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10 Things You Gotta Do To Play Like Johnny Winter

January 10, 2008
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LET'S SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT. In the wake of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s meteoric rise to fame and subsequent legacy, there may exist generations who have either forgotten or never knew that another Texas guitarist had already been there and done that more than a dozen years earlier. Fueled by word of mouth and generous hype from Rolling Stone (yep, they really used to be that influential), John Dawson Winter III’s first pilgrimage from his native Beaumont to New York City in 1968 (at the behest of Scene manager Steve Paul) sparked a vicious bidding war between record companies, and Columbia Records reportedly paid the Texas guitar slinger the biggest advance ever bestowed upon a new artist. Winter delivered big time, and the label’s gamble paid off. The Texas Tornado’s blend of charged-up urban Chicago sounds and traditional Delta styles had a tremendous impact on blues and rock communities alike, and Winter skyrocketed to stardom virtually overnight.

Some confusion arose as several earlier Texas recordings surfaced before Columbia could release Winter’s much-anticipated official debut, Johnny Winter, but fortunately one of them—The Progressive Blues Experiment (a killer “live” album recorded in a cavernous empty club)—turned out to be the best advance publicity Columbia could ever hope for. This first taste of Winter’s music was as startling as his albino visage.

And that voice! Believe me folks, this was life-changing stuff. The day TPBE came out, I talked my cousin into buying both it and a copy of R. Crumb’s Head Comix to peruse while Winter blew our 12-year-old minds. It was the perfect combination. And, apparently, we weren’t alone. By the time Johnny Winter was released in 1969, Winter had a ravenous audience in waiting. The record’s winning combination of blues standards and originals showcased Winter’s diversity in both electric and acoustic settings, and established him as a major artist. His follow-up, Second Winter—three vinyl sides of revolutionary blues (yes, side four was blank) psyched-up with wah-wah, electric mandolin, and plenty of Hendrix-inspired studio effects—also remains a perennial favorite.

When Winter unveiled his new rock and roll band of ex-McCoys on Johnny Winter And in the summer of 1970, co-guitarist Rick Derringer proved to be a more than capable sparring partner, and the pair’s amazing in-concert guitar duels (documented on Johnny Winter And Live) were unprecedented. Following the demise of the “And” band, Winter disappeared from the public eye during 1972. (He spent much of that year recovering from heroin addiction.) In 1973, he formed a new trio, released the successful comeback album Still Alive and Well, and mounted a triumphant arena tour. Winter would follow this path for the next several years before abandoning the rock scene for a pure blues lifestyle in 1977. Since then, Winter produced and played on three albums by his mentor Muddy Waters, who lovingly referred to Winter as his son, and has continued to record and tour through the present, garnering Grammy awards and overcoming several major health issues along the way.

Winter is now an elder statesman of the blues, a title he doesn’t relish. “I don’t like it that I’m getting this old. I’d rather be a student than a teacher,” he once told me—and that was 13 years ago! But the legendary guitarist is by all means alive and well, and the Winter of 2007 has been a productive one. Let’s hunker down and find out where it all began. First, you gotta ...

1 Get Struck by  Lightnin’

After brief stints on clarinet and ukulele, Johnny Winter took up guitar at age 11, cutting his musical teeth byimitating early rock and roll records by Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, etc. Before long, he became smitten with the post-war Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King et al, and the stylings of pre-war Mississippi Delta bluesmen such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Son House, Leadbelly, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. It was all of these elements coupled with the ensuing late-’60s British blues boom that shaped Winter’s unique approach to the blues.

“I mixed all that stuff up,” he later recalled. “I would learn how to play a record note-for-note. After I got the feel of what was going on, I just took what I heard and assimilated it, and it would come out part mine and part everybody else’s.”  While still in Beaumont, Winter also became proficient in the fingerstylings of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, learning how to play “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie” at the same time, a traditional southern rite of passage. And though their early musical preferences were polar opposites, it’s safe to say that Johnny’s younger sibling Edgar—a musical genius in his own right—certainly had a big impact on his big bro’.  

2 Fire Up Your ’Bird

Though he’s been indelibly associated with Gibson Firebirds from 1970 to the present, Winter has been through a stable of guitars over the decades, becoming quite attached to several along the way. These include a Gibson ES-125, a white Fender Stratocaster, a white Gibson Les Paul/SG Custom, a 1966 Fender Mustang, a Fender XII strung with six strings, a twin-pickup Epiphone solidbody, a Gibson Les Paul goldtop with P-90s, as well as his beloved trio of ’60s Firebirds (two sunburst and one white), all of which Winter played with a plastic Gibson thumbpick. He also developed a singular voice as an acoustic slide player, particularly on National resonator guitars, as heard on “Dallas” (Johnny Winter).

