Eric Johnson’s ears are legendarily sensitive, So of course it took three years of development before he let Fender put his name on a new Stratocaster. By Peter Hodgson
Fender’s Eric Johnson Stratocaster has been on the market for about ten years now, and it’s the ultimate distillation of everything the iconic Texan guitarist has learned from a lifetime of playing and collecting Strats. But Johnson isn’t just a Strat guy – he’s also closely associated with the Gibson ES-335. So now, in 2018, there’s a new Thinline version of Johnson’s Strat which takes into account his love of semi-hollowbodies too.
THE WAIT IS OVER
This model has been in the works since 2015. If you’ve heard about Johnson’s legendary ear for tone and his drive for perfection, you’ll know that he and Fender have put a lot of R&D into this instrument. The body is made of alder (as with his original Strat model), with a quarter-sawn maple neck and a nitrocellulose lacquer finish. A ’57-style parchment scratch plate, three single coil pickups and a traditional Stratocaster vibrato all give this a very ‘50s Strat vibe, although it’s not simply a ‘50s-style model with Johnson’s name chucked on it and an F-hole cut in. Great care has been placed in the selection of the tremolo block, the number of trem springs, the neck shape, the fret type and the electronics. In fact, Johnson and Fender worked on a few prototype pickups designed to fully take advantage of the Thinline tonality, before they realised that his existing pickups already did a great job of capturing this guitar’s unique tone.
Looking a little closer at those fine tweaks, the pickups are mounted to the semi-hollow, two-piece alder body with countersunk screws for more efficient vibration transfer, and the neck is carved to a comfortable ’57 Soft V shape. The fingerboard is a 12-inch radius (the same as an ES-335, instead of a vintage Stratocaster’s rounder 7.25-inch radius), and the 21 frets are all medium-jumbo. The tremolo block is painted silver, and Fender uses ’57-style string recesses, a thin headstock with vintage-style staggered tuning machines, and an ‘ashtray’ bridge cover if you wish to use it. I personally dig these, but they’re not for everyone.
“But wait,” you say, “I’ve seen Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters with F-holes before! What’s the big deal?” Well, smart guy, the big deal is that every previous version of a semi-hollow, F-hole Strat that Fender has made has had an altered body shape in terms of contouring or body depth, whereas this one is designed to have the traditional Strat belly cut and edge contours. It took a lot of engineering to get that right and to nail the perfect size, shape and placement of the F-hole. The result is truly a Thinline Stratocaster and not a Thinline Tele with Strat appointments, which you could technically say about some previous attempts.
TIME FOR A WARM-UP
The semi-hollow body gives this guitar a louder unplugged sound, naturally, but it also results in more mids, less bass and a sweeter high-end compared to a solid Stratocaster. It’s a very lively, warm and rich sound, much more vocal and less zippy or bitey than traditional Strat tones. Chords seem to knit together a little more tightly compared to the extreme note separation of Johnson’s solid-body models. Sure, it’ll still do that ultra-clean Strat quack in the 2 and 4 positions, but the individual pickups each have their own mid-heavy, sonorous character. Watching Johnson play this guitar at the NAMM Fender VIP party, it was very revealing to see how much he operated the pickup selector while playing: at times, he would use it just to add more bite or warmth to just a handful of notes before flipping it back again. That requires tremendous balance between the outputs of the three pickups, but it also displays how perfectly fine-tuned this instrument is from an acoustic perspective.
THE REAL DEAL
It goes without saying that the playability with this model is exceptional. This is a guitar that expects you to roam all about the neck, and it never fights back too hard nor makes things too easy for you. What’s really unique, though, is that if you bend a string, you can feel the body resonating and reverberating in a really tactile, interactive way. It just makes notes feel more... Real. It’s hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you feel it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Is this the ultimate Eric Johnson Stratocaster? Well, that’s hard to say. The existing solidbody maple and rosewood fingerboard versions each have their own very distinct charms, and not everyone is going to be into the semi-hollowbody tonality, which does noticeably alter the Stratocaster tonality to be more warm and less airy. But there are sounds and tones that you can only get from this guitar, and that makes it very worthy of your consideration. It still sounds like a Stratocaster, but like no Stratocaster you’ve ever heard before.
TOP 5 FEATURES
• Alder body
• Maple neck
• 21 medium-jumbo frets
• Fender Eric Johnson pickups
• Semi-hollowbody design
• Unique “Strat, but different” tone
• Great custom neck shape
• Incredible tuning stability
• No rosewood fretboard option
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