Thanks to the work of some standout brands, we’re currently living in a golden era of digital amp and effects modeling technology. In fact, owing to the rapid advances that have occurred over the past few years, more and more guitar stars are ditching tube amps and pedalboards in favor of something with more CPU power.
Legendary tonesmith Eric Johnson is the latest electric guitar titan to flirt with the idea of digital guitar gear, and although he hasn’t completely overhauled his current rig just yet, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility he may do so in the future.
Speaking in the latest episode of the Dipped in Tone podcast (and clocked by MusicRadar), Johnson maintained his stance that “the gear’s really secondary”, though revealed he was working with the Neural DSP Quad Cortex to test its digital profiling powers.
As he explains, “I'm experimenting with the Neural DSP [Quad Cortex] right now and we're capturing sounds and I'm gonna keep capturing sounds on it. The company has been gracious to allow me to work with a unit.
“I'm kind of encouraged,” Johnson continued. “I think that concept gets better all the time. I don't know if it'll ever completely replace the [original] stuff but I've been working with Neural. We've done a few captures so far and I'm like, 'Wow, I could almost use that – it's pretty close.' I'm going to continue working with it and see what I can do with it.”
In this age, news of guitarists such as Johnson dabbling with digital gear comes as no surprise. Recently, it was announced that Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray would be swapping his Marshall JPM-1s for Fractal’s Axe-Fx III.
Despite his work with Neural DSP, though, Johnson said there are still certain tones and pieces of gear that will remain holy.
“There's certain things that I love. The old Marshall sound,” he asserted. “They're just super simple circuitry like [Fender] came up with in the late '40s with the Tweed Bassman. A lot of times, the simpler the path of the electronics, the purer the tonality is.”
Expanding on his point, Johnson observed how some new developments don’t “sound like my mentors and heroes that I grew up on”, and that they contrast with what he would “consider a natural guitar tone”.
Not only that, the Cliffs of Dover mastermind noted the shortcomings of some digital units, commenting, “A lot of stuff, it doesn't follow your picking technique. You can feel it kind of fighting you.”
In comparison, the Neural DSP Quad Cortex has largely won Johnson over, although the Stratocaster master did point out one of its flaws: “You can’t do fuzzes with it.”
He also issued a word of advice to those hoping to follow in his footsteps, and warned them from going down the all-consuming gear “rabbit hole”.
“The gear's really secondary,” he stressed. “I wish I could say that I always ascribed to that belief. I went through years and years of, 'Oh, the gear…' and I still do to a certain extent but I've become a little bit more detached from it because it's like a rabbit hole. I would say to anyone chasing that; don't go so deep in the rabbit hole that you just analyze too much.”
The discussion of gear, naturally, went hand in hand with an appraisal of the importance of the individual player – namely, how it is the person controlling the gear, rather than the gear itself, that affects the majority of the overall sound.
“Really, three-fourths of it comes from just your intention and the way you play guitar – the way you pick the guitar, the way you mute the guitar, the way you finger the frets,” he offered. “And that's why you can take a lot of different players and put them on any gear and they're still gonna kind of sound like them.”
Johnson’s sentiments are shared by many of his peers. Just last week, Steve Lukather voiced his support for the ‘tone is in the hands’ camp, recalling how he played through Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck’s guitar rigs and sounded like himself.
Not long before that, Nuno Bettencourt shared an eerily similar anecdote, in which he said playing through Van Halen’s equipment “was the big[gest] bitch slap of all time when you realize, ‘Holy shit, it’s all about you. It’s all about your fingers.’”
And, as if you needed any more evidence, John Petrucci also once told Guitar World, “The guitar is a tactile instrument. You’re using the flesh of your hands to interact with it, and regardless of everything else you use, the sound you make comes from you.”
As for digital gear, it's not all one-way traffic to the world of modelers. Tosin Abasi, once the poster boy of Fractal's Axe-Fx, recently defected back to the ranks of tube amps, and overhauled his backline with Bad Cat amps.