SAV Podcast: Richard Leo Johnson

Orlando Montoya interviews guitar/theremin genius

THE SAVANNAH AREA has some amazing connections with guitars. Renowned guitar-makers Fred Gretsch, Robert Benedetto and Randy Wood are based here. 

Our accomplished guitar players include Howard Paul, Anne Allman and a man whose name is synonymous with stringed invention, Richard Leo Johnson. The latter of these has a new album.

The always insightful, always inventive Richard Leo Johnson
The always insightful, always inventive Richard Leo Johnson

Released on Savannah’s Soft Science label, Celeste proves that Johnson hasn’t stopped experimenting. In this case, he’s gone theremin on us. You know the sound.  Invented in 1920 by Russian physicist Leon Theremin, the electronic instrument is commonly associated with spooky film scores.

“The guitar that I used, from Martin Guitars... had a theremin built into it,” Johnson says. “It’s an acoustic guitar, played acoustically. So, blending the two together, it’s almost an impossible thing to do live.”

But Johnson is undaunted by impossibility. He worked out a few songs that he can perform live with this half-guitar, half-theremin beast. He has a live show planned for later this year.

“But for the record, I really was more inspired by the idea of the combination of the sonic qualities of the acoustic guitar and the theremin,” Johnson says.

He calls his hybrid instrument his “alien guitar.” That’s in part because of the album’s subject matter. Celeste has a narrative to it. And it involves an alien abduction. The extra-terrestrial theme continues Johnson’s series of mythically-inspired albums.

The story all started with 2006’s The Legend of Vernon McAlister. The earlier album had characters and plots. But musically, it became Johnson’s sonic launching pad.

Before McAlister, critics placed him on the edge of jazz. He was a kind of Leo Kottke- and John McLaughlin-inspired “finger picking wonder.” But after McAlister, he moved into landscapes broadly labeled New Age.

“That record sold more and had better reviews and I made it with a $90 microphone in my attic,” Johnson says. 

“And all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Okay, so I can just do kind of what I really want to and not worry about the two-headed cow at the fair?’”

Johnson compares the virtuoso aspect of his earlier recordings to a kind of “freak show” that he’s now replaced with melodies, sounds and acoustic experimentations.

It’s definitely ripe for thoughts of outer space and aliens. He recently was interviewed for the nationally-syndicated New Age radio show Echoes.

“This record is not about virtuosity,” Johnson says. “But I do have to physically learn and play the songs.”

One track is laced with actual sounds from outer space, recorded by NASA. Another is a blues evoking the Star Wars Cantina. But the star of the show isn’t a binary. Or maybe it is. It’s the half-guitar, half-theremin.

“I know for some people it’s going to be sonically ‘out there,’” Johnson says. “But I hope it takes them there.”

The self-taught guitarist, who’s also an accomplished photographer, says he’ll continue experimenting as long as his hands can hold a guitar.


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