“Technology is coming along. It's going to keep getting better to the point that maybe they will replace tube amps for a lot of people”: Eric Johnson has been experimenting with amp modelers, but he still isn’t fully convinced – here’s why

Eric Johnson performs onstage
(Image credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images)

Eric Johnson has once again dipped his toes into the ever-active “digital modelers versus tube amps” debate, and given an update on whether he has been convinced to swap his conventional rig for a more futuristic all-in-one digital replacement.

The worlds of Johnson and modern modeling tech became closely intertwined last year, when it was revealed that the gear purist had been experimenting with the Neural DSP Quad Cortex.

At the time, Johnson explained that he had been using the Quad Cortex to explore the process of capturing sounds, and voiced his support for what he viewed to be a promising piece of gear.

However, he caveated his admission with the assertion that, while he was “going to continue working with it and see what I can do with it,” he wasn’t sure whether “it’ll ever completely replace” his original rig.

Now, it looks as though Johnson still hasn’t been fully convinced by modeler tech, with the OG G3 member once again doubling down on his stance that he wouldn’t be swapping to modelers anytime soon – and claiming work still needs to be done.

Johnson said as much in an upcoming Guitar World interview, during which he was asked whether a switch to a Kemper – or any other modeler – was on the cards. To that, Johnson ruled himself out of a digital defection.

“Oh, no. At this point, I'd have to say probably not,” he stressed. “But don't get me wrong – technology is coming along. I think at some point, overall, it's going to keep getting better to the point that maybe they will replace tube amps for a lot of people… but not for me [laughs].”

But, once again, Johnson voiced his admiration for the tech, and seemingly left the door open for a future switch should a far away tour take place: “I think that stuff is cool, and it would be nice to consider it when I need to tour far away. Having to cart around a bunch of heavy gear, man, it's hard. But I think that technology still needs to be worked on.”

As for what it is about his current rig that Johnson finds so enduring, the Stratocaster master explained, “I kind of like the old tube amps. They have this certain kind of old-style sound and tone that I find really works for me.

“I've yet to find that sound through other gear, so I stick with it,” he went on. “I have three distinct setups, and I've never found one amp that would do all three just how I like them.”

As such, it’s this rig that Johnson currently has on the road with him for the ongoing G3 tour, which recently kicked off in Tucson. That first show saw the OG G3 members – Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani – reunite under the G3 umbrella for the first time in more than two decades.

Johnson’s digital discussion is the latest footnote in an ever-evolving topic of conversation, which poses the question whether the tube amp can survive in the digital era.

Keep your eyes peeled on Guitar World to read the full interview with Eric Johnson.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.