[GTR] Ah Via Musicom was released on March 20, 1990, but you were playing “Cliffs of Dover” on the YouTube video I found of your clinic at GIT in 1984. When “Cliffs of Dover” came out six years later it really was a watershed moment in the guitar community, but it wasn’t a new song for you at all! When did you write it, how long did it take, and did you have any idea the impact it would have?
[Eric Johnson] It was a song that just came to me in about 5 minutes. Some of your best stuff comes very quickly, like a moment of inspiration. I’ve found that most of the songs that I stress over, work on really hard, and spend a lot of time on ending up sounding like it. So, I like to try to stay open to any kind of inspiration that comes along. I thought it was a good song, and people responded to it live when we played it, but I didn’t know that it would be a pivotal song.
[GTR] “Manhattan” was also in the set from the GIT clinic, and that one came out even later, on Venus Isle. It has your trifecta of tones, and a certain kind of maturity that I’d mistakenly attributed to the Grammy-winning success of Ah Via Musicom, but that song had also been in your hip pocket for some time as well. Why didn’t you include it on Tones or Ah Via Musicom?
[Eric] We considered putting it on Tones. We recorded it, but never got a good take of it. I think we actually recorded “Manhattan” again for Ah Via Musicom, but never got that perfect take. Sometimes it’s just a matter of whether you get an inspired take or not, and whether the vibe of it has symmetry with the other songs.
[GTR] What are some of the songs that had the biggest impact on you?
[Eric] Some songs that come to mind would be “Stepping Out” by the Bluesbreakers, “Crossroads” off Wheels of Fire, “Let Me Love You” off of Jeff Beck’s Truth, “Round Midnight” by Wes Montgomery, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis, “The Claw” by Jerry Reed, “Boogie” by Julian Tharpe, “For Free” by Joni Mitchell, and “Kathy’s Song” by Simon and Garfunkel.
[GTR] The impetus for doing what we’ve affectionately coined the Ah Via Musicom (Slight Return) tour was actually the result of a poll on your website. I understand that it took some time to get back in the saddle with some of these songs, how come?
[Eric] I hadn’t been playing an electric version of “Nothing Can Keep Me From You,” “Steve’s Boogie” or “High Landrons”. It was partially relearning the songs, but also recapturing the sound that I was getting back then. That was a little bit tough for me. I have gone into other types of gear and more modern effects, and honestly, I found it difficult to get some of those sounds on some of the more modern pedals. I just started to experiment and went back to some of the old gear that I used, and I was kind of surprised at how it had so much more of the sound that I was looking for.
[GTR] There is a trio of tone that you use: Stereo Clean, Dirty Rhythm, and the Violin-tone Lead. When did you come up with this template, or did it kind of invent itself?
[Eric] It started back in the late 70’s when a friend of mine sold me a Blackface Twin amp. I was really excited because I could get those Hendrix rhythm tones. Up until then I was using a Marshall, and I realized that I still liked the Marshall too. Randall Smith at Boogie made an A/B switch to go from channel one to channel two, to either get the rhythm tone or lead tone before he had channel switching built into the amp. I owned a Boogie amp, and I had that switch left over, and I thought, “I wonder if I could just use this to switch between my Marshall and my Twin?” So, it really started off with just a two-amp system. It was the only way I knew how to get the opposite sound structures that I wanted. If you just set the amp clean and use a bunch of pedals you can do it, but it’s a different kind of saturation on the distortion. And I do have a system like that for when I do clinics, or just for hanging out. But when you put a mic four inches from the cabinet, you’re really hearing the way the amp is distorting, and the gain, and all the tendencies of the amp. I knew that when I just used pedals in the studio it ended up sounding kind of artificial. I realized that to do it right I was going to need to use the amps. When I used the Marshall, I would turn the gain way up and the tone way down, whereas when I used the clean sound I would turn the tones up and the gain down. It’s a completely different approach. It’s also about the way those amps are built, as far as where the pre-amp, the tone-stack, the volume, and the way that you put the amp together. Electronically, they are put together differently to create different kinds of sounds.
