Exclusive interview: Davey Johnstone - my career with Elton John

4th Apr 2011 | 15:02

Big hits, wild times - and guitars!

Davey Johnstone on stage with Elton John, Norfolk, Virginia, 2011. © Jason Moore/ZUMA Press/Corbis

"What's going on with us is remarkable, and Madison Square Garden is a classic example," marveled Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone the other day. "We've played there so many times, well over 60 concerts, and to still sell it out for a couple of shows, it's incredible. New York City has always been a great city for us. We love coming here."

Having just played two knockout (and yes, packed) dates at the Garden, Johnstone was in town with Sir Elton and the rest of the band (which also includes drummer Nigel Olsson, who, along with Johnstone and the late bassist Dee Murray, comprised the famed, original Elton John four-piece), for an appearance on Saturday Night Live. John hosted, and he and the band played a couple of numbers with Leon Russell, Elton's idol and musical partner of late.

During a break in his schedule, Johnstone sat down with MusicRadar in Manhattan's swanky London Hotel. He admitted that the SNL gig promised to be "a lot of fun. Elton's such a comedy fan - I'm sure he'll be brilliant in all the skits." But after the show, it's back to the road. Johnstone, who has performed with John for 40 years now ("very hard to believe - the time has just blown by"), not counting a brief period in the late '70s when the superstar went into semi-retirement, said that touring has lost none of its luster. The three-hour show is a dizzying cavalcade of multi-platinum smashes, but Johnstone revealed that he and the boss try to change things up here and there.

"Elton and I talk before every show," he said. "We look at the setlist and make adjustments when needed. It's a long show, with no opening act. We do all the hits. Of course, when I say 'all' the hits, there's still many that we aren't doing. Even in a three-hour show, we can't do every hit. I'm always trying to get him to do stuff that we haven't done in a while, like Harmony, which I love.

"Every Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which I've been hassling him to do for years, and Crocodile Rock - he hasn't been doing that one for a while, either. That's what I do: I stay on him about the set. Fortunately, I know his tolerance level, and I know not to ask him about something too many times. But he knows me, and he knows if I say something often enough that there might be something to it. We have a great relationship in that way."

The Scottish-born Johnstone joined Elton John's band in 1971 at the advanced age of 19. Throughout the decades, the guitarist has put his unique guitar stamp - one minute he's dishing out lashing electric solos, the next he's applying lush acoustic layers - on a breathtaking number of worldwide chart-toppers (it's estimated that John has sold over 250 million albums) and has become Elton's musical director. In addition to his day job, Johnstone has worked with John on The Lion King soundtrack, as well as the music to productions such as Aida and Billy Elliot.

"We've done pretty well," Johnstone said, chucking at what he realizes is a whopper of an understatement. With so much history to talk about, classic songs and decades of memorable shows (the guitarist cited 1974's Madison Square Garden concert, during which John Lennon joined Elton and the band, as a career highlight), it was difficult to know where to start. So, MusicRadar went right to the beginning:

Tell me how you came to join Elton's band.

"I was a studio player, and I knew Gus Dudgeon. Gus was Elton's producer [Dudgeon died in a car accident in 2002], but he was also working with a band I played with called Magna Carta. One day, Gus talked to me about an album he was doing with Elton - this would be Madman Across The Water - and he said that none of the guitar players they had tried had worked out. He asked if I wanted to come to the studio and do a session, and I said, 'Sure. Of course.'

"Honestly, I didn't really know at the time who Elton John was. I'd seen him a bit in the music papers, but I wasn't into what he was doing - I was into traditional Irish music. But money's money, so I agreed to do the session. Why not, right? The day before the session, however, I saw Elton perform Border Song on Top Of The Pops, and I went, 'Wow…this guy is good! [laughs] So I went into the session with a whole new attitude."

Johnstone with his "Captain Fantastic" Les Paul. © Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis

"The date was a lot of fun. We did the song Madman Across The Water. I remember Elton was kind of quiet at first. He sort of stayed in the corner at his piano. It's funny: I wasn't intimidated at all. I should've been, but I was kind of a hotshot kid at the time. Elton, on the other hand, looked a little nervous. I guess he was just concentrating a lot. I played the sitar, mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track. It was great.

