Hailed by many as the best guitarist in the post-Jimi Hendrix era, Eric Johnson has earned high critical praise and a multitude of fans for his blend of classic and contemporary sounds. He established his reputation with his blockbuster Ah Via Musicom album released in 1990, which features a wide variety of guitar styles and has been acclaimed as a paragon of guitar mastery.
Johnson has a reputation for perfectionism bordering on obsession, a designation backed up by the fact that it took him nearly six years to record his follow-up album to Ah Via Musicom. He has often said that he is more interested in tone than technique, and he has spent much time in the studio fiddling with amps and speakers in search of new sounds that intrigue him. His playing has ranged from soaring rock a la Hendrix to soothing, almost meditative sounds that resemble music produced by the koto, a Japanese zither.
Johnson developed an early passion for music from his parents while growing up in Austin, Texas. “Both my parents loved music, so they tried to get us to take piano lessons and that kind of stuff,” Johnson told Raoul Hernandez of the Austin Chronicle. Playing the piano at age five, Johnson was already writing songs just three years later. He fell in love with the guitar in 1964 when his brother formed a band and he heard them twanging away in an attempt to sound like the then-popular Ventures. Within a year Johnson had his own guitar and was playing it incessantly. After becoming part of a band called The Id at age thirteen, he played in a series of bands, mostly with older kids who recognized his talent.
When Jimi Hendrix released his Are You Experienced album in 1967, Johnson suddenly had to rethink everything he knew about playing guitar. He began experimenting more and looking for ways to get more unique sounds from his instrument. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Johnson immersed himself in the blues, often attending performances of blues legends such as Freddie King and Johnny Winter.
A major influence on Johnson was the work of jazz/rock fusion guitarist John McLaughlin with Chick Corea and Return to Forever on the Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy album. Johnson began delving into fusion with his own band, the Electromagnets, while playing in clubs around Austin. Although his group began increasing its base of fans in the mid 1970s, Johnson felt that their songs were becoming too complicated. In 1976 he ventured into the studio solo, and tried singing for the first time. After the Electromagnets disbanded the following year, he taught guitar for a while and then reformed his group with Electromagnets’s drummer Bill Maddox and bassist Roscoe Beck.
Born August 17, 1954, in Austin, TX.
Began taking piano lessons at age five; wrote first song at age eight; received first guitar, 1965; joined first band at age thirteen; formed own band, the Electromagnets, early 1970s; signed management contract with Lone Wolf Productions, 1977; recorded debut album, Seven Worlds, that was never released, late 1970s; began performing on Austin City Limits, 1984; signed recording contract with Warner Brothers; released Tones, 1986; signed recording contract with Cinema Records that was later picked up by Capitol Records; released Ah Via Musicom, 1990; toured with B.B. King, 1993; released Venus Isle, 1996. Awards: Best Overall Guitarist, Guitar Player Readers Poll, 1990-1994; Grammy Award, Best Instrumental (“Cliffs of Dover”), 1992; named one of 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century, Musician magazine.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, Hollywood and Vine Streets, Hollywood, CA. Agent —Joe Priesnitz Artist Management, P.O. Box 5249, Austin, TX 78763.
In what turned out to be the greatest roadblock to his career, Johnson singed an exclusive six-year contract with Lone Wolf Productions in 1977. After cutting his debut album, SevenWorlds, Johnson had to wait while Lone Wolf rejected offers from some smaller record companies and tried to land a more lucrative deal with a major label. The album was never released and, since Lone Wolf had no long-range plans for Johnson’s development as an artist, he was left pretty much in limbo for the duration of his contract. Further ham pering his career was Lone Wolf’s strategy to keep Johnson out of the public eye in order to increase his “mystique.”
When his contract terminated in 1984, Johnson got back into action by becoming part of the lineup on Austin City Limits, a popular venue for musical performers in his hometown. Rumor has it that his playing caught the attention of the rock star formerly known as Prince, who advised Warner Brothers, his label, to sign up Johnson. Before long Johnson was working on an album for Warner’s Reprise label, with producer David Tickel. Tickel had produced Split Enz’s Wiatata, an album that had especially impressed Johnson.
