Last year, on July 16, 2014, the world lost one of the true shining stars of the guitar, legendary blues/rock guitar great Johnny Winter. Back in the winter of ’68, the unknown and unsigned twenty-four year-old Winter arrived in New York City as a newfound guitar slinger from the small, rural town of Beaumont, Texas, armed with little more than an overflowing arsenal of fiery blues guitar ammunition. Nothing much about him was known, but the word-of-mouth was white-hot: Rolling Stone had called him a “cross-eyed albino with long, fleecy hair, who plays some of the gutsiest, fluid blues guitar you’ve ever heard.”
Instigated by the Rolling Stone article, Steve Paul, musical entrepreneur and owner of the trendy New York nightspot The Scene Club, tracked Johnny down in Texas and brought him to the big city with the intention of securing a record deal. On Johnny’s very first night in town, he joined his old friend Mike Bloomfield on stage at the Fillmore East [captured on Al Kooper & Mike Bloomfield — Fillmore East: The Lost Concert Tapes (Columbia/Legacy)] for a blues meltdown of the B.B. King classic, “It’s My Own Fault.” In his introduction of Winter, Bloomfield says, “this here is the baddest motherfucker, man!”
“That time was a whirlwind,” Johnny reminisced. “I wanted to see everything that I could, all at once. Mike had been saying good things about me, and the day after playing with him, I went down to the Scene Club and played with Jimi Hendrix.
“Within days, Steve started to negotiate with different labels, and there was a ‘bidding war’ between Atlantic and CBS; I ended up going with CBS for a reported $300,000 deal.”
John Dawson Winter III was born on February 23, 1944 in Leland, Mississippi. Inspired by his father, a part-time musician, Johnny got his musical start at the age of four on the clarinet, and was soon singing regularly in the church choir. In the second grade, he switched over to the ukulele, which prepared him for his subsequent graduation, in the seventh grade, to the guitar.
Addicted to the blues sounds that poured from his radio, Johnny was soon spending all of his lunch and after-school money on blues records. “I bought literally every blues record I could find!,” Johnny enthused. Johnny’s mid-late ‘60s drummer, the late great Uncle John “Red” Turner, concurred: “Johnny had thousands of blues records — more blues records than I’d ever seen. And he studied every one of those records, let me tell you. There ain’t no one that knows more blues licks than Johnny Winter.”
Tommy Shannon, Johnny’s bassist during the ‘60s (better known as half of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section, Double Trouble, the other half being drummer Chris Layton), details, “Johnny had this wall of blues records; it was really incredible. Everything from the most rural field hollers to the musical sophistication of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, B.B. King and Guitar Slim. I got most of my blues education from listening to all of those records Johnny played for me. It was a crash course in the blues, and I loved every minute of it.”
Speaking for myself, one of my most cherished life experiences is having had the opportunity to spend some time interviewing, playing with and getting to know Johnny Winter, who remains one of my biggest musical influences and most inspiring guitar heroes. Along with being a brilliant and innovative guitarist, he was a wonderful and warm person, and was truly one of a kind.
In the accompanying audio interview, which took place on August 3, 1988 upon the release of his then-new album, Winter of ’88 [MCA/Voyager], Johnny discusses his earliest days discovering music and the guitar, his very first instruments, his decision to use a thumb pick as opposed to a conventional flat pick, his fascination with and dedication to the blues, and his close personal and professional relationship with blues great Muddy Waters.
Johnny: “I grew up In Beaumont, about 90 miles from Houston, Texas, straight towards Louisiana. There was real good music around Beaumont, and in fact I didn’t realize how good it was until I left! I figured the music I was hearing, everybody else was hearing, too. But there were a lot of great bands that were just around that area, and a lot of little record companies that didn’t have much distribution outside of Texas and Louisiana. We got Cajun and Mexican music, blues, jazz, country and western…all that stuff. And you really had to play all of it if you wanted to play night clubs and also just to keep from getting killed!”
Johnny: “My first guitar was just laying around the house, an old classical guitar that was my grandfather’s, and I think there was a $2 or $3 Stella too. The first real guitar that I ever got — an electric — was a Gibson ES-125, an arch-top guitar with one pickup and no cutaways. I had that for a couple years; I really loved that guitar. I went from that to a white Stratocaster from 1956. That was one of the many times I had a Fender but I never could play it quite right. I would have loved to have kept it, because it really was a great guitar.”
Johnny: “When I first started recording with Muddy [Waters], we had three guitar players—me, Muddy and Jimmy Rogers, and the guitarist Bob Margolin was playing bass. That lineup was on I’m Ready. My main focus making those records was to get the sound right, because, even though Muddy always played great on all of his records, he had a couple records he’d done right before we recorded together that weren’t very good. The sound quality wasn’t right. Recording technology had changed a lot and studios didn’t seem to know how to use the new equipment. Things were getting too “clean” and it was hard to get a blues or a hard rock record sounding the way it should. When I worked with Muddy, everything was mic’d up individually, but most of what ended up on the record was from the single room mic we had set up above all the musicians.”
DIALING IN JOHNNY’S TECHNIQUE
One of the signature stylistic elements of Johnny Winter’s guitar playing is his complete mastery of Delta-style fingerpicked blues, constructed from intricate and melodic rhythm parts such as those he played on his own composition, “Sweet Papa John” and on the classic track he recorded with Muddy Waters, “Forever Lonely.” In my course, Slow Blues Power, I offer a variety of examples of fingerpicked delta-blues in Johnny Winter’s distinct style.
Johnny Winter’s soloing style is earmarked by blazingly fast, clearly articulated lines that are often built from eighth- and 16th-note triplet figures. I utilize this approach for the improvised solos on the Rolling Stones inspired, “Flashy Jack,” from my course, Jam Night Vol. 1, and the Allman Brothers inspired, “Don’t You Love Me?,” from my course, Jam Night Vol. 3.