Eric Johnson is an American guitarist who is highly acclaimed and respected in the music community. He is mainly known for his electric guitar playing in his instrumental recordings, but he is also able to play a several other instruments including the lap steel guitar, bass, and piano. In this Eric Johnson bio and gear list, amongst many other things, we’ll also see how Eric is also a good singer, despite focusing mostly on his guitar playing. Let’s begin.
He was born in 1954, picked up the guitar when he was 11, and he quickly started to absorb knowledge from his guitar idols, such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Mike Bloomfield, and more. He joined his first band in the late ’70s, a psychedelic rock band called “Mariani”.
Other known groups featuring Eric Johnson include the “Electromagnets”, founded in 1974 after Eric returned to Austin from his time in Africa, and the Eric Johnson Group, with whom he recorded his debut album.
Eric Johnson plays a variety of music genres, including blues, jazz, funk, country, fusion, rock, and even classical music. His versatility is one of the traits that made him become one of the most respected guitarists in the scene.
During a period of his life, he worked as a session musician and got to participate in recordings of other famous musicians like Cat Stevens and Cristopher Cross. He has got a total of 10 solo albums to this date.
Although he is not as famous as other guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour or John Mayer, Eric Johnson is a world class musician whose work speaks for itself.
He has influenced countless musicians in several different ways. His tone is very distinct, his approach to the melodies he plays is always interesting and captivating, and his pentatonic runs have been transcribed over and over again by guitarists around the globe.
5 Things You Need to Know About Eric Johnson
- Eric Johnson’s most famous tune is “Cliffs of Dover“. This song is part of his 1990 release Ah Via Musicom. This song also gave Eric a Grammy Award for the Best Rock Instrumental Performance, in 1992.
- He was listed by Musician as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of the 20th century. Other similar awards and milestones include his lifetime induction into the Guitar Player Gallery of Greats, being considered the best electric and acoustic guitarist by readers of the Austin Chronicle in Texas, among other mentions.
- Eric Johnson is heavily associated with the Fender Stratocaster, fuzz pedals and Marshall or Fender amplifiers. These can be considered the core elements of his signature tone.
- He has got a few different signature products that were released over the years, but the most interesting one is probably the Fender Stratocaster designed with him and released in 2018. It was Fender’s first guitar to feature a custom-chambered semi-hollow design, while retaining other recognizable aspects of this guitar shape such as its body contours.
- Eric’s most successful album is Ah Via Musicom. It was released in 1990, and several of its tracks charted on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. Apart from “Cliffs of Dover”, his most famous composition, this record features other hits such as “High Landrons”, “Righteous” and “Trademark”.
Eric Johnson’s Main Guitar: 1954 Fender Stratocaster “Virginia”
Eric Johnson is not the kind of guitarist who has a gigantic collection of guitars like Joe Bonamassa, who even has them on display at his own little private museum.
Still, he has collected a few unique and valuable instruments that accompanied him during some of the most important moments of his career. Although he has got guitars from several brands, his favorites have always been Fender Stratocasters, which make up the most of his collection.
One of the most important out of the ones that he has is a 1957 Fender Stratocaster that he has used for several consecutive years in his studio on several occasions, both inside and outside his studio. This instrument was nicknamed “Virginia” by Eric because of an inscription that can be found in the guitar’s interior.
This was written by a factory worker from Fender. Guitars from this period tend to have signatures from the workers in places that aren’t visible, such as the neck slot and the pickup slots.
This guitar was modified by Eric Johnson to give it a personal touch and unique sound and feel that would set it apart from most Stratocasters. Some of the components that were modded or replaced include the bridge, knobs, wiring, a different fretboard radius, and a DiMarzio HS-2 in the bridge with only the top coil active.
The other two pickups are ’57 and ’62 single coils. Having only one active coil on the DiMarzio is a mod for which Eric has become known for, and he does this to most of his Stratocasters as a part of getting to his signature sound.
