Austin born guitar player Eric Johnson has been one of the prevailing voices in electric guitar playing for well over 30 years. His uniquely crafted style and strong compositional output has seen him remain a constant favourite for players both young and old. Last year saw the release of a much anticipated studio album ‘Up Close’ which, coupled with extensive touring, brought Johnson back to a UK audience for the first time in over twenty years. It seems Eric’s touring mojo has been rejuvenated after a great response to his 2012 European dates and he will be playing Edinburgh’s Queens Hall amongst other UK shows in April 2013. Anyone fanatical about his legendary tone should consider an Eric Johnson live show as the very best way to experience the many vivid sonic textures he can create. From pure and crystalline clean tones and warm chiming chords to the fat yet stinging fuzz riffs and of course the dark and fluid sustain of perhaps the juiciest lead tone ever coaxed from the classic Strat and Marshall combination.
This article is all about the key components of Eric Johnson’s rig. His guitars, amps and pedals and how he uses them to shape his signature tones. One thing that can’t be said for all players is that EJ has worked hard to define a style that can’t be mistaken, a unique and personal voice developed through dedication to understanding his equipment and striving towards his sonic ideals.
The Fender Stratocaster
Eric has been using mainly vintage Fender Strats since he emerged as a young player on the Austin music scene. A huge Jimi Hendrix fan, Johnson found the light, resonant and comfortably contoured body of the Strat to be a perfect fit. It was in a lively music town like Austin where Eric was lucky enough to find and play many vintage Fender guitars and quickly cultivated an interest in the early 50’s Strats. These guitars were made of high quality American Ash wood, renowned for it’s snappy and clear response and were usually paired with a one piece Maple neck, quarter-sawn against the grain to create a very stable piece of wood with excellent sustain and bright, articulate tonal qualities. These guitars produced a sweet and clear bell-like tone through the early Fender valve amps of the time. The low output single coils of the 50’s allowed for a very transparent and uncompressed tone which clearly lets the source instrument’s qualities shine through. Guitars of this era have an impressive acoustic sound, the high quality of the wood selected giving warmth and sustain. These simple and very musical guitars really appealed to Eric and he was able to buy a 1954 Strat which he named Virginia. This guitar was a firm favourite for years and was widely used throughout the highly successful albums ‘Tones’ and ‘Ah Via Musicom’.
Fender’s first EJ signature Stratocaster, released in 2005, is largely built around Eric’s favourite 50’s examples and features specifications loyal to the era. The two main components are a high quality Maple neck bolted to an Alder body, selected for it’s less intense high end response. The body and neck have been traditionally finished in Nitrocellulose Lacquer, a very thin skin finish that many believe allows the instrument to resonate as freely as possible compared with thicker modern coatings. It is a fragile coating and is fairly sensitive to temperature changes while also marking easily. Not too much of a problem if you plan to be using that instrument day in day out but collectors will want to keep these guitars mostly in their cases and at a regular temperature to keep a pristine example. The neck’s headstock volute is deeper in order to keep string tension over the nut without the extra need for string-trees. Eric found that the guitar held it’s tune better without the excess tension and resistance. The six hole vintage style tremolo system with bent steel saddles and a carved bone nut were selected for their zingy tonal qualities and sustain. The neck has a soft V profile and is fairy chunky in the palm of your hand. The radius of the fretboard is much flatter than vintage examples as although the vintage rounded radius is very comfortable for chording, bent strings can ‘choke’ as they rub off frets which are curving upward towards the middle of the fretboard. The three single coil pickups are low output and voiced to EJ’s specification. One important distinction between a standard Strat electronics and the EJ model is that he has a tone control wired to his bridge pickup, allowing him to alter the sometimes overly bright nature of a Strat’s bridge position. This allows him to smooth off the top end of his lead sound to taste depending on the EQ of a venue etc. It is a highly recommended modification that will help you get more from your Strat, specifically further versatility when creating overdriven sounds.
