In Service of the Song

Guitar hero Eric Johnson says he's starting to pick up the pace

In case you were wondering, Eric Johnson never has played the video game Guitar Hero.

This, despite the fact that Johnson is considered by just about anyone in the know to be a genuine guitar hero--and the fact that his 1990 instrumental hit, "Cliffs of Dover," a canny meld of rock, classical and Celtic music, is featured in the near-ubiquitous Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

The born-and-raised Texan almost scoffs at the idea of guitar heroism.

"The 'guitar hero' thing now is more like a flair or attitude thing. I don't know if it is as much (of a) tribute to the artistry of what the great players can do anymore, as it is a worship of the appliance," said Johnson, 54, in a recent phone interview from his home in Austin.

"I think that over the decades, the reverence thing has gone through a lot of metamorphoses. (The guitar) was originally the instrument that took the place of the saxophone," he said.

Johnson argued that the guitar supplanted the sax to become the focus of maverick players who wanted test the boundaries of sound and skill.

"It was all about youth culture, and the wildness and adventurism in the music that came with that. ... I think (guitar worship) came about because people were pushing the limits of the instrument technically, but the sad offshoot began where it became for some people all about the technique."

No one has ever accused Johnson of lacking technique. He's been playing blues, rock, jazz, R&B, world music and country in a professional capacity--and attracting praise for it--since he was 12.

But Johnson, also a proficient singer and pianist, said technique must always be in service of the song.

"There's no question about it: You have to have something interesting to play, a good song, you know? When it's not a solid composition, you can certainly appreciate really amazing playing, but it's just not interesting."

A former session musician for the likes of Cat Stevens and Christopher Cross, Johnson began getting widespread notice for his playing in the early 1980s; he released his general-release debut, Tones, in 1986, and has been revered as a bandleader ever since. (His first record, Seven Worlds, was recorded in the mid-1970s, but due to contractual complications, it was not released until 1998.)

Frustrating to some listeners, though, has been the infrequent appearance of Johnson's studio albums. He has only released four in the last 22 years. His most recent studio set is the lovely and diverse Bloom. Released in 2005, Bloom followed its predecessor, Venus Isle, by nine years.

Johnson has a few live albums to his credit as well, including a much-acclaimed outing with the guitar supergroup G3, which also included Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and another credited to his blues-rock side project, Alien Love Child.

His most recent release is the live DVD Anaheim, which came out in November 2008, and which he is supporting on the current tour.

But Johnson's famously slow studio-album output is going to pick up. He was proud to note that he has almost finished his latest CD, with only overdubs and mixing waiting for completion. He is evaluating record-label deals and hopes to see the new disc in stores perhaps as soon as late summer, he said.

"I'm getting older, and I didn't want it to be that I would only make one or two more albums in my life, which is how it might have been if I didn't pick up the pace."

Although maintaining a busy touring schedule has slowed his output, Johnson also cited a "debilitating" perfectionism that caused him to write, rewrite and re-record songs on some of his albums "over and over and over and over."

"When you get into that headspace, you allow it to draw you out until you lose track of what you are trying to do ultimately. ... I was getting stuck in this thing of micromanaging every note and tone on my records. I'm still overly careful about everything, but not as much as I used to be. I hope."

Although Johnson said he would never compromise the quality of his records, he is learning how to be more spontaneous.

"Speaking really candidly, with some of the music I've done in the past, maybe it was lacking some joy and fun, because I was on the 80th take or whatever. There's an ephemeral vibe thing going on, where there has to be that magic, too, and I think I am rediscovering that."