|Image courtesy Wikipedia.org
Eric Johnson's pivotal 1988 album, Ah Via Musicom, begins with some ethereal special effects before launching into what might very well be the most-learned rock guitar instrumental since "Misirlou." "Cliffs of Dover" has been published in guitar magazines for as long as I can remember, and every guitarist work anything has either learned it or attempted to learn it.
What makes "Cliffs of Dover" tricky is not the fast bits. In fact, it's not a particularly fast song, so the "shreddy" licks in it aren't too bad for most guitar players to learn. But it's an iconic work for Johnson because it captures something important about the way he expresses himself musically: his unique sense of rhythm. There's something odd about it; at times it feels straight, and at times it swings. It has an unmistakably c-jazz quality to it, and yet when you strip of it its elaborate production value, it feels Hendrixy. It's bluesy, but not too much so. It's complex, but not overtly so.
Put it all together, and it's a feel for music possessed by no other musician that I know of, and it's what makes Eric Johnson such a pleasure to listen to. Sure, plenty of people talk about his tones, but the fact of the matter is that anyone can get those tones if they're using $50,000 worth of vintage gear. Johnson's sense of "tone" really traces back to his feel, so that no matter how he happens to have dialed his amps and his pedals, he always knows which notes to play when, and at which fret, and with how much vibrato. It's the feel, man, the feel.
And that feel is everywhere on Ah Via Musicom. From the beginning to the end, you'll never play a note of this album correctly on your own guitar, if you don't have that feel. You could argue that the album is too diverse to have one, unique feel. After all: there's a chicken-pickin' two-step in "Steve's Boogie," an acoustic solo in "Song for George," genuine contemporary smooth jazz in "East Wes," and even a few radio-ready (well, by late-80s standards) vocal tunes. This album certain runs the gamut of popular styles. But if you don't have Johnson's feel, you're sunk, and all you can do is watch him do it for you.
In contrast to the other shredders of the age, though, Eric Johnson has always had a really nice voice. On later albums, you could argue that his voice was pitch-corrected - some later albums certainly sound like it - but on Ah Via Musicom it's obvious: No, Eric Johnson just sings like that. His pitch is absolutely spot-on, a testament to his famously sensitive ear. But if some listeners start to feel that the performances are too planned, too deliberate, I'd suggest they turn the music up a little bit. For example, there's a part near the end of "Desert Rose" in which Johnson's voice cries the lyrics out with grit and resolve, a suddenly passionate and masculine wail not always expected from such a soft-spoken shredder who has been known to record duets with Christopher Cross.
All these years after its release, that's what grabs me about Ah Via Musicom: The fact of the matter is that there is a rawness to it, a loudness to it, an energy behind the plate reverb. Not as much energy as his earlier work with the Electromagnets, but certainly more than his performances in the G3 Live video would let on a few years later.
And when you go back to the performances of that period - most notably his legendary appearance on Austin City Limits - you see the energy there, too. He hadn't yet come into his own, so he was still reaching for the stars, but he'd already identified who he was and what he did differently, and was starting to get comfortable showing it.