Kick Out the Jams—Warren Haynes

Standing onstage, Warren Haynes is an imposing figure, and when he digs into his ’58 Les Paul Reissue, the resulting tones are as burly as the man himself. With his supple vibrato, molten tone, grinding chords, melodic double-stops, and soaring slide licks, Haynes pays tribute to Paul Kossoff, Steve Marriott, Curtis Mayfield, and Duane Allman with a fiery intensity all his own.
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Standing onstage, Warren Haynes is an imposing figure, and when he digs into his ’58 Les Paul Reissue, the resulting tones are as burly as the man himself. With his supple vibrato, molten tone, grinding chords, melodic double-stops, and soaring slide licks, Haynes pays tribute to Paul Kossoff, Steve Marriott, Curtis Mayfield, and Duane Allman with a fiery intensity all his own. Haynes stays busy, too. In addition to fronting the powerhouse jam band Gov’t Mule—which includes drummer Matt Abts, keyboardist Danny Louis, and bassist Andy Hess—he shares guitar duties with Derek Trucks in the Allman Brothers Band.

“Right now, my calluses are in pretty good shape,” laughs Haynes. “I’ve been on tour with the Allman Brothers for three weeks, and this last week has been Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers as a package. Gov’t Mule plays 90 minutes, I take a 30-minute break, and then do two-and-a-half hours with the Allman Brothers.”

Haynes co-produced Gov’t Mule’s new album, High & Mighty [ATO], with Gordie Johnson, the ace guitarist and former leader of the hard-rocking Canadian band, Big Sugar. The album offers tough riffs, turn-on-a-dime ensemble jamming, and a strong dose of dub reggae—all served with an emphasis on fat-toned, extemporaneous guitar solos.

“Gordie is such a strong player in his own right,” says Haynes, “that his presence created an ideal situation for getting guitar sounds. During rehearsals, he would make suggestions for which guitar I should try on a given song, and then he’d start screwing with the sound of the amps. While we were honing in on the arrangements, he was shaping my tones, and this carried over into the recording. It was a very rewarding way to work.”

You recorded High & Mighty at Pedernales, Willie Nelson’s studio in Austin, Texas. What drew you there?

I asked Gordie, “In a perfect world, where would you like to record?” He’d been working at Pedernales a lot, so that was his suggestion. The studio is located in a beautiful area about 40 minutes outside of town.

High & Mighty features lively ensemble interplay. Did Pedernales offer enough space to set up and perform as a band?

The space is actually a little smaller than Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, where we recorded our previous record, Déjà Voodoo. And I liked that—we were a little closer together, and the sound was a little tighter. We all set up in the same room with everybody looking at each other. We cut 13 tracks at Pedernales, and then took Gordie back with us to Water Music, where we recorded five more tracks—two of which made the record.

Your guitar tones are gargantuan. How did you capture them in the studio?

The setup for the sessions at Pedernales consisted of three amps mixed together. I had two 100-watt heads—a modified Soldano SLO-100 and a Cesar Diaz CD-100—each driving a 4x12 Marshall cabinet loaded with Celestion speakers. We also blended in one of Gordie’s Fender Pro Juniors—which is a tiny 15-watt combo with a 10" speaker. The Soldano’s 4x12 cabinet was miked inside a huge road case that acted as a really tight isolation room. The Diaz’s 4x12 was in a fairly big room—adjacent to where we were set up—with a distant mic on it. The Pro Junior was out in the studio with me, really close to where I was standing. We had it baffled so it didn’t leak too badly into the drum mics, but I could get feedback. That was the only speaker directly affecting the sound of my guitar.

What type of Celestions do you put in your 4x12s, and why?

It varies. Some cabinets have Vintage 30s, and others have 25-watt greenbacks. I go back and forth, depending on the sound I’m looking for. Greenbacks are a little more old-school ratty—in a good way—with that classic sound you’ve heard on tons of great rock records. Vintage 30s are a little clearer, but not much, which is why I probably wind up with them most often.

How did you split your signal to feed three amps?

I have a [Custom Audio Electronics] Bob Bradshaw switching system that can send each amp its own signal. We’d adjust the amps’ volume, gain, and tone on a song-by-song basis, and, in some cases, Gordie would set the knobs himself—something I’ve never let anybody do before. Obviously, I’d say something if I didn’t like the results, but, for the most part, he and I agree on what constitutes a good guitar sound. Also, he was the one hearing the blend in the control room, so it worked out well. All three amps played a huge role in the tone. If you took any one away, the sound would drastically change. We blended these three amps regardless of the guitar choice we made for each song, and we used tons of different guitars.

