Artist Spotlight: Justin Johnson The Guitarist Who Plays A Shovel
It’s the heart of Tennessee… picture the scene: The sun bleached porch with the creaky old rocking chair, the rusty old redundant tractor (now home for the farmyard rooster), chilled beers, an amp and the dilemma of which guitar to play.
This is home (when he’s not touring the globe) for Justin Johnson, leading emissary and scholar of blues and roots music, also known as ‘The Wizard’ and recognised as International Slide Guitar Champion. Thanks to the wonders of Skype I get a tour of Justin’s house.
“Welcome, come in”, says Justin, “It’s a bit cluttered here at the moment as we’re in the middle of recording my fourth solo album called ‘Turquoise Trail’. I’m working with Chuck Turner again who was the engineer and producer on my last two albums, Drivin’ It Down and Smoke & Mirrors. Chuck’s very creative having now turned the whole house into one instrument.
I’m a huge fan of all kinds of reverb and echo, I like a combination of spring and tape reverb and natural room reverb, come and see what we’ve done in the swimming pool room. The reverb in here is enormous, so we’ve set up mikes and amps everywhere. This is the perfect place to record some of the vocals and guitar tracks, the natural reverb in here creates a big expansive ambient sound. Listen to the surf guitars from the 50’s and 60’s, they wouldn’t have sounded the same without it. As you can see, we also have a lot of small amps lying around in here. I like to crank up a small amp and saturate those tubes to get more sustain, but I’ll also turn the gain down to get more of a natural amp compression and more of a crunch.
We’ve been working on Turquoise Trail here for several months now and about 80% deep into tracking 20 recorded songs. Whilst some will feature the vocals, bass or keys to the fore, it’s very guitar centric, so if you like guitars you are going to love this album. I’ve been inspired by some of the concept albums from the likes of Pink Floyd and The White album by The Beatles for example, but Turquoise Trail isn’t just a collection of my songs, it takes you on a journey, the entire album was written so that it’s an immersive experience from start to finish. The songs fuse together so that the emotional story of each song takes you through a storyline. Again, that’s what I love about bands like Pink Floyd, who create a much larger musical experience with an album by weaving the entire storyline of an album into one cohesive artistic statement.
I’ve also covered some classic western songs that have moved me since the first time I heard them, like Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso,’ Roy Orbison’s ‘Pistolero,’ and Doc Watson’s ‘St. James Hospital’
I wrote a lot of songs for this album whilst on tour recently down in the South West with my wife Nikki. We got married on that tour in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was inspired by Spanish flamenco and Native American music while we were there, so I wanted to create a musical landscape which hadn’t been told before. So this album incorporates both rock and blues, along with many influences that I love, blending them with new and exotic sounds, it’s just awesome.
A lot of the musicians who were on my double CD set, ‘Drivin’ It Down’ are on Turquoise Trail and the guest list is growing all the time. Not only will Turquoise Trail be produced by multi-Grammy award winning producers John Carter Cash and Chuck Turner, it will also feature vocals and Native American flute playing from three-time Grammy Award winner Bill Miller. Also, Mike Webb and Rick Lonow of POCO and Mark Winchester, who was the upright bass player for the Brian Setzer Orchestra, will round out the core rhythm section. There are over a dozen amazing musicians featured on Turquoise Trail, so the best way to dig into the specifics is to get the album and read all of the liner notes.
For those who can’t get to a Justin Johnson gig, the next best thing is his YouTube channel, where Justin celebrates the history, traditions and playing styles with many of his handmade roots instruments, including banjos, acoustic and cigar box guitars.
“Ah man, a lot of times the videos you see online are ‘on the spot’ improvisations, just making it up in the moment. I’m playing acoustic and electric fingerpicking slide blues on an assortment of instruments including my collection of cigar box guitars. That raw old gritty blues, I love that music. I love that vibe. I love the simple passionate sound of someone putting their heart and soul into it, in a sort of crude raw unpolished way, that then led me on to meeting people who made their own instruments like guitars and cigar box guitars.
