Eric Johnson is one of the most gifted guitarists of all time, with a killer guitar tone. Discover the key pieces of gear he uses to dial in his soaring lead tones
In my opinion, Eric Johnson is one of the most gifted guitarists of all time. He combines amazing technical ability with a soft touch and tasteful phrasing. In his playing he fuses a whole range of genres – including blues, rock, jazz and soul. In doing so, he has created a totally unique sound and style. And he has done all of this with a beautiful guitar tone. Eric Johnson is one of the most gifted guitarists of all time.
Eric Johnson does not have a classic blues tone. Like his playing style, his guitar tone transcends genres. Yet it is also a guitar tone that works brilliantly within a blues guitar context. His tone is warm and thick, yet all of his notes retain perfect clarity. And when Johnson pushes it, he gets a heavily overdriven tone that sounds amazing for the blues. His tone has a soaring and vocal quality that is perfect for lead guitar.
Over the course of his career, Johnson has used a wide range of guitar gear to produce a variety of different tones. Here though, I will be focusing on the guitar tones with which arguably he is best associated. Specifically, I will be looking at the guitar tones Johnson created on albums like Tones and Ah Via Musicom.
The latter of these – released in 1991, and featuring the song ‘Cliffs Of Dover‘ – is arguably Johnson’s most famous album. It had a huge impact on his career. And to this day, it is perhaps his most celebrated album.
It is easy to see why this is the case. Johnson’s virtuosic guitar playing throughout the album is brilliant, as his guitar tone. And that is what I will be focusing on here. So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like Eric Johnson and recreate those classic tones:
Some opening thoughts…
Many of the guitarists that I have featured in my ‘Sound Like‘ series take a simplistic approach to tone. This is particularly the case with the early blues and rock guitarists I have covered. Guitarists like Albert King, B.B. King and Albert Collins were not overly concerned with the nuances of their set-up. They found the guitar gear they liked and stuck with that throughout their careers. They didn’t have a whole range of different amps or guitar pedals, nor did they overly concern themselves with the minutiae of their rigs.
The same is not true of Eric Johnson. He leaves no element of his set-up to chance, and considers every element of his tone. And as a result he has developed a reputation as a real tone aficionado.
At a macro level, Johnson’s intense focus on his tone has resulted in him having 3 or even more amps as part of his live set up. This is in addition to a wide range of different guitar pedals.
At a micro level, it has resulted in Johnson using different materials for different parts of his guitar’s saddle, and altering the shape and design of the string tree. He has even been known to have his sound engineer check different plugs in the building in which he is playing to find those with the highest quality electricity…
Whilst Johnson has admitted that his approach is perhaps a little obsessional, he is a firm believer that the sum of these marginal gains makes a significant difference to his tone. And given the quality of Johnson’s tone, it is quite hard to argue the case.
Having said that, it is also important to take a practical approach. This is because firstly, replicating Johnson’s set-up exactly is likely to be prohibitively expensive for most guitarists. However, even if your budget is of no concern, I would argue that taking such a granular approach to your tone is most probably a poor use of your time.
If like Eric Johnson you have masterful control over the guitar and almost flawless technique, then I think you will benefit from focusing on the more nuanced elements of your rig. Otherwise, I would suggest that you work on recreating the core elements of Johnson’s rig. This will then give you more time to dedicate to working on your technique.
For a huge part of sounding like Eric Johnson – or like any guitarist for that matter – is the technique that you use. Johnson is a highly technical player, and so in my opinion it makes more sense to place emphasis here when trying to recreate his tone.
Of course though, if you want to sound like Eric Johnson, you also have to play close attention to your gear. And that is what I will be looking at in this article. I will run through all of the key elements of Johnson’s set-up, as well as some of the more nuanced elements, should you wish to recreate those as well.
Over the course of his career, Eric Johnson has used a wide range of guitars, including a Gibson ES-335, Gibson SG and Gibson Les Paul. The guitar with which he is best associated though is the Fender Stratocaster. And of these he has played a variety.
There is however one Fender Strat that has played a more significant part in Johnson’s career. This is his 1954 Strat, nicknamed ‘Virginia’. Johnson recorded Tones, Ah Via Musicom and apparently also Venus Isle, with Virginia. He also toured extensively using the guitar.
Johnson acquired the guitar early in his career, when he visited a music shop to get a speaker fixed. He saw a slightly neglected looking Stratocaster in the corner of the room, and enquired if it was available. The guitar already had an owner, but this owner was more interested in playing a Gibson guitar. So Johnson bought a Gibson and swapped it for the Strat. Johnson used the guitar for many years, before he unfortunately took a fall during a soundcheck. Virginia was damaged and Johnson decided to sell it on, as he was no longer satisfied with the tone of the guitar.