[GTR] You mentioned mic placement, where do you like to place the mic in relationship to the speaker?
[Eric] On the lead sound I mostly use the cone area of the speaker, and depending on how much of the top end I want I’ll move it closer and closer to the dust cover. I’ll use the microphone as a variable for how much top end I want to record. Usually, the mic is angled towards the side of the paper, but not so far towards the rim that it doesn’t pick up a little bit of the cone and the dust cover as well.
[GTR] What are your favorite mics for the different sounds?
[Eric] I spend a lot of time just trying to get the amplifier to sound right, at which point any mic to me is going to sound pretty good. An old Shure SM57 works great for me, and then like a Neumann for a room mic. There are other mics I’d like to experiment with, I’ve just spent so much time trying to make the source sound good, that configuration just works well for me. It’s usually either a Neumann or an AKG 414. A 414 is sometimes close, but usually those are room mics, and I use a Shure SM57 for up close.
[GTR] Traditionally you use a pair of Blackface Twin Reverbs. But in your current rig you’re using a pair of “Drip Edge” Bandmaster Reverbs, which circuit-wise are basically Blackfaces. It looks like you’re using them into a common 4×12 cabinet, can you tell us about that setup?
[Eric] The cabinet is reminiscent of what I used to do in the old days, which is just four 12” EVL speakers. I use the left side for the left side of the Fenders, and the right side for the right side of the Fenders, so they’re still stereo. The Fenders are very directional and can be kind of piercing to wherever they’re directed in the hall. If I’m playing a smaller place, I’ll tend to use something that’s less power. That’s the reason that I use the Bandmaster Reverbs. They’re 40 watts instead of 85 watts. I’ll use the Blackface Twins anytime I can get away with it, but unless I’m in a big hall I try to be a little bit aware of people’s ears and not blasting them too hard. The Bandmaster Reverbs are Drip Edges. They’re close to the Blackface circuitry, but my friend, Bill Webb, who works on all my amps, tweaked them and re-wired them a little bit to make them exactly like Blackfaces.
[GTR] You’re also using a Two-Rock Classic Reverb head. Is that replacing the cleaner Marshall in the rig?
[Eric] Yes. Either the cleaner Marshall or a Dumble. I don’t own a Dumble anymore, and they’re so cost prohibitive now. There’s a particular type of Dumble that I love, although they’re all great, there’s one that’s more my thing. The Two-Rock amp is reminiscent of that. A lot of the Two-Rocks have been made to copy Dumbles, but the one that I use is not really a copy. It has aspects of different amps, and it’s really more like a Twin Reverb on steroids. I use that for a dirty rhythm sound, but I have used a Marshall and just set it with a different tone to get a dirty rhythm sound.
[GTR] I’ve seen a photo of you with a Steel String Singer, is that your favorite Dumble?
[Eric] Yeah! I love the Steel String Singer, those are my favorite Dumble amps. I should have never sold my Dumble. It was many years ago, and I was going through a period where my ears were damaged. Thank God they got better, but at the time I was so freaked out about playing live that I sold every single high powered amp I had. It was a rash decision and now it’s gone. Carlos Santana owns my Steel String Singer, and it’s nearly impossible to get one again. They go for an insane amount of money. But if I write the next hit for Taylor Swift, I’m going to go get a Steel String Singer!
[GTR] We interviewed Steve Morse for this issue and he mentioned how big an influence the Mahavishnu Orchestra was on him. In watching a YouTube video I found of you playing with the Electromagnets in 1975, I noticed some Mahavishnu-esque bends. In what ways did John McLaughlin influence you?
[Eric] I joined the Electromagnets after they were already going. But my first introduction to that was Bill Connors with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. I think he is a fabulous player. I loved him because he had that bluesy thing, but he was playing Fusion licks. Then I discovered John and I was blown away. All of his stuff is great and amazing. I really enjoyed his playing on the Birds of Fire record. Here’s this guy getting this really cool tone and cranking up the gain, but he’s playing these licks that are just bizarre. To me, it was a totally different approach to electric guitar. He was a real inventor of that.
