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Declaration of Independence
Obsessive Perfectionist Eric Johnson Is Trying Go With the Flow
| August, 2005
Eric Johnson is a paradox. The key to his success is also his Achilles heel. His obsessive and meticulous quest for virtuosity and ultimate tone made him one of the all-time most revered guitarists, yet it has also cost him years of time, record deals, his marriage, and, ultimately, fans. In fact, patience is not merely a virtue for Johnson fans—it’s a pre-requisite.
Between 1974 and 1984, the Austin, Texas-based Johnson developed a fanatic following of admirers such as Billy Gibbons and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter despite the fact that managerial turmoil prevented the release of his would-be 1978 debut, Seven Worlds. Believe it or not, it was Prince who helped Johnson land a major record deal, when the royal one called Warner Brothers after witnessing Johnson’s 1984 performance on Austin City Limits. Johnson’s 1986 debut, Tones, trumpeted the arrival of a classy new guitar hero who had refined the electric guitar’s classic sounds, and his playing verified decade-old tales about an “unknown” wunderkind who could cry like Jimi, phrase like Jeff, chill like Wes, and Travis-pick like Chet.
A full four years and a new record label later, Johnson released his masterwork, Ah Via Musicom, and its breakout single, “Cliffs of Dover”—perhaps the last guitar instrumental to significantly impact the public consciousness. Unfortunately, the musical landscape underwent a sea change during the six years between Ah Via Musicom and 1996’s Venus Isle. Overt virtuosity was now the stylistic equivalent of a bitchin’ mullet, and the immaculately polished Venus Isle seemed very out of place in the grunge era. Although Johnson joined the very successful 1996 G3 tour with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, he was dropped from Capitol Records.
With each passing year, it was easy to assume that Johnson was wedging his head further down the studio rabbit hole, even as interesting trinkets kept falling from the sky. His long-shelved “original” debut, Seven Worlds, finally saw the light of day in 1998, showing that Johnson’s style was fully formed by the late ’70s. His bluesy side project, Alien Love Child, released Live and Beyond in 2000—a set that was uncharacteristically rife with off-the-cuff jamming—and a career-spanning rarities CD, Souvenir, became available through Johnson’s Web site in 2002, giving fans unprecedented, fly-on-the-wall access to Johnson’s studio process.
It seemed as if these releases were signaling an Eric Johnson at peace with things that were not perfect. The man himself claims he has tried to loosen up, and he points to his latest release, Bloom [Favored Nations], as proof. While the album displays everything Johnson has to offer—furious instrumentals, sugary-sweet pop songs, Jerry Reed-inspired fingerpicking, jazz excursions, and even a few acoustic cuts—and its stylistic diversity is unified by a welcome sense of energy, improvisation, and experimentation, the record still took more than nine years to complete. Hmm.
As GP has documented nearly every move Johnson has made since he was first featured as a virtual unknown in the December 1982 issue, we were excited when the mild-mannered maestro invited us to Austin to witness the kickoff of his Bloom tour. But we were also happy for the opportunity to assess whether this truly transcendent guitarist really could relax his obsessive commitment to exquisite tone and impeccable technique.
Okay, you want us to believe that the new Eric Johnson is a looser cat, and yet you took almost a decade to release Bloom.
Interesting. Can you explain how Bloom finally blossomed?
Are you saying that you’ve completely abandoned your previous recording method?
Where do you record?
I can imagine that Pro Tools could really throw someone of your meticulous nature down a black hole.
What guitars did you use?
Why did you group the album into three sections?
“Summer Jam” and “12 to 12 Vibe” come across as bursts of spontaneous energy.
The main knock against you has been that you’re a technician, rather than a very natural, emotive player. Does that bother you?
Is that how you feel, as well?
The middle and latter sections of Bloom illustrate how your horizons are expanding. How did the exotic “Cruise the Nile” develop?
I really like “Tribute to Jerry Reed.” Can you provide some specifics about his influence?
Why do you continue writing pop vocal tunes such as “Your Sweet Eyes” and “Sunaround You” that you know will probably be ignored by pop audiences, and shunned by guitar fans who just want to hear you play.
The Allemande section includes the two jazziest tracks you’ve ever released.
It’s fitting that you close Bloom with the acoustic track, “Ciel,” because your next project is an acoustic record.
