Eric Johnson (born August 17, 1954) is an American guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist from Austin, Texas. Best known for his electric guitar skills, Johnson is also a highly proficient acoustic, lap steel, resonator, and bass guitarist as well as an accomplished pianist and vocalist.
Johnson is skilled in a wide array of musical genres evidenced by the many different styles incorporated in both his studio and live performances including rock, electric and acoustic blues, jazz, fusion, soul-inspired music, folk, New Age, classical, and country and western.
Guitar Player magazine has called Johnson "one of the most respected guitarists on the planet". His 1990 platinum-selling, full-length album, Ah Via Musicom, produced the single, "Cliffs Of Dover", for which Johnson won the 1992 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Born into a musically inclined family, Johnson and his three sisters studied piano and his father was a whistling enthusiast. Johnson started learning the guitar at age 11 and rapidly began progressing through the music that would heavily influence his future style, including Mike Bloomfield, Chet Atkins, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Ric Bailey, Wes Montgomery, Jerry Reed, Bob Dylan, and Django Reinhardt, among others. At the age of 15, he joined his first professional band—Mariani, a psychedelic rock group. In 1968, Johnson and the group recorded a demo, which saw extremely limited release; years later the recording became a prized collector's item.
After graduating from high school, Johnson briefly attended the University of Texas at Austin and traveled with his family to Africa. He eventually returned to Austin, and in 1974 joined a local fusion group called Electromagnets. The group toured and recorded regionally, but did not attract attention from major record labels and as a result disbanded in 1977. However, the strength of Johnson's playing attracted a small cult following to the group's early recordings, and decades later their two albums were given wide release on compact disc.
Following the Electromagnets' demise, Johnson formed a touring trio, the Eric Johnson Group, with drummer Bill Maddox and bassist Kyle Brock. They played to audiences around Austin and between 1976 and 1978 recorded (at Odyssey Studios in Austin) his first full length album produced and engineered by Jay Aaron Podolnick titled Seven Worlds. Although the album showcased the Eric's sound, contract disputes held up the album's release for several years. Seven Worlds was eventually released in 1998 on Ark21 Records. Unable to secure a new management contract, Johnson began working as a session guitarist for some well-known acts, including Cat Stevens, Carole King, and Christopher Cross, among others. While a session musician, Johnson continued to perform locally, developing a flashy but tasteful electric guitar sound. His career rebounded in 1984 when he was signed to Warner Bros. Records. There is some disagreement about exactly how Johnson caught Warner Brothers' attention, with some reports suggesting that pop superstar Prince recommended him after hearing him perform on the public television program Austin City Limits. Others suggest that it was singer Christopher Cross and producer David Tickle who recommended Johnson to the label. In any case, Johnson's major-label debut, Tones, was unveiled in 1986 with Tickle as co-producer.
In May 1986, Guitar Player magazine ran a cover story about Johnson. The article helped promote the release of Tones and brought Johnson critical praise as well as elevating his profile in the guitar and music community. The album's track "Zap" was nominated for the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, but as a whole the album didn't sell well and Warner Brothers let Johnson's contract expire. He signed on with indie label Cinema Records, distributed by Capitol Records.
By the time Johnson released his 1990 Capitol Records debut album, Ah Via Musicom, he was regularly winning awards for his musicianship in the guitar press. During this period, Johnson also drew recognition for the rich, violin-like tone he coaxed from his vintage Fender Stratocaster. The album's second track, "Cliffs Of Dover", exemplified his unique sound and won Johnson a 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Ah Via Musicom was a crossover hit, and was certified platinum.
Fellow Texan, the late comedian Bill Hicks, opened for Eric Johnson on at least one occasion in the Eighties. The highly intoxicated Hicks made light of Eric's lack of hit singles, as well as his vegetarian and teetotal lifestyle, by suggesting that if Eric were to eat a Hamburger and drink a beer he would be able to write more popular songs. After this incident Bill Hicks was not asked to open for Johnson ever again.
Johnson is an admitted perfectionist, and those traits seemed to work against Ah Via Musicom's follow-up release. Unhappy with his recordings, Johnson mastered, then later scrapped, several completed tracks for the new album and delayed its release for three years, on top of the three years he had spent touring in support of Ah Via Musicom. He also had setbacks involving musical growth and personal issues while recording his next album Venus Isle.
