Customizing My Eric Johnson Stratocaster

Discussion in 'Stratocaster Discussion Forum' started by arlum, Jun 16, 2021.

  1. arlum

    arlum Tele-Holic Platinum Supporter

    Jun 7, 2018
    O'Fallon, MO
    I've customized multiple guitars over the years to fit my needs and deliver the tones I hear in my head. A Graffiti Yellow Fender Powerhouse Strat. An '89 Ibanez RG and a '92 RG Deluxe. An '85 Charvel San Dimas. All good guitars but no signatures. No relatively expensive guitars. I finally decided to take the plunge with my early production Eric Johnson Stratocaster.
    There's so much I love about Eric's ideas for his signature model. The staggered height Fender tuners using no string tree and staying in tune longer than any other Fender tuners I've ever owned. The control wiring using the tone controls for the neck and bridge pickups and leaving the middle pickup alone. A well selected middle pickup needs no tone control. The silver painted bridge block with '57 style string recess adding a bit more weight. The lightest Stratocaster body I've ever picked up in my life. It's a 2-piece alder body that's listed as extra light but mine is off the charts. The whole assembled guitar can't weigh more than 5 lbs. The neck is total perfection. A '57 soft V back shape with a modern 12" radius maple fret board and a head stock that remains flat to the neck but pulled back. It's not tilted. It's flat and in line but positioned maybe a half inch to the rear of the rest of the neck. Medium jumbo highly polished frets for the finishing touch. All of these attributes will remain as they are. I could never improve upon them.
    So ...... what am I changing. Tone effecting ...... All three pickups, (gasp!), and replacing the the steel bridge saddles with Graph Tech saddles. Actual play feel ...... a custom tremolo arm that fits my hand placement better. Additional just for looks ..... An out of production 8 hole vintage Strat pickguard in Black Shell. Fenders current production 8 hole Strat pick guards are limited to pure vintage colors. White, black, mint, etc. Q-Parts UFO, (standard Strat knob shape), control knobs in black with real purple abalone tops. A few stickers for the top that remind me of '67 to '73 and a mosaic strap color matched. Lastly .... a set of Schaller S strap locks.
    Other than looks and strap locks my actual "make it me" changes boil down to pickups, bridge saddles and tremolo arm. The rest is cosmetic. A hippie Strat in the making.
    The Graph Tech saddles ....... I've loved Graph Tech saddles for a very long time. I've used them on all of my customized guitars. While it's true that string breakage drops down I like them for the way they effect the tone of the guitar. They are "bite / ice" killers. They add mid range in a good way. They make an electric guitar sound a bit closer to a non- electric guitar. A vocal quality I'm having trouble defining.
    The Tremolo arm ...... I've always had issues with trem arms. I've tried all three normally available lengths and none work for the position my picking hand is in. I always have to adjust my picking hand to grasp the trem arm and it's always detrimental to my playing. The middle length fits me the best. The "Gilmore" length interferes with access to the volume knob and the standard length is just too long. I found a custom shaped trem arm at Overdrive Custom Guitar Works that works perfectly for my needs. It's the full standard length but has a sharp bend in it that makes the control knobs easier to access, repositions it to where the middle length would normally be and adjusts the angle of the arm to exactly match my normal picking hand position so I can continue to use the picking position I use best.
    The pickups. Yep. I expect some blow back here. Eric's pickup choice is the stuff of legends. Low output Alnico III in the neck and middle and an Alnico V in the bridge position. All to Eric's specs. . Well .... I'm not Eric and, although I think he has the best guitar tone of any guitarist out there, I need the guitar tones I hear in my head.
    Luckily, my favorite bridge tone is identical to Eric's and again like Eric, I don't think Fender hit the mark on the Alnico 5 bridge pickup included in the Eric Johnson signature set. I've seen a video where Eric admits that the Fender Signature guitars he plays on stage have had the Fender EJ bridge pickup removed and replaced with a DiMarzio HS2 wired as a single rather than humbucking. After seeing the video I purchased an HS2, wired it the way he said and sadly, although better than the Fender version, still didn't match my expectations. So ....
    I started a very long search checking out videos, visiting local music stores, trying out other folks guitars, seeking opinions on multiple forums, calling some of the pickup builders I have a relationship with, taking a few out of town trips to "major player" stores to get their staffs opinions and try out whatever they had in stock. A tip from a pickup builder who doesn't make what I'm currently looking for told me to check out a pickup set built by Klein Pickups. I told him Klein doesn't have an EJ Signature set advertised on his website. He told me Klein doesn't use the artists name but rather builds a set he thinks comes as close as possible to the artists original pickup set. In this case the pickups Eric uses in his '56 and '57 Strats but seldom takes on the road nowadays. I finally found a guy on you tube demoing the Klein S-7, (EJ Specials). He sounded like he was playing Eric's '57 Strat. The bridge pickup was exactly what I was looking for. It sounded perfect. The neck and middle also sounded very Eric but those positions are where Eric and I kind of go in different directions. When I play my Strat I always use it in the same way. I only play rhythms in the 2 and 4 position, (RWRP). My leads are maybe 40% bridge, 40% neck and 20% position 4, (neck and middle). I never ever use the middle pickup by itself. In order to get the 2 and 4 position tones I like I need a very bright middle pickup. Too bright to use by itself. Still .... I'd found my bridge pickup.
    During all my years playing and listening to other players my favorite Stratocaster neck pickup tones were achieved by those players using a '63 Stratocaster. They were like the perfect balance between mid range rich yet still highly defined. I love the sound of a thick sustaining neck pickup that just seems to hold a note forever. Sadly, most all of them have less string definition than I desire. The '63 Strat really nailed the neck pickup I hear in my head. That's what I wanted. While at the Klein pickup website I saw he had a 1963 Epic Series Stratocaster pickup set. After researching them every way I could think of I came to the conclusion that the neck pickup from this set was as close as I'll ever get to an original '63 neck pickup. No other builders offerings came close. I found my neck pickup.
    To date .... my favorite Stratocaster middle position pickup, (for the way I use them as described above), has always been the Rio Grande Halfbreed. Super bright and super high definition. Perfect for matching with my neck and bridge choices. That said .... I've run into issues when mixing pickups from different custom builders and decided since I'd already found 2 outstanding pickups for the neck and bridge at Klein I would check out every middle position pickup he offered. Only one met my needs. Actually it sounded very much like a Rio Grande Halfbreed. Maybe a smidge louder and a tick less bright but quite impressive. Slightly leaning to "bell" over the Halfbreeds "glass". Very musical and sounding like it would create a beautiful blend in the 2 and 4 position. The middle pickup I'm referring to is part of Klein's 1957 Epic Series Straocaster pickup set. I found my middle position pickup.
    While checking out the Klein website I found you could mix and match pickups from different sets and that's all I needed to know. I placed my order. The neck from the 1963 Epic series, the middle from the 1957 Epic series, (ordered RWRP), and the bridge from the S-7 Stratocaster set.
    As of this posting I've received all of my parts for upgrade except the Klein pickups. The pickups are highly sought after and Klein has a waiting list. Each pickup is hand built. He's been good to e-mail me and keep me up to date. It's been a little over 2 weeks since I placed my order and if all things come together they should ship out in one more week. Now that bands can finally take the stage again his back order list has increased proportionally. I'm good with that. I understand.
    So ..... I'm in a holding pattern. When the pickups arrive I'll start my EJ customization. When my projects completed I'll be sure to get some pictures posted on TDPRI.
    Zepfan, chezdeluxe and Chipss36 like this.
  2. teleman1

