JOHNNY WINTER INTERVIEW
ANDY ALEDORT: You are one of rock guitar’s greatest living legends, but the guitar was not the first instrument that grabbed your interest, was it?
JOHNNY WINTER: No. I started on the clarinet when I was about four years old. Both of my parents were musicians; my mother played the piano, mostly just for fun, and my father played saxophone and the banjo, and played gigs on the weekends. His real job was as a contractor, building houses.
AA: Would you say that music played a significant role in your life from very early on?
WINTER: Yeah, it sure did. I can remember my daddy teaching me how to play chords on the banjo and the ukulele when I was very young. He’d show me some of the old standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Ain’t She Sweet,” things like that.
AA: Where you very enthusiastic about music from the get-go?
WINTER: Yeah, I really was. I liked music because it made me feel good when I played it, and when I listened to it, too.
AA: Did the family ever have little jam sessions together?
WINTER: We did some of that, and it was always great fun. My mother had to read the music, but my dad could jam on anything. He’d make stuff up as he went along.
AA: How old were you when you first picked up the guitar?
WINTER: Eleven. I had to stop playing the clarinet because I wore braces, and playing the clarinet was making my overbite worse. I was pretty upset that I had to stop playing the clarinet, but I had no choice. That’s when I moved over to the ukulele. After playing the uke for a while, I switched over to the guitar, because that was just the natural progression. Before I turned eleven, my hands weren’t really big enough to play some of the bigger, six-string chords on the guitar. My father encouraged me to move onto the guitar, too, because he said the only famous people he knew of that played the ukulele were Arthur Godfrey and Ukulele Ike! He thought I had better chances for success with the guitar.
AA: Were there any particular guitar players that piqued your interest in the guitar?
WINTER: Yeah, Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Right around that time, I met a guy named Luther Nally, who began to teach me the guitar. Luther was into the Chet Atkins style, and he got me into using the thumb pick, which is what you need to use for playing fingerstyle. A lot of the blues guys, like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed, used a thumb pick, too. Later on, I kind of wished I hadn’t stuck with the thumb pick, because it probably slowed me down a little. I really wish I’d learned to play without a pick, but when I tried to play with just my fingers, it didn’t sound as good to me as I would have liked. So, I’m stuck with the thumb pick and it’s too late to change!
AA: Did you find the guitar an easy instrument to play?
WINTER: Yes, I did. I felt like it was pretty easy to master, because I could play all of the things I wanted to play.
AA: Were you fanatical about practicing in your early teenage years?
WINTER: Oh yeah. I really loved to play, and I played every chance I got. And my parents were very encouraging; they were used to me being musically inclined. I also sang in the church choir, which helped me to develop my voice.
AA: You started to make records at a very young age, one of the first being “Ice Cube,” which you cut in 1959 at the age of fifteen. You’d only been playing the guitar for four years at that point, but many elements of your style–the speed and the precision, for example–were already firmly in place.
WINTER: I had a good idea of what I wanted to sound like when I started to play, so it was just a matter of doing it. It didn’t seem difficult; it came very naturally. “Ice Cube” was something that I wrote just to use as a little “jamming” thing. Playing was something that I loved to do, and I just kept doing it, because there was always more that I wanted to learn.
There was a guy named Clarence Garlow, who was a disc jockey on KJET, a radio station in Beaumont, where I grew up. We became friends, and he taught me a lot about music. When I first started to play, the only strings you could get were Gibson Sonomatics, which came with a wound G string. I couldn’t figure out how Chuck Berry did all of those great string-bending licks, because I just couldn’t get that sound with the wound G. Then Clarence turned me onto the unwound G string, and it was like a revelation!
AA: What kind of guitar were you playing back then?
WINTER: It was a Gibson Les Paul Custom, a black one. It was supposed to be a three-pickup guitar, but I ordered with just two pickups. I didn’t like the middle pickup because it got in the way of my picking.
AA: What records were you trying to learn licks off of in those days?
WINTER: Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records, mostly. Those were my two big favorites. I loved The Best of Muddy Waters, on Chess. All those Best of… records were great, like The Best of Little Walter, too. I loved [guitarists] Pat Hare and Jimmie Rogers, who both played with Muddy, and Hubert Sumlin, who played with Wolf. Pat Hare wasn’t really that great, technically, but he had a good feeling for what he was doing. He had a cool tone, too. And I learned a lot from listening to Bobby “Blue” Bland’s guitar players, like Wayne Bennett. I don’t even know who the other guys were; I just listened to all of Bobby Bland’s records. I’d sit with the records and try to pick off every lick that I could.
AA: When did you first experiment with slide guitar?
WINTER: After hearing The Best of Muddy Waters. I could hear that he was switching back and forth between playing with the slide and playing [fretting] with his fingers, but I had no idea how he was doing it. The little bit I had learned was from reading liner notes on the back of albums, and they always called it “bottleneck” guitar, and described guys breaking the necks off bottles and using steak bones. I tried everything, including knives, lipstick holders and watch crystals, and finally I went down to the plumbing supply, found the pipe that fit my finger the best, and had some pieces cut to just the right length. And that’s what I still use today.