The bridge pickup is wound slightly hotter to offer more punch for lead work but is still very clear and transparent when compared with a modern high output hum-bucker. Of course, using low output single coil pickup’s has it’s compromises; The tone may be very clear, open and sweet without clouding the tone of the source instrument but all single coils suffer from 60 cycle hum when gain is added to the signal. This is an issue but not one that affects Eric hugely as he does not use what we would consider to be a high gain sound but more of a vintage overdrive which is edged into fluid distortion and sustain by a good pedal and a loud valve power amp section. Playing at high volumes will make hum that much more apparent, as will the electrics in certain venues. Using the guitars volume control and observing where to position yourself relative to the amp for the minimum amount of hum are the best you can do to manage the situation before interrupting the signal chain with a noise gate of some kind. I tend to see it as a quirk that is simply part of the single coil experience. You get a very clear and precise clean sound but must manage some noise as you pile on the gain. The good news is that due to the low output nature of these vintage era single coils, the guitar remains defined and clear when using distortion for lead tones whereas some hum-bucker equipped guitars would sound too thick and perhaps a little mushy when hitting a heavily overdriven amp. Eric has mentioned that he finds it difficult to sculpt a lead tone that he enjoys from a hum-bucker as there is often a thicker more pronounced midrange response and fatter bass frequencies that can’t be dialed out. The single coil allows Eric to construct a tone that is clear and balanced while he uses different pickup selections, tone knob settings and the controls of the amplifiers to voice the original sonic character of the guitar itself. The ethos behind these choices seems to be that these classic Fender guitars have their own inherent EQ balance and the electronics are designed to transparently convey the effect that the combined tone-woods and hardware have on the vibration of the string and the quality of it’s sound. From that standpoint, amplification and effects can be used to embellish and add to a very clear and balanced pallet of sounds which are distinctly Fender Strat.
Amplification and effects
Big Fender clean
Let’s begin by talking about that famous big clean sound. Eric has predominantly used Fender valve amps for his clean work throughout his entire career. Fender’s 60’s ‘Blackface’ era Twin amp has been his favourite for long time. This is a wonderfully loud and precise sounding clean amp with a big piano like bass, slightly scooped mid range and detailed treble frequencies, a gigging staple for rhythm and blues groups as well as country and jazz guitarists. It ‘s circuitry is designed around four 6L6 output valves delivering around 85 watts. The 6L6 valve keeps a tight reign on a full and blooming bass response and balances the fairly transparent mid range with very detailed and articulate highs. The fairly large open back cabinet houses two 1×12 speakers and projects a spacious signal that is more open and less directional than the closed back 4×12’s that we’ll be talking about later. Eric runs two heads or combos in stereo on stage side by side. This gives a lovely spread of sound as it is but can be fed to P.A left and right for a true stereo image. Eric tends to favour certain speakers and has often used an open back cabinet loaded with two old JBL Lansing D120 speakers alongside two Electro Voice EV12L’s. Speakers like these excel at very loud and natural reproduction of clean sounds. The Alnico magnets of the JBL’s have a warm and rounded quality with sweet and transparent high end. These mix well with the very efficient and crystal clear 300 watt power handling of the EV’s.
All in all we are talking about a very loud and spacious clean sound with the sweet compression of 6L6 power tubes adding warmth and touch sensitive dynamics. Bring in to play Eric’s favourite chorus and delay effects which we’ll talk about later and you have a sound that can be hugely atmospheric. The experience is enhanced by use of the different pickup selections on the Strat. The neck pickup sound is full and fat with a chiming mid range and a woody percussive quality. The more subtle mid range of the twin allows for a juicy high end compression and thick low end without becoming mushy or undefined. Eric uses this tone to channel the spirit of Hendrix’s rhythm ideas as well as sophisticated chord melody phrases based on the sound of another great hero of his, jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery. The in-between or out of phase positions on the Strat yield delicate clean tones that can have an interesting quality enhanced by picking the strings close to the bridge. Playing the string where it is most taught produces a sound similar to that of a Lyre, an ancient Greek instrument with a short scale length and higher string tension/thickness than a guitar. Eric has used these sounds to emulate the Koto, a Japanese folk instrument with an unusual thin and brittle sound to it’s strings. Throw in Eric’s country chops and lightning speed harp harmonics inspired by Chet Atkins and you have someone with the ability to really showcase a lush and detailed clean guitar tone by using all the different shades of sound available to him through the various different techniques and approaches displayed in his playing.
