It would be easy for guitarist Eric Johnson to coast on his success. He’s widely accepted as one of the greatest to ever pick up the instrument, has a Grammy for his 1990 crossover hit “Cliffs of Dover,” and even has his own signature line of Fender guitars.
But while Johnson is happy with his success, he’s not necessarily content.
“There’s so much I don’t know,” says Johnson, during a drive from San Diego to Tucson. “And there’s no one person who has figured it all out, definitely not me. You can take any style of music — classical or jazz, rock or pop or anything — show tunes or whatever. You could take deep, talented people that are really pushing the envelope, and there’s always something to learn. It’s like it’s as deep as the sea.”
Johnson says he feels driven to explore new terrain with his music.
“I think you have an opportunity to choose what you want to do,” he says. “You can just be happy with what you do or you can always try to delve deeper and try to find new stuff, because it’s always there. There’s always something to learn.”
Johnson and his band are in the middle of the 55-date Classics — Present and Past tour, which covers his entire career but highlights his upcoming album, EJ Vol II, a companion to 2016’s EJ. While the first of the series was largely an acoustic offering, Johnson says the new record gets back to the electric, full-band sound with which fans are familiar and delves into issues that are close to the musician’s heart.
“It's personal,” says Johnson. “I tried to make a record that had some emotional content to it that was something hopefully people could listen to and feel an impact from.”
The album includes plenty of singing, something Johnson says has become easier over the years. As is the case with many virtuoso musicians, his vocal abilities are often outshined by his playing, but it’s something he says he’s always working on. About half of the show, he says, includes his voice.
“It’s kind of two different worlds, in a way,” says Johnson. “It’s taken me a long time to sing at a decent level, I think, but I’m being overly critical. When I started singing, it was pretty scary, actually. I just feel like recently it’s getting to where it’s pretty decent. I’ve always wanted to sing, but it’s just taken me a while to get into the gist of how to do it better.”
The show also includes Johnson on piano, his first instrument and still an important part of his life as a musician. He plays a number of instruments, but only truly claims two.
“I only play piano and guitar, really,” he says. “I started on piano, so I kind of relate to piano on guitar, as well. There’s a different approach to it. On the piano it’s all out in front of you, all the keys, and you can kind of see it. It’s almost like rolling out a big long sheet of an architectural drawing of a complete building. It’s there for you to look at.”
While Johnson’s tour covers the entirety of his career, he has a special place in his heart for the early 1990s, when he started to have real success. But looking backward on his accomplishments, he says, isn’t everything.
“I guess, career-wise, the important moment is the early ’90s, because that’s when I had the breakout success with ‘Cliffs of Dover,’” he says. “I think, musically, it’s always wherever I am in the present, whatever I’m doing that keeps me connected to that mystery and that magic and the passion of trying to do a better job to create music that’s worth listening to.”
He is, however, cognizant of music’s power to transport the listener back in time to when they first heard a song or bought a cherished album. It’s something Johnson says even happens to Grammy-winning musicians.
“I was just talking about this the other day,” he says. “When I hear the first Crosby, Stills and Nash record, I just totally remember being in high school and listening to that record, day in, day out, and it just totally connects to that time of my life.”
That feeling is a gift Johnson wants to share with his music.
“I’m just trying to reach more of that wavelength where you kind of connect with people with the music, where it’s something they can appreciate or feel, or have an emotional response that hopefully makes them feel better,” says Johnson. “That’s kind of what’s important these days, don’t you think? It’s just something that I like to try to get on board with, whether I succeed or fail. Sometimes I fail, but it’s exciting for me to get on that wavelength.”
Obviously, things aren’t positive all the time. One standout on EJ Vol II is ‘Different Folks,’ a song that confronts the subject of loss head on. In characteristic fashion, Johnson attacks the subject matter with reverence, and an equal amount of hope.
“It’s about friends and loved ones and family that are here, and then not here,” says Johnson. “You never know. There’s no rhyme or reason. Sometimes people don’t stay when they’re young, and some people live to be really old, and you just never know. Life is a gift that we need to appreciate in the moment.”