AA: Was T-Bone Walker much of an influence for you?
WINTER: Definitely, though most people don’t pick up on that because my tone is so different from his. T-Bone’s phrasing and choice of notes had a big influence on me. I think I first heard T-Bone over the radio.
When I was growing up, there were these great radio stations, like WLAC, KWKH, XTRS, and KJET. There were all of these radio shows sponsored by record stores–like Randy’s Records from Nashville on WLAC, and Stan’s Record Shop from Shreveport on KWKH–and I got to hear tons of great blues and r&b on these radio shows. I spent every penny I had buying up all of the blues records I could find; I became totally fanatical about it.
AA: From an early age, did you envision yourself becoming a professional musician?
WINTER: Yeah, I did. At first, the only gigs I did were after the school basketball games, at the sock-hops. One of the first clubs I ever played was this little place called Lucille’s, which changed it’s name to Tom’s Fish Can. It was outside of Beaumont, out in the country. We played out there on the weekends. That band was called Johnny and the Jammers.
AA: Was your brother Edgar playing with you then?
WINTER: Yes, he was. First, he was playing the four-string guitar, and then he moved over to the piano.
AA: How would you describe your relationship with Edgar?
WINTER: We always had a great relationship. Our interests in music were very different, though. I loved the rawest blues you could get your hands on, and Edgar hated that stuff! He preferred r&b and jazz, and musical sophistication. But Edgar listened to everything I listened to, and he learned everything I learned, in addition to the jazz and r&b stuff. And he could play any instrument: if we lost our drummer, Edgar would sit in on the drums; if we lost the bass player, he’d sit in on bass!
AA: It sounds like he was just a little bit talented.
WINTER: No kidding! [laughs] We knew this guy who was old enough to sign for the instrument rentals, and when we had band practice, Edgar would teach every guy, on each different instrument, what to play. And he was only fifteen! These guys weren’t the greatest players, but he still taught them how to play everything.
AA: Did the two of you always have a good working relationship?
WINTER: Yeah. The only problem we had was when Edgar started to play the sax, because I didn’t want a sax player. So we parted company for a little while.
AA: How did you build up your vast vocabulary of blues licks?
WINTER: I bought literally every blues record I could lay my hands on. I was so into it, all I did was listen to the records and learn the licks every chance I had. I wouldn’t know any other way to do it. Blues was something I could never get enough of.
AA: How did you learn about open tunings, which you use when you play slide?
WINTER: I learned about open tunings from listening to Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues. I picked up the concept of using open tunings just by using my own ears, and when I discovered how the open tunings worked with the slide, it was quite a revelation. I had seen people playing slide with a dobro, laying the instrument flat on the lap, but it wasn’t until I saw a picture of Son House playing slide while holding the guitar normally that I realized that you could do it that way, too.
AA: One of the earmarks of your style is your incredible speed and precision. Can you describe how you developed your fiery soloing style?
WINTER: It just came naturally to me. I wasn’t trying to do anything in particular, other than play what I was hearing in my head.
AA: Did you ever specifically work on the intertwining of complex, fast phrases, which lead to your ability to play with the effortlessness and great spontaneity that you display?
WINTER: It all came from listening and playing, and learning to put all of these licks together in my own way. Playing with speed just felt right to me, and I wanted to be able to do it whenever I wanted. It really just came naturally–that’s all I can say.
AA: Using your earliest singles as a barometer, it seems like you played just about every style of popular music there was at the time: country, pop, r&b and blues.
WINTER: Anything that anybody wanted to hear, I played it. You had to be able to play everything in those days to get a good club job, or even a bad club job! [laughs] That’s what was expected of the musicians in those days. I’d sneak in a blues song every once in a while, but we played the Top 40, and whatever people asked for. We could get away with playing [T-Bone Walker’s classic blues] “Stormy Monday,” because people knew that song from hearing it on the radio.
AA: Do you think having to play in all of those different styles was helpful to your growth as a musician?
WINTER: Oh definitely. It turned out to be a very valuable experience. But I wasn’t always happy playing and singing all of those songs!
AA: Some of your blues heroes, like T-Bone and Guitar Slim, were extravagant showmen. That is not something that you’ve ever emulated in your own style, though.
WINTER: I got into it a little bit, but not that much. I was always more interested in playing than jumping around.
AA: As you gained experience as a player, when did you start to do some traveling?
WINTER: At about fifteen. We’d go over to Louisiana a lot, which was only about 25 miles from Beaumont. There were some good white bands playing over there. At that age, it was real exciting for me to be able to get up and play in front of a real “nightclub” audience.
AA: One of the signature elements of your playing is your vibrato, which is very strong and aggressive-sounding. How did you develop such a unique vibrato?
