Eric Johnson’s latest release, Up Close, is his most lively studio project to date. With a looser vibe and the luxurious tones we’ve come to expect from Johnson, it gets closer to that happy place between immaculate execution and spontaneity.
Johnson invited Steve Miller to sing and Jimmie Vaughan to play guitar on a cover of the Electric Flag song “Texas,” and the results are fiery, to say the least. Vocalist Malford Milligan, Jonny Lang, and slide master Sonny Landreth also lent soulful contributions.
Did you have a concept in mind before you started recording Up Close?
I was going about business as usual. Then, as I got into it, things started changing. I started trying to cut stuff a little more live, and decided to bring people in to sing and play, just to open up a little.
Do you think imposing more spontaneity added something?
I wish there was more. There’s definitely more than the last record, and I think realizing it toward the last part… I would like to keep going on that track – open up a little and get a little more of that going on.
Are you hard on yourself?
I think I am. I always hear things I don’t like. I have a habit of doing things over and over, trying to get it where I hear it in my head. But sometimes, when you get it to where you hear it in your head, it loses some of the spark. It’s a balance between capturing that spark and getting it to where you want it to be. It’s really tough for me to get comfortable in the studio. It sort of feels like you’re in a petrie dish.
It’s tough to capture that blend of lively playing with perfect execution, but the record sounds like you were able to.
Yeah. Going for a performance-type situation, even if I was over dubbing, then opening it up and getting other people get involved. I basically sang all the songs. On three that I sang, I thought, “Yeah, pretty cool.” One was always meant for Steve Miller (“Texas”), but there was a couple where I didn’t feel my voice was appropriate. On one, I got Malford Milligan to sing (“Brilliant Room”), and another one, Jonny Lang (“Austin”). It just worked better.
Your guitar playing is always stellar but I’m really enjoying your lyrics, particularly on “Brilliant Room.”
Thank you. I think the lyrics show progress – they’re more personal, rather than from the third person. That’s kind of why I called it Up Close. It’s kind of a generic, but says it simply. It’s trying to show a little more of myself.
What was your primary guitar?
I used my ’62 Strat – which I don’t have anymore – a lot. I used my ’57 Strat a bit, and my signature Strats. I also used some Gibsons, like I always do, but probably more than usual. I used some Les Pauls I don’t own any more (laughs).
So you got rid of a bunch of guitars before the record came out. Why?
I wanted to have the pieces I use and make music on, that really hit a mark that works for me, musically. If they don’t really hit that high-water mark, I want to simplify. I own one vintage Strat now, (laughs) – a ’57 – and I want to find a second vintage Strat. I just want one I used to have, because that worked for me and made the kind of music I want to make.
Rather than owning five or six old Strats, I figure, if you gotta couple that are killer, that’s all I’d ever need. I can only play one at a time! After many years of trying it all, I know what works and what doesn’t. Coming to that conclusion… I’d rather just simplify.
A guitar’s age isn’t everything…
And even when they’re vintage, I like to put in a different bridge pickup and big frets. I’m not a dedicated collector – I’ve gone through periods where I’ve probably have more old amps than I need, but my thing is I want to sail on the music. I want to go into the skies. I love the old Strats, but as much as I love them, I can’t use the bridge pickup for most of my music – it’s too weak.
I finally came to terms with the fact that I’d rather have one or two. I’ll put big frets on them, put a bridge pickup I like in them, and I can play the music I want to play. I can’t very well quarantine myself to something because it’s original. Then you’re kind of putting a governor on your musicality.
Are you still using the multi-amp Marshall/Fender configuration?
Yeah. I’ve been experimenting in the studio, and I’m putting together an alternate rig using different amplifiers that I’m really digging on. For the most part, it’s the same old thing – either the 50-watt Marshalls or the 100-watt Marshalls, then Twin Reverbs. I thought about bringing out a super-simple setup for the Experience Hendrix tour, but the songs I’m doing kind of require that I jump around to different sounds, so I ended up bringing my whole rig.
What’s in your Experience Hendrix tour setlist?
“House Burning Down,” “Drifting,” “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp,” and “Are You Experienced?” A couple were tunes I always wanted to do – “Drifting” and “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp” – so I learned them for this tour.
This article originally appeared in VG February 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.