Do you labor over your acoustic tone?
On my last acoustic tour, I used my Takamine on a couple of songs, and I played the rest on my Signature Martin—which is almost the size of the dreadnaught, but the thickness of a 000. It has a cutaway and some neat aesthetic stuff, including planets on the fretboard and an angel on the headstock. The Martin has an LR Baggs LB6 undersaddle pickup that’s routed to a Trace Elliot Acoustic Cube amp—which also sends a direct-out signal to the house. The direct signal is blended with that of a Neumann KM 184 aimed at an angle between the guitar’s cutaway and the soundhole.
How can one learn to approach the fretboard the way you do?
Even at your ability level, you keep using the word “try.” Do you still work harder than people might think?
How did you move past your influences and nail the essence of your unique voice?
What are a few things that everybody can do to improve their tone?
Why are you willing to go to such great lengths to achieve your tone?
Do you worry that your reputation as a tone freak may overshadow your musical contribution?
Last night onstage, you seemed most energized during “Manic Depression.” Does performing an old Hendrix cover allow you to let loose more than your own material?
In your first GP feature, you mentioned feeling that there was so much yet to be done on guitar. Do you still feel that way?
EJ Gives You a Tour of his Live Rig
“The main changes to my live rig over the past few years are that I’m back to using more powerful amps, I’m doing some additional signal processing after the sound from the amps hits the mics, and I’m using some different guitars,” details Johnson. “In addition to my ’57 maple-neck Strat and my ’61 rosewood-neck Strat, I’m bringing my new Signature Stratocaster, and a Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul that’s modeled after a ’59. My pedalboard routing system still has two passive, double-pole A/B boxes. The first box dictates if I’m going to the lead or rhythm signal chain, and the second box selects either a clean or dirty rhythm sound.
“The clean signal goes to a stock T.C. Electronic Stereo Chorus Flanger, which runs to the Vibrato channel 1 inputs on a pair of ’66 blackface Fender Twin Reverbs loaded with eight JBL D120F speakers. [Note: the left Twin’s settings are Bright On, Volume 3, Treble 5, Middle 8, Bass 8.5, Reverb 4, Speed 6, Intensity 4. The right Twin’s settings are Bright On, Volume 3, Treble 4, Middle 8, Bass 7, Reverb 4, Speed 0, Intensity 0].
“The dirty rhythm goes to a stock, late-’60s Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, from which I remove the bottom screw because it messes with the rig’s polarity and produces a clacky sound when I pick. The dirty rhythm amp is channel 1 of a ’68 50-watt Marshall Tremolo head modified with 6L6 power tubes for a more Fender–style high end. [Settings are Speed 0, Intensity 0, Presence 8, Bass 1, Mid 6, Treble 3, Volume I 8, Volume II 7.] I place the head on a chair behind the cabinets simply for aesthetic purposes. I’m looking for a 100-watt Marshall to use in bigger rooms. A Monster Cable connects the head to the angled-top Marshall 4x12, which is loaded with 30-watt G12H Celestions.
“The lead chain goes from a stock, late-’60s Italian-made Vox CryBaby to a stock ’80s BK Butler Tube Driver loaded with a Yugoslavian 12AX7. I set the Tube Driver up on a block because, for some reason, it sounds better set apart from the rest of the pedalboard. The signal then flows to channels 1 and 2 of a ’69 100-watt Marshall Super Lead. [Settings: Polarity Switch Up, Presence 0, Bass 5, Middle 3, Treble 0, Volume I 9, Volume II 10]. A Monster Cable connects the head to the straight-bottom Marshall 4x12, which is loaded with 25-watt Celestion Greenbacks.
“I plug into the same positions on the power strips every time, because once you get the polarity right, the tone is more consistent. [Note: No part of Johnson’s rig is grounded, because the vintage amps and Waber power strips don’t have AC ground pins. Johnson also feels that ground pins attract “dirty” power. Therefore, he has carefully arranged the polarity flow of each piece in order to prevent hum or shock.] I figure out which position has the best tone with the least amount of buzz, and I mark it. I also use separate power strips for each thing, which makes the sound more pure, although I’m not sure why. The dirty rhythm head plugs into the main power strip that goes to the wall. The lead head plugs into another strip that feeds off the main one. The Fenders’ power strip feeds off the lead one, and the pedalboard’s power strip feeds off the Fenders’ power strip. If I plug everything into one power strip, the distortion sounds hashy.
