of ridiculous about that: “Oh, make sure the screws go back in the same place,” you know. And the only reason for that is because they’ve been there for 40 years, and I think they do what you say. All these parts, because they’ve sat and they’ve had time to gestate, it turns into a complete entity. And if you do disturb that, it does affect the sound.
When you purchase an old guitar or trade for one, what do you look for? How do you tell? Is it something you know intuitively, is it something you hear?
I go for a particular thing. I like it where when you’re playing with a clean tone, the sound is real crisp but it kind of punches out. But then when you go to the lead sound, it kind of sucks in, more like a Gibson does. They have more of this kind of folding-in character to them. So it’s almost like you get the best of both worlds. You get that real pronounced EQ clarity for the rhythm tone, but the more you push the amp or you push the guitar, it starts folding in upon itself. It’s a response of the parts and the wood and the way it resonates. Some guitars will do the exact opposite – they’ll kind of be a little bit edgy-sounding on the top end when you’re on the clean tone, and then as you push it more and more, they start going out, so they bloom out. As they bloom out instead of folding in, you hear every single pick attack. And it’s not only the sound of the pick attack which bugs me a little bit, but it’s also the fact that if you’re pronouncing that pick attack so much, the note is not recovering quick enough for you to go to the next note. One way is in favor of your picking, and it’s kind of more like an impulse ballet thing that breathes out and folds back in the same sync of your pick, and the other way is like you’re fighting it and you’re actually tripping-up your sound. So I look for a guitar that kind of does that.
Are you careful about how it sounds acoustically?
Usually when they work right, they sound better acoustically too. Yeah, you can kind of hear it sometimes.
I learned that when you were going through the process of putting together the Eric Johnson Fender Strat, Michael Frank-Braun would send you a pickguard with three pickups installed. You’d put it in the guitar and then record it. What sort of things did you learn about alnico 2, 3, 4, 5 magnets or the size of the wire that wraps around the core of the magnet?
We learned that the lower alnico settings sound good in the neck position. They have more of that early, early Strat, kind of Tele sound, a real clear kind of thing. The neck pickup can be so gainy naturally, it wasn’t an issue to try to push every aspect of it to get more gain. But that 5 seemed to allow more gain, so we went with that with the bridge. Because I’ve always had a problem with the bridge pickup of a Strat – not so much rhythm-wise, but as you push it, you can’t get that big, thick kind of tone like an old Gibson will get. It’s not there – the pickup’s too weak. Then you start a process of a delicate balance of seeing how far you can get away with boosting up that pickup before it loses that magic of the Fender sound.
Tell me about the middle pickup. You have it lower for your fingerpicking?
Yeah, yeah. I probably would like to run it maybe a little higher, but I have to lower it because that’s kind of where I pick, right there on the side.
And that doesn’t have a tone control on it anymore?
No, no. I put the tone control on the bridge, just to kind of even it out with the neck pickup. Otherwise it’s a little boomy, and the other one’s a little tinny for me.
Did you notice anything about whether the wire was 41½, 42½? Did you have preferences?
I think the wire that Michael used was a stock old Fender wire. I have been experimenting with trying to use a little thinner wire. I’ve got some pickups that I want to try, to see if that would afford me the option to have more wraps without losing the top-end response. But I think these are regular 42.
Did Hendrix inspire any of the modifications you wanted?
Well, I guess in a way, yeah. Not to his guitar standard, but the fact that he was able to use a tremolo more than a lot of people. I knew the string tree that used to be on the headstock was a real issue, making it go out of tune. So we tried to figure out a way to get rid of the string tree. We did that by making the headstock – actually, the relief of the headstock is set back more and the headstock is just ever so slightly thinner, secondly. And then also I have a set of staggered keys on it, so it makes all the six strings go down at an angle, and the profile is enough where the angle keeps it from needing a string tree, which really made a difference in the tuning. It stays in tune better – period – and then also you can use the tremolo bar a little better.
I heard it affects the sound as well.
You know, it could be. On my other guitars, I try to wrap the strings all the way down to the bottom [of the tuning post] and not use the string tree anyhow, even on an old guitar. I have to end up using it on the top E string, but I try to always avoid it on the B string. I’d rather not use them if I don’t have to.
What about the springs in the back?
I like the way it sounds. I use four springs. I guess the number 4 is the one I take out. To me, that’s the best sound. And I think that was just an accident. My old ’54 Strat that I don’t have anymore was like that, and I remember one day finding a spring. “Oh! I have the missing spring.” I put the spring in, and it didn’t sound as good. “That’s weird.” I took it out, and I thought, “Whoa. Maybe I just need to use four springs.” Then I thought, “Well, let me use four springs and take the middle one out.” “Nah, that doesn’t sound as good.” So it was like an accident that I realized that it kind of works this way – I’m not sure why.
And then you had the tremolo block drilled differently?
Yeah. [Indicates his Signature Stratocaster on the table.] This is more like the old ones. Somewhere in the late ’60s, I think, they changed.
1980s. They changed it to accommodate a bigger ending on the strings.
Oh, okay. Yeah. We did some experiments with that, and it actually sounded better the old way. So we just kind of reinstalled what the old Fender originally had. Why did they do that – for the Bullets?
That’s what it was, yeah.
Michael told me that one time he accidentally sent you the same pickup assembly he had sent earlier, and you called him up and said you’d already heard this one. He was astonished that anyone could hear the difference. He turned around and looked at his desk, and sure enough, he’d mailed you back one you’d already experimented with and recorded. The one he meant to send you was still on the desk.
What kind of differences were you looking for or hearing? Did you look at a voltmeter or something?
No. I think we can detect more finer changes sometimes, but it’s an intuitive feel thing more than listening so closely with our ears. Sometimes if I adjust my amps to sound just right, I can spend all this time cognitively trying to get them just right, and I think, “Okay, that’s right.” But the second I go to playing a song or play in a band, it’s more of a feel thing and more like an intuitive thing, where I’m not zeroed-in on the aspect itself as much as the application of the aspect. Then it becomes a feel thing more, and I can immediately tell if I didn’t adjust it right. And I can immediately in much less time adjust it correctly the way I want it. So it’s almost like in the application of the feel. So if I get those pickups in and I was sitting there trying to decipher the difference, I could drive myself crazy trying to hear the difference. But if I just start playing a song, I can realize there’s something about it that’s not performing the same or it’s performing different. You can kind of feel it in its application as you play the music.