WINTER: At first, I didn’t even know how people made the vibrato sound; I thought you did it with the vibrato bar, which was how I was doing it. Then I started to see more people play, and I saw it being done with just the fingers. But it really wasn’t until I heard the Bluesbreakers record with Eric Clapton [John Mayall and Eric Clapton: Bluesbreakers] that I realized that to get that heavy vibrato sound, you had to do it with your fingers. It became like a point of honor to do it that way, so I took off my vibrato arm and forced myself to get the finger vibrato together.
The funny thing is, I didn’t really like the Bluesbreakers record that much; to me, it sounded too much like what everybody else was doing. But Eric could do things on the guitar that I couldn’t do up to that point, and I wanted to learn how to do those things.
AA: Many people point to Eric’s sound on that record–the combination of the ’59 Les Paul Standard and the Marshall JTM 45–as being one of the most important turning points in modern guitar playing.
WINTER: That’s true, but that’s not what I liked about Eric’s playing. In fact, I didn’t like that sound at all. It was too bassy for me, and a little too distorted.
AA: You moved to Chicago in 1962, when you were eighteen. Was that the first real traveling you’d ever done as a musician?
WINTER: Yeah, it was. I went out there for a gig, playing twist music. Chubby Checker was big then [“The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again” were huge early-60s hits]. At the club we played, every song had to sound like a twist number. If we played a shuffle, we had to play it like a twist! It was kind of a drag.
AA: I hope that wasn’t a two-week long engagement.
WINTER: It was a lot longer than that [laughs]. It was three months, and we made good money doing it.
AA: I would guess that the blues scene was incredible in Chicago in 1962.
WINTER: It was, but I never got to see any of it, because I was too busy playing twist music six nights a week, trying to make enough money to live. [Legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band/Electric Flag guitarist] Mike Bloomfield headed these weekly jams at a club in Chicago called the Fickle Pickle, and I went over there and played with him a few times. But the jams were on the same night as my night off, and I usually preferred to stay home and rest. I stayed out in Chicago for about three or four months, and when I got sick of playing twist music, I moved back to Texas.
AA: Something very interesting about you is that, even though you possessed a strikingly original style as a blues player, it seems that the pragmatic, get-the-best-gig mentality always came first and foremost.
WINTER: That’s true. To me, there was no other way to look at it. The main thing always was to get the gigs that paid the best. There was no money to be made playing blues, as far as I could tell.
AA: When you moved back to Texas in 1962, you began a six- or seven-year period of doing lots of session work.
WINTER: That’s true. I did a lot of sessions at Bill Hall’s recording studio back in Beaumont, working with Ken Ritter, who was [legendary country music star] Tex Ritter’s uncle. I recorded with them for several years. But I did a few records of my own, too. One was called “Eternally,” which I put out in 1964 under my own name. That song became a big hit, regionally.
AA: Where did the success of that record take you?
WINTER: All the way to Louisiana! [laughs] And when I got there, not much happened. The record was big, but it didn’t end up doing much for my career.
WINTER: At the time, I was cutting as many records as I could, in pursuit of a radio hit. That as number one in my mind: get that radio hit! I didn’t think there was any money in playing blues, so we cut everything we could think of. A friend of mine named Dennis Collins wrote “Livin’ In The Blues,” and Robbie Leff wrote “Avocado Green” as a Bob Dylan copy. I really loved Bob Dylan’s records.
AA: In light of your non-stop schedule playing and recording in virtually every style under the sun, you somehow still developed one of the most powerfully original styles of blues guitar imaginable. Did you feel any conflict in your dual role as session ace vs. masterfully original blues virtuoso?
WINTER: Yeah, I did, and it was kind of hard to deal with at times. I did feel frustration that I couldn’t spend more time playing the kind of music that I wanted to play. It really wasn’t until I hooked up with Tommy [Shannon] and Red [“Uncle” John Turner] that I began to play the kind of music that I really wanted to play. [See sidebars, pages __ & __.]
AA: When did you first hook up with Tommy and Red?
WINTER: Around 1968. I was in Houston, and Uncle John, who I knew from Dallas, came in to town looking for a gig. He tried to convince me that we could play some blues and make a decent living doing it. I said, “I know that you can’t, because I’ve tried for my whole life. It can’t be done.” At that time, we were still playing a lot of pop music, the stuff that was on the charts. I had to sing [Glen Campbell’s hit] “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” almost every night!
Red said that we should try to make it playing the music we wanted to play no matter how bad to money was, because it would eventually pay off. I said, okay, let’s give it a try and see what happens. Uncle John had done some playing with Tommy in Dallas, and told me I should hear him. So we went to Dallas and picked him up.
AA: Was [late blues guitar legend] Albert Collins living in Houston then?
WINTER: Yeah, but I’d already met Albert. He’d come into Beaumont many times to record at Bill Hall’s studio [those Albert Collins sessions were released on the TCF Hall label]. He was a great guy and a great guitarist.
