STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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“Hopefully they won’t run out of the building in the first two songs. Actually, we’re gonna lock the front doors of the theater,” joked Eric Johnson, who will be showcasing a decidedly different set of skills in his musician’s toolbox.
Known for his prowess in different styles as an electric guitarist — winning the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the ecstatic pyrotechnics of “Cliffs of Dover” (see Guitar Hero III) and lauded by “Guitar Player” magazine as “one of the most respected guitarists on the planet” — Oct. 14’s concert at Sellersville Theater is “An Evening of Acoustic Guitar & Piano,” celebrating Johnson’s sublime singer/songwriter side and his first all-acoustic album, “EJ.”
Of course, this is hardly the first time Johnson’s demonstrated he’s a capable singer that can also dazzle on acoustic guitar. Just refer to “Desert Rose,” “High Landrons” and “Song for George” from his biggest-selling album “Ah Via Musicom.” And surprise, Johnson’s first instrument was piano. He began playing at 5 years old, six years before first picking up the guitar.
Besides the Fender and Gibson electric guitar sound that many know him for, Johnson has been playing Martin acoustic guitars since he was a teenager, and 10 years ago collaborated with the Martin team in Nazareth to create an Eric Johnson signature model. The instrument has an image of an angel on the headstock, under the C.F. Martin brand, and features planet-shaped fret markers on the neck.
According to Johnson, the upcoming show will lean heavily on “EJ” — whose 13 tracks feature imaginative covers of “Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair,” Jimi Hendrix’s “One Rainy Wish” and the 1950s Les Paul and Mary Ford’s song “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” — and will include unreleased new acoustic compositions and maybe one or two re-arranged versions of his electric numbers.
Besides G3 — the side-project guitar-star trio of Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai — Johnson has lots of other big-name friends in the business. His session work resume includes Cat Stevens’ 1978 album “Back to Earth,” which was made around the time of his conversion to Islam, and name-change to Yusuf. “We were supposed to do a tour together, but that was when he dropped out of the music business for a long time,” Johnson recalled.
He’s also worked with Carole King. “She wrote so many songs for other people, that some people don’t even know about. It’s just amazing to see how she writes songs,” he said.
Johnson’s first major record label deal in 1986 was put into motion thanks to fellow Texan Christopher Cross, whose hits include “Sailing,” “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” and “Ride Like the Wind.” “We were friends since we were teenagers,” said Johnson, who is now 62.
So renowned was Johnson in the music world that in 2006, a man was arrested for impersonating him in order to get free guitars. “That ended up being a problem because there were companies that got stiffed on some gear,” Johnson remarked.
He also played on Richard Marx’s 1992 hit “Keep Coming Back.” Still touring behind the commercial success of “Ah Via Musicom” at that time, Johnson said that he “put an unnecessary burden on myself” making the overdue 1996 follow-up, “Venus Isle,” which he wanted to have a different sound.
As for the acoustic guitar-singer/songwriter-piano approach on his latest, “Almost all of that material was cut live,” Johnson said. “Some of the songs I actually sang and played at the same time — just live in the studio. Recording this way gave it more of an honest realism and organic emotion. Especially on the acoustic, you just have to get in there and play.”