Johnny Winter’s Firebirds and Lazer Guitars Head to the Auction Block
By Christopher Scapelliti
Several Johnny Winter guitars will be among the more than 400 rarities from the guitarist’s collection that head to Guernsey’s auction block on September 30 and October 1.
Gibson Firebirds, Erlewine Lazers and even Winter’s very first and last guitars—a ukulele and a Dean B. Zelinsky prototype, respectively—will be included in the auction. Other personal items include notebooks of handwritten music, a pair of purple velvet bell-bottom pants with a matching button-down jacket, a rattlesnake hat, a pink dragon kimono and, oddly, beard clippings.
The auction is a significant trove of Winter’s personal effects, offering a rare opportunity for fans to see and purchase relics from the career of the celebrated electric blues guitarist. But it is, of course, the guitars that will, in all likelihood, be the stars of the event.
Winter came to the forefront of the electric blues scene in 1969 with the release of his major-label debut, Johnny Winter. He performed the album’s stunning guitar work using a 1966 Fender Mustang, but the following year he adopted what would become his main guitar for many years: a 1963 Gibson Firebird V that he purchased in St. Louis.
“I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked,” Winter told Guitar Aficionado in early 2014. “When I played it, I discovered I liked the way it sounded too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. It feels like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons. I was never a big fan of humbucking pickups, but the mini humbuckers on the Firebird have more bite and treble.”
In the mid Eighties, Winter began playing Lazer guitars designed by Mark Erlewine after the luthier presented him with a black model, fitted with a single humbucking pickup, during a 1984 show in Texas. Winter would eventually own six of the unusual-looking small-bodied, headless guitars.
“When I first bought one, I thought I was just going to use it as a travel guitar,” Winter told Guitar Aficionado. “But the first day I plugged it in, it sounded so good that I wanted to use it for a gig that night.”
Winter’s career was marked by ups and downs attributed to drug use and, later, health issues and methadone addiction. He was enjoying a career resurgence when he died in a hotel room near Zurich, Switzerland on July 16, 2014, two days after completing a European tour.
Below we’ve featured several of Winter’s personal guitars included the auction, along with their catalog notes.
The auction opens on Friday, September 30, at 6 p.m. at Gibson Brands New York Showroom, 421 W 54th Street, in New York City. It continues on Saturday, October 1, from noon and runs until completion. Public previews will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. on September 28, from noon to 7 pm. on September 29, from noon to 6 p.m. on September 30, and from 10 a.m. to noon on October 1. For more information about the Johnny Winter auction, visit Guernseys.com.
Black Lazer Guitar
One of Johnny Winter’s famous Lazer guitars. Johnny can be seen playing this black model in a recorded performance from the 1984 Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, documented in the video below. Some oxidation on metal. Bears LAZER logo on body. Slight paint chipping on left side of back and right edge of back. Total length 31 inches.
Circa 1965 Gibson Firebird V in Inverness Green
Johnny Winter’s name is virtually synonymous with Gibson Firebirds. His rare “Inverness Green” Firebird, with custom pearl inlay, is simply breathtaking. Winter played it live for many years at some of his largest shows. This guitar is prominently featured in Winter’s worldwide Sony film release, Down n’ Dirty, The Johnny Winter Story, out March 5, 2016.
Serial No. 255115. Vibrato tailpiece (which was standard with Firebird V) has been removed by Johnny, as he preferred the sound of the guitar without them. Features iridescent inlay of an eagle and cloud with an emerging lightning bolt on front of body. Feature iridescent notches along fretboard. Faded “Firebird” logo on front of body. Ombre [blending] effect along backside from top of headstock to bottom of strap button, fades from turquoise to a bright green. Back of headstock has a 1-inch crack and entirety of back shows some slight paint chipping.