AA: Was there a good blues scene in Houston?
WINTER: Austin was better, so we moved there and began playing at a place called the Vulcan Gas Company. The Vulcan Gas Company had been an old hotel, and it was all torn up, with bats living upstairs–it was a pretty funky place! [laughs] There was a promoter who regularly put shows on there, and we played there once every couple of weeks, and we still played regularly at places in Houston like the Love Street Light Circus and Feelgood Machine. We were not making very much money at all at that time.
AA: Did you have any kind of non-music related job to help pay the bills?
AA: Have you ever had a “real” job?
WINTER: Nope! [laughs] I taught the guitar for a little while, but I just didn’t have the patience for it.
AA: Were you surprised by the explosion of the youth culture and the music scene that took place in 1967/1968?
WINTER: Yes, it was real surprising to me. It was an amazing time, because things were changing so much, so fast. Red was right! More than anyone else, Red had the biggest influence on me in terms of focusing my attention on playing blues-based music.
AA: Is that when you first began writing your own music?
WINTER: Yeah, but I never did write all that much. Some of those early things I wrote ended up on The Progressive Blues Experiment, like “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Mean Town Blues.” On “Bad Luck and Trouble,” I’m my own little string band: I’m playing National steel and mandolin, plus the harmonica. Another tune I play harmonica on is “Back Door Friend” [Johnny Winter].
When we were playing at the Vulcan Gas Company, we played a few originals, but not much. At that time, we were focusing on original arrangements of blues tunes like “It’s My Own Fault,” “Got Love If You Want It,” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”
AA: Some of your early compositions, like “Mean Town Blues” and “I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” and your incredible arrangement of Muddy Water’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” feature complex guitar/bass arrangements that exemplify the sound of your early records. One of the best examples is the unison figure on “Fast Life Rider.” Did you guys feel that you were onto something new when you cut these tracks?
WINTER: Yeah, we did, but it’s not like there was really that much thought involved. These songs came together very naturally. “Fast Life Rider,” “I’m Yours and I’m Hers” and “Leland Mississippi Blues” were just songs that came to my mind at the time we were recording the albums, and we worked out the arrangements and recorded them.
AA: “Mean Town Blues” is one of your most notable compositions, one that you continued to play for many, many years. Was that song inspired in any way by John Lee Hooker’s blues classic, “Boogie Chillen?”
WINTER: Well, I love John Lee Hooker. The influence of John Lee Hooker wasn’t supposed to be noticable in that song, though. “Mean Town Blues” is a song I made up myself, and there may be a John Lee Hooker influence in there somewhere. Both songs are played in open A tuning. But often you don’t become aware of the influences on one of your own compositions until after you’ve already recorded it.
AA: The band you broke through with was a trio. Had you played in many trios before the group with Tommy and Red?
WINTER: Yeah, but most of the time those early bands included a keyboard player, too. When we had Edgar, he played keyboard and sax.
AA: Back in ’68, rock music was going through an incredible renaissance, with the emergence of the “power trios” the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Had the success of these bands influenced your musical direction?
WINTER: Yeah, I think it did. We used to play some Hendrix tunes, like “Manic Depression” and “Hey Joe.” But it didn’t really affect the way we played our music, though. It was more that it gave us the will and the encouragement to do it, because we knew they were doing it and were making big names for themselves, and we figured we could do the same thing. Hendrix and Cream were the main reasons why Red felt so sure about us making it ourselves.
AA: Were there any specific musical things–like revising and jamming out on blues standards, for example–that you picked up from what Hendrix and Cream were doing?
WINTER: No. I think we would have played pretty much the same way no matter what. We shared that approach before we had even heard their music; we shared common ground and that’s where we were headed, anyway.
AA: When you were grinding out blues standards and originals in Austin and Houston, did you benefit from a burgeoning rock scene?
WINTER: I guess, but it wasn’t like you would think. We were still starving, making next to no money. Then the chance came to sign a deal over in England with Mike Vernon, the producer of the Bluesbreakers record.
We couldn’t get anything happening with the record companies here in the States, so we went over to England mostly for fun, to see what was going on in the music scene, and to try to get a deal. At that time, there was more blues-oriented music coming out of England than there was here, so it seemed like a good idea to go there. But they wouldn’t let us play at all; they almost wouldn’t let me in the country because I was carrying a guitar! They stopped me in customs and asked me if I planning on playing any jobs, and I said no. And they said, well, don’t let us hear about you playing any jobs over here, or you’ll be in trouble! We stayed a few weeks, got the ball rolling on the deal with Mike Vernon, and came back while the details were being ironed out.
AA: That’s when one of the most infamous incidents in rock took place, regarding the 1968 Rolling Stone article which called you a “cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you’ve ever heard.” That article prompted New York entrepreneur Steve Paul to track you down in Texas, bring you to New York and help you to sign a then-record $600,000 record company advance.
