Legendary guitarist Eric Johnson teamed up with Fender for his third signature model with the brand and it just so happens to be the first contoured semi-hollow body Stratocaster ever made. The instrument has the same features as Johnson’s solid body model — a nitrocellulose lacquer finish, a custom quartersawn ‘57 Soft V one-piece maple neck, three Eric Johnson single-coil pickups, a vintage-style synchronized tremolo bridge, and staggered tuning machines — but features a Thinline semi-hollow alder body, a first for the Arizona-based company. Though Fender has produced Thinline Telecasters since 1969, this is the first contoured Thinline Strat.
Known for virtuoso technique and highly musical performances, Johnson won the 1990 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Cliffs of Dover” from the platinum album Ah Via Musicom . He has released 10 solo albums, performed on five live albums and made guest appearances on recordings with Chet Atkins, John McLaughlin, Adrian Legg and Mike Stern, among others. Johnson has an uncompromising approach to tone and is meticulous about both his live and recorded guitar sound. A longtime Fender Stratocaster player, Johnson has also extensively played a semi-hollow body Gibson ES-335.
On the tail end of his 2018 Ah Via Musicom tour — where he played the album in its entirety — Johnson is slated to record a solo acoustic album, another electric record and has a solo acoustic tour booked for July. We caught up with him on the road between concerts. While reflecting on the new instrument, Johnson shares the advantages of semi-hollow body guitars, the enduring qualities of vintage pedals and the benefits of playing acoustic music.
Q: Why a semi-hollow body Strat and why now, after so many years?
A: I’ve always just dug 335s, and I think the semi-hollow body adds a little resonation to the guitar. I like what it does — it’s really obvious to me on the 335. There have been so many Strats made with this and that, and I thought it was a unique departure from the Strat as compared to changing the pick-ups or the tremolo which have already been done by people, and a lot of them done quite well. So I just thought it would be something fresh and unique to bring to the Strat that hasn’t been really done that much yet. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for 20 years.
Q: You played a 335 a lot and have done incredible recordings with that, but you’re also a big Strat player. Does this offer the best of both worlds?
A: It’s still a Fender and it still sounds like a Fender, but it puts a little different slant on the tone of it — it breathes a little bit more. It seems to excite the wood to be more responsive than a solid body. So if you have a brand new guitar with brand new wood, it seems to excite it more like older wood would be. There seems to be a little more resonation in it.
Q: As a player, does the extra resonance give a different touch and a different response?
A: Yeah, it has a different feel when you’re playing it. When you play it through the amp, it has a little bit where it resonates back into the sound after you pick the note. So you do feel it. As you’re fretting it, you feel it as well because it’s got that inborn kind of thing where it’s pulling the note back into itself a little bit.
Q: Was there anything difficult about the decision-making process designing this guitar or were there any surprises along the way?
A: For aesthetics as well as comfort, I wanted to leave it a classic Strat with all the curves, molding and the way they sand it down. I didn’t want to venture from that at all, so it would be classic in design as well as feeling when you play it against your body. So, we had to figure out how to make it hollow. The easiest way would have been to do a Thinline Tele, where you just put a top on it with a binding. It was a little difficult figuring out how to make it hollow with all the cutaways that it has because it gets really thin in places. We had to have a seam somewhere. On the sunburst, you can see a little seam up on the top bout of the guitar. It doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s just a little line, really not much different than if you had a two-piece body.
Q: What do you hope this guitar will offer players?
A: I’m hoping that it provides another approach to the sound of a Strat, just more resonating and a little thicker. I don’t think it will replace a solid body Strat, I just think it’s an alternative sound. And I think that some people that wouldn’t typically play a Strat might find it interesting because it has a little bit of a different flavor to it.
Q: Has your live rig changed much for this new tour?
A: I was rehearsing for this tour and was having a little bit difficulty nailing the sound of the record, so I got out a bunch of the old stuff and it just sounded more like the record. In some ways, it sounded better to me than what I was using — in a lot of ways actually. And not only was I able to get the sound of the record, I was like, “Ah you know, maybe I should use some of this stuff more often until I find something new that’s as good or better.” In a lot of the cases, it was pretty obvious to me that some of the new stuff just didn’t perform as well as the older stuff.
Q: Are there any new products that you’ve been impressed with in recent years?
A: I’m using this brand new Two Rock amplifier. There are actually new two models they make: they make a Traditional Clean and then a Classic Reverb Signature. They’re a new level of Two Rocks amps. Not that their amps from the past weren’t good, but I never gravitated towards using them until they made these two new models which are really wonderful amps. I like the Catalinbread Belle Epoch pedal. I think it’s a really good-sounding echo unit.
Q: How have you balanced playing acoustic versus electric?
A: For me, it’s a little challenging because the touch for acoustic is really different than playing electric. So if I’m doing a lot of electric stuff, I might be playing one or two acoustic pieces. But to then go out and do a full 90-minute set of acoustic, I have to really spend at least a month or so just practicing all the stuff. It’s a totally different technique with the right hand.
Q: What do you enjoy about acoustic gigs?
A: Well I think they make you look at yourself as a musician. You’ve got to bring enough content to create a song from just yourself. So the song has to be good, the arrangement has to be good, the note voices — everything that you use to put in it. You don’t have as much clemency to just go here and there.
It’s a challenge to make it a piece of music because it’s just you, at least that’s the way I see it. That challenge is good for me. Once I bear through getting it together and learning it and trying to get it right, then I enjoy the challenge of finally creating a viable piece of music by just myself. Sometimes, it’s endearing to the audience to hear somebody just play a solo instrument, or just sing, or just sit down and play a folk song and sing it. There’s something special about just one person doing that.
Q: As you mentioned, things have to be tighter and ideas have to be more considered if you’re playing solo acoustic shows.
A: When you realize that and you do that and it works that way, it also makes you aware that you can use a lot of those concepts when you do the electric thing with the band as well. You realize, “Hey, you’re putting this together to make a piece of music in and of yourself. It’s a learning experience also that I can take back to the electric to try to make the electric thing better.” You can get away with things more on the electric than you can on the acoustic, I think. But that doesn’t mean that you should. Maybe you should think more musically when you’re doing the electric thing as well?
Q: It’s great to see you performing both electric and acoustic shows because the amount of work it takes to do that is astronomical.
A: Yeah, I think about that sometimes too. I can dream of things that you could do on the acoustic and I know I could do it, but I’d have to put so much time into it. But, I spend all this time on electric. The one drawback of enjoying different styles of music is you end up wanting to incorporate them into your thing, which is cool, but it’s hard to push really really far into one because you’re exercising your joy of the validity of all styles. You never get into the stratosphere with any one particular style, you’re just kind of like a bumblebee going from flower to flower.
Q: It could take a lifetime to master any of those styles.
A: Absolutely. It’s interesting, but then conversely, if that’s what it takes to keep you reinvested in the passion of music, then there’s merit to that — whatever it takes to keep that child-like passion for what you do and to keep reinvigorating it.