How Eric Johnson Redefined Rock Guitar With ‘Ah Via Musicom’
No two guitarists sound exactly alike, but it's only the precious few who have the luck, talent and time to develop a signature style all their own. Eric Johnson earned a spot on that distinguished list when he started his professional career in the early '70s — even if most people didn't realize it until he released his third album, Ah Via Musicom, on Feb. 28, 1990.
One of the unlikelier rock hits of the year, Musicom sold more than half a million copies and netted a Grammy nomination in spite of the fact that it largely consisted of instrumentals. Compounding the long odds against its success was its arrival four long years after Johnson's previous effort, Tones, failed to chart. Although that album earned a Grammy nomination of its own for the track "Zap," it also spelled the end of his one-album relationship with Warner Bros. Records — which itself only started after Johnson's 1978 debut, Seven Worlds, tumbled into the vaults following a series of contractual disputes.
Leading into Ah Via Musicom, Johnson seemed like he might be forever destined to remain a "guitarist's guitarist." He'd racked up no shortage of critical accolades, was something of a local legend in the Austin area and he'd made a name for himself as a session player for other artists, but his own recording career struggled to sustain momentum. Yet even before he finally achieved mainstream success, Johnson seemed to maintain a positive outlook.
"I've had a good time through the struggles," Johnson told Guitar World after Tones was released in 1986. "I think it's like honing the metal. You learn temperance and it makes you more appreciative of getting to that milestone. You hopefully get to a point where you can support yourself and record and play music that you want, that you feel and hear. But if that's not that, you still always have the music, the gift of the language of music. Nobody can really take that away."
Listen to Eric Johnson Perform 'Cliffs of Dover'
Of course, the gift of music only means so much if you can't pay the bills — but as Johnson continued to point out, no amount of financial reward can really fuel creativity. "I'd always go 'God, if I could only get a record cut and play theater halls instead of clubs,' but I still would have been content with my life if that never happened," he insisted. "I've got these guitars and these amps and I can play and write and practice. So that in itself is enough. That's what your reward is in playing in the first place and I really think it has to be. Otherwise you get everything else and the balance isn't right."
While plotting his next step after Tones, Johnson encountered further struggles. "Some of the songs that I had the most success with, a couple of years prior to that those same songs people would tell me that I could never record them because they weren’t good, so there’s that irony," Johnson told the Academy Chronicle later in the '90s. "And there’s the irony of I remember being told by people when I was trying to record instrumental songs they said, 'That’s never going to work. You’ve got to do vocals. 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 kind of keep rallying yourself and keep working on what you do and believe in what you do and find that joy in what you do," Johnson suggested. "Or find that type of music that you uniquely can play and that turns you on, and you just go out and try to develop it."
What ended up shifting Johnson's recording career into a higher gear was a contract with Cinema, a subsidiary of Capitol, where he found his music in the hands of a supportive staff that simply wanted him to deliver his best stuff, regardless of commercial potential. "After Tones, Warner Bros. spent a year or so trying to figure out what to make of it, what we could do or couldn't do," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Now I'm signed with Cinema and they told me, 'Let's do this wild guitar record. We'll use Gregorian chants, whatever, we'll make a new Yardbirds album.'"
Bolstered by the label's confidence, Johnson buckled down, spending over a year honing 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 that just had a lot of really blow-up guitar on it, so that's what I set out to do," he told In the Studio. "A lot of the songs on Ah Via Musicom were either songs that we were gonna cut on Tones ... a lot of those had already been written, so I already had an arsenal of tunes."
Watch Eric Johnson Perform 'Xxxx'
But just because he already had a lot of the material written, that didn't mean the recording process was easy. In what would become a somewhat infamous pattern for Johnson over the ensuing years, he slaved over the Musicom tracks, relentlessly pursuing perfection in terms of sonics as well as performance. "I really pushed myself really hard to just make the guitar as explosive as I could," he added during his interview with In the Studio. "I pushed myself almost over the edge doing it. It was tough. I was really playing at the edge of my ability."
But unlike a lot of the era's better-known guitarists, playing at the edge of Johnson's ability didn't mean playing the fastest, flashiest leads; in fact, he was truly trying to stretch the limits of the instrument, restoring the goosebumps-inducing effect it had before becoming a mainstay on every rock record. "I try to approach the guitar and try not to think too much about it as a guitar," he explained. "I think there are a lot more horizons for the guitar and a lot which hasn't been implemented. And if you can keep that as your compass for the future, you won't be a slave of what you've heard in the past. Or of what your mental prognosis says a guitar does."
The result was the album that, years after its release, continues to define Johnson's career — a polished yet fiery collection that runs 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 still leaving plenty of room for electric guitar heroics. The album's second track and biggest single, "Cliffs of Dover," hit No. 5 on the Mainstream Rock chart, followed closely by "Trademark" (No. 7) and "Righteous" (No. 8). At a time when instrumental rock hits seemed all but extinct, Ah Via Musicom revived them, however briefly, and immediately elevated Johnson to rock star status.
As Johnson fans are sometimes painfully aware, that didn't mean he was about to adjust his deliberate speed; over the years, his recording career has been defined by the long gaps between albums almost as much as it has by the music itself. But even at the peak of his success, he didn't seem to be all that concerned with fame. "I don't think I'm a rock god. I think I'm more of a rock janitor," laughed Johnson in 1990, telling the Los Angeles Times that what he played was "really chicken music." "I just keep playing. It's fun, and I'm glad people enjoy it."