Why I Love: Kepler Ten on Eric Johnson

Kepler Ten has just released their excellent A New Kind Of Sideways album on White Star Records. Described as a “semi-conceptual album that is humanitarian and philanthropic in its theme,” it’s basically a splendid album with a contemporary progressive sound. Alistair Bell from K10 joins us At The Barrier to wax lyrical on his admiration for American guitarist, vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Eric Johnson.

eric johnson
Eric Johnson

Surprise – a guitarist talking about being inspired by another guitar player. What are the odds?!

In the ever growing sea of guitar music that exists, and despite there being more and more fantastic players of the instrument than ever before, Eric Johnson still stands out among them. All you need to hear is a single note from his instrument. He is so very distinct with his sound, technique and note choice, that just one note is enough to know who you’re listening to. This is something that has become very rare, and in Eric’s case, is the jewel in his crown.

Even though the guitar is my main instrument of choice, I also play piano, trombone and sing. The first time I heard Cliffs Of Dover, I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It sounds like a guitar, but at the same time, almost like a voice. It sang to me. The tone was smooth and sublime. It’s very easy to make an electric guitar in particular sound metallic and tinny, but somehow Eric had made his the polar opposite. Up to that point, I always thought guitar, and overdriven guitar in particular had a harsh sound, and that it didn’t matter who it was or what guitar they used. But here was a sound that was loud, with overdrive, but significantly more mellow. I end up buying the album Ah Via Musicom and listened to it from beginning to end on repeat for weeks.

Every track on the album sounds unique, especially Trademark. This song changes seamlessly between multiple styles, and is a joy to listen to. I’d even go as far as to call it beautiful. The way he manages to mix his different guitar sounds together so easily is awe-inspiring to me. This is something I still struggle with today. He has somehow married both his clean and lead overdrive playing together where switching between them isn’t jarring at all. While not tonally the same, they complement each other. His chord work on this track again is amazing. He has a unique way of putting slash chords and inversions together to make soundscapes rarely found in any style of music.

While I’ve listened to all of Johnson’s albums, every one unique and unbelievably polished, there is one that sticks out. One album that, for me, is the perfect representation of his playing. I used to listen to this album constantly while walking to music school, and even doing laundry! It always brings back good memories from my younger years, hanging out with friends, and drinking far too many Frappuccinos! The album I’m referring to is Venus Isle.

I managed to catch Eric live in London back in 2012. Definitely up there with some of the best shows I’ve ever been lucky enough to attend. I think he has a tendency to change around his setlist between shows. I was just lucky enough to catch a set where he played When The Sun Meets The Sky. I was seriously shocked and almost lost for words – one of my biggest idols was literally playing my favourite song that he’s ever written. I couldn’t believe it, and still can’t.

Venus Isle was only his third solo album, although it took 6 years to complete. He is such a perfectionist (singing from the same hymn book), that I can easily believe he was never happy and wanted to re-record everything over and over. I sometimes feel this way too, especially when I’ve slept on something and listen back to it the next day. Even weeks after something’s been mixed, I always wish I could tinker and change things here and there, so I don’t blame him one bit. 

This is one of those rare instances where I will listen to the entire album from start to finish. I can’t listen to just one track, otherwise, you lose the experience. Everything is so well woven together, and there are a lot of re-used melodies and ideas that tie everything together too. Of course, Manhattan is the song everyone remembers, but as I mentioned before, it’s When The Sun Meets The Sky that really shines for me. I don’t think I could ever imagine a more perfect sounding song. It’s like melting chocolate – all of the right ingredients, and some of the most stunning guitar work I feel he’s ever played. Especially the clean chords towards the end – absolute perfection to my ears. I still get tingles listening to it!

This may be a little surprising to hear at this point, but there is another guitar player that is possibly my biggest inspiration…playing-wise at least. Eric isn’t that for me – he is my biggest musical inspiration. I’m inspired by his songwriting, singing, the tones he somehow conjures up, and the feeling I get from listening to his music. Playing ability is one thing; there are lots of fantastic musicians around the world who have insane technique and chops. Eric Johnson of course has that too, but everything else as well. His music takes me on a journey, and it’s one I never ever want to stop taking!

Many thanks to Alistair for writing such an enthusiastic piece for us on a musician who may have been under your radar.

You can read our review of Kepler Ten’s A New Kind Of Sideways here and have a listen to Time And Tide from their debut album Delta-v:

Kepler Ten online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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