Win­ter’s ’Bird

Johnny Win­ter’s 1965 Fire­bird V came un­der the auc­tion­eer’s ham­mer in au­tumn 2016. Gui­tarist tracks down the new owner and de­tails the rise of Gib­son’s bold and iconic de­sign

Guitarist - - News - Words David Mead Pho­tography Joseph Branston

We take a close look at the late, great Johnny Win­ter’s stun­ning ’65 Fire­bird V. Just check out that aged ni­tro over In­ver­ness Green…

John Dawson Win­ter III was born in Beau­mont, Texas on 23 Fe­bru­ary 1944. He be­gan play­ing gui­tar via the un­usual route of turn­ing first to the clar­inet and then ukulele, set­tling on the in­stru­ment that was to lead him to world­wide renown around the age of 11. His first ex­pe­ri­ence of per­form­ing was with his brother Edgar, ini­tially as an Everly Broth­ers-in­spired duo and then, at the age of 14, in his first band, Johnny And The Jam­mers. Dur­ing his for­ma­tive years, he was ex­posed to a vast style of mu­sic.

“I think that’s what I liked about grow­ing up there; you could just hear so much stuff,” he told Gui­tarist in 1992. This ex­po­sure to mu­sic helped him dur­ing those early years. “You had to be able to play a lot of dif­fer­ent things in the clubs or you’d get killed,” he said. “You had to play Ca­jun mu­sic – the French Ca­jun two-steps – and in parts of Texas there was a lot of Mex­i­can mu­sic and, of course, there was the Louisiana and New Or­leans stuff as well as jazz and coun­try.”

Fame found Johnny at an early age, as he be­gan his record­ing ca­reer while still at school. “That was the most ex­cit­ing time. I was about 15. I made my first record and I started play­ing in night­clubs and I had my first drink. It was a real ex­cit­ing year; all the stuff was brand-new and you could be driv­ing to the gig and hear your record on the ra­dio. I was just a lit­tle kid, liv­ing at home and go­ing to school, but boy it was real ex­cit­ing. You’re out there play­ing for peo­ple, you’ve got girls chasin’ you and stuff… now that was real nice!”

Although Johnny’s life was a roller­coaster of ca­reer highs and drug-re­lated lows, he kept tour­ing, declar­ing that he loved to en­ter­tain peo­ple on the road de­spite not be­ing too keen on the travel in­volved, espe­cially in later years. “The trav­el­ling part is hard. I guess what I would re­ally like is if I could get my own club and have ev­ery­one come to where I was. It’s still in­ter­est­ing, but not like those first few times out­side the States when I’d go sight­see­ing – y’know, check­ing every­thing out. Now I’ve been most places it’s just like go­ing to work and do­ing your gig.”

Johnny passed away on 16 July 2014 in Switzer­land, two days af­ter a gig at the Ca­hors Blues Fes­ti­val. There’s a video per­for­mance from that fes­ti­val on YouTube with Johnny play­ing a rous­ing ver­sion of the blues clas­sic Dust My Broom. He is play­ing seated, as he did in his fi­nal years, but the per­for­mance has all the fire and vigour we’d come to ex­pect from him. At the time, the of­fi­cial cause of death was never re­leased, but close sources im­plied that it was due to a com­bi­na­tion of em­phy­sema and pneu­mo­nia. He is buried in Union Ceme­tery, Fair­field, Con­necti­cut.

Sale Of The Cen­tury

In au­tumn 2016, there was a sale of Johnny’s gui­tars at Guernsey’s auc­tion­eers in New York. Among the items up for sale that day were a few gui­tars and many per­sonal ef­fects in­clud­ing stage wear and hand­writ­ten note­books. Lot #148 was the 1965 Gib­son Fire­bird V in the very rare cus­tom colour, In­ver­ness Green.

An excerpt from Guernsey’s sale cat­a­logue reads: “This gui­tar is promi­nently fea­tured in Win­ter’s world­wide Sony film re­lease, Johnny Win­ter: Down & Dirty… 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… Verso of head­stock has a one-inch

“You had to be able to play a lot of dif­fer­ent things in the clubs or you’d get killed”

Johnny Win­ter

crack and en­tirety of verso shows some slight paint chip­ping.”

