Interview: Eric Johnson on his first acoustic album

EJ mixes his own songs and covers, instrumental and sung, and sees the Texan tone maestro take new approaches to his renowned mastery of guitar…

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“I’ve always wanted to do this, but… ‘stuff’ just kept getting in the way,” laughs Eric Johnson. It’s taken 10 years for Johnson to finally complete an acoustic album, despite quite a few acoustic tours over many years, but that’s no surprise really.

This is a guitarist so obsessed with sound he once used 16 production/engineering/mix contributors on one single album, 1996’s Venus Isle. Long-time coming or not, EJ shows EJ to be just as able on basic wood and wire as he is with his fabled collection of vintage electrics, boutique amps and stompbox batteries (he claims he can hear the difference between brands, don’t you know?).

In fact, recording EJ went so well, the guitarist/pianist/singer says: “I’ve got a lot more songs. I want to start recording volume two this winter.” That remains to be seen. First off, there’s the story of how Johnson came to acoustic guitar in the first place…

Learning in reverse

One thing you won’t hear Johnson ascribe is the well-worn argument that it’s always best to learn to play guitar first on acoustic. Why? Because it’s the exact opposite of what he did. Johnson’s first instrument was in fact piano, taking formal lessons and studying classical music until 13, but his interest faded after he started playing electric aged 11, inspired by his love of The Ventures, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks. “I guess my route to acoustic was unusual,” Johnson notes.

“I was 18 or 19 before I owned an acoustic. I’d dabbled on other people’s, but I wouldn’t have said, ‘I play acoustic guitar’. But that was the same time I started writing songs, too, so maybe that had something to do with it.”

Q. Did that ‘reverse’ journey mean a completely different approach for you when it came to learning acoustic?

“It’s a totally different thing for me. Well, the fretting hand is obviously similar, but for my right hand it’s a different approach. Even though I could play electric pretty good, when I started on acoustic it was all just strumming three chords! It took me a good few years to learn how to fingerpick well, to really articulate. I listened to a lot of different music – classical guitar, as well as flamenco and folk players – and absorbing all that took a while.”

Q. Do you believe playing solo acoustic offers different opportunities, but also limitations in that you need to deliver bass, partial or implied chords and melody all at once?

“I think it does. I mean, there are solo electric players who play that way too, Ted Greene [lauded solo fingerstyle electric player and teacher, 1946-2005] and Charlie Hunter [known for his eight-string electrics]. So it’s not isolated to acoustic playing, but it’s highlighted, because if you’re going to play a song on acoustic solo all those elements of a song are a lot more imminent.
Eric Johnson

So there’s a lot more thought going in to the structure and writing, what chords are played or implied, because you’re trying to tell a whole story just on one instrument. But, y’know, you can play acoustic just by strumming a few chords and singing. I like that, too.”

Q. How long was it before you got ‘good’ on acoustic? By 15, you were already a pro electric player (in psych-rock group Mariani)

“I’m still learning! To use just one instrument to orchestrate using a bass part, and to simultaneously play the melody, maybe sing as well… it’s a lot to work on. Compared to playing solo acoustic, playing electric in a band is pretty easy.”

Q. Who did you look to for inspiration when you really got into acoustic?

“It was the early Joni Mitchell folk albums, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, James Taylor. I studied the Merle Travis technique, Doc Watson, Bob Dylan. Later on, I was a big fan of Michael Hedges, Tommy Emmanuel, Doyle Dykes. Those are the guys I really look up to now, they’re so adept at fingerpicking.”

Q. You’re a fan of the Japanese koto, at least to listen to: do you try to get that sort of tone on a standard Western acoustic?

“Well, I wouldn’t say I do that but I am keen to utilise all the different timbres you can get from just an acoustic. Whether it’s playing with your nail or flesh, picking near the bridge or towards the neck… that an acoustic that has no amp or effects per se is still capable of so many tonalities is the really interesting part for me.”

Q. Do you use capos or open tunings on EJ to expand that palette?

“I used a capo on a few tracks, but I didn’t use any open tunings. I drop the E to D occasionally. I do love the sound of open tunings, but to play them I really have to sit down and learn the song note-for-note and just copy it, consciously. As soon as I look at the fretboard I automatically think, ‘Well, that’s a B or E in standard tuning’, and if it’s not I get confused. Really confused. I’m not real good at open tunings, I guess.”

Capturing the tones

Johnson’s claim to be “not real good” at anything is, of course, somewhat baffling when you hear EJ. His playing throughout is faultless and all the more impressive when he says his acoustic guitar tracks were cut live with a maximum of four takes.

Even the vocal tracks were recorded in one. “It was absolutely a conscious decision,” Johnson says. “An acoustic record, to me, has to be more vibey, organic, performance-based. It would be more apparent than ever if I tried to make a heavily overdubbed acoustic record, I don’t think that would translate at all.”

