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Grammy-winner Eric Johnson is a solo guitarist most notably known for his song "Cliffs of Dover" on the 1990 release "Ah Via Musicom."  He has toured with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai on the highly successful G3 tour that started in 1996.  On Johnson's recent tour, we had the opportunity to interview him before his show at The Paradise Rock Club.

Boston Beats: How did you get into music?

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Eric Johnson: I started playing piano when I was really young because my parents pushed me into that until I was 11 and then took up guitar because of all the rock music going on and all the people you'd see and thought that was really cool. I have loved it ever since. Since then, I've been immersed into all the different players and kept exposing myself to different styles and different music.


BB: Who are you currently listening to?

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EJ: I've been listening to Pat Methany, Miles Davis, Jet... all sorts of stuff.

BB: Who are your main influences?
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EJ: There are a lot players out there who I've found influential such as Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Reed, John McLaughlin, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. There's a lot of different ones.

BB: Tell us about your style.
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EJ: I like to take different people's styles and mix them all together and create my own. I'll take somebody's guitar tone and use that with somebody else's technique and somebody else's choice of lines to put it all together to make your own style. It's impossible to be totally original so you just have to find a different way to amalgamate all the different stuff together to make your own thing.

BB: To those who follow your music, it's common knowledge that you're a real perfectionist when it comes to being in the studio and have been known to spend years on putting an album together. What is your recording process?
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EJ: It's been a realization now that my best stuff comes out when I'm in good shape practicing and get everything down on the first, second or third take. I finally realize there's a certain spirit energy with that. When doing things over and over again, there is a certain calculation of the mind and it is a different effect and vibe. I'm slowly trying to get back to performing more in the studio and getting more of a vibe.

BB: Do you prefer to play live or in the studio?
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EJ: Actually, I like them both. They both can be a challenge to be in the moment and try to get your best performance. They are different. I suppose sometimes playing live is a little more fun because you have the crowd to help give you energy.

BB: What do you think makes a good show?
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EJ: Getting out of yourself and forgetting about yourself and just getting into the music and feeling it. When you feel the rhythm and just let go and let things just happen naturally - usually the magic will happen then. It's when you go on stage pre-planned and your clinching with your own agenda that you're really limited.

BB: What's the best show you've seen?
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EJ: I remember seeing Peter Gabriel back in the early 80s - that was really an incredible show. I also saw Alison Krauss a couple years ago and that would rank up there as well.

BB: Do you have any pre/ post show rituals?
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EJ: I just try to stay centered. Try to practice a little bit and warm up and get into that frame of mind where you're not stressing, worrying, planning or getting too calculated about what you expect. I like to just let go and get focused.

BB: Do you play the same set list every night?
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EJ: My set list is pretty close to the previous night's set. We switch out songs every now and then and add a few extra songs so we can change it up a little bit each night. I would say 85% of the time, it's the same.

BB: Tell us about your audience. Who attends an Eric Johnson show?
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EJ: It's pretty varied. For instance, on this tour when I played at the Eclipse Theater in Vermont, we had people between 8 - 10 years old up to their 60s.

BB: What are your favorite types of places to perform?
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EJ: I enjoy playing at old wooden theaters. They have a lot of history and a real vibe. Those seem to be our best places to play although I'm pretty open-minded to play anywhere as long as it's presented decently.

BB: What do you think of the current music scene?
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EJ: I think there's a lot of good stuff out there. There will always be good quality... sometimes, you need to wade through it and find it. I think the quality will go up actually because all the electronic media and people being available to compete both in film and music with anybody who has a high stature and huge company. There's going to be an age or accessibility opportunity for other people to compete and more of a priority put on the integrity and quality. I think there's a less festive hold-out that might be challenging, so you have all the radio/ media conglomerates taking over and having this big "cartel thing" where they stipulate all these rules/ regulations that create a cookie-cutter type of thing. But within that you still find quality and that's great but it's a bit unfortunate that if it doesn't fit the mold, it gets thrown out with no questions asked. Maybe the days are numbered with that because people will be able to think for themselves more easily with the electronic media becoming stronger and stronger.

BB: Your most recent album, "Souvenir," was released solely on the internet. How do you see the internet playing a role in the music industry?
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EJ: "Souvenir" wasn't a regular record and was just something for the fans so I didn't want to give people the idea it was a regular record. At this point, I'll still release albums with a record label in tandem with the internet. In the future, I think the balance will lean over towards the electronic media. I think it's pretty obvious that's where it's all going with Rhapsody.com, Ibook and Apple.com. It seems to me it's just a matter of time when there's a major transfer.

BB: Being known primarily as an instrumentalist, what is your opinion on instrumental guitar today? Is "shred" dead?
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EJ: I think the most important thing is that they have something to say musically and that almost always has to do with the song you write or the composition or the music or the way you layer/ orchestrate the parts and that they're meaningful and have an impact. If you do it in a more refreshing/ re-invented way, then it's even better. Anything that doesn't quite go that direction, it's going to be static and sound dated. Because everybody's heard blistering electric guitar as it has been done in the format for 35 years for the most part, it's not really going to turn heads as much. There's really two options: take the course of jazz music where you have a lot of improvisation (and that's the whole heartbeat of jazz) - but within the framework, you have players that are reinventing the whole effect and being tasty and thinking musically. That's one option that be can used in progressive music which is not really used as much. The other option, because people are so burnt out on electric guitar (and understandably so), they just put it in the back of the mix as a songwriting tool which is where that is right now. I don't think too many people are interested in hearing someone go crazy on the guitar unless it was someone who was really re-inventive and had something strong musically to say.

BB: You've had great success to date: from being a session player to a Grammy-winning solo artist to being named one of the 50 greatest guitarists of all time. What keeps you motivated?
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EJ: It's the dream of trying to find little pockets of sound on the guitar that will be, if not really fresh or re-inventive, at least musically pleasing and interesting and searching for that. It doesn't necessarily come for free - you have to work at it from both ends: one end is not working at it and letting it happen, and the other end is working hard at it. In other words, becoming the best musician you can to avail yourself to be at the doorstep when it does happen. That's pretty crucial to me - anything short of that, I'll just be rehashing "Cliffs Of Dover" and I can't get surprised if people aren't freaking out. Why should they? They've heard it. It's my responsibility, initially, to bring something to the table that's stimulating.

BB: In an age where so many define success as having big houses and fast cars, how do you define success?
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EJ: People think that's what it's about because that vision is still the forum and they are not necessarily living in that situation. If they live in that situation, they'll realize that's just not what it's about. There's nothing fulfilling about that. The more money you have, the more money you want; the more stuff you have, the more maintenance you have - there's nothing fulfilling about it. There's a lot of bands that chase records deals and when they get the deal, they think their problems are solved - but they have a whole new set of problems. There's nothing different - you're just switching the problems. Success is being able trying to do what you want to do and try to at least make a living at it and get by. You can always shoot for the stars but you have to count your blessings if you're at least able to get by, do well, do what you want to do and maybe be able to make somebody happy along the way. That's success.

 

BB: What advice would you have for aspiring musicians?
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EJ: I can only say what I'm trying to do which is just try to get into your intuitive nature of what speaks to you musically. If you just learn the book and study the radio, you're just going to be working out of your mind and it won't have the same depth or impact when people hear it. So if you try to develop that intuitive sense of music, you're seeking mechanism will try to find things that will respond on that frequency. I think that's the frequency that everybody responds to in the more sublime sense - it's good to get into that thing.



To learn more about national artist Eric Johnson, visit his website at
http://www.ericjohnson.com/

 

*Pictures courtesy of http://www.ericjohnson.com/

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