Although many of us would love to own Eric’s Johnson’s guitar rig, most of us lack the budget with which to buy it, or a space in which to play it at proper volume. Even tube-amp aficionados like Eric have come to embrace the many splendors that modeling technology has to offer, including the signature Eric Johnson Tone Capsule he worked with Roland to design. With that in mind, I’ve created the Eric Johnson RigBook!
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Putting together a killer rig is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece plays an intricate role in the “big picture”. If everybody were great at choosing the right gear, we’d probably never see another “Ultra RARE” listing on Craigslist again! Hence why we’re so excited to share this RigBook with you.
When our friends at Fender sent the Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline to review, I have to admit that I was at a bit of a loss as to how to properly demo this guitar. Although it sounds great through just about anything, in the spirit of this article I really wanted to build a rig that enabled this guitar to do what it was designed to do – serve as the gateway to Eric’s signature sound. Even with a bunch of the “right” era-appropriate vintage gear on hand, the sheer volume I’d need to play it at just might be the tipping point for my exceedingly patient neighbors! There had to be a better way!
I’d read about the Eric Johnson Tone Capsule that works with most of the amps in Roland’s Blues Cube line and figured that would be a great starting place. Sweetwater.com is my go-to resource for researching new gear, and once again I found what I needed. Customers who’d purchased the Blues Cubes were enthusiastically singing its praises, as were the people who bought the Eric Johnson Tone Capsule. After watching Eric’s demo on the Roland web site, I was convinced and reached out to our friends at Roland who were kind enough to send along a Blues Cube Artist and Eric Johnson Tone Capsule.
Once the gear arrived, my initial experience echoed the singular complaint I read about in the reviews on the Sweetwater site – where to set the controls to reflect the sounds that Eric was getting in the video. Fortunately, after a little experimentation, I was able to find the EJ sweet spot and was off to the races. Minutes of EJ-infused tonal bliss turned into hours, and the hours turned into days – it was that kind of experience. That said, it was only a matter of time before I wanted to start adding some effects to take that next step into the EJ universe.
Over the years I’ve used a ton of multi-effects units, but interestingly enough, I’ve never used the Four Cable Method aka 4CM. Thanks to Ryan “Fluff” Bruce’s awesome 4CM video (don’t miss his new column and Brent Hinds Terror review in this issue), I was able to start building presets that ran effects into the front of the amp and the effects loop in about a half hour. Technically, I’m using the 5CM method, thanks to the DuGyte 5CM Power Plus MFX Pedalboard Connection System. A single industrial-strength snake allows me to power the Helix, route virtual versions of Eric’s go-to effects like a Tube Driver, Tube Screamer and Fuzz Face into the front of the amp, and route time based effects like a virtual Echoplex into the Effects Loop. The “extra” TRS cable enables the Helix to control whether the amp is on the Clean or Crunch Channel.
As an interesting side note, I have most of the era-appropriate versions of Eric’s go-to effects on hand, but the Helix’s ability to call up thoroughly convincing models with the push of a button was both appealing and incredibly convenient. The Helix allows you to create up to eight Snapshots within each preset, each of which records the on or off state for any effect or amp model used in that preset. This is kind of like “Pedalboard Mode” from POD on steroids since the Helix also allows you to turn the effect and amp models on or off from within each Snapshot via footswitch assignments. The I/O on the Helix also allowed me to change channels on the Blues Cube and store those “states” (either the Clean or Crunch Channel selected) inside each of the Snapshots –way cool!
In the following interview about his signature guitar, Eric and I talked about the envelope and how important that is to the sound. Having this in mind was key as I endeavored to coax EJ-centric tones out of this rig. Perhaps more than anything, the attack of the picking hand plays the biggest role in getting slightly overdriven clean tones, and distorted tones that have a clarity to them. As reflected in the Shred for the Rest of Us column in this issue, I spent several weeks trying to get a number signature sounds under my fingertips. If you’re interested incorporating more of Eric’s feel in your playing I’d suggest focusing on your pick attack and 1/8th note triple vibrato. Getting those two elements dialed is key to getting in the zone.
In the companion video, you’ll get a chance to hear how I’ve used this rig to replicate Eric’s signature trifecta of classic clean, crunch, and lead tones. I’ll also deconstruct a number of EJ, SRV, and Jimi-inspired Presets and Scenes I’ve put together in the Helix utilizing era-appropriate effects models in combination with the Blues Cube Artist and Eric Johnson Tone Capsule.