I started researching it a bit more and learnt to play 1,2,3, or 4 string models, it felt very natural to go down that road. I use open G tuning and open tuning with the three string cigar box, but the sky’s the limit really, and it also depends on the song. There’s not a lot of choice though if I’m playing the one string Diddley Bow guitar (Video link here please: https://youtu.be/nreCw94lxPU ). When I’m touring I’ll have ten or twelve guitars lined up to use with specific tunings and set ups.
I’m building cigar box guitars which are for sale on my web site all created by hand and, the Shovel Guitar of course which we also make here one at a time and send them out all over the world.”
Ok , so, at this point readers are no doubt aware that Justin can coax stunning, authentic, soulful fingerpicking slide blues, from just about any instrument, be it the one string Diddley Bow or indeed, the Shovel guitar. Believe me, it’s not a typo as Justin explains.
“I was on tour a couple of years ago on the Mississippi Delta. I was about to go on stage at a festival in Clarksville when a guitar builder came up to me saying he’d built a three string guitar, and he’d love me to try it. He hands me a shovel loaded with three strings, a pickup and controls on the blade and machine heads on the handle. I loved it, I used it for the whole set and on the rest of the tour. I put out a video using it and it went viral, it’s got nearly 40 million hits to date.
With so many people asking where they could get one, I set about building them here in my workshop in Nashville. You can check them out on the website, they all come with a certificate of authenticity, along with signature slide and instructional DVDs to teach you how to play the three string shovel and three string guitars.”
You mentioned the raw gritty passion in early blues roots music, who were the main influences for you in the long list of blues pioneers?
“I was a teenager when I first got drawn to blues music. I didn’t have a lot of friends around me who embraced that genre, but I really didn’t care that much, for me, the blues was a life changer. I knew what I wanted to perform from then on. It was really Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker who got me started, it’s the simplicity, the rawness and the power of their songs. They could play just a few notes and sing a few lines and they got you hooked. Then I progressed to the more primitive Chicago and Memphis country blues and the prison songs. I have a lot of respect for that kind of music and how it influenced a lot of today’s popular music, I’m trying my best to keep blues and roots music alive wherever I am in the world.
One of the biggest stresses when you travel as a musician, is what’s going to happen to your instruments and how are they going to be handled especially internally. I tour the world a lot and I’m forever hopping on trains or catching flights, but I must say, I’m far more relaxed about it now since I’ve been using my Fusion Urban double bag for bass guitar. It just makes touring a whole lot easier. Not only can I pack four instruments safely into one gig bag, I don’t have to baby them along. The other side of the gig bag I carry cables, maybe some pedals if I’m playing with a smaller pedal set up.
It’s almost impossible to find a case to hold my Cadillac Tail Fin shaped guitar and the Shovel guitar together, but as mine is the double bag designed for bass guitar, they both fit perfectly along with a cigar box guitar, it’s ideal.”
Looking at your website, it’s quite apparent that you want to share your teaching and guitar building skills, there’s a true feeling that you want to give something back.
“I love spreading the word and I love giving back to the community. When you are learning and developing which is what I’m still doing, you’re up against many hurdles, the musical community has helped me get over so many. Whenever I see someone who needs a few pointers in their development, I love to help. When you are trying get to the next level on that guitar or instrument, it’s normally something really simple but when you’ve been there yourself, you generally know how to help.
So I just started putting out more and more resources online, to get people over those levels of their development, and to appreciate a style of music that must not be lost and that must be kept above the radar. Following the popularity of the videos, people all over the world were asking me to teach them how to play roots music. I realised that there wasn’t that much tuition on line, so I founded the ‘Roots Music School’ here in Nashville, which is 100% online. I’ve since released an instructional series of DVDs and books on roots music theory and playing techniques which is now featured as part of the curriculum for schools across the country.
I’m always going to play and record what I am 100% passionate about. For me, it’s more important what the listener is feeling more than anything else. As long as I am doing that and they keep listening, I’ll try my best to keep blues and roots music alive.”
Interview by Lars Mullen.
Justin Johnson Official Website: www.JustinJohnsonLive.com