Thursday 17 July 2014

Johnny Winter: 1944-2014

This is an interview I did with Johnny when he played in London back in the early 1990s. 
It was originally published in Guitarist magazine.

Texas Special

Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter... The chances are, when you think about Texas blues guitarists, you’d be hard pushed to find a common denominator between them in terms of style. Each flies the Blues flag in his own unique way, but all the while there’s a perceptible epicentre, which nevertheless fights shy of any real definition... “There are so many different styles of Texas music,” says Johnny Winter. “You would know immediately if you heard a Delta song. And you know right away when you hear a Chicago blues song and you know if it’s a New Orleans song. But there are so many different styles in Texas and I think that’s what I liked about growing up there; you could just hear so much stuff.

“You had to be able to play a lot of different things in the clubs or you’d get killed! You had to play Cajun music - the French Cajun two-steps - and in parts of Texas there was a lot of Mexican music, and of course there was the Louisiana and New Orleans stuff as well as jazz and country. You can’t get away from country.” 
Visions of The Blues Brothers’ rendition of Rawhide apart, this experience of running the gauntlet of various Texan styles seems to have benefited Johnny… 

“All that stuff just kinda blends into blues, but it is real hard to compare someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson to Albert Collins. Then there’s people like Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker; there’s a lot of difference in the Texas musicians. It’s real hard to listen to someone and say, ‘Oh yeah, this guy’s definitely playin’ Texas music.’ But there are just so many different styles of music involved; you don’t know what you’re going to get with a Texas musician. But it’s usually going to be a pretty well-rounded thing. I think that’s probably the one thing: Texas music has just got more variety to it than the Delta stuff or Chicago or New Orleans. But it sure was a great place to grow up - you heard all kinds of stuff on the radio…”                                    

Johnny Winter was born in Beaumont, Texas in 1944 and began playing clarinet five years later. Before long he had switched to ukulele, and graduated from there to guitar at the age of eleven. His first group was a vocal duo with brother Edgar, very much in the Everly Brothers tradition. By the time he’d reached his teens, Johnny had been exposed to rock’n’roll…

“That was the most exciting time! I was about 15; I made my first record and I started playing in night clubs and I had my first drink. It was a real exciting year; all the stuff was brand new and you could be driving to the gig and hear your record on the radio. I was just a little kid, living at home and going to school - 15, but boy it was real exciting. You’re out there playing for people, you’ve got girls chasin’ you and stuff... Now that was real nice!  

“The first CBS record, ‘Johnny Winter’, is one of my favourites. ‘Progressive Blues Experiment’ was another. I made a record with Sonny Terry, called ‘Whoopin’, that I also like a lot. There are a few others, but those records are the ones I enjoyed the most.” 

Do you still enjoy playing live?

 “Oh yeah! To me that is the most enjoyable thing: playing and having an audience involved in it. Making records is a lot of fun, too, because you know that you have it there forever, and after you’re dead, hopefully, people are still listening to it. That’s nice, but you still don’t know what people think of it until you put it out. So it’s just not quite the same as playing for people, so I guess that is my first love.” 

Do you still enjoy the travelling? 

“Probably not as much as I did when I was a kid; the travelling part is hard. I guess what I would really like is if I could get my own club and have everyone come to where I was. It’s still interesting, but not like those first few times outside the States when I’d go sightseeing - y’know, checking everything out. Now I’ve been most places it’s just like going to work and doing your gig. Sometimes you don’t know if you’re in Philadelphia or in London or California or wherever; crowds don’t really change that much.”

Do you think your style has changed much through the years?

“Yeah, I think so. Not a lot, but I keep changing. Hopefully I also keep progressing, or really there’s no reason to keep going. In fact I’ll change with the last record that I heard; if I hear someone I really like on a record, or even at a gig before I play, then the chances are I’ll be playing some of his licks. I’ve gotta be real careful about listening to tapes before I go out there, so I don’t put on something too far out.”

