Notes from Rick Beato’s Eric Johnson Interview

The conversation includes Eric’s early musical influences, how learning piano shaped his guitar playing, Eric’s distinct guitar tone, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, and the function of music in the modern age.

Full interview:

Early days of learning guitar (1:00)

“The way people play blues is a beautiful way to learn guitar, how you pick the note, how you learn to stretch the strings, the emotional content…”

Eric’s first instrument was the piano, when he picked up the guitar he would look at it from a keyboardist perspective.

“I have a tendency to extract certain keyboard voicings to guitar, because they sound good…”

“I’ve always loved the sound of a piano, and I’ve always kind of chased that with the electric guitar…”

Guitar influences (4:30)

“Early influences included Eric Clapton, Jimmi Hendrix. Then I really got interested in Bill Connors. He started to open me up to more of a fusion thing, but he also had that Clapton bluesy tone. Then listening to John Mclaughlin started to fuse together the influences…”

“As I started to accumulate all these people, centrally I knew I wanted it to have a certain tone and a certain touch, that was the thread by putting all these styles together…”

Fusion music opened Eric’s ear to a wider variety of rock music.

Music is sound – does it connect with you? (6:20)

“The sound has to reach me first, then I’ll listen to what someone has to say…”

Music is sound, does it connect with you?

Thoughts on tone & guitar rig (7:30 – 15:00)

The sound of the guitar is nice, but even more important is how do all the elements feel? The guitar, the amp, the acoustics. If all that’s working it’s like wind to your back while playing.

For your tone rig, how can you construct something that’s repeatable? That’s not overly complicated.

For my tone I rely more on gain and less treble…”

“In my rig I have several amps, one for a more aggressive Hendrix type of tone, another for the smooth violin-like lead tone…”

“The rig hasn’t changed much over the years. Fender amps for rhythm, Marshalls for lead tone…”

“You know you have a great sound when you forget about your gear, you’re just playing…it’s the ultimate place to be creatively…”

Guitar is one of the few instruments… (16:30)

“Guitar is one of the few instruments where you can play both single notes and chords, it has the potential to stick around for a long time, and new artists will come along and innovate…”

Most influential songs learned as a young player (17:00)

Songs by The Yardbirds (Jeff Beck on guitar):

  • “New York City Blues”
  • “The Nazz Are Blue”
  • “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”

“If you listen to them now, it almost doesn’t sound like a guitar, more like a sax or violin. That really intrigued me, because it was guitar, but yet it was beyond guitar. That got me to really look at it in a more serious way…”

Non-guitar musical influences (18:12)

  • Paul Desmond (saxophonist)
  • Bill Evans (pianist)
  • Keith Jarrett (pianist)
  • Herbie Hancock (pianist)

“Herbie Hancock, to me he is like the modern day Mozart, listen to the chord voicings he comes up with, there’s nobody that did voicings like he did…”

Wes Montgomery (18:50)

“He has such a great sound, immediately anything he played was pleasing…”

“His soloing sounded so natural, effortless and organic. Wes knew a lot of theory not from a scholastic way, but from ear training, and you can hear that in his playing, it wasn’t regimented by a book, but inspired by what he heard with his ear, everything he played was so natural, he’s my favorite jazz guitarist…”

When music captures and inspires you (20:12)

“It’s like a great movie in the first two minutes, you’re in the movie, it just gets you because it’s so strong, so much gravity to it. I live for those moments in art. Whether it’s paintings, music…it’s so inspiring, it kind of recalibrates the soul, it’s a benchmark for what we can try to achieve, what we can go for…”

The function of music has changed (21:20)

“The function of music has changed in the modern era. As a kid when I would sit down to listen to a Hendrix record, it was to be entranced in the music, get chills…”

“Function of modern music is more about the movement it evokes, dance music…”

“Listening to some of the modern dance music you’ll occasionally come across some pretty cool chord progressions or voicings, I’m listening to it thinking this would be great if they wouldn’t use so much auto-tune,  and the drums are way too simplified. Let swing drummers be a part of this new pop music…”

“In dance music, get rid of the auto-tune, add in a great swing drummer groove, and this could be a pretty cool track…”

“It’s a bit of a tragedy, I feel that drummers have gotten the worst deal out of this…”

Newer gear (26:10)

“Newer gear is going in a direction where it isn’t as easy for me to get the sound that I used to get, it becomes more of a challenge…”

“The tubes that I used to use in my Marhsall amps, they don’t make those anymore…”

Don’t think so much when playing (27:20)

Not thinking about playing when you’re playing.

“Do as much thinking as you can when you’re practicing, but try not to bring that into the arena, don’t think about it as much…”

Staying childlike about music (28:05)

“In the past it was easier to get the sound that I wanted because I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing. Certain reckless abandon to it. But today I know much more, so an element of conservatism in my approach. So try to bust down that wall, stay open-minded, you have to stay childlike about music…”

Favorite music moments (28:35)

“Thinking about my favorite times in music, I don’t think about the big gig or contracts. I think about the times I first plugged into the amp. Being in a band and driving to play some gig for $30…”

“The simple passion of just playing. Those are the highest moments you remember. The more I stay in touch with that, the better music I can make…”

Tone in the studio (31:40)

Clean tone (Fender amps):

  • Condenser mics that are half on cone and half along dust cover
  • API preamps (take 2.8k or 3k out)
  • Run through a compressor
  • Put it in stereo and use a stereo reverb

Lead tone (Marshall amps)

  • Use an old SM57 mic, bottom right quadrant of speaker, 4-5 inches out at a bit of an angle
  • Add a room mic
  • Run through a Neve preamp

Performing Cliffs Of Dover (35:40)

“I have certain guitar licks I need to practice before a show, yet I still can’t play them as good as the 12 year olds on YouTube, I’m just going to hire them to come out and play Cliffs of Dover at the end of the night…”