During his ownership of the Stratocaster, Johnson modded the guitar extensively. He altered the fretboard radius, the wiring of the guitar, and the pickups, amongst a number of other elements.
In fact it was after Johnson changed the pickups on his guitar that he named it Virginia. Apparently in 1954, there were four women who were working assembling guitars for Fender. Whenever they finished building a guitar they’d place a piece of masking tape inside with their name and the date. So when Johnson went to change pickups, he discovered the piece of masking tape with Virginia’s name. And he called the guitar Virginia from that point onwards.
Choosing the right guitar
Virginia is not a typical Stratocaster. In fact there are some key differences between this guitar and most stock Stratocasters, which I have listed in detail below.
Before looking at some of those features of Virginia though, it is first important to choose a guitar that will help you to get close to those beautiful Eric Johnson tones. And given that Virginia is a Fender Strat – albeit a slightly unusual and heavily modded one – I would recommend opting for either a Fender Strat or a Strat replica.
Fender Strats from the early 1950s in good condition typically start at prices of around $81,000/£60,000, depending on their condition and specs. And whilst in 2020 the Fender Custom Shop released a guitar made to the exact specifications of Virginia, it was limited to a run of 50 models. These sold quickly, and although you can buy the guitar second hand, prices start from around $11,000/£8500. Unfortunately then, those options are beyond the reach of most players.
The great news though, is that there are a wide range of vintage Stratocaster reissues and replicas out there to suit different budgets. Here are my top recommendations if you want to sound like Eric Johnson:
Either of the last two guitars listed here would make a great choice if you want to sound like Eric Johnson and are looking to spend a bit more. Which one you go for depends on the specific features that are important to you, and how closely you want to replicate Virginia.
As you might expect, the Fender Stories Virginia Stratocaster is modelled more closely on Johnson’s specific guitar. So if you are interested in authenticity, that would be my top choice. Having said that though, the various modifications that Johnson made to his guitar may not be of interest.
If you are unsure as to whether or not this is the case, then I have listed the most relevant features of ‘Virginia’ below.
Getting closer to Virginia
All of the guitars listed above will help you to sound like Eric Johnson.
If however you are a massive Eric Johnson fan and you are looking for authenticity, then there are some further elements to consider. This is because as noted above, Virginia is not a typical Stratocaster. It has a number of unusual features and Johnson also made extensive modifications to the guitar too.
There are a number of distinguishing features of Virginia, and we can divide these into three categories. The first of these are those features which fundamentally affected Johnson’s tone. The second are those features which affected the feel and playability of his guitar. And the last are those features which I would describe as being more nuanced. By all means these are worth considering. As noted earlier though, the impact of these features are much more limited within the context of an entire rig.
Having said that, I have listed all of these features in full below and have stated the importance of each of these elements in helping you to sound like Eric Johnson. In this way you can decide how closely you want to replicate Johnson’s exact set-up.
First though, it is worth noting that if you already have, or if you go out and buy the Eric Johnson Virginia Strat – it will feature all of the elements listed below. This isn’t the case for the Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster, which is not modelled so closely on Virginia. But again that guitar will have many of the features noted below. So if you have that specific guitar, then do check its specifications before you make any of the changes outlined below.
If however you don’t have one of those guitars and you want to get close to Eric Johnson’s beautiful tones, then it is worth thinking about the following:
Pickups & wiring
One of the most significant changes that Eric Johnson made to Virginia was to the pickups and wiring in the guitar. Johnson switched all of the pickups in the guitar. In the neck and bridge position he replaced them with single coils manufactured in the late 1950s. These still have a more mellow vintage sound. They are however a little more powerful than the original pickups in the guitar. Then in the bridge, he replaced the pickup with a DiMarzio HS-2.
The Virginia guitars that Fender released in 2020 were fitted with Fender ’57/’62 Single Coil Pickups in the neck and middle position. Then in the bridge position they were fitted with a DiMarzio HS-2.
The slightly added complication here, is that Johnson also altered the wiring in his original guitar. He didn’t hook up the bottom coil of his HS-2 pickup. So it essentially remained as a a single coil, rather than a vertical humbucker, as designed. In Johnson’s own words, he then ‘recovered’ some of the highs by putting a 500K volume into the guitar.
In addition to this, the neck and middle pickup were wired out of phase. So when Johnson moved the pickup switch to position four, it put the pickups out of phase. This helped him to create a thin and slightly sharper tone, which he then used for two purposes. The first of these was to create a tone similar to that of a Koto – a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. The second, was to produce a tone more similar to that of blues guitarists like Peter Green and B.B. King.
Peter Green famously played a Gibson Les Paul with out of phase pickups. B.B. King on the other hand played a Gibson ES-335 that was fitted with a Varitone switch. And this allowed him to produce the same thin and slightly sharp tone.