WINTER: That’s right. All of a sudden, there was tremendous interest in us here in the States, so it made more sense to sign up over here.
AA: You’d been banging your head against the wall for quite a while by the time that article came out. Were you surprised by your “sudden” success?
WINTER: Yes, I was. I just never really believed we’d make it playing music like that, and I never, ever expected it.
AA: How did the deal go down with Steve Paul?
WINTER: He tracked me down, and said that he wanted to take me up to New York and get me signed. He had nothing happening at all at that point.
AA: Did you think he was out of his mind?
WINTER: I did, but as soon as we got to New York, I could see that he wasn’t. He started to negotiate with different labels immediately, and there was a “bidding war” between Atlantic and CBS; I ended up going with CBS. People always referred to it as the largest signing bonus in the history of mankind, but I doubt it was. It was a large deal, but it was over a long period of time, for a lot of records. I think it was for two records a year over a six-year period. It’s hard to remember these details!
AA: Did Steve have his infamous Greenwich Village club, the Scene, by then?
WINTER: Yeah. That was a great place–that’s where I first met and played with Jimi Hendrix. I was down there playing just about every night of the week.
AA: Were you a big fan of Hendrix’s music before you met him?
WINTER: Yeah, I sure was. I really loved his records. It was scary jamming with him, because he was so much better than anybody else around. I always tried to lay back and give him plenty of room to play.
AA: Did you guys become close friends?
WINTER: I don’t know if we became that close, really. We talked about music, mostly, and we didn’t really talk about things that friends talk about. It was one of those things where he didn’t seem to be interested in being buddies–he was into music, and that was it.
AA: With so many things happening so fast, were you at all nervous or intimidated?
WINTER: It was all really exciting, because I could never have imagined it happening so quick. But I didn’t feel the least bit nervous or intimidated by what was happening. I was very confident in my abilities at the time, because I’d been playing for years.
AA: Your first two CBS records, Johnny Winter and Second Winter, were both recorded down in Nashville. Why did you record there?
WINTER: If you were signed to CBS in those days, you had to use their studios, and I felt the studios in New York and in Los Angeles were a little too sterile. The Nashville studio was better, even though I felt that the engineers at that time didn’t really know how to capture the sound I was looking for.
I ended up producing both of those albums myself, because I just didn’t trust anybody else, to tell you the truth. In retrospect, I wish I had had someone there to help me, because I think they may have ended up sounding better. I didn’t really know what I was doing. On the first record, I was miking everything real close, and I wouldn’t have done that if I’d known what to do. But, overall, I was pretty happy with the results.
AA: The big thing with Second Winter was that it was the first–and only–three-sided record ever released.
WINTER: The explanation that’s printed on the record is accurate: we wanted to put out everything that we’d recorded, we didn’t want to cut anything out, and we didn’t have any extra material. What we had amounted to three sides worth. The funny thing is, the length of those three sides is about the same as the length of the average CD today.
AA: Was there any interference from the label about production costs?
WINTER: None at all. They didn’t seem to mind! In fact, they thought it was a cool idea.
AA: What guitars were you using on your first two records?
WINTER: On the first record, I used a Fender Mustang, and I used a Fender XII, with just six strings on it, for slide. On Second Winter, I used a cherry red Les Paul Special, which I liked a lot, but it was a little too bassy for me.
AA: A very powerful early recording of yours is your cover of Percy Mayfield’s tune, “Memory Pain” [Second Winter]. Had you been playing that arrangement for a while by the time you recorded it?
WINTER: No, not at all. That was one that we just whipped together for the album. I’m not sure what guitar and amp I was using on that record; it could have been the Goldtop Les Paul that I used for a while. We were experimenting with recording techniques then, and I think that for that tune, we put the guitar amp in the stairwell to get a different kind of a sound.
AA: Your tone is pretty distorted on that tune. Were you using a distortion pedal?
WINTER: No, I never have used distortion pedals except on very rare occasions, like on “Livin’ in The Blues.” I just had the amp turned up real loud. I really haven’t used pedals much, except I used a wah-wah on a few tunes on Second Winter, and in the ’70s I started using an MXR Phase 90. Nowadays, I use one of those blue chorus pedals [Boss CE-2]. I feel like I have more control over the sound without effects.
AA: The big tune on Second Winter was your fiery rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61,” which has since earned legendary status. How did you put that arrangement together?
WINTER: We’d been playing that tune in the clubs for quite a while. I’ve always loved Bob Dylan; I don’t think you can be from my generation and not be a Dylan fan. I thought it was a good tune to use the slide on, so we worked up that arrangement. It came together pretty quickly.
AA: Another great slide tune from Second Winter is “I Love Everybody,” where the two slide guitars answer each other in a “call and response” manner.
WINTER: That was really just one guitar part, and we panned it back and forth so it seemed like two guitars “answering” each other. It was sort of the electric version of what I did on “When You Got A Good Friend” [Johnny Winter], which was two different National steels parts, panned left and right. For that tune, I laid down one National guitar part, and then I listened to the first one while I cut the second one.