Another aspect of Johnny’s playing is his slide work. Who were his early influences in this quarter?

“Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Son House were the first people that I really heard. When the ‘Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues’ album came out, that was one of the main things that made me want to play slide. Early Muddy Waters stuff: his stuff was the first slide that I heard and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if someone was playing steel guitar; it sounded like they were fretting the guitar and slidin’. I’d never heard anything like that before. 
“Eventually, just from listening to albums you could tell what tunings they were using, because a lot of them weren’t using a regular tuning, most of them would tune to a particular chord. There are so many good people now, but back then they were definitely the big three - although of course Elmore James was in there too.” 
Your own slide guitar style is pretty unique; do you use glass or metal slides? “I use a metal slide. It’s a piece of pipe that I got at a plumbing supply place; I bought a twelve foot piece of pipe and had it cut into pieces a little over an inch long. Even today I still can’t find one in a music store which fits my finger. I use it on my little finger. When I first started playing, there wasn’t anything like that in the stores. I tried a lot of things, like test tubes and lipstick holders and medicine bottles; I used the crystal in my wristwatch - all kinds of things. Then a guy in Denver called up and told me that I should go to a plumbing supply place and try a piece of pipe, because that way you can find one that fits your finger, and I’ve been using the same  slide ever since 1967, I believe.” 

Have you ever tried the traditional approach of snapping off a bottle’s neck?

“Yeah, I’ve tried a few bottles. They were always a little bit big and I just liked the metal a little bit better. I just think you can get more sustain that way. But I love the way Ry Cooder sounds, y’know; he uses bottles and just has a great sound.”

During the late seventies, Johnny collaborated with and produced albums for the legendary Muddy Waters, and in so doing was almost single-handedly responsible for the great bluesman’s comeback. What are his most outstanding memories of Muddy? 

“Just all real good memories. Muddy was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and yet you wouldn’t guess that he would be such a sweet guy. His records were so earthy and you can’t imagine such a nice guy singing all this nasty music! 
“But a lot of times Muddy used to say, ‘You should have seen me when I was young, I was a real hell raiser!’ I’m sure he was, but the last few years when I knew him he’d gotten a lot of respect from people and he wasn’t having to struggle any more, and I think he knew the people loved him and he liked that. He was real glad that he was getting some acceptance. I didn’t see any of that crazy side that he always told me was there. I was told stories about him and I know that he was pretty much a hell raiser, but when I knew him he was just a really nice guy. He was also a very firm bandleader; he didn’t take any shit. If he didn’t like something, he’d let the musicians know exactly what he wanted or expected from them. But he was real good at being nice and diplomatic at the same time. He didn’t have to scream at people to get his way; he just told them and he knew that they knew they had better do it that way or there was gonna be trouble!”

You played with John Lee Hooker, too. Would you say there was a marked difference between him and Muddy?

“Yeah. Although they were both Mississippi bluesmen, with John Lee you’d never know when he was gonna change chords. He’d sing until he got tired and he’d start playing guitar and then he’d do that until he got tired and then he’d sing again. It wouldn’t be what you might think of as being in time, and so you really had to listen and be real careful, because John Lee was gonna play his stuff and you better fit into it because he wasn’t gonna fit in with you! But I was real familiar with his records and so I knew it was gonna be that way; in fact it was really kinda fun to have to take a guess at when he was gonna change. But their music was really deep blues, Mississippi Delta stuff, and so the feeling was the same, although they went about it differently... They both had real distinctive styles.”

Johnny’s albums are a mix of blues standards seasoned with few of his own tunes. I wonder if he prefers arranging songs to writing them…

“Yeah, I do. But also I just don’t like the songs I write as much, usually. I just have a hard time writing songs; it’s just not what I do real well. If I felt like I could write enough songs for a record that were good, I would, but it’s not where my real talent is. I wish I was a better songwriter.”