If you want to sound like Eric Johnson and are interested in authenticity, I would recommend adopting Johnson’s specific set-up. This is the pickup configuration he used to record many of his most famous songs. It is also the set-up that he currently uses when he plays his Fender Custom Shop remake of Virginia.
Having said that, adopting this very specific set-up is also quite a significant commitment. And depending on the range of Eric Johnson style tones you are looking to recreate, it may also be unnecessary. For example, you may just be looking to recreate Eric Johnson’s soaring lead tone. And if that is the case, then you don’t need to worry so much about Johnson’s out of phase wiring.
In this instance, I would instead recommend a set of Eric Johnson Signature Pickups. Made by Fender, these pickups are very closely modelled on those that Johnson used in Virginia. However unlike those in Virginia, they are not wired out of phase. And they are also all single coil.
More broadly, it is worth remembering that the pickups you use have a significant impact on your tone. And of all of the modifications listed here, I would argue that changing your pickups to be closer to those that Johnson used will have the greatest impact on your tone.
Part of what made Johnson’s Strat unusual is that its body was made with sassafras wood. Apparently in around 1953, Leo Fender acquired some sassafras wood. And he used this on a number of instruments that were built in 1953 and 1954. Virginia was one of those instruments.
Johnson believes that the tonal characteristics of sassafras are quite different to those from which most vintage guitars are constructed. And in fact he attributes the wood as playing a significant role in his violin tone. The challenge here is that sassafras is not commonly used to build electric guitars. In fact, apart from the Eric Johnson Virginia remakes, and a limited edition run of EVH Wolfgang Guitars, I have not seen any other electric guitars made with sassafras.
As such, unless you buy Eric Johnson’s guitar, recreating this element of his set-up is going to be much more difficult.
The good news however, is that I don’t think sassafras is an essential element of Johnson’s sound. As I note in more detail below, Johnson’s iconic song ‘Cliffs Of Dover’ was not recorded with a guitar made with sassafras. And two of Eric Johnson’s Signature Stratocasters are constructed with alder, rather than sassafras wood.
So, considering this – in addition to the limited use of sassafras amongst guitar manufacturers – I would recommend looking for guitars made from alder. This will help you to sound like Eric Johnson and replicate his set-up with authenticity, without having to buy his signature model guitar.
Eric Johnson has always favoured Stratocasters with maple fretboards. And although Fender do offer Eric Johnson Signature Strats with necks made from different materials, all apart from one of the Strats that Johnson actually plays have maple necks.
As such, you may notice that almost all of the guitars I earlier recommended come with maple fretboards. The only exceptions to this are guitars in the Squier range, which tend to have laurel fretboards.
Ever since rosewood was first introduced as an alternative to maple on guitar fretboards in the late 1950s, there has been a lot of discussion about the tonal qualities and differences between the two woods. Generally speaking though, it is accepted that maple has a brighter and sharper sound than rosewood.
As is often the case when it comes to guitar gear, in my opinion these differences are somewhat exaggerated. If you compare the sound of a guitar with a maple fretboard with one with a rosewood fretboard in isolation then you can hear the difference. And I do agree that maple has a brighter and sharper sound.
Yet in my opinion, these differences become much less significant in a real playing context. If you are playing with other musicians, or even just using an overdriven tone, the differences between maple and rosewood are much less obvious.
Having said that, there is a difference in feel between the different woods. And this is true whether you are playing alone or in a band. When I bought my Strat, I opted for one with a maple neck. This was not because of the tone, but rather because it felt better when I was playing it.
If you want to sound like Eric Johnson and you are looking for authenticity, then I would recommend choosing maple. Conversely, if you much prefer the feel of rosewood or a similar material (like pau ferro or laurel), then I would recommend going down that route. After all, if you like the feel of your guitar, you are more likely to play at your best. And that is significant, regardless of the specific tone you are looking to recreate.
Neck shape & width
Compared to the necks on most modern Stratocasters, the neck on Eric Johnson’s Stratocasters is a little unusual.
Manufacturers like Fender use various different letters to describe both the shape and width of a guitar’s neck. Neck shapes are described using letters like ‘C’, ‘V’ and ‘U’. And there are variations on each of these shapes. So you can have a guitar with a ‘soft’ V neck, or a ‘hard’ V neck. The former has a neck that is a rounded V shape. Conversely, the latter has a neck that is shaped to a sharp point.
There are also variations in the depth of the neck. So there are ‘U’ shaped necks that are very deep from front to back. Conversely, there are also ‘U’ shaped necks that are very shallow. Most modern Stratocasters have a ‘C’ shaped neck. This is because it is comfortable and suited to a range of different playing styles.
The neck on ‘Virginia’ is a soft ‘V’ shape. Additionally, and unlike most modern Strats, Johnson’s guitar has a thick neck. It has a fretboard radius of 12″.
