List Interview 7
Eric Johnson List Interview April 2003
PS: The first thing I want to ask you about is this: you've been selling some equipment, selling some pedals that it's been noted that you're now using. Could you fill in some of the members about the changes to your rig and what you're trying out?
EJ: No real changes, it's the same except I'm using 2 Fender Vibroverbs for rhythm instead of 2 Deluxe Reverbs.
PS: Have you got the 100 watt Marshalls?
EJ: I probably won't use the 100s, because we're playing smaller places.
PS: Have you cut down your pedal board?
EJ: Yeah, it gets smaller all the time. It's been the same for about the last year.
PS: There were a couple of pedals that I called you about last week that have slipped my mind, that you were now using at home now...
EJ: Yeah, the Tone Bone pedal. It's a real nice tube pre-amp. I'm not using it on the pedal board right now because I'm using the Tube Driver, but I like the Tone Bone, it's great.
PS: So much for changes to your rig. A lot of the questions this time are about how you create and how you write songs. I would imagine that you create in a lot of different ways, that different songs are created in different manners. Can you tell us something about that?
EJ: Just staying in touch with playing and keeping a personal relationship with playing... practicing, not only practicing for technique but playing for enjoyment. If you keep a personal relationship with it and stay on a regular schedule, you keep yourself adjusted to receive ...something.
PS: So what you're saying is that you really create at the guitar or at the piano rather than songs popping into your head from space, or dreams.
EJ: Well, they have, but I hardly ever remember them.
PS: So basically you sit down, practice, play for fun, and something happens? Is that when you're playing guitar?
EJ: No, actually it's more when playing the piano than guitar, probably 60/40, 60 percent piano.
PS: There's a question here about how you know when to stop, like how do you know when to stop putting things on a record, stop adding stuff to tracks. How can you tell when, for a given piece, that what already is in there is enough, and to add more would be a mistake?
EJ: You finally realize that there are so many different ways of doing something, if you have a piece of music, there are myriad versions of the ways you could put the instrumentations on it. So, I think my old philosophy was to try everything and turn over every stone, and you get caught in a thing that just goes on forever. There are so many ways to do something that you get to the point where when something happens, it stumbles upon a magic position, framework or balance, just try and go with the flow., let it be what it is. You get to the point that when something starts happening, you just let it be and move on.
PS: Now with ProTools, it seems like you could keep numerous versions of cuts. I mean, as a photographer I'll shoot a scene a variety of ways, then do cuts, look for an "A" cut and take those 10 and whittle it down...
EJ: Yes, the possibilities get more and more limitless with available technologies.
PS: Because you don't have to record over stuff because you don't have tape costs, stuff like that. That goes into a question. When writing a song, do you deliberately limit the complexity of the song so you can play it live?
EJ: No, I really don't. I just kind of let it happen, whatever is going to unfold.
PS: Would you write differently if you didn't have to tour, or if you could have more musicians in the band to handle the extra parts?
PS: That goes along with considering adding a second guitarist on tour to handle the simpler parts and free you up for the leads?
EJ: Yes, I have.
PS: Are you going to try to do "Paperback Writer"? You used to do "Paperback Writer", but that's when you had a lot of singers in the band.
EJ: Yeah, I don't really have anything off "Souvenir" that I'm doing right now. I've got an overabundance of stuff because Tommy [Taylor] is going to do the tour. He and I are going to try to do some stuff that we used to do together and I've got a few new songs that I want to try to do.
PS: Well that's one of the questions here. What are you going to play on the upcoming tour?
EJ: Probably several things from each of the records, and two or three new tunes. I'm going to try to do an acoustic tune and maybe a piano tune. Maybe a newer tune written by Chris and a tune where maybe Tommy has a chance to sing one song.
PS: Any copy stuff?
EJ: There are a few things floating around. There's a Bob Dylan tune that's going to be on the new studio record that's coming out. I might try to do that, might do a Paul Simon tune, a Joni Mitchell tune, a lot of the stuff I've been fooling around with right now.
PS: Which Joni Mitchell?
EJ: "Circle Game"
PS: There are a variety of tech questions here, as always. Do you prefer the older 3-way switch on your Strats or the newer 5-way and the reason?
EJ: I use 5-ways because there are more options.
PS: The members keep coming back to "vintage" versus "newer" stuff. Do you ever try the "newer" stuff, options like Strats with Lace Sensor pickups or even "Elite" Strats, or these modeling amps, stuff like that?
EJ: Yeah. It's getting better all the time, I mean, some of this stuff is not bad, it's OK, but if you get a really pure signal with a great tube amp with point-to-point wiring and nice speakers, it's hard to beat it really, for that pure distortion tone.
EJ: I have a couple of the new Fulton-Webb amps which are designed off the original tone premise, like the older stuff. You've got to pay the price for those benefits. When you get into using printed circuit boards and amplifiers and you change the type of voice coil that's in the speaker, you're just going to get an edgier, more "EQ" type of sound, and it's not going to be as pleasing a distortion, typically. As far as the modeling thing goes, I've heard it. I think it's pretty good, it's great for practicing. I don't find it to be completely working when you use it in application. If you stand on the side of a mountain and look at the beautiful scenery, it's going to be an authentic, organic thing, whereas if you look at a picture of it, it will still be great but won't be quite as organic. You won't smell the air, feel the wind, and have that same molecular experience of the real thing. I think that modeling is the same way. It's getting closer and closer, and for all practical purposes it's going to get to where it sounds mainly the same, but it still might be like looking at a picture.