Q. Was that hard to balance with your admitted perfectionism when it comes to your electric albums?

“Not so much anymore. I’ve been getting towards more live recording for my electric records, too; I’m not quite as hung-up on the perfection as I used to be and that’s how I want to record more in the future. It was a challenge, though. I just had to practise, practise, practise before I recorded. I do that anyway, but it’s quite pressurised in an acoustic situation.

Eric Johnson, musician, photographed by Max Crace.I tried to limit each song to three or four takes and pick the best one. There were quite a few where a song didn’t work on the first two takes, so I moved on to another song… then came back to the first on a different day. I didn’t want to get bogged down making something work when it wasn’t. Too many ‘fingerprints of the mind’.”

Q. The stripped-back ethos extended to your guitars, too: you play numerous electrics on your other albums, but you say this was recorded on just two guitars – a Martin D-45 and a Ramirez nylon-string…

“Yeah, mainly my Martin. In the early 80s, most of my guitars got stolen from my apartment and at that point I was pretty destitute anyway. I was only just making enough money to eat, y’know? So my dad [now deceased] bought me this Martin D-45 as a gift to try and replace all the guitars I’d had stolen. So it has real sentimental value to me.”

Q. What else makes your D-45 special?

“Well, I should point out it’s not vintage, it was made in 1980. It’s a reissue of a pre-war D-45 with scalloped bracing and snowflake inlay. It’s just a real cool guitar. It’s not the loudest guitar by any means, but for some reason it records the best in the studio of all the acoustics I have.”

Q. Live, though, you seem to prefer your Maton CS Classic…

“That’s true. Of all my acoustics, the Matons have the best electrified, live tone. But in the studio, it’s all about balance. When you play a note on the third or fourth fret on the A or D string, a lot of acoustics seem to have this accentuated woofiness. So I have to avoid that. And my Martin’s not like that at all.”

Q. That’s not what you’d normally expect from a dreadnought over an OM, though?

“Typically, people will tell you that a triple-0 will record better than a dreadnought and I think they’re probably right: that dreadnoughts are fun for the player, right, and the listener if you’re playing in a small room.

But in the studio, not so much, as they can get a little boomy. But I’ve tried triple-0s and, to me, they just have a different sort of boominess. And, likewise, I’ve heard dreadnoughts that aren’t boomy. So, as with all guitars, the nuances vary. The way the wood on each instrument goes together, the way it has dried out… I’ve yet to find a hard and fast rule for acoustics, to be honest.”

Q. And what about the Ramirez nylon-string on the track Serinidad?

“I’ve had that since the 90s. I was in South Carolina, popped into a music store, as I do… It had been in the back of the store, unsold, since 1967! The guy brought it out and I just loved it. I bought it immediately.”

Q. The sound on EJ is crystal clear and, as you say, very balanced: can you offer any good tone tips on recording acoustic guitar, which is often a bugbear for many players?

“Well, all I can say is what I do. I have some K&K [Pure Mini model] transducer pickups I use with my Martin, but on this album not so much. It was just a microphone with a tiny amount of pickup on a few tracks.

Mainly, I just use microphones, Neumann KM 56s. They have a small diaphragm, and a small diaphragm doesn’t seem to accentuate all those 150-200Hz cycle frequencies that can get over-exaggerated when you’re recording acoustic. Then, EQ and compression.
If you’re recording with just microphones, I think compression is very important. It gives everything a little more power.”

Under the covers

As well as Johnson’s own impeccably crafted originals, EJ features three covers: one is a baffling instro-duet with Doyle Dykes on Les Paul and Mary Ford’s The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise, the others are familiar targets for Johnson: Paul Simon (a rhythmically reworked instrumental Mrs Robinson) and Jimi Hendrix (a gently lyrical take on One Rainy Wish).

“I just love Paul Simon’s fingerpicking,” says Johnson, who has also previously covered his Kathy’s Song and April Come She Will.

“And to use that as the medium to write so many great songs, I find that really alluring.
I don’t know why I came up with that rhythm for Mrs Robinson. I don’t even listen to that song much, I listen more to his earlier albums. But I wanted something up-tempo to open the record, something known, but different. And it turns out it was working the rhythm a bit. Some of my melodies are not quite there on it, but I think it’s enough for you to know what the song is.”

Eric JohnsonHendrix, as for so many other guitarists, remains a touchstone of genius for Johnson in the electric realm, but his own acoustic reading of One Rainy Wish is bold indeed.

“I actually did two versions of that,” he reveals. “One is a more classical approach that I hope to put on volume two. Now, that took me a long time to work out. But the one on the record now is still a challenge. I wanted to take the song in a different direction, but to me that’s the sign of a good song. You can interpret it in so many ways.

“I just think it’s one of Jimi’s most beautiful songs. I had to do it differently, because I’m not going to risk being compared to the original. It also highlights just how versatile a song it is. Working for a symphony or on a single acoutsic guitar: that’s the sign, to me, of a good song. I hope I did OK…”

Yep. When it comes to guitar, Eric Johnson can be sure he’s doing more than “OK”.

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