To find a neck like this on a Fender Stratocaster is rare. The only other Strat that I know of with such a wide neck is the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster. And in fact at 9 1/2″, the radius on most modern Strats is a lot narrower. Many players prefer this, as it allows them to grip the neck of their guitar more easily.
Having said that, it all comes down to personal preference. There are a lot of different guitars out there that have thicker necks. The Gibson Les Paul is just one obvious example. Generally speaking, guitarists who like to hang their thumb over the top of their fretboard favour ‘V’ shaped necks. Some players also believe that it is easier to bend the strings on a ‘V’ shaped neck.
Ultimately though, whether you opt for a Strat with a similar neck shape and width is purely a matter of what you find most comfortable. The neck shape has no impact on your tone at all. It just impacts feel and playability. So if you are able to do so, try out a number of guitars with different necks. In this way you can find what feels most comfortable for you.
There are three final changes that Johnson made to his guitar to try to improve his tone. And it is when we look at these in detail that Johnson’s meticulous approach to guitar tone becomes clear.
It is worth stressing at this point though, that I have listed these changes for academic interest, more than anything else. For whilst I am sure these changes do have an impact on tone, their effect will be limited within the context of a rig. And of all of the advice and recommendations listed here, these are the last elements that I would consider. For as stated above, if you are looking to ‘sweat the small stuff’, I would concentrate on your technique, rather on the more nuanced elements of Johnson’s rig.
Now with that caveat out of the way, let’s dig into some of the smaller changes that Johnson made to Virginia. These are as follows:
High E saddle
Initially, Johnson was unhappy with the sound of his high E. He found the tone too piercing, and wanted it to have the warmth and roundness of his B string. Originally Johnson and his guitar techs shaved away part of his saddle and inserted a small piece of delrin plastic, which he felt improved the tone of his high E.
In more recent years though, he has found the easiest way to produce the same effect is to replace the saddle of his high E string with a Graph Tech saddle. A lot of modern Strats come fitted with saddles similar to these. But if you have a vintage style instrument and you want to test out the difference that a Graph Tech saddle makes, then you can replace the saddle of your high E with a piece like this.
Johnson has somewhat of an aversion to string trees, which he believes affect intonation. As such, on two of his three signature guitars, there are no string trees. Instead, the tuners are staggered.
On Virginia, Johnson replaced the original ’54 string tree with one from the late 1950s. He then added a small nylon spacer underneath the tuner, which he felt helped to improve intonation.
Most modern Fender Stratocasters are already fitted with string trees similar to the one that Johnson fitted on Virginia. As for nylon spacers – those can be picked up very cheaply – either from guitar shops, or even just from hardware stores.
The final quirk of Eric Johnson’s Virginia Strat, is the jack input. Many years ago Johnson had some work done on his guitar, and the tech working on it placed a flat washer underneath the bolt in his jack input. Johnson didn’t realise this until some years later, when he was playing a Strat without the additional washer. He noticed a difference in the tone, but couldn’t figure out what was causing the change, until he noticed the missing washer.
Although at first Johnson was skeptical that such a small change could make a difference, he has since accepted that it does. And he has maintained that the smallest changes can sometimes make a big difference to tone.
Like the nylon spacers, adding one of these to your guitar will cost next to nothing. And your best bet here is to head to your local hardware store.
Some further options to consider
Although Eric Johnson is best associated with Virginia and the Fender Stratocaster in general, it is worth pointing out that on ‘Cliff’s Of Dover’ – Johnson’s most famous song – he used a Gibson ES-335.
This is perhaps not so surprising. After all, at various points Johnson has spoken about the influence that Eric Clapton’s early playing and tone had on him. And in fact this influence is evident still in Johnson’s tone. Johnson has a very dark tone, which is reminiscent of Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’. And as I will explain in more detail below, Johnson does a lot to ensure his tone never sounds overly sharp or strident.
So if you want to sound like Eric Johnson, and are specifically interested in recreating his lead tone, then opting for a Gibson ES-335 or a replica could be a great choice. This is particularly the case if you are also interested in dialling in a range of vintage blues tones like those Eric Clapton created in his early career.
And if you do decide to go down this route, then the great news is that there are a range of options across different budgets. Some of my top recommendations are as follows:
As a further final option – if you don’t want to go for a traditional Fender Strat but you do want to replicate Eric Johnson’s rig with some authenticity – I would recommend the Eric Johnson Thinline Stratocaster.
This guitar has many similarities to a Strat, yet it is also a semi-hollow body guitar. And this fundamentally changes its tonal characteristics.
The idea behind the instrument was to combine elements of two of Johnson’s favourite guitars – the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson ES-335. And following its release in 2018, it has gone on to become one of Johnson’s main guitars. Significantly, he used it during his ‘Ah Via Musicom’ tour of the same year, where he performed the album in full.