PS: But a lot of times people can't afford to go where the picture was taken.
EJ: Right, right. Nowadays it's hard for them to construct the kind of stuff that they used to because of the man-hours and the price.
PS: It's seems like the "bang-for-the-buck" on the modeling stuff is just fabulous.
EJ: Right, and it's getting better all the time.
PS: Which speakers do you prefer to match up with your 50 watt plexis? Celestions?
PS: Is there a model number or something?
EJ: Just the old Celestions. I'm working with Celestion right now to design a signature speaker that will be a more authentic version of the original speakers. For instance, the reissue 25 watt and reissue 30 watt Celestion is not really as detailed an authentic reproduction of the originals as it could be. There's a difference in the voice coil. They've been sending me some prototypes that are more of an authentic reproduction and what's really exciting is that they really do sound like the old speakers, so that's really nice. I'm not sure if and when they're going to mass-produce them, but we've been fooling around and experimenting with them.
PS: Great! Then you'll have a ready source of speakers!
EJ: Yeah! The only thing is that in the new speakers, the cones that they make are just not the same, so even if you have old speakers you still have to get them re-coned or it's not going to be quite the same, so if you can get a new speaker that's really made faithfully like the old ones in every way...the new reissues are close but there are a couple of things about them that aren't quite the same which really make a difference.
PS: When dealing with Marshalls on a higher gain setting I notice a dramatic different in the sustain produced by Fenders and Gibsons. One thing I've noticed about your performances is that between guitars you rarely lose that wonderful sustain that only Gibsons have ever provided for me. Is there some special trick or possibly some other insights you have into achieving this from a Strat? As far as I know there isn't a source of compression in your setup.
EJ: No, if he's talking about the lead stuff, it's turning the gain up more and the tone controls down more to where the tone controls kind of ride more flat, a flatter EQ, and then I turn it up for the gain. That way it has a more concise type of EQ spectrum, but then it's pushed harder because the gain's up. It's really just a gain thing with the Strat. If you turn it up far enough, it will mimic a Gibson, but it's all a trade-off. With a Strat you've got the deal with the problems of the single coil pickups, it's really noisy with a lot of hum. It's really a trade-off. You can change the pickups and get rid of the hum, and that's great but you paid a price for the tone. It's a negotiation.
PS: Have you ever utilized the Alexander Technique (the prevention of repetitive stress for musicians) in the art of playing your guitars or piano?
EJ: No, I haven't.
PS: You make everything look so easy, and I know that it's because you put in the years of sweat and toil to get there, however, is anything ever difficult for you? If so, what is it? [laughter]
EJ: It's all really difficult. The more you stay intimately involved, rehearsing and practicing, the easier it's accessible underneath your fingertips. It just requires keeping a closer dialogue with your rehearsal, and playing music, so you have to kind of prioritize your life to avail yourself the opportunity to have a few hours every day at least to do that -- otherwise you get more on the outside of the periphery and you have to chip away to get to the inside and that can be where all the strain and gravity comes from. It can be a little more flowing and a little easier if you just stay more in contact.
PS: From a professional standpoint: Recording and releasing "Souvenir" on your own label must give one such freedom. Can you tell me what were some of the other benefits?
EJ: Initiating the release over the internet was a good thing, and it's obviously going to be a blueprint for the future. And it was good therapy for me just to go and find some work tapes, and say "This has got vibe". I think if I'd used the decision-making process that I used one or two years ago, or farther back than that, I would have not released that record thinking 'that G-string on that guitar is a centimeter off' or maybe not quite in tune, or whatever. I just think that it was a therapeutic release for me personally, because I thought 'There's a vibe here and a feeling that's evoked that I can get, so let's practice that. Let's flex that muscle of letting go instead of flexing the muscles of sawing bee-bees . I've turned into the Charles Atlas of sawing bee-bees . You get good at what you practice.
PS: Did it change the record?
EJ: Yeah. I'm actually getting feedback from some people who like it better than some of my other releases. I think there are certain things about that record. I mean, it's no Sgt. Pepper or anything, but there's a certain vibe to it and to some of the translations.
PS: Do you see future releases along these lines?
PS: Do you have a favorite song off of "Souvenir"?
EJ: I like "Get to Go". I think I like "Get to Go" because it's fresh, it's a little different. I enjoyed playing with Tommy and Kyle on it and the guitar playing on it is just a little bit different than what I would normally do. I just kind of approached it a little differently and hence I had a little bit different outcome. When listening to the playback, I thought "This isn't just me going into my stock lead thing". Other than that, just bits and pieces here and there. Several questions and answers lost due to recording equipment failure.
EJ: Yeah, I think the thing that happens sometimes is that you get a CD and there's one or two songs that are good on it, or that you enjoy. The idea of getting a CD where the whole thing is something you enjoy and want to have is becoming less and less. If the record industry makes CDs when they're so under pressure to get that one song that's going to be a hit and heck with it. Just fill it in with everything else and let's just get it out. So in a way, you're setting yourself up for owning a little bit of the responsibility for the outcome. What comes from that is that people may not be that interested in buying the CD, they're just going to want to get the one song. It's very rare that you'll get a CD where you enjoy every song.
PS: We could simply opt to buy singles.
EJ: Maybe the whole idea of buying a CD is a hassle. Nowadays you can just download it, and have it on a little player.
Regretfully, the last of the interview is missing. If your question was not answered, please include it when we call for questions for the next interview.
Our thanks go to Paula Beard for transcribing the interview.
Best wishes to all,