Eric Johnson

Solving The Tonal "Rubik's Cube"
Solving The Tonal

Eric Johnson has a reputation for being not only an amazing guitarist, but someone who cares deeply about every aspect of his music. Johnson constantly strives to strengthen his skills to grow as both a player and songwriter, and is dedicated to his tone. He recently spoke with VG about crafting his latest disc, Bloom (Favored Nations), and some of the changes he has made to his rig, and to his approach to making music. This time, Johnson reevaluated all facets of his playing and tone. He has determined what’s most important – and when he needs to let go and simply take pride in his accomplishments.

Vintage Guitar: Have you made changes to your rig or acquired any cool gear lately?
Eric Johnson: I’ve been tweaking my rig a bit. I’d gotten tired of the Fender Deluxe Reverbs and replaced them with older blackface Twins. I’ve sold off a big chunk and I’m just trying to keep what really works. I’ll never be done trying to get the sound I want to get! I keep trying, and it’s almost there, except for a certain thing. It’s like a domino theory.

But the way I’m doing things now is a lot healthier. For years I had this Archimedes concept that I was going to reinvent the sound of guitar, or at least figure some magic formula. I’d take this apart, take that apart, redo this electrical work. I got lost in this Rubik’s cube until I finally realized that life’s too short! Now I look for those pieces that you just plug in, and they’re magic. You don’t do anything, but maybe change a tube, and that’s it. That’s my premise now. So I’m revamping my rig with more natural stuff that has magic.

Describe your approach to writing and recording Bloom.
It was a step in a different direction. It’s been a long time since I’ve made a studio record, but the actual recording time was far less than usual. I’d do a little bit and then not work on it for a while. I tried to go for more performance stuff – just playing and not as much piecing things together. I also tried to get into a few other musical styles that I haven’t really committed to record before. I’m trying to grow, as far as styles of music and the way I go about recording. I’m trying to perform more in the studio – let go and just perform a piece.

Has it been a difficult transition?
Actually, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s not easy in the sense that you have to take an honest look and come to terms with what you really are and can do. But it puts everything in perspective, because then you realize when you do make that honest evaluation, then you can work on embellishing or improving the source instead of doing it after the fact. In other words, if I feel there’s room for improvement in my playing technique or I’m trying to paint a bigger picture and I’m not happy with my playing; rather than beat the recording to death, I go back and practice, and see how I can bring something stronger.

What setups did you use on Bloom?
Same old stuff – a couple of old blackface Vibroverbs from ’64, and a couple of blackface Twin Reverbs from ’66. I always use either pair. I think I cut “Tribute To Jerry Reed” with a couple of Vibrolux Reverbs with Altec Lansing D110 speakers, but then I got rid of the Vibroluxes. The rest were either 50- or 100-watt ’60s Marshall plexis. I had some old 4×12″ cabs, one with 30-watt Celestions and one with 25s.

I used a ’58 Gibson ES-175 on “Hesitant,” but I don’t have that guitar anymore, either. I got a ’48 L-12 which I used on “From My Heart,” a ’64 SG Standard, and I have a ’61 Strat with a rosewood fingerboard that’s all-original. I used that a lot, which surprised me because I usually don’t favor rosewood. But it has a particularly good tone. I also used my ’57 Strat, an old Vincent Bell Coral Electric Sitar, an old Fender six-string bass, and a National lap steel. The nylon-string is a Takamine cutaway. There’s no steel-string on the record.

For effects, I used a Fuzzface, Tube Driver, T.C. Electronic chorus, a Black Cat distortion made by Fred Bonte, which is really cool, a Fulltone pedal made like a stereo Deja-Vibe, and an old Octavia. I also used a Line 6 Delay Modeler and Filter Modeler.

As someone with an instantly recognizable style and tone, what advice can you offer to others trying to accomplish the same?
Think about sounds you like. It can be something you’ve created out of thin air, or more often it’s an amalgamation of tones you’ve heard other people create. You can put together five sounds that you like from other players, and either reproduce your version of each of those sounds, or put them all together and make one sound. But first you’ve got to have an audio vision in your head, and once you have that, you can go about removing the obstacles that keep you from getting it. But if you don’t hear that sound to know what you’re going for, you’re not going to be able to get it as easily.

If you listen to the early Clapton stuff and read interviews from the early Cream days, Clapton talked about how he always wanted the guitar to sound like a woman’s voice, and you can hear that in the way he played. And it’s not the gear he used – although I think gear back then was superlative because it was so simple – but more importantly his fingers and his spirit were trying to emulate that woman’s voice. He had a distinct vision, and he was able to make it happen because of that. So I think others need to decide what turns them on and what they’d like to hear themselves doing, then find something to strive for.

Photos: Lisa Sharken.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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