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In Part 1, the down-to-earth electric guitar icon talked about his early days on the Austin scene and cutting his latest album Bloom. In Part II, Johnson gets into the nitty gritty about his stage and studio gear.
MF: I read about an old Les Paul that you used when you were playing with the Electromagnets. You said you sold it and you wished you had it back. That was a long time ago and I was wondering if you ever got it back?
EJ: Never did. It is was a '60 sunburst so if I'm sure if I ever found it it would be $150,0000! [laughs]
MF: Especially if they knew you had owned it! [laugh]
EJ: Oh man, it was a nice guitar. I've owned a number of them over the years but that was one I wish I had kept. Because it was a really, really nice guitar. I used it in the Electromagnets. I would end the gig and put it in the case. No special case just a brown case. Because at the time who cared? That was the original case. It was not like nowadays, "Oh you can't look at the original case." I took it on the road and we'd travel 300 miles to play a gig. Next day I'd get it out to play and that guitar would still be in perfect tune. It was just amazing. It was a beautiful-sounding guitar. I recently listened to a tape of it when I played it in the studio. It was just a great-sounding guitar. What was I thinking when I got rid of that? [laughs]
MF: While we're talking about guitars, why don't you tell us about your signature Strat and how that came about?
EJ: I had been talking to Fender for a number of years and they had been approaching me and I just never really did it. I met Michael Frank Braun at Fender and I got the vibe that he was the guy that was going to do it. I don't know why. It's like destiny or something. So about a year ago I decided I wanted to do it. So we started working on it. Michael came down here and he checked all my guitars out and tried to find some symmetry as to why over all the years I kept those guitars. I've been through tons of Strats and I ended up keeping just three old Strats in my whole life. And he found some interesting symmetry between them. So, he used that to design the guitar.
MF: What did he find in common between them?
EJ: All three of them had been routed for humbuckers and had a Floyd Rose put on them.
MF: Oh really?
EJ: No, just kidding. [laughter] The pickups were a certain strength, they were all made of alder wood, and the grain in the neck was a certain way. And tonally they had certain symmetry in the sound.
MF: So, are you playing one of your new signature Strats on stage these days?
EJ: Yeah, I used it on my last electric gig. I had some people come up after the gig and say, "That thing sounded better than your '57!" I don't know if that made me feel good or bad. Maybe a little of both. [general laughter]
MF: What's on your pedal board?
EJ: I've got an old Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, TC Electronic Stereo Chorus Flanger, Vox Cry Baby, and an old B.K. Butler Tube Driver.
MF: That TC Stereo Chorus Flanger is great. Huh?
EJ: Yeah. I've never found anything I like better. And I have a couple of passive A/B boxes so I can switch between my three different amp setups. I allocate different effects for different amps. For my clean stereo rhythm I just use the TC Stereo Chorus. And then for my dirty rhythm—which is basically like an early Marshall-type Fender-y sound—I use the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face. The TC Chorus only goes through the Fenders for clean, and the Fuzz Face is only for the dirty rhythm sound. And the Vox Crybaby and the Tube Driver only go through the lead Marshall.
MF: Recording these albums, are you doing most of that at home in your own studio or are you recording somewhere else?
EJ: I do most of it in the studio that I built about 10 years ago.
MF: And what do you have in there?
EJ: Well, most of it's done on Pro Tools, but we do have some vintage gear as well—some two-inch analog in a console that I use pretty much. But most of it ends up on Pro Tools.
MF: What specific uses would you use the analog gear for?
EJ: Usually for guitar overdubs.
EJ: It seems to give it a little bit of an X factor. I don't know what it is. It just gives a little analog vibe.
MF: Do you push the tape at all?
EJ: Yeah I cut it pretty hot—plus four, plus five. I have been known—when I'm not careful—to have the meter pegged and then the engineer will come in and say, "What are you doing?!" [laughs] The meter will just be slammed.
MF: So you always work with an engineer in your home studio?
EJ: Yeah almost always. Though sometimes I'll do guitar overdubs by myself, if I have an idea that I want to flesh out. I have an old MCI two-inch setup for 16 tracks. I run it through an old console and I've got it customized where it has a footswitch to punch in and record on. So, I can record on my own.
MF: When you're recording your guitar you've got this special sound. Do you use the same gear so you can duplicate it live?
EJ: Yeah pretty much. Live, I pretty much end up using all my vintage stuff. I say "I want to save this stuff for the studio. I'll get new gear for the road." But I usually end up taking the old amps on the road because they just have the tone.
MF: And when you're playing, tone's everything huh?
