Eric Johnson: Ever-Evolving Guitar God

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Eric Johnson (Photo by Max Crace)

For pop artists, the idea of striking a trio of Top 10 hits is a challenging, but not altogether, insurmountable task. But when that performer is a guitar instrumentalist, you’re talking rarefied air. So it went for Eric Johnson back in 1990 when his sophomore bow, Ah Via Musicom was taking him from being a Guitar Player Magazine cover darling to getting significant airplay to go with that commercial success. Fast forward to 2018, and the Texas native is reuniting with bassist Kyle Brock and drummer Tommy Taylor to hit the road and play the album in its entirety. But rather than rest on past laurels, Johnson is also promoting Collage, his tenth studio outing.

Split between five covers and five original numbers, this latest outing not only features the guitarist’s tasteful and fluid style of playing, but has a looser vibe to it than previous projects, where his own perfectionist tendencies found him getting in Dutch with music industry executives during his major label days at Capitol Records.

“Things were going pretty good because we’d put Tones out on Warner Brothers, but they weren’t sure if they wanted to pursue another record and decided that we should go somewhere else,” he recalled. “So I worked super-hard on [Ah Via Musicom] and I would just do it over and over until I felt I was playing it well enough. That record was a lot of hard work to get it to be the way it was. I think when you have a responsibility or pressure to be the best at what you do or if you’re supposed to be good at this certain thing, the question is how do you interpret that? If I interpret that as having to go into the studio and record one note at a time and make it absolutely perfect, that might not be the most [ideal] way to handle those kinds of expectations. And I think at the time, that’s how I was interpreting [what people expected].”

While the success of Ah Via Musicom gave him more leeway with Capitol Record higher-ups, Johnson’s perfectionist tendencies found him again going over budget with the follow-up Venus Isle, which led to him getting dropped by the label. While he has since released a number of albums on independent labels, in addition to working on side projects like Joe Satriani’s G3 Tour and the ad-hoc group Alien Love Child, he looks back at his crossover odyssey as a learning experience.

“I don’t have any kind of bitter attitude about record labels or that music scene. But I think it’s really important to look at it honestly. Yes, it can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it is what it is. But it’s temporal. One minute, you’ve got the red carpet and the next minute, you’ve got the locked door. It really depends on how in vogue you are,” he admitted. “Now, I think the better way to interpret expectations is to try to be a little deeper or a little more soulful. It’s a process of unlearning a lot of stuff you learned that may not have been necessary to pack on your back and carry around.”

With Collage, Johnson gives nods to The Beatles (“We Can Work It Out”), Stevie Wonder (“Up Tight [Everything’s Alright]”), surf music instrumentalists The Chantays (“Pipeline”), B.B. King (“Rock Me Baby”) and Jimi Hendrix (“One Rainy Wish”). By casting such a wide stylistic net, the former guitar prodigy was looking to loosen his recording process up while getting to honor those who came before him.

“This was just me going in and recording whatever I felt like recording with no pressure. It was just to have a little fun and to try and cut as much of it live as I could. It has more of a relaxed vibe to it,” he said. “The main thing in my mind when I’m trying to record is trying to reestablish important issues of making a record, and I think that is to follow the groove, look for magic and get out of the way and have fun. For me, it was just kind of honoring the idea that there’s such beauty in all styles of music. It’s kind of like going aerial in a plane and you look down on the topography and you realize that there’s this connectivity to it all.”

Originally inspired to play music by a guitar-playing family friend who came over to the house and played some Elmore James and Jimmy Reed numbers, Johnson started woodshedding when he was 11. Over the next decade, his skills grew as he put in time with local fusion group The Electromagnets before going solo and earning his own cult following. He also wound up being a session guitarist for a number of higher profile artists, including Christopher Cross, Cat Stevens and Carole King, which gave him creative insight he might not have otherwise been exposed to.

Eric Johnson (far left) with his jazz-fusion rock band Electromagnets performing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh on April 11, 1976 (Photo courtesy of Malco 23)

“It was really cool to be around songsmiths like that and to see how important a song was to them. That was what it was about. It was a really good learning experience for me to see that,” he explained.

Fans coming out to see Johnson will get to sample the newer, mellower guitarist with a first-half set focused on his most recent fare while diehards will get to experience all of Ah Via Musicom in the show’s second set. It’s the first time the sexuagenarian instrumentalist will be taking this kind of approach to that landmark release.

“I’ve never done it in its entirety before. I’d only do a song here and there. It’s pretty nostalgic and I’m having fun with it,” he said. “There’s a lot of parts of it that are improvisational, so it’s a little bit more liquid than if I had to go play it all note-for-note. It’s nice to play with Kyle and Tommy again. There’s a chemistry between us that’s really cool.”

Eric Johnson will be appearing on March 4 at @ B.B. King Blues Club and Grill, 237 West 42nd St., NYC. To find out more information, visit www.bbkingblues.com or call 212-997-4144.

Click here to read about Eric Johnson’s favorite guitarists.

Eric Johnson’s Fave Guitarists

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In addition to being editor of Garden City Life and Syosset-Jericho Tribune, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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