Without a doubt Eric Johnson is one of the greatest guitarists of our time. His music and playing have influenced many guitarists and his amazing guitar tones have shaped the face of modern guitar sounds as we know it.
Below are a few tips that may help you get a bit closer to that Eric Johnson tone.
Eric Johnson is most often associated with vintage Fender Stratocaster’s. In recent years he has also added his Fender signature model guitar to the mix, which, IMHO, is hands down the best off the shelf Fender Strat you can buy today. Ironically, the tune he is most famous for “Cliffs of Dover” was tracked on a Gibson ES-335. An important modification made to his Stratocaster’s is that the bridge pickup is wired to the tone control. This allows him to roll off some of the top end on this single coil pickup.
Amps and Pedals
In general, his palette of tones can be broken down into one of three types: clean rhythm, dirty rhythm, lead.
Eric Johnson’s clean tones always involve some type of vintage Fender amp like a Deluxe or a Twin; often run in stereo using a T.C. Electronic Stereo Chorus. If you have a Fender amp try out Treble at 4.5, Middle at 8, Bass at 8 and Reverb on 4. He also uses delay effects (Echoplex and Memory Man). You have many options for delay pedals. Try 380 milliseconds with 20-30% feedback.
Eric Johnson’s dirty tones are based on pushing the power tube section on a non-master volume Marshall. At the volumes Eric runs his Marshalls there is already enough treble and presence, so he tends to keep these set pretty low. Bass is set at about 5. You may not have a vintage Marshall or the luxury to crank it, but the main theme here is to reign in the high-end on your amp.
For his lead tone Eric uses an overdrive or fuzz pedal into an already driven amp. The layering of gain stages is a key point when trying to achieve a “clear”, articulate, distortion sound with complex over tones. Eric uses a Chandler tube overdrive, a Fuzz Face or a Tube Screamer. There are many dirt box options on the market – Experiment.
The cheapest and easiest thing you can do to get closer to the “Eric Johnson tone” is to use the same pick he uses: a Dunlop Jazz III. Aside from trying to emulate his picking technique, which is a topic for another time, you will immediate notice a difference in the tone coming out of your existing rig if you just switch to this pick.
One final tone secret; you will never sound exactly like Eric Johnson and that’s OK. Use these tips and his tone as an inspiration for finding your own signature sound. Experiment and try different things, after all that is how Eric Johnson evolved(s) his tone.