Ever since his breakthrough third album, Ah Via Musicom (Capitol, 1990), Austin, Texas, guitarist Eric Johnson has been a widely admired guitar hero. From the start, he wedded dazzling technique to a strong melodic sense, gaining a reputation as a guitarist's guitarist along the way. Guitar World rated his Grammy Award-winning single "Cliffs of Dover" among the top 20 greatest guitar solos of all time, and the track is one of the most popular in the Guitar Hero video game series. Although he came to prominence as an electric player, and even participated in more than one cavalcade-of-shredders package tours (Joe Satriani's G3 tours and the Experience Hendrix tours, the latter of which stops—sans Johnson this year—in Salt Lake City in March), his most recent album, EJ (Provogue), is a completely acoustic effort. Naturally, his current tour in support of EJ finds him on stage alone, armed only with an acoustic guitar—and a piano.
Johnson relishes the opportunity to unplug and explore the sonority of his acoustic instrument. In a telephone interview, he says his goal is to orchestrate a song, creating a complete musical picture with "a single instrument" powered only by his hands—and playing multiple parts simultaneously. "I like to finger-pick, and have the bass and the rhythm and the melody go on at the same time." That's a radically different approach than the one he brings to the electric guitar, which he thinks of as "an ensemble instrument that plays just one [part] out of a multitude of pieces."
Early in his career, Johnson developed a reputation as a perfectionist in the studio; fans often had to wait four, five or even six years between album releases. He's still not an especially prolific recording artist: EJ is only his ninth studio album in 39 years (not counting three live albums, two studio albums with his mid-'70s jazz project Electromagnets and a live set by his side band Alien Love Child). But for this latest release, Johnson intentionally employed a new and simpler recording strategy. "I was cutting stuff live in the studio," he says. "I would just come in and record." And if he didn't get the results he wanted, he says he "would come back in a few days and try again."
That approach brings Johnson closer to the methods used by the folk music heroes of his youth. "Those guys didn't sit there with Pro Tools, putting note after note together," he says with a laugh. His back-to-basics method hearkens to the music on EJ; there are no guitar overdubs on the album, even on a track like "Once Upon a Time in Texas," which has the sound and feel of several guitars playing at once. The record also features a duet with country guitar virtuoso Doyle Dykes on the 1951 Les Paul and Mary Ford tune, "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," and a handful of songs where Johnson plays piano.
The current show might disappoint those wanting the dazzling fireworks found in his electric repertoire, especially his magnum opus "Cliffs of Dover." But those open to the subtler yet exciting shades of his acoustic work will enjoy the intimate setting. "For the most part, the old fans are liking this," Johnson says, though he concedes that some fans "are probably wishing I was doing the electric thing, I'm sure. It's a change." Not as much of a change, though, as Johnson playing piano instead.
In addition to the songs off EJ, which includes a stellar instrumental reading of Simon & Garfunkel's hit "Mrs. Robinson," concertgoers can hear Johnson explore the acoustic energies within songs from his back catalog. The setlist includes acoustic reworkings of tracks that date back to Ah Via Musicom, and even one from his 1986 album Tones and another from his 1978 debut, Seven Worlds. "I actually have more songs than I can do each night," he says.
While Johnson hasn't forsaken his electric guitar, he's energized by the experimentation, and considering working some acoustic material into his future electric, full-band sets. What's more, he says fans can expect more unplugged action on subsequent recordings. For that matter, they'll hear more on this tour: He says his current set even includes some as-yet-unrecorded songs. "I have a bunch of stuff written for a Volume 2 already."