On His Latest Tour, Eric Johnson Revisits His Best-Loved Work, 'Ah Via Musicom'

(Image credit: Max Crace)

You’d think Eric Johnson would look back fondly on the making of his breakthrough album, 1990’s Ah Via Musicom. Melodic, stylistically diverse and filled with stunning displays of instrumental agility, this self-produced rock guitar classic earned Platinum sales and yielded three Top 10 Mainstream Rock chart singles, including Johnson’s signature tune, the Grammy-winning “Cliffs of Dover.” Yet when he describes the year and a half he spent crafting Musicom, the Austin, Texas, guitarist/vocalist sounds far from nostalgic.

“I really was going for broke, and it kind of wore me out making that record,” he recalls. “I would record a song completely, overdub it and get it all finished, and then I’d listen to it and go, ‘That’s not it!’ And then I’d just tear it down and start again.”

Much of Johnson’s struggle centered on his pursuit of the perfect tone . “I’ve always had a dream of the electric guitar sounding elegant,” he explains. “I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool to get Wes Montgomery’s tone, but through a Marshall on 10? It’s kind of like an antonym: ‘I want a pure distortion.’ That’s kind of like saying, ‘I want dry water.’ But it can be approximated a little bit.”

Nearly three decades since Musicom’s release, Johnson is taking to the road to play the album live in its entirety. During the first several months of 2018, he will be joined onstage by the original rhythm section from the record: drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock, the latter of whom he hasn’t performed with in about 20 years.

As well as coinciding with the release of the new Eric Johnson Signature Thin-line Strat, the Ah Via Musicom 2018 Tour promotes Johnson’s new Collage album, which places his latest originals alongside covers of songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. In a willful attempt to break old habits, the guitarist cut a good portion of Collage live, not always going back to correct mistakes.

“It’s part of my therapy: I’m forcing myself to leave stuff in that I normally wouldn’t,” he chuckles. “I can listen to some of the records that I’ve made where I just beat ’em to death, and I paid a high price for it: ‘Okay, you finally got it, but there’s not much life force in it anymore; it’s kind of become like a mannequin or something.’ The more I let things go, the more I retain the life force.”

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