EJ: Yeah, I don't know what it is. I have a new Alessandro amp. George Alessandro made a new amp for me that sounds great. And I do have an amp that's called a Fulton Webb that I designed with Bill Webb. He did most of the work, but we designed it together. It's a really nice-sounding new amp. Those are the two new amps I use and they are only ones that I've been able to hang with.
MF: You also endorsed some GHS strings.
EJ: Yeah, they're the Nickel Rockers, 10-13-18-26-38-50. It's wild because most people don't use the Nickel Rockers. But Stevie used the Nickel Rockers, and I've always loved them. He loved them, but a lot of people prefer the Boomers.
MF: What's the difference in the tone of them?
EJ: Boomer's are brighter and twangier. But they seem to go dead quicker. Where the Nickel Rockers might not be as twangy in the beginning, they seem to sustain the same concentric tone for longer.
MF: You change them often?
EJ: If I'm on the road I'll change them every three or four gigs. And if I'm at home I'll usually not change them unless I really have to.
MF: [laughs] What's up on your tour schedule?
EJ: Well, we're going to do a quick little tour of the Midwest in May. And then we've got a month tour June 15th to July 15th. We're going out for a month. And most of those dates are going to be with Buddy Guy.
MF: Yeah, I'm going to have to catch a couple of those. Do you still live down in Austin?
EJ: I do.
MF: Do you still like it?
EJ: I do like it here. I'm not sure what the deal is. I was telling somebody a couple of days ago . . . We were in Japan and had a day off and we went to Kyoto and saw the hills and the fog over the hills. We went to these castles where the samurai used to live. Then I came in and I played San Francisco and actually went to Portland . And we went in to play some ski resorts up in Vail and Aspen. I was doing solo acoustic stuff. The tour just took in all this beautiful land. Then the tour bus pulled into North Texas in the panhandle where there is nothing but just flat nothing. And I'm going, "Ah, I'm home!" I'm thinking "What's with me? I'm getting sentimental about this after all this pretty land I've been seeing." But I guess I'm just a born Texan. I like coming back here. I think getting to travel it's a good balance. If I didn't travel I might not live in Texas. If I just was always there. I don't know. It's a nice place to come back to.
MF: Is there any piece of gear that you don't own yet and you've always wondered about playing with?
EJ: Not really. I kind of go back to the same stuff. I just use Martin Guitars and Fenders and Gibsons. And then I like the old amps.
MF: What kind of Martins do you have?
EJ: I've got an old D-35, like a '68. It's a really nice guitar. And then I've got my signature Martin that I did with them about a year ago.
MF: Are there any microphones or any gear that you use in your studio that is critical. Like every time you get it out you're glad you got it?
EJ: Well, I have a new M-147 Neumann tube mic. It's a real sweet-sounding mic. And then I have a new U-87 which has a nice FET sound.
MF: What do you use the M-147 for?
EJ: Vocals. Or maybe some acoustic instruments sometimes. I have a pair of U-87s that are good for an alternative vocal sound, and they work pretty well on piano and guitar. For a really close mic I use a lot of old 57s. I like the Shure 57. Then room-wise I'll use a Neumann or something. And the AKG 414 is a nice mic for certain things
MF: You've got a set of drums set up in your studio so you can have somebody over any time?
EJ: I do, I actually do.
MF: And a bass rig?
EJ: Uh huh.
MF: Do you ever play your own bass lines?
EJ: I played bass on three of the songs on the new record.
MF: Does that bother your regular bass player [Chris Maresh]?
EJ: Oh, he's off doing so many different things I think he's kind of like, "whatever." [laughs]
MF: He's pretty darn good isn't he?
EJ: Oh he's great. As to why I played those instead of him, it's kind of silly. He should definitely do it instead of me. A lot of times it will be the middle of the night and I'll rewrite the guitar part. And then the old tracks don't quite match. Obviously Chris could play it better than I could. But I have to change the part to complement the new way I've done the thing. And I'm just in the moment of inspiration trying to get it done. More times it's just pieces of it that I might do to match the guitar change or something.
MF: You haven't played drums on any records have you?
EJ: [laughs] I hope not. In fact the engineer, Richard, is always kidding me about that, threatening me, "Don't you ever start playing those." I guess if I learned how to play . . . But at this point I don't know if it would be a good idea. [laughs] I tried before and it sounded pretty ridiculous. I think the lowest form of a response to something not being good is when somebody says, "That's unlistenable." I think if I played drums it wouldn't be a question of good or bad, it would be a question of unlistenable. [general laughter]
MF: Well, Eric, thanks a lot for your time. It was great talking to you.
EJ: Thank you, man. I hope to talk to you soon.
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