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Johnson aspires to be a perfect guitarist

Tim Parsons

So Eric Johnson, you are regarded as one of the most accomplished guitarists in the business and have been around since the mid-1970s, yet you’ve only released four studio albums. Is this because you are a perfectionist?

“What makes you say that?” Johnson asked, pausing a while, allowing maximum effect for his deadpan. “Just kidding.”

To be perfectly accurate, Johnson has five studio albums, but one took 20 years to release, which indicates management logistics may have leadened the recording process at times. Moreover, obviously, yes, Johnson is a perfectionist.

“I have a tendency to do stuff over and over and over in the studio and piecemeal it together and second think it and third think it,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to not do that as much anymore. I’ve started a new record and am trying to let that go and take on a new regimen. But you’re always second guessing yourself.”

Apparently Johnson is the same way with his live performances. He said he is looking forward to playing again at the Crystal Bay Casino Saturday, Sept. 15.

“We played this club about two years ago and I thought I was kind of mediocre that night so I’m looking forward to get a second chance to redeem myself,” he said. “I remember we traveled all night long and I was exhausted.”

Anyone except for Johnson who has listened to Johnson’s recorded or live music would be less deprecating in their evaluation – just ask his peers. He has played with contemporary guitar greats Joe Satriani and John McLaughlin, recorded with Cat Stevens, Chet Atkins and Christopher Cross and his childhood buddy was Stevie Ray Vaughan.

His first musical favorites were early sixties rockers The Ventures, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones with Brian Jones. He liked jazz with Bill Conners with Chick Corea, followed by fusion with McLaughlin’s Weather Report. Being an Austin, Texas native (not a transplant) he naturally also went through a country phase with Atkins and Jerry Reed and finally to the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt.

“Then I started to piece it all together and do my own thing,” said Johnson, whose first serious band was the psychedelic group “The Electromagnetics.”

Johnson has a Grammy on his resume for Best Rock Instrumental Performance (“Cliffs of Dover,” 1991), has made three instructional videos for aspiring guitar greats, and Fender makes his signature Eric Johnson Stratocaster.

A live 1988 recording of Austin City Limits was a pivotal point of Johnson’s career, one that opened for him a lot of doors, he said.

Johnson’s latest CD (“Bloom,” 2005) has 16 tracks and is really three albums in one. The first part, called “Prelude” is instrumental rock in similar to the contemporary work of Peter Frampton, a fellow Strat player. “Courante” is new age, the type jazz played on XM satellite’s “Beyond Jazz.” Allemande is smooth jazz – pure and simple.

Occasionally, Johnson will sing, and usually only if he has something important to say.

Contributors on “Bloom” include Steve Vai, Shawn Colvin and Adrian Legg.

Like guitar greats Monte Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix and Billy Gibbons, Johnson plays in a trio. After a long hiatus bassist Roscoe Beck, who was with the Dixie Chicks, and drummer Tommy Taylor have returned.

Johnson is working on nine tracks so far for his next album, perhaps as meticulously as ever. Like Carlos Santana, he doesn’t like to let his masterful guitar work cast a shadow upon the songs.

“I’ve gotten too showy at times and I’ve made records that are too sleepy at times,” he said. “It’s kind of trying to find a balance in there.”

In this case, Johnson is considering kicking it up a notch.

“The guitar playing is good but I think I want to showcase it with a little more bravado,” he said. “I want to figure out a way to showcase it but not let it engulf the tune.”

Johnson said he will play some his new material Saturday, but will mix it with his older favorites.

Tahoe residents can hope Johnson will say he can improve on the performance, prompting another return date.


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