So if you want to sound like Eric Johnson and you are looking for a single guitar that will help you to produce a range of his classic tones, this guitar could be a brilliant option.
When we look at the amps that Eric Johnson has used during his career, things start to get a little more complicated. This is because, unlike most players, Johnson does not use just one amplifier. In fact he uses three different types of amp in his set-up. He never uses these simultaneously. Instead he relies on each type of amp to create one of three specific tones. These are as follows:
- Clean rhythm
- Dirty rhythm
- Lead tone
For his clean rhythm sound, Johnson has long used a pair of Fender Twin Reverb amps. Typically he uses heads, which he connects up to a 4 x 12″ Marshall cabinet. He uses two speakers for each amp, and runs them in stereo.
Until recently, he used a 1968 Marshall Plexi amp for his dirty rhythm sound. At some points he used a 100 watt head, and others a 50 watt head. In the last few years though, Johnson has altered this element of his rig. He now uses a Two Rock Traditional Clean amp, and sets it up to have a slightly crunchy and overdriven tone.
Finally, for his lead tone Johnson has long used a 1968 Marshall Plexi amp. Again this is either a 50 or 100 watt head, which Johnson runs into a Marshall cabinet. He typically runs a ‘Y’ cable into both channels of the amp. And he sets the amp up in a way similar to Eric Clapton during Clapton’s earlier career. In other words, he sets the volume on 10 and drops the treble and presence right down. This creates a dark and saturated tone that is reminiscent of Clapton’s ‘woman tone’.
Taking a practical approach to tone
For most guitarists, Eric Johnson’s amp set-up poses a number of challenges. The first of these is financial. On one of his most recent tours, Johnson played a Two Rock Traditional Clean, two Fender Twin Reverbs, and two 1968/69 Marshall Plexi amps.
This is extensive, even when compared with the set-ups of other professional musicians. And so it is a set-up that is likely to be far beyond the reach of the majority of guitarists.
Yet even if you do have the money to replicate Johnson’s set-up, there are also practical challenges to overcome too. And as is so often the case with famous blues and rock guitarists, the main challenge here is one of volume.
The amps that Eric Johnson uses are large and powerful. And like Eric Clapton – Johnson really cranks them, always keeping the volume on his Marshalls set at ’10’ for volume. This pushes them into a beautiful bluesy overdrive, which sounds amazing. But it is not a practical option for the majority of guitarists, who have family and neighbours to consider, and so have to be mindful of their volume.
As such, although the original amps that Johnson uses – or accurate reissue versions – are still available, I don’t think it makes sense to explore those options in too much detail.
Instead, I think there are two different options you can consider. This is assuming that you want one, rather than three amps, and that you are somewhat constrained by the volume at which you can play.
The first of these options is to look at Marshall amps. After all, Johnson uses a Marshall amp for his lead tone. And until more recently, he also used a Marshall amp for his dirty rhythm tone. So by going down this route you can cover a broad range of Johnson’s tones without having to use multiple amps.
The second option is to look at Fender amps, along with similarly voiced boutique amps. These types of guitar amp will provide you with a clean base tone, which you can then alter through the use of various guitar pedals.
I will cover the specific pedals that Eric Johnson uses in much more detail below. But first, let’s dig into these two options in a bit more detail:
The specific Marshall amps that Johnson has used throughout his career are large and very powerful. As such, they are inappropriate if you are doing most of your playing at home.
This is particularly the case when you consider that Johnson cranks his amps. And if you want to create a similar sound, then you need to crank your amp in a similar way.
So if you want to dial in a beautiful overdriven blues tone, but at a lower level, I would recommend looking at a smaller Marshall amp. And the good news here is that there are a range of options to suit different budgets. Some of my top choices are as follows:
Of these combos, there are head versions of the Studio Vintage Plexi and the Marshall Origin 20W. So if you want to build a stack, one of these smaller heads could be a brilliant choice. You could then pair it up with one of Marshall’s smaller vintage style 1 x 12″ cabinets.
When asked in a 2013 interview which amp he would recommend, Eric Johnson stated:
“Good tone, whether it’s based around mine or not, begins with a versatile amplifier. I recommend a silverface Fender Twin or Pro Reverb…You want an amp with pure tone, something with which you can create a clean and simple sound. From there, you can add an overdrive pedal or any other effect you want, but you have to begin with a good clean sound.”
So of the two options laid out here, this is the one that Johnson himself would recommend. Having said that, at 85 watts and with a huge amount of headroom, the Fender Twin is not going to work so well if you are predominantly playing at home. But the great news here is that Fender offer a number of brilliant alternatives. Some of my top recommendations are as follows:
Of the amps listed here, the ’57 Custom Champ is the smallest. As such it breaks up quickly and would be a great option if you are playing at lower volumes.
