Eric Johnson is one of America’s great guitar players. A natural guitarists of sorts, he has been touring since his late teen years in the ’70s and has worked with many great acts from a variety of genres — including Rock, Folk, Alt Country and Jazz — over that time. His Grammy Award-winning pedigree makes him still a very in-demand session musician and his own new takes on classic songs has made him a favorite on the festival circuit.
Johnson brings his unique stylings to the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati on Tuesday night. (Find tickets/more info here.) This is a can’t-miss show, for guitar fans in particular.
CityBeat: Do you have a favorite guitar that you play?
Eric Johnson: Yes, I have an old Fender Stratocaster that I play a whole lot. It’s probably my favorite guitar.
CB: Is it always with you?
EJ: It is pretty much. Sometimes I’ll tour without it and use other stuff. Also I worked with Fender and designed my own signature guitar so I use that a lot too.
CB: What’s the longest you have ever gone without playing guitar?
EJ: I don’t know, maybe a couple weeks.
CB: What do you think the best guitar solo of all time?
EJ: That would be really tough to say. Probably something musical and interesting to listen to over and over. Maybe something by Jimi Hendrix like “May This Be Love.” I wouldn’t say it’s the best guitar solo ever, but it comes to mind as a really wonderful solo.
CB: Johnny Winter, your fellow Texan, just passed away. Do you have any thoughts about him or fond memories?
EJ: I got to meet him when I was a teenager and he was always really nice and complimentary to me. I was really surprised to hear that he had passed away because I had heard that he was doing a lot better and (was) healthy and on the upswing. It came as a sad surprise.
CB: I had just seen him at JazzFest in New Orleans in May. He played great and looked healthy. I was shocked as well.
EJ: Yeah I didn’t expect it at all because he was doing so well.
CB: Is there a group of people or person that was most influential to you or helpful to you during your early career days?
EJ: Well, when I started in my very early career, Johnny Winter said some nice things about me and that helped me a lot. Steve Morse from the Dixie Dregs helped me out. Christopher Cross kind of helped get things going, and getting to play with Carole King and Cat Stevens — that was a real and official help to me.
CB: It’s so different now for bands trying to make it. Do you have any thoughts on if it’s easier or tougher now for bands that want to play music?
EJ: I think it’s a lot tougher. People are reluctant to pay for music and there are so many bands out now. With the use of the internet and YouTube, anybody can be creative, which is good in a way. If you want to have a career, you have to have something pretty dynamic and unique that is captivating to people.
CB: Last time I saw you perform was on the Experience Hendrix Tour. I have seen that show a couple times. What was the highlight of the tour for you?
EJ: Different ones. I remember the first ones I did, it was playing with Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Then Mitch passed away. Getting to hang out with Billy Cox is really a great thing. I liked Doyle Bramhall’s set, and getting to play with all those musicians is a treat.
CB: What do you do with your down time when you are out on the road?
EJ: I just chill out or practice or take hikes and explore the city. I hang out with friends or family if they happen to be in the town I am in.
CB: Do you have any Cincinnati stories from the past when you have played here?
EJ: I have always enjoyed playing there. I have a couple close friends from Ohio. I have gone and hung out around the rivers and stuff. Cincinnati has some really great music shops there as well.
CB: What can fans expect from your show here at the Taft?
EJ: We are doing a couple re-workings of tunes I like to play. We change them up so much they are kind of their own deal. I have this live record that just came out, Live in Europe, and I will do some of those songs, but I will do some new tunes and some re-workings of old tunes and tunes by other people. It will kind of be a cross-section of different stuff.
CB: Are you constantly working on new music or do you take breaks?
EJ: I try to constantly work on it, some kind of thing, whether collaboration with somebody else or playing on somebody else’s recording or something on my own.
CB: I know you started out doing a lot of sessions early in your career. Do you do any sessions now or work with any other artists?
EJ: Yeah, pretty much all the time. I do one a month at least.
CB: Are there any current bands that you would like to collaborate with or work with from a live music standpoint?
EJ: I’ll tell you a lot of different things I like. I dig that band Explosions in the Sky. I like Grizzly Bear. I think they are great. Tallest Man on Earth is a great Folk singer as well.