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Interview with Johnny Graham
Lead Guitartist for Earth, Wind & Fire

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Dan Richards: When did you realize that you'd "made it"? What'd you do with your first big paycheck?

As far as when I felt that we "had made it," I never really had thoughts on things like that. I was busy doing the gig learning the business and seeing the world. When I received my first large check, the thing I focused on was tax strategies. And, of course, I picked up a lot of guitars and other gear. At one time I had over 35 guitars. Right now, I only have 17 guitars.

Could you give us an idea of some of the guitar/amp/pedals set-ups you were using with EW&F?

When I flew to Hollywood from Kentucky I took with me my Gibson 345 Stereo guitar and a Vox Super Beatle Amp. I used that amp and guitar for a good while. But my favorite amp that I used during my time with EW&F was a Music Man 210. This was a small amp with two 10-inch speakers. Being such a small amp, I could push it hard on stage and still not be too loud for the vocalist. And that amp really sang. I used an Ibanez Tube Screamer for my leads sounds on stage. Also, I used a Wah Wah, a phase shifter and a chorus pedal (exactly which models I don't remember). Sometimes I would try other amp and pedal setups on the road, but the simple things seemed to work best. I also used a Travis Bean guitar for leads sometimes and that worked out pretty well. For rhythm on stage I would use a Les Paul and a Stratocaster. The 345 Gibson would later be used only for solos in the studio.

Tell us about the solo on "That's The Way Of The World."

Well, we recorded that album up in the mountains of Colorado and we were up there cutting the basic tracks. Then we returned to L.A. Later, we made another trip to Colorado to finish up the tracks and the only guitar that I had with me was a brand new Stratocaster that I had purchased in Denver. Up until this time I had only been playing on my Gibson 345 which has a short scale of 24.5 inches. A Strat is a long scale guitar 25.5 inches. So, Maurice calls me into the studio to cut a solo and I didn't have my solo guitar with me the 345 was in Hollywood. A Strat being a long scale guitar, the action was stiffer than my Gibson. So, here I am cutting a solo with a brand new guitar, stiff action and all I was struggling to play the thing. Consequently, the solo on "That's The Way Of The World" was more tame than I would have played it if I'd had my 345 Gibson with me. But, it turned out cool "less is more!"

What are you using now? Some of your main instruments?

Today my set up is quite simple: I use a Peavey TUBEFEX preamp running through a VHT Two/Fifty/Two power amp. My cabinets are loaded with Celestion G12T-75 speakers. The only pedal I use is a Dunlop 535Q Wah Wah. The Peavey TUBEFEX has all the other effects that I use incorporated into it. (However, I do use a MIDI pedal for changing the programs on the TUBEFEX preamp.) For leads now I use Ibanez JEM style guitars with scalloped fingerboards. I use a DiMarzio Tone Zone pickup in the bridge position and a DiMarzio "Fred" pickup in the neck position. For rhythms I use Strat style guitars with my own custom wirings. I have an Ibanez GB-10 George Benson guitar that I like to practice on. I have heavy strings on it .014 .055, and the action set up very high. Practicing on the GB-10 really strengthens my hands and fingers. But, nowadays I tend to set the string action high on all my guitars it just makes everything more expressive.

How did the exposure to EW&F change the way you see and live in the world? Were the metaphysical and spiritual principles referred to in the works of EW&F something that was a part of the daily lives of the members?

Maurice was a student of Egyptology and such things. So, Maurice incorporated a lot of his studies into the song lyrics that he wrote. Maurice got into the Transendental Meditation thing in the late seventies. And most of the other members got involved in the TM thing for a while but I was not included in that movement. I was raised in the Christian church and remain a Christian until this day. (Now, this doesn't mean that I didn't get into the thrills of Rock & Roll and the "spoils" of being on the road...) But I didn't get off into those various philosophies that the group was thought to be into. (I did get involved into Yoga for a brief period.) For a while at the venues that we'd play at there would be a special room set aside for the guys to go meditate. I never participated. Maurice once said to me, "I guess you don't feel the need to meditate." I just said, "Nope."

Philip Bailey came to me once after he had became a Christian and gotten out of the TM trip. He explained to me how the whole TM thing wasn't the way to go and that I should get out of it. I told him, "I never was into TM!" I think that in the earlier days of the group there were some books and such that were passed around but for the most part I was not involved.

Johnny, could you tell us a little about some of what you feel were the highlights with your time in EW&F? Also, anything about the studio sessions especially surrounding the recording of some of the huge and influential albums such as "Open Our Eyes" (1973), "That's The Way Of The World" (1975), "Spirit" (1976), "All 'n All" (1977), and "I Am" (1979). Was there a certain "vibe" on many of those sessions, or was it more a matter as reported by some that it really came down to a lot of hard work?

What I consider as the highlights for me during my time with EW&F is being associated and working with such people as Charles Stepney and George Massenburg! Charles was truly a genius; extremely talented and knowledgeable. Charles wrote and arranged the music to some of the real big hits that EW&F recorded. "Reasons," "That's The Way Of The World," and others great songs. I remember thinking to myself back during the times that those sessions were taking place watching Charles work, "Man, it would take about three life times to accumulate the musical knowledge that Charles Stepney has." Charles was truly phenomenal. And George Massenburg is just brilliant! When I first saw George in action I immediately sensed that he was someone special even though I hadn't been introduced to him and didn't know his name. George was extremely knowledgeable and confident. It seemed like George just knew it all! And on top of all that George was very polite and modest. Working with Charles and George was a blessing and a pleasure.

Dan, I would say that all of the album sessions had their own special "vibe." Each session had a starting point a "seed." And every seed has its own identity its own vibe. So, the vibe of each session contributed to whatever magic each song has. And all of the sessions were the results of hard work bringing each song from the "seed thought" it started as to the final product that it is.

In my opinion the music of EW&F would not be classified as "Funk." I would put EW&F into a different "bag." R&B/Groove music is the label that I'll put on most of the EW&F music. The rhythm section of EW&F wasn't coming from a funky place but rather concentrated on locking down a groove. And there is a difference between music being groovy and music being funky. I think that there can be a dotted line drawn between the three labels: R&B, Soul and Funk.

In the music that I am working on now I have a few songs that are similar to the things that EW&F did in the past. One R&B groove song and one Latin Jazz type song, etc. But most of my current music I would call Funk and Funk/Rock. If you get a chance to here the title cut from the CD "Return of the Gypsy," (this is the Jimi Hendrix tribute CD that I have two songs on), that song is what I would label as Funk/Rock. But I don't lock myself down into one style so my music varies from song to song.

The music that I lisen to now is mainly old stuff that I have in my collection. Here in Japan, I don't listen to the radio but I occasionally lisen to new songs when they are previewed on the internet. When I make trips back to the U.S. I listen to what's happening on the radio and most of it doesn't interest me.

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