Most of the people who have listened to Eric Johnson’s records have probably listened to this charismatic guitar. It is used on Eric’s most famous track “Cliffs of Dover”, from his album Ah Via Musicom. The rest of the gear featured a 100W Marshall ’59 Super Lead, a Butler Tube Driver and an Echoplex, two of Eric’s most notable pieces of gear.
The Other Guitars in Eric Johnson’s Collection
Eric has had several guitars throughout his career, and in 1982, something very unfortunate happened to him. His house was robbed, and many of his instruments were taken. Luckily, he was able to retrieve a large part of them on a few different occasions, in places like music stores and pawn shops.
Most of the guitars that you will see here will be Fender Stratocasters, as you would expect from Eric. However, there are also a few other interesting instruments from brands like Gibson and Martin that are worth mentioning.
Here are some of the guitars that Eric Johnson has played throughout his career:
1957 Fender Stratocaster
This guitar actually has an interesting story behind it. Eric wasn’t looking to buy a guitar at the time, but he was out at a concert in Florida with one of his projects called “Alien Love Child”.
During the sound check, someone who knew Eric was playing there came up to him and asked him to see if he was interested in getting it. Eric refused at first, but after the man insisted, he ended up plugging it in.
He thought the guitar was amazing, bought it immediately, started using it and even sold the 1960 Stratocaster with a rosewood neck that he had with him on tour when he returned home.
This Stratocaster features a maple neck and fretboard, a two tone sunburst, a Dimarzio HS-2 on the bridge position (added by Eric after buying the guitar), and you can hear it in every album that he recorded between 2002 and 2017. To this day, Eric still uses this guitar frequently, and it is one of his most prized instruments.
1962 Fender Stratocaster
Eric bought this 1962 Stratocaster with a three tone sunburst finish and rosewood fretboard in 1982. Sadly, it was stolen from his house the very same year, as well as other valuable guitars. However, this story has a twist that came about 24 later, in 2006. Eric was called to a music store in Texas by the owner.
Someone had come in to sell some gear that belonged to a person who had passed away. Among the equipment, there was an Ibanez Tube Screamer, and the owner of the shop rang Eric because he knew that he was searching for one.
Eric came into the store, and while trying out the pedal, he picked up a 1962 Stratocaster and quickly realized that it was the same one that had been stolen from him in 1982.
The other guitars were there too, so he ended up buying everything back from the store. At first he was reluctant, he had a few doubts about the guitar since the pickups had been changed, but when he checked the serial numbers of the guitars, he confirmed they were in fact his former possessions.
After changing the pickup configuration to his signature combination of ’57 and ’62 single coils on the neck and bridge, plus a DiMarzio HS-2 on the bridge, this guitar quickly made it back into the studio and the stage, becoming one of Eric’s preferred instruments since 2006.
1958 Fender Stratocaster “Faye”
“Faye” is one of the most iconic guitars from Eric Johnson’s collection, and also the one that he has had for the longest. It was actually the first Fender guitar that he purchased, way back in 1970. This guitar’s body is built from sassafras wood, it features a maple neck and fretboard, a black finish, and Eric’s preferred pickup configuration that includes the DiMarzio HS-2 on the bridge.
This guitar was used in countless different contexts, from studio work to the stage. Eric reportedly used Faye while he played with the Electromagnets, Eric Johnson Trio, and during his time as a session musician at Odyssey Studio,s in Austin.
It was part of the instruments that were stolen from Eric’s home in 1982, and fortunately, he also got it back at the music store in Texas, along with the rest of the stolen gear.
Because it carries so much emotional value (apart from being a late ’50s Stratocaster) and he has played it so much in the past decades, he mainly keeps it stored safely at home, and chooses to use other guitars when he performs live.
Fender Eric Johnson Signature Thinline Stratocaster
This is one of the most unique guitars associated with Eric Johnson, and the good news is that you can also get one! It is his latest signature model, designed in collaboration with Fender. The most interesting feature is the hollow-body construction, which is why it is called “Thinline”, just like the Telecaster Thinline models.
