Eric Johnson: #1 Guitar Hero

By Andrew Catania

Eric Johnson began playing guitar at the age of 11. He played with his first touring band in 1968, a psychedelic group called Mariani. The band shared the bill with ZZ Top and Bloodrock in their home state of Texas. Johnson was trained in classical music but was heavily influenced by the guitar styles of Jimi Hendrix and hard rock rhythms of Led Zeppelin. In 1974, he joined a rock/jazz fusion group called The Electromagnets. The Magnets shared the stage with bands like Kiss and Mahogany Rush.

 Eric Johnson recorded Seven Worlds his first solo album after the band’s break up. Johnson later became a highly sought session guitarist working with legendary artists Cat Stevens, Carole King, and Christopher Cross to name a few. In 1986, his critically acclaimed album Tones landed him on the front cover of Guitar Player Magazine. The cover story about Johnson heightened his credentials in the music world and brought the virtuoso critical praise. The album’s track “Zap” was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

 It was in 1990 that Eric Johnson broke out of cult hero status among simply guitar cognoscenti and nabbed those two universally recognized standards of success in popular music: Eric sold over 1,000,000 copies of his Ah Via Musicom album and won a Grammy Award for 1991. Cliffs of Dover currently has over 9 million views on YouTube.

 For the first twenty-five years of his solo career, Eric Johnson was famous (or notorious) for disappearing into the recording studio for years at a time, but since his albums Bloom in 2005 and Up Close five years later, he’s been recording on a more continual basis.

 In 1996, Johnson joined Joe Satriani and Steve Vai for the G3 Tour. And even back then, you wondered just what Johnson was doing on the tour with the hard-rocking Vai and Satriani, because he’s always been a calm, kind of introverted guitar hero, coaxing mellow-toned beauty from a Fender Stratocaster. Usually, shredder types have those funny-shaped instruments, wild hair, 437 pedals and a grimace for every note. Johnson stands and plays, with a sound that calls upon blues, pop, even veering toward (shudder!) jazz. It’s usually instrumental, for the same reason that operatic tenor Placido Domingo doesn’t play piano at his concerts: that isn’t why you paid your money. The fans want to hear Johnson play his guitar, which is what he does. The surprise here is that Johnson does it in service of the music. Now, we won’t lie and tell you that there won’t be solos galore. He is a guitar hero, after all, so the mostly male audience, squinting as they try to figure out some complicated run-up and down the neck, will be getting served by a genius.

 Johnson is best known for playing his stock Fender Stratocasters Signature Series and Gibson ES-335 electric guitars through a triple amp setup that consists of Fender, Dumble, and Marshall amplifiers. Johnson has also played other guitar brands such as Robin, Rickenbacker, Jackson and a Charvel, which appears on the cover of the Ah Via Musicom album. In 2001, Johnson added a Gibson Custom Shop ’59 Les Paul Reissue to his guitars of choice.

Lots of guitar players are instrumental geniuses, but — hero worshippers are going to quibble here — Johnson performs songs, that he actually sings. He’s a smooth, more-than-passable vocalist, who is also unafraid to play unplugged. The acoustic guitar is daunting, in that it offers no place to hide, being usually devoid of pedals, effects and other things that can serve to make a plugged-in guitarist seem even more dynamic and virtuosic.

 Johnson will pull up a chair, hunker down and get to pickin’. It’s then you understand that he’s more than one of those guitar hero dudes. He is that, and most assuredly, as the notes often come in a dense blizzard. But he rarely crosses the line into silliness, even when he performs extended versions of his signature, Grammy-winning “Cliffs of Dover.” And he offers one of the most important signs that he’s a musician, not just a guitar hero, in that he performs the music of other players (he’s fond of Jimi Hendrix) as interpretations rather than covers. It’s cool to watch, and hardly ever boring, which is something that music lovers would have a difficult time saying about most guitar hero shows.

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Fender Custom Shop’s Dale Wilson: Maintaining the Legacy

By Brad Mahon

Fender guitars enjoy a well-deserved, celebrated place in the story of the amplified instrument. Started in 1946 as the Fender Electric Instrument Company, the legendary creator Leo Fender gave us landmark designs such as the 1950 Broadcaster (later to become the 1951 Telecaster) as well as the 1954 Stratocaster—models that have been held by popular music’s greatest players, heard on some of music’s most memorable and influential recordings, and have also resulted in countless competing manufacturer copies and imitations throughout the world. Over the past decades, the enterprise (now the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation) has continued to solidify its importance among professionals, amateurs, and aficionados alike including the creation of the Fender Custom Shop. Opening in 1987, the Fender Custom Shop targets guitarists seeking to design their own specialized, idealized instrument; at the Custom Shop, there are no limits—no boundaries. Guitar Connoisseur caught up with the Fender’s Dale Wilson, a luthier with a growing reputation as an A-list Custom Shop builder.

