Eric Johnson is the Sonny Landreth of Austin, an unconventional guitar hero who emphasizes tone and subtlety to craft a sound all his own. Johnson’s million-selling 1990 album “Ah Via Musicom” introduced his signature song, “Cliffs of Dover,” which won a Grammy Award for best rock instrumental performance.
On his current tour, which stops at the Civic Theatre on Friday, Johnson performs “Ah Via Musicom” in its entirety, backed by bassist Kyle Brock and drummer Tommy Taylor, the rhythm section on the original album.
Over the phone this week from Austin, Johnson elaborated on “Ah Via Musicom” and his increasingly lonely role as a guitar hero.
You still think highly enough of “Ah Via Musicom” to play the whole thing.
Johnson: I’ve played different pieces over the years, but have never done the whole record at once. We asked listeners on the web site and Facebook what they’d like to see. They suggested “Ah Via Musicom.” So that’s why we did it.
What made that album connect with such a large audience? Musicianship, songwriting, lyrics, a combination?
Probably a combination. It was good chemistry with the band. I had time over the years to select the right tunes with the right flow. I worked hard to make that record have a balance, where it was a real heavy guitar record, but not gratuitous in a way to where it forfeited the songs or the vibe of the music.
The songs seem more important, or at least as important, as the solos.
Definitely. Not that I’ve always been successful with that, but that’s always been my agenda: to explore and push the guitar, but make sure you have some kind of song worth recording, instead of just a bunch of playing.
How much of “Cliffs of Dover” is improvised?
The melodies are pretty much written out, but the connecting between the melodies will be different every time I play it. The solos are usually always improvised.
So when you’re performing “Ah Via Musicom,” it won’t sound exactly like the record.
The song part of it, the lyrics, melodies and chord changes, and the parts that have a certain instrumental melody, will be the same. But the improvisations will be different every night.
Kyle and Tommy haven’t backed you in more than a decade. What do you like about playing with them?
Sometimes there’s just this certain magical chemistry between people, an understanding, where people know where you’re going. It’s like breathing.
It’s hard to use any alphabet to figure it out. You can sit down and get the best players in the world – I’ve done this – and put it all together and it’s, “Why doesn’t this have something?” It will have something on a technical level, but it won’t reach you on an emotional level.
I appreciate that more now that I’ve gotten older. Ringo Starr is totally irreplaceable in the Beatles, if you listen to the full picture of the emotion.
Some tracks on “Ah Via Musicom” are tributes to other guitarists.
“Steve’s Boogie” is named for my friend Steve Hennig, this really fine country player who played on the song. “High Landrons” is kind of an homage to Jimi Hendrix. I’ve always loved that house-burning-down guitar tone. We were always trying to figure out how he got that sound. “East Wes” is a tribute to (jazz guitarist) Wes Montgomery. He’s one of my favorite players of all time.
Do you ever feel like an endangered species? There doesn’t seem to be a new crop of guitar heroes like yourself, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
I think the whole guitar icon thing is really diminished, as far as popularity, and understandably so. The way it was exploited, it became gratuitous. It was like making the 110th movie of the same blow-‘em-up thing. Which I guess they still do that – that’s a bad analogy.
It was overdone, and the content became superfluous. To me, there’s still that question of exploration and seeing what you can do with it and how you can reinvent it, no different than a violin player who keeps pushing the envelope, or a pianist. If you have something musical that you’re trying to say, people will appreciate that. That’s what stays with them.
Do you see younger faces in your crowds? Do the kids still appreciate the guitar?
I think so. There will be an appreciation just from the organic nature of it and the potential of it in its raw effect. People are burned out on the same rock guitar licks. But if you listen to a lot of music now, there’s still tons of guitar; it’s just taken on a different function. It’s people searching for different ways to play it or to use it orchestratively.
You never subscribed fully to the whole macho guitar hero thing. You are much more experimental with tones and subtlety. You carved out your own niche.
I did, but I think I fell into a little bit of a thing. When I got known for playing guitar, I rode that wave maybe a little too deep and long. I always wanted to play guitar and push the envelope; that’s my thing. I ran with the ball a little bit more naively than maybe I should have.
The stuff I grew up on always had songs in it. I’m not saying my songs are always that good, but I’ve always tried to write a song. I grew up on Free and Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds. You’d hear a killer guitar player, but it never touched me unless it was within the context of some kind of vehicle of music that was pulling it forward.
Did you ever, like Eddie Van Halen, get tired of the guitar and go through a keyboard phase?
Yeah, I get frustrated with it sometimes and play keyboards (laughs).
But not on this tour.
Not on this tour. We’ll do a first set of other stuff, then take a quick break and come back and play the whole “Ah Via Musicom” record.
And the emphasis is clearly on the guitar.