Wayne's World By Wendy Hinman | Photos by Rita Hoffman, Paul Thompson and courtesy of Wayne Johnson
Playing guitar is a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
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You have to love your job. Parents start telling us this when we are about 10. Friends will tell us this—once we’ve settled on making a living—whenever we complain about our current employment. Here is Carlsbad resident Wayne Johnson’s job description: play guitar. And when he is kicking back on his couch, in an old pair of sweats, playing that guitar, he’s working. Who doesn’t want his job? Not all of us want to be rock stars, but most of us want to be in the band.

Johnson ’s current employer is Bette Midler. She has a two-year run in Las Vegas at the Colosseum in Caesar’s Palace with The Showgirl Must Go On. Past employers include Manhattan Transfer (for about 25 years), John Tesh and Rickie Lee Jones. Johnson said making it as a guitarist is mostly about being in the right place at the right time and who you meet along the way.

It was Elvis on an old black-and-white TV that first drew Johnson to the guitar. “But on TV it was a mirror image,” he says, so the first time he picked up a six-string he played it left handed. That worked fine for Paul McCartney, but Johnson’s first guitar teacher flipped him to the right hand and he really took off.

Johnson joined a garage band. “Only, we were really in the basement,” he says. Johnson played lots of “sock hops in the cafeteria” and joined better and better groups. He started traveling with a band, The Syndrome, at 14. Johnson grew up in Spokane, Washington, where he had to be 21 to go into a bar, no exceptions. In Idaho and Montana it didn’t matter how old he was if he was in the band. So weekends found the band skipping over to Idaho’s panhandle or over the Bitterroot Mountains to play clubs. The first, being the worst, he’s ever played. “Monk’s Cave, I think it was in Missoula, Montana,” he says. “Truly a cave. Horrible acoustics. With an amazing stench of alcohol and cigarettes. Probably no ventilation.”

The best place he ever played was, appropriately, “Valhalla, a place up in the Norwegian mountains—a huge crater left by a meteor now filled with glacial waters and turned into a concert venue. It’s an amazing place for sound. They have a great sauna back stage. You sweat and then jump in the freezing lake,” Johnson says.

Like most kids then, his early affinities were Hendrix, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, even Vanilla Fudge. But he was also in the jazz band in high school. Jazz guitarists Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Howard Roberts were influential to his style. When he took first place for best jazz soloist in a western states jazz festival he won the attention of Gary Burton. Burton, at that crossroad, was dean of Berklee College of Music in Boston. After two years at a junior college in Spokane, Johnson headed to Berklee on a full-ride scholarship. Berklee was one of the first academic institutions to specialize in jazz and rock. Its alumni list is better than any accreditation, which includes Marsalis, Mayer, Etheridge, Krall.

When Johnson headed west again he came to L.A. He met his wife Jill and they dated for a year. “Then we both married someone else,” Johnson says. Jill was a jazz singer and somehow he thought two musicians wouldn’t work. Fourteen years later, both divorced, they met again. That is when Johnson moved to Carlsbad and now they’ve been together for 10 years. “Jill is my number-one fan. She understands what it takes to be a musician.” And Jill can say what some of us only dreamed of as girls, “I married my favorite guitar player.”

The marriage also brought Sodie into Johnson’s life. Sodie is Johnson’s stepson. In a day when blended families are a huge question mark, it is incredible to hear Johnson brag about Sodie. His love is obvious as soon as he starts talking. It’s not Sodie’s guitar or football playing that lights up Johnson’s eyes when he talks about him, just Sodie himself.

When Johnson, 57, is not off with some headliner, he and Jill have a local, occasional trio that performs around town with Steve Orr (Jill’s ex-husband and Sodie’s dad) called Treja Vous. And he has banged around for years with the Wayne Johnson Trio, which consists of Johnson, Bill Berg, a now retired Disney animator, and Jimmy “Flim” Johnson (no relation) who can play for the trio when he’s not off backing up James Taylor.

Johnson has two solo CDs and seven with various groups, either the Wayne Johnson Trio or with Mojazz artists. He won a Grammy Award in 2004 for his work on Pink Guitar, a tribute to Henry Mancini. It was the best pop instrumental album of the year. What is enjoyable on any of Johnson’s CDs is their pure compositions. No big names, no over-production, no concessions to egos. Even on his solo albums the essence is just a soul laid down. (To sample his stuff go to www.waynejohnsononline.com).

Johnson plays five different guitars and a ukulele in Midler’s show. He likes playing Vegas because he can get home to Carlsbad a couple days a week. And he likes Midler. Johnson has worked for some big names who were mostly “invisible” to the band. “Bette however, she’s got a thing about her that makes you think you’re the best in the world. She looks you in the eye and she’s got this touch thing—like putting her hand on your shoulder—that pulls you in,” he says.

When he suggested she play the ukulele on one song—Midler was born and raised in Hawai’i—she was all in. The only improv, however, was in rehearsals. “There are over 100 people involved in the show. It is very polished, always spot on,” Johnson says. When you play Caesar’s “you can’t be vulnerable.” But he says it’s a different kind of fun, “more of a gymnastic achievement” switching from instrument to instrument.

There was more freedom in his Manhattan Transfer years. “There was more spontaneity available,” he says. He attributes Manhattan Transfer’s longevity to “four singers without egos.” And he describes jazz jamming “like having a good conversation. I could play a solo riff and another musician could respond. You can even tell musical jokes to each other.”

Because Johnson speaks fluent guitar he is also a clinician for Taylor Guitars. Some of his best gigs have been on Taylor Road Shows. Taylor flies Johnson all around the country to music and guitar stores to show off their best and latest products. Everyone in the crowd has guitar-love in common. “There are some amazing guitarists out there, especially in the south,” he says. On these road trips, he gets paid to test drive high-end instruments and play with the best friends he never knew he had.

Dream job notwithstanding, Johnson likes being home and having down time like the rest of us. He couldn’t be happier that his world travels bring him home to Carlsbad. And besides the weather, we all have that one thing we love about Carlsbad. What is Johnson’s? “Fly fishing the coast.”

You can fly fish the coast? “Yes, I’ve converted all my gear to salt water efficiency. The patterns [flies] now match the sea water environment specific to local habitat. It is very new, but people are eagerly jumping into this mix. There are even special fly lines now that are weighted for longer casts and to sink as they hit the water. In the ocean, you need to be able to control the depth. Fly streams in the mountains are usually shallow or you cast to float on top, called ‘dry fly.’ The big difference is the studying of the moon and therefore the tides. You have to know when high and low tides occur as the fish are only available during certain times of these tides. It is a whole new world for fly fishing.” Apparently, if there is some string involved, there isn’t anything Johnson can’t do with it.

Wayne Johnson describes jazz jamming like having a good conversation. I could play a solo riff and another musician could respond. You can even tell musical jokes to each other.