with Sophia Johnson
Name: Sophia Johnson
Bands: The Toy Hearts
QRD – What was your first guitar & what happened to it?
Sophia – A Hohner half-size nylon string classical that my dad got for me when I was 7. I think it got passed on to my cousin Albie when I’d outgrown it.
QRD – What’s your typical set-up from guitar to effects to amplifier?
Sophia – I keep things pretty simple when I play electric guitar, I just go straight from the guitar into a Peterson Stomp strobe tuner, then Durham Electronics Sex Drive pedal which gives a clean boost for when I switch from rhythm to lead.
QRD – What’s the most important part of your rig - guitar, amplifier, or effects?
Sophia – For me it’s definitely my guitar, which is a 1958 Gibson ES125 – the other stuff is really just “gear” to me – I think you need to be happy with the guitar you are playing before you worry about the amp & effects.
QRD – What’s your main amplifier & why?
Sophia – I just acquired a vintage Gibson Skylark amp from the late 50s, which I am very excited about. I’m currently having it reconditioned & made road worthy, I love the sound of those small vintage amps that you can turn up to get natural valve distortion. I don’t need a big amp as we try & keep our on stage sound not too loud. In the meantime, while the Skylark is being fixed up I am using my dad’s spare amp which is a Peavey Delta Blues which I’m actually really enjoying using.
QRD – What’s your main guitar & what are the features that make it such?
Sophia – I actually use 3 guitars on stage. I play a Martin D28CW for the bluegrass stuff, it is based on the guitar Tony Rice now owns which belonged to Clarence White, it has an extra big sound hole & forward shifted bracing so it has a really good bass end & is great for flat picking. Then I use a Gitane D500 for swing stuff in the acoustic set, it’s basically a copy of the Grande Bouche Maccaferri guitars Django & his band used. I had John le Voi who builds gypsy jazz guitars, make me a new bridge & set my Gitane up – & although this is by far the cheapest of my guitars, I think it has a really great tone. Finally I use my vintage Gibson ES125 for our “electric” set. Although it is my newest guitar, it is actually from 1958 & has just one P90 pick up on the neck – I absolutely love the sound.
QRD – If you had a signature guitar, what would it look like & what would some of its features be?
Sophia – This is a really hard question because I use my 3 guitars for different purposes. I’d love to get a big archtop made, a D28 style flat top, & a gypsy jazz guitar as well!
QRD – If you had a signature pedal, what would it be & what would some of its features be?
Sophia – Because I love the sound of my P90 through a vintage amp, I only really use one pedal just for a boost for lead work – that’s all I need live, so I guess that’s all my signature pedal would need to be!
QRD – How many guitars do you own?
Sophia – I currently have six.
QRD – How & where do you store your guitars?
Sophia – I try & get them out of their cases & on stands in my music room. I like to have them out as it encourages me to play them all!
QRD – What do you wish guitar cases had that they usually don’t?
Sophia – I have no problem at all with Carlton Cases – I think they are fantastic. Although heavy, they offer heavy-duty protection & they are so well made they offer great peace of mind when traveling. So far mine have been incredibly hard wearing.
QRD – What features do you look for when buying a guitar?
Sophia – It really depends on what style you play & what sound you want to get – I often find cheap guitars have a pretty thin bass end, but then I’m looking for bass end because I’m a flatpicker.
QRD – How much do you think a good guitar should cost?
Sophia – Again I really think it depends on what you’re looking for & how “good” of a guitar you want. I do think that you can get a lot better made guitars cheaper than you used to – I believe there is actually a pretty good selection at entry level.
QRD – Do you upgrade & customize your guitars or just stick with what you get?
Sophia – I have upgraded & some of my guitars in small ways, new bridges, saddles, nuts & tuning pegs & have had re-frets & the frets dressed. I also have a quite unorthodox sticker of Elvis on the headstock of my Martin!
QRD – How thoroughly do you research or test a piece of equipment before buying it?
Sophia – I don’t think I ever done that much research on anything & I guess I can be quite impulsive. I do get advice from other musicians though.
QRD – Do you change your rig around often?
Sophia – Not really.
QRD – Are you after one particular guitar tone & locking into it, or do you like to change your tone around a lot?
Sophia – On stage I don’t really use my tone control on the guitar or amp, I just set it to a tone & volume I like in the soundcheck & don’t mess with it during the set.
QRD – What are some guitars, amps, & pedals you particularly lust after?
Sophia – I’d like a Collings Winfield model, the Gibson Super 400 is a pretty special guitar, I also like Gretsches. I have heard very good things about Little Walter Amps – I’d really like one of those.
QRD – What do you think are some important features to be on a person’s first guitar that aren’t always there?
Sophia – Cheap acoustic guitars tend to lack bass end & cheap classical guitars can sometimes have a really high action, I think both of these should be avoided!