Venus Isle was finally released on September 3, 1996. It was a unique album with world influences that demonstrated Johnson's growth as a guitarist, songwriter, producer, musical arranger and vocalist. But the album received mixed reviews and did not match the success of its predecessor. As a result Johnson was dropped from Capitol Records. He rebounded with a successful tour from October to November 1996 with fellow guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Named the 'G3' tour, it resulted in a successful platinum-selling compact disc and DVD titled G3: Live In concert.
In 1998, Eric Johnson was among the judges in Musician magazine's "Best Unsigned Bands" competition, along with Ani DiFranco, Moby, Art Alexakis of Everclear, Keb' Mo' and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.
In 1994, Johnson formed a side project called Alien Love Child and played shows sporadically while recording Venus Isle. The positive fan feedback from the shows made Alien Love Child a permanent gig. A live performance recording, Live And Beyond, was finally released in 2000 on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label, showcasing their new songs. The Alien Love Child project helped Johnson move away from his perfectionistic tendencies and loosen up enough to embrace and release a live album.
Johnson eventually returned to the recording studio, releasing Souvenir in January 2002 on his own Vortexan Records. The album, released on the Internet, received nearly 65,000 plays in the first seven weeks after it was made available on mp3.com. Johnson promoted Souvenir with an electric tour in 2003 and an acoustic tour in 2004.
In 2004, Johnson performed the song "Desert Rose" at the Crossroads Guitar Festival, included on Disc 2 of the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival recording.
Johnson's next studio album Bloom was released in June 2005, again on Vai's Favored Nations label. The album was divided into three sections with different musical styles, intended to showcase Johnson's versatility. His December 1988 Austin City Limits performance was released on both DVD and compact disc on New West Records in November 2005. His instructional guitar DVD, The Art of Guitar (Hal Leonard Corporation), was also released at the end of 2005.
In January 2006, a man named Brian Sparks was arrested for posing as Johnson and in the process defrauding businesses out of about $18,000 worth of guitars and equipment. Also in 2006, some of Johnson's guitars that had been stolen 24 years before were recovered.
In September 2006, Johnson took part in a theatrical production titled "Primal Twang: The Legacy of the Guitar" – the first definitive theatrical journey through the guitar’s colorful and controversial 3,500-year history. In September 2007, Johnson participated in a second theatrical production by the same company titled "Love In: A Musical Celebration" in which he performed a Jimi Hendrix set, a tribute to the year 1967, often called "The Summer of Love". Also in late 2006 Johnson participated in a second G3 tour in South America, with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci.
Johnson had been working on an all-acoustic project and a live video from his 2006 Tour with Satriani. However these were shelved in 2007 in favor of cutting a new studio album.
His hit single "Cliffs Of Dover" appears in the games Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock and Rocksmith. Johnson has also signed up with "Operation Immortality", a project to create a digital time capsule of their DNA and humanity's achievements in the event of a global calamity.
Johnson began a six-date U.S. tour in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 27, 2013, followed by a 14-date European tour which concluded in Esch-Sur-Alzette, Luxembourg on April 24, 2013.
Guitar and equipment
Johnson is best known for playing stock Fender Stratocasters 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.
Johnson has had several models built to his specifications for sale in the mass market. In 2003, C. F. Martin & Company released a limited-edition Eric Johnson Signature MC-40 guitar built to his specifications. Johnson donated 5 percent of the profits of the guitar's sales to his father's alma mater, Jefferson Medical College.
In 2005, Fender released an Eric Johnson Signature Fender Stratocaster also built to his specifications. This was followed up in early 2009 when Fender released the Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Rosewood model, featuring the same specifications as the Eric Johnson Maple Neck guitar, with the addition of an unusual 3-ply, 8-hole white pick guard, hotter treble pickup and a bound rosewood laminate fingerboard with pearloid dot position markers.
Johnson has also released other signature gear such as GHS Eric Johnson Nickel Rockers Electric Guitar Strings, DiMarzio DP211 Eric Johnson Signature Custom Pickups, and a Fullton-Webb amplifier. Jim Dunlop also has released an Eric Johnson signature Jazz III plectrum and an Eric Johnson signature Fuzz Face. 2012 also saw the introduction of the Eminence Eric Johnson signature 12" alnico guitar speaker.
