In June of 2004, I had the opportunity to open for Eric Johnson on his acoustic tour in Houston, TX. It was wonderful to get to share the stage with a legend and at the same time it was odd not to not hear him perform his signature tune. After all, “Cliffs of Dover” is the the standard by which all others are judged not to mention the last instrumental guitar song to hit the top ten on the pop charts.
I first heard “Cliffs” in 1990 when a friend gave me a copied cassette tape of Ah Via Musicom. I wore the tape out in my car. What I know for sure is that I was not alone. You likely did the same thing.
Since then, I had attended many Eric Johnson concerts, including some that I played on. Eric had always performed with his band. But on that hot June night at Antone’s, Eric was only playing on acoustic guitar and I remember thinking, how is he going to play “Cliffs of Dover”? That was the first time that I thought of arranging the classic song for solo acoustic guitar. Many years passed before I summoned the courage to actually develop an arrangement and an additional year to get it “under my fingers”. But my intuition was correct. The song holds up on the acoustic as a solo piece!
The first accommodation that I had to make for the arrangement was to use an alternate tuning. I chose CGDGBD because the I, IV and V chords, which are the backbone of the song, would be easier to imply with their bass notes on open strings. After that it became a matter of transposing many of the melodies down an octave and discovering a few new fingerings necessary for the tuning.
The most challenging part of this solo arrangement is keeping the shuffle feel going at a fast tempo. Like most other difficult rhythm exercises, the shuffle must be learned slowly initially. Take your time and get the feel right. It’s no different than a slow blues shuffle so start there. Having the notes worked out means nothing without the context of the rhythm in this kind of tune.
I strongly suggest using the video lesson as a guide for the left-hand fingerings. The bass is played throughout the arrangement, even during the fast licks. This can be a fingering nightmare without the demonstration.
Yes, it is a difficult arrangement to play but in order to do the song justice, I had to include all of the famous lines. There was no choice for me which means that there is no shortcut for you. It is going to take some time, so be patient. Practice slowly. When you have it together, your friends, family, audience and maybe Eric himself will be amazed that you can play this solo.
In 1987 he received his first guitar for Christmas. As his primary antidote against the pain and fear that he felt through his brother's bouts with cancer, Rhett retreated into the instrument. What blossomed was a fiery work ethic that is reflected in his mastery of multiple styles and his passionate performances.
Rhett was admitted to the prestigious jazz program at the University of North Texas in 1993. Early on, Rhett developed a trademark hammer-on style that allows him to play two guitars at once by fingering each of their fret boards, coaxing filigreed harmonies and shimmering melodies without needing to strum.
Rhett has performed with Tommy Emmanuel, Larry Carlton, Al DiMeola, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Billy McLaughlin, Larry Corryell, Tony Trischka, The California Guitar Trio, Carl Palmer, Andy Timmons and many other legends of instrumental music. He is among the next generation of Texas guitar heroes.
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