That Marshall Plexi Tone
Eric has always run a multi amp setup, with the classic Marshall Plexi head taking care of lead duties. We’re talking classic 60’s non master volume heads, 50 and 100 watt models with two channels “jumpered” together using the multiple inputs available. This is a classic trick used by many famous players which allows you to mix the two channels (treble and bass) into one thick channel over which you have control of the blend. These amps were not capable of producing searing high gain lead tones without the assistance of stomp boxes and needed to be played at real volume for natural overdrive to be created. Suffice to say that EJ spent a long time practising at a considerable volume. The classic Marshall Plexi circuit is similar to that of the 1950’s Fender Bassman amplifier. Some would say Jim Marshall more or less left the circuit unchanged initially. The Bassman was an amp for the new 50’s Rock N Roll scene complete with a thunderous low end and a tube circuit design that allowed for a more stable and higher output power section and most importantly a front input section that allowed for more gain from the 12AX7 preamp valves. When these were turned up, the sound became thicker and more saturated as the volume increased until the signal began to overload and break up. One big step towards glorious crunch.
The classic Marshall designs are more or less descended from this late 50’s circuit. As the 60’s brought an explosion of heavier guitar music, the demand was there and Marshall flourished. Eric Clapton’s Cream and of course Jimi Hendrix were major Marshall users, and like those two main influences on his lead sound, Eric has been dedicated to vintage Plexi heads and reissues for his entire career. Marshall amps began to predominantly use British made EL34 valves towards the end of the 60’s and these have become known for delivering a thicker, harmonically rich tone which saturates earlier and with a more spongy less rigid quality than the 6L6. Eric’s lead tone has a dark and syrupy lower mid range with a silky smooth high end that is almost horn-like at times. His lead tone has also been described as like a 200lb violin. Definitely sounds good to me. He likes to run his lead Marshall with something similar to the following settings: Both channels near on full volume (50 watt head for smaller venues) , treble and presence controls virtually rolled off and bass and mids at around 11 o’ clock. Affecting the treble content in this way may seem extreme but the treble channel of a Marshall Plexi is capable of delivering ice-pick sharp high end, which coupled with the high end attack of your average Strat bridge pickup can be very unforgiving. The treble channel is more or less equal in the mix with the bass channel and serves to fill out the low end girth of the sound with body and harmonic overtones while any overly harsh frequencies are almost totally rolled off. Using the volume pot on his guitar , Eric is able to use driving classic rock tones and S.R.V inspired chunky half clean rhythms with a small movement of the right hand.
Eric uses two Marshall heads in his setup, one for dirty rhythm tones and the other for his more saturated lead tone. Yes that’s correct, we are now looking at a three amp setup! I’ll spare you the complexity of the cabling and we’ll simply focus on how it’s used and the effects that are brought into play. The main sounds are: The two Fender Twins or Deluxe Reverbs running clean in stereo. One Marshall head to it’s own 4x 25 or 30 watt Celestion loaded cab for dirty rhythm, plus another head for his lead sound. These lower wattage speakers create a spongier type of response as they are driven harder with lower headroom. Speaker break up can be an integral part of an overdriven sound and Eric uses these to get a really fat low end with a juicy and full mid range sustain.
