After the experience with a self-made guitar, which I have to admit was not that successful, I felt the desire to buy another factory made axe as a personal christmas-gift. Though I am very happy with my main guitar, the BC Rich Stealth, there is always space for another color in the arsenal of a guitar-player and the BC Rich is somewhat limited to muscular Rock- and Metal sounds. I had never a good sounding Stratocaster, so soon I started to look for a Strat and stopped at the new Eric Johnson Thinline. There are several reasons, why the EJ Stratocaster was attractive for me:
- The Thinline concept, which would lead in my opinion to a comfortable weight and a slightly rounder tone
- It’s a signature guitar and over the years I have collected mostly signature guitar
- Judging from Youtube-videos the guitar would sound very different compared to my other guitars
- It’s an american Fender and those guitars keep a high value over the years (or can even become a collector’s item)
- Though some people hate it I love the F-hole design, because it reminds me on a violin, my first instrument
- From the specs the EJ Thinline pairs many vintage features (and a vintage sound) with modern playability (12″ fretboard radius, higher frets)
There were some competitors: The new Musicman Valentine, which got raving reviews and the new Ibanez AS 2204 Prestige
Why I decided to order the Fender? The Valentine has a 9,5″ fretboard radius, which I don’t like and seems to be mostly a rhythm-guitar, second it needs a battery for the integrated booster. I am not against batteries inside of guitars and played a Superstrat equipped with EMGs for many years, but if you are looking for a Fender-Style guitar for Clean and Crunch you could also add an external booster later. Of course the booster is widening the flexibility of that guitar, but as a plain recording artist I am not after a One-can-do-it-all guitar. And I don’t hesitate to switch instruments and can adjust fast to different shapes and scales. The same reasons stood against the second contender of the EJ Thinline, the Ibanez AS 2204 Prestige. It is also a guitar designed to cover a wide range of sounds and in my humble opinion guitars, which shall do it all, never sound really phantastic and often lack character. Sometimes you have to choose between sacrificing versatility and sacrificing tone. The Ibanez follows a new Super-Strat concept, which was made popular by the company Suhr. But a Super-Strat will always be a compromise between a dedicated Humbucker guitar with Gibson-scale and a Singlecoil-guitar. To sum up I hoped for a very special tone with a highly remarkable Stratocaster-character and the EJ Thinline and its special specifications seemed most promising.
So I ordered one and opened the case full of expectations on the day it was delivered. The first impression of the Eric Johnson Thinline is gorgeous, the fresh smell of the poisenous Nitro-finish, the almost perfect factory-setup and the care for details, which you can recognise in the concept and in the workmanship. It feels a bit like a custom-shop instrument and not like a standard-line.
The critical area of every guitar is the playability and sound above the 15th fret. Most guitars will sustain for seconds around the 5th fret, but when you play an A on the G-string at the 16th fret you will hear more differences and many guitars will loose the game in that area. I played the EJ first without amplification and was pleased by the notes across the fretboard, maybe some notes on the higher frets did not ring out well, but it was more caused by my bad bendings than by the guitar. And here we come to a point, which I recognised from the very beginning about the EJ Thinline: It is damned hard to bend strings on it. Playing normal on it like on an acoustic guitar is a joy, but as soon as I try to do finger-vibrato or Bends with Vibrato I have to fight. Compared to my BC Rich equipped with a 009-046 string-set the difference is very remarkable and feels more like changing from 009 to 012 than just from 009 to 010 (The EJ Strat is delivered with Eric’s signature string-set from 010 to 050). On the other hand the guitar sounds amazing. It instantly sounds like I imagine a very good Stratocaster with a slight touch of warmth added by the Thinline-construction. The guitar is very responsive to pickings and extremely dynamic. I could never play on a 50s vintage stratocaster, but I am sure some genes of those legendary instruments were injected into the EJ Thinline. The 50s Fender-sound is described as crystal-clear with many highs and the EJ Thinline delivers that. At all PU-positions you get so many highs, that you have to work with the Tone-controls to dial in warm overdrive-tones. Here the concept of the guitar shines: Go from crystal-clear Clean-sounds to a warm Lead as you tame the highs with the Tone and Volume controls. Other guitars with less open sounding PUs can not achieve that kind of transparancy. Below you can admire the staggered pole-pieces of the Pick Ups, which are also designed by Eric Johnson. And you can see many little black hairs on the Pickguard, which come from the otherwise solid Fender-case. This is something, which should not happen with a guitar, which costs around 2k.
When noodling around with the Strat I immediately play clean country-style stuff and every note is ringing equally. The separation between the strings is something I have not experienced before. Playing Rhythm-guitar on it with a slight crunch is pure joy as well. All Pick-up positions deliver a distinctive character, my favourites are the bridge-PU, which sound well rounded and never harsh and the neck PU, which sounds never muddy or undefined. The concept of “Stiffness” translates here to much clarity paired with warmth. I could even imagine, that some Jazzguitarists could be tempted by this sound. The In-between-positions are also great and glassy, no reason to think on swapping the Pick ups here in my opinion. Because of the very hard and stiff setup the guitar reacts very fast and gratifies the player with a very articulated “Hifi”-sound.
But the problem with bendings and vibrato let me a bit torn. Should I send it back and try something else, though I love the sound of the guitar, exchanging it for something more comfortable, but with probably less character (Ibanez)? I started to read some threads about the former model, the Eric Johnson Standard Strat without the Thinline-feature and realised, that many players experienced the same with this instrument. While reading all these long discussions about the stiffness of the EJ Strat I learned a lot about different factors, which all seem to work together on this instrument and cause the hard feeling. Sometimes I wonder how long people are willing to defend their statements, though it does not exist any scientific proof. When discussing the “stiffness” of the Eric Johnson Strat players mostly battle about the question, if a quartersawn maple neck could be the bad guy inside of this guitar. I have my own opinion, but I want to list here all arguments, which are used to explain the “EJ Strat Phenomenon”, or shortly EJSP as I will call it hence.
