Eric Johnson

The perks of perfectionism

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

As far as instruments go, guitars—and those who play them—get a lot of attention. The reasons for this are as obvious as they are understandable. Guitar players are typically front and center onstage, and within the traditional band structure, they play the instrument that makes all the fancy noise. Add some pedals and effects, and the noise gets even fancier.

Guitarists also have developed a reputation for being anywhere from particular to downright persnickety. Obviously, this is an overbroad generalization that does not apply to every person who picks up a guitar, but the stereotype has proven persistent across eras and genres of music.

Take, for instance, Eric Johnson. The truly important things to know about him are: 1. He’s a legendary guitarist who is has been mentioned in the same breath as musicians as varied as Jimi Hendrix and Ali Farka Toure—and just about every shredder in between and beyond. 2. He made a largely instrumental guitar album in 1990, Ah Via Musicom, that went platinum, won him a Grammy and stayed on the Billboard charts for more than a year. 3. Fender has designed a series of signature Stratocasters to his exacting specs, and he prefers to keep his personal guitar collection lean and well-edited. 4. His career spans four decades, and his oft-imitated style has now passed through multiple generations of musicians who have come after him. 5. He’s a multi-genre multi-instrumentalist who has an enviable knack of making intricate arrangements and challenging compositions appear effortless.

However, you don’t have to scratch that surface very deep before an alternate narrative emerges, one in which the word “perfectionism” is used often, and in such a way that it becomes clear that trait has been more curse than blessing at times. As mentioned above, at the very least, Johnson has earned a reputation for being particular, although I’m guessing some might put him in the persnickety category.

And then there’s the story about the batteries.

Before we get to the batteries themselves, it’s probably pertinent to note that, like many great guitar players, Johnson is always searching for what he considers perfect tone, and he uses his guitar less as a vehicle for solos and more as a means to create a fully formed ensemble piece with a single instrument. To achieve this, he uses a pedal board.

Here’s where the batteries enter the story and truth becomes legend.

The true part of the tale is that Johnson always uses Duracell batteries because they’re reliable, readily available and his pedals always sound the same if he always uses the same batteries, a thing he discovered when he put a higher-voltage battery into a pedal and it didn’t sound quite right to his ear. Seems simple enough. Reasonable, even.

However, lore would have it that Johnson is obsessed with batteries, notices even the slightest differences between them, knows exactly what each individual brand of battery sounds like, sleeps on a pillow stuffed with dead Duracells and always carries a pair of nine-volts in one pocket and a slingshot in another to defend himself in case he’s ever attacked.

It’s possible I exaggerated slightly, but I think you get the gist.

While his status as a battery fanatic has not been honestly earned, Johnson has spoken frankly as he’s gotten older about his reputation for perfectionism, acknowledging that it has, at times held him back or limited him, and has certainly contributed to some of the long periods between releases of his studio albums.

But one of the things that keeps Johnson an exciting and still-relevant musician for more than four decades is that he remains dynamic, and his relationship to his guitar and his own music remains ever-evolving. In recent years, a couple of developments have had him reconsidering his relationship with perfection in ways that have been beneficial for his continued growth—and for his fans old and new.

One of those was his revisiting of the album that changed it all, Ah Via Musicom. Tracks from the album have always been part of Johnson’s set—in particular, “Cliffs of Dover,” the song that got him the Grammy—but a few years ago, he began to play the record in its entirety while on tour. Doing so brought to light how his style has changed since then, and caused him to pick back up methods and techniques from the past, while imbuing the familiar songs with the skill and wisdom that have come from the intervening years. As well, Johnson—formerly devoted to the electric guitar—began to bond with the acoustic guitar in a big way, and has now recorded two albums of his brand of acoustic shreddery.

Both circumstances caused a loosening of grip on his long-held perfectionism, and Johnson now sees the artistry in leaving (some) things be and allowing for (a little) roughness around the edges.

No matter where’s he’s at in his musical journey, Johnson remains a consummate performer, and each of his tours has a purpose beyond just taking a broad wander through his discography. When he comes to Mount Vernon for a Thurs., Jan. 9 concert at the Lincoln Theatre, he’ll bring “Classics: Past and Present” to town. The show will feature songs from his most recent acoustic album, EJ Vol. II, as well as a carefully chosen list of compositions from key points in his career. As is his custom, he will tiptoe nimbly through different genres, create a whole world of music with one guitar, and make it all appear easy. Perfectionism definitely has its perks.

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