AA: Back in the ’60s, the fashion-conscious youth culture emphasized looking different from the status quo, and expressing “individuality.” Being an albino, you looked different from everyone else without really having to try. Did albinoism ever cause any problems for you in your personal life?
WINTER: Yes, it did. There were people who didn’t go for it–they didn’t know what it was, and they didn’t understand it. For some people, it scared ’em and it pissed ’em off, and they didn’t like it. Most people had never seen an albino before. I got a lot of shit because I was different.
AA: Was that something you had to learn to deal with early on in your life?
WINTER: Yeah. I got in a lot of fights at school because of it.
AA: Tommy Shannon says that you have no tolerance for taking shit from anybody.
WINTER: None at all. That definitely came from having to defend myself.
AA: Tommy told me that you once defended yourself by hitting someone over the head with a guitar.
WINTER: Yeah! [laughs] More than once! It worked real good, I’ll tell you that. The time Tommy is taking about, it was a Les Paul, and I swung it from the neck. That guy didn’t wake up till after we’d left. He was out, down for the count. It was a good thing, too, because he was a big guy; he could have beat my ass, I’m sure. But that one shot got him.
AA: Sometime after Second Winter, you started to put material together for the next record, but decided instead to start fresh with a whole new band, called Johnny Winter And. What was the reason for the switch from playing with Tommy and Red to fronting the band that was originally the McCoys [who scored the 1965 hit single, “Hang On Sloopy”], featuring Rick Derringer?
WINTER: There had been a big change in music at the start of the ’70s. People were down on blues; they’d heard so much blues during the late ’60s, they were tired of it. Steve [Paul] convinced me that it was time to play something else, and that if I kept playing blues, I’d be a has-been! [laughs] Blues was definitely on the downswing, so I decided I had to make a change and play some more rock-oriented music.
At that time, the McCoys were living in Steve’s house; we were both renting houses in upstate New York, right near each other. They were looking for a frontman, and I was looking for a band, so it was a good fit. Tommy and Red were great at blues, but rock’n’roll was not really their thing. I just decided it was time to try a change, and the McCoys were readily available.
AA: Playing with another guitar player was not something you’d done that much previously. How was it working with Rick?
WINTER: Rick was great. He played great rhythm guitar, wrote some great songs–songs that suited my style real well–and is a hell of a lead guitarist, too. I thought that some of the two-guitar stuff we worked out for the studio record [Johnny Winter And] sounded really great.
AA: At that time, there really was no other band that featured two guitarists playing such tight-knit two-guitar arrangements, like those heard on “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” “Out On A Limb” and “Funky Music.”
WINTER: Yeah, I thought a lot of that stuff came out real well. “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” was a song that the McCoys had been practicing on their own, and I liked it and decided to do it with them. On the whole, I liked that first Johnny Winter And album a lot, but it was the worst-selling record I ever made for CBS. I never could figure out why, exactly. Johnny Winter And…Live was the biggest selling record, but in some ways I like the studio record better.
AA: What kind of guitar did you use on that album?
WINTER: I believe it was an Epiphone, one of those solid-body, double cutaway guitars with two P-90 pickups. I have no idea what the model was called. On …Live, I used the Goldtop Les Paul Standard.
AA: Your bass player in Johnny Winter And was the incredible Randy Jo Hobbs, who continued to play with you up until 1976. What can you tell us about him?
WINTER: To my mind, Randy was the best rock’n’roll bass player of all-time. He was so great, just perfect. Randy just died, unfortunately, about two years ago. I loved playing with him; he also did some playing with Edgar in White Trash.
AA: Rick Derringer says that, at sixteen, Randy Jo Hobbs was the most naturally-gifted musician he’d ever heard.
WINTER: I believe it. Randy was incredible. He definitely was a character, too.
AA: After the Johnny Winter And…Live album, you took some time off to go into drug rehabilitation.
WINTER: Yeah, that’s right. I went into the hospital to try to get away from heroin. I took about a year off, and the first time most people heard from me since I’d gone in was my appearance on Roadwork [the live Edgar Winter’s White Trash album from 1972]. I was actually still in the hospital when I did that show with Edgar. I’d come into New York around Christmas to visit him, ’cause Edgar was staying in New York at the time. I joined him on one of his shows to play “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” and a few other songs.
AA: You had quite a long beard going at the time.
WINTER: Yeah! I figured that if I was going to be crazy, why should I have to cut my beard? [laughs] I borrowed Edgar’s introduction of me from Roadwork for the title of my 1993 album, “Hey, Where’s Your Brother?”
AA: Did you have any specific goals when you came out of rehab?
WINTER: I felt like playing blues but with a rock’n’roll feel. There were some McCoys songs that I hadn’t recorded and I wanted to get to, and then there were some tunes like “Can’t You Feel It” and “All Tore Down” that I had been wanting to record.