"Everybody was very pleased, so we went on to do a song called Holiday Inn. I had brought a banjo with me, but I told Elton that I didn't think it was right for the song - I thought mandolin would work better. And I suggested another opening for the track. But by this point, I wasn't being cocky - I was into the music and I was enthusiastic. I wanted to make a difference. Elton saw that, I guess, because the next day I got a call asking me to join the band."

Did Elton ever tell you specifically what he liked about your playing?

"Not in so many words. He just loved that I was a well-rounded player. I played mainly acoustics in those early days. Not that I didn't like rock - I was big into Zeppelin and The Beatles. At the same time, I was listening to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, as was Elton. So we shared the same musical ear, and he saw in me something that would be very helpful to him in the studio and on stage."

Because you were joining a group that had no other guitar player, you had a lot of room to do your own thing.

"Absolutely. That's what was so cool about it. When I did join Elton's live band, it was just him, Nigel on drums and Dee Murray on bass. That live album they did [11-17-70] was fantastic! I was really into the idea of getting in with the guys that made that record."

Although people tend to focus on the pop aspect of Elton's music, there was always a strong thread of Americana that ran through many of the albums. On songs like Texan Love Song, you're playing the dobra…

"That's true. Well, you know, like most musicians, I was hugely impacted by blues - the blues scene in America and the folk scene, as well. One player who really influenced me in being well-rounded was George Harrison. After the initial excitement of The Beatles died down, people were able to focus on the music. And if you listen to what George Harrison did - and so many of his influences were American - he really tied everything together in one beautiful package. Plus, he could do it with supreme taste."

I was just about to ask you about that. You've always been a player who understands tasteful economy. You riffs, your solos - nothing is superfluous or self-indulgent.

"Well, thank you. A lot of that is just getting lucky. But I would sit down and work out my parts, sure. I'd listen to the harmony guitars and the strings and think about how I could fit certain things in. You have to pick your spots and serve the song.

"Funnily enough, you do fall into a groove with success. It must be like gambling, when you hit a lucky streak and you just can't lose. Or that feeling of invincibility you get when you've had a few drinks. We were racking up the hits - Daniel, Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock and so on - and it was amazing. What happened was, our musical inhibitions went away. Success became our drug, and I don't just mean the financial rewards, I mean how great we felt when we played, and how we were received. The more successful we got, the better we played, and the easier it became to know what to play. It almost felt effortless."

You bring up Rocket Man, which had the vocal harmonies that became such important elements on later recordings. When did you, Dee and Nigel discover that you could sing so well together?

"That was it - Rocket Man. I had done a lot of instrumentation on it - the acoustic guitars and the slide playing, all those ethereal sounds - and then Gus said, 'How about some background vocals?' Davey, Dee and I never really discussed what we would do, but we got together and did it. It chilled us when we heard how good it sounded. Dee and I usually changed up on the bottom and the mid part, and Nigel would take the higher harmony. Occasionally, Dee would do a high part, but he'd have to put his head between his legs to do so. [laughs] It was a unique technique, but he always managed to pull it off."

How involved were Elton and Gus with your guitar parts? Even though Elton is a piano player, songs like All The Girls Love Alice, The Bitch Is Back, Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting are very guitar driven.

"They are. In those days, whenever a song came up, I'd immediately start working on what I should do. Elton would write so fast, and I had to be just as quick to keep up. As soon as I heard him writing Saturday Night, I knew it was a total guitar-rocking track. So I wrote the intro and all the guitar parts. It was so much fun. At first, Elton didn't even want to play on it - he was just jumping around with a mic while the rest of us played. Eventually, he put some piano parts on it. It was very exciting."

You mentioned how quickly Elton wrote in those days. It's true: you guys did crank out an amazing amount of music during the first half of the '70s.

"Elton has a very short attention span. He always did, always will. When he sits down to write, if something doesn't come to him in 15 minutes, he's on to something else. He writes very spontaneously, and there's no fat on anything he does.

"In those early days, demos didn't exist. Elton would come into the studio in the morning with Bernie Taupin's lyrics, sit down at the piano, and he'd write a song with the rest of us right there with him. A lot of the time we'd learn it as it was being written. Then we'd record the song in the afternoon, and it was done by the end of the night. I think that's why those songs worked so well: You weren't hearing things that were sitting around for years and were labored over and had no energy. What you heard was all energy."