He uses effect pedals such as the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, BK Butler Tube Driver, MXR KD IV Stereo Chorus, Vox CryBaby wah-wah, ToadWorks Barracuda flanger, Prescription Electronics Experience octave fuzz, Xotic AC Booster, MXR Flanger/Doubler, Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man delay, Boss Corporation DD-2 Digital Delay, MXR 1500 Digital Delay, Line 6 Echo Pro Studio Modeler, and up to two Maestro Echoplex tape delays. All of these are connected to multiple A/B boxes to create sounds and tones that are both clean and distorted. Although the majority of Johnson's setup is vintage, he has recently started using more modern equipment, including a stereo chorus made by Analog Man and a Fractal Audio Systems Axe-Fx.
Guitar Rig & Signal Flow
A detailed gear diagram of Eric Johnson's 2001 guitar rig is well-documented.
In late 2006, Johnson switched from recording in analog to digital format.
Guitarist Alex Lifeson of Rush gave a thank you to Johnson in the liner notes of Counterparts for being the inspiration for the guitar solo in the song "Cut To The Chase".
Guitarist Steve Morse recorded a song titled "TruthOla", which is a tribute to Jeff Beck, Alex Lifeson, and Eric Johnson. The song is on Morse's album "Major Impacts".
- Seven Worlds (1978, reissued in 1998)
- Tones (1986)
- Ah Via Musicom (1990)
- Venus Isle (1996)
- Souvenir (2002)
- Bloom (2005)
- Live from Austin, TX (2005)
- Live From Austin TX '84 (2010)
- Up Close (2010)
- Up Close: Another Look (2013)
Early singles played on
- "Re-Birth Day"/"Memories Lost And Found" by Mariani (1970)
- "Come In Out Of The Rain" by Jay Aaron Podolnick (1975)
- "Talkin’‘Bout Her"/"It's All With You" by Christopher Cross (1976)
- "Thermal Underwear" by Project Terror (Bill Maddox) (1977)
- "That Rider Down" by Bill Colbert (1982)
Albums played on
- Perpetuum Mobile' by Mariani (1970)
- Electromagnets by Electromagnets (1975)
- Live and Beyond by Alien Love Child (2000)
- Electromagnets 2 by Electromagnets (2006, originally recorded in 1976)
- The Austin Christmas Collection by Various Artists ‒ "What Child is This" (1980)
- The Austin Christmas Collection, Vol. 2 by Various Artists ‒ "What Child Is This" and "Is There A Santa Claus" (1983)
- Guitar Speak by Various Artists ‒ "Western Flyer" (1988)
- KLBJ's Local Licks Live by Various Artists ‒ "Camel's Night Out" (1990)
- Instrumental Moods by Various Artists ‒ "Cliffs Of Dover" (1991)
- Guitar's Practicing Musicians, Vol. 2 by Various Artists ‒ "Cliffs Of Dover" (1991)
- KLBJ's Local Licks Live by Various Artists ‒ "Desert Rose" (1993)
- True Voices by Various Artists ‒ "At The End Of The Day" with Susan Cowsill (1995)
- KLBJ's Local Licks Live by Various Artists ‒ "S.R.V." (1996)
- 13th Millennia Soundtrack by Various Artists (1996)
- G3: Live In Concert by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson (1997)
- Merry Axemas Volume 1 by Various Artists ‒ "The First Nowell" (1997)
- Guitar Gods by Various Artists ‒ "Trademark" (1998)
- KGSR 107.1 Broadcasts Vol. 7 by Various Artists ‒ "Tribute To Jerry Reed" and "The Only Thing That's Real" (1999)
- KGSR 107.1 Broadcasts Vol. 8 by Various Artists (1999)
- The Best of Rockline by Various Artists ‒ "S.R.V." (1999)
- Moods Box Set by Various Artists ‒ "Cliffs Of Dover" (1999)
- Rock Guitarist Forever Best by Various Artists ‒ "Soulful Terrain" (1999, Japanese-only release)
- KLBJ Local Licks Live by Various Artists ‒ "Shape I'm In" (2001)
- Band Together by Various Artists ‒ "Shape I'm In" (2002)
- Texas Guitar Slingers Vol. 1 by Various Artists ‒ "Enzo Shuffle" (2002)
