Like Stevie Ray Vaughan (also born in 1954), Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai, Johnson instantly became part-and-parcel of a generation of guitarists who were just learning six-string speak when Hendrix came along, and, in the course of three years, completely redefined the language of the instrument. "When I first heard him, I couldn't grasp it," says Johnson, the awe of a 13-year-old still in his voice. "I thought, this is completely strange. I could tell he was good, but it was too over-my-head. I couldn't relate to it—it was too psychedelic. And then, as the months went on, I started going man, this is something!"
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At first, Johnson didn't even attempt to play these new sounds. He just listened. And what intrigued his wasn't so much the notes or chords Hendrix was playing, but rather the way he played them. "It was the consciousness of how he played," stresses Johnson. "I could pick out the notes of 'Purple Haze,' but I could never sound that way."
When I suggest that Johnson and Vaughan are flip sides to the Hendrix coin—Johnson the more dreamy "Little Wing" to Vaughan's ferocious "Voodoo Chile" side—he doesn't necessarily disagree. "I always loved Stevie's rhythm and blues playing," says Johnson of Vaughan, with whom he played a handful of times and ran into often in the Seventies ("My girlfriend and his were best friends around that time.") "He always had that power that Hendrix had. And then there was that other side that Hendrix had, that poetic thing, the lyrical guitar runs...That's what was neat about Hendrix, his palette included all those things." He stops just short of saying that "that poetic thing" is what he strives for with every lick, though Johnson does admit that many of the hues in his own colorful palette come from Hendrix's musical masterpieces—as does a certain amount of the "personality" in his playing. Still the real challenge was finding his own voice and not mimicking Hendrix's.
During the later half of the Sixties and into the early part of the next decade, Johnson was not only spending a lot of time in his room in front of his record player listening to the blues, he was also spending a lot of time in the clubs watching notables such as Freddie King and Johnny Winter. He rattles off a list of long-gone hallmarks of the Austin club scene such as the Jade Room, Vulcan Gas Company, New Orleans Club, and the Armadillo as his favorites. And it wasn't just the road shows that caught his attention. Local guitarists like Johnny Richardson of Georgetown Medical Band, Tim Mings of New Atlantis, and John Staehaley of Chain Gang, Pumpkin, and Shepard's Bush had the young up-and-comer in complete awe.
For his part, Johnson was starting to experiment more and more with instrumental-based music, thanks in large part to his discovery of Jeff Beck, and his own musical alliance with Vince Mariani, a local who would soon become Johnson's most important early mentor and a musician he's worked with throughout his career: Mariani introduced Johnson to the public at large in the liner notes of Tones, as well as inspiring the album's title; he co-wrote "Desert Rose" from Ah Via Musicom and contributes a track to the new album.
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