AA: Both of those songs appear on your “comeback” album of 1973, Still Alive and Well, one of the most powerful rock records of all time.
WINTER: I thought it was a real good record. Saleswise, it was only moderately successful, though. I was surprised it didn’t do better than it did. To me, it’s my best rock’n’roll record.
AA: Still Alive and Well features two Rolling Stones songs, “Silver Train” and “Let It Bleed.” It’s stated in The Rolling Stones Complete Recording Sessions book that the Stones had written “Silver Train” specifically for you to record.
WINTER: Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] had written “Silver Train” but they hadn’t released it yet, and I think they just decided to give it to me. I don’t think they specifically wrote it for me. As a matter of fact, I think they recorded it before me but didn’t release their version until after mine came out. I liked the tune a lot when I heard it; I thought it was great, and I decided to do it. “Let It Bleed” came out really good, too.
AA: The latest CD version of Still Alive and Well features two previously unreleased, unfinished tracks: Little Richard’s “Lucille” and Dylan’s “From A Buick Six.”
WINTER: They put that stuff out? Wow, I had no idea.
AA: Were all of the basic guitar-bass-drum tracks recorded totally live on that album?
WINTER: Yeah, I believe they were. I always felt that recording live was the only way to get the right feel for that style of music. That “live” energy is the most important thing you want to capture.
AA: Was Still Alive and Well the first album you used a Firebird on?
WINTER: Yeah, that sounds about right. The way I discovered Firebirds was through a guy named Ed Selig, who owns a music store in St. Louis called Silver Strings. I bought most of my Firebirds from Ed and from a friend of his named Pete. Those two were going around the country in the early ’70s, buying old guitars and fixing them up, and then selling them for a lot more that what they paid.
AA: The Firebird is the guitar that will forever be associated with Johnny Winter, just as the Stratocaster is associated with Jimi Hendrix. Your sound on the Firebird is totally unique; it seems like the perfect guitar for you.
WINTER: To me, the Firebird represents the best of all worlds: it plays like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons. The Firebird is a little more treble-y sounding. I never really liked the sound of humbucking pickups, but the mini-humbuckers, which the Firebird has, sound real good. These days, I just use the Firebird for slide; my main guitar is a Lazer, made by Mike Erlewine in Texas.
AA: You switched to the Lazers around the time of your first Alligator record, Guitar Slinger, which coincided with your tuning down one whole step.
WINTER: Guitar Slinger was the first record I used a Lazer on. I did about half the record with the Firebirds, and the other half with that first black, one-pickup Lazer. A little while later I got the two-pickup white Lazer, which is the main guitar I use today.
The reason why I ended up tuning down one whole step is funny; you won’t even believe it. When I got that first black Lazer, I thought that I would only use it as a travel guitar. But the first day I plugged it in, it felt and sounded so good, I wanted to use it for the gig that night! It had .010s on it, and I’m used to .009s, so I tuned it down one whole step to use on that gig. I kept thinking that I would switch back–I never intended to make it a standard practice–but I just never did go back to the old way. By now, it’s been about fourteen years that I’ve been tuning down one whole step. I break less strings this way, too.
AA: In 1977, you produced the Muddy Waters album, Hard Again [Blue Sky], which earned a Grammy award. This was the beginning of a relationship with Muddy during which you produced three more albums for him: I’m Ready, King Bee and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live.
WINTER: Muddy’s management came to me in 1977 and asked me to produce an album for him. I said, of course, definitely! We did those records for the Blue Sky label, which belonged to my manager, Steve Paul. It was a hell of a lot of fun to work with Muddy on those records. I was under a lot of pressure, because I didn’t want people to think, “oh, here’s another white blues guy taking advantage of a black blues musician.”
AA: Did you really worry about that?
WINTER: Yeah, I did. At the time, I’d been playing more rock’n’roll than I really wanted to play, and I wanted to get back to the blues. Working with Muddy on those records convinced me that I could make it as a blues player. When all was said and done, and it had worked out well, it gave my ego a big boost. People liked those records a lot; we won some Grammys. In fact, three of the four records won a Grammy award. That was a nice surprise.
AA: Muddy said some great things about you at the time. He even joked that you were really his son.
WINTER: Yeah, he did! [laughs] That made me feel good.
AA: Did working with Muddy influence your own records at the time, like Nothin’ But The Blues and White, Hot and Blue?
WINTER: I did a lot more straight blues on those records, and the success I had working with Muddy gave me the encouragement to do that.
AA: At the time you were working with Muddy, you made the switch to MusicMan amplifiers, which you still use today.
WINTER: Muddy’s guitar player, Bob Margolin, used MusicMans, and that’s how I first became aware of them. Bob was using the ones with two 10″ speakers. I thought they sounded real good, so I started using the four-ten “Super Reverb” type of MusicMan. MusicMan was run by Leo Fender, so there was a close connection to Fender amplifiers there.