Throughout your career you have veered away from the blues into other areas. Are there any areas that you still want to explore, outside the blues framework?

“Well, of course, I’ve played some rock‘n’roll - stuff like that. The only other thing that I’ve thought I might do one day is do a country album. I’ve grown up hating and loving country music, too; sometimes you just didn’t want it to be there ‘cos it was the only thing you’d hear on the radio in Texas, before rock‘n’roll. But I think I could make a good country record. Someday, if ever I found the right producer and a label was interested, I’d like to give that a shot.”

Is there anybody around now that you would like to play with, having had so many and varied collaborators in the past?

“Man, I’m sure there are...” he says, thoughtfully “But most of the people I’ve either played with already or they’re dead now. I’m always on the lookout for the guys who are around. I guess the fifties was my favourite period for the blues and so the guys that were making records - most of the Chicago people who were playing in the fifties and who are still around - are the ones that I am always interested in playing with.” 

Tuesday 15 April 2014

The Making Of 'Waterfalling'… And What Went Wrong!

Well that's a grand title, isn't it? The only reason I used it is because there is a story to share and I thought that it might be of interest to a few people out there who are, like me, experimenting with the labrynthine world of audio/video production aimed at public consumption…

So, first of all, here's the video. I tried to do everything as simply as possible - I used my iMac's video camera, no special lighting or anything, and recorded the audio using a Zoom H4n: mics aimed at the 14th fret from about a foot away and the Headway FEQ pick-up on my Custom Fylde Falstaff acoustic guitar plugged into one of the input jacks. The intention was to mix both signals together in order to get the best of both worlds, synchronise audio to video and voila! Well, that was the intention, anyway…

This is Take Three, to put things into perspective. I was satisfied that the performance was suitably error free, apart from one note that didn't fire. And it was an important melody note, too. Never mind, I was sure that I could find my inner Speilberg and fix it at the editing stage. Onwards!

Fortunately the errant note was repeated elsewhere in the tune and so all I had to do, on paper at least, was to grab the audio from elsewhere in the soundtrack, copy and paste it in the appropriate place and pretend that the whole thing never happened. I mean, that's standard practice in Hollywood, right? I'm allowed a little editing, aren't I?

Everything went according to plan… well, almost. I edited the audio, replaced the missing note with another from later on in the piece - and then realised that I'd only edited the pick-up feed and not the mics. And do you think I could re-edit and get the two separate feeds to sync up? The answer was a frustratingly resounding "no". So, what to do? My choices were these:

1) Re-shoot the video
2) Use the pick-up/mic mix with the note missing and hope no one notices
3) Use the edited pick-up feed only
4) Buy a farm, raise sheep and stop fantasising about being a musician

After much torturous vacillation I elected to go with Option 3 and ditch the mic signal completely. It's a shame because the audio is really only telling half the story - and the Fylde is such a fabulous instrument that I felt I wasn't doing it justice by using only the pick-up track. Nevertheless, I went ahead with it and this is the result.

After telling this story on a couple of guitar forums, I had a few sympathetic souls saying that it was a shame that they couldn't hear the mic feed, as it would represent the guitar's 'natural' sound. So, I edited a small section of the audio and posted it on Soundcloud, which you can listen to here…

All well and good - plenty of people told me that they liked the mic sound - actually preferring it to the pick-up only signal. But a few still weren't satisfied and asked if I could post the mic only signal without any reverb or compression. So I did - and you can listen to it here…

Now I realise that this particular post has got incredibly nerdy, but there's nothing wrong with that. In the past I've always had someone else edit video/audio for me and this video represents my first outing as DIY video maker. What have I learned? Hmmm, experience is the best teacher, I guess. Next time, try harder…

Thanks for listening!

