By MIKE CHAIKEN
When Eric Johnson first picked up the electric guitar as a youth, the instrument was still a relatively new addition to the musical canon.
There was something new and fresh about the instrument, said Johnson, who is bringing his considerable skill on the electric guitar to Hartford June 1.
Johnson said the electric guitar was a bit of an outlaw among instruments.
Johnson found himself captivated by electric guitarists like Wes Montgomery. But, more importantly, Jimi Hendrix drew his attention and sparked something inside Johnson.
“He was busting the envelope,” said Johnson. Prior to Hendrix, pop and rock music were about the song. Groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were writing songs that weren’t structured much differently than the works of American songbook legends like Irving Berlin. And the electric guitar was always confined within that structured context.
All of sudden, with Hendrix, the lead guitar took its turn in the spotlight. He turned things on their head, explained Johnson.
In addition to his ability to break ground in popular music, Johnson was drawn to the great guitar playing of Hendrix. He was attracted to the tone Hendrix was able get from his guitar. Hendrix also explored fuzz and feedback, which now are pretty standard, but at the time he grabbed the public’s attention because that kind of distortion was a bolt from the blue. “It was something you never heard before,” said Johnson.
When you heard Hendrix play in those early days, said Johnson, people would ask, “Is that a guitar? How crazy.”
But as wild as Hendrix’s guitar playing got, said Johnson, it was always presented in the context of great music.
Johnson has followed in Hendrix’s footsteps by playing a style of electric guitar that is full of pyrotechnics and musical acrobatics.
But Johnson also is adept at the acoustic guitar, recording albums focusing on that dimension of the six string.
For Johnson, one of the most attractive dimensions of an acoustic is “just the immediacy of the emotion.”
“It just has a vibe,” said Johnson, who counts Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Michael Hedges, and Merle Travis as some of his favorite acoustic guitarists.
Acoustic or electric, if Johnson had to select his personal favorite guitarists, he said he had to turn to two former members of seminal British rockers The Yardbirds—Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.
“Jeff Beck was amazing,” said Johnson. “The fact he got the sounds out of the guitar he did (at that time) was amazing to me.”
Beck, like Hendrix, was pushing the envelope of what a guitar could sound like.
The guitar sound Beck created on The Yardbirds’ “The Nazz Are Blue” was “just awesome,” said Johnson.
Johnson was most enamored with Clapton’s tenure with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Johnson said he loves Clapton’s finesse, articulation, fretting, and picking during his time with Mayall. Clapton’s contribution to Cream’s “Fresh Cream” also was a pinnacle for the axeman’s career, said Johnson.
When Johnson comes to Connecticut with his electric guitar show, fans should expect four to five classic tunes that tend to be favorites. Although the focus is on plugging in, Johnson said he also intends to demonstrate his facility on the acoustic guitar for a few songs. He also will play a few new tracks that he intends for an upcoming album.
And what of that new album?
Songs may be written but Johnson said no date has been set for a release. First, he said, he has to get into the studio. And that won’t be happening till he’s finish touring.
Eric Johnson comes to the Infinity Music Hall, 32 Front St., Hartford on Thursday, June 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $39 to $64. For more information, go to InfinityHall.com or EricJohnson.com