However, this one is even more unique because Fender still built its body with the same contours as the regular Strat, which was challenging to achieve in conjunction with the hollowed-out body. It is made from alder, it has a maple neck and fretboard with a soft V profile, and a 12″ fretboard radius.
Despite playing mostly Fender Stratocasters, Eric also loves hollow-body guitars such as the Gibson ES-335. This was probably one of the reasons why he was interested in having a signature model of a Strat with this kind of design.
Regardless of being associated with Eric or not, this is an amazing instrument that can shine in a wide variety of scenarios, making it an excellent addition to anyone’s guitar collection.
Eric uses a guitar just like this quite frequently, which is a good sign, as sometimes artists and brands develop signature models that are mostly business moves resulting in an instrument that the artist himself does not appreciate that much.
1964 Gibson ES-335
Eric Johnson was never seen playing Gibson guitars very often, but he does own a 1964 Gibson ES-335 that he bought while he was on tour with BB King, as well as a Gibson SG from 1964 and a Flying V from 1967. These are his go-to guitars for when he feels like putting down the Stratocaster in favor of a beefier humbucker tone that Gibsons are well-known for.
It features a maple body, mahogany neck with rosewood fretboard, block inlays and a pair of amazing sounding Pat No. humbuckers from 1964, one of the most prized pickups in the history of the electric guitar due to being used by most of the rock & roll guitarists of the ’60s and the ’70s.
Eric’s most famous acoustic guitar, this one also carries a lot of sentimental value. It was a gift from Eric’s father, after his house was robbed in 1982. It is a replica of a pre-war D-45 design that was made specifically for the Heart of Texas Music Store in Austin.
Eric’s father bought it there and gave it to his son in an effort to make him feel better after losing all of his most valuable instruments, which must have been a very heavy blow for him.
Other acoustic guitars frequently associated with Eric Johnson are the Martin MC-40 Eric Johnson (an acoustic signature guitar model designed in collaboration with Martin Guitars) and a PRS Angelus Cutaway.
The Guitar Amplifiers Played by Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson is known for playing mainly Marshall and Fender amps, which are pretty much the only brands that will be covered in this section. Eric enjoys playing big, powerful Marshall stacks for distortion and fuzz tones, and Fender amps for their pristine clean tones.
This is how most guitar players approach these two brands, although many like to explore Fender’s distorted sounds (either by cranking the amp or using pedals) and Marshall amps for a less saturated sound. Lately, he has also started using Two Rock amps. The key is to try out as many different pieces of equipment as you can until you find what resonates with you the most.
Here are some of the main amplifiers that you can see Eric Johnson use.
1968 Marshall Super Lead 100W
The Marshall Super Lead is one of Eric’s favorite amplifiers. He owns a head from 1968 that is most famous for being used in his most famous song, “Cliffs of Dover”. This amp is one of those that people commonly call “Plexi”. Eric likes to use a Y cable that allows him to plug into both channels of the amp at once, which makes it sound a lot hotter.
The same effect can be achieved by plugging the guitar into channel 1 as you normally would, and then plugging a patch cable into the other channel 1 input and one of the channel 2 inputs.
He has been seen using the 100W and also the 50W version of this amp, depending on the setting. It is always plugged into a Marshall 4×12 cab.
1969 Marshall Super Bass 100W
The Marshall Super Bass is another legendary amp by the British company, presenting a very loud volume, headroom, and everything from clean, to crunch and distortion sounds.
It is notably bassy, so at higher volumes you might want to turn the bass knob down to maintain clarity in your sound. Eric also likes to use this amp with his fuzz and overdrive pedals, which give him the creamy, silky smooth tone that we have grown accustomed to hearing from him.
Fender Twin Reverb
Just like most players, Eric loves Fender amplifiers for their gorgeous, lush clean tone that you can’t really find on amplifiers that focus more on overdrive and distortion sounds. Most of the time that you see a Fender Twin Reverb, it’s in a combo format, but Eric also likes using Twin Reverb heads that he plugs into a Marshall 4×12 cabinet, just like his Marshall amps.
