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

Dennis Johnson is an internationally acclaimed slide guitar player. Dennis Johnson will be releasing his fourth full-length album, Revelation, on July 15, 2022. Pushing slide guitar to new limits over amazing grooves, REVELATION is a phenomenal album that rocks the house. The rhythm section on the album is anchored by legendary drummer Anton Fig; playing piano and B3 by Bob Fridzema: bassist Jonathan Stoyanoff provides basslines and backing vocals; engineer Chris Bell mixed nine songs, and Kevin Shirley mixed a final track. 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.                                            (Photo: Dennis Johnson)

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          Special Thanks: Pati deVries (Devious Planet)

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."

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music?

I think that the groove is the most important thing. As a producer, I have learned that the groove has to be great. It is the foundation. Groove is like cake and a solo is the frosting. I spend a lot of time on the groove. You know it is right when people bop to it. 

What has remained the same about your music-making process?

My dedication and passion. I always loved music. I always had the work ethic for music. Even when I was starting out and still had much to learn, I put the hours in. As a guitar player, I play a lot. The way I learned was to turn my weaknesses into strengths. That’s the way to evolve.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of American Roots Music from Gospel and Blues to Country, Rock and beyond?

Well, I think that its relatable to people from the groove to the lyrics. I also think it unites people in so many ways. Whether you are at a concert with other people or meet someone who likes the same music as you, it brings people together.

Are there any specific memories or highlights of your career that you would like to tell us about?!

One day I was in the recording studio working with Jack Douglas who worked with John Lennon, Aerosmith and so many others. We had a great time discussing the blues scene in New York during the 1960s. He recorded some tracks, and we had a great time. 

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new album “Revelation” (2022)?

We did a show with Eric Gales, and it inspired me to go some different directions with the slide guitar and explore some blues rock grooves. You can hear that on the new record.                                                 (Photo: Dennis Johnson & Eric Gales)

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

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 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.

What has made you laugh and what touched you from the late great bluesman Honeyboy Edwards and his music?

Well, Honeyboy’s approach to life would make you happy. I mean he was in the game playing gigs into his 90s. When you talked with him, he was so uplifting. He was instrumental in me becoming a professional musician. When he shook my hand, I felt this energy from it.

"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.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

To make music more accessible to people all over the world.

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.

Dennis Johnson - Home

(Photo: Dennis Johnson)

Views: 212

Comments are closed for this blog post

social media

Members

© 2022   Created by Michael Limnios Blues Network.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service