Interview: Justin Johnson talks 3-string shovel guitar and new LP

Justin Johnson Shovel Guitar interview NAMM
Justin Johnson Shovel Guitar interview NAMM

Justin Johnson took some time out of his relentless touring and recording schedule to fill us in about some of his latest adventures. They include funding his new studio album with a $25,000 Kickstarter, how he came across his first three-string shovel guitar and what it’s like working with Johnny Cash’s son behind the mixing desk.

Justin Johnson on his inspirations and unconventional instruments

Johnson is 37-year-old American guitarist with the soul of an old bluesman. He’s just as mesmerising jamming out on his famed three-string shovel guitar as he is shredding it up in the studio with a regular electric. Most of his output, at least on YouTube, features a variety of unconventional custom instruments. His take on The Beatles’ and Eric Clapton’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps on a cigar-box guitar is a particularly good example.

Where are you from Justin and what’s your favourite style of playing?

“I am originally from Upland, CA and currently live in Nashville, TN. It’s hard for me to answer what my favourite style of playing is, because I love and respect so many genres and disciplines, but the musicians that always make me feel the most are the ones who do something different. Whether it’s Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Doc Watson, Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, etc., my biggest heroes have always been the innovators that owned their own style, and paved the way for the followers to come.”

When did you become so involved in music and decide to play such a diverse range of odd-looking instruments?

“I stick with a very organic approach to music, letting the inspiration and sound guide my musical path. Because of that, I feel like the unorthodox musical instruments I play have chosen me, more than me having chosen them. I currently have about 300 instruments that have been given to me by luthiers and instrument designers around the world, and each one has its own story to tell and song to sing. Most of my songs and arrangements come from picking up a new and different instrument and hearing its unique voice and soul. Then the music seems to come very freely. This winding road of chasing the next inspiring instrument has built my reputation for showcasing unusual and innovative instrument designs.”

Justin Johnson guitar collection
A portion of Justin’s huge collection of guitars.

Who really inspired you to keep on playing and do you practise often?

“I’ve always had an insatiable passion for playing music, especially stringed instruments, and I’ve never really lacked any motivation to play or practice. On the contrary, it’s rare that I am ever doing anything that doesn’t have to do with music or the guitar. About five years ago, my fiancée Nikki and I sold everything we owned to move into a small RV and tour full-time. Her commitment to dive into this musical journey with me has been the biggest support and  inspiration for me to take my music to a global level, and our years of relentless touring and recording eventually led us to Nashville, TN were we live today.”

Do you have any tips for musicians who want to pursue a career in the industry?

“From my experience, there is no way to succeed in the music industry without making it your obsession. You have to eat, drink, and breathe your music. You have to be willing to make mistakes, and better learn from them quickly, because there’s always someone right behind you who wants what you’re aiming for. You need to have an endless drive to meet your goals, and you have to actually put in the leg work to bring those goals to life!”

Three-string shovel guitar jam hits two million on YouTube

Justin Johnson’s Crankin’ up the Three-String Shovel video is by far his most popular upload to YouTube at two million hits. It’s not uncommon for his vids to rank in the 100,000-500,000 hits mark though. The video features a custom guitar literally made out of a regular shovel, and some fiery improvised blues slide playing. Johnson discussed what it’s like to find his playing go viral.

You’ve been uploading on YouTube for years now, gaining hundreds of thousands of views. Out of the 193 videos you’ve uploaded, why do you think the shovel guitar video became the most popular?

“I think it just has the right formula for captivating people. There is something about the way that the combination of that simple three-string shovel guitar and the improvisation that I played that day come together in that video that makes people want to watch it, share it, and talk about it. I think the key for me is just to keep creating new, genuine music, and sharing it with my fans every single day. I try to write a new song, film a new video, shoot a live stream, showcase new instruments, etc. that will connect me with my fan base… because sharing a love for music and spreading positivity through art is the absolute core of what I’m out there doing daily.”

When were you introduced to the three-string shovel guitar?

“The first shovel guitar I owned was given to me by Roger G Berry of Mississippi Blues Guitars during the southern leg of my 2015 tour.  I was in the Mississippi Delta for a festival performance, and he met me before the show to give me this three-string shovel guitar.”

Is it hard to play? How long did it take you to get accustomed to it?

“The three-string shovel guitar is actually a great instrument for total beginners to play, especially if you want to play slide guitar. I had been playing three-string guitars for years before playing that first shovel guitar, and had already created several instructional DVDs and book on the subject, so I was already very familiar with how to approach it. I was performing with it only minutes after receiving it, and it’s been a big hit at every live show since.”

What reaction do you get when playing it in front of an audience? Are you taking it on tour in 2017?

“People love to see the shovel guitar live. Many of the fans who come out to my shows have seen the videos of me playing it, online, and are anxious to see it in action in person. It’s also great to see the fascination for the shovel guitar from folks who have never seen it, because they just can’t believe that something so unorthodox could have such a sweet, resonant, and vocal tonal quality. I try to use these unusual instruments to help broaden the listeners’ minds about what music is, and about how musical inspiration is only limited by your imagination.”

