Dear Guitar Hero: Johnny Winter Talks Gibson Firebirds, Muddy Waters, "Highway 61 Revisited" and More

by Brad Tolinski
Posted Apr 2, 2014 at 3:01pm

He’s an albino blues guitarist who’s jammed with Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is …

How old were you when you started playing blues? — Gene E. Levi

I was probably around 12 years old. I started out playing ukulele, but when I was around 10, my father encouraged me to move to guitar.

He thought I’d have a better chance for success with the guitar, and he was right! I found a great teacher who was into Chet Atkins and country music who got me into playing with a thumb pick, which I still use today.

But my life really changed when I heard Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. They wiped me out! I never heard nothing like that before. After that, I started buying every blues record I could find and learning licks every chance I had. I couldn’t get enough of the blues.

Before you signed your first major record deal, you spent quite a few years playing clubs. What was the roughest or worst club you ever played? — Billy Houston

We played a lot of bad places, but I remember this club in Galveston, Texas, back in ’65 that was particularly nasty. This huge drunk guy kept staggering over to me and demanding that I play “Midnight Hour.” I told him, “Man, we already played it twice.”

He said, “Well, I didn’t hear it, and if you don’t play it I’m gonna rush the bandstand and tear up everything!” True to his word, he started charging me, so I took off my guitar, grabbed it by the neck and swung it like a baseball bat and hit him in the head and knocked him completely out! It was a good thing, too, because he was big.

I spent a lot of time playing the Louisiana club circuit, and in many ways it was rougher than Texas. My band had to play behind chicken wire, because people used to throw things at us. Even if they liked what you were playing, they’d still throw bottles at you just for the fun of it. There’s a scene in the Blues Brothers movie that shows what that was like. Most people think John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd made that up, but bands played behind chicken wire all the time.

Freddie King, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker and so many other great blues players have come from Texas. Was it something in the water? — Charles Whitehouse

When you come from a place where there are a lot of great players, it forces you to get good real fast. There’s a gunfighter tradition in Texas—you gotta be better than the other guy, or else you’re finished.

You’re one of the great innovators of slide guitar. What kind of slide do you use, and what finger do you use it on? Also, do you have a favorite slide song? — Alex Williams

I was practicing in New York City at S.I.R. Studios and a guy made me a slide by hacking up some drum hardware. He made me just one, and I really like it, so I’ve never lost it. I wear my slide on my little finger, and through the years I’ve played primarily in open A or open E. These days, I tend to favor open E, especially live, I think partly because I’m too lazy to carry another guitar around.

One of the greatest slide guitar performances I’ve ever heard is Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).” The way his slide mimics his vocals and vice versa always gives me the chills. It’s maybe the deepest blues performance I’ve ever heard.

You’ve played some left-of-center guitars through the years—a Gibson Firebird, a Fender Mustang and a Lazer made by Mike Erlewine. Can you tell me what you liked about each of those guitars? — “The Mack”

They were all just really good guitars. I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked, and when I played it I discovered I liked the way it sounded, too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. It feels like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons. I was never a big fan of humbucking pickups, but the mini-humbuckers on the Firebird have a little more bite and treble.

People always ask me about the Lazer. When I first bought one, I thought I was just going to use it as a travel guitar. But the first day I plugged it in, it sounded so good I wanted to use it for a gig that night. It had .010s on it, and I’m used to .009s, so I tuned it down one whole step to make it easier to play. I kept thinking that I would switch back—but I just never did. I like how it sounds, and the bonus is I break fewer strings.

You produced and played on several albums with the legendary Muddy Waters. What did you get from that experience? — Warren Waterman

Muddy just had such extraordinary presence and naked emotion in his voice and slide guitar playing, especially on a slow blues. When I worked with him, I was amazed at how fast he worked. You had to stay on your toes and know what you were doing, ’cause he never wanted to do more than one or two takes of a song. Luckily for me, Muddy always nailed it in one or two takes.

That attitude sort of rubbed off on me. In many ways, I’m pretty similar. I’ve discovered if you have to do more than a few takes, all the life goes out of the performance.

You just released a really great box set of your work, True to the Blues. In the liner notes Eddie Van Halen calls “Be Careful with a Fool” one of his favorite songs. I can understand that—it’s pretty damn fast! What are some of your favorite moments? — Ray Lauerman, Jr.

I liked my version of B.B King’s “Be Careful with a Fool” too. It’s a great song, and I think I did a pretty good job of it. I played a lot of fast licks on that one, but I wasn’t trying to show off. Speed is just something that always felt right to me. I was playing what I heard in my head.

Can we expect a new album anytime soon? It’s been a while. — Mark Jenkins

We’re in the process of mixing a new one, and it should come out in April. I think it’s gonna surprise a lot of people. I’m calling it Step Back, and I invited some of my favorite guitarists to play with me on a bunch of tracks, including Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Mark Knopfler and Joe Bonamassa. I don’t want to give too much away, but for example, Eric joins me on the Bobby “Blue” Bland classic “I Don’t Want No Woman.”

One of your signature songs is your cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61.” What inspired you to play that one? — Dale Showler

I’ve always been a big Bob Dylan fan. You can’t be my age without loving Bob Dylan. We’d been doing the song in clubs for quite a while, but I didn’t play it with a slide until I recorded it in the studio. It worked out real well.


