Eric Johnson is one of the best.
His tone and technique are both fascinating to many, having sparked a slew of interview questions and attempts (some better than others) to mimic his tone.
Eric Johnson, who himself is a product of the Austin Texas music scene (the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar culture), has been candid with interviewers about his approach to the electric guitar and the gear he uses, over the years.
And the more you listen to him talk, the more you realize that he's not some kind of gear magician.
He's just a really good player.
Both his studio albums and live performances, particularly at G3 back in 1997, are marked by a distinctive lead tone that plenty of people have sought to emulate.
We'll look at Eric Johnson's lead tone from primarily two angles:
- Eric Johnson's Guitar Gear
- Eric Johnson's Lead Technique
All of the information I've found, whether second-hand or from Johnson himself, speaks to one of these two contexts.
And while there were plenty of voices saying that technique mattered more than gear (including Eric Johnson himself, whom I would agree with) my research would indicate that gear, and the way Johnson set it up, still matters when it comes to emulating his tone.
This is particularly true concerning his lead tone.
To be sure, gear takes a back seat to technique. However, both are important considerations when you're talking about emulating a specific player.
Thus, we'll give equal parts attention to both aspects of Eric Johnson's guitar playing, first taking a look at his gear, then examining the technique he employs. We'll answer all of the following questions:
- Johnson's distortion source?
- Amp settings and guitars he routinely uses (both live and in the studio)?
- Picking technique?
- Scales he gravitates towards?
- Solo construction?
It sounds ambitious, but all this information is out there.
I'm just putting it all into one place and sorting out the fluff.
Let's get started.
Eric Johnson's Gear
All the specifics of Eric Johnson's guitar rig are readily available and are, in many cases, explained by Johnson himself.
Moreover, there are a lot of practical steps you can take to apply some of the same tactics that Johnson uses. His approach is surprisingly straightforward and less ambiguous than your typical amp settings assessment.
His "typical" setup includes the following:
Gear Eric Johnson Typically Uses
Seymour Duncan Antiquity Strat Pickups
Fender Eric Johnson Signature Pickups
Marshall Origina 50 (JMP remake)
Dunlop Classic Fuzz Face
Dunlop Jazz Picks
Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster
The "Cliffs of Dover" Setup
Now, I need to add a somewhat glaring exception.
Johnson's most popular track, "Cliffs of Dover," was not recorded with a Fender Stratocaster. He actually used a Gibson ES-335 with humbuckers, which is pictured in the above photo.
In fact, if you're used to hearing Johnson's studio albums, there's a high chance that you're hearing a Gibson humbucker in most cases.
Johnson admits to using them routinely, particularly in the studio.
For "Cliffs of Dover" he also used 100-watt Marshall heads at fairly high volumes (more on Johnson's volume later), adding another dimension of complexity that is difficult to replicate in our living rooms.
The morale of the story is:
Don't always default to Fender Strats when you're after Eric Johnson's lead tone.
It's not that simple.
Clean Tone Amp and Setup
Johnson has several different amp setups, though in most cases you could break them down into two different categories.
- Marshall JCM '60s heads
- Fender Twin Reverb combos (shop the Fender Twin Reverb combo)
From what I understand, Eric Johnson uses the Marshalls for lead tones and the Fenders for rhythm playing, at least in a general sense. However, I've played Fender amps for a long time and find that they're ideal for Johnson's lead tone, simply because of the warmth of the tube resonance and the lushness of Fender's reverb.
Johnson has his Marshall JMP amplifier turned all the way up.
It just works, so I'm sure there's some crossover between the two brands in terms of what works best for the "genuine" Eric Johnson lead sound.
In Premier Guitar's Rig Rundown of Johnson's setup, he takes us through everything in plenty of detail.
The first thing I would note is that we see Johnson has his Marshall JMP amplifier turned all the way up.
Eric Johnson's Marshall Amp Settings
As for the rest of the settings, Johnson often references Eric Clapton as one of his tonal inspirations, and admits to having an EQ dialed in to mimic Clapton's lead tone, which usually is something like this on the Marshall JMP:
This puts our settings at something like the following numbers:
- Presence: 2
- Bass: 4
- Middle: 3
- Treble 0
What probably surprised me the most about this image is that Eric Johnson has his treble knob set at ZERO.