I have to ask about Funeral For a Friend/Love Lives Bleeding. Originally, Elton had the instrumental intro, which he was thinking of putting on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by itself. But then he decided to link it with Love Lies Bleeding. The guitar parts are crucial to that song, and they figure prominently in Funeral For A Friend, as well.

"You bring up an interesting point. Actually, Elton was going to call the album How Many Guitar Sounds Can Davey Get? [laughs] That's what I had to do, though. Because I was the only guitar player, I had to be inventive. Whether I was doing mandolin or banjo or guitar tracks, I had to make everything really stand out and be colorful."

"I'll tell you something incredible: The whole song, including Funeral For A Friend, was one take. We rehearsed it a couple of times, but that was it. Again, Elton's attention span - he's very impatient. So as soon as we knew what the song was going to be, we went in and nailed it, played it straight through. I knew I would do some layering and overdubs, but still, the idea was to do as much as possible all at once. It was a lot of fun."

You've played numerous types of guitars over the years. On those early albums, how much did you experiment with different makes and models?

"A lot. I spent a lot of money, too! [laughs] I remember going to Nashville, where I picked up a really great '62 Les Paul gold top. That thing was just a monster! We used it quite a bit, actually. You can hear that on Saturday Night. It got stolen a few years later, along with some other guitars. That kind of put me off of buying vintage guitars.

"But I was big into experimenting. Strats, Telecasters - I loved playing with out-of-phase sounds. On The Bitch Is Back, there are two direct guitars in the out-of-phase setting, and they're tuned to an open G chord. Then you mix those with two Flying Vs, and it's a great sound, the humbuckers with the single-coils. You get that bite with the attack."

In the current live show, do you change around the guitars you use for certain songs, or is it pretty much set?

"After six months or a year of playing a song a certain way, I'll try different guitars. I mean, there are some diehards like Funeral For A Friend and Saturday Night - those are Les Paul songs, always. On many other songs, though, I'll change things up just to see how they'll sound. Rocket Man nowadays - I play it acoustic in an open tuning, which I love, and then I move over to an electric for sort of a jam session in the end.

"I have to say right now how important my guitar tech, Rick Salazar, is to what I do live. In fact, 50 percent of what I do on stage would be impossible without Rick. He's been with me a long time, and he's incredible. He keeps everything in order, everything running beautifully. Rick is the best."

During the '70s, Elton John was about as big as it got. I'm sure you indulged in the excesses that were available to rock stars. [Johnstone laughs and nods] But did it ever get to a point where you thought, This has gone too far?

"Oh, we enjoyed ourselves, of course! [laughs] And believe me, there were many 'never again' nights. Many 'never again' three nights - 72-hour stretches where you literally never went to sleep. And then, what did you do? You did it all over again, twice as hard! [laughs] Yeah, we did as many drugs as you can imagine, and drank as much alcohol as we could possibly pour down our throats. But because of the music we played, we were never linked to the drug culture like, say, The Rolling Stones. People didn't assume we could be decadent, even though we were. [laughs] We never got hassled, and we were twice as hardcore than so many other bands.

"There were some scary times, though, and periods that none of us are particularly proud of. In recent years, I've stopped everything, and I'm very grateful that I have my health. It's good to be able to show people that you don't have to be a raving maniac to be a rock 'n' roll star. We were very fortunate to have come through it alive."

Johnstone, photographed at New York City's London Hotel. © Joe Bosso

At one point, you were all let go from Elton's band -

"Well, he retired is what happened."

Was that a huge blow to you, or did you see it coming?

"I had no problem with it at all. At the end of 1974, Elton wanted to expand musically. He wasn't happy with Nigel and Dee, but he kept me on. I never knew why, really. So he changed the rhythm section for a while, and then he added a few more people. It was successful, but it wasn't the same band. And at the end of 1977, he decided to retire. He was very kind, gave everybody a big wage check, but he said he was done - he had to figure things out.

"We were still close, though. At one point, he wanted to do a big gig at Wembley Stadium with me and other musicians. After the show, he said, 'I'm really fucked. I'm giving up.' He decided to quit again, and he was serious. That's when I got scared for him. He had so much, but he also had access to so many of the wrong things. I was nervous for him as a person. He was going through a very difficult time in his life - drugs, alcohol, the whole deal.

