click to enlarge Acclaimed guitarist Eric Johnson plays at ACM@UCO
Photograph by Max Crace ©2012
Eric Johnson, acclaimed musician photographed by Max Crace.

Oklahoma City fans going to Eric Johnson’s 8 p.m. concert on Sunday should expect to see one of the world’s premiere contemporary guitar talents.

Johnson nabbed a 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance on “Cliffs of Dover,” a fast and gorgeously unconventional composition from his acclaimed 1990 release Ah Via Musicom. His work as a guitarist has been renowned through his four-decade career.

He has experimented with sounds as diverse as electric rock, classical and country and is widely regarded as a studio perfectionist, a label he embraces.

Some might be surprised by Johnson’s reserved demeanor. He was thoughtful and soft-spoken during a recent Oklahoma Gazette phone interview. The Austin-born guitarist and singer-songwriter’s stop at [email protected] Performance Lab, 329 E. Sheridan Ave., is part of a small-scale, two-week electric tour.

“It’s a lot of new music,” Johnson said. “I’m just getting the ball rolling on some electric stuff as well.”

This show might be one of the last opportunities to see Johnson perform his familiar amplified sound for a while. He begins touring in October to support his new album, EJ, an all-acoustic and piano project set for release that month.

People regularly compliment Johnson’s ability, and he said there is no one skill he most excels at. What does set him apart from is his inner curiosity, which compels him to take on new challenges. He said it’s a compulsion that can sometimes distract him from creative progress. It’s also what guides him to record projects like EJ.

“Anything I do, there’s tons of people who can do it better than me,” he said. “Maybe my strength is that I just kind of dabble in a bunch of different styles and instruments because I just like the spirit of it all.”

Problematic perfection

Johnson’s most recent studio release is Eclectic, a 2014 collaborative effort with Mike Stern, also a Grammy-nominated guitarist. It was completed in three weeks under the premise of it being, as Johnson put it, a “performance-type record.”

When revisiting Eclectic, he said he noticed a lot of little quirks but those are part of its appeal. He had an epiphany while crafting the project with Stern. For years, he was seduced by technology and studio perfection, but he realized the same organic process could be applied to his work in other genres, including his pop and folk work.

A song can sound too perfect.

“The way modern society is, the onslaught and presence of technology and how much of a grip it has on all of us, I think it’s becoming more and more attractive to just hear people get together and make art,” he said.

One music

Johnson spent some time at the University of Texas after graduating high school, but his formal education was sidetracked by a number of life opportunities, including a family trip to Africa. Even as a young man, he displayed such promising ability that his music career quickly took precedence.

School and formal music training is important, Johnson said, but not as important as developing an ear for knowing why things harmonically sound like they do.

“If you can also learn that in school, that’s fine,” he said. “That’s just another thread of continuity that will connect you to other people and different types of music very readily and really easily.”

A lot of what he learned came from life on the road and working as a professional performer. The most important thing he picked up was an appreciation for musicianship, regardless of aesthetic differences. He dabbles in many genres partly because his influences are so varied.

His earliest obsessions included Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Jerry Reed. He also praised the songwriting ability of The Carpenters’ Richard Carpenter in the same sentence as he did the genius of contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

Any music played well, he said, no matter what style, has the same creative life force behind it. Duke Ellington, yet another influence, is commonly associated with the quote, “There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.”

“When I realized that, it was an awakening and it was a freedom because I didn’t have to go through life boxed into my own mind,” Johnson said.

Print headline: Guitarist Eric Johnson brings four decades of organic musicianship to [email protected] Performance Lab.

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