The Fender Twin Reverb is insanely loud, and it is capable of remaining crystal clear at ear shattering volumes, which is why many guitarists love it. You can take it to huge venues such as stadiums and dial it with a high volume without having to worry about the sound starting to break up. Apart from this model, he has also been seen using a Fender Deluxe Reverb amp on a few occasions.
The Effects and Pedals Used by Eric Johnson
Eric Johnson is not a very heavy effect user like David Gilmour from Pink Floyd or Ed O’Brien from Radiohead. He uses drive and fuzz pedals, delay, and occasionally he will use some kind of modulation like chorus or flanger. Apart from that, his setup is not very complex, nor it should be extremely hard to replicate if you want to get close to his tone.
Here are a few examples of pedals that Eric Johnson has used frequently throughout the years:
B.K. Butler Tube Driver
The B.K. Butler Tube Driver is one of Eric’s most important pedals, as it is the main ingredient to his silky smooth lead tones. He has had this pedal on his pedalboard for decades, and you can hear it in many of his famous songs such as “Cliffs of Dover”. You can still get this pedal new today, although it is costly. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Eric Johnson’s tone, this will definitely get you closer to it.
Other famous guitarists have relied on this pedal to get their signature sounds, such as David Gilmour, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Joe Satriani. Players love it because of its ability to give you anything from a clean boost or light overdrive to a full on saturated, intense lead tone. It features a vacuum tube driven preamp circuit, which is part of what gives it its distinct character.
Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face
Eric has always been fond of the Fuzz Face, since he drew a lot of inspiration from Jimi Hendrix. You can hear him playing through these pedals on several occasions, and he has even collaborated with Dunlop to design his signature Fuzz Face pedal. The best thing about it is that you can set it for a blasting lead sound and then play with the volume knob on your guitar to clean up the sound.
The dynamics and sensitivity of this pedal have conquered guitarists all over the world. With the volume knob dialed back and a soft attack on your picking hand, you can get a clean sound, and as you increase the volume and picking strength, you’ll get a crunchy overdrive that is perfect for rhythm playing.
Dime the volume on your guitar and you’ve got your lead tone, all without having to press on a single pedal.
Just like the Fuzz Face, the Ibanez Tube Screamer is a pedal that you will see very often on the pedalboards of guitarists. Eric enjoys using these pedals, in particular, the TS-808 model. It works great as an overdrive pedal to get you from clean to a light crunch, but most players prefer to use it as a means to boost the amp.
To do this, you should set the Level control (volume) high, and the Gain control low. Engaging the pedal will hit the front end of your amp hard, pushing it into a natural overdrive that sounds much better.
The other versions of the Tube Screamer, like the TS-9 and TS10 will also get you in the ballpark of the sound that Eric gets out of it. The trick is more about how you use it rather than the specific model of Tube Screamer that you choose to use, even though they have their differences.
Maestro Echoplex EP-3
The Echoplex is an epic piece of gear that has been widely used in the ’70s by lots of guitar legends such as David Gilmour and Jimmy Page. It isn’t a delay pedal like you are used to seeing. Instead, it is a tape delay unit that has a real tape inside where the signal gets recorded and then played back, generating the echo effect.
Apart from the classic sounding repeats that many pedals have since tried to emulate, the Echoplex has a hidden feature: its preamp adds a certain warmness and body to the sound that many players coveted. Some even ran this pedal on all the time, but without any repetitions, just to get that extra color. There is even a pedal that attempts to replicate this effect, the Xotic EP Booster.
TC Electronic Stereo Chorus/Flanger
This is one of the most iconic pedals developed by TC Electronic. It came out in the late ’70s, and it can do chorus, pitch modulation and flanger. It features stereo outputs, a wide range of tones, and a very low noise level, which even gave it the nickname “Sound of Silence”.
These pedals are now fairly expensive, but you can get somewhat close to their sound with a few other alternatives available on the market today.