Eric has two amp selector switches on his board which allow him to switch between the Twins and the Marshalls and then between the two dirty amps. All of these amps have various effects in their path which can be engaged on the fly or set up ready for the next switch to that particular amp. Eric has a rather chaotic pedalboard as you can imagine and it’s contents show us a selection of vintage favourites that have scarcely changed over many years. Each component of the signal chain is a piece which Eric knows intimately and has worked with for some time before settling into a more permanent relationship. When playing live he uses a mixing desk to blend time based effects with the original mic’d signal coming from his amps. Most notably he uses two solid state Maestro Echoplex tape delay units which create a very warm and natural sounding ambience to both his clean and distorted sounds. He usually uses a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus pedal to enhance his clean tones further, a classic pedal in the way it adds sparkle and lush chorus while keeping a very low noise ratio. An old EHX Memory man pedal is also used for shorter analog delay repeat. In front of his dirty rhythm amp is an old Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal. These simple 60’s built circuits were wildly different from one and other in many cases and Eric has hunted through more than a few batches in order to get a really good sounding and reliable example. He now has a signature Fuzz Face which is built using BC108 Silicon transistors, a part favoured by Hendrix over the more subtle Germanium transistors for it’s more urgent and saturated distortion effect. This crisp and biting fuzz sound hits the dirty rhythm channel and pushes the amp into swampy psychedelic fuzz territory, a fat grinding tone with singing sustain that suits ZZ Top style blues as well as Hendrix inspired rock rhythm chops. The Fuzz Face cleans up surprisingly well with the volume control and can be heard adding a certain warmth and crispness to Johnson’s playing on recent tune ‘Texas’ featuring Steve Miller. Johnson uses a vintage Gibson Les Paul and rides the volume control for some wonderful fuzz textures throughout.
Johnson, like many others including fellow Texas blues giant Stevie Ray Vaughan, favoured the original vintage Ibanez TS 808 Overdrive as his pedal of choice for pushing his lead Marshall into mid-rich sustaining overdrive. The tube screamer still remains on his board as an alternative to the Fuzz Face when he wishes to cut through the mix with small rhythm parts like power chords, although his famous rich and fluid lead tone has been created by the Butler Tube Driver pedal for many years now. The Butler Tube Driver is a design based around a single 12AX7 preamp valve running on mains power. This pedal is famous for producing a warm and natural sounding valve overdrive that works excellently when placed in front of a hot valve amp. Vintage Marshalls don’t have a huge amount of actual distortion on tap and what the Tube Driver does to help matters is run the signal through a valve overdrive circuit and allow you to add enough gain from the control pot for the valves in your amplifier to begin compressing harder, tipping your amp over the edge into a fully distorted lead tone that will freely sustain and is capable of breaking into musical feedback due to an increase in harmonic overtones. Believe me, this is a fun place to be, and it’s also how most of the great rock lead sounds have been created. There’s something magical about winding up a good valve amp so that it creates a warm and natural overdrive and then pushing the front end into a rich and detailed distortion using your favourite magic box. The Tube Driver has been used by Dave Gilmour, Joe Satriani and Billy Gibbons, all of whom have been responsible for some wonderful high gain lead work using this pedal paired with a good quality valve amp design. It just so happens that Eric Johnson’s connection with the pedal, alongside his unique set of techniques and his refined vintage Marshall tones, has made for some of the most elegant sounding playing in electric guitar history.
So what about the rest of us???
Well, asides from telling you to go away and play guitar immediately and indefinitely while also beginning the collection of bundles of vintage gear, there are a few tips I’d like to put forward. We live in an age where we can now have access to guitars and equipment of high build quality for a less than crippling outlay. Times have been hard recently, financially speaking, but there are bargains to be had. If you can’t muster the cash for Eric’s signature Strat then there are plenty of alternatives.