What did you learn about finishes?
Well, it seemed not too thick of a finish, and have it where it breathed and aged more. In fact, it was to the point where we had complaints about the finish being too thin or sticky or whatever because it wasn’t really baked on real rock solid. But I think in the long run it’s better that way.
What are you comfortable doing in terms of working on your own instrument? Can you pretty much do everything?
I don’t do nut or frets, but I’ll change-out pickups. I’ll do electronics and do neck adjustment and string height and intonation stuff. That’s about it. But if I have to do frets – pretty much I’m not afraid to do anything, but I don’t like to do frets or nut. I’m not good at that.
Directional frets – what’s that all about?
Oh, yeah. They don’t do that on the production ones. And I don’t even really do it a whole lot anymore. I think what was really interesting is every single little thing makes a difference. It almost starts piecing together with the whole physical universe. It’s like everything leans either night and day, yes-no, up-down, positive polarity-negative polarity. You know what I mean? Even if you go to the atoms and the molecules – everything has a polarity to it. And I think everything – wood, plastic – everything that’s made up, if it’s not 180 degrees of a polarity, it’s a leaning towards a certain way. So you might have like 6:00 where it’s dusk or 6:00 where it’s dawn. You can’t say, “Well, it’s day – no, it’s night.” It’s 90 degrees out of polarity, it’s not 180 yet. And so everything makes a difference. Really, in a way, it’s almost like a goose chase. I kind of was really mesmerized and excited about the fact that everything does make a difference. I had this altruistic vision that, well, if everything makes a difference, then all I’ve got to do is figure out every little thing that leans a certain polarity way that enhances rather than takes away, because it’ll happen.
You can take a guitar cord and plug it in one way, and it’ll enhance. You plug it in the other way, it’ll decrease. The problem with that is that it’s so massive and so infinite that when you say, “Well, that enhances, and that decreases,” well, what particular constituency are you’re talking about that it does enhance? In other words, if you put a cord one way, it will enhance the even harmonics more than the other way. And you can hear it with a distortion tone – you can play three of four notes at once, and you’ll hear one way that pronounces more even harmonics. The other way is more of a hashy kind of odd harmonic sound. But, as in everything, there is a yin and yang to everything. So, okay, you get an enhancement there, but everything has to pay a price. If I walk into another room, I had to pay the price of leaving the room I just left out of. I gained that room, but I lost the other room. So if I turn that cord that way, it’ll give me much better even harmonics, but maybe it will make it too brittle-sounding in certain situations, so it’s kind of a trade-off.
This is kind of round about, but it’s the only way to explain it. So I realized that the metal has a polarity, so you can enhance it. But the thing is, you get this enhance and this decrease. It’s almost like going down that infinite road and realizing that everything has a leaning of polarity, and you can somewhat manipulate things to your favor. But the problem is it’s such an infinite black hole. Everything’s relative. So the fact that I do that, I’m gonna gain one thing and lose another, so in a way, unless you had incredible omnipotent consciousness to know the sacred geometry for everything, you’re really just going on a goose chase. So I don’t really go there. I can hear that it makes a difference, but I don’t necessarily worry about it anymore because you gain one thing and lose another. It’s all kind of a trade-off. It’s a balance.
I notice you have two or three pedalboards out there [in the main room of the studio] that seem close to identical. Are they wired the same?
Pretty much, yeah.
Is there a lot of difference between the way the pedalboards sound, even if they have the same effects in them?
They’re a little different. But if I get something that kind of works, I try to get it to have consistency. We did a long European tour and I had to have two sets of gear out at the same time, so I had to have two pedalboards out at the same time.
Do you have any gear that’s so precious you won’t take it out of here?
You know, I do, but every once in a while I play it anyhow because I try not to get too hung up in that, because I just figure, well, the whole reason I got it is to play it. I bought this old Marshall combo that I’ve been using on the road, and it’s really sweet and original and in great condition. The first thing I do is take it on the road and start touring with it [laughs]. I don’t know if that was smart. Hey, you know, I bought it to play, so I’m just gonna play this thing. I don’t know. I have some guitars that I don’t typically take out, but it’s just because I really haven’t used them on the road that much. Most of the stuff I’ll use.
Among all the guitars you have, are there any that you’d site as the two or three most precious ones?
Yeah. I have a 1980 [Martin] D-45 that my dad bought me, and it’s real sentimental, because my dad’s passed away. I got it when it was brand new. When I had those instruments stolen in ’82, he bought me this guitar to replace the acoustics I lost. It had been in Heart of Texas Music for a while. I think it was an ’80 or an ’81, but I got it in ’82.
Video of Eric with his 1980 Martin during our photo shoot at his studio:
Did he take you to play it first, or did he just surprise you?
I went down to Heart of Texas, and they had two of them. I tried them both out for a few days, trying to decide which one to keep, took the other one back. Yeah, so that’s a real special guitar. And I have a guitar that Chet Atkins gave me that’s a Del Vecchio [wood-body resophonic]. That’s real special to me. You remember Bill Maddox, the drummer that was killed? In his will he had an old Strat that he willed me, so I would never . . . That’s real special.
Video of Eric talking about his Del Vecchio:
Do you have a particular guitar that you’ve written a lot of songs on?
That Martin I’ve written a lot of songs on. Let’s see, what else? Yeah, that’s probably the one that I have that I’ve written a lot on.
Can you name a few?
All the acoustic songs that I do pretty much I wrote on that. Some of the electric tunes I wrote on that ’54 Strat I had that I don’t have any more – that I wish I had! I shouldn’t have gotten rid of it.
