Tone Talk with Katrina Johansson

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Katrina is a rock guitarist from Milwaukee who has taken lessons from internationally known guitarists Michael Angelo Batio and Gary Hoey. She attended the Wisconsin Conservatory where she studied classical and rock guitar. She has toured with regional bands and her first CD of heavy instrumental music was on Michael Angelo Batio’s M.A.C.E. Records. He also played bass on her first CD.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?

My definition of tone is a combination of gear and playing style. This includes what gauge strings you use, pick material, your attack, vibrato, and the way you bend notes. It is your soul and identity as a guitar player. When you hear a song and know who is playing just by their sound.

Tone has changed over the decades along with gear and technology. In the ‘70s, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Ritchie Blackmore were known for their walls of Marshall Amps, Celestion speakers, Gibson and Fender guitars. Those guitar heroes were known for that big awesome sound that you could physically feel – like a rush of air and sound. Can you imagine standing in front of the stage at one of their concerts and feeling that wall of sound and power!

In the ‘80s, Eddie Van Halen truly revolutionized tone and gear. His innovative approach (tapping, dive-bombing) changed the course of guitar playing. He changed tone by using delays and his signature MXR Phase Shifter. Everyone wanted his “brown sound” including myself.

Guitar-oriented metal bands also changed tone in the ‘80s. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest carried on the tradition of walls of Marshalls, effects like Chorus, Delays, Phase Shifters.

Before you knew it, everyone had rackmount effects instead of pedals. Fast forward to now and everything has been digitized, and there are infinite choices when it comes to amps, effects, and guitars.

I don’t think that anything can replace that rush of air and power and soul of a vacuum tube Marshall Amp and a wall of 4 x 12 cabinets. Warmest tone ever.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

I am currently using a Zion Strat with an ebony fretboard, Dean MAB Armor Flame with ebony fretboard, Luna Apollo. Live, I like an EVH 5150 and 4 x12 Marshall cabinet with Celestions. I also use a Rocktron Utopia and a Dime 100 amp. I love ebony fretboards and the thin necks on my Zion Strat and Dean guitar, perfect if you feel like shredding. The Apollo is like a Les Paul without the weight.

What about strings?

I use .009-gauge strings only. I find it easier to bend notes and like the way they feel. There are a lot of great brands including D’Addario and Dean Markley.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

Isolate my amp and cabinet in a room and mike it. I play in the control room. Record drums first but play along with the drummer. I think that interaction between musicians and groove translates to your tracks. Bass goes direct and plays along too. Once the drums are finished, record the bass and all rhythm tracks. My songs usually have several contrasting parts so after layering each one, on to lead tracks. I don’t prefer to use plug-ins; nothing beats the sound of a tube head cranked up to 11.

How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?

The key to a consistent sound while performing live is a great sound engineer and soundcheck! Every room has different acoustics and challenges, so rely on your sound engineer.

What does your practice consist of?

My practice usually revolves around whatever project I am working on. Practicing leads over and over for pre-production, song parts over and over for band projects. Repetition is the key to mastering parts and being able to play your tracks in one or two takes.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?

Regardless of the overwhelming number of comments or words of advice, chart your own course. Don’t follow music trends, stay true to yourself, and play music that you are passionate about – and your tone and identity will reflect your true self.

For more on Katrina Johansson:

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