In The Style Of Johnny Winter

By Miguel Ángel Ariza

Born on 23 February 1944 in Texas as an albino, the life of Johnny Winter did not look like being too simple at that time, particularly in a state that in general was often very hostile towards extremes in skin colour… The legend goes that his father, ashamed of his son’s palidity, practically enclosed him in his bedroom, and the only thing that he gave him in his life was a ukelele. However history showed that for the young Johnny that was more than enough.  

In 1968 his friend Mike Bloomfield - whose world we have recently explored in in this section - invited him to play a song at New York Fillmore East when he was on tour promoting his album Super Session. A song, It's My Own Fault by his idol B.B King, and an article - venerating his incredible power and technique ‘unknown to that date’ - in Rolling Stone magazine that same year was sufficient to earn him the largest financial advance that any record company had paid until then.

In that period Winter was still looking for a particular tone that he had been seeking for some time. He was regularly testing out guitars in search of the mix that he always considered perfect: a Fender tone, along with the comfort of a Gibson when playing. So he tried out various Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, a Gibson Les Paul Custom and even some less recognizable models like the Fender XII and the Epiphone Wilshire. None ended up convincing him until a 1963 or 1964 Gibson Firebird came to his hands which - due to its design and above all its Mini humbuckers (brighter than the normal Gibson double pickups) – then enamored him for many years. In fact he liked this model so much that he himself said in an interview that he bought up to seven or eight models at the same time, each in a distinct colour. For that reason this model is perhaps most representative of this fantastic guitarist’s golden period.

Years later, in 1984, when Johnny Winter found himself a little lost between guitar heroes who had surpassed him technically and an increasingly processed rock sound that was far from the Texan roots blues in which he had occupied a place of his olympus, Mark Erlewine give the Texan what would be from that time onwards his main guitar and that was responsible for him only using his old Firebirds for his songs with slide. That model, known as The Lazer, one of the ugliest giuitars that one has had the opportunity to see live, fulfilled all the expectations that Winter had of a guitar; at last he achieved the tone of a Fender and total comfort with a neck that he adopted as his until the end of his days.

Together with his The Lazer and Firebird models (guitars that he used almost exclusively during the last 25 or 30 years of his career), he would always be seen accompanied by transistor amplifiers in combo 4x10 Musicman format on stage, at least on his American tours, which he used from the mid–70s because of the sharp and almost strident sound produced, and to which he added classic effects like the Ibanez Tubescreamer or the Boss CE-2.

Nor did a guitarist who was without doubt the ‘fastest gunslinger in the west’ need much more for many years, however - in contrast to the majority of his successors – his art was not based on that but a strength that came from an incredibly raw and visceral sound with which, paradoxically, an albino from Texas took the sound of the purest black blues to a new dimension. 

Find you own way to the tone of Johnny Winter