Guitar Connoisseur: You’ve mentioned that you always wanted to be a guitar builder rather than a rock star; so while other kids had posters of Hendrix and Van Halen did you have posters of Les Paul and Leo Fender on your bedroom walls? Please take us back; who were your heroes?

Dale Wilson: I admire the artists’ guitars as much as the artists themselves. The guitars became as much a part of the music as the artists who created the music, and I knew of Les Paul and Leo Fender—they were icons and heroes of mine—but the guitars were as much heroes to me as the artists. Hendrix, Van Halen, Satriani—the guitars have become part of their identities. I guess that’s why Fender has the Tribute Series. I can remember thumbing through magazines like yours and admiring guitar after guitar and wanting to be the builder of that guitar.

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GC: You’ve had other gigs—you worked for Rickenbacker, among others—which roads led you to Scottsdale, Arizona/Corona, California? Tell us how you came to find yourself working for Fender?

DW: When I was working for Dobro before they moved to Nashville, I had my eye on Fender and I applied, but they weren’t hiring at that time. So I applied for Rickenbacker and got a job there. Then in 2003 a friend of mine at Fender told me they were hiring, hooked me up with someone there and I got the gig. My experiences at the other companies were fantastic, but Fender has always made my favorite guitars and been the place I wanted to end up working.

GC: Let’s talk about your work at Fender for a moment: you’ve been with the company since 2003, joined their Custom Shop in 2005, and were promoted to “Master Builder” in 2011; as you look at your contributions, what are you most proud of? Can you list off some career highlights thus far?

DW: I always strive to make each guitar better than the last, even in the most rudimentary tasks. One of my favorites is the Benzietan Telecaster—hand painted by Frank Germano. I think that guitar has a classiness to it. The ‘52 telecaster with the Bigsby B16 tremolo too, I tried to show how even though Fender guitars age, they maintain their beauty. I think there’s a lot of charm and beauty in the guitars of the 50s and 60s—sometimes the more worn they are the better. I have many favorites though. A lot of times a customer’s dream guitar will become a favorite guitar of mine.  Working on artist guitars and customer guitars have really been the highlights of my career so far.

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 GC: Tell us about the Resophonic Thinline Telecaster; how long had this been on your brain? How did the concept come to you? Are you pleased with the physical result?

DW: That guitar had been on my brain since working at Dobro. We had made a guitar called the Resoelectric and I always wanted to apply that to a Thinline Telecaster. I was very pleased with the result as far as the way it sounded and the way it looked.

GC: Let’s talk about the Fender legacy: you work for an iconic builder; do you feel an obligation to maintain the storied history of the company?

DW: I guess I’ve always felt a responsibility to live up to the name of Fender. Even though it’s a work-horse style of guitar, I’ve always seen a class in it. So yes, I feel a huge obligation to help continue the legacy of the company.

GC: Here’s a slippery question: how do you balance working for a corporation like Fender—a company that will obviously have its own agenda—with your own artistic desires? Are there ever conflicting paths when comparing the desires of the Big Machine with the desires of Dale Wilson?

DW: The Custom Shop is really its own entity, and within the shop we are given the leniency to be able to pursue our artistic desires. The desire of any company is to make a profit, and the Custom Shop is profitable, so we both achieve our desires.

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GC: You once said: “I dreamed of building the ultimate guitar;” have you? What is the ultimate guitar? What are you searching for?

DW: The dream of building the ultimate guitar was a childhood thing. It sums up the dream I had of being a builder rather than a rock star. If I say that I have built the ultimate guitar, then I’m not giving myself any room for growth, and I’m resting on my laurels. If I say that I haven’t, I always give myself room to improve. I never want to rule out any ways of making a guitar or striving for the ultimate. I will never hit the perfect guitar, because I want the perfect guitar to always be on the horizon.

GC: Looking at the art of guitar building (big picture), what innovations are you seeing on the scene that excites you these days? Are there other builders you admire?

DW: Yeah, I admire all of the builders I work with, all for different reasons. Each builder has a really different style from the next.

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GC: What’s next for Dale Wilson? Do you have any short term projects you can discuss? Are there any long term goals/ideas?

DW: Like I said, I’m always looking for new ways to build and improve. Most of my long-term projects go towards the NAMM show in January and the Messe show in March.  Most of my short-term projects right now have to do with building customers’ dream guitars.

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