Eric Johnson: Guitar Hero

By Andrew Catania

Eric Johnson began playing guitar at the age of 11. He played with his first touring band in 1968, a psychedelic group called Mariani. The band shared the bill with ZZ Top and Bloodrock in their home state of Texas. Johnson was trained in classical music but was heavily influence by the guitar styles of Jimi Hendrix and hard rock rhythms of Led Zeppelin. In 1974, he joined a rock/jazz fusion group called The Electromagnets. The Magnets shared the stage with bands like Kiss and Mahogany Rush.

Eric Johnson recorded Seven Worlds his first solo album after the band’s break up. Johnson later became a highly sought session guitarist working with legendary artists Cat Stevens, Carole King and Christopher Cross to name a few. In 1986, his critically acclaimed album Tones landed him on the front cover of Guitar Player Magazine. The cover story about Johnson heightened his credentials in the music world and brought the virtuoso critical praise. The album’s track “Zap” was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

It was in 1990 that Eric Johnson broke out of cult hero status among simply guitar cognoscenti and nabbed those two universally recognized standards of success in popular music: Eric sold over 1,000,000 copies of his Ah Via Musicom album and won a Grammy Award for 1991. Cliffs of Dover currently has over 9 million views on YouTube.

For the first twenty-five years of his solo career, Eric Johnson was famous (or notorious) for disappearing into the recording studio for years at a time, but since his albums Bloom in 2005 and Up Close five years later, he’s been recording on a more continual basis.

In 1996, Johnson joined Joe Satrani and Steve Vai for the G3 Tour. And even back then, you wondered just what Johnson was doing on the tour with the hard-rocking Vai and Satriani, because he’s always been a calm, kind of introverted guitar hero, coaxing mellow-toned beauty from a Fender Stratocaster. Usually shredder types have those funny-shaped instruments, wild hair, 437 pedals and a grimace for every note. Johnson stands and plays, with a sound that calls upon blues, pop, even veering toward (shudder!) jazz. It’s usually instrumental, for the same reason that operatic tenor Placido Domingo doesn’t play piano at his concerts: that isn’t why you paid your money. The fans want to hear Johnson play his guitar, which is what he does. The surprise here is that Johnson does it in service of the music. Now, we won’t lie and tell you that there won’t be solos galore. He is a guitar hero, after all, so the mostly male audience, squinting as they try to figure out some complicated run up and down the neck, will be getting served by a genius.

Johnson is best known for playing his stock Fender Stratocasters Signature Series and Gibson ES-335 electric guitars through a triple amp setup that consists of Fender, Dumble and Marshall amplifiers. Johnson has also played other guitar brands such as Robin, Rickenbacker, Jackson and a Charvel, which appears on the cover of the Ah Via Musicom album. In 2001, Johnson added a Gibson Custom Shop ’59 Les Paul Reissue to his guitars of choice.

Lots of guitar players are instrumental geniuses, but — hero worshippers are going to quibble here — Johnson performs songs, that he actually sings. He’s a smooth, more-than-passable vocalist, who is also unafraid to play unplugged. The acoustic guitar is daunting, in that it offers no place to hide, being usually devoid of pedals, effects and other things that can serve to make a plugged-in guitarist seem even more dynamic and virtuosic.

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 23: Eric Johnson performs during Great Guitars: Eric Johnson at The GRAMMY Museum on February 23, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Timothy Norris/WireImage)

Johnson will pull up a chair, hunker down and get to pickin’. It’s then you understand that he’s more than one of those guitar hero dudes. He is that, and most assuredly, as the notes often come in a dense blizzard. But he rarely crosses the line into silliness, even when he performs extended versions of his signature, Grammy-winning “Cliffs of Dover.” And he offers one of the most important signs that he’s a musician, not just a guitar hero, in that he performs the music of other players (he’s fond of Jimi Hendrix) as interpretations rather than covers. It’s cool to watch, and hardly ever boring, which is something that music lovers would have a difficult time saying about most guitar hero shows.

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