At the Winter NAMM 2020 show, Fender launched a new series called the Stories Collection, which features tributes to modded Fender guitars owned and played by acclaimed artists who made extraordinary music. The first guitar in the series is a recreation of Eric Johnson‘s 1954 “Virginia” Stratocaster,” one of Johnson’s favorite guitars.
The project to build the Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster was spearheaded by Joey Brasler, VP of Product Development, who worked with Eric on the specs and features that mirrored his original Virginia. Master Builder Carlos Lopez is hand-building all limited-edition Custom Shop Virginia models.
Eric’s original “Virginia” was a 1954 Stratocaster that he acquired in a trade back when he was in his twenties. As the story goes, he was in a music store getting a blown speaker repaired and saw a guitar sitting in a corner. He picked it up, fell in love with it immediately and called the owner to ask if he would sell it. The owner didn’t want to sell, but he said he’d trade it for another guitar, which Eric quickly bought and traded to get the ’54.
Eric bought the guitar at a time when you could still buy a ‘50s Stratocaster very inexpensively. The notion of “vintage” was still in the future. As a result, Eric Johnson was inclined to experiment on his Stratocaster. He proceeded to modify it over a number of years until he came up with the perfect combination of old and new parts to give him exactly the tones he was looking for.
Eric named his Strat “Virginia” because in 1954 (the first year of production for Stratocasters) the Fender final assembly team would put a piece of masking tape inside the body with their first name and finish date. Eric took the pickguard of his guitar off one day and, sure enough, there was a piece of marking tape with the name “Virginia” written on it––so that’s what he named his guitar.
Eric Johnson noticed that his 1954 Stratocaster had really different tone than any other guitar he had ever played. One of the reasons for this, Eric discovered, is that his original guitar had a body that was made of Sassafras wood. The story goes that Leo Fender, back in 1953 and 1954, had gotten a little bit of Sassafras wood and built some Telecasters and Stratocasters with it. Sassafras, as it turns out, has a very resonant, light and airy sustain quality, and when you turn up the volume it emits almost a violin like vibe. When Fender asked the guitarist what features he wanted in his “Virginia” Stratocaster reissue, one of his requests was that the guitar body be made of Sassafras.
Today, the minute you pick up the Fender Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster you can tell it has the soul and the magic of a real 1954 Stratocaster. The neck on the guitar features a 12-inch radius and 21 jumbo frets. The neck has been flattened out a little bit, so you get a little lower action than on a regular Stratocaster. It's very similar in every way to a real 1954 Stratocaster neck, which means by design and purpose it’s a little thicker than a standard Strat neck but not so wide that it’s uncomfortable to play. It makes it very easy to get some unique voicings out of the instrument and it’s also, in general, just easier to get around on.
The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster has a very thin nitrocellulose lacquer finish, which has an old-school feel to it. The nitrocellulose finish is very light and lets the wood breathe in a way that is unique to this finish. Unlike a lot of production guitars, the setup on the Eric Johnson Virginia is amazing right out of the case. Seriously, the minute you pick up this guitar you can feel the mojo. Fender has gone to great effort to make sure the guitar feels and plays great right out of the case.
The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster features a number of details that evolved as Eric experimented with and modified the original “Virginia” Stratocaster. It has 500K tone and volume pots and all cloth wiring. The Sassafras body has a flat radius maple neck that’s been slightly flattened and big frets. A string tree sits on a nylon washer and has a slight up angle.
The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster features a vintage-style tremolo Graphtec graphite high E saddle, which has a little thicker tone that equals out with the B string a little bit more. The concept Eric and Fender came up with was to take a saddle from the ‘70s and put in its place some Delrin plastic to take some of the edge off the high E. In the production model of the Virginia Stratocaster, the saddles recreate some of that softer tone that Eric likes to use with pedals.
Eric had experimented with different pickups in the original “Virginia” Stratocaster over the years, trying out different combinations of ‘50s Stratocaster pickups. The Fender custom shop pickups on the production Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster are a little stronger than original 54 pickups. The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster features Fender Original 57/62 single-coil pickups and a DiMarzio HS-2 (top coil only). The DiMarzio is a little stronger bridge pickup that doesn’t sacrifice the rhythm tone, but it’s strong enough if you go to a lead tone. This means you can still push the guitar though an amp and get a little more sustain out of it. That also means the guitar plays well with distortion pedals, which is a signature component of Eric Johnson’s tone.
The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster features—at Eric’s request—a 500k ohm volume pot instead of the vintage spec 250k ohm volume pot for an overall brighter sound. The two front pickups are the same polarity, opposite to the DiMarzio, for hum-free operation when using the middle and bridge pickups. The neck and middle pickups are out-of-phase with each other, so if you’re in the middle position between the two pickups you’ll notice it has a really thin tone, which is unique for this guitar. It almost has kind of a Japanese tone to it, and sounds almost like a Koto, which is one of Eric Johnson’s signature tones.
The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster successfully brings back to life a historically important guitar. It’s a unique musical instrument that showcases amazing attention to detail and effectively recreates some modifications and improvements that were devised through trial and error by one the world’s iconic guitar players.
The Eric Johnson Virginia Stratocaster is MAP Priced at $2,495 and is now available as a limited edition production-run guitar.