Q&A with San Francisco native slide guitarist Dennis Johnson, deep passion for preserving and innovating roots music

"Music brings people together and reminds us of what we have in common. There are too many divisive forces in society that try to marginalize and turn people against each other. Music is a positive energy that counterbalances that. Music is a universal language that highlights what have in common and unites people."

Dennis Johnson: Slide Roads Blues

You would say San Francisco native Dennis Johnson is one of the hardest working musicians with a deep passion for preserving and innovating roots music. Dennis realized at a young age music was his calling. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dennis heard the music of Chuck Berry and it struck a chord with him. As a teenager, he taught himself the guitar and discovered his passion for slide guitar. He discovered the music of Robert Johnson, Roy Rogers and Norton Buffalo and was hooked. Dennis recalled “seeing Roy play the first time really blew me away. A huge influence on my music.” Robert Johnson’s approach to guitar was the blueprint for Dennis’ evolution as a guitarist.

Dennis explained “Robert‘s guitar playing sounded like two guitars. It’s a blend of rhythm and slide phrases that sound like two guitarists are playing when it’s really one guitarist. I approach guitar in much the same way.” The road to becoming a professional musician was paved when Dennis met delta blues legend Honey Boy Edwards. “I was at a personal crossroads in deciding whether to be a musician. Honeyboy said ‘if you like to play the blues, play the blues!’ The eloquence of that statement was in its simplicity. When I shook Honeyboy’s hand I felt an energy there. This was a profound moment in my life. It was fate” Honeyboy’s advice turned out to be a risk that paid off. In 2010, Dennis Johnson released his first album Slide Show to critical acclaim. Slide Show rose to the Top 50 blues CDs worldwide and No. 21 on the California Roots Radio Charts.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I have always had a passion for blues music and roots music, especially slide guitar. Slide guitar has its origins all around the world, including India, Hawaii and the southern US.  Through slide guitar I have met so many amazing people of diverse backgrounds that share their common love of music.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What touched you from the slide? What are the secrets of?

I would describe my sound is evolving. I think every musician evolves and there’s never a finished product. Over the past year, I have really put an emphasis on articulation with the slide and phrasing similar to a vocalist. I am recording a new album that highlights these slide articulations and innovations.

From a tone perspective, tone comes from the fingers. So, I play the strings fairly lightly with dynamics. You also have to set your amp properly. I like to set my amp right to the edge of some break up. It’s what Larry Carlton does with a fender tweed deluxe. He gets the amp to breakup or bark on certain notes. Then I adjust the eq knobs to articulate the frequencies. This lets my notes cut through the mix. Slide guitar has a vocal quality to it. I love the way you can articulate notes with slide guitar. That’s what Louis Armstrong said - it’s not how many notes you play its how you play the note.  So, with slide it’s how you articulate the note. You can slide up or down to a note, use many different ways of vibrato on a note, or slide out of a note.  All those things give an amazing vocal quality to slide guitar.                              (Photo: Dennis Johnson)

"I have always had a passion for blues music and roots music, especially slide guitar. Slide guitar has its origins all around the world, including India, Hawaii and the southern US.  Through slide guitar I have met so many amazing people of diverse backgrounds that share their common love of music."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

When I was starting out, I was in a studio and someone walked up and started talking to me about a guitar. We got along really well, and he was telling me about some great blues musicians he used to see in New York. Then he mentioned he was going through the CBS music archives for old blues recordings on a project he was was working on with Aerosmith. Turns out it was producer Jack Douglas. He ended up recording my session that day. Pretty cool experience.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The musicianship of the past decades was amazing. There were so many musicians that were virtuosos. I always was drawn to those musicians. Their passion and the hours they spent honing their craft can be heard in their recordings. There are still and will continue to be virtuoso musicians because that passion will continue in people.

I think the music technology today is incredible. The tones I can get out of my studio would have costs tens of thousands of dollars years ago. I have a rackmount Universal Audio Apollo interface that is a game changer.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I had the distinct privilege of meeting the great delta blues musician Honeyboy Edwards. We had a great talk where he told me to go become a slide guitar musician. I followed that advice.

We recently did a show with Eric Gales, who is a great guitar player and performer. He is one of the best performers with a guitar that I’ve ever seen. When I told him this, he smiled and said and “that’s the thing I don’t have to play one single note to connect to the audience.” Great advice about being a performer.

"The musicianship of the past decades was amazing. There were so many musicians that were virtuosos. I always was drawn to those musicians. Their passion and the hours they spent honing their craft can be heard in their recordings. There are still and will continue to be virtuoso musicians because that passion will continue in people. I think the music technology today is incredible. The tones I can get out of my studio would have costs tens of thousands of dollars years ago. I have a rackmount Universal Audio Apollo interface that is a game changer." (Photo: Dennis Johnson)

What would you say characterizes San Francisco blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

The San Francisco music scene has some amazing musicians and many blues music fans.  We have met some amazing people at many shows in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, Nevada, Montana and other places. The fans are why I play music.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

To learn the music, you have to listen. Listening is the most important skill as a musician and a person.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Music brings people together and reminds us of what we have in common. There are too many divisive forces in society that try to marginalize and turn people against each other. Music is a positive energy that counterbalances that. Music is a universal language that highlights what have in common and unites people.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

There are so many musicians I would like to meet. But maybe go hang out with Leo Fender for a day. I could talk tube amps all day. He was a genius.

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