The interview from 2011, November 14th
Hello Mr. Winter, my name is Martin Koubek. I am a rock musician from Prague and I co-operate with a Slovak music magazine Nový Populár. I am one of your big fans and I would like to ask you a few questions.
What was the start of your musical journey? Are you an autodidact or were you attending some school od music? Were your parents perhaps supporting your musical efforts?
My parents where musical but I took lesson but am mostly self taught they were very supportive.
How came you had chosen guitar and your brother Edgar had decided to play the keyboards and saxophone?
It just ended up that way I started on clarinet.
You use a special technique for your right hand. Is this your original idea, or were you inspired by older blues or country?
I use a thumb pick my teacher used on so that’s how I learned. Listening to Chet Atkins as well.
Since your very first albums, you have played your guitar in a very specific, expressive way that is also difficult as to the technique. Would you reveal how much time did you spend practicing in the beginning, or if you have practiced at all?
About 5 hours a day for years listening to everything I could find.
Did you use sheet music while you were learning, or were you rather listening?
No I don’t read music I just play it.
Your recordings are known for your truly original and naturally excellent singing. Have you perhaps sung in some school choir, or have you started singing as an adult?
I just listened to guys like ray charles and bobby blue bland and thats how it started.
At Woodstock, you were playing a 12-string guitar. The guitar looks like some Fender. What was it really and why did you choose this guitar that time?
It was a 12 string fender strung with 6 strings it was just a favorite at the time.
Which instruments have you decided to use later? Why have you decided to play a Gibson Firebird, and not a Gibson Les Paul that is very popular among rock and blues musicians?
I loved the look sound and feel of a Firebird and it was really good for thumb picking. The Les Paul's way too heavy.
Later you started to play an Erlewine Lazer. What made you choose this guitar and what strengths do you see in this instrument?
Sounds like a strat and feels like a Gibson I just love that.
Which amplifier do you like the most? Do you use the same one both on stage and in studio?
Musicman 4x10. I use them for everthing volume on 10.
Have you ever used some guitar effects or pedals?
My main pedal is a Boss CE-2 chorus pedal.I use to use a MXR Phase 90.
What do you think about The Rolling Stones? You play some of their songs from time to time.
Love them and they are good friends, I love covering their songs.
Your unrestrained yet sensitive approach to blues and rock songs is very unique. Perhaps this was the quality that inspired many other musicians, not omitting the Irish blues quitarist Rory Gallagher. Have you ever met this guy and what do you think about his music?
Never met him but love his playing very much.
What songs do you like to play the most? Those that were written by you, those written by someone else for you, or songs you borrowed from other musicians, like The Rolling Stones or Muddy Waters?
I really like playing hwy 61 but I just love playing no matter what the song.
Have you had any musical hero? Which musicians have had the greatest influence upon your music?
Muddy, Chuck Berry, T-bone Walker and Robert Johnson.
You have recorded with Muddy Waters and have produced his albums. What was the co-operation like?
The was a real gentilmen it was the highlight of my career.
There are rumors that you have played live with Jimi Hendrix. If that´s true, what were your feelings and what did you think about Jimi both as a guitarist and a human being?
He was one of the best guitar players I ever heard. I had fun playing with him.
You are one of the original musicians from the classic rock-blues period who have made the canon of the style. Which fellow guitarist do you think is or was the closest to you?
None really … laughs…
What tuning do you prefer? Is it the natural guitar tuning, or a chord tuning? Which tuning do you prefer playing slide?
Open D tune, down a whole step as well.
When you use chord tuning, which key do you prefer?
D G and A.
Do you plan to record or perform together with your brother Edgar some time in the future?
We are doing a rock cruise w ZZ Top in December should be fun.
What difference do you see in the conditions for making music like yours in the 70´s and now?
It was a lot better then music today is not as good.
Do you have your most favorite album or song among those you have ever recorded?
Progressive blues and let me in.
How do you see your songs that have become real rock hits – like I Guess I´ll Go Away or Rock´n Roll Hoochie Koo – from todays point of view?
I love it it’s a great feeling to have that happen.
Typical for your studio and live recordings is your unique and often very expressive guitar playing. On your last album Roots, solo guitars were recorded by many other musicians. What made you decide so?
It was my guitarists paul nelson’s idea he produced ROOTs and did a great job playing on it as well.
Have you enjoyed playing at the Crossroads fest? What was the athmosphere and the audience, compared to the legendary Woodstock?
Different but just as exciting it was a real big deal.
On your new album Roots we can hear keyboards too. While touring, you have another guy playing guitar in your band. Didn´t you think of asking some Hammond player too?
No Paul is all I need …laughs…
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, you have been known since the early 70´s and you have had many fans there. Don´t you think it´s a pity they could see you there for the first time in 2003?
Yes but now im there a lot so we are all happy.
Do you plan to actively perform or record in the nearest future?
I’m a bluesman and will play till I die…
What do you think about the audience in Prague, and what is your impression from the whole city?
I love my fans there it is one of my favorite places in all of Europe.
Thank you very much for the interview. I am looking forward to seeing your show and I wish you all the best for the future.
