Guitarist Eric Johnson still recalls viewing Monterey Pop (the documentary of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival) as a child and watching in awe as Jimi Hendrix set his Stratocaster ablaze during his performance of “Wild Thing.” “I mean, that was the first time I’d ever seen him in footage,” Johnson recently recalled in his mellow Texas drawl. “And I was just like, ‘Oh, my God!’” This Thursday, Johnson will join Joe Satriani, Doyle Bramhall II, Hendrix band mate Billy Cox, and many others as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour, a traveling tribute to the rock legend that kicks off at S.B.’s Arlington Theatre.
While adding his own touches of jazz and fusion, Johnson’s music echoes Hendrix’s technique, flamboyance, and focus on songwriting. He recently finished recording his latest studio album, which will feature guest vocals by Steve Miller and Johnny Lang and guitar work by slide monster Sonny Landreth. Aspiring shredders still cut their teeth on Johnson’s classic pieces like “Desert Rose” and “Cliffs of Dover,” the latter of which has been featured on the video game Guitar Hero. He is honored by the nod, but has yet to play the faux guitar, joking, “I’m too busy trying to figure out how to play the real one.” Below are some of the highlights from my interview with the six-string master.
Of the three Hendrix studio albums, which had the biggest effect on you? Wow, that’d be a tough question, because all three of them really did. I know that I listened to Electric Ladyland just nonstop for two years. The breadth of that record is so beautiful, especially when you think about the time, 1968. It’s just amazing. But Axis [Bold as Love] is great as far as the songwriting and lyrics. It was a beautiful, lyrical record. And, of course, Are You Experienced just came from left field. I mean, when that came out, I didn’t even know if it was guitar that I was hearing at first. It sounded so different from everybody else.
People have been doing Hendrix covers for so many years. Is it still possible to find fresh angles on his music? I think so. The strongest reason is because he was a great songwriter. He wrote really great songs with really great lyrics and nice melodies. It just so happened he was a brilliant, innovative guitarist. But I think what makes him stand the test of time for many generations is the fact that he wrote great songs, great music, and great melody. It’s music that people can take in their heart and soul and be moved by it, or connect with it, or feel it and enjoy it. And that’s going to speak a lot louder than what he did on the guitar.
Do you think games like Guitar Hero have the potential to get people interested in that kind of guitar music? I don’t know. I think it’s really going to boil down to the song and the melody. If there’s something there that people interpret as having substance, then everything else that comes along with it is okay. If you don’t have the melody—if you don’t have a song—it’s an exercise in playing, or whatever, and that’s never going to have the same kind of interest.
I’ve noticed some of your own newer material has a slightly grittier, bluesier edge. Was that a conscious decision? I think what is a conscious decision is to try to be as organic as you can and trying to maintain more of that musicality when it goes on a record, rather than having it opaque with all this other studio stuff that I’ve done in the past, where I’ll get too many parts or too much polish to where it washes out some of that energy.
Eric Johnson joins Joe Satriani, Brad Whitford, Jonny Lang, Ernie Isley, and others for Experience Hendrix this Thursday, March 4 at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and info, call 963-4408 or visit thearlingtontheatre.com.