Dear Guitar Hero: Eric Johnson Discusses His “Koto” Technique, Tone, Signature Strat and More

by Guitar World Staff
Posted Aug 18, 2013 at 5:46pm

He's a perfection-driven, genre-bending ax slinger from Texas with one of the most distinctive electric guitar tones in music. But what Guitar World readers want to know is ...

How did you get that fantastic liquid tone on “Cliffs of Dover,” and was that one cohesive solo or an amalgam? — J. Paradis

I played a Gibson ES-335 through a 100-watt Marshall. I put it all together by playing sections, then dropping them in and connecting them into a seamless whole.

What is the greatest misconception about you and your music? — Ray Wilson

That’s hard to say. The music business constructs an image of an artist based on what it wants, and that image tends to stick around. Sometimes, no one bothers to look between the cracks to see if the image resembles the truth. That can be frustrating, but it’s also the responsibility of the artist to obliterate that image by making something powerful enough to dispel it.

There is certainly a stigma to being a “guitar hero.” But I know what music turns me on and how I want to fit into the world of guitar players. I try to keep on that journey with everything I do, without worrying too much about how others perceive me.

What would you suggest for someone on a limited budget who wants that trademark Texas-sized Eric Johnson tone? — Voltage

Good tone, whether it’s based around mine or not, begins with a versatile amplifier. I recommend a silverface Fender Twin or Pro Reverb, especially if you can get one with a nice old Jensen speaker. 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. To make another point, I think people overemphasize the importance of gear in their search for tone. Your sound comes from how you pick and dampen the strings, and from your attack, as much as anything.

Who are some of your favorite classical composers? — Joe Sweep

Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky and Mozart. Franz Liszt and Chopin are way up there. Georg Telemann is a very interesting guy, and I also love George Gershwin.

Was Chet Atkins an influence on your hybrid-picking technique? — Sandy Halliday

He was, but Chet is so special to me that I’ve always tried to just enjoy his music and not dissect it. I like the overall effect of his playing, in a reverent way, and I don’t want to make listening to his music an effort. However, a lot of Chet’s picking technique came from Merle Travis, who I have studied pretty intensely, so I’m sure I have a lot of Chet in my technique, whether I realize it or not.

I’ve heard about your “koto” technique. What is it? — Stratoblaster

It’s really pretty simple. You just fret the note with the index finger of your right hand, then pick directly behind it with your right hand. Because you’re picking so close to the fret, the picked string sounds thin and twangy, like a koto [a traditional Japanese stringed instrument]. I’ll also place my left hand on the string to stretch it. This also allows me to pull off my right-hand finger; since my left-hand finger is still in place, doing this can create a nice pull-off sound.

Why are there no string trees on your signature Strat? — Ben Ford

String trees hinder a guitar’s ability to stay in tune, but they’re necessary because of the headstock’s pitch — that is, the degree to which the headstock is tilted. We changed the pitch slightly, which, in combination with the staggered tuning keys, allowed us to eliminate the trees. As a result, you can actually use the guitar’s vintage tremolo system a small amount without the guitar going out of tune.

Rosewood or maple fretboards, and why? — Frank Stokes

Maple seems to have a purer fundamental tone, and that’s what I generally use, though I think rosewood has a better rhythm tone for complex harmonics. I own one rosewood Strat, and I like it.

What is in your rig? — Nikili Kite

It’s very simple. I have three amp setups that produce tones ranging from really clean to very saturated, though I never use them all at once. The first setup consists of two Fender Twins with a Princeton Chorus stereo chorus. The second is a Marshall 100-watt set around 7.5 to 8 on the first channel for a Keith Richards–style crunch rhythm. I have a Fuzz Face on there, so I can also kick into a Hendrix-style sound. The third setup is a Marshall with a Tube Driver, for extra saturation; the Marshall’s volume is all the way up, and the EQ is set for a classic Clapton tone. Occasionally, I use a CryBaby wah with any of these, but I run it through a rack.

Given your penchant for vintage Strats, how do you manage extraneous noise at high-gain levels? — Anonymous

The noise is pretty bad. I don’t like it, but you have to pick your poison. I’ve chosen to wrestle the beast, but I would really like to slay it. I’m working with Fender’s Michael Braun to create a hum-canceling pickup that sounds like a singlecoil. I think he may well crack that nut. In the meantime, the middle pickup on my signature Strat is wrapped differently from the other two, and I can always use it if the noise is overwhelming.

You’re famous for obsessing about your tone. Have you learned to relax and let the music and ideas flow and let go of the technical stuff? — Mike Kretz

I’ve gotten better. There is certain music I would like to advance and implement on guitar, and pulling it off is a real challenge, so it’s hard not to obsess over it. If you want to make the guitar into a sustaining, ferocious sound, you have to use distortion, which is a beautiful thing, but it creates all sort of problems. Having said that, I’m not obsessing as much as I used to.

You have a very unique style. Who were your prime influences? — Paul Chase

When I was a kid, my dad played all types of music. It ingrained in me the idea that all music has something to offer. If you listen to the spirit behind the music, you can connect the dots between players like John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery…not to mention Mozart, Debussy and Gershwin. They were all big influences to me.

During the Seventies, you and Stevie Ray Vaughan were Austin’s primary guitar slingers. Was there a lot of competition between you? — Stephen Hung

No. We were playing different kinds of music. I always enjoyed hearing Stevie and his group play. It was nice to have him around in the clubs. You could go see him every night, and his greatness was readily apparent.

Would you consider doing the G3 tour again? — Chad Osborne

Absolutely. The tour was fun. Steve [Vai] and Joe [Satriani] are great players, and I would welcome the opportunity to perform with them again. That said, I have to add that it was a very tough period for me. For two years prior to the tour, my ears were damaged; I could hardly listen to the radio or TV at more than a whisper volume. I was in the middle of this horror during the tour, so while I may have looked fine walking around and smiling, it was tough. It was a difficult time for me, but I got lucky and rebounded.

Will we be seeing a concert DVD from you any time soon? — Charles Johnson

I hope so, though I don’t have any plans for one at this time. I just finished an instructional DVD on which I explain the 10 essential points to creating great music. I tried to keep it simple and straightforward, without getting into too much flamboyant technique or gear.

Why did you segment your 2005 album, Bloom, into three sections? — George Stolz

On the album, I was trying to explore different types of music that I like, and I came up with a wide range of sounds. I tried so many ways of sequencing the songs, but nothing seemed to work; the songs were too dissimilar. I ended up following a friend’s suggestion to segregate the music into three separate stanzas, rather than try to segue from one song to another.

I really enjoy the acoustic tracks on Bloom. Do you think you’ll ever make an all-acoustic record? — Evan Adkins

Actually, I’m working on one right now. I’ve already cut about 13 songs for it, and I hope to have it out early next year.

I was amazed by the cascading harmonics you demonstrated on your instructional video. What is the origin of this delicate technique and how long did it take to master it? — Charles Manthy

I don’t know the origin, but [seven-string jazz fingerstyle guitarist] Lenny Breau made it popular, and that’s where I got it, though someone may well have done it before him. As for mastering it, it’s an ongoing process, especially if you change the harmonics’ voicing. Just break it down and take it step by step.

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