Yeah. [Here Eric is referring to the 1954 Fender Stratocaster used on many of his albums. Inside the body cavity, it bore the signature of a Fender inspector named Virginia.]
I understand you’ve run across Virginia again?
Well, I’m hoping to maybe get this other guitar that I ran into that’s a Virginia as well.
Have you ever run across her last name?
I should ask Tom Wheeler to look into it.
Yeah! I bet he’ll know.
I’d love to see a photo of her.
Oh, wouldn’t that be great!
He has access to the archives – I’ll ask him to look.
There were four women in ’54 – Mary, Virginia, and I don’t know who the other two were.
Where would they sign the guitar?
There’s a piece of masking tape right down inside here. [Indicates the inside of the body cavity.]
So that’s near the pickup selector.
Yeah. And it’s only in ’54 they did that. It’s really interesting, man. You know, I don’t even know if I want to say it in the article because everyone will go out and say, “Oh, ’54!” But they really are – they’re different than the other ones. [Smiles, adds with humor] But they’re not any good! They’re horrible! [Laughter.] They’re worth about $200, so . . . .
Send them to me and I’ll take them off you!
I wonder if she lived long enough to know there’s a song named after her ["Virginia," on Eric's 2002 album Souvenir].
I don’t know. That would be great to find out about – I bet you Tom’s gonna be looking into all of that, isn’t he? That’s going to be a great book! Wow. [Here Eric is referring to a book Tom Wheeler is currently writing on Fender history.]
What are your favorite Gibson guitars?
Honestly, a 335. I know there’s a Les Paul out there that I’d love to own, but I’ve owned so many and I’ve never kept a single one of them. And it’s not that they’re not great. There’s a certain thing about my technique or something, or the weight, that I haven’t quite found the right one for me. But they’re great. I mean, my heroes all played them, but I’ve never found the right one to settle on. But I’d say a 335. And I have an SG that sounds great – I was never really a huge fan of SGs, but I stumbled on this guitar, and it has a great sound and it stays in tune, so I like it too.
Video of Eric playing his Gibson ES-335:
Have you used it for slide, like Duane Allman?
No, I haven’t.
The SG is interesting because you can easily get so high up the neck.
Yeah, yeah. They’re great. I can’t believe this one stays in tune, because every other one I’ve ever played never stayed in tune, but this one seems to.
Max Crace told me last night that you enjoy Angus Young’s playing.
Oh, yeah! He’s great.
Doesn’t he have one of the best vibratos in all of rock and roll?
Absolutely. He’s awesome! I don’t know how he plays running around like he did, either. He sounds like somebody that was sitting down concentrating really hard. Yeah, he’s a great player.
When you think of the guitarists you admire, who would you put in the category of people who have the million-dollar vibrato?
Definitely Clapton and B.B. King. Mick Taylor, like from the Mayall days. You know, in certain ways Peter Green. And then the slide stuff that Robert Johnson did, the way he would do that. And then Django Reinhardt for his own style. Oh, Albert King – definitely Albert King! Of course, that’s more like he’s just stretching big stretches. Yeah, I’d say definitely Albert King. That’s where, I guess, Clapton honed his own style. I mean, Clapton’s vibrato on early Cream stuff is pretty ridiculous. It’s pretty great.
B.B. talks about how he developed his vibrato because he couldn’t figure out how to play slide. He couldn’t play slide well, so he decided to imitate a slide with his fingers.
He also told me that when he was a kid, strings were so hard to get that if you broke one of the Black Diamond strings, you would just tie a knot in it, restring your guitar, put a pencil above the knot, and tie string around the pencil and tighten it so it became a capo. And then he would play above the pencil, whether it was at the 3rd fret, the 5th fret, the 7th fret or whatever, until he was able to buy a new pack of strings.
Oh, my God. That’s great. I thought you were gonna say just take it and just rewrap it to the ball and tie it – we used to do that as kids. But that’s one step more. That’s even more old-school. That’s living the blues right there!
I was interviewing John Lee Hooker one time. He was a hardcore Jehovah’s Witness, and he used to ask me to come to his house and attend his prayer meetings, which I never did. I wish I would have. One time I asked him, “What’s the difference between playing the blues and saying your prayers?” He said that’s was a big, good question. And he said that there really wasn’t much difference, that spirituality is in both. He said that blues is a gift from God – “This is what he gave me, this is what I do. There’s nothing wrong with it.” Could you describe, if it’s possible, your thoughts on the spirituality of playing music? Is it important to keep yourself pure on some level and unmotivated by greed and ego to play at your very best?
You know, that’s a great question. I’ve thought about that before. The reason I think about it so much, I think that for me to play my best, I need to have myself not modulating but more in sync and focused with that aspiration. Because somehow that, for me, is the gateway to feeling at peace with myself. If you’re at peace, you can kind of set aside and travel beyond yourself. At that point, you’re available for any nuances of magic that are bombarding us 24 hours a day anyhow – we’re just too busy talking or distracted to hear it or feel it or see it. But it’s always there if you can get into that focus where you’re just at peace with yourself. Being like that allows me to then go pick up on something that’s maybe sublime. I’m always kind of searching, looking for something that’s sublime, that makes me feel better or makes somebody else feel better. It’s not like, “Oh, that’s the only way you can make art” – I don’t think it is. I think there’s a real validity for art that sometimes causes angst or dissention or uncomfortable provocation of thought. But for me, my little niche is to try to make people feel good or to at least try to like, “Oh, wow!” Because I think life is hard anyhow, so why not use that opportunity?
The question is really interesting to me because I’d love to say that that’s necessary, but I guess it’s not. Somehow I think what’s necessary to make a really good artist is being able to turn off the switch of your self, which is just gonna just throw a bunch of paraphernalia in your path for you to trip over. Some people do that by trying to get into a really good place or a big place. Have you ever met people that are artists that you just meet them as a person and go, “Jeez. This person is not very nice, or really just hung up on themselves.” Or you meet a famous actor or whatever, and they’re just like, “Wow! This is a high-maintenance person.” But they’ll walk on the set and [snaps fingers] bam, and they’ll just be in touch with this God energy, and they do this amazing performance or this amazing piece of music.
