Catch influential guitarist Eric Johnson at Clyde
Musician’s musician going electric, acoustic during March 12 show
Austin, Texas, is an eclectic music town.
From the outlaw country era of Willie Nelson through the Austin City Limits concert TV series to the South by Southwest music festival, the city has become a mecca for fans from all over while proudly showcasing its native talent. The most renowned rock-guitarist-solo-artist who has called Austin home longer than any other is Eric Johnson.
Johnson will bring his Treasure Tour to The Clyde Theatre on Sunday, March 12.
Playing a unique style that we can try to describe as combining rock, jazz fusion, blues, and just a hint of country, Johnson is one of the few electric guitarists with his own instantly recognizeable instrumental voice. If you play just a couple of notes of guitar from one of his recordings, guitarists in the room will look up and say, “That’s Eric Johnson.” Like the late Jeff Beck before him, Johnson has the uncanny ability to invoke emotion and meaning with an instrumental line.
Legions of electric guitarists have spent decades trying to attain to Johnson’s chiming clean sound and his singular Fender Stratocaster overdriven lead guitar tone. Nonetheless, guitarists know they can’t quite replicate them, because those tones are not in the instruments or the amplifiers. It’s all in Johnson’s fingers. His singing voice is quite good, too, although that’s been often overlooked.
At 68, Johnson is back with a pair of albums, showcasing himself as not just a guitar god but also a piano-playing singer-songwriter.
Whatzup spoke with him on the phone from his home in Austin and asked him about those albums, last summer’s The Book of Making and Yesterday Meets Today.
“Our tour got canceled in 2020, and I came home and I started pulling tapes out of the closet,” he said. “I found all these unfinished pieces and decided to go ahead and finish them off.”
After working alone, he brought in musicians he has known for years, laying down tracks of sparkling guitar that will be instantly familiar to fans of Johnson’s through the decades.
When it became feasible, he called in young guitar phenomenon Arielle Schwartz, protégée of Queen’s Brian May, and the result was the song “To Be Alive.” You would expect dueling electric guitar heroes playing searing licks, but what you get is a gentle, intimate jazz ballad where Johnson plays piano while Arielle sings in a hushed voice.
“She’s a great singer,” Johnson said of Arielle. “It’s a tune I wrote years ago, and then she wrote the lyrics to it. We just went in and recorded it, and there’s like only two takes, I think.”
I think it’s a perfect pop music moment. On other tracks, Johnson does plenty of his own singing. His voice, as always, is a light and breezy high tenor. It’s a little lighter and breathier these days, while his ballads provide a welcome counterpoint to the more intense guitar-driven tracks, which are still abundant.
sharing his knowledge
Johnson scaled the heights of popularity in 1990 with his million-selling platinum album Ah Via Musicom, and the soaring, searing “Cliffs of Dover,” which won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. The album cemented Johnson’s reputation as a musician that aspiring guitarists not only adore but also study and emulate. Years before that, Guitar Player magazine had seen him win so many annual readers’ polls that they “retired” him to their Gallery of the Greats (along with the Dixie Dregs’ Steve Morse and Yes’ Steve Howe) so that other guitarists could be featured.
In the ’80s before the internet, many aspiring rock, country, and jazz musicians learned technique by watching their favorite rock stars present lessons on 90-minute instructional VHS tapes. Johnson’s Total Electric Guitar, in the Hot Licks video series, came out in 1990, around the time of Ah Via Musicom. Thousands of young guitarists studied his lessons as he in turn demonstrated techniques he picked up from a host of guitarists before him, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and Jeff Beck.
One of those studying Johnson’s tapes was 15-year-old Eric Gales, himself already a professional. When I interviewed Gales, who played Embassy Theatre with Buddy Guy on Feb. 23, he told me Johnson is “one of my biggest inspirations.” In a YouTube interview with Mitch Gallagher in 2019, Gales recounted how he studied Johnson’s tapes over many months, and how Johnson is “one of my best friends now.”
“Never would I have thought I’d have a relationship with somebody that moved me so,” Gales said.
continuing to learn
Johnson never again achieved the success in record sales that he had with Ah Via Musicom, but it put him on the landscape of arena rock acts. In 1996, fellow instrumental rock guitar heroes Joe Satriani and Steve Vai launched their annual G3 tours, which continued for two decades. The co-headliner for the inaugural tour was Johnson. He held his own alongside musicians better known for metal and enthralled their audiences, too.
Yet arena rock stardom seems to have been just a phase, something that happened to Johnson but didn’t stop him from growing. Ever the musicians’ musician, he has never stopped being a student. He went more deeply into contemporary jazz, culminating in the 2014 album, Eclectic, dueting with pioneering jazz fusion guitarist Mike Stern.
“It was wonderful,” Johnson said. “Mike’s such a great musician, and you can always learn from somebody like that.”
I told him that I had attended one of his shows with Stern, and it looked to me like most people in that audience of 1,000 were guitarists.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “Guess that’s the way. We just all learn from each other.”
Little acoustic, little electric
At The Clyde, we will see Johnson backed by three Austin musicians that have supported him for decades: Wayne Salzmann on drums, Roscoe Beck on bass, and Dave Scher on keyboards.
“We’re going to do two sets, and our first set is going to be all acoustic,” Johnson said. “Then the second set will be electric. We’ll do some stuff from the past, and we’ll do a few things off the new records, and then I’ll do some stuff that’s brand new that I haven’t recorded yet.”
Johnson is one musician who has never stopped growing and is always looking to the future.