This is a feature from the Fall 2009 issue of Guitar Aficionado.
AUSTIN POWER: Legendary Texan guitarist Eric Johnson invites Guitar Aficionado into his studio for a tour of his totally toneful guitar collection.
By Tom Beaujour | Photos by Max Crace
Eric Johnson is sitting in the kitchen/lounge of his new studio, Saucer Sound, considering the question just posed to him—specifically, why he chose to build his own recording studio. “Ever since I was a kid and discovered that Jimi Hendrix had a studio called Electric Ladyland, I’ve dreamed of having my own place,” he says. The guitarist’s dream has now become a fully operational facility, situated in the hills just west of downtown Austin.
It’s here that Johnson recorded his soon-to-be-released new album, the provisionally titled Up Close. Judging by the rough mixes for the lively blues “Vortexan” and a sweet ballad with the working title “Arithmetic,” the guitarist is comfortable enough in his new digs to take more musical chances and elicit more real emotion from his instrument than ever before. Johnson says, “I think that a lot of my songs had this potential that they didn’t quite ever realize because they were being stifled by my being too cerebral about it. Now I’m trying to play the stuff live and give it more of an organic energy. I’ve listened back to a few of my records and realized that they’re not really inviting to listen to. It’s more like you observe them rather than feel them.”
Johnson remains best known for “Cliffs of Dover,” a track from the 1990 album Ah Via Musicom, that earned him a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance and established his legend as a painstakingly meticulous and tone-conscious guitarist. But if Johnson’s new studio has freed him from an overly analytical approach to his craft, his newfound desire to rely more on sense than science is also demonstrated in the way that he chose to design and fine-tune Saucer’s large, linoleum-tiled live room.
“We definitely tried to create a specific vibe here,” Johnson says. To do so, he took a cue from Bill Putnam, “the father of modern recording” who in the Fifties created much of the equipment and established construction standards that defined studio technology and design for the post-War recording industry. Johnson says, “Putnam designed a lot of old rooms, like Ocean Way in Los Angeles, where the Beach Boys always used to record, and that facility had floors like this. And when he was fine-tuning a room, Putnam would just come in and use his ears and instincts, which is what we tried to do too. I mean, the acoustic treatment at Carnegie Hall was done that way 150 years ago. I think eventually they redid it the ‘correct’ way and they didn’t like it as much.”
Johnson certainly seems at ease when ensconced in Saucer, a refuge from the world’s distractions. There he is surrounded by his favorite amplifiers (a stunning array of late-Sixties Marshalls and blackface Fender combos) as well as his collection of beloved vintage guitars and several examples of both his maple- and rosewood-necked Fender signature Stratocasters.
Of late, Johnson has thinned his collection, in part to cover the expense of building the new studio but also because he feels that, at this point in his life and career, he has neither the time nor inclination to be encumbered by superfluous possessions. “I’ve gotten rid of a lot,” he says. “I just think that I’m not as interested in having a bunch of stuff I don’t use anymore. Any guitar that I keep is like a transparent vehicle that’ll just take me where I want to go and make music for me.”
And these days, making music, not chasing an elusive perfect sound, is Johnson’s top priority. In the two decades following Musicom’s release, he has completed studio recordings at a glacial pace and now seems intent on making up for lost time. Johnson notes, “I’m going to be 55 in a few months. At a certain point, you have to sit and be really honest with yourself and say, You know, the only person who’s keeping me from realizing these dreams is myself. We can become so diffused in the world that it’s essential to get clear and focused on what we really want, because then we have a better opportunity to be expedient or efficient and realize our dream.
“So I asked myself, What is it I wanna do; what is it that I wanna focus on? Because you can’t do it all. So me? I’d like to try to learn to make better music. And for that, I only need a few nice guitars.”