Sunday, July 19, 2009

Eric Johnson's Cliffs of Dover | Techniques and Equipment



Here's a clip of maestro Eric Johnson doing his thing on Cliffs of Dover. In the world of instrumental rock guitar, it's rare that a piece stands the test of time while being the signature tune most closely associated with the artist. Eric's Cliffs of Dover is just one such rarity.

On this clip he plays a lengthy intro with his most pristine of chimey clean tones, courtesy of the 4th position of the pickup selector switch on his Stratocaster. His clean sound is pumped through two Fender Twin Reverbs amps, each driving two 12" speakers in a single Marshall 4x12 cabinet for stereo. This cabinet is an open back, which allows him to get the bottom-end of a Marshall cab while still maintaining the open-back characteristics of a Fender Twin.

His clean tone is awash with copious amounts of Electro Harmonix Memory Man and/or Echoplex tape delay and a hint of chorus from his TC Electronics Chorus unit which he also uses as a splitter to send his signal to his two Twin Reverbs.

The background 'loop' sounds like an a 800ms sample from a Boss DD-2 Digital Delay pedal. Back in the day, the Boss DD's were among the few that provided a short sampling feature so that loops could be created on the fly. But you were limited to only 800ms of sampling time.

At 1:41-1:51, Eric uses what he calls his ' japanese koto' technique. While fretting notes conventionally with his left hand, he employs a thumb and forefinger technique with his right hand -- he plucks the note with his thumb while the index finger lightly dampens a note on the same string right next to the fret played with the left hand. He then adds a little vibrato with the left hand.

At 3:01 he flips to the lead pickup on his Strat, switches to his lead channel and begins traversing the fingerboard with his trademark pentatonic flurries. Unlike most players who approach pentatonics with hammer-ons and pull-offs, Eric prefers to alternate pick most of his pentatonic ideas. He describes his slightly unconventional picking technique as alternate picking where he holds the pick at an angle to minimize friction and faciltitate speed. He also picks from the guitar's body up into the air, brushing the string with the side of the pick with a slight bounce in the wrist. He's been known to lightly sandpaper the sides of his red Jazz III picks to create a finely rough surface to facilitate this brushing effect.

On his lead channel is a TC Electronic's Sustainer, a Fender Reverb unit, another Echoplex and a Chandler Tube Driver.

Interestingly, Eric places the Tube Driver after his reverb and delays. This gives his tone a characteristic warmth with a bit of 'mud' as his effected signal is being pumped into his overdrive.

His amp setup for his lead channel is either a Marshall 100 watt head, or the holy grail of amps, the Dumble Overdrive Special. His speaker cabinet of choice for this channel is a closed-back Marshall 4x12.

At 3:31 Eric makes a quick tonal adjustment on the lower tone knob. Strats are conventionally wired such that the first tone knob controls the front pickup and the second lower tone knob controls the middle pickup. The lead pickup is not wired to a tone control. Since Eric is on the 5th position on his pickup selector, this shows that his lead pickup is wired to his second tone control. Joe Bonamassa also talks about this very useful and simple Strat mod, which I mention here. This helps take off some of the shrill top-end when using the Strat's lead pickup on its own.

Eric Johnson is one of those rare masters of touch, tone and technique and all three elements feature abundantly in both his live performances and in his studio recordings. But his near-fanatical attention to detail on his solo records means that he probably spends more time than he should on each one -- which makes his recorded output pretty scarce.


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