A Relaxed Approach Works Well for Guitarist Eric Johnson

A Relaxed Approach Works Well for Guitarist Eric Johnson
Max Crace
While he might have been notoriously meticulous about a number of things in the past, there’s at least one detail in Eric Johnson’s history that’s been stretched into a bit of a tall tale.

It’s been said that the Austin-based guitarist had things so dialed in with his setup, that he could hear a difference in the sound of his guitar pedals depending on the type of batteries being used.

Johnson performs at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at Music Box Supper Club.

“It’s totally been changed from what really happened,” Johnson explains during a recent phone conversation. “What happened was a five-minute ordeal where I put in this super Energizer battery. They make these ones that are super high voltage. I put it in a tube screamer [pedal] and it made it sound kind of edgy and I sat there for a second, going, ‘Why does this sound weird?’ And I thought, ‘Well, it couldn’t be that.’ Then I had a Duracell battery, so I put that in and it sounded a lot better. That was the end of the story.”

Since then, Johnson has been a Duracell guy and chalks it all up to nothing more than personal preference.

“To be honest, I don’t know what the other batteries sound like and if they’d be better or worse,” he says with a laugh. “All I know is that the Duracell sounded better than [the other batteries]. I don’t ever use those super high voltage batteries because they do actually make things sound a little kind of [strange] because they’re too strong or something. I’m sure there’s a lot of other batteries that would sound just as good as the Duracell, but once it worked, I just went, ‘You know what? This works, I’m just going to buy Duracell and be done with it.’ And then the whole thing turned into that I A/B batteries for every gig and that I know the sound of each battery and all of that stuff, which never happened.”

And he’s got a great sense of humor about it. An August post on his Facebook page showed a picture of a Marshall amplifier on a chair. A commenter asked, “Do you find that you get better tone with the slats on the chair a bit off kilter from the slats on the floor? I've always lined them up.” “Depends on the polarity of the screws in the chair,” Johnson joked in his reply.

This weekend’s gig comes as part of his Acoustic Guitar and Piano tour, which launched earlier this week. The veteran guitarist has split his time touring both acoustically and electrically over the past decade. The current run of dates finds Johnson playing shows in support of EJ, his first acoustic album.

“You know, I’ve always enjoyed playing acoustic and have done it all along, but I never set out and made a complete acoustic record,” he says. “I think that sometimes people that come out to those shows maybe [they] like that more than the electric or vice versa. But [for] some of the people that like the acoustic [shows], I thought, ‘Well, you know, I should have an acoustic record that kind of represents doing these shows’ instead of just doing the shows and then handing them a hard rock record and saying, ‘Well, here you go!’”

He had a handful of songs that he had recorded several years ago and went in earlier this year to record more material to complete the planned album. He captured far more than he needed and simply put the performances that he was happy with on the record, leaving the remaining songs on hold to work on at a later time.

“If the songs weren’t good, I’d just throw ‘em away, but if they were good, I said, ‘I’ll try a crack at it again,” Johnson says, adding that he wants to do a second acoustic record and already has a lot of songs written. He plans to hopefully go back into the studio in the spring to work on completing a second volume.

The process of writing for the acoustic album helped to remind Johnson of some of the key elements that are really important when it comes to putting songs together — and he came away with some good food for thought which he feels will apply to whatever he’s doing, whether it’s acoustic or electric.

“For the most part, it’s a single instrument and voice, so the songs have to really work without all of the extra adornment, you know, overdubs and stuff. It’s just got to be good in and of itself,” he explains. “I wanted to perform the tracks live in the studio instead of piecing it together, so the recording process was pretty genuine and organic. I think those two things could better, no matter what I do, even in the electric [setting], trying to record more live in the studio and coming up with a good song that works just with one instrument, [instead of thinking that] it’s just only going to maybe work a little better with a bunch of instruments. It’s like, ‘God, this really isn’t that good when I sit here and play it, but I’ll put 40 things on it and make it good.’ You know, that’s kind of a little bit fictitious, I think. So I think it was a good learning process for me to kind of become more clear about those two aspects.”

