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Guitar Legend Eric Johnson Not Sweating The Small Stuff

Eric Johnson plays
Max Crace
Eric Johnson plays the Castle Theatre Thursday night.

During the 30th anniversary year of the release of Eric Johnson's classic album "Ah Via Musicom," the much lauded guitarist said looking back on that album and his other works can be helpful.

He tells WGLT that became apparent on last year’s tour, where the point was to play "Ah Via Musicom" in its entirety.

“And I discovered face-to-face … re-learning some stuff and listening and went, ‘Wow, I forgot I used to do that, and I forgot I used to get this sound.’ Then I went on a quest to re-inculcate that into what I do now,” said Johnson, who makes a return engagement to the Castle Theatre in Bloomington Thursday night.

“As you go through life you obviously change and grow and might learn something new or do something you like better. But invariably you might leave something on the wayside that maybe is too valuable to leave, and then you go back to pick and choose what’s worth re-implementing into your present.”

“Cliffs of Dover” is the song Johnson is most known for. The second cut on “Au Via Musicom” won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1992, was voted #17 in Guitar World Magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitar solos and is featured in Guitar Hero III. Johnson said his musical calling card came to him in 5 minutes.

“I don’t even know if I can take credit for writing it … it kind of just popped out of the universe,” said Johnson, adding that he took time to embellish the song into something he was happy with.


“I had the opportunity to play it live for a few years and kind of tweak it. A friend of mine named the song, as I had no idea what to call it. He said, ‘That sounds like the Cliffs of Dover, so I said ‘OK, I’ll call it that.’”

“Taking time to embellish a song” is an attribute Johnson has been pegged with from the beginning of his recording career. Like Tom Scholz of Boston, Johnson has been known to sweat and obsess over every detail of his recorded music, so much so that years can pass during album releases. When asked if there might be some good in that attention to detail, he declined to accept and said he has learned to let minor imperfections go.

“I think you can push and push and push and get things better, better, and better, but it’s kind of law of diminishing returns,” said Johnson. “You can go too far, and I think I have gone too far, and you lose sight of the forest from the trees. And then you’re regenerating more and more time and its taking longer and longer, but you’re not necessarily getting something better. I think the criticism is well founded.”

Johnson recalls spending three and a half years producing “Venus Isle,” a longer time span than any of his other albums. As he looks back from today’s vantage point, a masterpiece record should take no more than 12-18 months.

“I don’t think I needed as long as I did. I think I got caught in an abyss and kept doing it over and over again. Having said that, I go back and listen to the record and there’s things on it that I’m very proud of. I know when I finished the record, I didn’t even want to hear it and didn’t know if it was any good or not. But when I go back to listen now, I hear a lot of the hard work I did.”

Johnson said the “a-ha moment” came when he realized being more soulful and capturing organic moments that connected emotionally with the listener would better serve his listeners and himself.

“If you can be like a Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma and nail something in two takes that’s unbelievably virtuosic, that’s great. I don’t think there’s any reason to put that down. But I think it has to be in perspective with catching an organic moment,” said Johnson, noting that cutting and pasting notes for six months doesn’t accomplish that.

“I feel like this new record (EJ Volume 2) which is coming out March 6 is more demonstrative of that. It was done quicker and with the priority of emotional connectivity. That was number one priority.”

Eric Johnson plays the Castle Theatre in Bloomington Thursday night.

The full interview with Eric Johnson.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.