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Eric Johnson

 

Austin, Texas is seen as one of the up and coming music scenes in the United States.  It has a reputation for being the fertile ground for artsy musicians to perfect their craft and gain recognition for their work.  It even hosts the famous South by Southwest music festival every year, which allows new, independent artists the opportunity to showcase their style.  Before Austin even started gaining its reputation for great music, Eric Johnson was 16 years old, and rocking the socks off of audiences with his amazing guitar skills.  Eric Johnson's journey from humble Austin, TX to becoming a true guitar hero has not been easy.  Eric is an admitted perfectionist about his music.  He has been called obsessive about his album recordings and guitar equipment.  In some regards, this has greatly contributed to his musical excellence, and sometimes stalled his progress toward his ultimate career goals.  Through it all, Eric has persevered with patience, continues to rock crowds of guitar enthusiasts, and is heralded by Guitar Player Magazine as being “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet”. 
 
Eric Johnson was born on August 17, 1954 into a musically inclined family in Austin, Texas.  His father enjoyed singing and encouraged his children to pursue musical interests.  Eric and his sisters studied piano very early on, and then Eric switched to guitar lessons.  He acknowledges Eric Clapton, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Jerry Reed, and Chet Atkins among other artists who contributed great influences to his style as he learned the guitar.  By the time Eric was 16, he was the lead guitarist in a band called Mariani, which rocked Austin, Texas and he started to make a name for himself.  Eric did record some music with his first band, which is now considered a valuable collector's item.
 
When Eric graduated from high school he dabbled in a few different endeavors including a year at the University of Texas at Austin and traveling to Africa with his family.  However, he realized that being in Austin and making music was where he really wanted to be.  In 1975 he joined up with his second band, the Electromagnets, a fusion group.  His three years with the group earned him some great experience and a loyal fan base in the Austin area.  Unfortunately, the Electromagnets were never able to get a recording contract with a legitimate music label and broke up.
 
Despite the end of the Electromagnets, Eric kept making music.  He began working with a couple members of the defunct group under the new name of the Eric Johnson Trio.  Eric didn't just play guitar with the Electromagnets, he also sang.  Eric's vocals are impressive to this day, but are commonly overlooked in favor of his string-bending guitar skills.  With his new group, Eric was able to tour more and record his first album, entitled Seven Worlds.  As was the case with many future projects of Eric's, Seven Worlds got caught up in legal issues and mis-management and was not released until twenty years later.  This is one of the first examples of Eric Johnson's perseverance and patience with his musical career.  Seven Worlds would not be the first or last of Eric's projects to get entangled in red tape and legal nonsense. 
 
Even though his first album got stalled out and his career suffered for a few years, Eric kept working to perfect his sound and his craft.  He contributed to recordings by several well-known artists including Christopher Cross, Cat Stevens and Carole King.  He also continued his work in the local Austin, TX scene and gained an excellent reputation for mind-blowing live performances, but was not able to translate his success into an album or national recognition for many years.
 
Finally, in 1984 Eric caught a break when Prince saw a clip of his live performance.  Prince was an extremely popular and influential artist at the time, and with the help of Christopher Cross, got Eric signed to the Warner Brothers record label.  In 1986, Eric released Tones, which was his first legitimate album created with the backing of a major record label.  The album earned Eric some media recognition as well as a Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy nomination for the song “Zap”.  However, it did not sell as well as everyone hoped, so Warner Brothers let Eric go, and he signed with a smaller, independent record label.  True to form, Eric did not let the disappointment of losing his Warner Brothers contract keep him from creating music and continuing to work at improving his guitar skills.
 
Big success was right around the corner after the apparent setback of being released from Warner Brothers.  Eric's next album Ah Via Musicom brought him the biggest accolades of his career.  The now famous track “Cliffs of Dover” won him a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1990.  By this time, Eric was considered a guitar legend.  The Ah Via Musicom album went platinum and Eric got all kinds of hype in the guitar press for his impressive accomplishments. 
 