THE COMPONENTS & INTERVIEWS
As a gear demonstrator, I’ve spent the better part of the last decade building rigs for gear demos where the mission was talking about a singular piece of gear, not the rig. While it is important to understand the nuances of each piece of gear, those nuances either contribute or take away from the bigger picture. Where the envelope of the Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster Thinline enabled me to use my picking to control how hard I hit the front end of the amp, the output from my go-to shredder guitars was just too much for this setup. Key to this lesson is the fact that a great guitar sound is great when combined with the right gear. With that in mind, let’s drill down to the component level.
ERIC JOHNSON SIGNATURE STRATOCASTER THINLINE
This guitar has generated a huge amount of buzz, and for good reason – it is the single biggest departure from the classic Strat design that Fender has ever made. I’ve spent many hours playing the maple and rosewood fingerboard solid body versions of Eric’s signature Strats, so with a certain amount of confidence I can say that this does not deviate too far from the sound and feel of the model with the maple fingerboard.
While I would not describe this guitar as stiff, the quarter-sawn one piece maple neck did take some playing to break it. The more I play it, the buttery it gets. From EJ, to SRV, to Hendrix, this guitar does it all. As demonstrated in the UK Sound 1173 review in this issue, it is also a great Funk machine. It also has my favorite Strat mod ever – the lower tone control is assigned to the bridge pickup. This allows you to keep the spank on your neck pickup without taking peoples’ heads off when you move to the bridge.
As noted in the interview below, Eric wanted to add some air to the sound without losing his signature Strat sound in the process. This guitar does a lovely job of that and has been a joy to play over the past month. With that said, let’s hear what Eric has to say about it!
[GTR] Your Thinline Strat represents the biggest structural change in the history of what is considered by many to be the definitive Rock guitar. What was the impetus behind doing a semi-hollow body Strat?
[Eric Johnson] I love 335’s, and there’s a certain aspect of semi-hollow body guitars that’s really nice. I thought it would be neat to combine that attribute with a Strat. The Strat is such a universal instrument; everybody plays it. Where can you go with it? You could always switch out the pickups for different electronics, but I thought it would be interesting to try and make one that had a little bit different response and resonance. I wanted to try and combine two guitars in one. It has proven to have a certain additive sound that’s really cool. You can’t get everything with any one guitar, so anytime you pick up a different one there’s a give and take. There’s a certain mid punch that you’re going to get out of a complete solid body. You’re not going to get 100 percent of that out of a hollow body, it’s always a tradeoff. What I tried to do was to mitigate the amount of loss in the tradeoff. There’s a little less mid in certain areas, but there’s this other thing that comes to play that is really resonating and breathing with you. It can always be experimented with in the future. It has a pretty wide solid body through the middle. I found that with a Strat you couldn’t have too thin of a solid piece because then it got too hollow sounding.
[GTR] The folks at Fender sent one for us to review, and I’ve been playing the daylights out of it. It’s incredibly responsive to the transient of the pick attack as well as how hard you pick. How would you describe the envelope as being different than other Strats?
[Eric] The envelope is something I really like about it. That’s such an important part of a guitar, the picking and how it responds after the picking. It’s really more important than the sound. You can deal with a ratty sound, as long as it feels right in the envelope. If the inhaling and exhaling is right and it coincides with and matches your picking technique, then you can deal with a sound that wasn’t that great. I find myself talking so much about tone, and trying to get it right, which is important. But at the end of the day, if you were to distill it down, you want the response of the guitar to match your picking attack and you want the envelope to be pleasing and breezy. When that happens, there’s a certain fun factor when you play, and I think you could laugh it off if the sound was ratty. It’s like, “Who cares?” as long as it’s matching my picking attack.
[GTR] Like your other signature Strats, this instrument has what I call the “Eric Johnson Tone Control Mod”, where the lower tone control is assigned to the bridge pickup. It’s the greatest mod ever for a Strat, how did you come up with it?
[Eric] The bridge pickup on a Strat will take your head off. If you EQ your amp up enough to have a nice tone on the neck pickup, when you go over to the bridge pickup, it’s like, “This is killing me!” If you’re using it for a rhythm thing, sometimes it’s okay. But I found that when I was using it for lead it was just too thin and bright. So, the mod allows me to turn the EQ up for the neck pickup and then balance the bridge pickup and the neck pickup together by just defraying a little bit of the top end off the bridge pickup.