Iconic Recordings Featuring Eric Johnson
With a career spanning over 50 years, Eric can be heard in a variety of records, both solo and with other artists. Some of his most recognizable collaborations include Steve Vai, Mike Stern and Joe Satriani. Check out some of the most iconic recordings featuring Eric Johnson:
Ah Via Musicom
Released in February 1990, Ah Via Musicom is Eric Johnson’s second studio album. It is one of his most famous works, and it includes his most popular track, “Cliffs of Dover”, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1992. Throughout the album, there are references to several music genres like blues, jazz, country, rock and pop.
You can hear Eric singing in this record, although the focus is certainly his guitar playing. Some of the tracks are dedicated to idols of his like Wes Montgomery.
Venus Isle was released 6 years after Ah Via Musicom, in 1996. It was the album that charted the highest in his career, reaching 51st place on the US Billboard 200, staying there for 6 weeks.
Some of the most interesting tracks include “S.R.V.”, a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan which featured Stevie’s brother Jimmie Vaughan as a guest artist, “Pavilion” and “Manhattan”.
Live from Austin, TX
Live from Austin, TX was recorded in 1988 and released much later, in 2005. It is Eric’s first live album, and it includes some of his most famous renditions of songs from his Ah Via Musicom record, as well as versions of Jimi Hendrix’s songs “Love or Confusion” and “Are You Experienced?”. It is one of the essential albums for any Eric Johnson fan.
Achieving Eric Johnson’s Tone on a Budget
If you have been listening to Eric Johnson’s records and live performances and became passionate about his tone to the point that you want to recreate it yourself, this section is going to steer you in the right direction.
His tone has a few key elements that you absolutely cannot overlook. For instance, the guitar has got to be a Stratocaster or at least an S-Type guitar from another brand which is not Fender or Squier. I will provide more than one option so that you can choose the one that fits your budget the best.
As for the amplifier, a Marshall or a similar amp will do perfectly for the distorted tones. In any case, a nice Fender amp with enough headroom to play crystal clear clean tones is also a good option. Since you will be getting your drive from pedals, the lack of a good distortion channel won’t stop you from getting close to Eric’s tone.
Lastly, your pedalboard does not have to be extremely complicated. You should definitely have a fuzz pedal. An overdrive to stack on top of it or to use as a standalone crunch sound is also a great idea.
As for modulation and time based effects, the delay is the most important part. Ideally you should get your reverb from the amplifier, as you can save some money that can be invested into something more important such as the guitar. If you can fit it into your budget, a chorus or a flanger pedal would be useful additions too.
Here are my picks for recreating Eric Johnson’s tone on a budget:
The Guitar: Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster Maple Fingerboard
For the guitar, you need to get a Stratocaster or S-Type guitar, since it is what Eric primarily plays. Fenders are a bit costly, so we will be going with a Squier instead. The Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster is an excellent pick. It offers a great price to quality ratio, and for the price, it’s the closest that you will get to Eric’s iconic “Virginia” Stratocaster from 1954.
It features a two tone sunburst, a maple neck with a C shape, maple fretboard and 3 Fender-designed alnico single coils. If you want, you can even upgrade the bridge pickup to a DiMarzio HS-2, just like Eric does. The Squier Classic Vibe is a great guitar to upgrade, especially the pickups.
If your budget can’t stretch enough to pull the trigger on the Classic Vibe, you can also get something a little bit cheaper such as the Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster. This guitar also features a maple fretboard like the Classic Vibe, and upgrading the pickups would also improve its tone considerably.
- GuitarCenter – Squier Classic Vibe ’50s Stratocaster® Maple Fingerboard Electric Guitar 2-Color Sunburst
- GuitarCenter – Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster Maple Fingerboard Electric Guitar Olympic White
The Amplifier: Marshall Origin 20C
In order to make the most out of your guitar and pedals, a tube amp is a great choice, as it will react better to your overdrive and fuzz. Pushing it with a Tube Screamer is also a great way to get it to start breaking up. Eric has always been fond of Marshall amplifiers, and the Origin 20C is an excellent option that isn’t super expensive, heavy or hard to dial in.
