time ago, I made two posts regarding tips for the tones of both John Frusciante
and Jimi Hendrix
. Well, I'm back, and I'm hoping to shed some light on the world of Eric Johnson's notoriously difficult to achieve tones. PART ONE
: Signal Path
Eric Johnson's signal path is probably one of the better known elements of his rig, though I think it's only fair that I start this discussion of his genius attempt to bring studio-quality sound to the live stage with its primary element: A forking signal path.
Simplified, Eric has three paths his guitar can take via A/B boxes:
- [Lead] Guitar>Old Crybaby Wah>Echoplex>B.K. Butler Tube Driver>Lead-Amp>Stereo Modulated Reverb (Often at the board, after the microphone)
- [Dirty Rhythm] Guitar>TS-808(In true bypass loop switcher)>Fuzz Face>Digital Delay>Flanger (Either MXR FlangeDoubler or Barracuda Flanger)>Dirty-Rhythm-Amp
- [Clean Rhythm] Guitar>Deluxe Memory Man (In True Bypass loop switcher)>TC Chorus/Flanger>TWO Identical clean amps in stereo
These paths are selected as such: Master A/B Switch - [A]LEAD [B]RHYTHM [B]
> Secondary C/D Switch - [C]DIRTY RHYTHM [D]CLEAN RHYTHM
This assortment of entirely separate pedal chains leading to different amplifiers utilizing different types of speakers produces something magnificent; total tonal separation and the impression of live studio production. Echo trails from one set of amps will carry on over top of separate amps, with the drastic variety of each amp's tonal profile contrasting the prior and succeeding tones selected with the simple click of one or two switches. It's much like the illusion that extremely practiced beatboxers are capable of creating - even though it's impossible for them to produce a bass drum and hi-hat sound simultaneously, the impression is a multi-layered sound. Despite the fact that it's only Eric playing live, your brain tells you that there are multiple layers to his sound occurring simultaneously - the effect is particularly pronounced within the surrounding 10 or so seconds of an amp switch. Uncanny shifts in the stereo field, and a new audible assault from a fresh source. PART TWO
I know this is guitarpedals
, but I feel that discussing the amp situation is pertinent. To simplify for the sake of the reality probably dawning on readers fresh to Eric Johnson's rig, this kind of setup is not exactly practical for the average player, or comprehensively affordable even utilizing budget versions of each type of amp that Eric utilizes. Nonetheless, for the sake of posterity, here's a not-entirely-comprehensive list of amps Eric has used for various tones across the years, organized from most common (top) to least common (bottom) in regards to usage in each category. Lead amps
Dirty Rhythm amps
- EITHER a Marshall 50 watt plexi superlead (Smaller venues) or 100 watt Marshall superlead. This has remained consistent for most of Eric's career.
- Mid 1980s Dumble Overdrive Special as seen here, described by Eric Johnson as the ". . .loudest 50 watts I've ever heard." This amp is fuzzier and creamier than his Marshalls, with a harmonic structure that is almost reminiscent of a dimed Vox in some ways.
Clean Rhythm amps
- 100 Watt Marshall Superlead or Superbass converted to utilize 6L6 tubes, or a Metroplex. Eric replaced his unreliable Steel String Singer with a variety of Marshall-style amps following his longest stints on tour in the 90s, and this setup lasted the longest.
- 150 Watt Steel String Singer by Dumble as seen very clearly and utilized for most of the slightly-broken-up sound you see here. Unsurprisingly, Eric found this amp far too loud, and supposedly utilized a 100 watt GREEN power amp to amplify the preamp of this particular beast after a couple of years using it on tour, and eventually blew its transformer and gave up on the overly loud, unreliable monster. The first part of the Dumble ODS clip includes this amp, and you can hear how much louder it is than the aforementioned overdrive special.
- 100 Watt Two Rock Traditional Clean Eric enjoys this amp as an evolution of the old Steel String Singer design, commenting in the linked video about how Two Rock have (paraphrasing) "made it their own". This has been utilized in more recent years, and sounds much like a quieter version of the old Steel String Singer.
- Two Twin Reverb amps loaded into custom-made headshells . These two amps have been used the most consistently in Eric's rig, and are older 60s blackface twins that have been modified into headshells for easier transport.
