Considered among guitarists as a tone freak’s tone freak, Eric Johnson (born in Austin, Texas, in 1954) is best known for playing with modified electric guitars, especially Fender Stratocasters and Gibson ES-335. Achieving Johnson’s famous “thousand-pound violin” tone involves far more than just the guitar. Several other elements of his rig that are really rather simple, but they add up to a huge sonic assault. Johnson’s guitar signal first runs through his choice of ingredients on a fairly basic but meticulously selected pedalboard, in particular, a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face fuzz effect pedals with a rubber band to hold the bottom plate. Johnson doesn’t like its sound with the standard screws, thus favouring the BK Butler Tube Driver when positioned on a wooden block that lifts it above the level of the other pedals. Other pedals are a Crybaby wah-wah, a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus Flanger, and an Echoplex tape-delay unit. From there, Johnson selects between a pair of blackface 1966 Fender Twin Reverb amps with JBL D120F speakers, a 1968 Marshall 50-watt Tremolo head and 4x12 cab, or a 1969 Marshall 100-watt Super Lead and 4x12 cab.
Most players would be thrilled with the sound of any 1957 Fender Stratocaster. But with his ears and a discriminating sonic sensibility to go with them, Johnson isn’t likely to be satisfied just with any '57 Strat. It’s well known that even valuable vintage guitars range from poor to outstanding in the tone and playability stakes. If Eric Johnson has chosen to play his music for years on one particular ’57 Strat, you can bet it’s a breathtaking instrument. As such, this particular maple-neck sunburst Strat has become legendary among an elite crowd and is a fitting example of everything a great Strat should be. Johnson has had several guitars built by his specifications to be sold in the mass market. In 2003, C. F. Martin & Company released a limited-edition Eric Johnson Signature MC-40 guitar, followed by Fender with an Eric Johnson Signature Fender Stratocaster in 2005 and the Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Rosewood model in 2009 with quartersawn maple necks.
Despite being an iconic guitar, Johnson’s Strat cannot be considered a museum piece. Rather, it has been carefully modified to suit the needs of a hardworking and discerning professional as he is. Johnson has the guitar refretted with jumbo wire to keep it feeling meaty and playable. As Johnson explained to Dan Erlewine in How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great!, rather than having the fingerboard planed down to the flatter vintage 7.25-inch radius originally installed by Fender, he had his frets milled down slightly lower toward the middle of the neck so they remain higher toward the edges, making it easier to grip the strings for extreme bends. Johnson famously leaves the cover off the tremolo spring cavity on the back of the guitar because he feels it hampers the tone. He also had nylon insert cut from an old Gibson bridge saddle installed in the high E string’s steel saddle to soften its shrillness, a goal further pursued by rewiring the Strat’s controls so the bridge pickup passes through a tone potentiometer rather than straight to the output the way a ’57 was wired at the factory. A mighty arsenal, yet for all this, we’ve perhaps got to credit the player’s hands for just a little of the mighty tone this rig generates.