So you can’t hardly say that you’ve got to go home and – you know what I mean? I used to grapple with that. Because I’d see some great acting performance, and I’d think, “This person is unbelievable!” And then I’d meet him and think, “Jeez.” You know what I mean? So I thought, “Well, there blew my theory of you’ve got to do all this homework.” I didn’t want to have to reconcile with that, really. I thought, “That’s weird. How does that explain everything?” But I think it’s still ideal and much better, because I don’t care what you do – it’s a lot more important to work on that spiritual aspect. The other stuff, really, if we think it matters at the end of the day, we’re totally just kidding ourselves. I don’t think it does. I don’t think it matters any more than anybody that does anything. And if we think there’s any self-importance, we’ll be really surprised that it’s not. I mean, I don’t think there’s any currency that gives that more currency than something else, no matter what it is. I think it’s really more important, regardless. Obviously, it’s a switch. And some people – regardless of how they live their life or what they like or appreciate or how they conduct themselves or relate to other people – they have an ability to just [snaps fingers] do a switch to where they can go beyond themselves, regardless of what their self is comprised of. So I guess it’s an enigma and just depends on the individual.
Do you go through a process of emptying yourself to write songs or prepare to go onstage, a letting go of the ego?
I try to, yeah. I think it gets harder as you get older. In some ways it can get easier because you’re aware of the benefit of doing that. You appreciate that benefit so much more, so you’re more committed to trying to get there and do that. But in some ways it gets a little harder because you have all this history of living. It’s like if we only had three days, we have a lot of extra space in the computer to stay open to make up what the alphabet of ourself is. But if you have 40 years, it’s filling up all the space, and your consciousness is that 40 years. You get a little bit more solidified, you know. The more that you’ve solidified with all that history, you associate with it so much that it’s harder to just let it go, because it can be more demanding on your psyche because you have all this self. But I know that the best I ever play – the most significant, not best as far as, “Oh, he had a good tone and he played fast tonight,” but significant, I’d say – every single time for me is always if I can do that. Put all that aside, empty your mind, and let it all go and just show up – show up and be available. If I walk onstage and everything’s right and you can’t put a finger on anything not being right, you still might not have shown up or been available. You’ve got to do that to create more significant music.
What have been your easiest and most challenging songwriting experiences?
Interestingly enough, one of the easiest was “Cliffs of Dover.” That just came in five minutes. It’s a hard song to play, but it’s really just a silly little melody, cute little fun thing. I guess that’s why people related to it, because it is that. And the whole thing just kind of – it was more like a gift. It just came to me. And I think some of the others – I can think of songs that I worked on forever and ever and ever. I have ones that I have been working on for years that I know are really, really good, but I never can finish them because I never can find – I don’t know how to finish them.
Where and when did “Cliffs of Dover” come to you? Do you remember the moment?
Yeah, it was like years before I recorded it – it was like the mid ’80s. I remember just sitting and practicing and getting this idea for the melody. I think I came up with [sings opening refrain]. I kind of like that, and then the rest is just I-IV-V-I with a real simple [sings another line]. It’s really a pretty simple melody. And then within a few minutes, “Oh, I’ve got a middle eight for this.”
“Zap” was another one that came quickly?
What do you remember about that?
I remember listening to a Frank Zappa record and it had some interesting riffs [sings them], almost like “Zap” a little bit. So I had that one riff [sings part], but I didn’t have any of the rest of the song. I used to just call it my Zappa lick – “Oh, I’ve got that Zappa lick.” So when I finished the song, I just changed it to “Zap,” because it was kind of a Frank Zappa construction.
What’s the back story for “Emerald Eyes”?
I was just sitting down at a Fender Rhodes one day, just jamming around on a song, trying to come up with some chord changes. I liked the chord changes, and I just put a melody to it.
Did you know somebody with emerald eyes?
No. Actually, Jay Aaron wrote the lyrics to that.
Tell me about “Bristol Shores.”
That actually was a friend of mine named Judy that I was hanging out with at the time. She worked for Exxon Mobil. She’d fly out on a helicopter to these oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. And I’d gone down to Galveston to meet her, but she had to go out. I didn’t ever catch up with her. I just ended up hanging out in Galveston for the whole evening because she got an emergency call to go out to one of the platforms. So I just changed it. There’s references to it, like “she’s been delayed in the Gulf of Mexico.” I looked around, and I couldn’t say, well, “Galveston” [the title of a Glen Campbell hit]. I was looking at a map and found Bristol Bay. “Hey, that sounds cool. That’s a little bit more mysterious.” So I changed it to “Bristol Shore.”
There’s been a song stuck in my head for the last two days, “Desert Rose.”
How’d that come about?
That, my friend Vince just named that song. He called it “Desert Rose.” He gave me the idea for the title, so I started writing the lyrics.
Was that on guitar?
That’s Steve Hennig. It was a song for him. He played on it – a friend of mine that played the middle [guitar] solo.
“East Wes” and “Manhattan.”
“East Wes” was just kind of a simplified version of kind of a Wes Montgomery thing. “Manhattan” was just an instrumental that had kind of an urban sound to it, so I just named it that.
A lot of young players who are into rock and roll have probably never heard Wes Montgomery. Why would you recommend someone seek him out – someone who loves guitar and loves music?
Well, I can think of a million reasons for me, personally, because I love his playing so much and the way it sounded. But I think any young player should have the opportunity to listen to anybody that had a really special, unique spirit that was so powerful that what you’re feeling from what they’re doing is not so much what they’re doing, but the spirit that’s coming from behind it, that’s fueling it. And that happened with so many artists in a rarified way because they were so dedicated to that as they voiced their music through it that they paid homage to that. And they stayed in that place a lot. They didn’t go elsewhere to get fuel for their creativity. They were in that real nucleus of that dynamo place. I think it’s important for young artists to check out any artist that was dedicated to that space almost in its entirety.
