On his 1999 solo guitar album Fingertip Ship (Metro Blue/Blue Note), self-taught fret-master Richard Leo Johnson depicted musical scenes as provocative and diverse as the documentary photography he had been previously known for. On his latest album, Language (Blue Note), Johnson picks up where he left off, then adds an entirely new dimension with the help of a talented band which includes the percussive combos of Cyro Baptista and Matt Wilson, the low ends of bassists Glenn Moore and Reggie Washington, and the slippery slide of Warren Haynes (Gov't. Mule). There is even an appearance by Johnson's ten-year-old daughter Tess on her brand new cello.
Having learned guitar from hours of solitude with a hand-painted Stella acoustic, Johnson spent time in the Taylor camp but now does most of his work on a McCullom double-neck acoustic. Not only does he use every inch of his 6, 12, or even 18 strings (his McCullom has both a six and 12-string neck), Johnson also bangs and raps the body, neck and sound board, occasionally going for a Koto-esque sound by double-bridging his guitar with a pencil.
"I got into trouble with the company I was doing workshops for because kids tried it at home and their parents got upset," Johnson recalls. "But people who like Eastern music really liked it."
As far as why Johnson subjects his beautiful boxes to such odd and perhaps harsh treatment, he explains that he is simply trying to "expand the palette" without using technology.
"I think inspired laziness is the best way of explaining how I came to play the way I do," Johnson says, explaining that a "traumatic experience" during an early guitar lesson convinced him that just playing would be the best way to learn.
Proving that two wrongs can indeed make a right, this self-proclaimed "rebel without a scale" has turned an inability to read music and an unfamiliarity with chordal structure to his advantage, allowing himself a freedom greatly unknown by other artists. Johnson has been compared to the likes of Kottke and McLaughlin; has played with Belew, Levin, and Legg; and (on Fingertip) pays homage to Reinhardt and Pastorius. Despite a bevy of admitted influences and inspirations, however, Johnson still maintains a rugged individualism borne of a rural Arkansas upbringing.
Inspired by the infamous cover of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights, Johnson began playing when he was nine years old. "I put it together that if you played guitar, you'd meet girls in whipped cream," he explains.
In the 35 years Johnson has lived with his guitar, his only outside education came from a south Arkansas oil field worker who "drank beer, played Monkees records, and said I played too fast." Since that time, Johnson has developed his own unique individuality, but has never forgotten the importance of listening to others.
"I take criticism to heart and I try not to get too pissy about it," Johnson says. "I realize that I'm not doing this alone in my house anymore and, if you are doing something in public, you have to respond to other people." Part of this response has been an ever-growing library of inventive alternative tunings.
"I know what the notes are," Johnson maintains, "but I don't know what the tuning will be until after I write the piece. It's ass-backwards, but it's fun because you're not tied to the idea of chords and intervals."
When putting together a new combination, Johnson says that he "responds to the instrument" and that the process is often unexpected.
"Often, I'll write a song during sound check or when I'm retuning," he admits. "I'm really into the idea of accidents and embracing the idea of chance. You never know when the inspiration will come, so I pick up the guitar as often as I can and see where it goes."
As an undergraduate, Johnson had toyed with the idea of studying music, but was encouraged to stick with photography thanks to his idiosyncratic playing style. Since then, however, his avocation has become more of a vocation and, especially after the recent loss of over 300,000 archived images, has at least begun to replace photography as his main means of artistic expression.
"It goes in waves," Johnson observes. "I still like to do photography, but being on the road makes it hard to focus on any one place or topic. Still, the music and photography work together well. One is a static thing and the other is fleeting and never-stopping."
Another recent change has been Johnson's decision to at least take a break from the lonely road of the solo artist. "I liked being able to tote the guitar around when I was younger," Johnson recalls, "but solo fingerstyle acoustic is a bit of a tired issue."
Though Language opens with the nearly solo pacings of "Hip Hop Zep" (an urbanised classic rock track which pairs Johnson's chimes and scratches with James "Worm" Wormworth's washboard ratchetings) and the romantically swaying reeds of "Sweet Jane Thyme," the album quickly opens up into the larger collaborations of "Event Horizon" and a beautiful duet of "Cheek to Cheek" and "Dancing Heaven." Though some of the group efforts take Johnson into even more new territories, his quick and sharp style remains greatly consistent throughout.
"This is something I've always dreamed of," Johnson says of having a band. "Most of the songs were conceived with other instruments involved."
Even so, Johnson arranged the album in a very interesting and independently-oriented way. Instead of actually bringing his bandmates to him, Johnson sent each of his collaborators a tape of his guitar track and let them devise their individual responses.
"It was like 'The Blind Man and the Elephant,' " Johnson laughs, "and it was fun. It worked out pretty good, too!"