Eric Johnson’s Playing Style

Eric Johnson's playing style: Fender American Vintage '57 Stratocaster

To celebrate my new guitar, I’ve been studying some Eric Johnson

pieces. In part, because he’s one of my favorite Strat players, but mostly because he plays (used to play more often) a ‘57 Fender Stratocaster as well. So, I can share some of what I have learned from Eric Johnson’s playing style.

As for songs, I am currently studying “Cliffs of Dover” and “S.R.V.”. These songs cover a great part of his playing style, so I think it’s great to use some fragments to illustrate it here. I will start with a fundamental part of his solos: pentatonic scales.

Eric Johnson relies mostly on pentatonic scales and arpeggios for his solos. No bizarre scale mixing or complex shredding. However, his pentatonic approach is very unique, as he likes to add some flavor by mixing different tempos (groups of 4, 5 or 6 notes per beat) and also mix alternate and sweep picking for that fluidly play. Take a look at these couple bars from “Cliffs of Dover” intro for instance (0:21):

Eric Johnson's playing style: Cliffs Of Dover intro ending

* Note 1: the time mark above is where you can find this phrase in the original studio version of this song (“Ah Via Musicom” album).

* Note 2: there’s a missing F# mark besides the treble clef due to a glitch in my notation software. This song is in E minor. Both notes are valid for all the music fragments from “Cliffs of Dover” in this article.

If you take a look at the notes, you will see it’s just an E minor pentatonic run (with some E minor scale passing tones here and there). But the way the notes are grouped is not usual. One would expect 1/16th notes or triplets, but Eric Johnson combines groups of 5 and 6 notes to create this phrase.

Another thing to notice is the picking. Although there is no picking notation in this, it is easy to verify that there are some “rolling” parts where sweep (or economy) picking is used, like the C to E transition (17th fret of G and B strings) between the first two groups of notes. In fact, all the group transitions can be done using sweep picking.

Sweep picking is also used in fast ascending arpeggios, another of Eric Johnson’s playing style trademarks. This is the second phrase of the main theme redux from “Cliffs of Dover” (1:52):

Eric Johnson's playing style: Cliffs Of Dover main theme redux

At the end of this, there are two fast ascending arpeggios, the first is a Dadd4 and the second is an Em7 arpeggio. There are two obvious sweep picking parts, one in each arpeggio – try to figure them out! 🙂

So, the recipe for Eric Johnson’s solos is: tasteful pentatonic scales, arpeggios and a combination of alternate and sweep picking.

But the most amazing thing about his playing is his chord work. One of the coolest things he uses is the open-voiced triad, that is, when each note of the triad isn’t followed  by the immediate next note (root to 5th, 5th to 3rd, etc). There are plenty of videos of Eric Johnson playing some clean guitar improvisation parts where you can see this in action (like here, for instance, at 0:53).

In “Cliffs of Dover”, the intro has a cool ascending, arpeggiated open voice triads run, which you can see here (0:11):

Eric Johnson's playing style: Cliffs Of Dover intro arpeggios

There’s a bit of a break after the second arpeggio. Other than that, it’s pure use of open voice triads. It starts with Am/C, then Bm/D, a small lick in the E minor scale, then proceeds with Em/G, Am, G/B, C and D.

Try playing around with these open voice triads. You will probably come up with some very cool licks!

And that’s it for my brief post on Eric Johnson’s style. I will probably write more as I progress in my studies, so stay tuned!


* Legal disclaimer: “Cliffs of Dover” is an original song by Eric Johnson and its copyright is held by Capitol Records, 1990. The commercial use of this piece is not allowed. The material  displayed in this page is for personal use/study only.

Eric Johnson's Playing Style
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Eric Johnson's Playing Style
Eric Johnson's playing style: tasteful pentatonic scales, arpeggios and a combination of alternate and sweep picking.