What’s really interesting is the ones who are, there’s such a symmetry between them. And that’s why I say it’s not really what they are doing, it’s the spirit from behind it that fuels it. It’s like the very first time I ever saw a live video of Wes Montgomery – you know, the ’65 stuff – he’s just kind of sitting there smiling and playing. And the first thought that came – and I know guitar, because I’ve played guitar my whole life – and Wes has his own sound. You wouldn’t even really say, “Oh, yeah, he reminds me of this rock guitar player.” Not at all. It’s a totally different thing. But you know what the first thing that came to my mind when I watched him was? “That’s just another version of Jimi Hendrix,” because of the spirit. When you look at the early Hendrix stuff, like Monterey Pop – before things got complicated or he had personal issues or whatever – he’s just nodding his head and smiling and he’s “Hey! What’s going on?” and he’s playing. And Wes is doing the same thing. That same energy was fueling Wes’ playing, and that same energy was fueling Jimi’s playing.
You were mentioning Louis Armstrong. You can pick up that same thing on that. It’s all the same. You find people that are so different, you wouldn’t even say they’re the same guitarist, but there’s something that you’re picking up in your heart. You go, “That reminds me of – it’s the same thing!” And I think it’s because they stay real close; they’re fueling themselves off that really rarified space that is the best place. And it becomes more of a spirit that infuses it than it is actually what it is. It’s bigger than what it is. All kids should seek out people that really are committed to that.
Would you put John Coltrane and Miles Davis there?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
When you listen to Wes, do you prefer the beautiful, melodic “Down Here on the Ground” type of stuff, or when he’s going further out and pushing the boundaries?
You know, I love it both. I like it both. At one point I tried to say, “No, okay, I’m not gonna like ‘Down Here on the Ground’ anymore.’ I’m only gonna like Riverside and Movin’ Wes and Smokin’ at the Half Note and the Wynton Kelly stuff. I’ve only got to like that. I can’t . . . .” I’m sorry, I like “Down Here on the Ground.” It’s got an incredible vibe. If you put on “Down Here on the Ground” and you drive around at night, it’s just great. And it’s another thing. It’s got that spirit. They’re great songs, regardless. Yeah, it is CTI and it is pop and it’s homogenized and all that, but so? Music is music. There’s great music. There’s some killer songs on The King and I soundtrack. I’m not gonna argue if somebody says, “Well, that’s a Broadway thing and there’s no blowing on that, and there’s no . . . .” You know what I mean? “Yeah, and? What’s your point?” I’m not gonna go see a John Wayne movie and be bummed because there were no spaceships in it, you know. You get what you get from something, if you’re open enough. But that record, “Down Here in the Ground” and the vibe of Herbie Hancock – I mean, his playing on that is just so . . . The way he plays to support Wes. And he was only like 17 years old there! It’s crazy. And Ron Carter. It’s just a beautiful-sounding record. They are limiting themselves to just songs, and there’s not a lot of blowing, but what a great-sounding record to just chill out and listen to songs and music. So I think there’s a place for it all.
To me, it is. I mean, it’s one of my favorite Wes records. I don’t go to it to look for, “Okay, Wes. I wanna see you shred your buns off and be blowing.” There are other records where he does that more, and it’s incredible. But it just has a vibe.
Do you prefer the softer side of Coltrane?
I kind of do, personally, but that’s just my personal preference. I like the edgy Miles stuff, and I like the softer “Kind of Blue” Miles stuff too. I think “Naima” and some of that stuff – it seemed Coltrane played on the edge, tonality wise. It was almost like he purposely played a little sharp or something, which is really cool on some of the more hard stuff. It’s still great. But it wouldn’t be my go-to as much as more of the lyric stuff, I guess.
Are there parts of the Hendrix catalog you prefer over others?
Oh, absolutely. People don’t ask me about that and I don’t even bring it up, but I’m not a real fan of, like, releasing 160 records on Jimi Hendrix – “Oh, here he is in his house, playing the E chord.” I don’t think he would have wanted that. But he’s become such a commodity that there’s endless records that get released on him. And, you know, there are some stuff in there – recently maybe they’ve been trying harder to dig – but there’s some pretty cool stuff. Like there was a recent record that had a take of the Bob Dylan tune “Like a Rolling Stone.” Have you heard it? It’s not the one from Monterey. It’s killer! It’s great. There are some gems, and there are some stuff that really warrant it, but I think that there’s a lot of stuff that just because it has the name Jimi Hendrix, they’re gonna put it out. And I think ultimately would Hendrix have wanted this out? And I think that’s why kids should really go and listen to the records that Hendrix made, and not just hear the aftermath recordings that he didn’t necessarily want.
I always come to Electric Ladyland, because that’s the one album he produced. That’s as close as we’re ever going to come to knowing his . . .
I think of him as one of the first guys to use the studio as another instrument, so to speak. So for me, that’s the most complete picture of Hendrix in existence.
It really is. It’s amazing. I listened to that record recently because we did the Hendrix tour, and I had to learn some songs I didn’t know. And yeah, he did that in 1968 too – it’s unbelievable! It was really ahead of its time.
And there’s a lot of music on there.
Yeah. Yeah. Everything’s great on it. I like it all. It’s great.
How far back do you go with guitar players? In other words, are you familiar with the early guys like Charlie Christian, Eddie Lang . . . .
Eddie Lang. Yeah, I’ve heard him. I don’t listen to him regularly. But Charlie Christian, I have his recordings. I listen to him. Who’s the other guy – not Eddie Lang, but . . . Lonnie Johnson. Yeah. B.B. really liked him a lot.
Lonnie Johnson had that weird thing where he had either a 9- or 10-string guitar, where he’d keep the double courses on some of the strings but not on the other ones on a 12-string, so he could sound like a zither or something else.
And the duets that he did – Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson – are high-water marks of guitar playing.
What a brilliant concept – to get the two leading guitarists of the decade together in the same room. Hats off to whoever pulled that off.
Yeah, yeah. That was great. Roy Smeck was cool.
Did you ever see the video of him?