I was thinking, I don’t need the tone on the middle pickup as much as I do the bridge. At first, I just jumped a little wire over and thought, “This is great!” But, when I went to the in-between position between middle and bridge it was taking too much treble off. So, I thought maybe I should just dedicate it all to the bridge pickup so the middle pickup has more top end.. so that when I go to the in-between position it will still be kind of bright, but when I got to the bridge pickup it will be defrayed a little bit. It was kind of a two-step process.
[GTR] We reached out to our readers on social media to see if they had any questions for you. I’d like to know the answer to this one myself… “Why is there no humbucker version of your signature guitars?”
[Eric] I am contemplating a pickup that would conceivably be a humbucker, but the thing is that if you go straight ahead humbucker, you lose the rhythm tone. It’s hard to get a great lead tone on a Strat, but it’s hard to get good rhythm sound on a humbucker, at least to me. You can get a rhythm tone by EQ’ing it and turning it down, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t have the same twang. You can’t get that “Wind Cries Mary”, “Hey Joe” thing, or that spank that Stevie Ray had. For me, it’s almost easier to use a single coil and then try to figure out a way to get a lead tone.
When designing a go-to guitar that will try to cover a lot of bases, humbuckers have great aspects, perhaps better in certain ways. But, as a view from the big picture I think you kind of paint yourself in a corner a little bit. I love to use Gibsons with old humbuckers, and I do use them, but the intention is to design a guitar to cover as many bases and not try to get too biased with one little corner of sound. I’m trying to work on a tapped pickup that has a little different approach to it. If you could get a really great Strat, single coil sound, and then flip a switch and get a killer old Gibson PAF sound… if you could do that, then I think you wouldn’t have to be so reliant on pedals. It’s subjective though. My idea of a great rhythm tone is like the Hendrix rhythm tone, as far as Rock music goes. But then if you could flip a switch and get that super-gainy clean tone, that would be great for me.
ROLAND BLUES CUBE ARTIST + ERIC JOHNSON TONE CAPSULE
Let me start by saying that this little amp is a total gem that gets even better when combined with the Eric Johnson Tone Capsule. The Clean Channel sounds and feels great, and is an excellent pedal platform, virtual and otherwise! The singular complaint people had about the Drive Channel was not knowing where to start in terms of the controls. Thankfully, I was able to reach out to Jeff Slingluff, Guitar Products Manager for BOSS and Roland here in the U.S. for his input on this and more! I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Jeff at Joe Satriani’s G4 Experience and the Vai Academy guitar camps over the past several years. In addition to being a serious guitar geek, he always has a smile on his face – because it’s clear that he loves what he’s doing!
[GTR] I understand that it was Roland president Yoshi Ikegami’s idea to invite Eric to work on the Blues Cube project?
[Jeff Slingluff] Yes, Yoshi and the amp team were excited about the idea of bringing in a tone guru/artist for the project. Eric was the obvious first choice. Yoshi, who seems to know everybody, somehow didn’t already know Eric, but asked a friend to introduce them.
[GTR] How did the whole Tone Capsule concept come about?
[Jeff] From the earliest conception of the amp, the idea of having a method to provide both new and artist tones was a desire. The Tone Capsule was a familiar and elegant way to approach this type of upgrade path.
[GTR] Eric’s Tone Capsule does the seemingly impossible job of capturing the essence of Eric’s Blackface Deluxe Reverbs and Plexi Marshalls in a footswitch-able, solid state combo that won’t break your back. What specific elements of these esteemed amps would you say this Eric Johnson Tone Capsule equipped Blues Cube nails most?
[Jeff] Eric’s amps are the classic amps we have all revered for years. But his have three main advantages – and these benefits live within the tone-capsule. First, they were selected by Eric over the course of many years of trial and discovery. What would you rather have, some random Deluxe off the internet, or 30 years of tone archeology performed by Eric Johnson to pick out the perfect amp for you to use? Second, Eric’s amps have age and character. When we developed the Tone Capsule for Eric we emulated things from his amps like the old transformers. You can’t get that on a reissue. Third, although the source amps are vintage, they do have a bit of love from Eric and his tech.
[GTR] What were some of Eric’s contribution to this line beyond the scope of his signature Tone Capsule?
[Jeff] From what the team has told me, Eric’s influence exists in the Tone Capsule and other elements of the amp itself, including some cabinet and speaker alterations that exist in all the Blues Cube amps.
[GTR] Using the EJ Tone Capsule, where would you suggest starting with the controls on the Crunch Channel, including the selection of the Boost and Tone push-button controls?