If you aren’t very keen on getting a tube amp, or if you would like to spend less money, you can go with something like the Boss Katana 50, an affordable solid state amp that is loud enough for most settings, reliable, and comes with lots of effects that you can control with a pedalboard made by Boss.
It also allows you to create presets and further tweak your sound with special software made by Boss for your computer.
- GuitarCenter – Marshall Origin20C 20W 1×10 Tube Guitar Combo Amp
- GuitarCenter – BOSS Katana-50 MkII 50W 1×12 Guitar Combo Amplifier
For your pedalboard, we’ll go with the essentials so that you don’t end up spending a lot of money. These would be a fuzz, an overdrive and a delay. If your budget can fit one, you can also get a modulation pedal such as a chorus or a flanger, or maybe a different pedal such as a wah.
Dunlop Germanium Fuzz Face: A fuzz face will bring a lot of value to your pedalboard, allowing you to get edge-of-breakup tones, crunch and lead sounds. Since it is very sensitive to the touch and your guitar’s volume knob, you can use this to your advantage to change your tone on the fly.
Ibanez Tube Screamer Mini: The Ibanez Tube Screamer is most commonly used as a boost by increasing the volume knob and lowering the gain knob in order to hit the front end of your amp hard. This works especially well with tube amps. The Tube Screamer Mini is the most affordable version of the pedal, but sounds just as good as the larger versions.
Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy Delay: Since real tape delays are very expensive, and the Deluxe Memory Man that Eric likes to use isn’t available anymore, a good alternative would be the Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy. This pedal is simple to operate, and gives you a warm, analog delay sound that will work great with your lead sounds.
Electro-Harmonix Nano Clone Chorus: Eric likes to add a dash of chorus to some of the guitar sections in his songs. To replicate this, the Electro-Harmonix Nano Clone is a great option that won’t break the bank. It is small, well-built and very easy to operate, with just one knob.
FAQs – Frequently Asked Questions About Eric Johnson’s Guitars and Gear
Question: What is Eric Johnson’s most successful record?
The most notable song on this record is “Cliffs of Dover”. It is generally the first song from Eric Johnson that people listen to, and countless players have transcribed the epic intro solo, as well as some of its riffs.
Other tracks worthy of being mentioned are “Righteous”, “Trademark” and “High Landrons”.
Question: What did Eric Johnson use to record “Cliffs of Dover”?
• 1954 Fender Stratocaster “Virginia”
• 1964 Gibson ES-335
• 1968 Marshall Super Lead 100W with a Marshall 4×12 Cabinet
• Paul C/Chandler Tube Driver
• Maestro EP-3 Echoplex
• Dunlop Jazz III Picks
Other effects might have been added later in post-production as well, such as a small hint of chorus on some sections of the song.
Question: What Guitar does Eric Johnson Use?
Some of his most famous guitars include the 1954 Stratocaster he calls “Virginia”, a 1962 Stratocaster with a rosewood fretboard, and a 1957 Stratocaster with a maple fretboard. Most of his guitars are outfitted with a DiMarzio HS-2 pickup in the bridge position, his preferred pickup for his tones.
Question: What is the Best Amplifier to Get Close to Eric Johnson’s Tone?
Since these amps are way too loud for most situations, you can try to find something a little less powerful, or find yourself an attenuator to help tame a very loud amplifier.
A good example of a Marshall amp that is more usable than a 50W stack and isn’t as expensive is the Marshall Origin20C 20W Combo.
If you have a space where you can really crank up your amps and a nice budget, you can treat yourself to something more powerful like a Marshall 1987X Vintage Series Plexi 50W Head and a matching 4×12 cabinet.
Question: What Effects does Eric Johnson Use?
He does not use a huge rig with complex switching systems and a bunch of effects, but still likes to use a few pedals that help him obtain his classic tones.
Here are some of the effects that he is known for using:
• B.K. Butler Tube Driver
• Dunlop Fuzz Face
• Ibanez TS-808
• Maestro EP-3 Echoplex
• Dunlop Cry Baby
• MXR Digital Delay
• Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man
• TC Electronic Stereo Chorus/Flanger