The wonderful thing about a Strat is that everything was designed to be replaceable. Leo Fender simply wanted to design a versatile and reliable instrument for the working musician on the road . All electronics are housed underneath a neat scratch-plate and are attached to it. The neck can be removed using four screws and all the hardware can be removed from the body. I would advise that you try to find a guitar that’s bare bones are the best you can afford. Good quality timber is a strong investment that makes for an acoustically good sounding instrument. I believe this makes a difference when you plug in. A second hand USA or Japanese built Strat is always a good option providing you think that particular guitar really sounds good. Does it have a nice ring to it acoustically? Does it stay in tune? Is the neck true and comfortable to play on? What do you think of the guitars tonal qualities through a plain and balanced clean sound? If the answers are positive and you’ve found a friend then you can make further adjustments from there. Due to the friendly electronics layout of the Strat, pickup replacements can become easy. If you are unsatisfied with the quality of your stock pickups (too muddy, too harsh, too much output etc) then direct replacements can be bought as single items. There are always high quality hand wound pickups available as a special order or as bargains for lucky Ebay bidders. These can further enhance the natural qualities of those fine pieces of wood you’ve decided on. If you are having constant tuning problems, even with good new strings, then perhaps a set of Fender Vintage staggered tuners will make you happy. Maybe a set of excellent locking tuners from Sperzel or Schaller if you plan to use the tremolo system vigorously! Do any strings stick in the nut? High quality self lubricating graphite replacements from Graph Tech and others are readily available. The point being that you have two high quality pieces of wood and as little interference or resistance as possible along the length of the string’s vibration.
There are many replacement parts that can be used and mods that can be performed to help you get your guitar sounding as musical as possible. Makes sense not to plug the lovely thing in with a poor quality cable! Eric Johnson uses George L’s American cables which are easy to make up yourself (no solder needed) and represent great sound quality at an honest price. High end cables are a fairly big portion of the accessories market but you don’t need to spend as much as you think. After a certain point the differences between cables become imperceivable regardless of what the science says. The human ear is not a computer after all. Klotz cables are German made and available in most music shops, they offer very good sound quality indeed and are well built using only quality components. Planet waves also make a good quality cable with plenty of options to suit your rig. Bear in mind that guitar greats gone by won’t have been necessarily using the finest quality leads as they simply weren’t all that readily available. However, even through our music systems or ipod etc, these tones seem to translate pretty well don’t they ?
Use a quality set of strings and change them regularly if you play often. Use a cloth to wipe away sweat and grime and they will last longer and keep their metallic outer coating. A horrible dead set of strings can make a great guitar seem most unappealing. Eric uses GHS Pure Nickel strings in a light gauge of 10 through 52 alongside a slightly heavier set of 11 through 52. These are bright round-wound strings that sound great for any type of rock music.
What kind of valves are in your amp? What type? how old? and would new or different valves make a difference or change the EQ response for the better? Did you know that Stevie Ray Vaughan swapped out his stock 12AX7 preamp tubes for a lower gain substitute called the 5751. It gave him more clean headroom and helped him forge his own sonic identity based on a heavy yet clear blues tone with a characteristic bite and wail. Perhaps learning about different valves could make one of the biggest sonic improvements for you and breath new life into how you enjoy your amp.
If you are looking for a valve amp then step into a highly saturated and super competitive market. So much is available that the choice really can be staggering. If you are set on valves then be aware that volume is your chief consideration. If you plan to practise in the house then a 50 watt tube amp is never going to show you it’s full potential. As for the 100 watt stack, forget about it. Thankfully low powered valve designs are in abundance. Amps that are humble on watts but big on real valve tone at manageable volumes are the way to go. If you can get one simple and good sounding amp which has selectable power output settings then you may have met all your needs for practise and performance in one go. The classic british overdrive sound is available in modestly sized packages from Blackstar, Orange, Vox and of course Marshall. That’s leaving out a tonne of specialist builders who could have the perfect amp for you in the vein of the ideal American clean sound or the quintessential classic rock crunch. For those intent on combining the very best of all worlds into one rig a’ la Eric, a few words on problems and solutions. If you have a multi channel amp that you like then your problems should only consist of selecting appropriate groups of effects on the floor or perhaps selecting an external cabinet with speakers specifically tuned for a great clean sound for example. If you have a classic single channel design that’s coming from the Fender side of the tracks then you could do a lot worse. You need a loud clean amp with enough headroom to handle your biggest gig. The clean sound is the foundation and needs to be basically consistent at different volume levels. Get the clean sound as sweet and balanced as possible because everything is going to be based on that signal. Eric Johnson has said that if he had to perform an entire gig using one amp then it would probably have to be the Fender Twin. Organise your effects as follows for a basic rule:
From your guitar, plug in a nice Wah pedal. A vintage Vox type has a nice vocal sweep without being too harsh if we’re being EJ specific. Any compression or other filter type effects would work well next before you consider dirt boxes or boosts. There are many companies that produce high gain pedals designed to emulate the sonic characteristics of classic amps yet it is a difficult formula to nail. Some pedals can turn to mush, others are too fizzy or have no dynamic realism or touch sensitivity. Remember, if you’re going for the EJ tone then hum-buckers will react in a different way and you may find more powerful models a little too full on. The philosophy here is shared by fellow Strat and Marshall enthusiast Yngwie J Malmsteen in that low output pickups into a raging British stack generally equals a wailing, expressive and articulate tone. The speakers you are using will dictate whether a pedal can deliver an authentic full on crunch or sounds harsh and artificial. Bear in mind that there will be some compromise between the ultimate clean sound and the satisfying compressed roar of a hard rock tone.
