Eric Johnson wrote Cliffs of Dover in 5 minutes

Guitarist Eric Johnson performs on stage at The Canyon Club on January 25, 2015 in Agoura Hills, California.
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/WireImage)

You know how it took you years to learn how to play Cliffs of Dover (assuming you’re anywhere near actually being able to do it)?

Apparently, it took Eric Johnson five minutes to write it.

“Some songs take forever to write. You labor over them for so long, and you start to wonder if there’s a point to continuing,” the electric guitar great tells Guitar Player in a new interview.

“Then there are those other songs that just come to you like magic. When that happens, it’s like you’ve just been sent a sort of gift from the universe.” 

Cliffs of Dover, which appeared on the Austin guitar virtuoso’s 1990 album, Ah Via Musicom and won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, was one of those gifts. 

Johnson penned the instrumental after coming off the road as a member of Carole King’s backing band in 1983. At the time, he was living at his parents’ house, and, he says, “They had a music room, so I would use that to practice. One day, I started playing this descending-arpeggio pattern. It just came to me – right place, right time. I didn’t have to overthink it. My mom popped her head in and said, ‘That’s a good song. I really like that one.’ ”

From there, he continues, “I was just having fun connecting the dots. In five minutes, I had the whole song down. If there was any craft involved, it came from this ethos of mine that I don’t want to play a bunch of notes; I want to play music. And this music was pure enjoyment.”

Johnson goes on to say that he played Dover live for years before committing it to tape. When he finally did, for Ah Via Musicom, he included a freeform improv section at the top, much like how he always did it onstage.

“It varied every time I played it live,” he says. “In the studio, I tried a few versions until I got something that sounded right.”

As for the gear he used to craft his now legendary tone? “It’s just an Echoplex into a Tube Driver, and that went into a 100-watt Marshall with a 4x12 cabinet,” he says, adding, “I played it all the way through with my Strat, but the solo didn’t sound as clear and elegant as I wanted, so I punched in a [Gibson] ES-335 for the main solo. Then it goes back to the Strat for the end.

“You can hear the tone difference, but that’s okay – the spirit is there.”

To learn more about the song that landed at #20 on Total Guitar’s 50 greatest guitar solos of all time, head here

While you’re at it, check out Post Malone playing the tune in a battle with super-producer Andrew Watt, and a lesson from EJ himself on Cliffs of Dover-style chord-based improv.

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.