[GTR] I also came across a video of you playing with Carole King in 1982 that features you playing a killer solo on a Les Paul. What are some of the things you did after the Electromagnets to realize your signature sound?
[Eric] I went through a period where Kyle Brock, Bill Maddox, and I played in a trio for several years and played all over the U.S. playing trio rock music. Then, when my management situation went a little awry, I was unable to do anything for a period of two or three years. So, I did session work and just played with other people. I played with Cat Stevens and Carole King, and just did anything and everything I could do to just make a living until I could be free of a certain contract.
[GTR] In the GIT video you mentioned that at the time you did not have a deep theoretical background, and that you primarily used chords that sounded good to your ear and the Pentatonic scale. Given the harmonic complexity of your music, what advice do you have for players in terms of developing their musicality with their ears?
[Eric] I think it’s great to have words to match the theory. I think the real theory is learning the harmonic relationship of notes to each other. When people talk about theory, that’s really what it is. In order to teach that or to transfer it to other people, we come up with words for it. Going to school and learning the words that identify that harmonic relationship is great. I think anybody that can study and learn all of the theory and the words that go with it through scholastic effort is awesome. Most importantly, along with that, is to learn to digest and assimilate the actual organic theory of it, which is how the relationship of those notes sound to each other. Then you free yourself to pursue your own harmonic path. That’s not to take anything away from learning and from school. I wish I knew more about the terminology because it would probably help me. But if I had to choose between one or the other, I would probably choose what I have, because being able to assimilate ear theory is important. It frees you to understand, on a more of a sixth sense level, where you can go and how you can navigate through that harmony.
[GTR] This summer you’ve got an acoustic guitar camp coming up with Andy McKee. How did that come about?
[Eric] Andy and I have done a bunch of tours together. He’s a really great player, very unique too. I think he started a whole new wave of guitar style. And he’s really about the music too; the songs, the writing, and the vibe. I think that’s why he appeals to a lot of people who are not necessarily aficionado guitar players. Andy asked me to be a part of the camp, so I’ll go and do my acoustic guitar thing. I’m honored to be a part of it, it should be really cool. I’ll show the one or two things I know about acoustic guitar, which should take about five minutes, and then everybody can have recess after that (laughs).
[GTR] You’re now playing Maton guitars. How did that come together, and what is it about those instruments that drew you in?
[Eric] It’s just so difficult to get a good acoustic guitar sound when playing live. Tommy Emmanuel, being one of the best acoustic guitar players on the planet, gave me a lot of advice. He gets a great live sound.
I think the approach of getting a great, live acoustic guitar sound is really different than what you might do in the studio. I just tried to learn from Tommy and how he gets his acoustic sound. As far as electronics, the Maton has a really great system in their guitars that sounds pretty natural.
[GTR] Are you still using a Fishman amp or have you moved to an AER ala Tommy?
[Eric] I use the AER Compact XL60.
[GTR] For a while you were using the MXR M87 Bass Compressor. Are you using that now with this setup, or do you find that you don’t need that?
[Eric] Right now I’m not using anything except a thing called the Big One, which is made by a company out of Austin. I think it’s just a prototype, but they’re getting ready to release it. It’s just a very simple, straight-ahead preamp. Right now, that’s all I’m using. Eventually, I’m going to add a little bit of compression and EQ, but for now that’s all I’m using.
[GTR] In many ways the Jimi Hendrix legacy has been told through pictures that guys like Jim Marshall and Joe Sia took. How important is a photograph to you when it comes to telling the story of your music?
[Eric] I think anytime that you freeze frame moments in someone’s career, it’s interesting. There’s a book that just came out about Hendrix, and I was seeing all of these pictures, like sound check at Hollywood Bowl, and it’s really interesting. I was looking at the people standing nearby, or the Marshall amp turned sideways, or the guitar he’s using. It’s a moment in time that lets you see the evolution of the artist.