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 ...
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’.
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.)
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.
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 upstroke, 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.
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.
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