Artist Profile: Guitarist Geeb Johnston rocks with the Atlantics for New Year’s Eve at Semiahmoo Resort

Bellingham native Geeb Johnston, who won’t be specific about his age but says “Ike was president” when he was born, grew up in Ferndale. He has played with a number of bands over the years and all around the world. Once he returned to the area, he began playing guitar and violin with longtime Bellingham r&b and classic rock band The Atlantics.

For years, the Atlantics have played New Year’s Eve at Semiahmoo Resort, and they’ll do so again this year. Here’s more about Johnston:

Question: Growing up, who were your role models?

Answer: My sister, Laine, and I had the good fortune of having terrific parents. They were always very supportive of any interests we had — school, music, sports —they were always there for us.

While in elementary school I started taking violin lessons with Arthur Thal. A wonderful teacher and a great man, he was pivotal in my musical development as well as teaching me the value of discipline. It wasn’t until later that I gained a fuller appreciation for the body of work he produced. He was a man of integrity, and made so many valuable contributions to this community. I think of him every day. We were lucky to have him.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to play music as a profession ?

A: I always knew I would play, but the possibility of doing it professionally started to enter my mind while I was still in high school. I enjoyed the classics, but I was also listening to a lot of other music.

I wanted to try other kinds of music, but the violin had its limitations. So I got a guitar and was able to pick it up pretty quickly, thanks to my violin training. Now I had access to much more!

I kept it on the sly for a while until my sister pulled an “Eddie Haskell” and let it slip to Mr. Thal — he was not pleased! Too late, I’d already heard B.B. King.

Q: Where did you perform?

A: After high school I started playing in some of the local clubs here; there was a lot of live music in town then. I’d also hit every jam session I could find, and sit in with anyone who would let me on the bandstand. That was the start of another musical education. You have to just jump in and let whatever happens happen. You can’t grow if you always stay in your comfort zone.

I also dug into other styles on the violin — country, bluegrass and more. Then one day I heard jazz violinist Joe Venuti — I had to catch that!

It all began to pay off in 1978 when an agent from Seattle who had heard me play called me one morning. A singer he booked had two weeks booked in Hawaii but his fiddle player had to quit because of a family emergency. Would I want the job?

Two days later I’m playing in a showroom in Hilo. He liked my work. I stayed with him for three years touring all over the Western U.S.; a lot of work in Reno, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, as well as the Midwest. I did some regional TV shows and radio there, as well as some recording sessions.

Q: What groups are you working with these days ?

A: Since I returned to the area I’ve played with a number of bands over the years, mostly country. I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation as a “country” player, but I’m as comfortable playing Billie Holiday as I am Bill Monroe.

For the last four years I’ve been a member of The Atlantics. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. All the guys are great players and real pros. Everyone supports one another and respects each others talent.

Paul Klein is a great leader; he has a wonderful sense of each guy’s abilities and know how to blend it together. It was a bit daunting at first. The Atlantics have had some strong guitarists over the years, but everyone has been very patient with me.

However, I make sure to carry the heavy stuff and bring doughnuts to rehearsals, just to be on the safe side.

Q: What’s your day job ?

A: I keep a full slate of students; 60-65 most of the year.

Q: What do you enjoy most about teaching ?

A: My versatility as a player allows me to have a wide range of students. In a typical day I’ll cover Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, swing and Gypsy violin, country fiddle, and the Telemann Duets (it keeps me on my toes).

The best thing, of course is when you make that connection with a student; the light comes on and they assimilate the material. It’s those little victories that nurture a persons’ belief in themselves. When you see a young person walk out six inches taller than when they walked in, it’s a wonderful thing.