In 1986 the public got its first exposure to Johnson’s mastery with his Tones LP. In Guitar Player, Jas Obrecht called the album “a majestic debut, its collage of guitar sounds ranging from purest-of-pure Strat to Hendrix-heavy psychedelia, from delicate koto chimes to magnificent violin textures.” In her review of the album in The NewAge Music Guide, Patti Jean Birosik wrote, “Johnson plays guitarthe way Michelangelo painted ceilings: with a colorful vibrancy that’s more real than life.” Despite the praise, Warner Brothers did not promote the album heavily and it sold only around 50,000 copies. The figures did not live up to the label’s expectations, and Johnson’s contract was allowed to lapse. Looking for more creative control over his work, Johnson next signed on with the independent label Cinema Records. When Cinema’s distribution arrangement with Capitol Records didn’t work out, Capitol was impressed enough with Johnson to transfer his contract to them.
Unlike Tones, which was recorded and mixed in only two months, Johnson’s next album was a marathon ordeal due to the artist’s relentless perfectionism. The effort paid off with the release of Ah Via Musicom in 1990. Greeted with rave reviews and benefiting from extensive promotional support from Capitol, the album became a landmark recording in the annals of guitar playing. It featured a number of songs that received major airplay, including Johnson’s classic “Cliffs of Dover,” “Righteous,” “Trademark,” and “High Landrons.” “Marrying deep emotion with jaw-dropping finesse, portions of Ah Via Musicom stand on a par with Jimi Hendrix’ “Electric Ladyland,” noted Obrecht. The album went gold and has gone on to sell some 800,000 copies. The surge in Johnson’s popularity caused by thealbum also resulted in renewed interest in Tones, pushing sales of the release well into the hundreds of thousands.
With Ah Via Musicom serving as a testament to his abilities, Johnson was named Best Overall Guitarist along with Steve Vai in Guitar Player’. 1990 reader’s poll—an award he would also win the next four years in a row. He also won a Grammy Award for “Cliffs of Dover” in 1992 in the Best Instrumental category, and was voted one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the Twentieth Century by Musicia. magazine.
With expectations about his next work soaring after Ah Via Musicom, Johnson found himself wondering how he could move his music to a new level and avoid repeating himself. He drastically reduced his public appearances over the next three years, surfacing only for a short tour with B.B. King in 1993. Meanwhile, work on a new album creeped along at a snail’s pace due to Johnson’s continual shifts in direction. “I was looking at my music under a microscope and wanting to get everything perfect,” hetold GuitarWorld. “It’s a phase that I’ve been going through since I started working on Musicom. I’m really aware that I need to become less obsessed.” Six years after his last release, the much-awaited Venu. Isle hit the stores in the fall of 1996. Once again Johnson offered a showcase of his varied talents with songs ranging form the rocking instrumental of “Camel’s Night Out,” and “Pavilion” to the jazz style of “Manhattan” that is reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. It also featured Johnson on acoustic piano in “Travel One Hope,” and in a tribute to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan called “SRV.” (Johnson has often stated that he learned a lot from Vaughan.)
Johnson credits extensive meditation for his focus and creativity. In the future he plans to further explore the potential of the guitar in search of a “new” sound. As he told GuitarWorldi. 1996, “I really want to find some way to make the guitar into an engine of inspiration that will last for another twenty or thirty years.”
Tones, Reprise, 1986.
Ah Via Musicom, Capitol, 1990.
Venus Isle, Capitol, 1996.
Birosik, Patti Jean, The New Age Music Guide, Macmillan, 1989, p. 91.
Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, and Chris Woodstra, editors, All Music Guide to Rock, Miller Freeman, 1995, p. 430.
DownBeat, October 1992, p. 60.
Guitar Player, January 1993, pp. 35-42; January 1995, p. 89, 101
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Eric Johnson Homepage, Capitol Records website, and Guitar World websit. on the Internet.