JOHNNY WINTER • „SWEET HOME PRAGUE“ (report form the concert)
Johnny Winter, the blues-rock veteran from Texas, has had many fans in the Czech Republic and Slovakia since his musical early days in the late 60's and early 70's. However, we could not see him perform live here until after 2003. He was playing on one of the islands on the Vltava river that summer. I had the chance to talk to Johnny in person after the show while he was giving autographs to his fans. I got the feeling that he was a very friendly and happy guy. Maybe I was lucky that he was in a good mood after the concert. On the other hand, something told me that his music was giving out so much positive energy that he himself could not simply be an arrogant or boastful person. What has happened since then has proved that my initial assessment was not wrong.
Since that island gig, Johnny Winter has come to the Czech Republic several times. Each of his performances was a great experience and his playing and singing were very natural and authentic. The audience felt the emotions and fulfillment and left with a feeling that good blues or rock music should always bring. I had pretty much the same experience at Lucerna Music Bar in Prague on the 15th November 2011, which was a stop in Johnny's fall tour in Europe. This original albino guitarist from Texas has always been stubborn about his love for the music he plays. We find another piece of evidence for this claim in Johnny's latest studio album, Roots, which was released this year. Its release was supported by a series of concerts both in Europe and the USA. Thanks to the helpfulness of the promotion agency, Johnny's management, and especially Johnny himself, we were able to interview this legendary musician, an artist who is one of the essential and most prominent musicians of the classic blues-rock scene.
The following is the series of questions we had prepared. Luckily enough, Johnny was more than willing to answer them directly.
And indeed, we had a lot to look forward to. The first half hour belonged to the support band, or, the support one-man band. Justin Lavash, the blues-folk acoustic guitarist and singer from Great Britain took to the part more than well. And then, Johnny's band came on stage. The line-up was not unfamiliar. There was Paul Nelson on guitar, Scott Spray on bass guitar, and Vito Liuzzi on drums. After a few bars, a slim, long-legged Texas guy with a white mane and a Stetson appeared. With regards to his kind of numb expression, Johnny Winter could have starred in a role of a western gunfighter, a common job in Texas during wild west times. A tall man, slightly hunched, always ready to point a Colt at you. And that's what Johnny does. But instead of a heavy 45 he grasps his favourite Erlewine Lazer guitar, and the crossfire begins anyway.
During the first song, Freddie King's Hideway, Johnny introduces his band and each musician plays a short solo. And then come one song after another, fast and moderate, boogie and rock'n'roll and it's obvious that this is something Johnny and his mates really like. Each song is appreciated by heavy applause that is even stronger with old Winter classics like Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. Of course, I've Got My Mojo Working or Johnny B Goode can't be omitted and we can see that Johnny is by no means thinking that he is 68 now. No song is performed routinely, and we enjoy guitar solos and the peculiar raw, yet emotional way of singing. If we closed our eyes, we could think of the beginning of the 70's, the golden era of this kind of music. And every song is allowed to be played in full length to let both the musicians and the audience enjoy every note. This should have been a blues concert but we can hear rather heavy boogie and rock'n'roll played in a really forceful way. Who would think that this white-haired guy would come to us with this high energy after all the years and the troubles he has lived through? After half an hour it is time for classic blues, but still Johnny sings and plays in his own way, so this song is by no means any kind of a lullaby. And of course, hat's off to the band! Paul Nelson reminded us of another famous musician Rick Derringer, who was playing with Johnny Winter during the golden era. Paul plays brilliant backing guitar, and when it's his turn, he shoots out a brilliant solo too. Bass and drums sound like a long-distance train running from San Francisco to Tombstone, Arizona. Especially the bassist, Scott Spray, seems to be on top of things. Though Johnny is the leader as regards both guitar and voice, he does not want his mates to be only backup. What’s more, one fast boogie was sung by the drummer Vito Luizzi, who by the way did not allow his kit any rest. What follows is a heavy rock'n'roll riffing, Johnny's typical way of singing, and his original guitar playing. He is really impressive, hardly ever looks at the fingerboard of his guitar, and can make you feel as though he was born with his guitar in his hands. He does not have any trouble arranging a Rolling Stones song into one of his own. It was really surprising when one of the typical Winter's songs in the end turned into Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones. The pace is becoming faster and faster, we hear another couple of fast rock'n'roll tunes played in a high-energy mood. Looking at Johnny and his band, we think of a well oiled machine. It seems Johnny does not think much about what and how he plays. It simply flows out, one song after another, not talking about anything, just a short Thank you followed immediately by another One, two, three, four… Like he does not want to waste his time, he simply plays and plays again. When he is in the mood for playing throughout the show, his thumb picking or his slide is really a delicacy. And as far as I am concerned, during that evening in Prague he was in an optimal mood all the time. And he brought even more to the final part of the show. For the encore he changed his Erlewine Lazer for his legendary old Gibson Firebird V. The guitar is tuned to open D and Johnny uses thumb picking and a bottleneck, the band is rumbling, and the notes are swishing around. Finally, here is the long awaited Highway 61, for Johnny Winter something comparable to Smoke on the Water for Deep Purple. When leaving the stage, Johnny and the band members received decent applause, which they definitely deserved. Johnny proved everything he mentioned in the interview. It does not matter what song he plays. He always performs so that his warm attitude towards the music and his precise technique are obvious from the very first notes. With regards to the fact that he is from Texas, we could ask him the well-known western question: Do you know how to play only, or do you know how to shoot too? I don't know about Johnny's skills with firearms, but that evening in Lucerna Music Bar in Prague no one could doubt his playing.
MARTIN KOUBEK Photo author