Conversely, the Blues Junior, Pro Junior and Deluxe Reverb all have slightly more headroom. This makes them a good choice if you are playing with other musicians and need a bit more volume, or if you want an amp that has a great clean tone, even at higher volumes.
The final option to consider, is to look at boutique American voiced amps. And the good news here is that there are a whole range of beautiful boutique amp brands out there.
It is worth pointing out here that Eric Johnson hasn’t actually used these amps during his career. So I wouldn’t recommend them if you want to sound like Johnson and are interested in authenticity.
However despite this, I think these amps are worth including here. This is because they have the qualities that Johnson recommends looking for in an amp. They all have high quality clean tones, and they also all make a good platform for pedals.
With that in mind, here are some of my top amp recommendations:
Although these smaller amps don’t have the same headroom as the Twin Reverbs and the Two Rock amps that Eric Johnson uses, they still have beautiful clean tones. And they will enable you to get a great tone at a lower volume. This is particularly the case with the Tone King amps, which have built-in attenuators. These allows you to dial in a great blues tone without disturbing the neighbours.
The next and significant piece of the puzzle to consider if you want to sound like Eric Johnson, are your guitar pedals. In contrast to many of guitarists that I have covered in my ‘Sound Like’ series – pedals are a key part of Johnson’s set-up.
Over the course of his career, he has used a vast array of different effects. To list them all here is both beyond the scope of this article, and also not particularly useful. Johnson has experimented with many different sounds and pedals, and to try and source every pedal that has ever appeared on his board would be prohibitively expensive, and also impractical.
Having said that, there are a number of key pedals and effects that Johnson has used consistently throughout his career. These play a fundamental role in his tone, and so will definitely help you to get closer to his sound.
Here are the most important effects, as well as the specific guitar pedals that you need to consider if you want to sound like Eric Johnson:
B.K. Butler Tube Driver
One of the most important guitar pedals to consider if you want to sound like Eric Johnson, is the Tube Driver, by B.K. Butler. Johnson has used this consistently throughout his career and it has played a key role in helping him to craft his searing lead tones.
The pedal has also appeared on the pedalboards of other famous blues and rock guitarists, including Billy Gibbons and David Gilmour. So if you want to sound like Eric Johnson and also to dial in a range of vintage blues and rock tones, this pedal could make a great addition to your pedalboard.
The original Tube Driver pedal is still available, and hand built by B.K. Butler to the exact specifications of the original pedals. At $299, the pedal is in a higher price bracket, and there is likely to be a slightly extended wait compared with most pedals out there. But when you consider the quality of the pedal, in addition to the fact that it comes with a 3 year warranty, I still think it offers great value for money.
If however you would like to look at alternatives, then there are some great pedals out there across a variety of price ranges. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
In short, if you want to sound like Eric Johnson and also dial in a range of vintage blues tones, the Tube Driver or one of these alternatives would make a great addition to your set-up.
Maestro Echoplex EP-3
The next pedal to consider in your quest to sound like Eric Johnson, is an Echoplex. The original Echoplex EP-3 has long been a feature of Johnson’s rig. This is actually a tape delay effect. But since its introduction in the 1960s, the Echoplex has proven very popular amongst guitarists for its effect on tone. Jimmy Page, Gary Moore and Duane Allman are just three notable blues and rock guitarists to have used the Echoplex to craft their tone.
The Echoplex is so popular because it introduces a new circuit into your signal chain, and also boosts the signal of your guitar. This adds a beautiful bluesy warmth and thickness to your tone.
Although you can still buy original Echoplex units on sites like Reverb, they are both costly and impractical. As such, I wouldn’t recommend going for the original Echoplex. Instead I would advise buying one of the many guitar pedals designed to produce a similar boost effect and the same warmth and thickness to your tone. Some of my top choices are as follows:
It is worth noting that Johnson has actually used the Catalinbread Belle Epoch for quite some time. So if you are looking for authenticity, that would be my top choice.
In addition to an Echoplex style pedal, it is worth considering adding a further delay pedal to your set-up to sound like Eric Johnson.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, Johnson plays with some delay on all of the time. This adds depth and thickness to his tone, and a subtle ‘slapback’ effect. This is a very effective technique and one that is used by a number of blues guitarists.
Secondly, Johnson regularly stacks his delay pedals together. He does this frequently when he is playing with a clean tone and is looking to create a more spacious and ambient sound. So if you are looking to do the same, it might be worth adding a second delay pedal to your board.
Over the course of his career, Johnson has used a whole range of delay pedals. But some of those which he have appeared on his pedalboard with greater frequency, or for longer periods of time, are as follows:
If you are not looking for some of the more ambient sounds that Johnson creates, then I don’t think you need to add multiple delay pedals to your rig. But if you are looking for that beautiful and slightly ethereal Eric Johnson clean tone, one of the above pedals would make a great choice.
