The Johnny Winter Story

Johnny Winter and the Erlewine Lazer

Erlewine Lazer used by Johnny since the 1990's.

Actually Johnny's first Lazer was not made by Mark Erlewine. It was a korean made Lazer by IMC/Hondo. He used this guitar at least in Guitar Slinger and Serious Business (in the cover). He made a couple modifications though. At least pickups were changed and propably the bridge too.



Johnny describes his main axe, the Lazer: "it's really the closest thing I've found to sounding like a Strat and feeling like a Gibson. I like the sound of a strat, but just can't play one. It just doesn't feel right to me. If I pull the strings, I don't get as much out of it as I put into it. I can put the same effort into a Gibson and get back twice as much. With the Lazer I get both.

Lots of strange creatures call Texas their home-the armadillo, Ross Perot, Billy Gibbons, Dimebag...But the Erlewine Lazer may be the strangest of them all. Lacking a headstock and possessing a tiny, asymmetrical body, the Lazer looks like a weapon that Davy Crockett might have whipped together at the Alamo to fend off the Mexican Army. Its homeliness may explain why it's become the axe of choice for everyone's favorite tattooed Texas bluesman, Johnny Winter.

Johnny Winter with Erlewine Lazer  

Weighing in under six pounds and only 31 inches long, the Lazer features a full-sized, 25.5-inch scale, 24-fret neck, a humbucker and a single-coil pickup, master volume and master tone controls and 3-position pickup selector switch. The secret to the Lazer's compact size is an ingenious string-clamp at the end of the neck and the multi-purpose Wineomatic bridge and tuning system, both adorned with heavy-duty, industrial-strength chrome plating. Unlike other headless beasts that require double ball-end strings (just try finding a set of those in Amarillo on a Sunday), the clamp lets you use ordinary guitar strings. The Wineomatic bridge features six large knurled knobs fanned out at the rear of the guitar that make it easy to tune the Lazer precisely. 

According to Erlewine's brochure, Winter chose the Lazer because "it sounds like a Strat, but feels like a Gibson." While the 25.5-inch scale feels nothing like a Gibson's 24-3/4-inch scale, the two custom-wound pickups produce satisfying, twangy tones more similar to Dick Dale than SRV. Plugged into a Deluxe Reverb with the reverb cranked, the Lazer's sounds are pure surf city. By pulling up on the tone control, the bridge humbucker is split to a single coil, but even with both coils engaged it's quite bright. The Strat comparison is only partially accurate since the Lazer can't duplicate a Strat's distinctive "in between" sounds. However, the guitar is surprisingly lively and resonant, particularly since it has such a small body. The sound of the bass strings is especially punchy, tight and ominous, almost like a 6-string baritone guitar.

The Lazer features neck-through-body construction with the neck and body crafted from Honduras mahogany, a rosewood fingerboard with four-point star inlays and high, wide profile frets. Options include either a red, white or black finish, different pickup configurations and choice of fret material.

The Erlewine web-site can be found at :

4402 Burnet Road
Austin Texas 78756
Tel: 512/302-1225
Fax: 512/371-1655

Mark Erlewine during an interview with Tom Guerra on Johnny Winter: "I first became aware of Johnny Winter when I was in high school in Wheaton, MD. I got ahold of a copy of the Progressive Blues Experiment album, and not too long after that, I saw him at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970. My family used to run the bar backstage at the festival, and I was lucky enough to witness an amazing set that featured both Johnny and Luther Allison trading licks.

In 1974, I moved my guitar shop to Austin, Texas, and began building guitars, including the Chiquita, the mini-travel guitar. Years before I had apprenticed in my cousin Dan Erlewine's shop, and learned a lot from him. In the late seventies I went to a Johnny Winter show, and I brought him a Chiquita backstage... Johnny loved it and he bought it on the spot. A few years after this, I designed a headless guitar called the Lazer, which was built to my specs in Korea by IMC. Well, I took a black Lazer with me to a Johnny Winter show, and brought it back to him...and he bought that as well. I think he was tired of the weight of the Gibson (Firebird) he was playing on stage. He then bought a red Lazer before approaching me about a building a custom white Lazer. Around that same time, the contract with IMC was up and I began building the Lazers on a custom basis.

For his custom Lazer, Johnny wanted a two pickup model, with a single coil in the neck and a humbucker in the lead position, that could be split with a toggle switch. This became the Johnny Winter model, and featured a decal of one of his tattoos in between the pickups. Over the years I also built him custom gold metalflake Lazer, which I've never seen him play!!! (laughs).

I've sporadically kept in touch with Johnny over the years, which is difficult because he is rather reclusive. One time he wanted me to repair his main Lazer, the white one, and I had to drive down to San Antonio, pick up the guitar and take it to the shop, then return it, all in the same night. Another time, his management setup a meeting at 2:00 in the morning at my shop. One thing I can tell you about Johnny is that the few times we've been together, he's been real nice, really friendly and very complimentary. His skin is so pure and white, and wrinkle must be because he stays out of the sun!

These days, I usually get calls from his guitar techs when they need special parts for his Lazers. His main guitar is still the white Lazer, which has barely anything left on the frets because he plays so hard. This must be his prized guitar, because he refuses to let me put new frets into it...kind of like Willie Nelson and his prized "Trigger" guitar...he won't let me touch the frets on that either!

I can usually tell when and where Johnny is out touring, because I start getting calls from his guitar playing fans telling me they've just seen him and asking me about the Lazer and how they can get one..."

Steve Foster on the Lazer

Lazers... Trippy guitars. I have several and will be the first to say that my Firebirds smoke them. I'd be delighted to see Johnny start playing 'Birds again.

A distinction between his earlier red and black IMC Lazers and his later Erlewine Lazer have to be made. The IMCs have a single DiMarzio Super 2 pickup. (The 2 is a Super Distortion with a boost in the highs). It also employs a pull-pot to split the pickup to single coil. These are high output ceramic magnet units, and in single coil mode especially, can sound very hard and bright. The majority of Johnnys' Alligator work is this very sound. Later, on "Winter of 88" a new sound is heard. The new white Erlewine Lazer was now sporting a Seymour Duncan "Vintage Staggered Strat" in the neck position. Much warmer, rounder sounding. Also changing the sound was his switching from the MXR phase 90 the the Boss CE2 chorus pedal.

Johnny first bought a Lazer to play on the bus. The one he bought was strung with 10s. He was going to put 9s on it later, like his 'Birds. Instead he wound up trying it at practice with the 10s detuned one step, and he liked the way it sounded. The last time Johnny was in California, he played my Lazer for a while, and I don't mind telling you, I was tickled to death to have Johnny play my guitar. Next morning, I realized that I had the thumbpick he used in my pocket. I save it as a memory. Anyway, if you detune your Strat one whole step, DGCFAD, play the neck pickup thru a chorus pedal, and play "Sen Sa Shun", or the opening lines to "Johnny Guitar" (or anything off "Live in NYC") you'll have a sound very similar to our favorite guitarist. Take Care, Steve "I still prefer Firebirds" Foster

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Last Modified: 24-Mar-2018 15:20