Now, I have to add a disclaimer here:
In all of the research I did for this post, I found little (if any) info on Johnson's specific amp settings. It appears as though the Marshall photo above was posted by a guitar tech from a band that might have been touring with Johnson at one point.
Again, Johnson keeps the TREBLE on his amp at zero. Crazy.
In the forum where he posts, he uses the fictional name "Nigel Tufnel's Guitar Tech" though he does seem to have a trustworthy and generally updated look at what Johnson is using.
So, this is an "internet" source, but one that I'm willing to trust since the community trusts him and his photos look completely legit.
Again, if this is correct, it's telling us that Johnson keeps the treble on his amp at zero.
Mr. Nigel Tufnel's tech, our mystery forum poster, gives us plenty of additional looks at Johnson's rig, spanning from 2001 to 2009.
Here's a look at the volume settings on his Marshall JMP cranked to 10:
During this same period of time, Johnson was using the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face (mostly for rhythm) and the Tube Driver going into the Marshall JMP.
Here's a closeup of his Tube Driver, which looks to be on a fairly low setting.
Those are basic amp configurations, where it seems like a major part of his tone is the drop in treble, which (if you pay attention) is really noticeable in a lot of his playing, particularly in his studio interviews and gear demos.
We'll get into those in the next section.
Note too that, as of 2009, our same forum poster claims to be at gigs where Johnson is setting up without Marshall amps, and opting instead for only the Fender combo setup.
For the studio demo that we'll look at in the next section, Johnson is using a similar collection of Fender amps for his rhythm tones.
Yet, in that case, Marshall heads still seem to be handling the lead tones.
Why he's going without the Marshall heads during certain gigs isn't certain.
Eric Johnson's Pedalboard and Signal Processing
When assessing Eric Johnson's lead tone, it's important to consider how it differs from his rhythm tones and the other sounds he uses.
If we understand his pedalboard, we get a really clear picture into how he has all of his different sounds broken down and how his signal processing is setup. Rather than try to mimic his amp settings alone, I recommend taking the time to understand how his signal gets from his guitar to his amplifier.
Let's start with this shot of Johnson's pedalboard as of 2009.
First of all, what a mess.
No wonder this guy has horrendous noise issues with his Strats.
I guess you can't argue with Eric's success, but if he's such a perfectionist when it comes to his tone, why does his pedalboard look like this?
Oh well, I digress. That was for free.
Eric, buddy - time to clean up.
After I published this post originally, Johnson was kind enough to refer me to some more recent shots of his board.
Here's the 2016 version:
You can checkout other versions of his pedalboard (by year) on his own gear page.
Eric Johnson's AB Switches
The most important pieces of gear, when it comes to deciphering Johnson's pedalboard, are those two little silver boxes near the top of the photo.
Here they are again in a Harmony Central demo video.
The first is a master AB box, pictured here:
This box switches between lead and rhythm, overall.
In most cases, it's switching between either the Marshall amp (lead) or the Fender amps (rhythm).
Assuming he's got the master AB box on the "rhythm" setting, his signal is then routed to the second AB box which gives him two rhythm choices:
- Clean rhythm
- Dirty rhythm
At this point, we've got enough information that we can put into a diagram that's a little more neat and clean than Johnson's actual board.
From there, Johnson's clean rhythm tone can be doctored by the following pedals:
- Memory Man Delay & Echo
- MXR Compressor
Then his dirty rhythm tone goes straight into an amplifier distortion, where Johnson can add some extra fuzz, via a classic Fuzz Face, if he so chooses.
His lead tone is far simpler, going straight into a Tube Driver (for extra gain) then into the Marshall JMPs, or another Fender amp, depending on where he's playing.
Here's the diagram that Johnson provides on his website with a complete diagram of how his signal travels.
To summarize, Eric Johnson's signal essentially has three landing spots:
- Clean rhythm (through effects pedals)
- Dirty rhythm (through a Fender or Marshall amp)
- Dirty lead (through a tube driver and Marshall JMP)
Here's the video where Eric Johnson explains it all.
This represents the basic framework of Johnson's gear for the past couple of decades. And while I don't know for certain what his most recent configuration is, this is what he used during his most prominent studio recordings.
It's the bedrock of his signal and the simplest way to understand his tone.