Chorus & Flanger
For many years, Johnson has used the tc electronic Stereo Chorus & Flanger.
He predominantly uses the pedal for the chorus effect, and he uses that effect in one of two ways. The first of these is very subtly. He just dials in a small amount of chorus to thicken up his tone, without overly modulating it. This is the way that a number of blues guitarists – most notably Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton – utilise the effect. The second way that Johnson uses chorus, is when he is looking to modulate his clean tone. And here he dials in much more of the effect.
The original tc electronic Stereo Chorus & Flanger that Johnson uses is no longer available. However there are some great alternatives to consider. And these are as follows:
The tc electronic Corona Chorus is modelled closely on the original that Johnson uses. So that would be my first choice. However if you do want to consider alternatives, then either of the additional pedals listed above would also work well.
Although Johnson doesn’t use the flanger effect on his pedal as frequently as the chorus, he does occasionally add it in when he is looking for a more modulated and psychedelic sound. And in fact at various points he has had separate flangers on his pedalboard. These included the Barracuda Flanger by Toadworks and the MXR Flanger/Double. Like the tc elctronic Stereo Chorus & Flanger, neither of these pedals remain in production.
The good news though, is that there are a whole range of different flanger pedals on the market. And these will all help you to dial in a more modulated sound when you need. Some of my top choices are as follows:
These will help you to dial in some of Johnson’s more modulated tones, as well as a range of psychedelic vintage rock tones.
The Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face has long been a staple feature on Eric Johnson’s pedalboard. Specifically, Johnson uses it to dial in heavier tones and also to recreate a Jimi Hendrix fuzz style tone.
In fact as a result of his use of the pedal, Dunlop released a Signature Eric Johnson Fuzz Face in 2012. This is no longer in production, but you can still pick up new and second hand versions of the pedal on sites like Reverb. Prices start from around $230/£170.
Unlike the original Fuzz Face, Johnson’s Signature pedal was made using silicon transistors, for higher levels of gain. So if you are looking for a fuzz pedal to recreate Johnson’s tone, I would recommend opting for a pedal made with silicon transistors. Some of my top choices are as follows:
Either the Dunlop FFM6 Band of Gypsys Fuzz Face Mini or the Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face Mini would make great choices if you are want a Fuzz Face style pedal. If you are looking for a higher gain option, then I would recommend either the DOD Carcosa Fuzz or JHS Pedals Smiley Fuzz.
Ibanez Tube Screamer
Like fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson also favours the Ibanez Tube Screamer. Specifically he uses the Ibanez TS-808. However the way he uses the pedal is slightly different when compared with Vaughan. Johnson sets the level on the pedal low and the drive high, and keeps the tone at ‘0’. In this way, he uses the Tube Screamer as an overdrive pedal instead of as a boost in front of an overdriving amp (which is how a lot of guitarists use the pedal).
Johnson uses the TS808 – so this would make a great addition to your board. Not only will it help you to sound like Eric Johnson, but it will also help you to recreate the tones of a whole range of different blues guitarists who use(d) the Tube Screamer.
I don’t think that wah-wah is an essential effect to sound like Eric Johnson. Having said that, he does use it on a number of songs – like ‘Trail Of Tears‘. He also makes more extensive use of the pedal live, as you can hear on albums like Live From Austin, TX.
Over the years, Johnson has used two different wah-wah pedals; a Vox V845 Classic Wah-Wah Pedal and a Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby. From all of the videos I have seen, the Cry Baby is the wah-wah pedal that Johnson uses with greater frequency, but either pedal will help you to recreate his wah-wah sound.
However if you want to consider alternatives that are either hand-wired or which allow you to tweak your pedal, then any of these following pedals would work well:
If you are interested in authenticity, then it is worth noting that as far as I am aware, Johnson has not used these pedals. However, given their quality and also the tone shaping options that the Dunlop Cry Baby 535Q Mini Wah and Dunlop MXR MC404 CAE Wah-Wah Pedal provide, I think that any of those pedals would also make a great addition to your rig.
