If you ask guitar legend Eric Johnson, times are different.
Not in so much that music fans can “play” his Grammy-winning track “Cliff of Dover” through a video game. And, he’s not quite speaking of his immediate impact on aspiring guitar fans who can watch instructional videos on YouTube.
When Johnson speaks about how times are different, it’s in reference to the challenges younger artists face who are heading out into a music career. His own career path was laden with obstacles, playing gigs in his native Austin, Tex. 40 years ago. His bands failed, despite people taking notice of his extraordinary talent. It would be years before a rumored observation from another guitar legend handed EJ his biggest break.
“I was told that [Prince] helped me get signed to Warner Brothers,” said Johnson. “I never met him, and never had any interaction with him. It was all kind of hearsay. It came from reliable sources, so it could have been true. He may have seen or heard something I had done and put in a call just out of kindness. I never met him, so I never substantiated that.”
Johnson signed on with Warner Brothers’s record label in 1984, nearly 10 years after he set out on his own music career with a Electromagnets, a local band that is now the answer to trivia questions. Johnson would bounce between record labels since then, but the break launched a decorated career, winning accolades and earning respect among peers and press. Rolling Stone magazine has him among the Top 100 guitar players of all time. As astounding it may seem to reflect upon how long Johnson struggled to receive national attention, he sees today’s aspiring musicians having to navigate a different world than he did.
“It’s a whole different ball game now,” said Johnson. “It’s a lot harder for someone to just jump into a career simply because they’re talented or have something. You don’t have the same corridors of making hardware and feeling your wears, out there… You have so many people with so much technology, they can make great product from in their living room. So, the playing field is so even, it’s not just on face value of talent. It’s so over saturated, people’s attention span and the availability of time is just not there anymore. … If you were to start out in a career now, I think it is obviously tougher. And, I don’t know if it’s orientated towards careers in music as much as just being around for a couple of years and moving on.”
Johnson sees the need to diversify one’s talents as a musician. Within himself, he’s not only a musician, songwriter or vocalist, in the business aspect of his world he is also a record producer. As for his sound, he’s long delved into different genres of music. Ever since he first sat down in front of a piano.
Yeah, the piano is actually his first love. And, he plays it on “EJ,” too. Johnson said the piano is the best instrument to compose music. Each of his songs are first composed on piano before he goes to guitar.
“Ever since I was young, I’ve played piano and acoustic guitar in my private life,” said Johnson. Long hailed as one of the world’s preeminent electric guitarists, Johnson celebrates his acoustic side with his 12th album, “EJ.” Emphasizing his skills as a singer-songwriter, his first completely unplugged album is also his most immediate and intimate.“This type of music has always been a part of me, but I never showcased it on any kind of bigger level, like a full acoustic record. With “EJ,” I just decided to be more honest with myself and everybody, and show more of my personal side.”
Johnson self-produced the album and performed nine of its 13 tracks unaccompanied in his Austin, Texas Saucer Sound studio. The other tracks feature guest musicians such as renowned guitarist Doyle Dykes, violinist Molly Emerman, cellist John Hagen, and longtime Johnson accompanists Tommy Taylor and Wayne Salzmann on drums and Roscoe Beck and Chris Maresh on acoustic bass.
It’s now 30 years since his breakthrough solo release “Tones,” which brought him national recognition. This latest album showcases nine original compositions and four covers in an all-acoustic album. It’s something he’s always wanted to do, as it provides a more intimate experience between the musician and the audience.
What’s most telling of Johnson’s continued growth as an artist also be the manner in which he produced his latest album. After winning the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1991, it took Johnson nearly five years to follow up his platinum-selling album “Ah Via Musicom.” It was reported he had scrapped several completed tracks before ultimately releasing “Venus Isle.”
“Almost all of that material [for “EJ”] was cut live,” Johnson said. “Some of the songs I actually sang and played at the same time – just live in the studio. Recording this way gave it more of an honest realism and organic emotion. Especially on the acoustic, you just have to get in there and play.”
On the original compositions “Wonder,” “Fatherly Downs,” and “All Things You Are,” Johnson frames his voice with his prized 1980 Martin D-45, a gift from his late father. He plays the steel-string on his superlative instrumentals “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” “All Things You Are,” and “Song for Irene.” He conjures the beautiful, pensive tones of “Serinidad,” another original instrumental, on a Ramirez nylon-string guitar. A spirited steel-string arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” rounds out the solo guitar tracks.
Johnson recasts another Simon and Garfunkel favorite, “Scarborough Fair,” for voice and piano, and plays piano on the originals “Water Under the Bridge,” “November,” and “Wrapped in a Cloud,” an ensemble track with acoustic bass, cello, drums, and percussion. In a move that’s sure to surprise his fans, Johnson rearranged Jimi Hendrix’ “One Rainy Wish” for guitar and piano, capping the performance with a jazz-inflected piano solo. Rounding out the record is Johnson and guest guitarist Doyle Dykes’ superlative cover of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s 1951 classic, “The World Is Waiting for the Sunshine.”
Throughout his career, Johnson has approached music as a healing force, a way to enhance a listener’s consciousness and conjure joy and inspiration.
“That’s what I’ve always appreciated most about other artists,” said Johnson. “Some artists inspire us to wake up and get back to the clarity of consciousness. With this record, I’m trying to do that too, because I appreciate it so much in other people.”
Johnson said he finds his latest inspiration in another band out of Austin, Explosions in the Sky.
“The fact it’s electric guitar music, but it’s different,” said Johnson, of the instrumental rock band that has been featured heavily in the critically acclaimed television series “Friday Night Lights.” “It’s not your typical guitar. It’s refreshing. It’s unique sounding in the orchestration of it. It’s nice to hear someone doing something a little different with guitar and metal music. It’s inspiring to me. Makes me think about what I want to do with the guitar.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.