Instrumentals have supplied some of music’s most evocative moments. We asked some top guitarists for their take on this iconic movement. This month, technical and melodic master, Eric Johnson
GT: What is it about guitar instrumentals that appeals to you?
EJ: The freedom that you have in instrumental music; you have so much freedom to kind of go wherever you want and wherever your intuition can take you and I think that if you try to stick with melody, it can be as interesting as vocals and sometimes that’s nice.
GT: What can an instrumental provide a listener that a vocal can’t?
EJ: It just gives it gives a lot of room for interpretation for the listener. It creates and stirs emotion in the listener that maybe they’re not getting from the lyrics.
GT: Any tendencies with instrumentals that you aim to embrace or avoid?
EJ: I think having a really strong melody is most important, then you can harmonise it to make it interesting. I try to use all of it, melody and harmony, but I think melody is really important. I try to make it be a song instead of it being an exercise in guitar playing.
GT: How useful is studying a vocalist’s approach for creating guitar melodies?
EJ: It’s very, very useful as far as vibrato and bending notes. I think because maybe it lets you reflect on being delicate with your inflections or your technique.
GT: How do you start writing an instrumental? Is there any typical approach or inspiration?
EJ: You know a lot of the times it’s just improvising and allowing yourself to come up with something interesting. Then when you feel you have something worth chasing, and getting to be more pragmatic about it and trying to piece it together, it kind of unfolds as it would. But really I just try to improvise and come up with something unique.
GT: What do you aim for when your performance is centre stage?
EJ: It’s most important to keep the song intact. Sometimes if I see YouTube clips of me playing I’ll be like, “Okay that solo’s cool but you went on too long”, but I think I like to tell myself to just be careful. That’s what I’m trying to take up more now, trying to be inventive with the soloing or the playing but not to stuff everything you know in and don’t let it go on forever, or it loses the impact.
GT: Many vocal songs feature a guitar solo that starts low and slow then finishes high and fast. Is this useful for instrumental writing?
EJ: That’s a pretty colloquial way of doing it. I think there’s other ways you can do it too. I guess with anything you want it to build intensity but I guess the intensity can be by emotional impact instead of loudness or complication.
GT: What type of guitar tone do you prefer for instrumentals?
EJ: I think there’s a use for it all. You can sometimes have sounds that are kind of abrasive in the background that add a certain texture or a certain picture. I think if you always get every sound just right and then you put it in the whole picture, sometimes it’s not as good as when some of them have a little bit of edge to them.
GT: Do you have any favourite keys or tempos that you like to write in?
EJ: No, not really. I do think I have a tendency to write a lot in the same tempo, which I’d like to not do. I’d like to vary it up a little more. So I think the more varied the tempos the better. Sometimes I’ll write in a shuffle or a 4/4 but I think it would be cool to experiment with other things. I like to try and pick keys that are not normal guitar keys like F# or C# or G#. I don’t know why, maybe it just sounds different to my ears.
GT: Do you find Minor or Major keys easier to write in? Or prefer the sound of?
EJ: I let it happen and go with it. I suppose I probably write more in a Minor key but either one can present itself and be effective.
GT: How about modes - do you have any favourites?
EJ: I use a lot of Pentatonic stuff but recently I have been trying to add more passing tones in like 9ths and 2nds and then you can superimpose different scales over other scales which is cool. But I’ve been trying to learn more harmonies and chord changes and then play the melodies through the chord changes.
GT: What about modulations into new keys?
EJ: I’m working on a couple of tunes at the moment that do that though it’s not something that I typically do.
GT: Do you view the backing band in a different way to how you would if you were singing?
EJ: Not necessarily. Sometimes it might have a little more intensity. But usually no.
GT: What are your views on harmonising melodies?
EJ: If it’s done sparingly. I don’t really do it a whole lot but a little bit is cool. As long as it’s not overdone.
GT: What three guitar instrumentals would you consider iconic or have inspired you?
Third Stone From The Sun by Jimi Hendrix; Apache by Hank Marvin; and Sleep Walk by Santo & Johnny.
I’M TryINg To BE INvENTIvE wITH THE SoLoINg, BUT NoT STUFF EvEryTHINg yoU KNow IN or LET IT go oN ForEvEr
Eric Johnson: a master musician and titan of melodic guitar