The album mixes original material with an eclectic selection of covers, drawn from some of Johnson’s favorites that he has performed during his acoustic shows in the past, including a version of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “The World Is Waiting For The Sunshine,” featuring guest guitarist Doyle Dykes.

“I loved Les Paul and his futuristic gift to guitar and music,” Johnson says. “He was so ahead of his time and it was one of my favorite tunes that he did and I just thought it would be kind of neat to do.”

Johnson has also been known to cover a number of Simon & Garfunkel songs in his acoustic shows and two of those covers, a piano-based version of “Scarborough Fair” and a steel string arrangement of “Mrs. Robinson,” are on this album. Simon’s “April Come She Will” is another one that he recorded for this album that didn’t make the final track listing, but he’s hoping that he can take another crack at recording it for the second acoustic album he’s planning and he indicates that there are even more Simon & Garfunkel songs that he’d like to record.

“Doing these acoustic tours, I had worked up a handful of Simon & Garfunkel tunes, just because I kind of grew up on them and enjoyed them and it was good for me to do as far as practicing the acoustic thing. Those were the two that I was happy with the takes I got of them and so I just went ahead and used those. But I do have a couple of other Simon & Garfunkel tunes that I’d like to maybe use at some point.”

“Wrapped In A Cloud” is one example of how Johnson was able to stick with his desire to keep the performances authentic and not overthink what he was doing in the recording studio.

“That vocal and the piano and the rhythm acoustic guitar [are ones] I recorded it at home on my little eight track digital player, he says. “I had done that several years ago and I revisited and I went, ‘I like this!’ I took it in the studio but I just decided to use the demo track, because it had a nice vibe to it and then I just added to it. You know, I think years ago, I would have never considered that. ‘No, I’ve got to re-record everything, because it’s not quite perfect,’ but I thought, ‘You know what? It’s got a nice vibe,’ so I just kind of let it go.”

He’s come a long way from the time period when he was working on the follow-up album to 1990’s Ah Via Musicom, which had been a big success, thanks to the energetic instrumental “Cliffs of Dover,” which received a large amount of radio play. He toured extensively in that era, including a stint that found him going to Europe for six weeks and on the day they arrived back home, they found out that an opportunity to tour with Rush had materialized. The problem? The Rush tour dates started the next day. It was a nice issue to have, but as Johnson recalls now with a chuckle, he and the band found themselves back out on the road for three more months.

Once the touring cycle for Ah Via Musicom wrapped up, Johnson disappeared into the studio, where he remained for several years off and on, seeking to complete his next album. Eventually, he released Venus Isle in 1996, an underrated entry in his catalog that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“I spent too much time and too much money making that record and at the end of it, it came out and it just was not very well-received. It kind of made me close the door and never look at it again,” he says. “And then [recently] my girlfriend was playing ‘Lonely In The Night’ off of it and I was listening to it and I was thinking, ‘Wow, that sounds good!’ You know, because I don’t ever listen to my stuff really, unless I need to learn a song or something. I was listening going, ‘Wow, there’s some interesting stuff on that.’ It prompted me to listen to the rest of the record, and I said, ‘Well, this isn’t so terrible,’ you know, because it didn’t get a very good review, but in retrospect, it’s gotten a better review over the test of time than it did when it first came out.”

He describes recording the album as “kind of a crazy experience.”

“I think I just got caught up in, you know, what was I going to do after Ah Via Musicom?” he says. “I wanted to do something different, but I wanted it to be good. All of that’s good to a certain point, but then you can get over-obsessed with that to where you just go crazy. There was some good that came out of it. But I don’t know. Now that I look at it, so far away from when I did it, I think, ‘Oh, this is not so bad.’”

His current relaxed approach has allowed Johnson to open things up and be more prolific. He says he’s been writing material for an electric album and says that “one of the good takeaways on all of this for me in trying to [record] live more is to just try to get more streamlined and more efficient when I’m in the studio, because I do have a lot of music that I’d like to do and so I’d like to just get quicker at it so I can just get in and do it.”

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