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‘Guitar god’ lets go of his perfectionism

Johnson brings top-notch playing to The Clyde

Steve Penhollow

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published February 13, 2020

Eric Johnson is one of the last of the Guitar Gods, a class of musician that lost steam in the 21st century.

Great new guitarists continue to materialize. It’s the classification that has gone away.

Asked for his views on this matter, Johnson offered up some splendid insights.

Electric guitar was still a relatively new instrument in the realm of pop music in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of the Guitar God.

“It had all these available, interesting, and incredible new sounds,” Johnson said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “It had a long longevity to it and people loved it.”

In more recent times, however, synthesizers and digital technology evolved to the point where people have become enamored of other sorts of sounds.

Also, Johnson said, the ad men got a hold of terms like “guitar god” and “guitar hero” and drained them of significance, as ad men are wont to do.

Johnson said he is actually relieved about this, because the focus on guitarists has shifted from empty pyrotechnics to “musical expression.”

Johnson’s musical expression will be on display at The Clyde on Feb. 23.

Winning an early grammy

Johnson was born in Austin, Texas, and performed in a jazz fusion band in that city during the heyday of the outlaw country movement. Then he was a session musician for such luminaries as Cat Stevens, Carole King, and childhood buddy Christopher Cross.

Cross helped him score a label deal and that was how “Cliffs of Dover” happened.

“Cliffs of Dover,” a bouncy instrumental that showcased both his guitar-playing and his composing skills, won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

On Guitar World magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos, it took the 17th spot. The album on which the song was featured, Ah Via Musicom, went platinum.

The song title came from a friend who suggested that Johnson name it for a British geological landmark. Johnson consented even though he hadn’t been thinking of those white cliffs (or any white cliffs) when he’d composed it.


The popularity of Ah Via Musicom was Johnson’s strike-while-the-iron-is-hot moment.

But Johnson was not a strike-while-the-iron is hot sort of guy, at least not then. A brutally self-critical perfectionist, Johnson spent the next six years tinkering with, and rerecording, tracks that would comprise Venus Isle, his Ah Via Musicom follow-up.

Lengthy delays, budget overages, and the lukewarm response to the album from patrons and critics, caused Capital Records to drop Johnson.

It took Johnson four years to write and record Souvenir, an album he released himself via his website. It was a huge digital success in the pre-streaming era. But Johnson said his perfectionist tendencies have softened over the years.

“I think it’s shifted,” he said. “I think I’m not so concerned about whether it’s perfect. I just want to try to make emotional music that might mean something to somebody.”

Looking back, Johnson acknowledges that the albums that took four to six years to complete probably didn’t need that much time.

“But I guess it’s all a learning process,” he said. “It’s how you figure out what you want to do and don’t want to do and adjust accordingly.”

Open to the magic

Johnson has learned to let things happen organically rather than autocratically.

“I think I just try to let go and let things happen naturally a little bit more,” he said. “Don’t try to control everything because magical moments will happen if we keep our ears and eyes open. It’s nice not to miss those opportunities. If you’re too busy talking, you don’t hear what might be said. I need to learn to listen closer and try to be a better songwriter.”

The Clyde concert, “Eric Johnson Classics: Present and Past,” will be a two-part retrospective of his career during which will also play acoustic guitar and piano.

Selections from his forthcoming album EJ Vol II will be featured.

The digital revolution that so radically altered the music business made it a lot harder for established musicians to sell new music at career-sustaining levels.

Johnson said it’s a shame that nobody wants to pay much for music anymore, but this places an onus on the musician that he believes is welcome.

“I think it’s kind of up to the artists to create something so dynamic that people want to buy it, to support it,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”


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