"I was working with other artists for a few years - Alice Cooper, Stevie Nicks, The Pointer Sisters - and that was fine, but I did start to get cheesed off after a bit of time. Then, Dee came back…and I think Nigel was next…I'm not certain…I just remember getting a call from Elton and he said, 'I'm thinking of putting the original band back together. What do you think?' And I said, 'I'm there.' We did a tour of Australia, just the four of us.

"Ironically, he did it again! [laughs] He let Dee and Nigel go. I stayed on. It was the weirdest thing. He never really explained himself - not that he has to. I think he just wanted to explore working with different rhythm sections. And then, of course, years later, Nigel came back. I'd brought him in to sing vocals, but one night, I said to Nigel, 'You should play drums on Daniel.' And after that, Elton wanted Nigel back on the drums.

Talk to me about Dee Murray. (The bassist died in 1992 of a stroke, after battling skin cancer for several years.)

"Dee was brilliant. He's truly one of the great unsung heroes. I'm actually making a documentary on his life. I think he's such an underrated musician. He was a beautifully instinctual musician. His ideas were so fucking great! He'd work things out so meticulously, fiddling around. What a player. I miss him a lot."

What kind of changes have you made to some of the songs over the years? You guys aren't 25 anymore - do you make adjustments for age?

"I guess. Hopefully, any changes have been for the better. You know, when you're young and you play live, you do everything fast - it just happens, the adrenaline. What's funny is, you listen to a track like Saturday Night and you think it's fast, but it's really not. But it's got the feel of a speeding train. We play it properly now, but for years we played it way too fucking fast."

The vocal harmonies of Johnstone, drummer Nigel Olsson and the late Dee Murray were a highlight of Elton John's early hits. © Bob King/Corbis

In addition to the band, you've worked with Elton on projects like Aida and The Lion King. Why do you think he relies on you so much?

"He knows I'm not just stuck in one mold. That's a big thing, right there. But he also knows that I've give him an honest opinion. It's funny that you mention The Lion King. I remember when he did the original demo of the song Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, he gave it to Disney with the lyrics that Tim Rice had written, and it was great.

"Two years later, when Disney had finally finished the movie, we were about to do the recording. Elton came to me and said that Disney had rewritten Tim's lyrics. I read through then, and they were awful, really fucking terrible. It was obviously two animals talking to each other. But still, I wouldn't let my granny sing those words. So I just told Elton, 'Why don't you just sing the original lyrics? That's what everybody liked in the first place.' And he said, 'Yeah, that's what I'll do.' That's the sort of input I give to him. It comes from years of trust and knowing each other."

Keep it locked on MusicRadar, as next week we'll present an equally in-depth, exclusive interview with Elton John drummer Nigel Olsson.

Davey Johnstone's live setup - guitars and gear

Gibson Les Paul - standard tuning
Gibson Les Paul Captain Fantastic motif - standard tuning
Gibson Flying V - open tuning
Gibson Explorer - open tuning
Gibson Chet Atkins classical - standard tuning
Gibson SG doubleneck 6/12 - tuned up a half-step (to F)
Gibson ES-335 - drop-D tuning
Gibson SG doubleneck sustainer - open/standard tuning
Fender Stratocaster w/trem custom neck - standard tuning
Fender Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster - standard tuning
Fender Lace Sensor 7-Up Green - standard tuning
Fender Strat VG synth pickup - standard tuning
Fender custom doubleneck baritone Strat - standard tuning
Takamine acoustic - open tuning
Takamine acoustic - standard tuning
Ovation 12-string - standard tuning
Ovation mandolin - standard tuning
Danelectro baritone - standard tuning
American Showster AS-57 - standard tuning
Fernandes doubleneck sustainer - open/standard tuning

Effects/Amps

Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere
Hughes & Kettner Tube Factor
Roland CE20 chorus
Boss DD-5 digital delay
Boss CS-1 compression sustainer
Boss TR-1 volume pedal
Ernie Ball volume pedal
Vox wah-wah pedal
Hughes & Kettner Puretone combo amp
Rock and Roll Doctor "Corsaire" combo amp

Special thanks to Johnny Barbis, Rick Salazar and Steve Lehrhoff

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