Yes, we all know tone is in the hands but that doesn't stop guitarists going on an endless chase to improve theirs through gear acquisition. Because that matters too, of course. And although he's got some of the most tonesome hands in the business, Eric Johnson has a reputation for being especially fastidious about his gear – all the way down to the types of batteries in his pedals. Well, now he's changed… to some degree.
"Really, three-fourths of it comes from your intention and the way you play the guitar; the way you pick the guitar, the way you mute the guitar, the way you finger the frets," Johnson reflects in a new interview with the Dipped In Tone podcast. "And that's why you can take a lot of players and put them on any gear and they're still gonna kind of sound like them.
"The gear's really secondary," he adds. "I wish I could say that I always ascribed to that belief. I went through years and years of 'Oh the gear…' and I still do but to a certain extent I've become a little bit more detached from it because it's like a rabbit hole. And I would say to anyone chasing that; don't go so deep in the rabbit hole that you just analyse too much. It's part of the thing but it's not the main part of the thing, you've got to leave some of it to the mystery."
Having said that there are established gear cornerstones of Johnson's sound. But he stresses the purity of that.
"There's certain things that I love… the old Marshall sound," he explains. "They're just super simple circuitry like [Fender] came up with in the late '40s with the Tweed Bassman. A lot of times, the simpler the path of the electronics, the purer the tonality is."
Johnson's inspirations for his music tend to be in the world of playing now, rather than looking for tones outside his rig.
"I think it's experimenting with musical ideas," he tells Dipped In Tone hosts Zach Broyles of Mythos Pedals fame and pro musician / YouTuber Rhett Shull. "It's cool to use weird pedals in the studio but where do you draw the line? You've really got to go digital with a Neural DSP or something, which is pretty exciting new technology, compared to where we were. It's getting better and better, but otherwise you'd have to have a 40-foot pedalboard. I think it's more experimenting with the guitar and trying to come up with music stuff that inspires you and takes you somewhere different."
But there are definitely some part of Johnson's tone world that he's very particular about in contrast to some contemporary designs.
"I think there's a lot of new gear that sounds great but it's just a different sound. It doesn't sound like my mentors and heroes that I grew up on with just that real kind of natural guitar sound. Or what I would consider a natural guitar tone. So I'm pretty much into that and I use a lot of the older stuff. I do experiment with new stuff every now and then… it's really how it tracks when you play, when you lean into it and really push the envelope of what you're playing. How's the envelope expanding and contracting with the dampening of the amp? How is it following suit with your picking technique? And a lot of stuff, it doesn't follow your picking technique… you can feel it kind of fighting you. And to me that's not as inspiring of a thing. So I look for something that follows the picking technique as much as possible."
But there's twist in the tale hinted at with Johnson's complementary remarks about Neural DSP: Eric Johnson is trying out digital profiling; the process of capturing amps and pedal in the digital realm and a feature offered by Kemper, Headrush, IK Multimedia and Neural DSP.
"I'm experimenting with the Neural DSP [Quad Cortex] right now and we're capturing sounds and I'm gonna keep capturing sounds on it. The company has been gracious to allow me to work with a unit.
"I'm kind of encouraged," Johnson reveals on his impressions of it so far. "I think that concept gets better all the time. I don't know if it'll ever completely replace the [original] stuff but I've been working with Neural. We've done a few captures so far and I could almost use that – it's pretty close. I'm going to continue working with it and see what I can do with it."
Johnson has already noted one of the limitations it has.
"You can't do fuzzes with it," he says. "The fuzz thing, that's a really tough deal. Some of the old Fuzz Faces aren't good but some of them are amazing, and who knows why? I work with a technical personnel called Bill Webb and he's a real genius. He takes the pots apart and fixes the original pot and puts it back in and so nothing gets changed. I can think of wonderful old Fuzz Faces that were great then two weeks later the pot goes out, then you change the pot and here, I'll just get rid of the unit.
"They're the most fickle pedal ever made but within that they're the most magical when they're right. And I worked with Dunlop and we spent two years designing the [signature Eric Johnson] Fuzz Face and we got close. I actually use it some, but it's not easy. We made a lot more headway when we degraded the pots and the wires. We started off with better parts and it just started terrible.
"So I think part of it is really hard to figure out, it's just a mystery a little bit."