An 'Up Close' Gear Tour with Eric Johnson in Minneapolis

Ah, the quest for tone. I imagine that sooner or later, every musician desires to possess a sound that flows with the sweet feeling of inspiration. The quest might be as simple as finding an axe that feels right to your hands. Oftentimes, the process is a long, slow love affair, constantly expanding, contracting and evolving. Eric Johnson is a long-tenured seeker who has certainly reaped the sonic rewards of his efforts. He recently took a moment with me to discuss the gear he is using as he tours in support of his 2010 release, Up Close. Come along and I’ll fill you in. It was August 4 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The house lights were still on and an excited buzz filled the air. I worked my way down to the stage to check out the goods. The maestro’s pedal board was front and center. Most of the gear has been a part of Eric’s rig for years. And he is another world-class artist using a hunk of plywood, black paint and Velcro to make a pedal board. Upstage, the familiar silhouette of the iconic Marshall stack loomed. Next to the monolith stood two well-cared-for Fender Twins and another Marshall head tucked in behind them, as if to shore up any weak spot in the massive wall of sound. This tour has Eric introducing a new flavor of Marshall into his sound. In the spirit of transparency and brotherhood, Eric’s giving away his secret weapon. Eric opened his show sans accompaniment, playing a striking cutaway acoustic six that sported some intriguing details. During our interview, he said this was his signature model Martin. Google informs me it is the Martin MC-40 Eric Johnson model. It is outfitted with Indian Rosewood back and sides and Engelmann Spruce top. Eric plays with a highly evolved technique, and his fingerstyle chops are fearsome. The Martin had no problem keeping up with his abilities or flattering his gorgeous melodies. Additionally, the acoustics’ amplified sound was sweet, natural and woody. Johnson shared that he uses the Fishman II pickup system with stereo feeds on this instrument. The position markers on the fret board are planet shapes, with one small curiosity: There are only eight markers present. They left Pluto off before we downgraded that cold, small dot into non-planet status. I think Eric has friends in high places. The full band was soon onstage and cooking, mostly playing numbers from the new recording. Missing from the performance were The EJ Signature Stratocasters he’s been using. In their place were Johnson’s trusty ’57 Strat and his vintage SG. The Fender got the lion’s share of the action. The venue on this night was an 800-seater near the University of Minnesota. I wondered what challenges he faced by bringing a cranked 100-watt Marshall Plexi and two 85-watt Twins into a small theater. Eric replied that the head he is using is one of the softest 100-watt heads he’s ever played, comparing its volume to a typical 50-watt head. To calm the twin Twins, he places a camouflaged foam baffle a few feet in front of them to absorb some of the crystalline high frequencies. If you examine the photos, you may notice a black curtain placed slightly ahead of the Fenders. Finally, I asked about the Experience Hendrix show at New York’s Beacon Theater, where, for a couple of numbers, Johnson played the hallowed Hendrix Woodstock Strat. “It’s a really good guitar,” he said. “It was an incredible experience. I didn’t get to spend time with it. They just brought it out and gave it to me. We did a couple of tunes and that was that.” Incredible indeed. Marlin Hall is a self-taught guitarist with 27 years of experience and a strong DIY ethic, gigging on blues, cover tunes and original rock music on both coasts and in Minneapolis since 1991. Hall, a former sound engineer in Minneapolis, recently graduated from a guitar-building and repair program and provides repair and custom-guitar-building services in the Twin Cities area. For more info, visit

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