Wednesday 2 May 2012

New CAGED Guitar Phone App

Over the past few months I have been co-developing a phone app with Leafcutter Studios. The idea is that the app teaches the CAGED system for learning the guitar fretboard. If you've not heard of it, the CAGED system takes five basic chord shapes and orientates everything from there – it really does accelerate your learning; I was introduced to it by the legendary jazz guitarist Joe Pass way back at the beginning of the 1980s and it increased my knowledge of the fretboard almost instantly.

We've employed some games in the app that test your fretboard knowledge in a fun way and we've even included a facility to view the fretboard diagrams in a left-handed configuration!

The app is available for both Android and iPhone users and costs $1.99.

Friday 6 April 2012

Jim Marshall: 1923-2012

I thought I'd write a short tribute on the passing of Jim Marshall from a purely personal point of view, recalling when it was that I switched over to using his amps and why.

Back in the 1980s I was playing in a pub band whose missions in life were simple: to have fun and to tackle some of the more demanding music that were favourites of the individual members. So our repertoire consisted of tunes by Tower Of Power, Steely Dan, Sting (in his jazzy first solo album days) as well as crowd pleasers like ZZ Top, Clapton and Stevie Wonder.

In any case, on this particular night we were playing at a pub in Sudbury, Suffolk and I had taken along my current 'rock' amp which was a transistor-powered Sessionette SG75 (Jan Akkerman had one too!) which I was very happy with as it provided just about everything I needed from a sweet clean sound to powerful overdrive via twin channels.

Meanwhile, back at the gig, the band steamed into 'Rosanna' by Toto. I had practised the solo up and was ready for launch after the keyboard solo in the middle of the song. At the appropriate moment, I hit the 'overdrive' footswitch and went for it. Trouble was, the dynamics had picked up to such an extent during the keyboard solo that my amp had nothing left and I doubt if anyone actually heard the solo I'd spent ages working on so diligently!

Needless to say I was pretty downcast by the whole affair and so the very next day I did the only thing I thought would solve the situation: I went out and bought a Marshall JCM800 50watt combo that stayed with me as my primary rock amp of choice until three years ago by which time my change to acoustic playing had relegated the amp to a lonely existence at the back of a cupboard.

As far as I know, it is now in Poland somewhere (because it was a Polish guy who bought it when I sold it on eBay) and doubtless still rocking loud and proud!

So thanks, Jim: you really helped me turn it up to eleven.

Thursday 23 February 2012

A New Guitar And The Headless Video!

It's always an exciting time when you receive a new guitar. Well, for me it is anyway; others may suggest I seek help – and fast. But I'm harmless...

So at the end of last year, I had the pleasure of unpacking a brand new hand built acoustic guitar. It's a Fylde Goodfellow – a stablemate for my other acoustic which is a Fylde Falstaff – and a lovely little instrument to play.

For the enthusiast, basically it's an 00 body size with a cedar top and sapele back and sides plus a Honduras mahogany neck with a rosewood board. The on-board electrics are a Headway FEQ system.

But enough about vital statistics, you want to hear what it sounds like, right? OK, but first I'll just tell the story of how we recorded this video... It's headless because essentially this was the feed from Camera 2; for some reason Camera 1's feed was too dark to use and so I thought that nobody would care if they couldn't see me gurning for the world, they'd be more interested in looking at the guitar. So we let it go through.

Sound-wise, what you're hearing is mainly the Headway pick-up with a little ambient 'room' from a Zoom H1 (which picked up a passing motorbike towards the end). The eq is flat and we added a little Lexicon reverb just to make everything a bit more sonically cosy.

So here's the Headless Guitarist playing a track from my first album 'Nocturnal' entitled 'Time Together'.

Monday 13 February 2012

A Night At The Movies

I thought I'd share a few videos that I've hung up on You Tube recently... So if you'd like to settle yourself in the upper circle, let's dim the lights and get on with it.

The first features guitar legend, good friend and fellow Elixir String endorsee Martin Taylor and myself engaged in an impromptu jam at last year's London Acoustic Show. The story behind this one is that I'd just got off a train and been hurried into a very hot stuffy room (the windows were shut because of the filming and it was a surprisingly warm September day) and told to 'play something'. That's why I look a little hot and bothered!