In the early ’90s, Winter began a lengthy stint on headless Erlewine Lazer guitars, typically playing them through a chorus pedal in standard tuning dropped one whole-step (D, G, C, F, A, D, low to high) but has returned to his beloved ’Birds for many of his most recent appearances. Winter’s stinging tone—which he attributes to “everything on all the way, and all treble and no bass”—has cranked out of Fender Bassmans, Twin Reverbs, and Super Reverbs, as well as various combinations of Marshalls and Ampegs. Since the late ’70s, however, Winter has played almost exclusively through Music Man HD410 amps. (Tip: The middle position of those EQ rocker switches on Ampeg V-4 heads or VT-22 combos is the gateway to Winter’s distinctive early-’70s arena tone.)

3 Soak in Muddy  Waters

Winter was heavily influenced by the early Chess recordings of Muddy Waters he had collected. When I met with him to discuss Waters’ style for a feature in the March ’94 GP, he provided a scholarly dissection of many of Waters’ key intros and solo phrases before joining his trio and launching into a private concert that demonstrated many of the same licks in action. Our first three examples show some of the first open-E slide runs that Winter siphoned from Waters. Don a thumbpick and metal slide à la Winter (on your 4th finger) and maintain a steady 12th-fret vibrato during the first half of Ex. 1a, then shuttle between the 10th and 12th frets for the closing lick on beats three and four. Ex. 1b begins sans slide with a spooky minor-third trill followed by a typical Waters slide bass run. You can start Ex. 1c on any octave E as long as you nail the trademark first-string Waters moves on the next three beats. (Tip: Keep those approach slides short—whole-steps, half-steps, or anywhere in between.) The final run in bar 2 transforms the lick into a bona fide turnaround. Ex. 1d shifts to open-A tuning (E, A, E, A, C#, E, low to high) for another signature Waters riff, this one navigating the V and IV chords in bars 9-11 of a standard 12-bar blues.

4 Cook Up Some  Signature Moves

The recurring standard-tuned motif in our next pair of examples can be traced back to the ensemble horn-section riff from T-Bone Walker’s “Everytime,” but I’ll always think of it as a Johnny Winter lick. Barre your index finger across the first and second strings at the 3rd fret, hammer the 4 to the 5 (D to E) on the first two eighth-notes in beat one, follow up with a high Aupstroke, then pull off from the b5 to the 4 (Eb to D) in beat two, add the b3 (C), and you’ll be sailing through the repetitive triplets in Ex. 2a in no time. Ex. 2b recasts the same motif in a sixteenth-note setting. The “name game” (you know—“Johnny-Johnny-bo-bonnie, etc.”) lick in Ex. 2d is the same as starting Ex. 2c on beat four.

5 Smother ’Em in  Gravy, Texas-Style

Let’s look at how Johnny incorporates short licks into longer lines. You should recognize the pickup and opening lick in Ex. 3a as an extrapolation from Examples 2a and 2b, but new here are the major third bend (yow!) on beat four of bar 1, and the mini 3/16 hemiola (three-against-four phrasing) in bars 1 and 2. After you nail Ex. 3b’s slinky fifth-position A blues/Dorian lines laced with Winter’s one-of-a-kind vibrato, try subbing Ex. 2c or Ex. 2d for the first two beats in bar 1. Ex. 3c features a signature vibratoed pre-bend, a cool descending A blues scale run, and a pair of Winter’s trademark triplet pull-offs.

6 Make a Ruckus

It’s tough, but try to imagine not having heard any guitarist after the summer of ’69, then play the opening track from Johnny Winter. If the hairs on your neck bristle, you get it. This ultra-cool “where’s one?” intro figure to “I’m Yours and I’m Hers” [Ex. 4a] begins as a solo bass line before a discretely overdubbed Winter joins in, pitting open-A slide guitar against his razor-toned standard-tuned ax. The riff also bolsters Winter’s dueling guitars throughout the solo, where he tosses off standard-tuned phrases similar to the A-pentatonic-major-based runs in Examples 4b and 4c in counterpoint with his wailing harp-like slide licks on the opposite channel of the stereo mix. The extended minor-third bend that opens Ex. 4d is another Winter trademark, as is the series of syncopated major and minor triads played over an open-A pedal tone in Ex. 4e, which borrows its rhythmic framework from the original intro riff in Ex. 4a.

