Some virtuoso musicians sound like they sold their souls to the Devil for their fiery chops, but Austin, Texas’ Eric Johnson sounds more like a conduit for an archangel. As showcased on his signature tune, the Grammy-winning instrumental “Cliffs of Dover” from his platinum-selling 1990 album Ah Via Musicom, Eric possesses an unusual combination of staggering technique, melodic refinement and good taste in tones, the last of which is especially rare among shred guitarists.
There’s nary an electric guitar to be found on Eric’s latest album, EJ, which spotlights the 62-year-old musician’s talents as an acoustic guitar player, pianist and singer. The album’s namesake plays an acoustic set at Don Quixote’s International Music Hall on Saturday, Feb. 25.
Local Santa Cruz: You’re known for being a perfectionist where your music is concerned. I’m curious how that has changed over the years. Do you find yourself becoming more or less of a perfectionist as time goes by, or has it stayed about the same?
Eric Johnson: I think less. I’m interested in becoming a more spontaneous artist. If you can carry that into the recording studio, you actually get a better recording anyhow, because you capture a human-spirited event. It doesn’t get any better than that. On some records, I’ve pieced everything together dot-by-dot, but painting by numbers, even if you end up with a Mona Lisa, it’s not going to be as good as an impromptu van Gogh, because you kind of feel that energy behind it. I sure wouldn’t criticize Glenn Gould or Andrés Segovia for trying to get a perfect take in the studio, but those guys performed their music in the studio. Actually, I think Gould started doing heavy editing toward the end of his life! [Laughs] If you can do a somewhat immaculate performance that way, great, but going for perfection and losing the performance—I think I put more priority on that in the past. With this last record I did, it was totally a different perspective. Almost all of the record was done live.
I’ve always had the sense that you’re someone who is in music for the love of the craft as opposed to being in it for fame or glory. Before you started to get known as a musician, was fame something you wanted?
You know, it never really crossed my mind to be a professional musician until I was maybe 15 or 16, and I started playing original music in a band. I started playing gigs, and I thought, “Wow, maybe this could work out.” I was interested in architecture. I’ve always been fascinated by that and astronomy, but I took a little bit of astronomy in college and found out that it’s basically just sitting down at a desk doing math work. It’s not like you’re just out looking at the telescope all day! [Laughs] It’s like 90 percent math and 10 percent exploring, at least the initial part of it. [Music] is really the only thing I knew how to do, and I enjoyed doing it so much. Without even thinking about it that much, all of a sudden we started getting paid for it. It was just a natural progression, I guess.
Does the guitar still hold a lot of mystery for you? Do you still find yourself learning and growing as a guitarist?
Yeah. I think the mystery is as much as you can let it be. If you just cruise around the same streets you’ve always known, even if you become king of the hill, big deal. It’s like, “I own these streets. I’m cool. I’m king,” but you’re just repeating the same thing, and you’re just living off yesterday’s legacy of your history books. Maybe you do that so much that you decide that’s all there is, but there’s a whole universe out there.
It’s interesting that you ask that question, because in the last few months, I’ve been working on some new aspects of right-hand fingering technique that I think eventually might make me freer on electric guitar. I’m trying to learn three different ways to use my fingers: obviously, the fingerpicking style, and then that same fingerpicking style with a thumb pick, and then I’m also trying to learn more of the classical positioning where your [picking] hand is pointing down. It’s very foreign to me now, but the more I practice it, the more I realize there’s a whole world that could open up there. You actually could do it on steel string; it doesn’t have to be just nylon string.
You have to have an emotional, mental response to whatever you do. The more you [branch out into unknown areas rather than sticking with the known], the more you’re infusing passion, joy and interest in what you do, in the same way that you did when you were a kid, before you knew anything about it, and you had to explore the very first step.