- Relief Fund Compilation Album Benefiting the World Trade Center by Various Artists ‒ (2002, unreleased)
- Fender Stratocaster 50th Anniversary by Various Artists ‒ "Trademark" (2004)
- Don't Mess With Texas Vol. 2 by Various Artists ‒ "Boogie King" (2004)
- KGSR 107.1 Broadcasts Vol. 12 by Various Artists ‒ "Song For George" (2004)
- Austin Music Vol. 6 by Various Artists ‒ "Sunarround You" (2007)
- Keep Punching by Various Artists ‒ "Forever Yours" (2007)
- Gibson Presents: Hot Tones in High Definition by Various Artists ‒ "World Of Trouble" (2008)
- Various Artists: This is Fusion Guitar by Various Artists ‒ "Beck's Bolero" (2009)
Guest appearance work
- The Fourth Dimension by Jack McDuff (Cadet, 1974)
- Once Upon a Rock by American Peddlers ‒ "Circle Song" (1977)
- Back to Earth by Cat Stevens ‒ "Bad Brakes" (1978)
- Gene Morris by Gene Morris ‒ "My Friend" (1979)
- Pearls by Carole King ‒ "Dancin' With Tears In My Eyes" (1980)
- Johnny Dee & The Rocket 88's by Johnny Dee & The Rocket 88's ‒ "No More" (1980)
- Christopher Cross by Christopher Cross ‒ "Minstrel Gigolo" (1980)
- The Shake Russell/Dana Cooper Band by The Shake Russell/Dana Cooper Band ‒ "Waitin' Here For You" and "Goin' Down Judah" (1981)
- Sunrise In Corpus Christi by Faron Evans (1982)
- One to One by Carole King (1982)
- Long Time Friends by Alessi ‒ "Rise Up" (1982)
- Til You Came Along by Bobby Giles (1982)
- Tomás Ramírez by Tomas Ramirez ‒ "SA Stroll" (1983)
- World Beat by Dan Del Santo ‒ "Ain't That Askin' A Little Too Much?" (1983)
- Pressure by Pressure ‒ "Save A Little Time" (1983)
- Peripheral Vision by McColl & Tracey (1984)
- Marc Anthony Thompson by Marc Anthony Thompson ‒ "Recover Gracefully" (1984)
- Stand Up by Steve Morse Band ‒ "Distant Star" (1985)
- Street Language by Rodney Crowell ‒ "Ballad Of Fast Eddie" (1986)
- Guitar Speak by Various Artists ‒ "Western Flyer" (1988)
- Willie Jones by Willie Jones ‒ "So Long Mary Jane" (1990)
- Inside Out by Jay Aaron (Podolnick) ‒ "Ronda" (1990)
- The Urge by Stuart Hamm ‒ "On Our Dreams" and "Lone Star" (1991)
- Rush Street by Richard Marx ‒ "Keep Coming Back" (1992)
- The Hunter by Jennifer Warnes ‒ "Lights Of Louisiana" and "I Can't Hide" (1992)
- Rendezvous by Christopher Cross ‒ "Nothing Will Change" (1992)
- Herman Harris & the Voices of Hope by Herman Harris (1993)
- Read My Licks by Chet Atkins ‒ "Somebody Loves Me Now" (1994)
- What The Hell Was I Thinking? by Dweezil Zappa (1994, unreleased)
- Wave of the Hand by Carla Olson ‒ "I'm Tryin'" (1995)
- Angelica by Various Artists ‒ "Ave Maria" (1997)
- Merry Axemas by Various Artists ‒ "The First Nowell" (1997)
- Angels, Horses & Pirates by Little Blue ‒ "Wait Until You Get Here" (1997)
- Rosebud by Stephen Doster ‒ "There Is No Time" (1998)
- Walking in Avalon by Christopher Cross ‒ "When She Smiles" (1998)
- Koko's Hideaway by Van Wilks ‒ "Vanquila" (1999)
- Fingers And Thumbs by Adrian Legg ‒ "Lunchtime At Rosie's" (1999)
- Been A Long Time by Double Trouble ‒ "In The Garden" (2001)
- Last Of The Cowboy Vampires by Lance Keltner ‒ "Chain Gang" (2001)
- More To Life Than This by Mike Tramp ‒ "On The Good, The Sad, And The Ugly" (2003)
- A Guitar Supreme, Giant Steps in Fusion Guitar by Various Artists ‒ "Resolution" (2004)
- Fusion For Miles, A Guitar Tribute: A Bitchin' Brew by Various Artists ‒ "Jean Pierre" (2005)
- Industrial Zen by John McLaughlin ‒ "New Blues Old Bruise" (2006)
- Viva Carlos: A Supernatural Marathon Celebration by Various Artists ‒ "Aqua Marine" (2006)
- Hero Shuffle by Rex Paul (Schnelle) ‒ "Hero Shuffle" and "Reminds Me of Austin" (2006)