Tell us about them.

On previous records, I’ve played my main Les Paul—a ’58 Reissue—the majority of the time, but this album couldn’t have been more different. We’d recorded nine or 10 tracks before I picked up the Les Paul for “Nothing Again.” On “Mr. High & Mighty” and “Streamline Woman,” I played a dot-neck ’61 Gibson ES-335, tuned down a half-step. On “Brand New Angel” and “Unring the Bell,” it’s a P-90-equipped ’58 Les Paul

Special tuned down a half-step. For “Child of the Earth,” I played a ’64 Firebird.

That’s my purple Custom Shop Firebird on “Endless Parade.” It has banjo tuners, which give it a warmer, fatter sound. From a tuning standpoint, banjo tuners are a pain in the ass, but they sound good. That’s the only Firebird I own with the legitimate, vintage-style banjo tuners.

Remember the Gibson RD? It looks like a cross between an Explorer and a Firebird. Gordie has one that he keeps tuned to an open-C chord, with a unison drone on the top two strings, which are both Cs. From low to high, the tuning is C, G, C, G, C, C. He keeps telephone-wire strings on it, and the action is literally at least a half-inch off the fretboard. I played that guitar on “Like Flies” and “Brighter Days.” In the intro to “Brighter Days”—where I’m playing the Eastern stuff—that weird droning sound is the two high-C strings chorusing.

For “So Weak, So Strong,” I played the 12-string Les Paul that Gibson built for me. It’s the second one they made, and I think there are only three. That guitar has a coil-tap switch, and I used it in single-coil mode.

The tinkling prelude to “So Weak, So Strong” sounds like an African kora.

That was an impromptu section. We hadn’t planned on adding anything before the intro. After we’d done a couple of takes, I just played that off the top of my head on the 12-string, and it became part of the song. That’s also how the opening section to “Brighter Days” came about.

Did your gear change for the Water Music sessions?

I used my main Les Paul on the two album tracks we recorded in Hoboken—“Million Miles from Yesterday” and the bonus track, “3-String George”—and my amps were different from the Pedernales setup. I ran through two combos: a Supro and a Fender Pro from the ’50s or early ’60s.

How many of your solos did you cut live with the band?

Almost everything. It’s funny, I always go into the studio thinking, “I’d sure like to overdub more on this next record and shake things up by playing fewer solos while I’m tracking.” But when we get in there, I start playing solos to give the band something to respond to, and we wind up keeping them.

“Mr. High & Mighty,” “Brand NewAngel,” “Child of the Earth,” “Unring the Bell,” “Nothing Again,” “Brighter Days,” and “Endless Parade” all have live solos. On “So Weak, So Strong,” I played the rhythm 12-string guitar live, and overdubbed the wah slide lines using my Les Paul through a ’65 blackface Fender Super Reverb.

The first solo in “Streamline Woman”—when it modulates down a half-step—is an overdub. It’s a combination solo where I start off on slide and then move into fretting notes. The second solo is live with the band—that’s my 335. The solo in “Like Flies” is an overdub, using Gordie’s RD in open C, and “Million Miles from Yesterday” has an overdubbed part.

“3-String George” is a late-night jam—the last thing we recorded for the album. We first sat around in a little room, and worked up the tune with me playing a D’Angelico, Danny playing a Wurlitzer, and Matt playing a cocktail kit. But then Gordie got the idea to go for a Meters sound, because the tune is a tribute to them. So instead of having the drums in the main room, we put Matt in a tiny isolation room and he just used kick, snare, one cymbal, and a hi-hat—no tom toms, or anything else. Danny and I were out in the main room, and Andy was playing bass in a little iso room. He had a talkback mic that wasn’t even facing his amp, but when Gordie heard how it was picking up the bass, he said, “Man, that is so old-school funky, let’s use it.” In the beginning of the tune, you can actually hear Andy breathing. It’s very bizarre.

Did you use any overdrive pedals, or do you rely on amps for distortion?