AA: The last record you made for Blue Sky was Raisin’ Cain, in 1980. Following that release, why did you take a four-year recording hiatus before 1984’s Guitar Slinger [Alligator]?
WINTER: During those four years, I just didn’t feel there was much reason to make a record. I may have been going through some health problems; I’m not sure. For whatever reason, it took me a while to get around to doing another record.
AA: Your second Alligator record, Serious Business, features some incredible guitar playing, as heard on cuts like “Master Mechanic” and “Unseen Eye.”
WINTER: I was real happy with my playing on that record. I had a bit of a problem with that one, though, because [Alligator chief] Bruce Iglauer and I argued so much over the sound. I don’t think either of us ended up happy with the end result. I thought it ended up too treble-y, with not enough bass. It’s a little too thin-sounding for me.
AA: Your last record for Alligator was 1986’s Third Degree, which is the best-sounding record of the three.
WINTER: Yeah, I agree. He left me alone on that one. [laughs] The best thing about that record is that I had the chance to reunite with Tommy [Shannon] and Red [“Uncle” John Turner]. That was Bruce’s idea: because of Tommy’s success with Stevie [Ray Vaughan], Bruce wanted to take advantage of Tommy’s high profile. I never liked the idea of using people for those kinds of reasons, but I did want to play with him because I’d played with him for so long before. I said, if we’re going to use Tommy, we might as well use Red, too.
AA: How do you feel your music relates to the current music scene?
WINTER: I don’t know that it does. I don’t know if the music I play has ever fit into the music scene at large. This is just the way that I like to play. I’ve tried to keep my music as contemporary as possible without going too far in any direction I didn’t want to go. Like I say, I don’t know if it ever really fit in at all with everything else that was going on.
AA: But Johnny, back in the ’70s, not only did your music fit in, you were one of the very few “kings” of rock guitar–you sat at the pinnacle of rock!
WINTER: I can’t really say where my music–and my guitar playing–sits in terms of popular music, now or back when I was filling arenas in the ’70s. That’s a really hard question! Compared to some of the other rock guitarists, I think I might be a little more bluesy. Because of that, I don’t even put myself in the pure “rock” category. I never wanted to stray that far from the roots of my music, which is the blues.
AA: Your guitar playing, and the music you’ve written, has influenced thousands upon thousands of musicians, as well as a great many of your contemporary musical giants. A clear indication of this fact is your historic performance of “Highway 61” at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert back in 1993. To a great many in the audience–and to a great many of the performers–you burned the place to the ground, with one song, and absolutely stole the show.
WINTER: That show was a career highlight for me. It was a great thrill and an honor to play with all of those different people. I’ve always been a very big Dylan fan. I love his lyrics; they’re unbelievable. I felt real ready to play on that show when the time came. When I saw a video of it, I liked it; I thought it came off well. But, I tell you, I couldn’t hear my guitar at all! It was horribly hard to hear, and I was looking back at G.E. [Smith], going, Turn it up, turn it up! G.E. ran around and did some things to get my guitar’s stage volume up louder to where I could hear it. After that, everything was ok.
AA: Another great live performance of yours–one with a different kind of meaning to the audience–was your participation in the 1990 Tribute to John Lee Hooker at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This star-studded event took place only weeks after Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death, which weighed heavily on everyone’s mind. When you walked out on stage, you got a standing ovation.
WINTER: Yeah, that really was something. But I was real sick then. I was suffering terribly with an anxiety problem. I don’t even know how I finished the show. I was very messed up.
AA: Has anxiety been a problem for you for a long while?
WINTER: Yeah. It goes all the way back to the early days. I was very glad I could do that John Lee Hooker show, because, looking back on it, it was an excellent show. But I was telling everyone that I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I just wanted to die, I was feeling so terrible. But I did make it through the show alright.
AA: Did you go on any medication after that?
WINTER: Yeah I did. That’s the first time I tried taking medication for anxiety, and it really helped me a lot. I still take it now.
AA: Are there any detrimental side effects?
WINTER: No, I don’t believe so. I feel so much better now.
AA: In assessing your recorded output, are there any albums that stand out as your favorites?
WINTER: Johnny Winter, which is my top favorite because it was the first time I had the chance to try the ideas I had in my head. I also like The Progressive Blues Experiment, because it came off well as a whole. I also love Nothin’ But the Blues, because I was working with Muddy’s guys.
AA: Each of these records is very different from the other; each has its own distinctive vibe.
WINTER: Yeah, I agree. They are all different from each other, but they all worked out real well.
AA: How often are you gigging these days?
JW: We’ll go for a two- or three-month stint, playing a few nights each week. We recently did a few weeks in Europe–Italy, Germany and Amsterdam. We’ll do a little traveling, but mostly I like to stay in the northeast, since my primary residence is New York City. I still love to play–there’s nothing better than playing in front of a good audience.