[Jeff] Remember that both of Eric’s main amplifiers are non-Master Volume amps. With non-Master Volume amplifiers the last tubes are the first tubes to begin clipping (distorting). This is an area that Blues Cube amps really shine thanks to the Power Control functionality. I would suggest starting with the Master and Channel Volumes at 10. Use the Power Control to turn down your output level while still maintaining the feel and power sag you would get from the original amps. Turn the Drive Boost and the Tone Boost off, and set the Bass, Mid, Treble to 12:00 (straight up). Increase the Gain knob until you get the amount of drive you are looking to achieve. Once you’ve done this you’ll probably find that the Crunch Channel is a bit louder than the Clean Channel so go ahead and back the Crunch Channel and Master Volume down as needed to balance things out. But try to keep them 50% or slightly higher to push the power amp section and get the full growl out of it. BTW, try the same approach with your other tube amps to get great classic sounds. If you list all your guitar heroes and their gear you won’t find many Master knobs on their amps at all.
[GTR] I understand that the reverb on Eric’s Tone Capsule is different than the stock reverb on the three Blues Cube amps that support the Tone Capsule technology (Blues Cube Stage, Artist, and Artist 212). How so?
[Jeff] There is a really beautiful reverb sound that’s included with the EJ Tone Capsule. I’ve heard that Eric wanted it to be a little more like the Plate meets Hall sound that he likes to use in the studio. I would have expected him to want a Spring Reverb, but when you think about it his Plexi doesn’t have one, so why wouldn’t he want what he uses in the studio?
[GTR] You guys put these amps through a rather extensive burn-in period that far exceeded UL compliance. Tell us a bit about the backstory behind that.
[Jeff] Our engineers learned a lot from working with Eric. Outside of tone that Eric was helping us craft, they picked up on the fact that Eric apparently has three identical live rigs. One for the gig, one as backup during the gig, and usually a third set of which ever ones broke last and are being repaired. Apparently traveling with 50-year-old tube amps is not without frequent down time! After hearing this, the BOSS engineers worked tirelessly to build something that far exceeded the required test from UL and other organizations. They didn’t want anyone to ever need to bring extra amps to a gig because they were afraid one would break down.
[GTR] Is there anything else you’d like to share?
[Jeff] Yoshi once told me that when working on this project they had no idea if Eric was going to let us use his name. We were only going to put his name on it if Eric was completely satisfied and gave us the ok to do so. And I love that. It wasn’t a classic industry story of paying somebody to use their name. It was a collaboration and learning experience between seekers of tone. And aren’t we all seekers tone? Aren’t we all on a tone quest? That’s why Tone Capsules exist!
LINE 6 HELIX
Although it was the last component I added to the mix, the Helix was in many ways the “cherry on top” that brought this whole rig together. The quality of the effects and level of control it brought were nothing short of amazing. I was also able reach out to Eric Klein at Line 6 for his input for this article. On one of my trips to the Line 6 offices, I spent well over an hour in Eric’s office talking about Helix. His passion and enthusiasm for this powerhouse piece of technology is endless, and if you look at the design, it shows!
[GTR] As the Senior Product Manager for Helix, you of all people would know how incredibly deep this product goes. It can function as a standalone device or it also does a great job functioning as the center-piece that allows you to route effects into the front of the amp and into the effects loop. As well as control amp functions like channel switching. Although Helix has, “It’s the kitchen sink and can do it all” functionality, how do you want people to think of it?
[Eric Klein] We actually don’t want it to be everything for everybody – we do want it to be the centerpiece of your rig. From the very beginning we wanted it to be the control brain of whatever rig you threw it into. If you don’t like amp modeling and you love your tube amp, cool! All of the DSP can be dedicated to nothing but effects, so you’re not losing DSP if you’re not using the amp models. We don’t want people to sell their pedals, we want them to stay with what they’re accustomed to. You can put your four favorite pedals in the effects loops, put them anywhere you want in the signal chain, then label the scribble strip and color the switch to match the paint on your pedal. You can almost treat them as if they’re built in. If you love your TimeLine, you can connect a MIDI cable and then use Snapshots, or Presets, or Footswitches to actually control it in real time, as if that model was built into the Helix. We just want the Helix to be the brain that controls everything.
[GTR] If you weren’t trying to be all things to all people, was there a group of players you had in mind when you were designing this product line?