- Two Deluxe Reverb combos Eric simply uses these as replacements for the Twins for particularly small venues. They are usually discernible in sounding quite a bit smaller than the Twins, as they are not going into the normal stereo 4x12 that the twin heads go into, which is a perfect segue into -
: Speakers and cabs
This part will be relatively short, as I believe speakers are highly subjective, though I will make suggestions relative to those personal choices.
For lead, Eric has used the Celestion Classic Lead 80 for quite some time in his Marshall 4x12 (Though with his 50 watt Dumble, he used an oversized Marshall 2x12). I have one of these speakers in my Fender Supersonic 22, and it is a marvelous example of the Celestion sound that isn't peaky or spiky like a greenback, and is capable of handling significantly more punishment. It smooths highs over without cutting them like a G12-65, and supports a strong bottom end without turning into a full range speaker. Excellent for overdrive, AND cleans.
For dirty rhythm, Eric generally just uses lower wattage speakers. As of most recently, I believe he is using his signature eminence 40 watt alnico speaker
. Lower wattage or alnico speakers tend to crunch up a bit more than higher wattage or ceramic speakers, and can enhance upper-midrange harmonics. Any lower wattage speaker will probably do the job here, and frankly speaker distortion isn't really something you as an individual should be particularly concerned about unless you are really getting your amp breathing. These speakers are fitted into a 4x12 as well
For clean rhythm, Eric generally uses EVM12L style speakers
. These speakers are practically full range, having evolved from an actual PA speaker. Super heavy, super high wattage, and excruciatingly clear. Funnily enough, these are excellent for lead as well as cleans. Again, a Marshall 4x12, but in stereo this time. PART FOUR
It helps in achieving Eric Johnson tones to have your guitar set up somewhat like his. He utilizes a Dimarzio HS-2 in the bridge position of his strats, wired to single coil, though practically any hotter noiseless single coil will work very well for this purpose. He also has the second strat tone knob wired to control the tone for the bridge pickup. This is VITAL
to achieving the violin-like lead tone. Rolling the tone off to about 6-7 is where the punch of this tone lies. A further modification that can bring you even closer is using a 500k pot in the volume pots of strats, which will make your single coils VERY bright. Tame this with the tone pots, and you can have the immensely full and bright clean tones with the punch and dark overdrive tones that you hear in videos of Eric. PART FIVE
This is HIGHLY subjective, and is therefore a short part. Basically, extremes do not lend themselves to Eric's tone. His feel for tone controls is more subdued, and more often than not you will need to have most controls on your amp below 12 o'clock, no matter the circuit. This is the only major advice I have, as it is something you need to adjust by ear as a player.
For further advice, Eric himself has given hints as to the inspiration of at least two of his tones: His Dirty Rhythm tone is not inspired by SRV as one may guess by his usage of the Steel String Singer and tube screamer together, but by Keith Richards of all people - The Start Me Up tone in particular.
Harmonically rich, and slightly dirty. Hendrix is also a huge inspiration for this particular tone, and Voodoo Chile presents itself as a large inspiration. Pushing the bass control past 12 o’clock can get closer to this tone, though you have to be cautious to avoid muddiness.
For lead, his tone is very clearly inspired by Eric Clapton
, and he himself has said so. When you add the tube driver and echoplex to that basic tone, you have the Cliffs sound. THE PART YOU'VE BEEN WAITING FOR, PART SIX
: ...Okay but how do I actually build something like this?
Alright! Let's go over some good amps, pedals, and general signal chain ideas, as well as what to do if you have a pedal platform amp. Amps:
For an all rounder
, I've gotta give it to a short-kept secret: The Fender Supersonic series. The 22 is probably the most robust and realistic for these tones on a volume/cost budget, and with an appropriate pedal setup (or at the most ideal, a midi-capable switcher, but we'll get to that later), it can cop a lot of these tones acceptably well. This is my personal recommendation for a SINGLE
amp setup. The three channels, effects loop, and versatile gain staging will allow you to corral this monolithic setup into something tiny, and while not having all of the magic of a multi-amp design, will allow you to achieve 3 distinct tones without 3 distinct amps. I recommend replacing the stock eminence speaker. The Celestion Lead 80 is what I chose, but a more full-range speaker such as a Weber Michigan would probably also work very well!
