Master guitarist Eric Johnson discusses his new signature Fender Thinline Stratocaster®, amps, live and studio setups, effects and his plans for the future. 

Photo courtesy of Fender

Written by Troy Richardson, Musician's Friend Staff Writer

Eric Johnson is a guitarist’s guitarist. His inspired melodies and ear for tone brought him to the forefront of popular music with Ah Via Musicom in 1990. The platinum album featured his hit, "Cliffs of Dover," which won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. Johnson has launched a tour celebrating that release, with Fender unveiling his new signature model to coincide with the event.

The HUB: Your new signature Thinline Strat is the first to have an F-hole in Fender's history. Was that inspired by a guitar in your collection or was it something you’ve always wanted to do?

EJ: I’ve always enjoyed the (Gibson ES-) 335. I guess the Strat and the 335 are my most go-to electric guitars … Years ago, I thought it might be cool to kind of try to combine aspects of the both of them … (the F-hole) just gives it a little bit of a breathing quality like the 335 has … It kind of pushes it to have a little more of that resonant sound, kind of like old wood has.

The HUB: Was the F-hole for tone or for weight relief, or a little of both?

EJ: Mostly for tone. Just to kind of make the guitar … inhale and exhale a little bit and get a little resonation because when you get the guitar to respond more vibrationally … it gives it a little bit more energy back into it. So, it was really for that. I mean, there was a side that it did make it lighter, but that wasn’t really my original motive or anything.

Eric Johnson Thinline Stratocaster in 2-Color Sunburst

The HUB: You picked a ‘57 soft V neck shape. Is that a favorite neck profile from a guitar in your collection?

EJ: Yes. I have one ‘57. It’s a nice shape … there’s kind of advantages to all different neck shapes … but the soft V ‘57 seems to be kind of a general shape for a lot of the Strats through the years.

The HUB: How does the new EJ Thinline Strat compare to your existing Artist Series Strat? Would you consider it an evolution? The pickups were voiced specifically for you on both models. [Ed. Note - Check out our full hands-on review of Eric's Artist Series Stratocaster] 

EJ: No, actually this guitar is pretty much identical to my solid body, the only difference being the body cavity. We kind of left everything else the same because it seemed to be working pretty well. I might actually fool with that in the future, maybe tweak it, but for right now we left everything the same and just tried to come up with a system to make the body hollow, which ended up being kind of like a 335 Gibson. It’s a solid piece of wood all the way through the middle of the guitar and it’s hollow on each side.

The HUB: The new model only has a maple fretboard option where your previous one was also available with rosewood. Was that by design or could there be a rosewood fingerboard in the future?

EJ: I think there could be a rosewood one in the future. We made a couple of prototypes with rosewood. I prefer maple, but a lot of people like rosewood. I think what Fender was thinking for starters … they would start with a focus on a couple of colors with a maple neck and then if people really dig it and it becomes popular then they’ll probably widen it out with different fingerboards and different colors.

The HUB: Do you like a maple fretboard for the feel or the tone?

EJ: It’s more the tone. For some reason … on a Fender …it’s a little more pure sounding to me. A little more focused and a little purer.

The HUB: You cover a lot of ground with a Strat musically. Are there still some instrument changes during the live show or can you do almost everything with the one Strat?

EJ: I could do everything with that one guitar. Although sometimes I like to play Gibsons because the humbucking pickup is hotter and stuff, but … I could definitely do anything I needed to on this guitar.

The HUB: How big is your guitar collection these days?

EJ: It’s smaller than it used to be. I’ve sold off a lot of stuff. I mean, I guess I have about 20 guitars.

The HUB: Let's talk about your live rig a little bit, starting with your amplifiers. Is it still a switching system with Marshall half stacks and Fender combos?

EJ: It is. I use a couple of Twin Reverbs for a clean tone and then I use a Two-Rock called a Traditional Clean for my dirty rhythm sound. Sometimes I’ll use a Two-Rock classic reverb, one of the two. Then for my lead tone I just use either an old 50- or an old 100-watt Marshall through a 4x12 cab.

The HUB: Okay, let's look at your pedalboard now. Does that change much from one tour to another?