If you combine it with the amp settings I showed you earlier, I think you'll have a really solid understanding of the gear he uses.
However, gear is expensive.
And like I mentioned at the outset of this piece, it's only half of the equation, and probably the less important half.
Let's delve into the Eric Johnson technique.
Eric Johnson's Technique
The first "lane" of Eric Johnson's technique is how he picks the strings or his "right hand technique."
This can be separated into two categories:
- Hybrid picking
- Alternate picking
I'll address hybrid picking first.
What is hybrid picking?
There are a lot of nuanced tactics that go into hybrid picking, but the entire technique can be summarized rather easily.
Hybrid picking is simply using both a pick and your fingers to pick the strings at the same time. If you watch any of Johnson's live performances, you can see him employing this tactic quite a bit.
The reasons it's such a crucial part of his tone is that there's a distinct difference between picking with your fingers and with a guitar pick. The tone is different and noticeable when employing a hybrid picking pattern that includes both methods.
Practicing Hybrid Picking
To practice hybrid picking, let's start off with something basic.
These first two are straight from a Guitar World article on hybrid picking patterns.
Here's a quick key for the right hand fingering labels:
As you can see, the primary fingers involved are the middle and ring finger since the pointer and thumb are used to grip the guitar pick.
Let's up the difficulty a bit by combining notes of the higher intervals.
We'll up the intervals once again to give us a little stretch.
This is all fairly typical of Chet Atkins' picking style, though Johnson points out that a lot of this technique actually came from Merle Travis.
A lot of Chet’s picking technique came from Merle Travis, who I have studied pretty intensely, so I’m sure I have a lot of Chet in my technique, whether I realize it or not. - Eric Johnson
When it comes to picking technique, Travis and Atkins are considered one and the same.
Now, hybrid picking isn't the most important aspect of Johnson's technique.
It's a piece of the puzzle, to be sure, but it's not the biggest piece or the most important aspect to consider.
What I found to be the most interesting and crucial piece of information, concerning Johnson's technique, was his answer to the following question.
Alternate picking or hammers-on and pull-offs?
In an interview, Eric Johnson was asked whether he played every note or used a lot of technique, like legato.
His answer, was extremely insightful.
It's good to practice playing parts where you pick every note. When I do that, I try to pick up to the guitar instead of sideways, where you're brushing the string like a paintbrush. Practicing picking every note is good. Once you get good at it, then I think it's advisable to not always play that way. It has a certain sound and I personally don't like to do it every time that I play licks. It sounds a little more legato or "smoother" if I don't do it a lot. I think it is good practice though, simply because you can pick and choose where you want to pick and where you don't because you've practiced the ability to alternate pick everything. - Eric Johnson
I believe this picking "philosophy" is a large part of what has makes Johnson's playing sound so good.
He's essentially saying that it's good to practice picking every single note.
Then, once you're comfortable and good at this method, you can pick and choose where you want to strike the strings or opt for a more legato sound. In fact, it's a helpful answer to a question that I think a lot of guitar players have.
When do I pick and when do I use hammer-ons and pull-offs?
Johnson's solution is fantastic. Make sure you can pick every note, if you need to, then you'll be free to apply more advanced and "smoothing" technique.
I'm convinced that this, along with the anti-treble amp settings, is one of the biggest factors contributing to his unique lead tone. He has simply taken the time to make sure that every single note is mastered and under control before trying to apply more difficult playing techniques.
We can easily take the same approach, if we have enough patience to do so.
Commonly used scales?
If we want to apply the above picking tactic, we can get even more contextual by looking at some of the guitar scales that Eric Johnson routinely uses.
Here is a short list I've compiled from several of his interviews:
- Minor pentatonic scale
- Major Pentatonic scale
- Half tone scale
- Whole tone scale
- Diminished scale
What we can do is take a few of these guitar scales and start playing through them at a speed that allows us to pick every single note.
Let's start with the Minor Pentatonic scale shape.
Minor Pentatonic Scale
Go as fast as you can picking every single note in an alternate picking pattern.
Major Pentatonic Scale
Using these scales as a grid to build speed will help you get a feel for some of the common structures that Johnson uses for his songwriting and solo development.
Stick to alternate picking until you can really breeze through each one.
Once you're comfortable with that, you can move onto more advanced legato techniques.