“The guitar cords are all Bill Lawrence and George L’s cable, because I think the solderless ends provide a purer tone. The chrome cables seem to have better treble than the brass ones, so I like chrome for rhythm and brass for lead.
“I want to emphasize the treble of the dirty rhythm cabinet, so I place the mic up near the grille, angled slightly away from the speaker cone. For the lead cabinet, I back the mic off the grille a bit more, and I angle it off-axis towards the speaker’s bottom quadrant, which produces more of a violin-tone quality. For the Twins, I place the mic right up on the grille, facing near the speaker’s center at a slight angle. It seems the mics pick up a better tone when there’s a slight deflection. In the studio, I use either vintage Shure SM57s or AKG C414s, but live I’ll just go with whatever 57s are around. It’s the new me!
“To keep my tone pure while allowing me to experiment, a lot of signal processing is now done from my personal stage rack. The miked signals from the four amps run through an Allen & Heath Mix Wizard mixer that passes the dry signals to the house mixer, and also to a series of processors in my rack—an MXR Flanger/Doubler, a Lexicon MPX500 [Twin 1 delay], an Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man [Twin 2 delay], a Line 6 Echo Pro Studio Modeler [dirty rhythm echo], a Korg DRV3000 [lead echo], and a T.C. Electronic 2290 Digital Delay—each set to a 100 percent wet mix. Every processor is routed to a specific mixer input, and I can control the amount of wet signal via each channel’s fader, or I can bypass the processor completely with custom-made on/off pedals. The stereo wet signal is routed to the house, and also to a pair of JBL EON10 G2 powered monitors, which I place just to my right side. In addition to keeping my root tone pure, putting most of the processing ‘post-mic’ ensures that neither the house mixer nor the audience get too much wet signal. Everybody’s happy!”
Pro Tools, like all digital-audio workstations, allows players to composite (or assemble from different parts) a final performance from a number of disparate takes. For example, the player can cut out the very best parts of a solo, and paste them together into seamless “final” take—just as one might cut-and-paste text phrases in a word processor.
I Played Eric Johnson’s Rig!
When Eric Johnson gave me permission to play his multi-amp rig during tour rehearsals in his hometown of Austin, I felt like a teenager whose buddy handed him the keys to his classic car for a spin around the block. Just holding Johnson’s weathered ’57 Strat is exhilarating because it begs to be played. The action is easy, and it resonates deeply against your body. Johnson’s dual ’66 Fender Twins presented the most pristine clean tone I’ve ever heard, but the real surprise was the waterfall of delay gushing forth from a pair of stage monitors. You’ve got to stay on top of the timing or risk being swept under the current like a bad body-surfing experience. When I kicked on Johnson’s 50-watt ’68 Marshall Tremolo, the tone changed from sparkling water to an earthy brown sound. The addition of his vintage Fuzz Face is the key to Johnson’s famous violin tone, and the super-creamy sustain induced me to slide up and down the strings, occasionally hitting and holding a Pavarotti-like vibrato. Johnson’s ’69 100-watt Marshall Super Lead is louder, yet there’s more headroom, so the notes are extremely articulate. When I kicked on the B.K. Butler Tube Driver, the silky violin tone was there again, except, this time, it was really huge violin! I felt an insatiable urge to launch into a hack version of “Cliffs of Dover,” but I quickly came to my senses, and thanked Mr. Johnson profusely for this once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
EJ Sounds Off on his Signature Fender Stratocaster
“I’ve been talking to Fender about a signature model [reviewed in the Aug. ’05 GP] for about 15 years, and I just never got around to it,” says Johnson. “Then I met Michael Braun—who worked in European violin shops before coming to Fender—and we just hit it off conceptually in terms going for the ultimate, vintage-Strat tone. He understands how a little thing that has been forgotten—or simply not done any more—can make a big difference. He studied vintage Fenders, and he talked to retired people who had worked alongside Leo Fender about what was being overlooked in the modern manufacturing process. We combined what he discovered with my personal preferences to manifest the signature model.