[Eric Klein] We refer to them as “the discerning guitarist”. They’re the kind of customer that could be on tour playing stadiums, but they could also be a huge geek like we are, and have a den in their house that’s filled with tube amps and multiple pedal boards. They might play at church on the weekend, or with their friends at a Blues bar on Friday night. They may even be more serious about gear than they are about playing. They’re just gear geeks, and Line 6 is filled with gear geeks. So, from the beginning we figured that if we designed this product as if we wanted to make it for ourselves, we’d have a decent contingent of users who would embrace this as well.
[GTR] What about folks who are excited about the idea of having a great range of tones and features at their feet, but are a bit intimidated by Helix because they’re only really used traditional stomp boxes?
[Eric Klein] When we approached the UI (user interface), there were three big elements: discoverability, speed-of-use, and intimidation factor. We thought if we could nail those, it would be a win. Even though it doesn’t look like it, there are a lot of buttons and switches on the unit. I want to say there are thirty-two push elements that are directly available from the panel, and we hide them on purpose! For example, the joystick looks like a single knob, but you can go down, up, left, right, push down and turn, and you can push and turn. And likewise, the footswitches have capacitive sense, and they also have tap and hold sense and all the knobs under the screen are also push functions. Instead of something that has a billion buttons on it that might look really intimidating, we have this top-level UI that’s very straight forward for somebody that’s just jumping in. But then, if you read the cheat sheet that comes in the box, that full-color thing that shows you all the shortcuts, you realize if I press and hold this knob and it jumps to the Controller Assign Page, I can assign an expression pedal to something in three seconds. Instead of making dedicated functions for all these functions, we hide some of this deeper stuff in shortcuts. So, when you’re ready to jump in deep, you don’t have to learn anything or dig down, you can just read this little cheat sheet that comes in the box.
DuGYTE 5CM POWER PLUS
A rig like this really begs for an intelligent cable management system, and the DuGyte 5CM Power Plus is just that. I first met James Maida, Director International Marketing & Sales for Maytech Music Systems at Joe Satriani’s G4 experience, and since then we’ve spent countless hours talking about the DuGyte systems that I use to build my various rigs.
[GTR] James, tell us about your current offerings and the problems they solve?
[James Maida] Each system addresses the signal and power requirements players face. This includes setting up and tearing down multiple guitar and power cords, which is a hassle. Some guitarists use multiple wall warts, power strips and power chords, all of which can be a source of noise. By moving the power source from the pedalboard to the backline we eliminated a potential noise, provided more power, and eliminated the need for multiple DC power supplies.
We offer two types of systems, both of which use a single snake to carry all your audio, power and switching to a one-plug connection at your pedalboard. It’s like a stage box for your guitar. Our GP-Series (GP121, GP521, and GP721) is for traditional pedalboards and effects loops. Our MX-Series (5CM, 6CM, and 7CM) is for players using multi-effects units like your Helix. This series also provides universal AC power for these systems.
[GTR] Larry Mitchell is using one of your systems. Can you tell us about his setup?
[James] Larry uses a Fractal AX-8 and traditional stomps. He does a lot of fly dates and runs directly into the PA in stereo, so we customized one of our MX systems for him. His unit has balanced XLR outs, stereo effects send and return, and MIDI. Because Larry uses pedals, his rig required AC as well as DC power. His DuGyte was configured with both an AC and DC “channel”, powered by one of our DC power supplies we incorporated into his backline unit. Although this was initially a custom unit, we’ve had more requests for this type of configuration. So, we’re offering this option for our 6CM and 7CM systems.
[GTR] I love being able to run all my audio, power, and channel switching lines via a singular snake. The 5CM model I used in this rig makes set up and tear down a breeze. Given how long the 4CM and 5CM have been around, were you guys surprised that nobody else seems to be making an “out of the box” solution like this?
[James] Yes, it’s one of those things that surprises people when they see our system for the first time. We always hear comments like, “How come someone else hasn’t done this before? Why didn’t I think of that?” We saw the need and decided to bring a solution to the market. Our unique approach is based upon of our patented technology.
[GTR] Is there a particular type of customer you guys have in mind?
[James] The concept of a multi-cable bundle concept has been around for a while, but typically it’s been limited to the pros. We wanted to accomplish two main things. First, provide a much-needed solution to make it faster and easier to setup and tear down your rig. Second, make it affordable enough for the player, regardless if they are a professional
So that gets us to the end of this RigBook feature. If you made it all the way to the end of reading this, I want to say thanks for your passion about this rig, and rigs in general. See you next time!