When bluesmen chat about their favourite electric guitars, the words Strat and Les Paul often work their way into the conversation. Not when James “Super Chikan” Johnson is doing the talking, though. His ultimate six-string carries neither the Fender nor the Gibson brand, and in a previous lifetime it worked hard to keep people nice and cool.
“I took the motor out of a ceiling-fan casing and took the casing itself and built the guitar in it,” explains Johnson from his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. “It’s round like a banjo, with a guitar neck, so I called it a ”˜guijo’.”
Johnson has crafted guitars for Bill Clinton and Billy Gibbons; he’s also sold them to Paul Simon and actor Steven Seagal. As a child, he had one main motivation for taking the hands-on approach to things.
“Ah, that comes from bein’ poor,” he explains. “There were so many of us we couldn’t afford stuff for Christmas, so we started makin’ our own toys, and we made stuff all the time. Every time we threw somethin’ away, we took a second look at it and went back and got it. We was recyclin’ before we knew what recyclin’ was, man.”
When he’s not busy building some of the coolest-looking instruments around, Johnson can be heard using them to fine effect, as he does on his latest album, Chikadelic, which was recorded in Norway with some of that country’s top bluesmen. Johnson normally performs with three female backup musicians as Super Chikan and the Fighting Cocks, one of the top draws at co-owner Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero club in Clarksdale.
“We’re his favourite band,” claims the Jimmy Reed–inspired player. “He comes around and he always teases me. He’ll holler, ”˜Hey Chikan, pull the E string a little bit!’ I pull the E string and then he says, ”˜All right, the party’s on, let’s party!’ ”
When he’s not making wild guitars or ripping it up at Delta juke joints, the 59-year-old picker makes a living touring North America and Europe, and he doesn’t plan on leaving the musical life anytime soon.
“I don’t know nothin’ else, man,” he says. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades, and all my trades done played out except this one.”
Super Chikan and the Fighting Cocks play the Yale on Sunday (July 4).