Johnny Winter's Journey through the Blues

“It was just another festival,” Johnny Winter deadpans when queried about his appearance at Woodstock—which is like saying the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show of February 9, 1964 was just another Sunday night. Or that Winter’s The Progressive Blues Experiment—the 1969 release that showcased ferocious chops and speed beyond anything even Clapton was putting down, and that also points the way right up to Stevie Ray Vaughan—was just another blues album.

“It was just another festival,” Johnny Winter deadpans when queried about his appearance at Woodstock—which is like saying the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show of February 9, 1964 was just another Sunday night. Or that Winter’s The Progressive Blues Experiment—the 1969 release that showcased ferocious chops and speed beyond anything even Clapton was putting down, and that also points the way right up to Stevie Ray Vaughan—was just another blues album.

In the ’70s, Winter’s technique, phrasing, and passionate melding of blues and rock made him a bona fide guitar hero, as well as one of the era’s top arena draws. His fresh, ballsy production of Muddy Waters in the late ’70s exposed the legendary bluesman to a whole new audience. (“The high point of my career was working with Muddy,” says Winter. “Those records were done real quick—mostly in one take.”) During the ’80s, Winter uncorked three very strong Alligator Records releases.

But something went terribly wrong from the ’90s to the 2004 release of his I’m A Bluesman. The late Teddy Slatus—who died in 2005—managed Winter, and allegedly exploited the guitarist’s substance abuse to keep him in a perpetual haze while practically bankrupting his finances and health. Eventually, everything went south, as the gigs and Winter’s health fell into a sharp decline.

But now, the most powerful blues and rock guitarist of his generation is making a comeback with a new man, guitarist Paul Nelson, guiding his career. Nowhere near ready to hang up his guitar, Winter has reconciled with his brother Edgar after a long period of estrangement, has an exciting new album in the works, will soon be honored with a signature Gibson Firebird and a signature Dunlop slide, and, to quote a classic rock tune, is “getting stronger every day.” With Nelson at his side, Winter invited GP to his home for an exclusive sit down to discuss his never-ending journey through the blues.

Who was one of your earliest musical influences as you were growing up in Beaumont, Texas?

Winter: Clarence Garlow. He was a deejay as well as a guitarist, and he played a lot of his own records [laughs]. His style was similar to T-Bone Walker. I first met him when I was about 12 years old. He was one of the first guitar players to use light-gauge strings, and he taught me how to use an unwound 3rd.

Nelson: Garlow was a gutsier T-Bone—less jazzy and more raw.

Who inspired you the most to play?

Winter: Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. I learned to play with my thumb and fingers, because I knew that was what they did. Robert Johnson was the one who turned me on to slide, and then I worked my way back to Son House. I use open D tuning for slide, and I also tune down to D in standard, because it feels better to me.

In the early days, did you find other people like yourself who were into blues?

Winter: No. I was on my own. I was playing mostly soul music, but I put blues licks in everything. The blues thing didn’t really happen until I started playing with Tommy Shannon and Uncle John Turner. Turner knew I was a good blues player, and he wanted me to do it because of the British stuff that was making it.

Were you aware of the young white blues fans in Chicago centered around Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield in the ’60s?

Winter: Yeah. I met Mike in 1963 at a club he had in Chicago called The Fickle Pickle. My first bass player, Dennis Grugin—his daddy taught me some guitar—was playing in a band in Chicago, and they needed a guitar player, so I came up and played with them for several months. I’ve always loved Chicago blues. It’s the Mississippi blues electrified—rawer, with more slide work and the harmonica.

Bloomfield was clearly influenced by B.B. King, but you seem to have assimilated your influences into a style that owes a debt to no one.

Winter: I just listened to everybody, and I incorporated what they did into my own style. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It just happened.

Nelson: Johnny is such a sponge, and he listened “outside of the box.” He traced the blues from Texas to Mississippi to Chicago, and he came up with riffs that no one else was playing, because they were just listening to the big guys from their area in Texas. He also knows the fretboard so well that all he has to do is hear something, and he can visualize it on the neck.

What made you decide to start playing more rock in the 1970s?