There’s a one-reeler with him, where they made it a four-screen shot. It’s from the late ’20s or early ’30s. And he’s playing one instrument and then he shows up with another instrument and there’s a third instrument and a fourth instrument. It’s all harmonically together. Just an amazing piece of film.
Wow. And they actually took different performances and put them on top of each other?
View The Roy Smeck one-reeler:
He was light years ahead of people. No one today knows about him.
Do you have other guys you like from way back when?
Thumbs Carlyle. He was a great player, but he’s from more like the ’50s and ’60s, I guess. From that era – not that I know of. Those are the main ones. Robert Johnson, of course.
What appeals to you about Johnson?
He was just a great technician. I mean, he just really nailed it all. The singing and the playing was just scary. And he didn’t have a lot of guitarists to listen to for that kind of level of playing.
By building your own studio, have you learned anything different or new or things to listen to when you’re going to record?
It kind of just comes more true to me that your source has to be a really great sound, and that it’s easy to hear the forgiveness of acoustical space, that it’s gonna be typically more forgiving than a microphone will be. I’ve spent a lot of years, “Well, that mike’s not picking it up right!” or “This is really isn’t right.” But then if you go stick your head right in where it is, you go, “Well, it doesn’t sound that great. It kind of sounds like it sounds over there.” More often than not, the source just has to be really good.
I saw an interview one time with Paul Simon on the Tonight Show or somewhere, and Johnny Carson or whoever it was asked him a question, and Paul basically said, “How can you play ‘The Sounds of Silence’ 300 times a year and have it retain its meaning?” Have you ever run into that with any of your stuff?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think it would do me go to really have a lot more new stuff than I do. I mean, we just finished touring off the whole year. A large part of what we played was old material. I think some people want to hear that, and that’s understandable and it’s really up to me to come up with something strong enough to get them interested to hear something new. But you know, there are songs that I have written that people want to hear, so I just play them. I don’t know. There was a period of time I wasn’t even playing “Cliffs of Dover” on the road – I just got tired of playing it. But after a while I thought, “Well, if people want to hear it, I should just play it. It’s just three minutes long.” But when I am playing it, I try to put little twists and turns in it to keep it interesting to me, so it won’t be exactly like the record.
Over the years people have come up to me and said, “What can I do to make it as a journalist?” or “What can I do to make it as a guitar player?” I always surprise them by telling them to get a good intellectual property attorney to hang on to their songwriting. But more important is that you have to be willing to make sacrifices. You have to learn how to say to no to doing a lot of stuff that people love to do, because of the time it takes to reach the highest level you can obtain. Would you agree with that?
Can you explain it a little bit? I want to get exactly what you’re saying.
I asked Eddie Van Halen how he became so good at such a young age. He said, “I came from school, I sat on the edge of my bed, and I played guitar until I went to sleep. I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t party with anybody, I didn’t go out, I didn’t have girlfriends. I played my guitar. That’s what I had to do to get here.” For me, it’s like, “Oh, man. You hang out with rock stars all the time?” I say, “No. 95% of my gig is looking at a computer screen. I have to say no to going out to parties. I have to say no to doing this or that to maintain this level of writing.” You know, you have to give up stuff. I can’t be drunk, I can’t be shooting heroin, I can’t be doing this or that. I am wondering if you can speak for a minute about how it’s a wonderful thing that you love the art so much that you’re willing to give up for it, but you do have to sacrifice and make choices of how to get rid of every distraction that gets in the way of accomplishing this.
Yeah. And then there’s that trade off – you’ve got to be sure that you still have your life with your family and your loved ones and stuff. So it is delicate balance. Yeah, what you’re saying is so true. That’s what I did too. I’d come home from school and that’s all I did. I just played and played and played and played and played. It is a discipline and you’ve got to sacrifice all these things to do it, but you have to find that sweet spot, whatever it is, with music – like, if we’re talking about music and guitars. You have to find that sweet spot that’s going to spark a passion and an excitement for you so that you want to make that sacrifice. A lot of people who go to guitar school are, “Okay, I’m gonna go to school and I’m gonna practice, practice.” And it’s like licking a stone. It works – you’ll get mileage out of that – but I can’t help but think maybe next week, maybe next month, ten years, you’re gonna quit or get disillusioned, because you’re just sitting there ehh – it’s like grinding a stone. I think that Eddie Van Halen did that, or you did that with literature and journalism, and I did that with guitar because we couldn’t wait. It’s like, “It’s 3:15! I don’t care about . . . I’m gonna go home and play. I love it! It’s great!” I remember my fingers bleeding. I didn’t like it, but I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to keep practicing!” I mean, I could hardly let them heal, because I loved it! I just loved it.
I was at the right place at the right time to develop a love for it. My parents loved music. My dad loved music more than anything in the world, so I wanted to be like my dad. When I was five years old, I’d look at him and he would just be crying and laughing because of music. And then I was lucky to be born at a time when the Beatles – there’s absolutely great music now – but there was a certain fire close to the original inception of rock and roll, where you have people like Clapton and Hendrix. It was all a new sound. It was an inspiration to last a lifetime. You’d hear it and just go, “My God!” You couldn’t wait to discover this and that. It [points to his guitar] wasn’t a household appliance at the time. I sometimes notice at sound checks. When I was a kid, I’d be at sound check. If I had a cool lick, the whole place would turn around – the guys setting up the chairs would go, “Wow! What was that?” I could play the greatest lick in the world now when they’re putting the seats in the theater, and they’re not even gonna turn around, usually, unless it’s a guitar player. They’ve heard it.
These things [points to guitar] sit in every kitchen in the world. You see it on the front of magazines when you’re flying on an airplane – you know, the Strat. The Hard Rock logo is a Les Paul. We’ve been completely saturated by it. So I think I was lucky. At the time, it was like it came from another planet. And people that really interpreted it well and played it well, it was just so rare. It was such an inspiration. It can still be found today, but you have to dig a little harder to find it amidst all the cacophony. Having that gift to have such a love and passion for it allowed me to want to do that, to make that sacrifice. I don’t know if I’d have made that sacrifice if I hadn’t have been so impassioned and so blown away with how much it excited me.
