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“I first became aware of tone probably the first time I heard the electric guitar," says six-string master Eric Johnson. "Nokie Edwards had such a great sound. He didn’t really do the distortion thing, but his clean tones were amazing. He was the first guy I remember hearing where it was kind of, 'Wow, that's something. That's really special.'"
Through the years, Johnson's own guitar sound - a rich, full mix of clean and overdriven tones that results in creamy, violin-like leads - has become one of rock's most unique and recognizable voices. "That's a big part of the goal," he says. "It's one thing to become a good player and write songs that people like. But to have a sound where people can pick you out and they know that's it's you, that's pretty cool."
While Johnson admits that he's been greatly influenced by the sonic masters of rock's golden age, he points to Nirvana's Kurt Cobain as "somebody who had a real purity" in his guitar sound. "It was like a buzzsaw," he says. "But there was a beautiful, elegant gnarliness to it, and it was totally applicable to the music he made. Kurt's guitar tone pulled me right in to what he was singing about. It helped deliver the message in a real powerful way."
As for how tone affects his own creativity, Johnson says that sometimes hearing a certain frequency can make all the difference. "When I sit down to write, if I hear a great sound, it inspires me immediately," he says. "I might not even have an idea yet, but a certain sound, when it hits my ears, it’ll send me off in a new direction. Those are the moments you wait for.”
On the following pages, Eric Johnson runs down what he considers to be the greatest guitar tones of all time. If you want to hear Johnson conjure up his trademark sonic brilliance live, check out his current tour dates right here.