Winter: My manager, Steve Paul [son of Les Paul], thought that the big blues revival of the ’60s had overdosed people on the music, and he convinced me to do more rock and roll. I still wanted to stay true to my blues roots, but, looking back, music was changing then, and that was the direction to go in. I did some good stuff in that period, but I wouldn’t do it again.

You and Rick Derringer played well together at that time.

Winter: We did work well together! I don’t like working with two guitars much. That was Steve Paul’s idea, too. But the live album I did with Rick in 1971—Johnny

Winter And—was my biggest-selling album, and my only gold record.

Paul, what have you picked up from playing with Johnny?

Nelson: The beauty of hanging out with him is that I get to pick his brain. When Johnny told me that everyone in his day learned the Eddie Taylor rhythms, I knew what I had to do to make him more comfortable. In fact, one of the most important things I learned was how Taylor played boogie patterns in E, using open chords for the I and IV at fret 2, then playing the V chord at fret 4 with the same fingering as the IV, but leaving the A string open instead of barring at fret 2 to access the B root.

Johnny also told me that if a guitarist was any kind of a player, they had to learn Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp,” just like every cool guitarist had to be able to play Van Halen’s “Eruption” in the late ’70s and beyond. There is actually more of Gatemouth than T-Bone in Johnny’s playing.

Johnny is a great rhythm player.

Nelson: Oh, yes. He said he always listened to the guitar players on Bobby “Blue” Bland records for fills and chords. Johnny knows a multitude of turnarounds. Some players break up the 12-bar blues into

sections where they treat bars 1 through 10 as an open, free jam, and when they get to bars 11 and 12, they throw on a turnaround. To Johnny, it’s almost as if the whole 12 bar is a giant turnaround. He has riffs that are structured to fit the whole progression. It’s like a whole song within itself that connects all the way through. A lot of that comes from Lightnin’ Hopkins—who Johnny appreciated for his gutsy feel—where he does a turnaround right off the bat from the I chord going into the IV chord.

But as good a rhythm player as Johnny is, it’s hard to ignore his amazing speed as a soloist. There’s an interview with B.B. King, and one of the questions they ask him is, “What do you like about Johnny Winter’s playing?” B.B. responds, “He just plays the blues so fast!” Johnny gets that speed from his thumbpick, because it’s located at the crease of the first thumb knuckle—it’s the equivalent of a fusion player’s pick placement. So when he condenses his picking for a rapid-fire bunch of licks, he’s almost making a fist. And, because of the thumbpick, there’s more up picking involved than down picking, which tends to put the accent on the off beats. That’s what makes it swing.

Johnny, what are the main pieces of gear you’re currently using?

Winter: I’m still playing my Erlewine Lazer loaded with DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan pickups, and I also have my ’63 Gibson Firebird V. My amp is a Music Man HD-130 through a 4x10 cabinet with vintage Celestion G10 speakers. I’ve got a MXR Phase 90, a Boss C-E2 chorus, and an Ibanez Tube Screamer, and I use D’Addario XL strings, gauged .010-.046, and Gibson thumbpicks.

Nelson: Johnny never, ever breaks a string, but I still change them every five or six gigs.

I’ve always been amazed at how bright and biting Johnny’s tone is.

Nelson: On his Music Man, he sets the Volume, Master Volume, and Treble at 10, and the Bass and Midrange at 0. He never uses reverb. Now that thing is loud, and he controls it all from his guitar. He can get the same tone out of a Fender Twin using the same settings, but the 10" Celestions in the Music Man cabinet break up a little better, and they cover more air. He changes his speakers around every six months, and he has the amps overhauled once a year.

Is there any early information available on Johnny’s new album?

Nelson: The tentative title of the album is Roots, and the premise is to pay tribute to the traditional songs Johnny listened to as he was growing up. Bob Cutarella—who co-produced the recent Les Paul & Friends album—is currently assembling guest artists for the project. Right now, we’re expecting Billy Gibbons, Dr. John, and Johnny’s brother Edgar.

Johnny’s career has been a little shaky the past few years, so I’m happy to see that things seem to be getting better.

Nelson: He’s 61—exactly the same age as Muddy was when they relaunched his career in the ’70s. We always joke around when I say to him, “You’re having a comeback, aren’t you?” And he says, “Yeah, but I never went anywhere.”