KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Thirty Year Thursday – ERIC JOHNSON “TONES”

[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986, which now shifts to the releases I didn’t discover until after 1986]

Artist: ERIC JOHNSON
Album: TONES

Eric Johnson - TonesThere aren’t many guitar virtuosos who are also accomplished singer-songwriters, but Austin, Texas native Eric Johnson is one such rarity. While his contemporaries, like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai (both of whom would later form the 3-headed guitar colossus G3 with him), had musos & guitar geeks foaming at the mouth with their virtuosity & diversity, most of their best-loved material was instrumental since neither possessed a commanding voice. Johnson, on the other hand, could write melodic songs that featured strong lead vocals and jaw-dropping guitar work, making his discography more well-rounded than the majority of his fellow six-string shredders. When his ‘70s band Electromagnets failed to set the world on fire, he became an in-demand session guitarist, and a memorable appearance on the Austin City Limits TV show in 1984 led to a record contract with Reprise/Warner Brothers. Although his sole album for that label, Tones, has long been considered his debut, he had previously completed a long-lost independent album in 1978 that wasn’t officially released until 20 years later. Tones, however, is where he introduced the distinctive sound that made the music world take notice; a combination of fluid guitar work with a variety of styles and (obviously) tones, driven by the killer rhythm section of bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tommy Taylor (and augmented with Fairlight synths & other programming courtesy of producer David Tickle).

Comparisons could be made between this trio and fellow Texans Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, but while SRV used blues as a launching pad for his sonic assaults, Johnson’s combo weren’t as easy to pigeonhole, blending elements of blues, jazz, fusion, pop, etc. into a brew that was wholly their own. I was fortunate to see both of these guitar greats in concert and they Eric Johnson - Guitar Player Magazine Cover 1986were equally incredible. The best-known track on Tones is “Zap,” a fast-paced instrumental rocker showcasing the talents of all three musicians, which was nominated for Best Rock Instrumental at the following year’s Grammy Awards. Two other vocal-free tracks, “Soulful Terrain” and “Desert Song,” demonstrate Johnson’s well-rounded guitar skills. The former blends elements of smooth jazz with a driving beat, as he extracts multiple sounds from his axe and delivers a blistering solo, while the latter is a beautiful acoustic guitar showcase. “Friends” begins with tribal percussion (reminding me of another versatile guitar god, Adrian Belew) before morphing into a subtly syncopated midtempo song with smooth-yet-slightly-gritty vocals. There’s also an almost metallic instrumental section with a searing guitar solo. “Emerald Eyes” features a similar rhythm, but with a super-catchy chorus and a running time under 3:30 it could have been a radio hit. “Off My Mind” was released as a single (with the aforementioned “Zap” as its b-side) and it’s easy to hear why. The fast-driving rhythm, sharp guitar sound and catchy melodies made it the most radio-friendly song on the album. His songwriting on this one reminds me of The Smithereens, whose ‘60s British Invasion-indebted music is echoed in the lyrics, “over, under, sideways, down,” likely a reference to The Yardbirds song of the same name. “Trail Of Tears” is another winner, with a great melody at “Hundreds of nights, oh my body cries, a trail of tears.” “Bristol Shore” might be a little too long at 6:40 (the longest track on the album), but that’s a minor complaint about a song that moves from pretty ballad to a more propulsive groove, with another incredible solo and a section where the guitar sounds like a Japanese koto. Johnson’s most successful album, the Grammy-winning Ah Via Musicom, which was my introduction to his music, was still four years away. Tones may not possess its successor’s notoriety but it’s an equally rewarding listen that deserves a wider audience, and it holds up extremely well 30 years later.

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21 comments on “Thirty Year Thursday – ERIC JOHNSON “TONES”

  1. Kevin
    October 20, 2016

    For me, what sets Johnson apart from his shredding peers is what he does melodically. He can play as many notes as the next guy, but, more often than not, his solos are infinitely more melodic. They can be downright hum-able. This is especially true on his next two albums (check out his solo at the end of “Venus Isle”). That, and his excellent voice. I can’t really listen to the Satriani’s of the world, but I like this guy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Kevin. It sounds like we have exactly the same appreciation for EJ’s music. I own everything he’s released, and I agree about “Venus Isle.” I only wish he had been more prolific during his peak commercial years. Then again, his slow pace is what’s made each album so eagerly awaited, and his new all-acoustic album is as good as anything he’s released. Have you heard it yet?

      I like Satriani and Vai, but their music has never had the same kind of impact on me as EJ’s.

