Bill Johnson

Artist of the Month | September 2016


I discovered K&K’s Pure Mini and Trinity Pro Preamp back around 2005 while I was buying pretty much every pickup I could get my hands on. Money was no longer an issue. I was determined to get to the bottom of the acoustic guitar amplification puzzle. All the undersaddle pickups I tried produced a glassy spike when the string was plucked hard. Magnetic pickups would sound nothing like my guitar. I was determined not to change the way I played to accommodate the equipment I used. As an acoustic blues guitarist, playing finger style, rhythm means everything to me.

The Pure Mini allowed me to create the dynamic patterns I was used to picking with out the non musical quack guitarists refer to. The preamp partners beautifully with the Pure Mini for a rich and silky tone. I have had many guitars come and go since discovering K&K Sound. Some loaded with the latest most sophisticated electronics. For me the Pure Mini remains the default standard in acoustic guitar pickups.

Bill Johnson played with a number of different bands throughout the 1970s and 1980s, not sticking to one particular genre. In the mid-1980s, however, he began to focus on the blues, studying musicians such as B.B. King, Elmore James, and T-Bone Walker. He also performed with artists such as Alligator Records’ Son Seals. In the 1990s he played with the Sidewalk Blues Band with Doug Cox, and in 1993 formed his own The Bill Johnson Blues Band. Early on, the band opened for musicians such as Otis Rush and Delbert McClinton, and toured Scandinavia with the Lebeau Petersen Band.

He moved to Calgary, Alberta in 1996, and while there he was featured in recordings by Donald Ray Johnson. He also played as a member of the house band at the King Edward Hotel, and had stints as a sideman with musicians such as Dutch Mason, Hubert Sumlin, Son Seals, and Cash McCall. In 1998, he collaborated with Texan blues musician Don Johnson on the album Donald Ray. In 1999 Johnson moved back to Victoria, British Columbia, to be near his family and to pursue a full-time recording career.

Johnson’s first solo album, ‘Why I Sing the Blues, was a collaboration with a number of North American poets. In 2006 he released his first live album, titled simply Live, or The Bill Johnson Blues Band Live. In 2006 the Toronto Blues Society nominated Johnson for a Maple Blues Award for Best Guitarist. He self-released the album Worksongs in 2007, singing and playing solo acoustic guitar.

He self-released his third album, Still Blue, in October 2010. For Still Blue, Rick Erickson contributed bass, John Hunter drums, and Darcy Philips keyboards, with all three musicians at times also contributing to Johnson’s vocals. Johnson’s long-term collaborator Joby Baker produced the album. In 2010 Johnson was awarded a Blewzy Award for Best Song for the album’s track “Half the Man,” as well as a Blewzy for Best Blues CD for Still Blue. At the 2011 Maple Blues Awards show, he was nominated for Recording of the Year, Electric Act of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Still Blue was nominated for Blues Album of the Year at the Juno Awards of 2012. He performed “Half the Man” at the 2012 Maple Blues Awards.

By January 2012 he was signed to Woodrock Music Canada. He appeared in the play The Life of Willie Mae Thornton with film and music star Jackie Richardson and performed the underscoring live. Early that year he toured British Columbia, playing at the North Vancouver Island Music Festival. Later in 2012 he toured Ontario and he ended the year with another tour of British Columbia. He toured Ontario again in the beginning of 2013, including the Blues Summit VI in Toronto. Gigs in Alberta and British Columbia followed. In August he toured British Columbia as lead guitarist for international blues star Rita Chiarelli, hitting festivals such as the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival and Nanaimo Summertime Blues Festival, and he ended the year with a tour of Calgary.

As an educator he has hosted blues workshops throughout Canada, covering topics such as motivating improvement in mature players, rhythm guitar in traditional songs, slide guitar, and constructing blues solos.

Primarily a blues musician, Johnson fuses many eras of the genre with rock, country, and jazz. He regularly performs either as a solo act with an acoustic guitar or with a backing band. Beyond guitar and vocals he also plays harmonica. He draws on influences as diverse as Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Eric Clapton, BB King, and slide guitarists David Lindley and Sonny Landreth. 

According to the Musicians Association of Victoria and the Islands, “for years he has honed his craft in bars, clubs, festivals and concerts and has achieved a worldly perspective that gives his blues the kind of soul that speaks with authenticity.”

In terms of instruments, Johnson is known to regularly use a blonde Gibson ES-335, a Fender Telecaster, and an unusually modified Mexican Stratocaster used for slide only. He is regularly seen playing a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar and a National Tricone resonator guitar. He is known to use Hohner Harmonicas, High Spirit Native Flutes, and has espoused amplifiers and effects made by designer Mark Stephenson, though he often uses vintage Fender amplifiers as well.

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