On the day, the win­ning bid was made by John Jack­son, in­ter­na­tional book­ing agent at K2 Agency in Lon­don – who rep­re­sents ma­jor rock bands such as Me­tal­lica, Iron Maiden and Al­ter Bridge. Gui­tarist called in at John’s Chelsea of­fice to view the gui­tar.

“I’ve been a fan of Johnny Win­ter since I can re­mem­ber,” he told us. “I saw him on his first ever tour at the Royal Al­bert Hall and The Speakeasy – which I shouldn’t have been al­lowed to get into be­cause I was well un­der age – and The Round­house and Fair­field Halls, Croy­don. I got to hear about the auc­tion in the sum­mer of last year, put in some hold­ing bids for quite a few of the items and was for­tu­nate enough to have an Amer­i­can client of mine go into the auc­tion room and kind of over­see the bids that I’d placed to make sure that I got the items I wanted. On a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions, we went sig­nif­i­cantly over, but I just wanted the items. I wanted the hat, def­i­nitely, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go for the Fire­bird…’ and I lucked in.”

The gui­tar sold for $60,000 (£38,995), which, when you think about it, isn’t com­pletely off the wall for a rare 52-yearold Fire­bird, let alone one with this kind of prove­nance. “I don’t know, I just wanted it,” John con­tin­ues, ob­vi­ously de­lighted with his new ac­qui­si­tion. “The brown one was, I think, knock­ing on for $200k. So yes, I was very pleased.”

Johnny was gen­er­ally seen play­ing his afore­men­tioned ’63 sun­burst Fire­bird, but the ’65 made the oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ance, too. “I’m aware that he used it mostly in the 70s,” John says, “but on the DVD Down & Dirty that came out last March, he’s be­ing in­ter­viewed; he’s in a re­hearsal room and he lifts it out and puts it down. So clearly it was one that was on ro­ta­tion, but I do think that he ul­ti­mately ended up just play­ing that Lazer [gui­tar], although he did play the brown Fire­bird for slide in the en­cores when I saw him at Shep­herd’s Bush. But he did play the Lazer for the main part of the set – great sound.”

On the day Gui­tarist saw the gui­tar, we com­mented on the colour. In some lights, it’s most def­i­nitely green, but in oth­ers, it takes on more of a blueish sheen, doubt­less due to the yel­low­ing of the clear ni­tro lac­quer over the fin­ish. “What­ever he was record­ing in the 70s, there’s a like­li­hood that he would have used it and I think there’s some YouTube footage of him play­ing it. But the thing is the colour of it comes across dif­fer­ently in some shots, but I know the mark­ings to look for, not least those in­lays, which are a dead give­away.”

The in­lays in ques­tion are the ea­gle and cloud, men­tioned in the auc­tion cat­a­logue en­try above. And they make the gui­tar even more of a one-of-a-kind. We won­dered what John’s plans for the gui­tar are now. Is it des­tined to spend the rest of its days in a glass dis­play case? “Ideally, I’d like the

gui­tar to have a life of its own,” he says, re­veal­ing that he would like to see the gui­tar in the hands of some of his clients, live on stage. “If Joe Perry wants to play it, he can go ahead. Kirk [Ham­mett] will; he’s prob­a­bly al­ready picked the song that he’ll do! And sur­pris­ingly James [Het­field], when I told them, his ears pricked up. So ev­ery­body’s a Johnny Win­ter fan. You don’t think bands like Me­tal­lica are nec­es­sar­ily into Johnny Win­ter, but he was so unique. Scott Ian from An­thrax will be the first to be seen live with it, and, as I said, I’ll hope­fully get all my other bands to play it, too. The guys from Iron Maiden, no ques­tion of it. I’m sure Jan­ick [Gers] is a huge fan. So hope­fully you’ll see it out and about.”

Fire­bird Sare GO!