For a budget multi amp setup, I’d probably go with just the clean tone and a compromise between the lead/dirty rhythm as the second amp. This will give you two distinct tones and two signal paths without taking up an enormous amount of room, and will let the pedals do a fair amount of the work. I would choose either the Marshall Origin 20 or Fender Bassbreaker 30 for the lead amp, and either a pair of used blues jrs or just one blues deluxe for the clean amp(s). - This is an important choice, as going stereo on your clean budget tone opens up the options for your pedalboard, but more on that later.
For the ultimate realistic
setup that is still somewhat usable, here are my recommendations: Lead amp: Marshall Studio Vintage 20 head and a 1x12 or 2x12 loaded with Celestion Classic Lead 80s. Dirty Rhythm amp: Either a Ceriatone 5e3 12 watt head, or something similarly small and american voiced through a 1x12 or 2x12 loaded with lower wattage, preferably alnico speakers. For clean, the straight forward choice is two deluxe reverb or princeton reverb amps, loaded with clear and articulate ceramic speakers. PEDAAAAAAAAAAALS
So we went over the order and switching earlier, so now it’s just the semantics of what works and why!
So, considering you using an amp with switching and a tube-based overdrive channel or a multi amp setup, we can talk about this as normal. When it comes to a pedal platform, I’ll have some more specific recommendations later.
Firstly, the madly difficult to achieve lead sound. The traditional chain I’ve already mentioned; Crybaby>Echoplex>Tube Driver>Amp>Modulated Reverb. For a realistic method to achieve this tone with pedals, I recommend the following:
Either just a standard crybaby, or a Wilson Wah so you can tune it to sound how you want. The wah only comes on sporadically for Eric, and isn’t paramount as an effect, so you could probably skip it.
For the echoplex, I actually do not specifically recommend the Dunlop echoplex. I think that it’s tone is subpar compared to contemporaries; specifically the Catalinbread echorec or echoplex. Eric Johnson himself
uses these units to this day in custom effects loops made for his echoplexes. These are the best tape delays on the market for the price in my opinion, though there are many other options, and any tape-style delay that you particularly enjoy will probably do the trick just fine! So far as settings go, I find that relatively few repeats are utilized on the lead setting, with a healthy amount of mix, and a fairly medium/fast (but not
slapback) delay time.
Following the echoplex, I recommend the MXR Fet Driver instead of the Tube Driver unless you want to support B.K. Butler himself. The distortion generated in the Tube Driver, against popular understanding, is not actually from the tube itself. It is from the fet chip driving the tube. The tube itself only acts as a filter in the circuit, which the MXR simulates with a high-cut button. It should also be noted in setting this particular pedal, that the “Low” and “high” knobs are BOOSTS rather than traditional tone-style knobs, and the best settings are well below 9 o’ clock, if not simply at zero (Which is how Eric uses it). This pedal is best used for Eric Johnson tones at unity volume, adding a small amount of gain to that aforementioned early Eric Clapton tone. This pedal comes after the echoplex because of issues of compression - coming after the echoplex means that the echoed signal goes into a lot of distortion, which causes a dynamic-delay effect, meaning that moments of silence are filled with swells of echo, while moments of playing are clear due to compression.
For the reverb, this is why amps with effects loops are preferable. I really enjoy the Digitech Polara, but as it’s becoming less and less readily available, pretty much any reverb that has a modulated setting that you enjoy will work well. Mix relatively low, and tone relatively high (In order to not clog up lower frequencies which the dark Clapton-esque tone is already filling) and you will hear the kind of tone familiar to those who have heard the ‘88 Austin City Limits Cliffs Of Dover performance. If you have an attenuator on your lead amp with a line out, running a line out to a speaker simulator and then to the reverb stereo out to a good PA will give you the full experience.
For your dirty rhythm pedals, the Tube Screamer comes first in a true bypass effects loop. Why, you may ask? Well, the buffer in that tube screamer will passively piss off your fuzz face. Why not put it after, then? Well, one of Eric’s favorite things to do is put the buffer of the (turned off) tube screamer in front of his fuzz face when he wants extra sustain or pump from the pick attack. This doesn’t work well for Hendrixian sounds, but does work well for more modern, angular and compressed fuzz tones. This also allows the tube screamer to be rammed into the fuzz face actively, which makes the fuzz tone even more square-wavey and aggressive.