- Walk On by Roscoe Beck ‒ "Together All The Time" (2006)
- The Devil Knows My Name by John5 ‒ "The Washing Away Of Wrong" (2007)
- Freeway Jam: To Beck and Back by Various Artists ‒ "Beck's Bolero" (2007)
- Lovers by Bobby Whitlock and CoCo Carmel ‒ "Layla" (2008)
- From The Reach by Sonny Landreth ‒ "The Milky Way Home" (2008)
- Bridging the Gap by Doyle Dykes ‒ "Red Clay" (2008)
- Big Neighborhood by Mike Stern ‒ "6th Street" and "Long Time Gone" (2009)
- Elemental Journey by Sonny Landreth ‒ "Passionola" (2012)
- Musica E Palavras Dos Bee Gees (Bee Gees Tribute Album) by Ana Gazzola ‒ "Run To Me" (2012)
- Eric Johnson: Total Electric Guitar by Hot Licks (1990)
- Eric Johnson: The Fine Art of Guitar by Hot Licks (1996)
- Eric Johnson: The Art of Guitar by Hal Leonard Corporation (2005)
Television appearances and videos
- Austin City Limits (1984, 1988, 1996, and 2000)
- One To One Tour (Video) by Carole King (1983)
- Nova (PBS Special) – "Nautilus: 500 Million Years Under the Sea" The Chambered Nautilus (1987)
- Live at the Bottomline, New York – Japanese TV broadcast (1990)
- MTV Rock N' Jock Softball – performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" (1991)
- The Tonight Show – performing "Cliffs Of Dover" (1991)
- Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's "Guitar" – Japanese release – Warner Brothers (VHS and LaserDisc) (1991)
- BB King And Friends...Live At The Woodlands by Houston PBS (1993)
- Chet Atkins and Friends (TNN Special) ‒ "Read My Licks" (1994)
- Baseball: Inning 9: Home by The Baseball Film Project (1994)
- G3: Live In Concert by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson (1997)
- Electromagnets: Live on PBS Playback (1975) re-released on VHS (1998)
- Double Trouble with Special Guests – Austin City Limits (2001)
- House Of Blues (Webcast Live) – Alien Love Child Tour (2001)
- Big Wreck and Friends (Webcast Live) – Roy Thomson Hall – Toronto, Ontario (2001)
- Guitar Show – Australian Television Broadcast (2002)
- Jennifer Warnes DVD-A from AIX – unreleased (2003)
- Crossroads Guitar Festival (2004)
- 107.7 The Bone Studios Radio Show (2005)
- James Burton International Guitar Festival (2005, unreleased)
- Live in Austin, TX (2005)
- Satriani Live (2006)
- Primal Twang: The Legacy of the Guitar (2006)
- Love In: A Musical Celebration (2007)
- Anaheim (Live) (2008)
- Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock ‒ "Cliffs Of Dover" (2007)
- Guitar Hero World Tour ‒ "Camel's Night Out" (2009)
- Rocksmith ‒ "Cliffs Of Dover" (2013)
Awards and chartings
- 1991 – Ah Via Musicom (album) – Grammy – Best Rock Instrumental Nomination
- 1991 – Ah Via Musicom (album) – Billboard magazine – Billboard 200 – (#67)
- 2006 – Bloom (album) – Grammy – Best Pop Instrumental Nomination
- 1987 – "Zap" – (Tones) – Grammy – Best Rock Instrumental Nomination
- 1990 – "Cliffs Of Dover" – (Ah Via Musicom) – Mainstream Rock Tracks – (#5)
- 1990 – "High Landrons" – (Ah Via Musicom) – Mainstream Rock Tracks – (#31)
- 1991 – "Righteous" – (Ah Via Musicom) – Mainstream Rock Tracks – (#8)
- 1991 – "Trademark" – (Ah Via Musicom) – Mainstream Rock Tracks – (#7)
- 1992 – "Cliffs Of Dover" – (Ah Via Musicom) – Grammy – winner – Best Rock Instrumental Performance
- 1997 – "Pavilion" – (Venus Isle) – Grammy - Best Rock Instrumental Nomination
- 1998 – "S.R.V." – (Venus Isle) – Grammy – Best Rock Instrumental Nomination
- 2002 – "Rain" (Live and Beyond) – Grammy – Best Pop Instrumental Nomination
- Official website
- Eric Johnson Interview on FingerstyleGuitarists.com
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Image from Discogs