One of the most outstanding instrumentalists in rock over the past 30 years, Texas guitar slinger and GRAMMY® Award winner Eric Johnson was already a legend before he recorded his first album. By the early '80s, such celebrated guitarists as ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, the Dixie Dregs' Steve Morse and famed session man and former Steely Dan member Jeff "Skunk" Baxter began singing the praises of this skinny kid from Austin with the mind-melting chops. Comparisons were made to such guitar heroes as Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix while his '70s fusion band Electromagnets was being hailed as "the Mahavishnu Orchestra of Texas." And though the band's 1975 self-titled regionally-distributed debut album was long out out of print, the legend of Eric Johnson spread via cassettes passed around within guitar circles. With the release of his highly-anticipated 1986 solo debut, Tones, the underground guitar legend finally emerged onto the scene fully-formed. And with the release of his eagerly-awaited follow up album, 1990's platinum-selling Ah Via Musicom, which contained the GRAMMY® Award-winning crossover hit single "Cliffs of Dover," Johnson became a bona fide international guitar phenomenon.
The New Age Music Guide once opined that "Eric Johnson plays guitar the way Michelangelo painted ceilings: with a colorful vibrancy that's more real than life" whileRolling Stone included him in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 21st century. A dynamic singer as well as an incredibly gifted guitarist and prolific songwriter, Johnson has been featured on the cover of countless guitar magazines around the world while also racking up critical accolades and mega-sales along the way. He has been a featured performer at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and appeared alongside fellow six-stringers Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on their celebrated 'G3' tours of 1997 and 2008. He has also been a fixture on the Experience Hendrix Tour, performing the music of his main guitar inspiration across the country. This fall, Johnson will participate in his seventh Experience Hendrix Tour overall.
Johnson has 10 albums as a leader under his belt to date, the latest being Europe Live, recorded on tour in April 2013 with his working trio of bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann II. For his latest recording, he joins forces with renowned jazz guitarist and former Miles Davis sideman Mike Stern on their first-ever studio collaboration, Eclectic, which Eric calls "one of my favorite double guitar situations that I've ever done." A collection of originals, including a hard-hitting Electromagnets tune from the mid '70s, "Dry Ice," and a cover of Jimi Hendrix's scorching blues, "Red House," this 2014 Heads Up/Concord release is a scintillating six-string summit that should leave guitar aficionado slack-jawed in disbelief. The seeds for this extraordinary six-string summit meeting were planted in 2009 when Johnson played on two tracks from Stern's GRAMMY® -nominated album Big Neighborhood. As Stern recalls, "At that session, which we also did down in Austin, I remember us saying, 'One of these days we should do a record together,' but I never thought that would happen." Five years later, the two modern day guitar heroes have put together a powerhouse program (with bassist Chris Maresh and drummer Anton Fig) that celebrates their mutual love of Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Albert King, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others.
The son of an Austin physician, Johnson was born in 1954 and began studying piano at age five. He took up guitar at age 11 after Beatlemania swept across the States. He progressed quickly from Beatles and Ventures songs to Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt tunes. His first experience with a semi-professional group came at age 15 when he joined Mariani, a four-piece rock ensemble headed by drummer Vince Mariani. "We were pretty innovative for the time," Eric recalls. It was during this period that Johnson was invited to jam with local guitar hero Johnny Winter. "When I heard Eric," Johnny later recalled, "he was only 16, and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age."
By the time Eric reached his late teens, he was so advanced that it was difficult for him to find musicians around Austin who could keep up. After graduating from Holy Cross High School, he briefly attended the University of Texas, then traveled with his family to Africa before relocating briefly to New York. In early 1974, he joined Austin's first notable fusion band, the Electromagnets and the following year played on the group's self-titled debut. Released regionally by EGM, the album failed to attract a major-label deal. "My favorite tracks on that are 'Crusades,' 'Blackhole,' 'Motion,' and 'Dry Ice,'" Eric stated in his December 1982 Guitar Player feature. "As a cult underground album, it did well, but it never took off. A lot of the aspects of my playing on that album are still with me." After a four-year struggle for success, the Magnets (by then they had shortened the name) decided to call it quits. Soon after the breakup, Eric unveiled the Eric Johnson Group with Bill Maddox on drums and Kyle Brock on bass. The trio recorded an album-length master tape in 1978, Seven Worlds (which remained on the shelf for 20 years before finally being released). Johnson subsequently became an in-demand sideman, appearing on recordings by Cat Stevens, Carole King, Rodney Crowell and fellow Texan and longtime friend GRAMMY®-winning singer-songwriter Christopher Cross.
In 1986, the guitarist released his majestic 1986 debut, Tones, which earned him his first GRAMMY® nomination for the track "Zap." Following the success of 1990's platinum-selling Ah Via Musicom, which included his GRAMMY®-winning crossover hit, "Cliffs of Dover," Johnson toured extensively for three years, including a short, memorable tour with B.B. King in 1993. He returned to the studio to record Venus Isle, which was released in 1996 and garnered him another GRAMMY® nomination. After the release ofSeven Worlds in 1998, Johnson issued a limited-release collection of demos, outtakes and live tracks, Souvenir, in 2002. He followed in 2005 with the studio album, Bloom, which yielded a fifth GRAMMY® nomination. 2009 saw the release of Live and Beyondby Alien Love Child, an improvisational trio Johnson had formed in the mid '90s during the recording of Venus Isle. A document of a night at Antone's in Austin with this wildly improvisational trio featuring bassist Chris Maresh and former Electromagnets drummer Bill Maddox, Live and Beyond included the GRAMMY®-nominated track "Rain," which was written by Maresh.
Johnson's 2010 album, Up Close, was a return to his roots and included the tunes "Austin" and "Texas" and also featured guest appearances from guitarists Steve Miller, Sonny Landreth, Jonny Lang and Jimmie Vaughan. "I wanted to bare myself a little further and show myself more," he said of that outing. "As you evolve as a person and artist, you reach forks in the road where you look at what it is you really want in life and to bring out in yourself and thereby affect other people. What's most important to me is to grow as a person, and because of that, I want my music to also grow and have more of a profound meaning and impact." He followed in April 2014 with Europe Live (a document of his 2013 trio tour with bassist Maresh and drummer Wayne Salzmann which included stops in Amsterdam, Bochum, Germany and Paris). On his latest, Eclectic, recorded at his studio in Austin with fellow guitar star Mike Stern, Johnson digs deep and makes a major impact. For music aficionados, this collaboration is a match made in heaven.