QRD – What have been the best & worst guitar related purchases you’ve made?
Sophia – I ordered my Martin from the states without even playing it, which was a pretty risky thing to do. Then, on the day it arrived I was driving home & was involved in an accident, my car got written off. I was convinced the whole thing was jinxed, but it actually turned out fine. I love the guitar & wouldn’t change it. I probably wouldn’t buy another guitar that way though!
QRD – What are some effect, amp, & guitar brands you particularly like or dis-like & why?
Sophia – I love the classic brands like Martin, Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, & Guild as I’m into vintage guitars & amps. I really like Texas Company Collings guitars, I got a tour of their factory in Austin & it was fascinating. I’m generally not a big fan of Taylors or Takemines I’m afraid, not enough bass end for me!
QRD – What’s the first thing you play when you pick up a guitar?
Sophia – Out of habit on an acoustic guitar, usually a little flat pick run followed by a G run & G chord – bluegrass style! On an electric I recently seem to be playing the chord sequence to “When the Bloom is on the Sage” in Eb.
QRD – How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Sophia – I was about 7 years old.
QRD – At what age do you think you leveled up to your best guitar playing?
Sophia – I’m still working on that!
QRD – Why do you think a guitar fits you more so than other instruments?
Sophia – I don’t really know – especially as it is so unusual to have female lead guitarists. My dad is a guitarist, & plays banjo, dobro, & steel, so the house was always full of guitar type instruments.
QRD – Do you think guitar should be people’s first instrument as often as it is?
Sophia – Why not? A basic understanding of the piano keyboard is also useful.
QRD – Do you see your guitar as your ally or adversary in making music?
Sophia – Definitely my ally!
QRD – Who are the guitarists that most influenced your playing & sound?
Sophia – Tony Rice, Clarence White, Django Reinhardt, Whit Smith.
QRD – Do you think people anthropomorphizing their guitars is natural or silly (e.g. naming their guitar)?
Sophia – One of my guitars, my Martin has some how ended up being named “Clarence” because it’s the Clarence White model. Otherwise I don’t really give them names. I do love them in a way I don’t think I love any other physical object though.
QRD – What’s the most physical damage you’ve done to a guitar & how did you do it?
Sophia – Unbelievably I snapped the head of my classical guitar by sitting on it, I had been changing the sheets on my bed & somehow I put my quilt on top of my guitar & forgot & sat on it – proof I shouldn’t even attempt housework. Also, I let my Martin get way too dry after a tour of Germany & some very cold recording sessions in Nashville. A fairly large crack opened up in the front – since then I have been much more careful about humidifying my guitar.
QRD – What do you do to practice other than simply playing?
Sophia – I always like to learn new flatpicking tunes & I have quite a few books I use to do that with as well as the music in Flatpick Guitar magazine. Recently I have been using Whit Smith’s DVD. I like instructional DVDs & find them really useful.
QRD – How many hours a week do you play guitar & how many hours would you like to?
Sophia – It really depends on my gigging schedule, so I’d find it hard to give a number of hours, but I always wish I could do more practice.
QRD – What type of pick do you use & why?
Sophia – Bluechip TD60 for bluegrass TD50 on electric - you need a good solid pick for flatpicking & Bluechips are brilliant they hardly ever wear down unlike tortoise shell. Then I use a 3.5mm Wegen pick for Django style playing – it’s a very chunky pick & I like the tone & the authenticity of the sound it gives.
QRD – What gauge strings do you use & why?
Sophia – I have 13s on the Martin because I like to be able to “dig in” & because the heavy strings suit bluegrass music. I use 12s on the Gibson because I am used to pretty heavy strings. Finally, I have 11s on the Gitane, that seems to be the heaviest gauge that Sararez Argentines manufacture.
QRD – How often do you change strings?
Sophia – As often as I can afford to – I really notice them going off on the Martin first, I don’t seem to get more than few gigs from them - plus I love having brand new strings!
QRD – How often do you break strings?
Sophia – I seem to go through phases & I am in a non string-breaking phase at the moment. A while ago I seemed to be breaking more, but I think I was being a bit heavy handed & have actively tried to be less so. I really don’t get on with coated strings & I always seem break them.
QRD – Which do you feel is more proficient, your strumming hand or fretting hand & how does that effect your style?
Sophia – I started on classical guitar, so I am pretty comfortable using my fingers, but quite early on I had to learn to use a pick to play bluegrass. I always use a pick on stage now I think I have a pretty good strumming hand. As far as left hand technique is concerned, I am always trying to improve my knowledge of the fret-board, scale patterns, & chord shapes. I guess I think that is where the real magic happens.
QRD – Do you set-up your guitar yourself or send it to a guitar tech (or not set it up at all) & why?