    teleman1 Friend of Leo's

    May 16, 2003
    I have an early EJ along with three other strats. It tone is to die for and I am always amazed when somone want to change the pickups. THe only possible better alternative for pickups would be Duncan ssl-1's for me.
    chezdeluxe likes this.
  3. Chipss36

    Chipss36 Tele-Holic

    Feb 20, 2020
    I have an ej body on the way, it’s imho the best early Strat body made sort of the custom shop, that killer 57 contour, and in nitro.
    also got the ej trem, the trem block is what I was after.
    It is much like the old 50s blocks .
    I also like the tone on controls neck, bridge. And wire that way.

    I am not real fond though of the ej neck, or the pickups.

    I have an srv, I love the neck, the body is heavy, thick poly, the wood has knots in it. I hate that body.

    So am using my favorite srv neck, and the plastics will be 1954 bakelights or rather and more correctly styrene, reproductions fender had a limited run on a few years back. The knobs are different, the switch tip the football shape. And the rear cover, that I will install on the ej body, has round holes not slots, the plastics in early 54 were much different. I dig em…

    the pickups will be my Virgil Arlo 1954s. Best Strat pickup I know short of a good set of real fender 50’s vintage ones. I waited, I payed, and I am sure glad I did. Can’t get this set anymore!

    pretty much putting all my favorite parts on one guitar.

    funny how this makes some flat out angry.

    yet that is exactly what srv’s guitar was, the neck, the body, and the pickups were all different years.
    Had srv been such a purist , the world would have never heard his #1 guitar ….

    been looking for the right ej body, weight and wood grain, for a few years, it’s out for delivery. the wait is killing me.

    the build should pretty much cover my alternate reality 1950 ish Strat.

    The plastics/pickups 54, the body 57, the neck 59 ish.

    My big waiting pattern will
    Be the plastics, found a set in New Zealand, they are on the way.
    Rare as hens teeth.

    I think it’s cool what leads you is a tone you are chasing, and thinking how do I get to that place…
    It takes time, thoughts , playing , research…gambles, and so on.
    Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it’s back to the drawing board.

    I salute you!
    RodeoTex likes this.
  4. RodeoTex

    RodeoTex Doctor of Teleocity

    Sep 14, 2005
    Nueces Strip
    I think that's going to be awesome
  5. chezdeluxe

    chezdeluxe Poster Extraordinaire

    Dec 29, 2007
    Brisbane Australia
    I’m with you on the SSL 1 pickups. So was George Fullerton .
    That’s what he specified on his G&L signature model. I still regret selling that guitar.
    teleman1 likes this.
  6. Blackmore Fan

    Blackmore Fan Tele-Holic

    Nov 22, 2013
    I put SSL-1s in a MIM Strat and it sounds amazing now. I couldn't recommend them more highly. They're very vintage-voiced, and surprisingly quiet. I don't really hear any hum in the 1-3-5 positions.
    chezdeluxe likes this.
  7. brookdalebill

    brookdalebill Tele Axpert Ad Free Member

    Nov 15, 2009
    Austin, Tx
    The EJ Strat is the best non Custom Shop, production Strat ever made, IMO.
    It’s extremely well thought out.
    Thanks, Eric!
    I modded my EJ with Kinman noiseless pickups, and a custom pickguard with a master volume only.
    I dislike, and don’t use tone pots, and I cannot tolerate pickup hum.
    I placed that master volume in the place where the neck tone pot would go, out of my picking hand’s way.
    The master volume is also a push/pull put.
    It allows access to the outside two pickups in switch position 1 or 5.
    I too believe in making/modding your instruments to be as versatile, and user friendly as possible.
    Luckily, my mods are non-invasive,and the guitar could be returned to stock.
    chezdeluxe likes this.
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