How Eric Johnson Redefined Rock Guitar With “Ah Via Musicom”


No two guitarists sound exactly the same, but only a few have the chance, the talent and the time to develop their own style. Eric Johnson earned a spot on this distinguished list when he began his professional career in the early 1970s – though most people didn’t realize it until after the release of his third album, Ah Via Musicom, February 28, 1990.

One of the most unlikely rock hits of the year, Musicom has sold over half a million copies and won a Grammy nomination despite being largely instruments. His arrival four long years after Johnson’s previous effort, worsened the long chances of his success, Tones, failed to plot. While this album won a Grammy nomination for the track “Zap,” it also marked the end of his one-album relationship with Warner Bros. Records – which didn’t start until after Johnson’s 1978 debut, Seven worlds, has tumbled into the coffers following a series of contract disputes.

Leading into Ah Via Musicom, Johnson seemed to be forever destined to remain a “guitarist of guitarist”. He had not lacked critical acclaim, was something of a local legend in the Austin area, and he had made a name for himself as a session player for other artists, but his own career d The recording struggled to maintain its momentum. Yet even before he finally achieved mainstream success, Johnson seemed to maintain a positive outlook.

“I had a great time going through the struggles,” Johnson said Guitar world after Tones came out in 1986. “I think it’s like perfecting metal. You learn temperance and it makes you more thankful for reaching that milestone. you feel and hear. But if it’s not that, you still have music, the gift of the language of music. Nobody can really take that away from you. “

Hear Eric Johnson perform “The Cliffs of Dover”

Of course, the gift of music doesn’t mean much if you can’t pay the bills – but as Johnson continued to point out, no financial rewards can really fuel creativity. “I would always say ‘God, if only I could get a record and play in theaters instead of clubs’, but I still would have been happy with my life if that had never happened,” a- he insisted. “I have these guitars and amps and I can play and write and practice. So that is sufficient in itself. This is what your reward is for playing in the first place and I really think it has to be. else and the balance is not right. “

While plotting her next step after Tones, Johnson encountered other difficulties. “Some of the songs that I had the most success with a few years ago, those same songs, people would tell me I could never record them because they weren’t good, so there’s that irony. “Johnson told the Chronicle of the Academy later in the ’90s. “And there’s the irony of the fact that I remember people telling me when I was trying to record instrumental songs, they said,” This is never going to work. You have to sing. These songs will never work. “”

The moral of the story, as he saw it, is that no matter how talented you are, you’re going to face rejection before you find acceptance. “You just have to keep rallying and keep working on what you’re doing and believing in what you’re doing and finding that joy in what you’re doing,” Johnson suggested. “Or find that kind of music that you can play in a unique way that excites you, and you go out there and try to develop it.”

What ultimately took Johnson’s recording career to the next level was a contract with Cinema, a Capitol affiliate, where he found his music in the hands of support staff who just wanted that it delivers its best songs, whatever its commercial potential. “After Tones, Warner Bros. spent about a year trying to figure out what to do with it, what we could or couldn’t do, “he told the Los Angeles Times. “Now I signed with Cinema and they said, ‘Let’s do this wild guitar record. We’ll use Gregorian vocals, whatever, we’ll do a new Yardbirds album.’”

Bolstered by the label’s confidence, Johnson stuck, spending over a year polishing the set of songs that ended up making the cut for Ah Via Musicom. “I guess I wanted to make a real honking guitar record with a lot of really explosive guitar, so that’s what I decided to do,” he said. In the studio. “Lots of songs on Ah Via Musicom were either songs we were going to cut Tones … many of them had already been written, so I already had an arsenal of melodies. “

Watch Eric Johnson play ‘Xxxx’

But just because he already had a lot of material written, that didn’t mean the recording process was easy. In what would become a somewhat infamous role model for Johnson over the following years, he Musicom tracks, relentlessly pursuing perfection in terms of tone as well as performance. “I really went to great lengths to make the guitar as explosive as possible,” he added during his interview with In the Studio. “I almost pushed myself over the edge doing it. It was difficult. I was really playing to the limit of my ability.”

But unlike many of the better-known guitarists of the day, playing to the limit of Johnson’s ability didn’t mean playing the fastest, flashiest leads; in fact, he was really trying to push the limits of the instrument, restoring the goosebumps effect he had before he became a mainstay of every rock record. “I try to approach the guitar and not think about it too much as a guitar,” he explained. “I think there are a lot more horizons for the guitar and a lot of things that haven’t been implemented. And if you can keep that as a compass for the future, you won’t be a slave to it. you’ve heard in the past. Or what your mental prognosis says a guitar does. “

The result was the album which, years after its release, continues to define Johnson’s career – a refined but spirited collection that spans the gamut from country and jazz (“Steve’s Boogie”, “East Wes”) to pop vocal numbers (“Forty Mile Town”, “Nothing Can Keep Me from You”) while leaving plenty of room for the exploits of the electric guitar. The album’s second track and biggest single, “Cliffs of Dover” reached No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock charts, closely followed by “Trademark” (# 7) and “Righteous” (# 8) . In a time when instrumental rock hits seemed almost extinct, Ah Via Musicom revived them, albeit briefly, and immediately elevated Johnson to rock star status.

As Johnson fans sometimes painfully know, that didn’t mean he was about to adjust his speed on purpose; over the years her recording career has been defined by the long intervals between albums almost as much as by the music itself. But even at the height of his success, he didn’t seem so concerned with fame. “I don’t think I’m a rock god. I think I’m more of a rock janitor,” Johnson laughed in 1990, recounting the Los Angeles Times that what he was playing was “really chicken music”. “I keep playing. It’s fun, and I’m glad people are enjoying it.”


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