The Fulltone Plimsoul: This versatile pedal does a warm and very responsive Plexi style overdrive with a second stage that ushers in a harder British output valve style distortion. A treble cut control makes it easy to find the sweet spot with your setup and some seriously juicy lead tones are made available. The pedal cleans up well with the volume control and reacts to your pick attack in much the same way as the real thing without being so darned heavy. It runs on 9 or 18 volts for a cleaner less compressed feel with a touch more dynamic sensitivity. It’s very versatile and has enough gain for most applications stopping short of full on Metal.
The Fulltone OCD: This super popular pedal is famed for it’s very tube like overdrive which comes loaded with plenty of harmonic overtones. Any good Strat through this box will yield tight and complex rhythm tones without an overbearing mid-range hump. It lets the character of the source instrument carry through at all gain levels and sounds wonderful when pushing a tube amp into further drive or when solely responsible for turning a clean combo into a grinding classic rock rhythm machine. It’s priced very reasonably and has been a best seller for years.
The Carl Martin Plexitone: This pedal has been newly released in a standard stomp box size format and delivers a very authentic Plexi-like playing experience by running on a higher internal voltage than the standard 9 volts. This delivers a realistic tube amp feel with good touch sensitivity and an uncanny sonic resemblance to the original article. Once again this pedal has more than enough gain to cover Eric’s more classic tones and can do excellent hard rock tones to boot.
The Rockett Pedal’s Animal: The Animal overdrive is an excellently made pedal which bases it’s fantastic tones firmly on a 1968 Plexi head. It is very warm and open sounding with fantastic responsiveness to your playing style. It lacks huge amounts of gain but sounds extremely realistic. If you have a nice transparent boost such as the tiny Xotic Effects EP Booster you can put it before an overdrive pedal like this to drive it’s input harder and create more fluid high-gain sounds.
With these taken into account an optional chorus could be placed next in the chain for use on both clean and dirty sounds. All time based effects should go last before the amplifier. I recommend a delay with a decent tape emulation setting. The TC Electronic Flashback has a setting based on EJ’s ambient delay as well as a plethora of very useable modes including a great sounding looper.
If you must know, Eric has signature red Dunlop Jazz III picks which are small but precise on the string (they are rather good and I’ve been trying to keep them a secret). These are made from nylon and have a warm attack which sounds great for both clean and distorted styles. He also has a signature Alnico speaker made by Eminence which accurately produces some of Eric’s favourite vintage sounds, whether clean, crunchy or absolutely filthy.
It would seem obvious now that a tone like Eric Johnson’s is not achievable without long periods of time spent honing and refining physical technique, but is also not achievable without viewing equipment as an extension of the instrument and striving to create the most musical sounds that can be made. It is through an appreciation of Eric’s hard work and dedication to his sonic art that I have made simple and effective steps towards improving my guitar tone. This comes not with the intention of sounding more like Eric, but with the realization that by learning about what makes my equipment work well together, I may end up sounding like a better version of me.