Intervallic Lead Lines and Open-Voiced Triads
Eric Johnson commonly employs wider intervals, both for his chord progressions and solo construction.
As an offshoot of this technique, he commonly employs a chord pattern called open-voiced triads.
My chord style initially developed as a result of my dissatisfaction with the way traditional guitar voicings, particularly triads, sounded. - Eric Johnson
In order for his chords to better-accommodate a distorted tone, Johnson spread the intervals of his chords out further, giving rise to his use of open-voiced triads and chord shapes.
I quickly realized that open-voiced triads - chords in which the individual notes, or voices, are spread out - lent themselves better to distortion. - Eric Johnson
The basis of this tactic is to take the middle note of a closed-voice triad (where the intervals are stacked as closely together as possible) and play it either an octave higher or lower.
Here are some of the examples that Eric Johnson uses.
The third is simply moved up to the E string (an octave higher), giving the chord an open-voiced form.
Here are a couple more examples from Eric Johnson's Guitar World article.
This is a tactic that Eric Johnson employs often, particularly on "Cliffs of Dover" where he uses open-voiced chord patterns to form the melody line and larger portions of the guitar solo.
For those of us who already know a lot of triads, it's a quick and easy way to give our playing more variety and flavor.
It's also a hallmark features of Johnson's lead tone.
All of the Above
Eric Johnson's tone is not just about his gear or amp settings.
In fact, as I've studied his playing and read his interviews, I'm becoming convinced that it is more largely due to the technique he employs and the style of his physical playing that guides most of his tonal accomplishments.
And this is good news.
Because practicing technique is free. We don't have to go out and buy a new amp to do that.
Keep in mind that as you tinker with amp settings and effects (as I previously mentioned, both are important), the meat of Eric Johnson's lead tone is to be found in his technique, namely the following:
- Alternate picking
- Hybrid picking
- The major and minor pentatonic scales
- Wide intervals
- Open-voiced chords
Spend some time getting your gear right (or as close as possible to Eric Johnson's settings), then zero in on the technique.
Not only will it improve your playing in regards to Johnson's style, but it will give you tools to use in all the music you play as well.
Getting good at any one technique is agnostic of musical context.
References and Works Cited
"MusicPlayers.com: Features Guitars Eric Johnson." MusicPlayers.com: Features Guitars Eric Johnson. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Eric Johnson Interview
"Guitarist Eric Johnson Interview | Guitarhoo.com." Guitarist Eric Johnson Interview | Guitarhoo.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Eric Johnson Radio Interview
"Eric Johnson's Guitar Gets to Austin's Roots." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Eric Johnson and Austin Texas
"Eric Johnson's Lead Tone Breakdown." The Gear Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Eric Johnson Lead Tone Forum Discussion
Premierguitar. "Rig Rundown - Eric Johnson." YouTube. YouTube, 06 Sept. 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Eric Johnson's Guitar Rig
Musiciansfriend. "Eric Johnson Interview - Guitars Amp Effects On Up Close Album - Part 3 of 3." YouTube. YouTube, 29 Nov. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Eric Johnson Video Interview
Leslie, Jimmy. "Guitar Player Magazine" Obsessive Perfectionist Eric Johnson Is Trying Go With the. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Archived Eric Johnson Interview
GuitarLessons365. "The Greatest Hybrid Picking Guitar Lesson Ever Pt.1 - Rock - Blues - Country - Jazz - Fender Strat." YouTube. YouTube, 11 Aug. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Hybrid Picking Guitar Lesson
"This In-Depth Guide to Hybrid Picking Will Have You Playing Like a Pro in No Time at All." Guitar World. N.p., 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. In Depth Guide to Hyprid Picking
"Justin Guitar." Justin Guitar | Free Guitar Lessons. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Minor Pentatonic Scale Guitar Lesson
Carl Culpepper January 17, 2011. "Hybrid Picking: Examples and Exercises for Attacking the Strings With a Combo of Pick and Fingers." Premier Guitar RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Hybrid Picking Exercises
"How to Play The Diminished Scale." MATT WARNOCK GUITAR. N.p., 24 Dec. 2015. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Diminished Scale Guitar Lesson
"Eric Johnson Lesson: Expand Your Chordal Vocabulary with Open-Voiced Triads." Guitar World. N.p., 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016. Open-Voiced Triads Eric Johnson Guitar Lesson