Why is there nothing on current mainstream radio that takes me to as many places as this does?
Most people would agree Ah Via Musicom is Eric Johnson’s Masterpiece. I’m also partial to the album Eric did right before Ah Via Musicom called Tones (1986). There’s fantastic songwriting and instrumentals on both.
But for the sake of illustration, If say we were all under some kind of Distopian Sci–Fi Communist CD rationing system and you could only have one Eric Johnson album after standing an hour in a Soylent Green breadline for your CD ration, I’d say go with Ah Via Musicom. And I can rest easy knowing there’ll be no flaming pile of poo on my front doorstep the next day so we both make out alright.
Aside from the album fave “Cliffs Of Dover” which made Eric a household name particularly among guitar players, “Trademark” is another of my favorite Eric Johnson tunes off his 1990 Tour de Force Ah Via Musicom.
“Trademark” starts off in a laid back bluesy groove, gets a bit muscular about a minute in, then morphs into some beautifully elegant arpeggiation for a nice Ethereal lift in the middle of the song.
Question: What do Joe Walsh, Eddie Van Halen (EVH) and Eric Johnson have in common?
They ALL started out playing the piano. So this piece has structures and voicings that aren’t what your typical guitarist would write compositionally speaking such as the descending chordal riff after the opening blues riff.
The piano background enables Eric Johnson to write elegant piano melody lines with the features of a guitar—meaning with ornaments like bends and vibrato. Most of the time Eric’s a fan of a clean tone with a smidge of distortion as is the case here which gives a dreamlike semblance of something beyond normal reality. And that I like.
Higher art to me has to have a transformative element and not simply regurgitate what everybody knows, feels and does. A monkey can do that. Challenge me. I can go there. What’s in the dictionary and expressed in common language ideas gets kind of boring.
The price of admission for me is getting the impression or a trace of something beyond, whether in a painting, music, dance or theater. And perhaps if you drive on the interstates frequently at 3AM, you might REALLY come to understand this tune:
Ah Via Musicom has only 4 vocal songs out of 11 tracks on the album—the rest are instrumentals. Eric’s soothing voice goes along seamlessly with his playing and songwriting style when it’s there. He sings with his voice and through his guitar tone on instrumentals as you can notably hear on “Trademark.”
Four singles were released off Ah Via Musicom and “Cliffs Of Dover” won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1992. All the radio releases made the Billboard charts as indicated below by their highest chart positions (Mainstream Rock):
Cliffs Of Dover #5, instrumental, Grammy
Trademark #7, instrumental
Righteous #8, instrumental
High Landrons #31, vocal
Hmmm. Noticing a pattern? His 3 top ten hits were all instrumentals. Eric Johnson may be the only musician where all of his instrumental tracks from an album charted higher on Billboard than those with vocals.
Ironic because he has a smooth soulful voice that compliments his warm buttery guitar tone superbly. What seems to have happened is his guitar skills actually downplay his vocal skills and it hampers people from noticing that he has decent vocal chops as well.
Put another way, if he was an average guitar player, people would notice and compliment his singing more. Take a listen to the following tunes from their respective albums and you’ll see:
Bristol Shore, Trail Of Tears, Off My Mind, Emerald Eyes (Tones 1986)
Desert Rose, Nothing Can Keep Me From You (Ah Via Musicom 1990)
Compositions like Trademark are one of the reasons to incarnate on Earth in my book—I love music and that’s how I feel. At the very least it’s in the “Pros” column for an Earthly sojourn.
There’s such an honest purity and positivity in Eric Johnson’s playing which for me would fit into the as yet non–existent genre of “Guitar Gospel” because his polished white marble tone is like a sacred Sonic Baptism.
With his strings, Eric weaves a diverse set of styles into each album and even within songs—the variety is always refreshing and stands up well to ear time over the years. “Trademark” shows how he mixes multiple sonic ingredients giving them his personal proprietary blend of blues which transcends the boundaries of the genre in it’s traditional form, evidence of a youth in a locale where growing ears easily get bent in several musical directions.
Eric Johnson was born in the great music city of Austin, Texas. One of my guitarist friends who lives and performs in another of those large cities deep in the heart of Texas has met him.
For myself, I spent time in Austin checking out if I wanted to settle there or in another music city. Turned out I picked another cool music city that wasn’t as crowded (if you must know, it’s Springfield and my neighbors are named Homer and Marge).
Anyhow, you make notes about what you like and don’t like visiting different cities and find the ideal sized one for you that fills the Pros column while minimizing the Cons. I got burnt out with traffic and congestion living in Tampa Bay (the highest population density in Florida) and prefer living in a mid sized city these days.
Still Austin is a great place to visit for much more than just seeing Eric play on his home turf. It’s the birthplace of Eric Johnson and Whole Foods, which the Rock ‘n’ Roll irony (or Synchronicity) being the first Whole Foods Market began next to Bowie Street in downtown Austin.
As a musician, the really interesting thing about Eric Johnson is he doesn’t overplay for someone who’s a top technical tier guitarist. This is a Jedi skill onto itself. The techniques he employs have a reason to be there and are an ideal placement within the context of the song—they’re not there to upstage it.
His bag of tricks always gives the ear treats instead of “Shred Fatigue” which is what I like to call the point where most listeners go into a drooling stupor after being bombarded by too many unnecessary gratuitous notes.
Instead, Eric Johnson has the guitarist persona of a Fretboard Yogi. He practices the art of Fretboard Yoga very well. If there’s a Feng shui of sound, he’s quite adept at putting things in their ideal places within a composition as well as using space to create Yin and Yang, inhales and exhales.
His music breathes, it has life, movement, animation. It has sublime majestic beauty—the Trademark of someone expressing joy and heightened perception though the Higher Language of Music.
© Composer Yoga
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