- Thick Quartersawn Maple-Neck
This is the neck backside in all its glory. I found somewhere on the net, that the neck dimensions should be 0.864″ at the first fret to 0.967″ at the twelve fret and you can see the wood-grain of the quartersawn-maple. The neck is definitely mighty going from a soft V to C-shape, but the size is in my opinion not the reason for the hard playability nor the quartersawn-structure of the wood.
- Sticky laquer on the Maple-fretboard enclosing the frets
Above you can observe how many laquer was used and spread across the fretboard. You can even see how the laquer is thicker on the sides of the frets. In my opinion this is the true reason, why the EJ Strats feels so hard to play at first. Every time, when you execute a bending or a vibrato, your fingers are stopped by the sticky laquer on the maple-fretboard. People, who bought the Rosewood-version of the Standard EJ Strat, never complain about the stiffness of their guitar. It’s only a problem with the maple-version and the Thinline is only available with a maple-fretboard. Though the frets of the EJ Thinline are higher than Vintage-Frets they are not high enough to separate your fingers from the problematic fretboard. And because there is so much laquer on the fretboard the frets feel also not as high as they should. But there are additional factors:
- Guitar is set up with a flush bridge and five (!) springs with almost no “give” from the bridge
Normally when you bend a string on guitar with a bridge, which is set to “floating”, the vibrato will raise while you bend with two side-effects: The string will feel less resistant, but you will have to bend further to reach the same pitch. On the EJ Thinline the bridge is not moving at all.
- The EJ Strat is strung with a special string-set, which is als extra-stiff with a heavy bottom 010-050
- The headstock is slightly thinner to avoid successfully a string-tree.
Additionally the Tuner-shafts are staggered. Some people say, that this modification should also cause a higher string-tension, because the string-length is increased, but I don’t get the point, because in my understanding the string is still moving under a string-tree. Therefore you have to stretch the same length as before.
- At last the strings sit not so deep in the vibrato-block as usual.
You can see the quality of the vibrato-block, which seems to be made of steel. On other Stratocasters the ball-ends of the strings sit deeper in the block. The string-length is increased.
In the end you see, that a lot of thoughts went into this instrument and I am sure all of these special modifications were done for a good reason. Eric Johnson is known for his excessive obsession with sound and he cares for every little detail of his sound-chain. I guess you already know the famous story about his ability to hear differences in 9 Volt batteries. The benefit from torturing your poor fingers is the amazing sound from this guitar. Sometimes it can be worth to accept a bit of pain for a great result, just think on Stevie Ray Vaughan. But back to our topic: Of course the diligent discussers in the Fender-threads found solutions to overcome the “Stiffness” and I want to list them also and start with the most obvious advice:
- Just play the guitar and get used to it
The Nitro-Finish will get harder over time. People, who kept an EJ-Strat for some years tell, that the Stickiness fades away after one or two years depending on how much you play the guitar. Over the years your fingers will also remove more and more laquer until you end up with a comforatble feeling. Many experienced Strat-players insist, that an instrument like this, especially with the Nitro-finish, needs time to break in.
- Use thinner strings
This is another easy advice and something I will try myself. However other strings will sound different and I also fear, that thinner high strings can cause problems with the headstock without a string-tree.
- Remove the laquer from the fretboard to free the frets
For guitar-players, who are not patient enough to follow advice number one: You could use steel-wool or a standard kitchen-foam (the rough side) to carefully remove laquer from the fretboard. Please watch or read some tutorials before, because you can also damage the frets and the fretboard. Or better go to an experienced luthier.
- Float the bridge and use only three springs
This is something everybody can do at home, but I suspect, that Mr.Johnson exactly knows, why he has chosen a flushed bridge and I am sure the sound will change.
- Flatten the radius of the fretboard to 16″ and install Dunlop 6100 frets
The last advice above is the most radical, but probably also the most effective. Normally it should be done by a luthier. The Dunlop 6100 are very high and will lift your fingers high enough to not drown in the laquer. But there is also a strong disadvantage: The resale-value of the guitar will drop significant, because the modification can not be made undone.
After weighing all advantages and disadvantages I have decided to keep the guitar because of its sound. On the other hand I am sure, that all modifications of the set-up will alter the sound. Therefore I will start with advice number one to get used to this guitar. Because I already have a guitar, which is perfect for soloing, I would reserve this baby for rhythm-parts and clean soloing. If I still can not adjust to this guitar in one year I would consider another solution, which was not listed above: Ordering another neck for the guitar. I favourite this solution for some reasons:
- Changing the set-up would alter the well thought-out concept of this guitar
- Modifying the neck will lower the resale-value. If I order another neck I could store the original one. When I would sell the guitar later it would be like new.
If I order a replacement neck I would order the following specs
- Exactly the same size
- 16″ radius with 6100 frets
- No laquer, just wax and oil
Final thoughts: The new Fender Eric Johnson Thinline serves some of the finest Stratocaster-sounds I have ever heard. The Thinline-concept adds warmth and depth and makes the guitar light-weighted without loosing the balance. The set-up needs time to adjust to, but it’s worth it in my opinion.
- Sound quality
- Neck feels sticky at first
- Frets are not as high as I would like it
- The stuffing of the Fender-case is subpar
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