So I think what kids need to do, if they want to play an instrument, guitar, you’ve got to create a vision of where you want to be, and then figure out a way to remove the obstacles to make it happen, rather than go, “Well, I’ve got this way I do it.” You create that vision. And when you create that vision, you’ve got to create it in a way that the sound or the playing is the way you want to do it. Even if it seems totally out of balance and impossible, you just like dream it. “Oh, I can hear this sound, I can hear this part! If I could do that, that’d be great!” You start developing a passion for that vision you have.
Then you have the recipe and the fuel that’s going to make you want to make that sacrifice. Those four hours [snaps fingers] are gonna go like that as you practice, rather than, “Oh, God. It’s 3:00, I got another hour,” and you’re sitting there killing yourself because you’re studying music in some school and you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to figure out a way to streamline that with making it fun. And a lot of times that will mean a certain type of music or a certain thing, rather than trying to talk myself into “Oh, I don’t like ‘Down Here on the Ground.’ I’ve got to just do this.” Me personally – it’s not true for anybody else – but me personally, if I had done that and it was only about playing guitar and playing licks, I’d probably put it away and not play. But it is about songs, and sometimes the simpler songs make you feel good. You don’t want to take for granted or belittle the things that give you that excitement of the heart, you know, because that’s the fuel that will keep the discipline fun, and then you’ll want to do the discipline.
What part of your dad do you carry with you today?
Well, I think two things. He loved music so much that I wanted to be like him. I wanted to find music that would make me feel as good as music made him feel. And I would find songs, and I would just get it. It was just elation. It’s like nothing else would do that for me but that. The other thing is he was a doctor, but he did a lot of cases for free. If nobody had any money, he’d just say that’s okay. He’d still do it. He’d actually go their house and administer help at their house if they couldn’t go to the hospital. I saw him work really hard, above and beyond what he needed to do, probably at the expense of affecting the relationship with his marriage. You don’t want to do that. But I think underneath it all I saw him work to a point to help people. He wasn’t like, “Well, if I do two more hospital visits and that one home visit this week, that means I’ll make $280 more.” It wasn’t even an issue with him. He made a decent living, but that wasn’t his focus. He did it because he loved medicine and he loved helping people. And I think that I got that from him too. I’m never thinking about what I’m getting paid. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to – we all have a career and we all have to do that. But I think I’m like my dad – that’s not really the criteria or what motivates me.
What kind of music did he love? What records did he have at home?
He liked everything. I think that’s why I like everything. He loved George Gershwin. He loved Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. He liked Nat King Cole. He loved Frank Sinatra. But he liked a lot of Broadway show tunes stuff. He liked Elvis Presley. He liked the Beatles – he liked some of their songs, especially when Frank Sinatra re-sang them. [Laughter.] He loved “Something.” “Oh, that was a great song!” “Well, dad, you know that George Harrison wrote that’s song.” He liked everything, and that taught me to see that all music has something in it.
Did you have a favorite Beatle when you were a kid?
Yeah. George Harrison was my favorite.
I don’t know. I think because with everybody else it was Paul or John. I thought George had a cool look. I think his hair might have been a little bit longer at the time or something.
Was your mother musical?
Not really. She helped us with our piano lessons, and she could read a little bit of music.
Did you dad derive joy from your becoming a musician? Did he like Tones and Ah Via Musicom?
Yeah. I don’t think he ever was not supportive, but as any parent, he was worried that I didn’t go to school and become a doctor or whatever that I wanted to be. I always wanted to be an architect, but then at one point I decided I didn’t want to go to school. I wanted to just play music. I think he worried as any parent would be if you go off into the depths of the unknown. But I think as things started working out, he . . . He always was supportive, career-wise. As he saw things were working out to the point where I would be okay, he was relieved. But he was always supportive.
It’s interesting that you wanted to become an architect, because when you produce your own albums, it’s very much an architectural nature in how you sculpt the sound.
Yeah, that’s true.
I wonder if that’s an extension of that childhood interest.
It could be.
Are you still finding new things or making breakthroughs? Do you have an agenda of things you’d like to accomplish with the instrument?
Yeah, I want to learn more about harmony and chord changes and being freer to play melodies and solos over chords. I think there’s a lot there that would open up things for me if I would get more well-versed and freer with that. So I’ve been working on that a lot lately, trying to get that together.
Anything you want to ask, Ryan?
Ryan Rhea: How much did your piano background instruct your guitar playing, or did you see them as completely separate things?
Eric: I like to formulate chords kind of like a piano. You have more of an option to find attractive voicings on piano, because it’s there in front of you and because of the mere physics of it. You’re a little bit more quarantined on the guitar.
Gallery - Eric Johnson's Saucer Sound Studio (11 photos)
Can you give an example of how a certain chord might be voiced on a piano that would affect how you’d play it on a guitar?
Like if I was gonna play a minor 9th chord on a guitar, I’d have to play [perfoms chord on his guitar], whereas on a piano I might play a low A and I might stretch out the third, so maybe I could play something more like [plays a variation]. It would be a little wider voicing. [Plays chords.] You just have a little more room to hear it. On guitar, you’re usually using just one hand. [Continues playing.] You don’t have quite as much ability to put extra stuff in there like you can on piano.
The guitar’s great advantage over piano is that you can get the notes between the notes by bending and vibrato. Where does the piano have it over the guitar?
Well, I think sound-wise piano’s a purer tonality. The guitar, you can push in all these places – you can have a clean tone or a real distorted tone. But in the mere journey or attempt at pushing the instrument, it can get kind of gnarly-sounding to me, whereas a piano initially just has a really pure tone to it. I find a lot of times I’m just trying to get a piano or violin tone on the guitar, because they have that purer tonality to me, maybe because they’re acoustic. Oh. You can’t tune it – I like that about it. You’ve got to get somebody else to tune it and then you just have to take what you’ve got. This thing [indicates guitar], you can spend all afternoon because you’ve got to be responsible for your own tuning.
