Very few musical artists achieve a true signature style - one which makes comparisons to other musicians impossible. But Texas guitarist Eric Johnson arguably comes as close to this echelon as any musician from the past quarter-century. Like fellow Lone Star State guitarists Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbons, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnson blends the rock style of Jimi Hendrix and the blues power of Albert King.
Yet Johnson's wide array of additional influences (from the Beatles and Jeff Beck, to jazz and Chet Atkins) make for a guitar sound as unique as his fingerprints. "When I first heard Eric," Winter recalls, "he was only 16, and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age." Former Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter says, "If Jimi Hendrix had gone on to study with Howard Roberts for about eight years, you'd have what this kid strikes me as.
" The Austin prodigy appeared on the cover of Guitar Player magazine while working with Texas jazz/fusion band the Electromagnets and as a session player (Cat Stevens, Carole King, Christopher Cross), and a 1984 performance on the TV show Austin City Limits set his recording career in motion. Johnson's 1986 debut album, Tones, certainly proved that the hype was warranted. Playing with the ace rhythm section of bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tommy Taylor, Johnson mixed blazing instrumentals ("Zap," "Victory") with Beatles-influenced vocal tunes like "Emerald Eyes" and "Bristol Shore." Johnson used the same half-and-half format on the 1990 follow-up, Ah Via Musicom; but a trio of the album's tunes surprisingly made him the first artist to have three instrumentals from the same album to chart in the Top Ten in any format (with "Cliffs of Dover" earning Johnson a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental).
But, if Johnson had a perceived weakness, it was the perfectionism that caused four years to pass between recordings. Even in concert, he would painstakingly tune his guitar between songs, by ear, for minutes on end. With the success of Ah Via Musicom, the guitarist admitted to feeling pressure to again raise the bar. But Johnson's studio nit-picking delayed Venus Isle until 1996, and the disappointing CD contained fewer instrumentals and sounded forced. A stint on the 1997 G3 Tour with fellow headlining guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and its resulting live release, breathed new life into Johnson and sparked the idea of a live album. Overhauling his band for the 2000 CD Live and Beyond, Johnson brought in bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Bill Maddox, and concentrated on more of a blues feel.
The guitarist still blended instrumentals with his vocal tunes ("Shape I'm In," "Last House on the Block"), but perhaps realized that his thin voice was too one-dimensional for guttural blues or R&B. Guest vocalist Malford Milligan ignites "Don't Cha Know" and "Once a Part of Me," helping Johnson's blazing debut on Vai's Favored Nations label and re-establishing the versatile virtuoso's status for the 21st century. As Vai himself testifies, "Eric has more colorful tone in his fingers than Van Gogh had on his palette."