Here’s a treat for you. Justin Johnson is a highly regarded guitarist who is somewhat under the radar, despite having played with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Bootsy Collins, and Robin Zander (Cheap Trick). His IMDB biography describes him as a pre-eminent blues guitarist of our time and as one of the most vital guitarists of his generation.
Besides his playing chops, Johnson teaches and promotes the culture and history of the guitar. Alongside his LPs, and his participation in major blues compilation projects, his music has appeared in many documentaries, films and TV shows. In this video, he plays the White Stripe’s Seven Nation Army as if it were a long-lost delta blues classic.
Johnson explains that he’s long been attracted to the distinct blues influence in Jack White’s guitar style and notes that the White Stripes’ recording of Seven Nation Army is “a killer hybrid of bluesy slide guitar and analog punk. I wanted to take that all the way back down the Mississippi”. Johnson adds that the song is deceptive in that the bassline and melody are apparently simple “until you try playing them at the same time”. What a sublime take with excellent slide playing.Truly impressive
Justin Johnson’s interest in blues has morphed into an interest in unusual guitars, from artisan delights like guitars made from used whiskey barrels to 3-string shovel guitars. If a three-string shovel guitar seems like a gimmicky novelty, you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Johnson shredding blues riffs on the odd instrument he pioneered and sells on his website for between 400 and 500 dollars. Listen to this (if you’re a guitarist, you might find yourself reaching for your credit card).
There are plenty of treats on Justin Johnson’s YouTube channel, but, unsurprisingly, the Crankin’ Up the 3-String Shovel Guitar video is the most popular with 16m views. There is plenty of love for the video in the comments, and much admiration for Johnson’s instrument, his technical virtuosity, and his musical taste.
The wittiest comment is by Klondike316 who quips that Justin Johnson is “playing one of those fretless shovels”. Klondike316 notes that this is far “more difficult than those fretted shovels. Awesome”.
If you’re impressed by Johnson’s guitar playing, the good news is that he has posted a good number of tutorials on his YouTube and Facebook pages. You can learn to play Motorhead’s signature song, Ace of Spades on the 3-string shovel guitar, you can get tips on playing slide guitar with a shot glass, he can guide you around the guitars in Nashville’s Matron Guitar Shop, and plenty more. (As one might have suspected, Justin Johnson lives in Nashville Tennessee).
Of course, Johnson also posts many music videos of both original tracks and reconceived cover versions, with his Seven Nation army being an example of the latter.
If you are interested in the blues historian side to Justin Johnson, he appears in Strung Together (2015) a movie-length documentary about American Roots instruments. (Jon Miller, producer, 2015).