Sophia – I get my guitars set up by techs – I’m not brave enough to start messing with them myself!
QRD – What tunings do you use & why?
Sophia – I only ever use standard tuning or Drop D on one number in the set. It’s already a challenge to master the fret-board in standard tuning without making things more complicated!
QRD – Do you prefer tablature, sheet music, or some other notation system for writing down your own ideas?
Sophia – I usually tab out my own ideas. I also use standard notation, but I am not as good at writing out rhythms in standard notation.
QRD – How high do you hold your guitar when playing (strap length)?
Sophia – I like having my guitar up fairly high, so it is right over my heart, I have my straps pretty short. I think it is as a result of my classical guitar lessons when I was younger.
QRD – What’s a bad habit in your playing you wish you could break?
Sophia – I tense my shoulders & raise them slightly, especially when I take a solo – but I do that when I am not playing the guitar as well, so I guess its more of a life habit I need to change!
QRD – Playing what other instrument do you think can most help someone’s guitar playing?
Sophia – I think playing other instruments can improve your general musical ability, I’m not really sure any other instrument could specifically improve someone’s guitar playing though.
QRD – What’s a type of guitar playing you wish you could do that you can’t?
Sophia – Flamenco guitar – I realised pretty quickly after taking a few lessons that I would need to dedicate myself solely & completely to it if I wanted to master it & I wasn’t prepared to give up bluegrass & jazz.
QRD – What’s a guitar goal you’ve never accomplished?
Sophia – I want to be able to be in the moment completely while I’m improvising, to be able to translate my ideas instantly into my fingers, I think I’ll always be working on that.
QRD – What’s the last guitar trick you learned?
Sophia – I’m not sure if they count as “tricks” as such, I just learned some great BB King & Charlie Christian licks!
QRD – What’s your favorite guitar gadget (ebow, capo, slide, string cutter, etc)?
Sophia – My folding Cooperstand! It’s a revolution, it fits inside the head of my guitar case, so no more guitar stands left at gigs! I also use a Mckinney/Elliott push button capo, which is definitely the best capo I have found.
QRD – What’s a guitar technique you’d like to master, but haven’t?
Sophia – Flamenco Alzapur thumb triplets & proper Rasgueado & Flamenco guitar strumming.
QRD – Did you ever take guitar lessons & if so, what did you learn from them?
Sophia – I had lessons from 3 classical guitar teachers in Birmingham - Leo turner, Francis Griffin, Bryan Lester. My dad has also taught me a lot.
QRD – What would you teach someone in a guitar lesson that you don’t think they would generally get from a guitar teacher?
Sophia – I really don’t know? I don’t know that much about other people’s teaching methods. I have done a lot of group teaching with junior school kids; at one point, groups of up to 30 children - that was challenging.
QRD – What’s something someone would have to do to emulate your style?
Sophia – Listen to a lot of bluegrass, western swing, & gypsy jazz I guess!
QRD – What’s your take on tremolo systems?
Sophia – I can play a classical guitar real tremolo study like Receurdos de Alhambra!
I do have a telecaster with a Bigsby, but I haven’t really used it on stage much. I’m not sure what you mean by tremolo systems!
QRD – How often do you adjust your tone knob?
Sophia – Generally once when I pick up my guitar, then I leave it – I don’t really touch it on stage.
QRD – What do you see as the difference between lead guitar & rhythm guitar players?
Sophia – The obvious difference is that a rhythm guitarist will play the chords & functions as a more supportive role, where as the lead guitarist will be more at the forefront of the sound, plays the melody & takes solos. I do think that really good rhythm guitar & knowledge of chords is an underrated skill. I’m very much enjoying learning jazz chord sequences at the moment.
QRD – If a band has good guitar work, can you ignore the rest of the band not being good?
Sophia – No, I can’t really. I am a songwriter & I listen for songs & arrangements first. It would make me question the judgment of a good guitarist working with a not so good band. I did see a band recently where I liked all of them except the guitarist, but then that made me wonder what the rest of the band were thinking having him in, when to me he appeared to be quite wrong for the group.
QRD – What famous musician’s guitar would you like to own & why?
Sophia – It has got to be “The Bone” which belongs to Tony Rice, formerly owned by Clarence White.
QRD – Who do you think is currently the most innovative guitar player & why?
Sophia – Jim Campilongo, I really like his work with The Little Willies. I think he has quite a distinctive style & that he brings a fresh & modern approach to older material without straying too far from the original.
QRD – Where can people hear your best guitar work?
Sophia – The Toy Hearts’ albums Femme Fatale & Whiskey.
QRD – Anything else?
Sophia – Phew, no I’m exhausted! The Toy Hearts new album Whiskey is out on June 24th on Woodville Music.