Eric entered into a period where he toured to promote Ah Via Musicom and worked toward perfecting his next album release.  Apparently, his perfectionism was in high gear during the recording of his follow-up album.  A few other factors including side projects and personal issues contributed to the six year wait for Eric's next album, Venus Isle, which was finally released in 1996.  Although the album clearly demonstrated that Eric had made great strides in his musical style and abilities, it did not get great reviews or sales.  It was one more tough blow to Eric's career, because he had worked on the album for so long and was the producer, songwriter, arranger, and vocalist for the album in addition to his guitar skills.  Eric was subsequently dropped from his record label for the second time in his career.
 
During the time Eric was working to put out Venus Isle, he also started a side project called Alien Love Child.  The group received a great response from fans and eventually put out a live performance album called Live and Beyond.  It is rumored that the Alien Love Child project helped Eric to work through some of his perfectionism and obsessing over his music.  Since the album was recorded live, Eric was forced to accept and embrace a few flaws in the performance and found the experience very freeing.
 
Despite the disappointment of the Venus Isle album, Eric did not give up his musical aspirations.  He found success rather quickly while touring with other well-known guitarists Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.  In 1996 the trio toured together and recorded an album entitled G3: Live in Concert, which went platinum.  In 1998, more than twenty years after he originally recorded it, Seven Worlds was released to the public.  Fans were intrigued to notice that Johnson's style was already developed on this very first album. 
 
His next album, Souvenir, was released in 2002.  Souvenir gave fans a unique perspective on Eric's studio recording process.  After a nine-year production period, Eric released Bloom in 2005.  Fortunately, most of his fans are patient, but he received a lot of criticism for taking so very long to release Bloom.  Eric simply attributes the long wait to being busy with other projects.  When the album was finally done, Eric's fans enjoyed the diversity of sounds and the more emotional, improvised style of his music.  Even though he hadn't quite let go of his perfectionist, technical ways, his music was beginning to show a more light-hearted side of his untouchable guitar greatness.  Eric began contributing to musical theater productions in 2006 and continues to work on various live productions and a new studio album.  The word on the street says don't hold your breath waiting for his next album release, but when it does come out, you will not be disappointed.
 
Through the personal setbacks, disappointing album sales, accomplishments and awards, Eric Johnson has remained strong and patient.  He has received criticism for being too much of a technical musician and not playing with his heart.  However, these comments do not bother Eric. He is proud of his technical mastery of the guitar and sees himself fulfilling a different role in the guitar world.  He continues to work toward creating a more authentic sound every day. 
 
Any aspiring guitarist who wishes to match Eric's mastery needs to develop a commitment to the technical aspects of making music, as well as musical equipment.  Eric's advice to developing guitarists is to become very comfortable with the fretboard.  He says you have to start out slowly and develop your “ear theory” before you worry about the “book theory” of playing guitar.  Learn to recognize intervals and notes all along the guitar fretboard and you will start to work toward all he has accomplished.
 
Eric Johnson is an official guitar hero.  Even though he is in his 50's now, his music still appeals to a younger generation.  His Grammy winning recording for “Cliffs of Dover” is featured on the Guitar Hero video game series.  As Austin, TX gains more of a reputation for creating great music and guitar superstars, Eric Johnson will be remembered as one of the grandfathers of the Austin scene.  His sound will never get old, however, as his commitment to keep working slowly but surely to improve his sound and keep his craft relevant to future generations of guitar fans never waivers.
 

     

Eddie Van Halen
Joe Satriani
Eric Johnson
Steve Vai
Paul Gilbert
Jimmy Page
Randy Rhoads
Kurt Cobain
Kirk Hammett
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Yngwie Malmsteen
Slash
Robert Johnson
Pete Townsend
Jerry Garcia
Bo Diddley
Jeff Beck
Duane Allman
Jimmy Hendrix
BB King
John Frusciante
Joe Perry
George Harrison
Santana
Chuck Berry
Eric Clapton
Dimebag Darrell
 
 
 
 
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