That’s a great point. Do you play around with other tunings? Open tunings?
I do a little bit. I feel like I should do it more. I guess I don’t very much.
Do you keep a guitar in open D or open G or open A?
No, I don’t. It’d probably be good to do that.
Ryan: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but where did you first come up with the fast pentatonic runs in groups of fours and fives, particularly those descending licks that you do? Those are very cool.
Can you give an example?
Ryan: Well, like in the beginning of “Cliffs of Dover, that really blazing run before he starts the song.
Eric: There’s nothing different between those and Cream licks. They’re just played with a little more gain and played faster. I was really into the Cream thing. I kind of went sideways from that when I heard John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra and Bill Connors on the first Chick Corea record – I loved the way he played because he had a little bit of a blues kind of thing going on as he played fusion guitar. You know, that first Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, it’s real different. It’s got that kind of blues edge to it. I think that like on Birds of Fire, John had a little bit of that thing kind of going on, almost like Clapton playing fusion, pumped up. If you were to look at those aspects, it’s kind of like that. It really had already been done before me.
Ryan: When did you start playing around with that, though? Has that always been part of your style since you were a kid? Or did you start to develop those wide stretches . . .
Eric: I think the wide stretches just came from experimenting, and then realizing that they sounded kind of cool.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes the first pass is the best? You can cut a solo 18 times . . .
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. A lot of people have given me criticism over the years, like, “Oh, Eric, why don’t you go in the studio and get the . . . you’re better live. You do nice records, but they don’t have the vibe, they’re too polished, they’re too . . .” You know what I mean? “Oh, it sounds like you beat ‘em to death.” And you know, I think there’s a little bit of truth in all criticism, whether it’s 98% or 1%. I went back and listened to some of my records and I’m kind of late to the party, but I finally, at 58, I started hearing what they’re talking about. You listen to the old blues records or the Wes records or all the records we love – I mean, God, like the ’50s Ray Charles stuff? – I mean, forget it. I started really listening a little closer to that, letting that issue be prominent, and I can’t even listen to some of my recordings now. It’s like, yeah, it sounds like I went in there with a lab coat and a scalpel.
This is post-Tones?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, there are songs that have been recorded a million times, and they’re great. There’s a couple of Hendrix tunes that were supposedly done over and over for edits, and they’re great. But I think as a general rule – like you were saying – that aspect of making music needs to be a big part of your headspace as you’re making music. It certainly is when you play live. So why throw it out the window when you’re not playing live? So I think if we all want to grow and we all want to go forward and get better at what we do, we have to take inventory of what it is about ourselves that we can do to make this better. Some people, they’re so live and spontaneous that they never tune their guitar. It’s completely out of tune and they’re horrible, you know. But with me, it’s the opposite. It’s like, “Wow. Take 1% of that criticism.” If I do want to get better – not better in the sense of faster – if I want to learn to make deeper, more significant music, I need to take inventory of what I need to do. And I think what you say – you can’t put enough emphasis on that. There’s a certain thing that happens that’s really hard to . . . You know, if you went to your wife and you’re teary-eyed and you say, “Honey, I just really love you. Okay. Wait – I’m gonna go out of the room, I’m gonna come back in, and I’m gonna do it again.” You still mean it, but it might not have the same thing as when you just said it in the moment as you spontaneously spoke. Why should it be different with what I play on the guitar or what somebody else does? It’s just living.
I want to bring up one last thing. You were talking about kids and playing guitar. I think one more step that people need to realize is that to really make your mark as a musician – if you’re lucky enough to do it – you have to make an inward journey and base your music on that which is uniquely you.
You could never play Van Halen better than Van Halen, you can never play Billy Gibbons better than Billy Gibbons, and the list goes on forever. I wonder about the wisdom of spending so much time learning to play “Cliffs of Dover” or “Electric Ladyland” or “Voodoo Child” versus turning that stuff off and pulling out what’s you.
Yeah. I think if it’s a stop on the way to somewhere, it’s good. Like for me, I went through a period where I sounded so much like Eric Clapton people were just making fun of me. But it was okay as long as I didn’t stay there. I learned so much about the way to pick the string and the muting and setting the amp. And I loved his playing, and I had to ingest the whole concept and vocabulary of how he did it. And by that, you get to the point where you say, “Oh, I get it. I see how he did that.” If you just do that, I think it’s a dead-end street. But if you use it as a learning tool to just keep going forward and then let it go . . . As essential as it is to digest your heroes so that you understand technically what they are doing, it’s more important, when the time is necessary, to let it go and be yourself. You have to do that.
I don’t think you only have to do that as an individual in art. You have to do that with yourself. I need to let go of “Cliffs of Dover.” If I want to keep my career blossoming, I need to be big enough and brave enough to let go of that. I can play it the rest of my life, but as far as conceptually, musically, and artistically, I need to be big enough to drop this history that I think is Eric, and open the window to see what can happen.
It’s interesting you say that, because I remember when I toured with B.B. King. I think it was during a sound check, and I was so stoked I was playing with B.B. King. I was running through all these blues songs I play – I’m not a blues guitarist, but I can play a blues style. I grew up on it, and I can do it. I’ve jammed with B.B. and all those guys, and I can do it. But that’s not the point. Where’s your space that’s unique to the world, that you really shine? You could write like Shakespeare if you wanted or whoever, but it might not be Jas Obrecht. I remember B.B. brought me into his trailer and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m just doing my thing.” He said, “Well, that’s great, but you need to be you.”
When people ask me, “What’s the best advice a guitarist you admire gave you,” it was him. He said, “You know, everybody today – you just do what you do that’s unique.” He would hear me rifle through all this stuff, and then he would hear what I did – “Oh, there you are shining. Now you’re doing your thing, and nobody can do it like that or like I do it.” I’d spend 300 years trying to perfect the blues sound like B.B. King does. A little bit of that mixed into the recipe, it’s fine. But yeah, I would become static, and he kind of busted my chops for that. He said, “You know, just do what you do that’s unique to the world.”