Black Star Riders' Damon Johnson: 5 Essential Guitar Albums

Damon Johnson
Damon Johnson

Damon Johnson has an extensive rock palate, but he’s not about to shy away from the ‘obvious’ choices either.

“Eddie Van Halen’s so massive for everyone, I know that,” he nods. “But I have no shame in being ‘with the masses’ on that one! It was such a pivotal album.”

Raised in Alabama, now based in Nashville, the Black Star Riders guitarist has grown from Southern roots through hard rock heavyweights and outlaw country to hone his own style. It’s served him well in his current gig, as well as previous tenures with Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper, Southern hard rockers Brother Cane and collaborations with the likes of Santana, Ted Nugent, Skid Row and many others.

Impressively fresh-faced at Team Rock HQ, after an early flight, he talks six-string memories, Southern obscurities and “perfect” classics.

Black Star Riders’ next album Heavy Fire is released in February 2017, and can be pre-ordered now.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Second Helping

I remember being a young teenager, 14 or 15, really starting to play, and living in the South (where I’m from) Lynyrd Skynyrd was everywhere, Sweet Home Alabama was on the radio constantly… So I just remember getting that record and realising it’s really kind of a perfect guitar album; there’s so many great songs on there, Working For MCA, Needle in the Screw, Call Me La Breeze. And of course Skynyrd famously has three guitar players, and that line-up in particular with Ed King, Gary Rossington and Allen Collins was fantastic.

The first Skynyrd song I ever tried to play? It was Sweet Home Alabama. I mean, that’s as iconic a guitar riff as Smoke On The Water or Highway to Hell. It’s timeless. But there was also a country thing about it that really resonated with me; I was exposed to as much country and blues as rock’n’roll. It was always the measuring stick for us young players: ‘can you play Sweet Home Alabama? And can you play it properly?’

Over the course of my career I’ve become friends with Ed King. Ed wrote that riff; that was his riff. But yeah, without a question, that album as a whole was big for me. The songs were fairly simple, you could sit with your friends and bash through it and not sound horrible. It wasn’t like trying to learn a Pink Floyd record. When you find something that can translate from your ears to your fingers, it’s wonderful.

AC/DC – Back In Black

For my top five albums of all time, right now I’d probably say Highway To Hell. But Back In Black is probably more of a guitar record for me. [Around that time] we were listening to Aerosmith and we’d just discovered Van Halen – that was like calculus, when you heard Eddie play it was complex and full-on. But Back In Black was a great record to just drop the needle on and play along with, almost every song.

You could make your way around the fretboard and even when Angus would go and solo, that was when I first remember finding shapes on the guitar neck and going ‘he’s right here, he’s hanging around this area of the fretboard and bending this note’. I remember bringing my parents in the room and going ‘sit down, listen to this!’ and I’d play along with You Shook Me All Night Long and Hell’s Bells and Shake A Leg and all that stuff. It’s really a perfect album.

Van Halen – Van Halen

Any of us that play electric guitar, young or old… if Scott Gorham was here he would have to tip his that to Van Halen, and I’ve got youngsters that come to our shows and we talk about guitars and they say the same thing. There was almost a punk energy in Eddie’s playing. There was this total recklessness in the way he played. Someone said it eloquently in a guitar magazine years ago; they said “Eddie plays like someone who’s falling down the stairs, and he always lands on his feet.”

When he launches into a solo you go ‘How does he think like that?!’ It’s like he just grabs the neck and tries to choke this expression out of it. And the tone, the whole brown sound thing, there’s nothing like it. As I think some other players I’m friends with, like Doug Aldrich or Richie Faulkner from Judas Priest, would say… we’re all still trying to get that sound. It’s a cascading sound, and Eddie wrote the book on that. There were virtuosos before him but they seemed to come more from jazz or fusion or places like that.

I saw Van Halen seven or eight times when I was a kid. The first time was 1980, when I was about to turn 16, and I saw them play Birmingham, Alabama. I met some of my friends in Birmingham, I had moved to a different town, but I had this group of friends and we were all music junkies together. So we all arranged to go and our parents dropped us off. And it was life-altering. Eddie gets so much attention for his lead-playing obviously, but he’s equally the best with his rhythm playing. It really helped guys like me look at the fretboard differently.

The Atlanta Rhythm Section – Champagne Jam

I’m gonna get really obscure now, and get more into my Southern thing. The Atlanta Rhythm Section were a great band; they may have been on everyone’s radar here [in the UK] a tiny bit, but they had several hit records in America. The band was basically comprised of a bunch of studio musicians; Ronnie Hammond was the singer, two guitar players, one [of them] J.R. Cobb co-wrote most of the songs with the producer. But the other guitar player Barry Bailey had a unique note choice that had a little bit of a jazz feel, almost like Steve Lukather has, or Larry Carlton. He’d be playing some cool R’N’B type of song, and then add a couple of notes that’d make you go ‘what is that?!’ He’d always make my ears perk up.

I have all their albums, so it’s hard for me as a die-hard fan to pick one, but if I had to I’d go with Champagne Jam. It had two big hits, Imaginary Lover and I’m Not Gonna Let It Bother Me Tonight, which was all over the radio. They weren’t this amazing live band, they just stood there and played, but the musicianship was five-star. To this day I still put on those records and have a deep joy just listening to those songs and particularly Barry’s playing. He had this Gold Top Les Paul that was a deluxe, with the smaller pick-ups, and to this day it blows my mind that he could get such a thick, rich tone – almost like a Paul Kossoff kinda sound – with just a Les Paul deluxe and a Marshall amp.

Eddy Shaver – Shaver - Unshaven: Live At Smith’s Olde Bar

Eddy’s dad is an Americana/alternative country icon named Billy Joe Shaver. He was great friends and a collaborator with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, a lot of the guys that came out of Texas. I wasn’t so familiar with Billy Joe because I was so set on my hard rock records, but in 1989 I joined a band based out of Memphis Tennessee called The Delta Rebels, and the other guitar player was Eddy Shaver.

At that time I was still very much in Van Halen mode – I’d have been about 23, 24, so I was starting to play professionally. On our first rehearsal I had all my pedals, I think I had a rack of effects and my Floyd Rose and both my hands on the fingerboard, and I’m just going bananas. Then in walks this guy, and all he comes in with is a gig bag, a leather jacket and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. The Stratocaster he pulled out looked like it had been dragged behind a guitar on the street. He pulls out a cable, plugs the guitar straight into this Mesa Boogie amp, cranked everything wide open – the guy hit one note, and it knocked me on my ass. I’d never heard a guitar sound like that.

We became great friends, about a year we played in that band together, then everyone went their separate ways and Eddy went back to playing with his dad. He had this fiery Texas Stratocaster blues thing going on, Stevie Ray Vaughan was certainly an influence but there was also this anger, this aggression in his sound – almost like Ritchie Blackmore. Sadly he died in 2000, but he made this incredible live album with his dad called Shaver Unshaven: Live At Smith’s Olde Bar. It’s this great room in Atlanta Georgia where everybody’s played. And it was produced by Brendan O’Brien, he’d just started to make a name for himself. I’d put this up against any of the other live records in my catalogue.

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Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.