Loosening Up

Johnson’s new approach to recording involves a lot less studio time

Eric Johnson is still adjusting the balances in his musical life.

With a lofty reputation for guitar technique, Johnson continually strives to pull out his songwriting skills for fans.

Known as a notorious studio tinkerer, Johnson has tried to find new ways to streamline his studio labor without losing his trademark sound.

And he's focused on finding the right balance of his various stylistic tics that see his songs taking left turns from his primary rock playing to incorporate jazz, world, blues and neo-classical touches.

“It's probably a marketing nightmare,” the Austin, Tex.-based musician jokes.

Johnson says his taste for so many different styles comes from growing up as his father played recordings of all sorts, including swing, jazz, rock and classical. It was the sort of home where an Elvis Presley side would be followed by George Gershwin.

Johnson likes to operate on the fringe of his musical element to push his own boundaries. It's exhilarating, he says.

Johnson played piano from a young age and took up guitar at the age of 10. He says he's always had a passion for playing guitar. In his teens, he started feeling the urge to play rock music. Even today, that rock style is the heart of his sound.

“I've always been pulled towards that on guitar,” he says.

But Johnson also had his eye opened to just how other styles could commingle with his interest in rock guitar.

The first guy who caught Johnson's attention outside of rock guitar was jazz player Wes Montgomery. Montgomery still rates as one of Johnson's favorite guitarists. Montgomery's work is distinctive, Johnson says.

“He plays two notes and that's it, you know who it is,” he says of Montgomery.

Johnson has gained that reputation among guitar players, earning numerous accolades from Guitar Player magazine and netting a classic album with 1990's Ah Via Musicom, which included the single “Cliffs of Dover.”

Johnson started his recording career around the time that Austin's most-renowned guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan first gained notice. Johnson has shared the stage and time in the recording studio with Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray's brother.

While Johnson says he's always loved the blues and he's a huge fan of the Vaughan brothers, he's always been drawn away from the Vaughan-style of blues playing. He's versed in the playing, but dabbles in it sparingly.

“It's more like an ingredient than a style I identify myself with,” Johnson says.

Johnson instead worked on his own unique guitar sound, spending countless hours in the lab to get the perfect guitar tone that has been rattling around in his head.

“I'm at the point now, it's in the ball park and I'm at peace with it,” Johnson says.

Johnson has also come to terms with his habits as an intensive studio worker. On his last studio record, 2010's Up Close, Johnson unveiled new studio digs and a desire to make his work looser, easier and quicker.

During the sessions, a light bulb went on in Johnson's head. The less-honed, less-belabored takes were packing a bigger emotional impact and capturing a more spontaneous energy.

“It was enough of a taste that I want to go in that direction more,” Johnson says.

There is a lot of music Johnson doesn’t get around to finishing. That has to do with trying songs every conceivable way before deciding it’s done.

Instead of pursuing 40 ways to tackle something, Johnson says he now tries to pick an initial plan or two and then stick with it.

In turn, it may help turn the tide on the disparity between Johnson's reputation as a guitarist and the relatively little acclaim he's received for songwriting, arranging and even singing, which Johnson has done increasingly on his recordings.

He says he's always enjoyed writing songs, and he focuses on making it so the vocals and the instrumentation have conviction. He's toured playing only acoustic guitar and piano to level out the guitar-slinger/songwriter ying-yang.

Johnson says he knows the onus is on him to write songs that make people zero in on his considerable skills away from the guitar.

“I got to bring something infectious and dynamic enough to dispel that imbalance,” he says.

“Making music has always been more important to me than going nuts on guitar.”

Eric Johnson plays Thursday, July 21 on Stage B at the Red Sky Festival at 4:15 p.m.

posted at 11:05 am
on Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

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