PHOTO: Scott Legato / Getty Images
How to Sound Like Eric Johnson
Get a look at the gear and techniques that make EJ's ethereal tone possible.
By Mike Randell
Few guitarists can say the name “Eric Johnson” without taking a deep breath and wondering aloud how the heck he gets his sound. Although Johnson is known for his rock instrumental/experimental fretboard gymnastics, he is also proficient in blues, soul, new-age and jazz fusion. Somehow, he weaves elements of these genres (and a few more) into his playing, rising above predictable pentatonic scales and, instead, sailing his melodic ship into uncharted waters.
Though influences such as Hendrix and Beck are clear in his music, they “dissolve” rather than melt into his sound. Johnson’s techniques are not new, but they enamored millions of fans who made his 1990 album Ah Via Musicom go platinum.
Here, a quick primer to Johnson's gear, technique and particular brand of jaw-dropping je ne sais quoi.
THE GUITAR: STRATS, STRATS AND MORE STRATS
Anyone who has the pleasure of playing or (even better) owning an Eric Johnson Artist model Fender Stratocaster will notice two distinct features: the ’57 hard “V” neck—refresh your knowledge of common neck shapes—and a headstock without string trees. EJ felt the string tree messes with his guitar’s tone, so he had them removed. Of course, this causes an “angle” problem in that the strings are less anchored in the nut slots. To counter this, the guitar’s headstock pitch was physically lowered, naturally descending the angle of the strings and maintaining the instrument’s natural (and uninterrupted) sustain, which is further enhanced by staggered tuners.
For strings, Johnson's gauge range—.010, .013, .018, .026, .038, .050—is fairly close to what's available in Fender's Super 250RH Nickel-Plated Steel Strings: .010, .013, .017, .032, .042, .052.
READ MORE: C-V-U? Which Neck Shape Is for You?
READ MORE: What Is a String Tree?
READ MORE: What Are Tuning Pegs and Why Are They so Important?
READ MORE: Go With the Grain: The Many Benefits of a Quartersawn Neck
THE TECHNIQUE: DOWNWARD PICKSLANTING
A technique often employed by players including Marty Friedman and Yngwie Malmsteen, downward pickslanting is integral to Johnson's smooth dynamic sound.
Hold the pick in your hand as you normally would—see How to Hold a Pick if you need a refresher—then angle your picking hand down, toward the floor, with the tip of your pick pointing slightly upward. This positioning allows you to strike strings on the upstroke easier and faster than jumping or “stringhopping” to strike alternate strings.
THE EFFECTS: A TONE TOUR
Consensus is that EJ uses a stereo chorus and an old-school digital delay on his clean stereo set up.
He uses delay loops on his rhythm set up and then hops to another amp/tone while that original amp/tone is repeating and regenerating.
Johnson is known to use an overdrive (with gain and volume on the shy side) for his “break up” or “dirty” rhythm set-up and a vintage Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Maestro Echoplex and a modern octave fuzz on his third (and lead) amplifier. He is also rumored to keep his treble as low as 2, if not 0.
THE AMPLIFIER: A MAN OF MANY AMPS
Amplifiers: the last line of tone, and EJ uses more than one … or two. Mind you, he doesn’t use them all at once; he alternates their use during each song, as each amp serves a different purpose. Although he has been known to switch between vintage Fender Twin amps and vintage Deluxe Reverb amps, these are actually used for a stereo rhythm set-up. He then uses one Marshall head (with cabs) for a “dirty rhythm” without swallowing up the sound and another Marshall for lead tones. And get this: EJ has a different pedal chain that corresponds to each amp. With A/B boxes, you can run a variety of amps and, well, the possibilities are endless.
A TALL TONE TALE
By now, even if you are a hobbyist, you've likely heard the story about Johnson wearing down the 9-volt batteries in his pedals to achieve the perfect tone. There are even companies that sell multi-output pedal board power supply bricks that boast the “Sag” option, which (supposedly) replicates the sound of a 9-volt battery that’s on the outs, but still carries enough charge for plenty of kick. Johnson has tried his best to put this rumor to rest, maintaining that his sound is all in his picking technique, and his gear merely helps him deliver the show.
CONCLUSION: NOTHING CAN KEEP YOU FROM GETTING EJ’S SOUND
I know what you’re thinking: "This sounds complicated and expensive. How can I be down?"
First off, no matter what guitar you choose to call your go-to, make sure you use the bridge pickup for that sweet, sizzle sound. If you have an amp with three channels (clean, dirty, dirty boosted) like a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe, then you are heading in the right direction. If you do not have an amp with amp channel switching features you can buy a couple of inexpensive and easy-to-use true bypass looper. Get yourself a Tube Screamer clone, a delay, a chorus and a fuzz, put ’em in the chain, and you, friend, are down.
ANOTHER WAY TO GET ERIC JOHNSON'S TONE
Want to kick-start experimenting with Eric Johnson's illuminating tone right away? Explore the new Mustang GT series of amps and check out the Green Cliffs and EJ presets inspired by Johnson's incredible tone.
While each brings something different to the table, they're both crafted from classic British amps—a pre-FX overdrive and a chorus and a tape delay inthe post-FX slot.