Anyway, this is the result...

Our next presentation is from the same video shoot which finds me talking to Martin about the use of partial capos – a composing device to which I am particularly, erm, partial...

Speaking of partial capos and moving swiftly on, the next video was recorded at The Glee Club in Birmingham last year. The sound is not as good as I would like and it was very dark in the club, but the rawness and general low-light artiness kinda makes up for it... The piece I'm playing is entitled 'A Stranger's Tale' and you can just about make out a G7th capo over the four bass strings if you look really hard...

I played this gig with my fellow acoustic troubadour, the very excellent Ben Powell. One afternoon recently we engaged in a fit of trial and error with iMovie and produced a sample of the 'in the round' show we do together. Ben's playing his custom Patrick Eggle Saluda and I'm playing a Custom Fylde Falstaff. Oh and we're available for hire!

Finally, let's go back to where we started; the London Acoustic Show last year. Another feature of that (very busy) day was that I played a set on the Elixir Strings stand. The full performance was filmed (but I haven't as yet seen it) but here is a short extract filmed by my son Tim on his phone. It gives the flavour of the day, anyway!

So there you have it: the lights have come up and impatient-looking cinema staff are cleaning up all the spilled popcorn.

Thanks for watching!

Sunday 20 November 2011

'So What Sort Of Music Do You Play?'

As you can imagine, this is a question that comes up quite regularly in any musician's day-to-day existence… and it's getting harder and harder to answer. The reason, I think, is that we have become so fond of categorisation in music – and, worse still, many of these convenient little compartments are subject to further division into subcategories.

I play what I think is termed as being 'acoustic fingerstyle' guitar. That's what I and various other practitioners call it anyway; trouble is, no one seems to understand what it actually is. I've had some people say to me, 'Oh, you mean country music?' or 'What, like jazz?' and neither is right, as far as I'm concerned.

It's the same in record shops. If you play within the remit of this particular musical niche and are lucky enough to have attracted record company support, you're quite likely to find your CDs stored under 'World', 'New Age' or 'Jazz'. Furthermore, in the digital domains like iTunes, eMusic and their like (where you yourself have little or no control regarding which category your music ends up under) there's no provision for acoustic fingerstyle. My CDs have been placed under 'Relaxation' or 'New Age' or 'Music For Meditation' and, as far as I'm concerned, it's not anything like. Certainly, if I was going shopping for CDs by Michael Hedges or Pierre Bensusan, looking under 'new age' or 'world' wouldn't be my first port of call.

Things used to be a lot more simple. Once, I'm told, your music was either classical, commercial or folk. Take it or leave it. The definitions were easy to understand: classical was anything involving orchestras or ensembles playing Bach, Berlioz or Beethoven, commercial was pop and rock and folk was... well, everything else.

Under this form of categorisation I'm a folk musician in that I don't consider myself a part of music's commercial landscape. Seriously; ask my accountant.

It's easy to think that this is really a trivial problem and unlikely to have too much of an impact on a career; after all, does it really matter where your music is filed in the public consciousness? Well, yes it does. The problem reveals itself when you try to get gigs, for instance.

If you play in a blues or a covers band, it's likely that you'll be able to make a promoter or club/pub owner understand what it is you play much easier than I would. Blues? What? Like Muddy Waters, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton – that kind of thing? Covers band? What? Rock covers? Queen, Bad Company, bit of Supergrass, Elbow thrown in for the students? Deal done. But 'acoustic fingerstyle'? What's that?

You see my problem. I guess it's a matter of time before we acoustic minstrels find a home under one roof or other. It may be that a champion will reveal himself; someone will have a hit with a film theme or something and immediately afterwards everything reboots and we can say, 'You know, like so-and-so...' when asked the inevitable question.

But until then, it's a no man's land of misunderstanding.