Eric Johnson, long hailed as one of the world's preeminent electric guitarists, celebrates his acoustic side with EJ, his 12th album as a leader. Emphasizing Johnson's formidable skills as a singer-songwriter, his first completely unplugged album is also his most immediate and intimate. Johnson self-produced the album and performed nine of its thirteen tracks unaccompanied in his Austin, Texas Saucer Sound studio. The other tracks feature guest musicians such as renowned guitarist Doyle Dykes, violinist Molly Emerman, cellist John Hagen, and longtime Johnson accompanists Tommy Taylor and Wayne Salzmann on drums and Roscoe Beck and Chris Maresh on acoustic bass.
For Johnson, the creation of sublime music has always been about the journey inward, an approach shared by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and other visionaries. Over the years, his unwavering devotion to perfecting his art has become as legendary as his attention to the instruments he plays. This is evident in his songs, interviews and the way he plays guitar and piano. As Stevie Ray Vaughan put it, "The guy has done more trying to be the best that he can be than anybody I've ever seen. He plays all the time, and tries to get his instrument in perfect shape all the time. He works hard on his tone, sound, techniques. He does incredible things with all kinds of guitars – electric, lap steel, acoustic, everything. Few people understand that when the guy was fifteen, he was playing Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery stuff, and he was doing it right – that's pretty cool. Eric is a wonderful cat. He's always been one of my favorite people in the world, as well as one of my favorite guitar players."
Proclaimed "one of the most respected guitarists on the planet" by Guitar Player magazine, Johnson was raised in a musical household in Austin, Texas. He began on piano at age five and took up guitar six years later, when bands like the Beatles, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix ruled the airwaves. His influences soon expanded to include such diverse guitarists as Eric Clapton, Django Reinhardt, Jerry Reed, and Chet Atkins.
At 15, Eric joined his first professional band, Mariani, which blended '60s era rock with psychedelia. During the 1970s, he ventured into jazz-rock fusion with the Electromagnets, which fans affectionately nicknamed "the Mahavishnu Orchestra of Texas." The band's self-titled debut album brought them acclaim but less-than-stellar sales. Johnson's dues-paying continued with his next lineup, the Eric Johnson Group. In 1978, they recorded the full-length album Seven Worlds, a brilliant release that, due to contractual disputes, remained unissued until 1998. Johnson soldiered on, perfecting his tone and technique while working as a session guitarist for Carole King, Christopher Cross, and Cat Stevens and constantly touring, wowing audiences from coast to coast and building his fan base.
Eric's patience, practice and touring paid off in 1986, when he signed with Warner Brothers and released Tones. One of the album's instrumentals, "Zap," was nominated for a Grammy Award. Johnson's next major release, 1990's Ah Via Musicom, became a crossover hit and reached platinum status, while the track "Cliffs of Dover" earned Johnson the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. To this day, mastering this song has been a rite-of-passage for up-and-coming guitarists. Johnson toured for three years on the strength of Ah Via Musicom.
In 1994 Johnson began performing with his side project Alien Love Child in between sessions for Venus Isle. Immediately following the 1996 release of this critically acclaimed studio album, Eric Johnson joined fellow guitar stars Joe Satriani and Steve Vai for the G3 tour and appeared on the G3: Live in Concert album. His next release, Alien Love Child's Live and Beyond, was issued in 2000 by Vai's Favored National label. To the delight of his fans, Johnson's 2003 album Souvenir gathered demos and out-takes recorded between 1976 and 2000. Johnson promoted Souvenir with an acoustic tour the following year, a year in which he also appeared and was recorded at Eric Clapton's first Crossroads Guitar Festival.
In 2005 Johnson released Bloom, showcasing a variety of his diverse styles, and received his fifth Grammy nomination. He also oversaw the DVD and CD release of his legendary 1988 appearance on Austin City Limits. He then joined Joe Satriani and John Petrucci for a 2008 G3 tour. The following year, Johnson accompanied guitarist Mike Stern, best known for his work with Miles Davis, on Stern's Big Neighborhood. As Stern noted, "At that session, I remember us saying ‘One of these days we should do a record together,' but I never thought it would happen." Five years later, it became a reality when the duo collaborated on the 2015 release Eclectic. Other highlights from recent years include Johnson's 2010 solo album Up Close, featuring guest appearances by guitarists Steve Miller, Sonny Landreth, Jonny Lang, and Jimmie Vaughan. His 2013 European tour yielded the album Europe Live, and in 2016 Johnson was among the featured artists for his eighth outing on the Experience Hendrix Tour, recreating the music of his main guitar inspiration.
With EJ, listeners are given a rare and long-awaited opportunity to hear the guitarist in an all-acoustic setting – a first for Johnson. "Almost all of that material was cut live," he says. "Some of the songs I actually sang and played at the same time – just live in the studio. Recording this way gave it more of an honest realism and organic emotion. Especially on the acoustic, you just have to get in there and play." In essence, EJ brings listeners as close as possible to hearing the singer-songwriter perform in his own living room, as he continues his lifelong quest to produce music that entertains, inspires, and heals.
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