What do you get when you combine two bona-fide guitar heroes in their respective genres — and then have them go toe-to-toe with each other? You get Eclectic, a new album by blues/jazz/rocker Eric Johnson and jazz master Mike Stern.
Recorded at Johnson’s studio in Austin, Texas, Eclectic— which will be released October 27 — is a tasty collection of songs highlighting the strengths of both guitarists. It features an infectious rhythm section consisting of drummer Anton Fig (The Late Show with David Letterman) and Johnson’s regular bassist, Chris Maresh.
Stern’s body of guitar goodness spans more than four decades. His career includes partnerships with such artists as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius.
Johnson’s playing has often been compared to that of Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. His six-string wizardry earned him a Grammy award in 1992 for his instrumental hit, “Cliffs of Dover,” which came in at Number 17 on Guitar World’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All Time.
Johnson and Stern will support Eclectic with an Eastern U.S. tour beginning in November. You can check out all the dates below.
I recently spoke with both guitarists about their new album. Johnson also gives a bit of advice for properly playing “Cliffs of Dover.”
GUITAR WORLD: How did this collaboration begin?
STERN: I've known Eric for years and always dug his playing. Every time I saw him, I’d tell him that it would be great for us to do something together. Finally, I was doing this record called Big Neighborhood and had the idea of doing something with him.
JOHNSON: We had so much fun working on that record that one day the Blue Note Club in New York called and asked us if we’d like to do a joint gig together. So we put together a band, rehearsed and learned music. We ended up doing a two-week tour out of that and got offered to do a record and a few other tours that are now slated to happen.
How would you describe Eclectic?
JOHNSON: It’s a pretty honest record. We cut most of the record live and pretty much set everything up in one room.
STERN: The thing I like about Eric’s playing and the thing I always try to do is to play from the heart. That's the most important thing about music, and there’s certainly a lot of heart and soul on this record.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from Eclectic. "Benny Man’s Blues" (which you can hear below).
JOHNSON: Mike was saying we should have an up-tempo blues piece for the record, which I thought was a cool idea. While I was figuring out what to do, I started thinking about some of those old Benny Goodman records where there’s just a couple of chord changes, but it still has that blues vibe.
STERN: That's a really cool track with a Texas-swing feel to it. I originally didn't know how Eric wanted to do it, but once Anton started playing the back beat, I immediately got where he was coming from.
JOHNSON: It has a crazy rock/swinging Sixties vibe to it. It started off with a “show review”-type of riff and then evolved from there.
JOHNSON: That song is an homage to Wes [Montgomery]. I actually wrote that song earlier and put it on iTunes. I brought it into our rehearsals and we started re-arranging it. I actually like it a lot better the way it is now. It’s a pretty cool thing.
"Wherever You Go."
STERN: I had a ballad kind of feeling when I wrote that song. The vibe is usually what starts it and gives it inspiration. Eric got it right away and what he plays on it is so beautiful.
Eric, I have to ask you about “Cliffs of Dover." When you think about that song, what comes to mind?
JOHNSON: In a way, I think that song was kind of a gift. It’s one of those songs that just came to me really quickly. I don’t know why, but one day I just sat down and had the whole song finished in five minutes.
Do you have a bit of advice for someone attempting play it?
JOHNSON: There are a lot of different ways to approach it. Just to actually play it is not really that hard, but to play it in its best way is a bit of a challenge. It favors certain string positions to sound clean and they’re not the easiest, most readily accessible ways to go to.
What’s your current setup like?
STERN: I keep it simple. I've got a Signature Yamaha Tele. I usually run it through two amps set in stereo. I also use a Yamaha SPX-90 to fatten the sound up a little bit more and give it more air. My pedals include a BOSS DD3 and a Super Overdrive that Robert Keely modified to help warm it up.
JOHNSON: I play Strats mostly, through some manner of Fender amps for a stereo chorus sound. I also use a little 18-watt amp that Bill Webb built. For effects, I use a TC Electronic stereo chorus, fuzz phase and a Belle Epoch echo pedal by Catalinbread. I also use a TunnelWorm flanger by Mr. Black.
What are you most looking forward to about the release of Eclectic and this new collaboration?
STERN: There were some new things I did on this record like singing and writing words to my songs and some of the ideas were really spontaneous. Now we get to go play it live and are very excited about it. We’re both so lucky to be able to do what we do.
JOHNSON: I’m turning my attention to creating more spontaneous, live music and being able to paint a picture with my performance. If you want to go back and overdub to fix a note or two, that’s fine. Just be sure to keep it to a minimum and continue to paint that big picture. That’s where all the vibe is.
2014 Eric Johnson/Mike Stern Tour Dates
06-Nov-14 Birchmere Alexandria VA
07-Nov-14 Westhampton Beach P.A.C Westhampton Beach NY
08-Nov-14 Keswick Theatre Glenside PA
09-Nov-14 Webster Hall New York NY
11-Nov-14 Wilbur Theatre Boston MA
12-Nov-14 Boulton Center Bay Shore NY
13-Nov-14 Infinity Hall Hartford CT
14-Nov-14 Tupelo Music Hall Londonderry NH
15-Nov-14 Tupelo Music Hall Londonderry NH
16-Nov-14 Infinity Hall Norfolk CT
18-Nov-14 Narrows Center for the Arts Fall River MA
19-Nov-14 Rams Head On Stage Annapolis MD
20-Nov-14 Newton Theatre Newton NJ
21-Nov-14 Beacon Theatre Hopewell VA
22-Nov-14 Harvester Performance Center Rocky Mount VA
23-Nov-14 Carolina Theatre Durham NC
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.