Shovel guitar goes on sale after viral video

The popularity of Justin Johnson’s shovel guitar video led to demand for the instrument itself. A handmade production version of the shovel guitar is now available for $450 for anyone who wants to get in touch with their inner bluesman. Johnson worked with some friends to bring this model to life.

Justin Johnson Shovel Guitar
The three-string shovel guitar.

Whose idea was it to actually sell this and are you the first?

“We had so many fans requesting information on where they could get a shovel guitar like the one I played in my video that it really necessitated the production of a Justin Johnson Signature Shovel Guitar. When my Crankin’ up the Three-String Shovel video went viral, we were hit with a tidal wave of inquiries about the guitar in the video. I worked with Roger Berry, who built my original shovel guitar, and we brought Kevin Hamilton of Hambone CBGs on board, to create an improved, road-ready, shovel guitar design. The rest is history!”

What kind of parts have gone into this unique instrument?

“The shovel guitar essentially has the same parts as a conventional guitar, such as tuners, volume knob, jack, electric guitar pickup, etc. Many of the parts, however, had to be designed or modified to best suit the eccentricities of the shovel. We also put a lot of attention to ergonomics and playability in the design. On a strap, the shovel guitar is really well balanced, and feels very much like a conventional guitar, only much thinner and lighter.”

Was it hard to make this work, do you make each model yourself or outsource to other companies?

“Each guitar is handmade one-at-a-time in the USA by Hambone CBGs out of Dallas, TX. Kevin Hamilton of Hambone CBGs is an amazing luthier, and has a fearless approach to instrument design, so he was a great choice for building these very non-conventional guitars. Each guitar features a Justin Johnson Signature Flatpup Humbucker Pickup, which are hand-wired by the pickup’s designer in Vienna. I’m very passionate about working with quality builders and designers for my signature products in order to keep quality control high. I’ve always felt that the personal touch in a hand-built instrument infuses something extra into the soul of the music that comes from it.”

Have you had many orders, is there really that much demand for such a bespoke guitar?

“Due to the popularity of my Crankin’ up the three-String Shovel Guitar video, we have seen a great deal of demand for the shovel guitars. We currently have a two-month waiting list for the shovel guitars, and our biggest hurdle in the whole process has been organizing the orders, and keeping production high enough to meet demand. We’ve found that, even though there have been people building and playing shovel guitars for years, people are requesting the “exact” style guitar I played in my video, with very little changes. That’s why it’s so important to me, to personally vouch for the quality and authenticity of these signature models.”

Successful Kickstarter funds $25k for new album If Walls Could Talk

If Walls Could Talk, Justin Johnson’s upcoming studio album, was funded via a successful $25,000 Kickstarter project. The project smashed its original target, leaving Johnson with funds to expand the release. The album was recorded with John Carter Cash, the son of country legend Johnny Cash, in the Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee. The studio was built by Johnny Cash in 1978 and many of his recordings were completed there, along with those of other greats like Merle Haggard, Bela Fleck and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

How did you feel when you found out that you had raised almost double the funds for your newest album?

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that the fans are eager and enthusiastic for the music! Whenever we raise funds for a new project, we are always committed to exceed our fans’ expectations. So when we raised double our original goal, we decided to double the scope of the project by creating an accompanying DVD for the album, which allows the viewer to jump into the studio and watch the album come together. Since I recorded every instrument for If Walls Could Talk myself, it also gives the listener an inside look into how an album is made and how the production and overdubbing process works in the studio.”

Who would you recommend the album to, what type of listeners would like it?

“I’ve found that my demographic is incredibly broad. Since I mainly perform instrumental music, there are very few language, cultural, or age barriers to cross. Basically, if you love listening to music that was created with passion and intention, and doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard before, then you will love If Walls Could Talk!”

Justin Johnson interview studio guitar
Justin Johnson in the studio.

What was it like working with producer John Carter Cash?

“It was amazing to record in Cash Cabin Studio with John Carter Cash producing. John really knows how to create a space for the musician to create their best work. He keeps things laid back, but focused on creating quality, honest, positive work. It’s kind of like farming, in the sense that if you have the right soil, the right seeds, and the right weather… all you have to do is water the seeds! But there is an art to creating those ideal conditions.”

Do you have any new material in the works for release in 2017?

“Absolutely, I have a brand new album called Drivin’ It Down that I am currently completing, also at Cash Cabin Studio in Nashville TN. It will be a double album of revved up blues and rock, and, unlike my last two solo releases, this album will feature a full band, vocals, and a cast of hand-selected guest musicians, including John Carter Cash, his wife Ana Cristina, Marty Stuart, Bootsy Collins and many others that we’re excited to announce as the album continues to develop and the release date draws nearer.  We’ve travelled a lot of miles chasing down this life of music, and Drivin’ It Down is inspired by that wide open road. My goal for the album is for it to feel like that perfect road-trippin’ soundtrack that makes you want to get behind the wheel and see what’s around the next bend.”

Justin Johnson
Justin on the road.

If you would like to support Justin, be sure to visit his website where you can find all his Tour dates, albums and merch. Anyone heading to NAMM next week will get the chance to see Johnson play the shovel guitar in the flesh. He’s playing multiple sessions over three days. You can also see our NAMM coverage on Fender, Squier and ESP.

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