“You’ve got to find your own sound, your own thing... Let that shine because that is what will touch people”: Eric Johnson has some sage advice for aspiring guitarists

Eric Johnson, live onstage in 2015 at the Canyon Club in California
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/WireImage)

Eric Johnson would be too modest to admit it but he is unquestionably one of the true legends of electric guitar. When he speaks about the instrument, and the craft of being a musician, he is well worth listening to. 

At this weekend’s Woodshed Guitar Experience, hosted over four days at Lake Francis Retreats, Crossville, Tennessee, the master of the Stratocaster had some advice for any guitar player looking to make it in the business. And it was advice that holds true for players at any level, and of any ambition. 

In a clip captured by Wampler Pedals and posted to its Instagram page, Johnson had some words of wisdom for every up-and-coming player in the room – you’ve got to follow your inspiration wherever that may take you.

“Find the kind of music that really turns you on and makes you want to practise and makes you want to play,” said Johnson. “Find that inspiration, whatever style it is, whatever technique that just inspires you.”

It sounds obvious but often with the guitar we fail to see what is right in front of us. There are so many distractions, not least the different techniques and styles that we feel we ought to learn, whether or not they are relevant to what we want to say on the instrument. Johnson says there’s no point in learning something that doesn’t interest us simply because it is what is expected of us.

“If you are just trying to force yourself to learn something just because it is hard to do, it’s what you should know, you are going to run the risk of eventually getting disheartened,” he said. “You want to chase what you really like.”

Johnson said something similar to MusicRadar in 2010, when he was answering a reader’s question on how to overcome writer’s block. We make the biggest breakthroughs on our instrument when we are having fun.

“On a practical level, if you're playing and you're stuck in a rut, stop playing whatever it is that's bogging you down,” he said. “Play something else, play something fun. Just play with no expectations or goals. Too much of the time we focus on the result: 'If I play this or write this, then this will happen.’ You have to get out of that mindset. It really comes back to the reason why you probably started playing in the first place – because you enjoy it.”

That in turn might also help you develop your own style on the instrument. And Johnson says that’s not just him talking; BB King told Johnson pretty much the same thing back in the day.

Play something else, play something fun. Just play with no expectations or goals

Eric Johnson

“As you mature, I think it always is important to let that pearl [shine], that light that’s unique to you,” Johnson told the Woodshed crowd.“I remember once I was on a BB King tour, and I was doing soundcheck, and I was trying my BB King licks… I was out there doing my thing with that and he came onto the bus and said, ‘Now, Eric, do what you do. Let your light shine that’s unique.’ I mean, you can do the other things; they can be secondary. But you’ve got to find that point of power, of your own sound, of your own thing, and you’ve got to let that shine because that is what will touch people.”

Finding what that is, however, is perhaps the secret to what defines talent. You can read Eric Johnson’s 5 Tips for Guitarists here – in which he instructs us how wrong notes can be the right ones, how the piano is a great teacher, and explains why finding different ways of picking the same lick can free you up as a player. 

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.