Even though the Eric Johnson Strat has been reviewed to death since its release in 2005, I simply couldn’t resist doing another one on my new two-color sunburst. I’ve only had this guitar for a few weeks and it has quickly become one of my favorites, and if you’ve ever had a chance to play one you’ll know exactly why I love this guitar. Eric Johnson Strats are beautifully built with deep, comfortable contours and a superbly shaped neck that is a real pleasure to play. We’re talking high-end, Fender Custom Shop quality and attention to detail here for under two grand. You just can’t beat that.
This is actually my second Eric Johnson Strat. I briefly owned a Candy Apple Red EJ Strat a couple of years ago, but never quite bonded with it. I was acquiring so many guitars during that period that it was difficult to connect with each and every one, so I am glad to have the chance to revisit this great Strat model and spend some quality time with it. The first thing I noticed (as I did with my previous one) was how stiff it played out of the box. Once I put on some fresh Ernie Ball Hybrid strings (.009s on the top and .010s on the bottom), added my treble bleed mod to the electronics, adjusted the truss rod to straighten out the neck, removed a spring, floated the tremolo and readjusted the action and intonation the guitar sounded much, much better and began to play like buttah. With a bit more tweaking (it still needs another truss rod adjustment and some serious playing time), it should break in beautifully and play even better.
I really like the sound of this Strat as compared to my others. I tend to pull out the pickups in just about any guitar I acquire and pop in my favorite replacements. For Stratocasters I typically go with DiMarzio Virtual Vintage Blues singles in the neck and middle position and the Fast Track II single coil sized humbucker in the bridge. This time, however, I am going to leave the EJ Strat electronics completely stock (save for, of course, my beloved treble bleed mod). This is my most “Strat-sounding” Strat at the moment and I am loving it! The Fender EJ pickups are a set of great sounding custom wound PUs made to Eric’s exact specifications and are a bit lower in output than I am accustomed to. I am compensating for the lower output of the pickups by kicking in a little overdrive boost with my TS808 copy (when needed) and a healthy dose of compression from my Fuchs Royal Plush compressor pedal. Lately I have really enjoyed playing it through the clean channel of my Kingsley D32 amp with generous amounts of reverb, a touch of delay from my Boss DD-3 (a pedal I acquired when I first started playing guitar back in the ’80s) and my Fuchs compressor. This guitar just oozes tone through the D32. What a great combo!
I love guitars finished in “thinskin” nitrocellulose lacquer. Apart from the improvement in tone I like the feel of nitro and the fact that nitrocellulose is a natural, organic lacquer (despite being a very environmentally unfriendly substance). These types of finishes also tend to age beautifully over time. I look forward to the wear marks and battle scars that mine will display in the years to come. It took several playing sessions before the neck finish “smoothed out” and stopped feeling quite so gummy and sticky. There is a small break-in period for nitro to smooth out andej-strat-04 become more glassy to the touch, and I really love the feel of a nitro neck once this curing has taken place. Speaking of necks, the EJ Strat’s one-piece, vintage-tinted quartersawn neck is a deliciously chunky, soft V profile with a very comfortably playable and bend-friendly 12″ radius fitted with medium jumbo frets– making fret work super smooth and easy. It puzzles me why Fender doesn’t make more guitars with flatter radii like this. A flatter radius makes for a much easier set up and a more comfortable action; plus, the dreaded “fret out” issue is less likely to manifest itself when bending strings in the upper register.
One of the really cool, unique features of the EJ Strat is the lack of string trees on the headstock. Some people erroneously believe EJ Strats have slightly angled headstocks, or that the headstock is somehow cut differently in order to make it possible to remove the trees, but this is not the case. Fender actually designed split-shaft, Kluson style tuning machines that are dramatically staggered. “Staggered” tuning machines are simply machines with shafts that get progressively shorter and shorter from low to high, which provides the needed break angle behind the nut slot for proper coupling with string, therefore eliminating the need for the string trees– even on the B and high E strings. Despite the stock bone nut (a great sounding, but notoriously bad material for tuning stability with tremolos), this guitar stays in tune quite well even with moderate to heavy tremolo use, and the lack of string trees certainly helps.
I have since upgraded this guitar with a Callaham vintage repo Strat bridge.. A Callaham bridge is pretty much a mandatory modification for me these days whenever I get a Strat that I know I’ll be keeping. The improvement in tuning stability, tone and feel is incredible and well documented on the Internet. If you’ve not head of Callaham Guitars, or if you have and are curious, check out the Callaham website. This guy makes the best Fender replacement parts in the business. I’ll be sure to post a follow up once I get the tremolo installed. I can safely say that this is one of my all-time favorite guitars in the collection!
A version of this post originally appeared on Ryan’s Guitars blog. It is re-posted here with full permission of the original author.