The Tube Screamer itself is something Eric claims he only uses for “power chords”, but as in the 1985 performance with the two Dumbles, he utilized it fairly often with his Steel String Singer in a fashion not dissimilar to Stevie Ray Vaughan, though his settings are somewhat different. Eric generally uses gain and level at about 12 o'clock, with tone most of the way down. This will give you a fuzzy, almost low-fidelity tone, which is precisely what Eric is going for with his dirty rhythm sound. Take the modern tones of his lead and clean, and contrast them with an incredibly raw and vicious sounding primitive amp/pedal tone.
The Fuzz Face is almost always ran on batteries, which is 50/50 for me. I do notice a difference, but it is not the kind of difference I can really justify declaring war on the environment for. It’s your choice. Batteries do make the fuzz face more dynamic and amicable, but they are a chore, as you have to repeatedly unplug your fuzz face in order to avoid constantly draining the battery. The buffer trick I’ve already mentioned; this allows your fuzz face to go from loose, and psychedelic like Hendrix to pushed and angry, almost like a Fuzz Factory. Eric runs his Fuzz Face at unity gain (This is in order to avoid blowing out the low end and probably speakers along with it), and near-as-makes-no-difference maximum fuzz.
After the Fuzz Face, you can place any digital delay of your choice. I personally recommend something other than tape delay, as the different kind of delay can vary the sounds that the audience or your significant other hears, making the dirty rhythm sound more interesting. A boss DD unit at the simplest end, or a Strymon Dig at the highest end would serve this role perfectly.
You can either place the flanger before or after the delay. Try both out, as the effect of flanger after delay can be satisfyingly dramatic. For flanger, Eric uses the impossible to acquire MXR FlangeDoubler rack unit. I recommend the Mr. Black tunnelworm through-zero flanger or TC Vortex on the cheaper end to try to achieve this tone. Alternatively, the flanging tone that Eric is most likely attempting to recreate is actual studio tape flanging, which was not simulatable back when he was using the MXR (Outside of actually doing it in a studio), but is now. The catalinbread Zero Point is an EXCELLENT budget option for this, and lets you manually simulate putting your thumb on the flange via a soft touch footswitch alongside the main one. The Strymon Deco is the pricier, higher quality version of this.
For the clean pedals, a compressor pedal may be pertinent to put first in line in case you cannot turn your clean amp(s) or channel up high enough to get some of the compression that is present in Eric’s clean tone. I personally think that the coloration of the Diamond Yellow comp actually sounds a lot like Eric’s tone, though a faux studio-style compressor like the Keeley deluxe comp, MXR studio comp, or on the higher end, Origin Effects Cali76 may serve you better in this regard. This is an optional thing, but is probably a good idea, as most people can’t turn even a Deluxe Reverb up high enough to achieve the kind of compression present in Eric’s TWO
Next, some sort of tape delay. Again, my recommendations for the echorec and belle epoch stand, though the echorec may be a bit more fun for this, as having more dense/complicated delays may not get in the way of a rhythm sound as much as a lead sound.
Following this, a stereo chorus to split to two amps. Eric does not use a tri chorus, but a phase flipped chorus. The MXR Stereo chorus, TC corona, and vintage Ibanez PC10 do this sound very well as alternative units. Set to taste. If not in stereo, the mono chorus may sound too cheesy. It’s all up to taste. If you have two amps to use in stereo, dear god do it. It’s lifechanging. Putting these two amps on opposite sides of the lead amp/dirty rhythm amp will make you a believer.
Finally, for pedal platform amps, get into amp-in-box pedals! The Crazy Tube Circuits Falcon would be a perfect Dirty Rhythm “amp”, as it has that edgy, fuzzy American thing which would sound wicked with a tube screamer or fuzz going into it. The Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, or on the higher end, Origin Revival Drive would be perfect for the EJ lead sound, combined with aforementioned pedals. The clean tone, utilizing compression and perhaps
an EQ pedal or relatively mildly flavored preamp (Such as Vertex Steel String) is probably achievable with most of the base of your tone. Brightening and adding compression with pedals will do what you need.
For signal chain, those utilizing multiple amps need only do an offshoot of what is previously described. For single amps, the ultimate choice would be a programmable loop switcher. Alternatively, utilizing several pedals in single true bypass loop switchers can be used to activate “amps” of sorts, with amp in box pedals being held within those loops, or a fast foot on an amp channel switch.
It took this long to get to pedals, but if you have come this far, your interest probably supersedes the little boxes of silicon and 9 volts. Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions at all, leave a comment!