An arsenal of gear for an army of styles
To put it simply, Cameron Johnson is a guitar-playing chameleon. While he melts faces in metal project Atma Weapon, he also has a master’s degree in Film Scoring and frequently adjusts his playing style, not to mention his gear, to fit the needs of his client.
“I have to be able to cop whatever style the director or my boss at the time needs, which can be challenging,” Cameron says. “The freelance stuff I do now mostly consists of music for short videos and commercials. I do some session work as well, which is mostly pop stuff.”
Pretty varied then. But, as Cameron points out, you need this kind of attitude in today’s musical climate. “In order to be a musician for a living, you either have to be very lucky, or be able to do a lot of random stuff well,” he laughs. “Or at least convince people you can do it well!”
Back to Atma Weapon: while they would be principally described as metal, Cameron doesn’t want that to give the wrong impression to audiences in the band’s main musical haunt, Raleigh, North Carolina. “The word metal tends to scare people off, but we have a nice blend of styles,” he says. “I would describe us as progressive rock/metal.”
Prog, rock or metal, Atma Weapon have got a hell of a lot of power behind them. Although they’re incredibly technically proficient, they’ve also got the compositions to back it up, with a sense of groove and progression not often heard among contemporary metal acts, particularly when some of their songs can last as long as 35 minutes. That’ll be the master’s in Film Scoring coming back into play then.
As a band, Atma Weapon are influenced by metal and prog like Opeth, Metallica, Katatonia, In Flames, Soilwork et al., but Cameron’s individual influences are more diverse, whether they be Pat Metheny, Paul Gilbert or his own jazz teacher Greg Hyslop. However, whatever genre Cameron’s playing, one aspect remains constant: he never takes the easy route. “I really enjoy the challenge of playing lengthy songs, where you have to memorise a lot of material,” he says. “If I wasn’t playing progressive metal, I would be playing jazz. In fact, I work on my jazz chops way more than my metal chops these days. Both genres are pretty similar actually; it takes a lot of technical ability to play either style well.”
With all those different styles, it’s unsurprising to learn that Cameron has a few different instruments to hand. “I’m up to 15 or so guitars and it seems there is always something on the way from UPS,” he says. “I love all types of guitars; every guitar has its application, so I wouldn’t be able to choose just one.”
That said, Cameron does have one main axe when it comes to his work with Atma Weapon: an ESP Viper. “It’s an SG on steroids,” he says. “It has 24 frets and a Gibson style tune-o-matic bridge, which is pretty uncommon. Apparently, this particular ESP Viper is a somewhat rare bird. It was special ordered by a music store in Colorado (a group of 12 in total) in a natural finish that isn’t available normally.”
Also notable about the ESP is that the original EMG pickups had been swapped out for PRS HFS and VB humbuckers by the previous owner. In conjunction with the body’s natural sustain, these pickups make the Viper Cameron’s weapon of choice. “It plays great, sounds great, and has the longest sustain of any guitar I own; it’s pretty unbelievable,” he says. “It’s my best sounding guitar for heavy sounds hands down.”
For jazz, Cameron employs a Gibson ES-137 Custom, while he also brings his former beau, an early 90s Ibanez RG550, to gigs as a backup. “It’s hard to beat the sheer playability of an old RG550,” he adds.
When it comes to amps, Cameron has a mighty selection to choose from, including a Mesa Boogie Mark IV, Boogie Rectifier, Marshall JCM800, Soldano Atomic 16, Polytone Minibrute and an Axe FX Ultra. But once again, there’s one that shines above all others.
“My main amp is an Egnater Mod50 Custom Shop head,” Cameron explains. “It uses these swappable modules, which are basically preamp sections of different famous amps and tones. Right now, I have the ‘Bassman’ and ‘SL2’ modules loaded in there, which gives me a Fender Bassman and hot-rodded Marshall all in one amp.”
It certainly sounds like a dream combination, especially when the Egnater is run into Mesa Boogie Stiletto 4×12 cabs with Celestion Vintage 30s. Jealous? You should be.
After hearing about all that gear, it’s refreshing to see that Cameron keeps things simple on the floor, letting his fingers (and maybe that amazing amp) do the talking. “I have a pretty sparse pedalboard,” he says. “I used to have a rack and MIDI switching setup, but I was always troubleshooting something before a gig, and that is no fun. I’d honestly like to have more stuff to fool with on the board, but it just gets too complicated.”
Indeed, Cameron’s pedalboard has been narrowed down to the bare essentials, partly thanks to the Mod50 covering all his overdrive and distortion needs. There’s a Boss DD-20 in the effects loop, along with a homemade solo boost, while a vintage MXR Phase 45, ISP Decimator and RMC Wizard Wah go in the front end. Of course, Cameron does have a few more effects lying around at home, as the enviable image below shows.
When he’s not recording or buying new gear, Cameron is up onstage with Atma Weapon. But what makes a good gig for him? “To me, the best gigs are when I can hear myself and there aren’t any technical issues,” he says. “At my first gig with Atma Weapon, my pedalboard wouldn’t pass signal and I had to plug straight into the amp. We didn’t have time to troubleshoot so I just had to go for it. I did the whole show without a tuner, which I hope to never have to do again!”
You can hear Cameron’s playing with Atma Weapon on Facebook. The band will be heading into the studio very soon and plan to release the results towards the end of 2012. For more information on Cameron and his gear, visit his YouTube channel.