Damon Johnson on hard-rock heroes, the joy of independence and feeling like Bono when playing shows at his fans' houses

Damon Johnson
(Image credit: Stephen Jensen)

For the better part of 30 years, Damon Johnson has cultivated the type of illustrious, star-studded career most professional guitarists only dream about. 

His resume speaks for itself: founding member of Brother Cane in the early Nineties, Alice Cooper band member in the late 2000s, Black Star Riders guitarist in the 2010s, touring guitarist for Thin Lizzy from 2011 to 2013 and songwriter/musician on albums by Stevie Nicks, Skid Row, Faith Hill, Ted Nugent, Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar, among others. 

Since 2010, Johnson has also maintained a successful career as a solo artist – and that is where we find the versatile guitarist these days, putting the hired-gun life behind him and fully committed to going it alone. 

“I just felt like it was time for me to chart my own course,” says the 56-year-old Nashville resident. “I need to be the 1. I need to be in charge of my calendar. I need to be the one to make the decisions that for so many years had been made for me. 

“I love to play and I love having a bunch of tour dates and traveling and all of that – but I don’t love doing it 230 days out of the year anymore. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve missed because I was out on tour with a band lugging a Les Paul case through some airport in Stuttgart, Germany.” [Laughs]

Johnson’s electricity as a solo artist is in full effect across every track on his latest solo effort, Battle Lessons, a no-nonsense, hard-rocking affair on his own Double Dragon imprint label that showcases his triple-threat talent as singer, songwriter and guitarist.

The album was recorded in three different stages between February and October 2020 and funded primarily through a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. “I don’t have thousands and thousands of fans,” says Johnson, “but the little fanbase that I do have is very passionate and incredibly supportive.”

I love knocking on somebody’s door and they’ve got that expression on their face – they make me feel like I’m James Taylor or Bono or something

In addition to the usual CD and vinyl configurations, the campaign also offered such tiered perks as a $300 round of golf with the guitarist (“My time with Alice Cooper definitely turbocharged my love of golf”) and a $2,500 house concert that one fan has already scooped up.

“I love those things. I love knocking on somebody’s door and they’ve got that expression on their face and they’ve got their neighbors over and they bring in food and they make me feel like I’m James Taylor or Bono or something – it’s a great experience.” 

On Battle Lessons, Johnson churned out the majority of guitar parts on two Gibson Les Pauls: his black Custom and his Candy Apple Green ’57 reissue, the latter of which he calls “the best-sounding Les Paul I’ve ever had.” 

Amps were a mixed bag that included his own 100-watt Marshall and various amps provided by ace producer Nick Raskulinecz, including a Soldano, a Hiwatt, an Orange and a Friedman. But Battle Lessons is not an album brimming with sonic experimentation – it’s an album that’s chock full of good vibes, solid riffs, blazing solos and hooky choruses.

And through it all, it’s obvious that Johnson is having a blast playing these songs.

“I just feel the same joy and energy and enthusiasm that I felt as a teenager listening to Highway to Hell or Van Halen albums one through five, or Aerosmith or Thin Lizzy or so many others,” he says.

“I was shameless in listening to those bands to kind of influence the direction of the writing of some of these songs. How many times did I listen to I’m the One or On Fire from that debut Van Halen album until I finally said, ‘I want to write a song like that.’”

Speaking of Van Halen, there’s one moment on the record where the mood dips and takes a somber turn, and rightfully so; upon hearing of Eddie Van Halen’s death in early October 2020, Johnson dusted off an old track of his called Love Is All You Left Behind and completed it as a tribute to his fallen guitar hero.

“I was fully focused on just making this a badass, balls-to-the-wall rock record, and then Eddie passed away,” he recalls. “We were all celebrating him and the impact he had on all of us, and watching all the videos being posted on social media, I just saw that big smile of his, and I was moved to pull that song out of the vault, finish it, and add it to the record.“

  • Damon Johnson & the Get Ready's Battle Lessons is out now via Double Dragon.

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Jeff Kitts

As a teenager, Jeff Kitts began his career in the mid ’80s as editor of an underground heavy metal fanzine in the bedroom of his parents’ house. From there he went on to write for countless rock and metal magazines around the world – including Circus, Hit Parader, Metal Maniacs, Rock Power and others – and in 1992 began working as an assistant editor at Guitar World. During his 27 years at Guitar World, Jeff served in multiple editorial capacities, including managing editor and executive editor before finally departing as editorial director in 2018. Jeff has authored several books and continues to write for Guitar World and other publications and teaches English full time in New Jersey. His first (and still favorite) guitar was a black Ibanez RG550.