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Eric Johnson and his signature Fender Stratocaster expertly navigating the classic “Are You Experienced?”
Striking up a conversation with a player like Eric Johnson—a guy who personifies flawless tone—was one of many fantastic moments at the festival. “I don’t know if you can ever build the ‘right’ sound,” he explained, “it just has to happen serendipitously. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to manipulate my tone, but sometimes it’s like trying to capture wind in a jar. You just have to experience and enjoy it when it’s there.”
Johnson is notorious for his gear obsession— for stuff like being able to hear the difference between battery brands in his pedals. But while many guitarists know about his guitar and amp proclivities, he spoke to us about less-obvious elements of his tone. “The way [the gear] sounds is very important, but it’s more about how it responds to my picking technique. When the flow and bounce are working together just right, it just facilitates being able to move to different places musically. The amp, for better or for worse, is part of the instrument. It can be a great tool, but also an Achilles’ heel. If the amp is matching your picking technique and blooming and interpreting your fingering style well, it just helps you be a better guitarist.”
Like Hendrix, Johnson is a noted fan of plugging Fender Stratocasters into non-master-volume Marshall stacks. His rhythm tones are often projected from vintage Fender Deluxe Reverbs, but he decided to change it up a little for this tour. “For rhythm tones, I have two Fender Twins driving a semi-openback Marshall 4x12 cabinet. I’m also using my 50watt Marshalls onstage to keep the volume from getting too out of control.”
Asked about being on the tour with so many notable guitarists, Johnson couldn’t have sounded happier. “I’m so glad they got a hold of me to do it again, because it was such a blast last time when I got to meet Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell, it was the last tour that he did before he died,” he said. “There’s a real nice, fraternal vibe to it, where you all get to concentrate together on someone else’s music, which happens to be really wonderful music, too. And the fact that everybody is a really good player, but they all have a different take on Hendrix’s music, just showcases how diverse his music is. Everybody has his or her own version of his blues style, or his psychedelic style. It’s just very powerful.” Johnson was particularly fond of a recent jam with Sacred Steel lapsteel guitarist Aubrey Ghent, who performed with Robert Randolph’s band. “We just did that a few hours ago, and that was one of the highlights of the tour for me. He’s just great, and he taught Robert a lot of stuff. He’s a wonderful player.”
What struck us most during our time with Johnson was that he is most certainly a tone chaser, but he’s not a tone snob. One might have expected him to talk only of his legendary gear and tone, but he was very cordial and personable. He was particularly interested in the vintage Marshall Super Bass head PG associate gear editor Jordan Wagner mentioned owning, and he asked several friendly questions about it during our conversation. It felt like hanging out with a regular Premier Guitar reader.
A true classic—Johnson’s 1962 Fender Stratocaster. This instrument was stolen from him almost three decades ago, but was returned in 2006.
Johnson’s Maestro Echoplex EP-3 tape delay.
The infamous pedalboard of Eric Johnson. In addition to a few custom switchers, the board houses a vintage Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man, a Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, a late ’60s Vox wah, a BK Butler Tube Driver, an early ’70s Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus, a ToadWorks Barracuda Analog Flanger, a Prescription Electronics Experience octave fuzz, and a Maestro Echoplex EP-3.
Johnson ran his mid-’80s BK Butler Tube Driver and Maestro Echoplex EP-3 through this 1968 Marshall 50-watt Lead head, which drives the lower of two stacked Marshall 4x12 cabinets. Its cab is loaded with 80-watt Celestions. The 50-watt Lead and a Marshall Tremolo head were the core of Johnson’s dirty rhythm tones.
Johnson’ signal hits a Fuzz Face before going into his 1968 Marshall 50-watt Tremolo head. It drives the top Marshall 4x12 in his stack, which is loaded with Celestion 30-watt speakers.
A rear view of the stereo Marshall open-back 4x12 cabinet used for Johnson’s clean tones. Each side of the cabinet was fed by a mid-’60s Fender Twin Reverb. The cab was loaded with two JBL Lansing D120s and two Electro-Voice EV12L’s.
A frontal view of Johnson’s 1968 Marshall Tremolo head sitting on a specific wooden folding chair positioned at a 90° angle behind the Marshall stack.