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Dear Guitar Hero: Eric Johnson Discusses His “Koto” Technique, Tone, Signature Strat and More

Dear Guitar Hero: Eric Johnson Discusses His “Koto” Technique, Tone, Signature Strat and More

He's a perfection-driven, genre-bending ax slinger from Texas with one of the most distinctive electric guitar tones in music. But what Guitar World readers want to know is ...

How did you get that fantastic liquid tone on “Cliffs of Dover,” and was that one cohesive solo or an amalgam? — J. Paradis

I played a Gibson ES-335 through a 100-watt Marshall. I put it all together by playing sections, then dropping them in and connecting them into a seamless whole.

What is the greatest misconception about you and your music? — Ray Wilson

That’s hard to say. The music business constructs an image of an artist based on what it wants, and that image tends to stick around. Sometimes, no one bothers to look between the cracks to see if the image resembles the truth. That can be frustrating, but it’s also the responsibility of the artist to obliterate that image by making something powerful enough to dispel it.

There is certainly a stigma to being a “guitar hero.” But I know what music turns me on and how I want to fit into the world of guitar players. I try to keep on that journey with everything I do, without worrying too much about how others perceive me.

What would you suggest for someone on a limited budget who wants that trademark Texas-sized Eric Johnson tone? — Voltage

Good tone, whether it’s based around mine or not, begins with a versatile amplifier. I recommend a silverface Fender Twin or Pro Reverb, especially if you can get one with a nice old Jensen speaker. You want an amp with pure tone, something with which you can create a clean and simple sound. From there, you can add an overdrive pedal or any other effect you want, but you have to begin with a good clean sound. To make another point, I think people overemphasize the importance of gear in their search for tone. Your sound comes from how you pick and dampen the strings, and from your attack, as much as anything.

Who are some of your favorite classical composers? — Joe Sweep

Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Mozart. Franz Liszt and Chopin are way up there. Georg Telemann is a very interesting guy, and I also love George Gershwin.

Was Chet Atkins an influence on your hybrid-picking technique? — Sandy Halliday

He was, but Chet is so special to me that I’ve always tried to just enjoy his music and not dissect it. I like the overall effect of his playing, in a reverent way, and I don’t want to make listening to his music an effort. However, 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.

I’ve heard about your “koto” technique. What is it? — Stratoblaster

It’s really pretty simple. You just fret the note with the index finger of your right hand, then pick directly behind it with your right hand. Because you’re picking so close to the fret, the picked string sounds thin and twangy, like a koto [a traditional Japanese stringed instrument]. I’ll also place my left hand on the string to stretch it. This also allows me to pull off my right-hand finger; since my left-hand finger is still in place, doing this can create a nice pull-off sound.

Why are there no string trees on your signature Strat? — Ben Ford

String trees hinder a guitar’s ability to stay in tune, but they’re necessary because of the headstock’s pitch — that is, the degree to which the headstock is tilted. We changed the pitch slightly, which, in combination with the staggered tuning keys, allowed us to eliminate the trees. As a result, you can actually use the guitar’s vintage tremolo system a small amount without the guitar going out of tune.

Rosewood or maple fretboards, and why? — Frank Stokes

Maple seems to have a purer fundamental tone, and that’s what I generally use, though I think rosewood has a better rhythm tone for complex harmonics. I own one rosewood Strat, and I like it.

What is in your rig? — Nikili Kite

It’s very simple. I have three amp setups that produce tones ranging from really clean to very saturated, though I never use them all at once. The first setup consists of two Fender Twins with a Princeton Chorus stereo chorus. The second is a Marshall 100-watt set around 7.5 to 8 on the first channel for a Keith Richards–style crunch rhythm. I have a Fuzz Face on there, so I can also kick into a Hendrix-style sound. The third setup is a Marshall with a Tube Driver, for extra saturation; the Marshall’s volume is all the way up, and the EQ is set for a classic Clapton tone. Occasionally, I use a CryBaby wah with any of these, but I run it through a rack.


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