Setting Up Your Pedalboard
Just to complicate matters, it is important to note that Eric Johnson uses different pedals with different amps. So in fact you could view Johnson as having three separate pedalboards; one for each of his different core tones. As noted above, his exact set-up here has changed over the years. But during his 2018 Ah Via Musicom tour, Johnson’s set-up was as follows:
For his clean rhythm sound, Johnson used the following pedals in front of his Fender Twin Reverb amps:
- Electro-Harmonix Memory Man
- Maestro Echoplex EP-3
- Catalinbread Belle Epoch
- tc electronic Stereo Chorus & Flanger
For his dirty rhythm sound, he used these pedals in front of his Two Rock Signature Clean:
- Ibanez Tube Screamer
- Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face
- MXR Flanger / Doubler
- MXR Digital Delay
Finally, for his lead tone, Johnson used the following pedals in front of his Marshall:
- Dunlop Cry Baby
- Maestro Echoplex EP-3
- B.K. Butler Tube Driver
Looking at Johnson’s pedal set-up in this way is useful for a number of different reasons. Firstly, it helps you to see which pedals are relevant for each of his core tones. In this way, you can zone in on the pedals that will help you to achieve the tones that are most important to you.
Secondly, it helps you to see which pedals Johnson uses with greater frequency. For example, it is clear to see that the Echoplex plays an important role in his sound. So if you want to get the most ‘bang for your buck’, then adding an Echoplex style pedal to your rig is a great choice.
Finally, it helps to illustrate Johnson’s approach to gain stacking. To create both his dirty rhythm and lead tone, Johnson stacks overdrive and boost pedals. This helps him to create unique tones that are very difficult to create when you just use one overdrive pedal. So if you want to recreate Johnson’s killer lead tones, it is worth taking this into account.
The final elements to consider if you want to sound like Eric Johnson, are your accessories.
Johnson has long used Dunlop III Jazz Picks. And in fact Dunlop now offer a set of Eric Johnson Classic Jazz III Picks. As I noted in much more detail in this article here, the pick you use doesn’t always have a significant impact on tone. It does however, effect your playability. Small and stiff guitar picks like the Jazz III are perfect for Johnson’s style of playing. They will help you to play faster and skip across strings with greater ease. So if you want to play like Johnson, a set of his Signature picks, or a set of similar Jazz III picks would make a great choice.
When it comes to guitar strings, Johnson has long used GHS strings. In his earlier career he used a set of GHS Nickel Rockers. These are pretty standard gauge, running as follows: .010, .013, .017, .026, .036, .046.
Having said that, there are two elements of Johnson’s guitar strings that are worth considering. The first is that the original GHS Nickel Rockers that Johnson used are made of pure nickel. And strings made from pure nickel typically have a warmer, more vintage tone.
The second element to consider is that the GHS Nickel Rockers are slightly flattened during the winding process. This makes them feel more like flatwound guitar strings. There is a benefit to this, as flatwound strings have a smooth feel compared with roundwound strings. The flattening also gives these strings a darker and more mellow tone.
So if you are looking for a darker and warmer tone and a smooth feel, then a set of the GHS Nickel Rockers could make a great choice. However, if you are looking for nickel strings but you are not interested in them being semi-flattened, then any of the following alternative sets would work well:
Finally it is also worth considering a set of the GHS Eric Johnson Signature Strings. These are the strings which Johnson has used in more recent years. They are quite similar to the Nickel Rockers, but they are not made of pure nickel. As a result, they have a slightly brighter tone. The gauge of the strings is also different. On Johnson’s Signature Set, the G, A and low E strings all a little thicker, and the full set runs as follows: .010, .013, .018, .026, .038, .050.
Try these strings out and experiment with a few different sets until you find the feel and tone that works for you.
Some closing thoughts…
As I am sure you now appreciate, it is no easy feat to sound like Eric Johnson. He uses a wide variety of different gear, and spares little expense when it comes to that gear. And in addition to this, he goes to great lengths to extract as much as he possibly can from all of the elements of his rig.
These factors make it very difficult to recreate Johnson’s exact tone. As such, instead of trying to recreate all of his tones precisely, I would recommend focusing on the key elements of his set-up that are most relevant to the sound you are chasing.
For example, if you just want to recreate the lead guitar tone from ‘Cliffs Of Dover‘, then zone in on the elements of Johnson’s rig that will help you in that aim. Conversely, if you want to recreate the clean tone from a song like ‘Manhattan‘, then adjust your focus to concentrate on the key pieces of gear you need to make that happen.
Beyond that – if you want to sound like Eric Johnson – I think it is worth closing with some thoughts from Johnson himself – who during an interview with Joe Bonamassa stated:
I get myopic sometimes with how I want it to sound…and that’s kind of a rabbit hole really. Honestly I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to make the sound better and better and better… and I get caught in a thing, where you end up spending 80% of your time chasing that, and 20% of your time practicingEric Johnson
So in your quest to sound like Eric Johnson, stay focused on your technique! Johnson is one of the most technically skilled guitarists of all time. And spending time working on your technique will go much further in helping you to recreate his sound than some of the more nuanced elements of his rig.
Good luck! And if there is anything at all I can help with, or if you have any questions, just pop them in the comments below or send me an email on [email protected] and I’m happy to help!
P.S. If you enjoyed reading this article, please share the love 😁 Thank you!
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