Add a Comment
0 Comments

Similar Guitar News

ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons Discusses His New Gibson Billy Gibbons SG Model — Video (10/20/2015)
Gibson and Billy Gibbons have teamed up to create the new Gibson BGSG—as in “Billy Gibbons SG.” The platform for the BGSG is a classic 1961 SG, but there are radical differences. The most obvious is the guitar’s top, which is raised on its upper...
Top Five Gibson Les Paul Facts You Probably Didn't Know — Video (9/30/2015)
In this new video—which was posted to YouTube September 26), Mark from Guitar Nerds, a U.K.-based website for guitar fans (and nerds, we reckon), counts down the top five Gibson Les Paul facts that you probably didn't know. This new video comes...
The 10 Weirdest Gibson Guitar Models Ever Created — Video (9/11/2015)
We tend to think of the Gibson brand as pretty traditional. But amid all the Les Pauls, SGs and ES models the company has turned out over the years, it’s easy to forget that the guitarmaker has also created numerous oddities. A while back, our f...
Marty McFly’s 'Back to the Future' Gibson ES-345 Was Actually from the Future — Video (10/21/2015)
In the hit 1985 film Back to the Future, 1980s teen Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, fills in on guitar at the high school dance. As we all know by now, he blows the minds of the Fifties-era kids and musicians in attendance by incorporati...
John Lennon's Long-Lost Gibson J-160E Guitar Sells for Record $2.4 Million at Auction (11/9/2015)
John Lennon's long-lost acoustic Gibson J-160E, which he used while recording of the Beatles' Please Please Me and With the Beatles, sold for a record-shattering $2.41 million Saturday during a live Julien's auction. The guitar, which was lost ...
John Lennon Gibson Jumbo Auction: Yoko Ono Demands Half - For All the Right Reasons (10/14/2015)
John and Yoko—John McCaw, that is, a 69-year-old San Diego contractor who's had possession since 1969 of one of the most sought-after Beatles guitars John Lennon ever owned—will split the proceeds of what could be a million-dollar windfall when ...
Jimmy Page Shows His Double-Neck Gibson and Fender Tele with B-Bender — Video (6/16/2015)
Here’s a little something from 30 summers ago. On July 18, 1985, The Guitar Show visited Les Paul’s home in Mahwah, New Jersey, to tape Les and Jimmy Page for an episode. It was five days after Led Zeppelin’s reunion performance for Live Aid in...
How John Lennon's Long-Lost $2.4 Million Gibson J-160E Guitar Was Found (11/10/2015)
As was widely reported yesterday, John Lennon's long-lost acoustic Gibson J-160E acoustic-electric guitar, which he used while recording the Beatles' Please Please Me and With the Beatles albums, sold for a record-shattering $2.41 million Saturd...
Gibson Custom Launches Limited Edition Peter Frampton "Phenix" 1954 Les Paul Custom — Video (10/23/2015)
Gibson Custom has announced a collaboration with Peter Frampton for a limited release of the Peter Frampton “Phenix” 1954 “Triple-Pickup” Les Paul Custom. A detailed and extensive replica of Frampton’s storied guitar, the limited run celebrate...
Five Essential Blues Licks from Jimi Hendrix, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter (10/5/2015)
We all know a great lick when we hear one—Jimmy Page’s solo breaks in “Whole Lotta Love” and Mark Knopfler’s blistering triads in “Sultans of Swing,” for example. Moments like these grab your attention and aurally brand your ears forever. Or, ...
firekid Performs "Magic Mountain" at Gibson Guitars Showroom — Exclusive Video (11/5/2015)
Today, AcousticNation.com presents the exclusive premiere of firekid's recent live acoustic performance of "Magic Mountain" at the Gibson Showroom. The track is from the Nashville-based singer/guitarist’s self-titled debut album—firekid—which wa...
Essential Guitar Licks: Bending Up a Storm with Johnny Winter (10/2/2015)
We all know a great lick when we hear one—Jimmy Page’s solo breaks in “Whole Lotta Love” and Mark Knopfler’s blistering triads in “Sultans of Swing,” for example. Moments like these grab your attention and aurally brand your ears forever. Or, s...
Don't Miss Muddy Waters' Dr. Pepper Radio Ad (10/28/2015)
Although it's always been relatively uncommon, legendary old-school blues musicians have let their voices and/or images be used to sell products in ads and commercials. There's that semi-famous 1993 John Lee Hooker ad Lee Jeans, for instance! S...
Dear Guitar Hero: Todd Rundgren Talks Eric Clapton's Psychedelic Gibson SG, Changing Influences and More (6/16/2015)
He’s a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer who’s had his own hits and worked with such artists as Cheap Trick, Sean Cassidy and Meat Loaf, but what Guitar World readers really want to know is… A lot of what I’ve heard of your new albu...
Cream-Era Eric Clapton Explains How His Gibson 'The Fool' SG Works — Video (9/17/2015)
Did you know "the electronic guitar is often dismissed as nothing but a jangling noise machine incapable of subtlety or delicacy"? Neither did I—until I saw this 1968 video of Eric Clapton sitting peacefully on stage prior to a Cream show as bas...
Billy Gibbons Shows Custom Gibson and John Bolin Guitars from His Collection — Video (8/14/2015)
This video is a few years old, but if you missed it, it provides a great opportunity to see some of Billy Gibbons’ guitars up-close with narration from Billy himself. In it, Gibbons and his tech Elwood take DunlopTV’s Bryan Kehoe backstage to sh...