Austin Tone Lab
10 August, 2015
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Eric Johnson is on the short list of all-time guitar heroes, but his creative path has taken some interesting twists and turns. He has earned critical and commercial success, a Grammy, accolades from his peers and unabashed devotion from his fans. However, his story as a guitarist, vocalist, keyboardist, songwriter and producer is not a "typical" one.

Johnson is a native of Austin, Texas, which is steeped in blues and country music. But Johnson's music reflects a broader range of influences in addition to blues and country, particularly pop, rock and jazz/fusion. His meticulously-produced albums are almost always equally divided between instrumentals and vocal songs showcasing all of his musical interests.

By the time Johnson had reached his teens, he was making waves on the Austin scene. At 16, he was a member of a band called Mariani and by 21, he was part of Electromagnets, a jazz-rock band with an intense cult following.

He recorded his first album, 'Seven Worlds,' between 1976 and 1978, but it was not released until 1998. Ark 21 issued the album with Johnson's blessing. A previous manager owned the rights to 'Seven Worlds.' Johnson's burgeoning reputation in the late 1970s and early 1980s led to session work with the likes of Cat Stevens, Carole King and Christopher Cross. In fact, he played on Cross' Grammy-sweeping, self-titled 1980 debut album.

One of the most important breaks of Johnson's career was a 1984 appearance on the PBS television show 'Austin City Limits.' Reportedly, Prince saw Johnson's performance and recommended him to his label, Warner Bros. Records. The Warner subsidiary Reprise Records signed Johnson, and 'Tones' was released in 1986. Prince band members Wendy and Lisa even sang uncredited background vocals. The song "Zap" was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental. Johnson had already earned considerable coverage from the guitar magazines at this point, and their chronicling of his career increased rapidly.

Johnson's breakthrough into the mainstream occurred with 1990's Capitol release 'Ah Via Musicom.' The buoyant, cascading instrumental "Cliffs of Dover" enjoyed mountains of radio airplay across multiple formats. The platinum-selling album was nominated for a Grammy and "Cliffs of Dover" itself earned Johnson a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental, topping fellow nominees the Allman Brothers Band, Danny Gatton, Rush and Yes. The smooth, supple instrumental "Trademark" is another highlight. 'Ah Via Musicom' gave Johnson the distinction of over being the first artist to have three instrumentals from one album reach the Top 10 in any format. He spent three years on the road promoting 'Ah Via Musicom' and then toured with B.B. King and contributed to albums by Chet Atkins and Dweezil Zappa.

In 1996, Johnson returned with 'Venus Isle' on Capitol. Notable songs from it include "S.R.V." (a tribute to his friend, fellow Austin native and guitar legend, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan) and "Manhattan." This album illustrated Johnson's growth as a songwriter, producer, vocalist and, perhaps most surprisingly, keyboardist. He promoted the album with the massively successful, first-ever G3 tour, which also featured his friends and fellow guitar virtuosos Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. The live album and VHS home video 'G3 Live in Concert' followed in 1997; the DVD home video reissue came along three years later. The video has been certified platinum.

One of Johnson's favorite side projects, apart from his own albums and guesting on other artists' albums, is the blues trio Alien Love Child. The group's 2000 album 'Live and Beyond' was Johnson's first project for Favored Nations, Vai's label. The song "Rain" was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental.

2002 saw the release of 'Souvenir.' This popular collection of 12 previously-unreleased demos, outtakes and live recordings spanning his entire career is available only through or at his shows.

Johnson went on to surprise his fans, yet again, with a solo acoustic tour in 2004 showcasing his acoustic guitar and piano skills. He was also honored by Martin Guitars with his own signature acoustic model. That summer, he was also invited by Eric Clapton to take part in the Crossroads Guitar Festival.

A perennial favorite at the Austin Music Awards, Johnson and his band members won a variety of awards in March 2005 for the 2004-05 time period. Johnson won Austin Musician of the Year, Best Electric Guitarist and Best Acoustic Guitarist, as well as placing high in male vocalist, keyboardist and songwriting categories. Chris Maresh was named Best Bassist and Tommy Taylor earned Best Drummer honors.


David Grissom has toured and recorded with such artists as The Dixie Chicks, John Mellencamp, Joe Ely, Storyville, the Alman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Chris Isaak, Robben Ford, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Montgomery Gentry, Ringo Starr, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Martina McBride and Jennider Warnes. His songs have been recorded by Trisha Yearwood, John Mayall, Lee Ann Womack, Shannon Curfman and Storyville, among others.

He has been featuredseveral times in Guitar Player, Guitar World, Musician and Vintage Guitar Magazine. His highly acclaimed instructional book "A Guide to Blues/Rock Guitar Soloing" is published by Cherry Lane Music and exclusively distributed by Hal Leonard.

He moved to Austin, Texas in '83 from Louisville, KY, and within a few weeks was playing with Lucinda Williams. He hooked up with Lou Ann Barton shortly after, and from there, was accepted in one of the most vibrant music scenes in America.

"There was so much going on back then. At least 5 nights a week, I'd be at Antone's until way past closing because the music went on all night. Jimmie and Stevie Ray were there, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Rogers, Eddie Taylor - all those guys were constantly in and out. It was just such an incredible opportunity, to see those guys, hang with them, and play with some of them. I still can't believe how lucky I was to walk into something like that."

Grissom spent six years with Joe Ely, and then joined Mellencamp's band in 1991. "That was a whole 'nother experience!" he laughs. "It was a bigger band than I normally played with, and I don't think we ever played less than 15,000-seat halls. It's one of the best bands in the business, and it was a really good experience, but it was basically the same thing every night. "Then, in '93, I got to fill in for Dickie Betts in the Allman Brothers for a few dates - my wife paged me and said, `The Allmans want you to get on a plane in two hours,' and I played a three-hour show with them the next night! The Allmans were my favorite band when I was 16, and playing with them was such a thrill, that it really made me think about why I was doing this. I've always felt music was a real gift and a priviledge, and to make a living at it was way beyond what anybody deserved, and I just never wanna get to the point where I take that for granted."

Artist Links

David Grissom
Eric Johnson
Stephen Bruton
Brad Fernquist
David Holt
Chris Duarte
Ian Moore
Roscoe Beck
Chris Maresh
Van Wilks