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Roseburg guitarist Neil Johnson charts his own musical path

Neil Johnson has played guitar for half his life. That’s 13 years of experience.

Not bad.

But the other three members of The Neil Johnson Band have a combined 120 years experience between them.

“Each one of them have been playing for more than 40 years,” he said, laughing. “At first, it was (intimidating), but now it’s cool because we all know each other. I’ve got pretty thick skin.”

He’ll need it. Johnson’s lately been embarking on a truly brave project, one many people toy with but never fully embrace — earning a living as a musician.

To make this happen, he’s been learning new material and picking up lessons where he can find them. He’s also had the good sense to surround himself with a century’s worth of talent.

Johnson can be heard at noon Friday performing solo jazz guitar near the entrance of this weekend’s Umpqua Valley Summer Arts Festival in Roseburg. The Neil Johnson Band will also perform at 5 p.m. Friday on the main stage.

“I’m not very good at the P.R. thing,” he said at the start of an interview this week. “But I’m getting better.”

Johnson learned to lead a band from his mother, Dawn Day, whose Dawn Day Blues Project regularly entertains around town. Day plays her bass with a calm assurance, and has rooted a cast of musicians in the local music scene for years.

“She’s really awesome,” Johnson said. “My mom’s taught me a lot.”

Both Johnson’s parents are musicians, but before learning diminished sevenths and major sixths, Johnson picked up power chords. He played punk and heavy rock in local bands 40 Ways From Sunday and Cowboy Bubblebath. He’s now a bit bored by the simplicity of those genres, though he’s still a fan.

He’s recently engaged, and plays irregularly in local bands the Hotqua String Band and Small Town Rumor.

Johnson’s musical ambitions currently break down into two areas — solo and with his band.

Taking a page from influences Joe Pass, Pat Martino and Chet Atkins, Johnson has developed a repertoire of solo jazz guitar he can take to most restaurants and wineries — heavy on country standards and classic rock songs from the 1970s.

“It takes a certain understanding of what people want. This year I’ve been learning a lot of covers.”

For providing three hours of entertainment in the evening, he earns what many people do putting in eight hours behind a desk. And with regular gigs now filling his weekly schedule, he’s got to spend time during the day learning new material to sound fresh at night.

He can be heard every Wednesday at the new Blac-N-Bleu Bistro on Garden Valley Boulevard, O’Toole’s on the last Thursday of the month, Draper Draft House the second Thursday of the month and Tolly’s in Oakland the first and third weeks of the month.

He recently secured the weekly Monday and Tuesday evening slots at the Village Green Resort in Cottage Grove. Dylan James, a friend, gave Johnson the reference after James stopped playing the gigs himself. “It’s nice to be working Monday and Tuesday,” he said. “Those are hard gigs to get.”

Live music is good for a venue because it communicates to customers a willingness to go the extra mile, Johnson said. “It gives people an excuse to hang around and have a couple extra drinks. It gives people an excuse to come back.

“I’m just kind of old-fashioned about live music. I just think it beats the heck out of an iPod.”

It’s simple but it’s not easy to play solo. It takes adaptability and curiosity. For a recent Celtic-themed event, he had to take to YouTube to learn Irish music. But the audience ate up his jigs, he said.

Though he earns more playing solo, he wanted to front a fuller sound. So he recently put together an eponymous bluesy rock band, recruiting keyboardist Skip Golden, drummer David Parker and bassist Louis Kay.

Kay is a guitar tech at Hi 5 Music, where Johnson teaches lessons. He’s also a friend of Dawn Day, which is how he met Johnson years ago.

Kay, 73, has won two Academy of Country Music Awards over a long career as a bassist. He’s only played with Johnson for a few months, but said he’ll be with Johnson “as long as he needs me.”

“He’s energetic. He can play all the styles. He’s very well-rounded for his age,” Kay said. “In my opinion, I think he’s going to make it.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jun 26, 2014 10:06AM Published Jul 14, 2014 10:21AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.