7 Cross Borders

When Winter transitioned from blues wunderkind to rock star in the latter part of 1970, he brought selected standards from his earlier repertoire to the party. One tune that adapted particularly well was his own “Mean Town Blues.” Ex. 5a depicts the first half of the song’s main riff—a hyperactive John Lee Hooker-style boogie figure filled with rolling b7-to-7 (G to G#) hammer-ons, gradual b3-to-3 (C to C#) bends, and syncopated root/5 chords. Winter typically repeats the riff an indeterminate number of times during the intro, but once the verse begins, you’ll want to play it six times, then omit the last note on the final round and segue directly to the thrice-repeated “response” riff in Ex. 5b, being sure to observe the slight melodic variations each time this new figure is repeated. For your convienience, both of the previous examples have been tabbed in both open-A (à la Winter) and standard tuning.

8 Rock and Roll!!!!!

Few who have experienced Winter’s famous battle cry will ever forget it. Winter’s brand of early-’70s arena rock was heavy on high-energy guitar riffs that came across like Lightnin’ Hopkins on steroids. His rebirth was captured on the excellent Johnny Winter And, and Winter’s jet-flanged zip up and down the low E string on the album’s opening cut, “Guess I’ll Go Away,” gives way to Ex. 6a, the meanest riff ever concocted from a simple ascending and descending G blues scale.

(Who says scales can’t be cool?) Play the down-stemmed lower-octave part the first time and the up-stemmed upper-octave part on the repeat. Ex. 6b’s take on the blues standard “Rock Me Baby,” comes from Still Alive and Well, Winter’s aptly named return to action in 1973. Check out how this gnarly I-chord figure uses yet another lower-octave variation of Examples 2a and 2b in the second half of bar 2.

9 Get Stoned

Winter covered several Jagger/Richards compositions over the course of his career, including “Let It Bleed” and “Stray Cat Blues,” as well as Richards’ “Silver Train,” but it was the “And” band’s version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (from Johnny Winter And Live) that transformed the song’s original guitar figure into one of the top ten bar-band riffs of all time. Winter plays this classic intro/verse riff in second position [Ex. 7a], while Rick Derringer covers the same figure in seventh position, revoicing the double-stops in bar 2 to include a D (the b3/#9) on the third string. The band also utilized the song’s B-E-D-A/C# interlude and crafted a new four-bar power-chord outro similar to Ex. 7b to frame their extended guitar solos. The repetitive one-bar snippets in the next three examples will work equally well over either progression. High points include Winter’s vibratoed pre-bends in Ex. 7c, the country-informed B pentatonic bends, hammer-ons and pull-offs in Ex. 7d, and a Clapton-style motif played without pull-offs in Ex. 7e.

10 Adopt a  Dylan Classic

If there’s one song in Johnny Winter’s vast repertoire that you’ve gotta know, it’s his rousing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” Still a highlight of his live set to this day, Winter first recorded the song on Second Winter in the key of D using open-D tuning (D, A, D, F#, A, D), though he’s known to perform the song in open-E (same tuning up a whole-step) as well, as shown in Ex. 8a. The song doesn’t have a signature riff per se, just a quartet of barred slide chords anticipated over a galloping shuffle rhythm and set to an unusual 18-bar progression—E (I) for eight bars (subbing the E7/5 voicing in Ex. 8b for bars 5 through 8), A (IV) for two bars (using vibratoed whole notes as shown in Ex. 8b), E (I) for eight bars (subbing open-E slide fills from Examples 8c to 8e for the previous slide figure), B (V) for two bars (anticipating a tied whole-note on the and of beat four), and E (I) for two bars (playing the slide riff from Ex. 8a). Winter typically precedes and follows this progression with both short and extended slide solos over the static E-chord riff. The repetitive licks in Examples 8c through 8e use open-string pull-offs (yes, they’re played with the slide), while Ex. 8f combines similar moves with a boxier approach in typical call-and-response fashion. Ex. 8g shows how effortlessly Winter adapts his standard licks to slide (or maybe it’s the other way around?). Finally, Ex. 8h (played one octave higher on the repeat) illustrates the kind of broken major third intervals Winter uses to create ascending E, G, A, C, and D chord sounds and bring the song to a climax. Another gold-medal performance at the Winter Olympics!

Jonesing for more Johnny? Check out the Johnny Winter section of Jesse Gress’ recent book, Guitar Licks of the Texas Blues-Rock Heroes (Backbeat).

Lesson examples 4a-c, 5a-b, 6b, & 8a-b were omitted due to copyrights.

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