Mostly it’s amp distortion—although I stepped on a Klon Centaur or a Diaz Texas Ranger a couple of times for a little extra gain boost. The Diaz box is based on the old Dallas Rangemaster treble booster, but it has a switch that lets you select treble, mid, or bass boost. In a few songs, I’d set the Texas Ranger to boost bass, and then I’d step on it to give the solo a different sound from the rhythm part. At the end of “Brand New Angel,” for example, when the band drops out and I’m holding the V chord, you can hear me step on the pedal to kick up the gain while the guitar is sustaining. Then I turn on the wah and solo the rest of the way out.

Gordie came up with a cool idea for amp distortion. I have this little Gibson Skylark combo, and instead of miking its 6" Jensen speaker, he hooked it up to a 4x12 cabinet. The amp is so underpowered driving four 12" speakers, but it creates this unbelievable sound. I used that for the overdubbed guitar in “Million Miles from Yesterday,” as well as the first solo in “Streamline Woman.”

And your wah pedal?

It’s a Dunlop CryBaby. I have two or three—and they each sound a little different—but I used the same one throughout this album. On “Streamline Woman,” I’m playing the rhythm guitar part behind the first solo with the wah engaged, but parked in one position. I set the wah exactly where I wanted it, and then used the Bradshaw system to switch the wah in and out of the signal path.

What’s creating the tremolo in “Nothing Again”?

That’s a Bob Bradshaw Super Tremolo—a half-rack stereo tremolo unit.

Tell us about your pickups.

My guitars all have different pickups. Brian Farmer, my guitar tech, will try different pickups and get me to A/B them. I’ll often choose the pickups I like not knowing what they are. My ’64 Firebird has Seymour Duncan mini-humbuckers, and, these days, my Les Pauls usually have Gibson ’57 Classics or BurstBuckers. The BurstBuckers seem a little more powerful and a little clearer in some ways, but the ’57 Classics have that sound we’ve been in love with all our lives. Recently, I’ve been digging the BurstBuckers in my main guitar, but when I pick up a guitar with the Classics, I go, “Oh, I like that sound.” Because each guitar is different, you can’t expect a certain set of pickups to sound the same in every one.

So you tinker with pickups until a guitar responds the way you want it to?

Yeah. I especially focus on the balance between the treble and bass pickups. Onstage, I find I’m constantly tweaking the volumes and the toggle switch in every song, so I want the pickups to sound great individually and together.

How about the capacitors in your tone pots—do you experiment with different values?

Usually, I stay with what comes on the guitar, but Brian gets a little picky about it sometimes. If he feels a guitar is not doing what it’s supposed to, he’ll try something else, and ask me what I think.

What about your strings?

I use GHS Burnished Nickel strings—.010-.046 sets for guitars in standard tuning, and .011-.050 sets for those tuned down a half-step. Onstage, I’m using a Gordie Johnson signature SG [Gibson produces this SGJ model for the Canadian market] for the new open-C songs. Brian puts super-heavy strings on it [a customized GHS Boomers Low Tune set, gauged .014-.058], but they’re still not as heavy as what Gordie has on his RD. His low C is probably an .080. He’s not of this world.

Do you use glass or metal slides?

They’re glass. I love the way Coricidin bottles feel and sound, but I’ve found that, playing live, the enclosed tip allows condensation to get trapped in the slide, which messes with my callus. So Brian and his wife Lisa have been making me custom slides by taking straight, open-ended Dunlop glass slides and painting the inside with strange psychedelic designs. The walls are a little thicker than Coricidin bottles, and the slide is a bit longer. I often use a Coricidin bottle in the studio, but I use the custom slides onstage.

Do you have favorite amp mics?

I’ve gotten good sounds with various mics, but the combination that seems to pop up a lot is either a Shure SM57 with a Sennheiser MD421, or a pair of 421s.

What was most special for you about making High & Mighty?

Before the band arrived for rehearsals in Austin, Gordie and I spent four days there with acoustic guitars, deconstructing all the songs and putting them back together. In some cases, he had very drastic changes in mind. Had we not been such close friends for the last ten years, and had I not had the amount of respect for him that I do, I might not have been quite so open to this rearranging and reworking of my songs. But in almost every instance—even when his ideas were way different from what I’d come up with originally—I wound up really liking them. Gov’t Mule always spends a lot of time rehearsing and doing preproduction for our records, but this was more fundamental. I think the album benefited greatly from having someone I could trust work with the arrangements. Because studio time is precious and valuable, I’d never afforded myself this luxury. It was a big plus for me, and that’s what I’m really most proud of about this record.