Johnny Win­ter’s Fire­bird V is ob­vi­ously set up for slide, although not dra­mat­i­cally so. When we picked it up to play, the ac­tion was only slightly higher than was com­fort­able for reg­u­lar play­ing. It had the sonor­ity of an all-ma­hogany gui­tar mixed in with the unique tim­bre for which the model is renowned. Johnny is on record as say­ing that he liked the sound of the Fire­bird be­cause it sat in the mid­dle of Gib­son’s and Fen­der’s sig­na­ture sounds – Strat-like tones with a Gib­son feel, if you like.

Master­minded by Ray Di­et­rich in the early 60s with the brief from Gib­son to de­sign a gui­tar with pop­u­lar ap­peal, the Fire­bird fol­lowed on from their for­ays into

bold, new – but at the time, un­suc­cess­ful – worlds with the Fly­ing V and Ex­plorer. Records show that, in the year in which this gui­tar was pro­duced, only 353 Fire­bird Vs left the fac­tory. In fact, in its ini­tial pro­duc­tion run be­tween 1963 and ’69, there were 1,417 Fire­bird Vs made. Not a mas­sive num­ber of gui­tars by any­one’s stan­dards.

The Fire­bird has a neck-through-body de­sign, with a unique set of pick­ups, as vin­tage gui­tar ex­pert Rod Brakes, ex­plains: “The stand­out thing with those gui­tars is the pick­ups, be­cause they are unique and, quite of­ten, they get con­fused with other mini-hum­buck­ers. They have dif­fer­ent bob­bins and I think they might have used a dif­fer­ent Al­nico as well, but their con­struc­tion is dif­fer­ent. But, at the time, like the Fen­der Cus­tom Colours, it was all about the car craze in Amer­ica – ac­tu­ally get­ting a guy who de­signed car bod­ies to de­sign the Fire­bird – and to con­trast with the stuff that had been about in the 50s. They were ex­per­i­ment­ing; the Fly­ing V and Ex­plor­ers took a while to get pop­u­lar and I guess they were just try­ing to break new ground with body shapes.”

Not every­thing about Gib­son’s new bird pleased ev­ery­one, how­ever. “They up­set Fen­der be­cause of the head­stock and there were threats of a law­suit…” Cer­tainly, the re­sem­blance to the Stra­to­caster is ev­i­dent, but, strangely, it’s this area of the gui­tar that is re­spon­si­ble for what many re­pair­ers know as ‘Fire­bird Dis­ease’, where the weight of the banjo tuners leads to im­pact dam­age. We noted that on Johnny’s gui­tar there was a crack at this point, although it was dif­fi­cult to see if it was just a fin­ish check or whether it went into the wood it­self. It’s not un­known for Fire­bird head­stocks to be­come de­tached. “It ac­tu­ally makes them stronger when they’re re­paired,” says Rod. “And half the price!”

“It was all about the car craze in Amer­ica, ac­tu­ally get­ting a guy who de­signed car bod­ies to de­sign the Fire­bird”

Rod Brakes

4. Johnny’s weath­ered strap was among the per­sonal items, such as hats and note­books, on sale with the gui­tars 5. The Fire­bird has a dis­tinct neck-through­body de­sign 5

7. This crack is caused by what re­pair­ers call ‘Fire­bird Dis­ease’, where the weight of the banjo tuners leads to im­pact dam­age 7


6. The Fire­bird was lot #148 in a sale of Johnny’s gui­tars at Guernsey’s auc­tion­eers in New York last au­tumn 6

1 1. Johnny re­moved the stan­dard vi­brato tail­piece as he pre­ferred the sound of the gui­tar with­out it

3 3. Johnny’s Fire­bird V fea­tures an iri­des­cent in­lay of an ea­gle and cloud with an emerg­ing light­ning bolt on the front of the body

2 2. Note the fin­ish craz­ing around the vol­ume and tone pots

10. In some lights, the rare cus­tom colour of In­ver­ness Green takes on a blueish sheen 10

8 8. The cat­a­logue for the sale of Johnny’s gui­tars at Guernsey’s auc­tion­eers in New York in au­tumn 2016

9 9. Johnny on stage with the ’65 Fire­bird, which was bought for $60,000 by UK in­ter­na­tional book­ing agent John Jack­son

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