Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17

Let's talk about Eric Johnson, musician's musician and guitar god. If you're a Guitar Hero player, you know how hard it is to play along with "Cliffs of Dover," his biggest charting hit. The song came from the 1990 album 'Ah Via Musicon', his Grammy-winning platinum record. Here's a performance of the song from the 'Tonight Show':

If you're not convinced of his awesomeness after that performance, you don't have to apologize. Sometimes in this column, we talk about why certain talents aren't superstars. Eric Johnson's downfall is a more pronounced but typical demonstration of why musician's musicians don't become superstars.
Let's put it in context: 1990's "Ah Via Musicon" is a technical masterpiece. In that album, he achieved the ultimate artistic goal of revealing his unique voice within his medium of guitar playing, of establishing his own sound.

When you get beyond the guitar wizardry, you can't ignore the fact that it's a soft rock record. It is so easy to believe that this guy got his big break doing studio sessions for Christopher Cross. Here's another song that Eric Johnson did with ex-Marilyn Manson guitarist John5, just to remind you that Johnson can still rock:

Back to Eric Johnson: Some of the songs on "Musicon" are barely songwriting, just skeletons to let the guitar drift and zoom around the room... that's why people gave up on jazz. It's what they call "guitar wanking", and it sets a divide between the audience and the musician. It's like any athlete or artist flexing their muscles: after a while, the only audience the performer is concerned about is the performer. And while there's something to be said about the purity of the artistic expression, what gives art its resonance is its connection with an audience.
Let me encapsulate the difference: listening to most Eric Johnson songs, at best, makes me want to play guitar like Eric Johnson. But a song like "Cliffs of Dover"... it makes me want to fly like Superman.

I don't know if he's ever going to try to hit the charts again; heck, I can't tell if he'll release another solo album on schedule (every six years.) But Eric Johnson has found great success as the 'musician's musician'. After two successful world tours with G3 (a triple bill with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai), he's doing a Guitar Masters tour in 2011, alongside other guitar masters. That's success aplenty...

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