      Like

      • Kevin
        October 20, 2016

        Yes, it would have been nice if he had released more than two studio albums in the 90’s. I haven’t heard the new album. Actually, I haven’t heard anything since Bloom. I have some catching up to do.

        Like

      • Only three studio albums since “Bloom” so not too much catching up for you to do. The new one (“EJ”) is a great place to start.

        Like

  2. DanicaPiche
    October 20, 2016

    Thank you for another great review, Rich! You had me at the SVR comparison. Eric Johnson’s added versatility suggest he’s an artist not to be missed! I’ll have to check out his music and this album in particular.

    Like

    • Hi Danica. It’s a pleasure to see you awaking from your blogging slumber. Hope all is well. Although EJ and SRV are sonically different, especially on record, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy on EJ’s albums. I hope you like what you hear.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        October 20, 2016

        Thanks, Rich! I’m so happy to be back! I have tons of catch-up reading to do! I hope you’ve finally been able to set up your music room.

        Like

      • Not yet. We just moved into our new (old) house last week and we’re working on plans for major renovations, which will start early next year. My music room will likely be done by mid-2017. Trying to be patient.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        October 21, 2016

        What an exciting time! Have you already drawn up plans for your music room? Apparently, patience is a virtue 🙂

        Like

      • Still in the early stages of plans with our architect, but her preliminary ideas are amazing. The music room is one of many renovations we’re working on that will completely transform the house (as well as our bank balance). At this point I’m not sure if I’m patient or just beaten down by all the activity & changes of the last year. As Bob Marley sang, “time will tell.” 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        October 23, 2016

        It sounds exciting but not so much if you’re too exhausted to enjoy it. Is a vacation possible, even a short one?

        Like

      • No vacations on the schedule yet. I could use a stay-cation, even if it’s just a couple of days, but then again I would probably spend too much time working on house-related projects. Guess I just have to keep my eye on the prize and make the most of things until the renovations are complete.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        October 25, 2016

        The key to a stay-cation would be to stay at a hotel far enough from home that you’d actually take a break, relax and rejuvenate.

        Like

      • I thought the concept of “stay-cation” involved staying at home, but I guess if you’re at a hotel near your home that would count. There’s a place about 20 minutes away that has an amazing spa, bed & breakfast & restaurant. That’s where I would choose such a stay-cation, although they’re not cheap.

        Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        October 25, 2016

        Yes, I interpret that to mean staying in town or staying local. That place sounds fantastic! Look for deals off-season and also for locals.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. 80smetalman
    October 20, 2016

    Full credit where due, he can wail.

    Like

    • No doubt about it. I saw him up close at a small club on the Ah Via Musicom tour and his dexterity on the guitar was mind-blowing. I’ve seen many of the greats, and I would rank him up there with the all-time best players.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. mikeladano
    October 20, 2016

    I always wanted this album, just due to the press. I don’t know why I never got it. Never saw a copy maybe?

    I remember reading an interview with Eric on the subject of tone. He explained that even changing the battery in your effects pedal can change your tone, and it would be far less stressful if he couldn’t tell the difference!

    Like

    • Are you familiar with any of his other albums? Anyone who likes Ah Via Musicom would enjoy this one too. His perfectionism not only caused him stress but also limited his recorded output and kinda killed his commercial momentum. At least every album in his discography is worth hearing.

      Like

  5. Phillip Helbig
    October 21, 2016

    I saw him about 30 years ago at a small club in Hamburg. Great player, but a bit introverted. I actually remember the drummer’s name: (the late) Uncle John Turner. A left-handed bassist (with a right-handed bass guitar with the high strings on top) was not introverted at all. During the set (while playing bass next to their table), he tried to convince a couple of girls sitting next to my friend and me “to come back to the hotel for a party after the show”. I don’t know if his bid was successful.

    It was a long set, which means we missed the last train home. We then took a night bus, but had to walk the last couple of miles.

    Like

    • I’m always impressed by your ability to remember the details of shows you saw decades ago, Phillip. This one is particularly interesting. Not sure if I would describe EJ as introverted when I saw him (probably a few years after you did), but he wasn’t a showman like Hendrix or SRV either. I’m not surprised to hear about his bassist’s attempts to “pull a bird.” Although my focus is always on the music when I’m playing, back in my single days I did everything I could to (in the words of a friend of a college friend) “capitalize on my status as a musician.” I wasn’t always successful but it’s always worth the effort. As a happily married man I’m glad to have those days behind me.

      Like

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