“The first thing we wanted to do was get rid of the string tree, because it causes tuning problems when a string gets caught up in there. We set the headstock further back, and we staggered the vintage-style tuning posts progressively so that the string tree could be ditched, and the guitar will still stay in tune. By the way, I always twist a No. 2 pencil in the nut slots for some graphite lubrication [so the strings don’t get caught up in the slots]. On my vintage Strats, I wind the B all the way to the bottom of the peg so that I don’t have to use the string tree. But, with my Signature model, you can just string it however you want.
“The neck design is based on my ’57 Strat, which gradually transitions from a shallow ‘V’ shape at the first fret to a wider ‘C’ shape at the 12th fret. The neck itself is one piece of quarter-sawn maple, so the neck grain matches the body grain—the idea is to get more resonance. We made the fretboard as flat as possible [12" radius], and used 21 jumbo frets, which allows you to set the action lower and stretch the strings without fretting out.
“The [two-piece] body is alder, which is what vintage Strats were made of, rather than ash, which is used for modern Strats. It’s a little tougher to find lightweight alder, but I didn’t want the guitar to be over seven or eight pounds, because I find heavy guitars distracting. The profile is sanded down to give it a deep, vintage contour. The wood is finished with a nitrocellulose lacquer, and they actually do some hand-buffing on the cutaways. We didn’t put the tremolo spring cover on the back, because I figured there’s no point—I never have them on anyhow!
“The tremolo block is more like the ’50s and ’60s models. In the early ’70s, they made the holes bigger to accommodate Fender Bullet strings. The problem is that when you use regular strings, the ends go way in there, and you don’t get as much contact with the bridge. We changed that back, and it made a big tonal difference. The bridge and tremolo bar are vintage-style, but you can actually use the tremolo a bit without going out of tune because of the headstock design.
“The pickups are the closest thing I’ve found to old Fenders. We made a couple of tweaks, because they don’t make the bobbins and the wire the same way they did in the ’50s. We’re keeping that information secret right now, because Fender is planning on putting these pickups out separately—probably as my signature pickups. The neck pickup is based on a ’54 design in terms of the number of wraps and the oversize alnico 3 magnets, which give it that twangy, early ’50s sound. The middle pickup is modeled after an early-’60s Strat pickup, with alnico 3 magnets [reverse-wound to provide hum cancellation in the second and fourth positions]. I wanted a real ’50s Strat sound for the bridge pickup, too, but it has always bugged me that the bridge pickup is normally weaker than the others, so it’s overwound just enough to balance the gain with the other pickups. The 5-way pickup selector is typical, but the second tone control is hooked to the bridge pickup—instead of the middle pickup—because I like to be able to roll off some of the treble.
“There were no compromises made, other than the higher price point, and that’s only because we were unwilling to make any other compromises. This guitar is real close to an old-school Strat, except it’s easier to play. I’ve played several production models, and they’re very similar, but, like all Strats, there is some difference in feel and tone that’s unique to each guitar. The one I’m playing in rehearsal is totally stock. I adjusted the neck a little bit because the strings I use—GHS Nickel Rockers, gauged .010, .013, .018, .026, .038, .050—are slightly different than stock Fender Super Bullets [which are gauged .010, .013, .017, .032, .042, .052]. I also adjusted the pickup height, because I like the treble side higher than the bass side. I try to get the bridge pieces to reflect the curvature of the fretboard, so the feel of the strings is uniform throughout. I’m still tweaking it, but I love this guitar, and I’m taking it on the road!”
Johnson’s Special Tuning Method
“I tune Eric’s guitars from the outside strings in, similar to the way piano tuners operate,” says Johnson’s guitar tech, Jeff Van Zandt. “I start with both E strings, then I tune D, B, A, and G. I stretch the strings by picking them up at their midpoint—which is about the tenth fret—rather than pulling down by the third fret, or by the bridge. I never use the whammy bar to stretch the strings while tuning. Using an old Conn strobe tuner, I tune open, and then to a harmonic, to find a perfect medium between the two pitches. When you strike the string, the strobe should hit and freeze for about a half a second before it falls.”
Eric Johnson’s Guitar Tech Jeff Van Zandt on Whether His Boss is Really “Letting Go”
Is Eric really undergoing a spontaneity and simplification renaissance, or is this what he wants us to believe?
What does he have the most difficulty letting go of?
What is his biggest area of improvement?