EJ: It’s pretty much the same. On the clean I use a TC Chorus, Memory Man and Catalinbread Belle Epoch delay … on the dirty rhythm I use a Fuzz Face and a (Ibanez TS-808) Tube Screamer. Then on the lead I use a Catalinbread Belle Epoch … to a Cry Baby and a Tube Driver, the B.K. Butler Tube Driver.

Eric Johnson's Pedalboard

A closer look at Eric Johnson's pedalboard. Photo courtesy of Fender. 

But I do have another tube setup which is the exact same pedals. It’s just without any echo. It’s just the Fuzz Face, Tube Screamer, Tube Driver and TC Chorus.

The HUB: Does your setup change at all for studio recording?

EJ: It’s pretty much the same. I mean, I’ll use different pedals in the studio that I normally wouldn’t use live just for overdubs or something, but typically that’s the go-to sound that I could kind of cover everything I need to and, if I need to change it from there, it could be just a matter of setting the tone different, treble or bass or whatever, or different guitars.

The HUB: You have some touring dates coming up fairly soon. Is that a preview of some new stuff?

EJ: Actually the next tour I do will be – it’s just a solo acoustic and piano tour, so it’s some new music that I want to record on a second acoustic record.

The HUB: The new album will be an acoustic one?

EJ: I think so, yeah. I have ideas for a couple of different electric records as well, but I’m going to try to get this acoustic record underway pretty soon.

The HUB: When you go into the studio with new material, is there still some improvisation that happens between you and the other musicians?

EJ: Definitely. You know, you kind of go in with certain plans just to cover yourself, but they completely change. A lot of times, you’ll go in and you’ll write new songs in the studio that might be better than the ones you had before, or the ones you have will really change. It’s really kind of like the less you can judge what you’re doing, the better, because songs you didn’t think were really that good will end up sounding great when you record them, sometimes, and the ones you’re so proud of kind of fall by the wayside. It’s all kind of … there’s all sorts of interesting surprises when you take it from your mind to reality.

The HUB: Over the years you’ve created a pretty substantial catalog of work. Where do you find inspiration for new material as you go forward?

EJ: I think allowing yourself to just be free and have fun playing whatever instrument you’re playing and kind of explore without any preconceptions. As I try to improvise or explore or just have fun playing you stumble into places that are interesting and new and if you keep your mind open enough to go, "Well, I’d like to allow myself to do something new instead of falling back on all my repertoire," you find a little more joy in that. Then the joy gives you the inspiration to work on it.

The HUB: Do you ever go back and revisit some of your older work?

EJ: I do. We just did an Ah Via Musicom tour with Tommy Taylor and Kyle Brock. That was a lot of fun. We played that record from start to finish.

The HUB: So, one last one: Does every interviewer ask you about 9-volt batteries?

EJ: [laughter] Not every one, but most of them [laughter]. Yeah, but it really is a story that kind of got completely changed from what the truth was. I just kind of laugh at it at this point.

The HUB: That’s good. Do you want to set the record straight on 9-volt batteries?

EJ: Well, the only thing I can say is that a regular … you know, they had those super super-charged extra extra heavy duty voltage batteries and anybody can use it like a regular battery. Like, say in a Tube Screamer, you put a regular battery in and then you put one of those super super-charged extra long-life batteries in and you’ll notice a difference in the sound because they have more voltage. It’s a more powerful type of impulse from the voltage.

So, as far as all the different brands of batteries, I don’t know anything about them. I never have. The whole thing that happened was just … it happened for like three minutes. I was using the Tube Screamer and I didn’t have an extra battery, so I put one of those super heavy duty batteries in and the thing sounded really kind of edgy and trebly. I was like, “What’s the deal? Wow, that doesn’t make any sense.”

Then I put a Duracell in it and it sounded fine. That was the end of it. Ever since then—I never did A/B a bunch of batteries or figure them all out—I just noticed that the high powered one sounded a little different than a normal one, so ever since then, I just use Duracell. That’s all there was to it, really [laughter].

I’m sure there’s other batteries that sound fine but, as a general rule, from my quick two- minute experience, I found that the super high voltage ones give a little bit different voltage pulse to a pedal.

The HUB: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time and we look forward to the upcoming tour and the new album.

EJ: Thanks for doing this, man.

Catch Eric's latest release, EJ, available on vinyl from Musician's Friend.