The introduction of Epiphone’s George Thorogood White Fang ES-125 TDC is a long-overdue tribute to the slide-wielding blues rocker whose badass-to-the bone guitar tone is one of the most recognizable around. Based on the vintage Gibson ES-125s that Thorogood has been slinging for decades, the White Fang ($899 street) has been optimized for the Delaware-born guitarist via a custom neck profile, Wilkinson Deluxe tuners, Epiphone ProBucker P-90 pickups, a wooden bridge and an eye-catching Bone white finish.
Far from being just a sweet-looking signature model, however, the White Fang was born out of necessity. “I was kind of forced into it due to the fact that I had worn out all my old Gibson 125s,” Thorogood says. “They’re frail and they just kept breaking down, and we were spending thousands of dollars trying to rebuild them. Finally, the people in my organization told me I couldn’t play them anymore because it was costing us a fortune. They asked me to try some Epiphone guitars.
“I picked one up and it sounded good, but I physically couldn’t play it because the neck was too wide and thick. Epiphone said that was the least of my worries, because they could alter the neck and frets and all that to my specs. It took a little time to make the changes I wanted, but ever since they turned me on to this instrument, I can’t put it down. And I think that’s the way it should be with a musical instrument. It’s like having really good food on your table that you can’t stop eating.”
Epiphone patterned the White Fang’s neck shape on one of Thorogood’s vintage Gibsons, which resulted in a neck that is fairly narrow - just 1.57 inches wide at the nut. “The neck shape suits me because I have small hands, which is why I started playing ES-125s in the first place,” Thorogood explains. “I also mute the strings a lot with my right hand. You have to put your hand right over the bridge to do that, and I would knock it out of place on my Gibsons, which would make the guitar go out of tune. But I didn’t want a steel bridge; I wanted a wood bridge, because they sound best.
“So I asked Epiphone to give me the best of both worlds: a nonadjustable wood bridge that I can’t knock out of tune. And that’s what they gave me. This guitar is as close to a 125 as I’m going to get. It looks like a Chevy, but it runs like a BMW.”
What initially attracted you to Gibson’s entry-level semi-hollow electric?
I started out as an acoustic player, doing a thumb-pick fingerpicking kind of thing, and the 125 had an arched top and felt like an acoustic guitar. The original Gibson 125 was an acoustic-electric, with no cutaway. Then they made it with a single cutaway, and mostly jazz people played them because they had a good sound at low volume. The ES-125 with a single cutaway and two P-90 pickups was pretty much the only electric guitar I could play, so that’s what I used in small clubs with my Princeton amp. It was really good for slide, too.
I understand you played in open D a lot in the beginning.
That was the way I started playing, because it’s what Elmore James used. But it’s very hard to play in open D, so I don’t use it much anymore. When I discovered open G a long time ago - and then discovered how good the 125 sounded in open G - it was like, 'Wow, this is it!' Now I just play in open G and standard tuning.
Did you try using other guitars when you started playing larger places?
Yeah, I’ve tried Les Pauls and Stratocasters and other things, but the 125 is the only thing that seems to work for me. I have seven or eight of them. When I got successful, I wasn’t playing in places with 70 or 80 people anymore; I was starting to play in places with 700 or 800 people. And then it was places with 7,000 or 8,000 people, and my rig just couldn’t handle that. So we had to upgrade the whole system.
A lot of players might have given up on a lightly built semi-hollow guitar at that point, but you stuck with it.
Yeah, and it was a real nightmare. When I met Johnny Winter, the first thing he said to me was, “How do you keep your 125 from feeding back?” And I said, “I don’t.” I tried stuffing the body with toilet paper, and I could never do television shows because the lights would hit those P-90s and it would buzz like crazy. If you turned the volume way up, the buzz would go away, but then you’re playing too loud for TV. And if I played a different guitar, people would say I don’t sound like George Thorogood.
What’s the story behind the cobra sticker that comes with the White Fang?
We were at a gig someplace at Halloween and they were passing these stickers out, so I took one that had a snake on it and I cut it out and stuck it on my guitar. Later, my guitar tech came up and gave me one of my newer guitars, and I asked him why I couldn’t get the sticker off. It turns out that, without telling me, he had gone and had someone paint it on there without my approval. I found out about it 10 minutes before I was going onstage, so there was no point in arguing about it, and I’ve just kept rocking it ever since. But on the new guitar, the cobra sticker is removable, so you can decide if you want it on there or not.
Have there been any changes to your backline now that you’re using the new Epiphones?
No, we use Mesa/Boogies, which are kind of the ultimate. You can punch the hell out of the world with it set to 20 watts, and you can shift it to 50 watts if you’re playing a huge place. They’re great for whatever room you’re working.
And you still don’t use any pedals?
No, the last pedals I used were on a tricycle. I’ve got enough problems out there without pedals in front of me. I adjust the tone and the volume level with my hands. I learned that from watching B.B. King and Jeff Beck play, and it’s the sign of an experienced guitarist. Besides, I’d be running across the stage Chuck Berry style and probably step on a wah pedal when I’m not supposed to. If something’s going to break, Thorogood will break it!
Has your live rig evolved in other ways?
I used to have three Gibson 125s onstage: one in an open tuning with a capo on it, another in open tuning and one in standard tuning. I was spending so much time changing guitars that the show would slow down. I’d get the momentum going, and then I’d change a guitar and then go to another guitar, and people would think there was something wrong, like it was a technical thing. So I had to cut that out. See, when Keith Richards changes guitars every song, he has the greatest frontman in the world keeping the audience entertained. Same with Aerosmith. If I could hire Steven Tyler to be my lead singer, I would do it. But I have to handle both of those things, and once I stop a song and move over to another guitar, I’ve got to start the show all over again. Which is why these Epiphones come in handy, because they can cover it.
Is there a particular player that has inspired your keep-it-simple ethos?
I’ve always admired Albert Collins, because he had a Telecaster and he put a capo in the middle of it, and he turned the volume up all the way and just went out there and had a ball. I thought, Oh man, if I could just do the whole 90-minute show like that with one guitar!