The Texas bluesman's fiery licks laid the foundation for ’70s blues-rock while honoring the sound and spirit of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
On Wednesday, July 16, Texas blues guitar giant Johnny Winter was found dead in his hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland. Known for his stunning slide work and solos that exploded in dazzling fusillades of notes, coupled with his deep devotion to the blues tradition, Winter was 70 years old and enjoying a renaissance in his career, which began in the late 1960s and included a historic performance at Woodstock.
Winter was thoroughly upbeat when he spoke to Premier Guitar last month. His decades-long addiction to methadone was behind him and his back afflictions were improving. He had a busy touring schedule and a documentary about his life, Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty, had debuted at Austin’s South By Southwest Film Festival in March. He’d also just wrapped an album, a guest-star packed set of blues classics called Step Back, that’s set for release on September 2.
“I feel great,” Winter said during the interview. “Physical therapy helps, but so does not taking drugs and drinking.
“Takin’ dope is not good for you,” he added, chuckling.
If there’s one thing Winter was always serious about, it was blues. Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, he was an outcast due to his albinism—a condition he shared with his multi-instrumentalist brother Edgar. And he found connection in the recordings of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the other bluesmen he heard on the radio, who he saw as kindred souls.
“Most people in Texas didn’t like black people because they were too dark, and they didn’t like me because I was too white,” he said, only half-joking. “That helped me relate to the black experience.”
Winter played with absolute intensity from the start, developing a rapid-fire two-finger picking technique that would become one of his signatures. He got his first guitar when he was 12 and cut his debut single, “School Day Blues,” for a local label at age 15 with his band Johnny and the Jammers. In 1967, when Winter was 23, he recorded his initial album The Progressive Blues Experiment on stage at Austin’s legendary psychedelic blues and rock club the Vulcan Gas Company. The next year he was signed to a deal with Columbia Records after he floored the crowd—and label executives—at the Fillmore East performing his hero B.B. King’s “It’s My Own Fault” as a guest during a Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper concert. His advance of $600,000 set a recording industry record at the time.
By the end of 1969 the incendiary picker and gravel-throated vocalist had released his major-label debut Johnny Winter and the follow-up Second Winter, and been among the emerging musical heroes at Woodstock, laying out the blueprints for the future of American blues-rock and even Southern rock along the way. Johnny Winter relied mostly on classic blues tunes. His thorny interpretations of numbers like King’s “Be Careful with a Fool” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little School Girl” displayed an edgier, more distinctly domestic approach to the music than his British contemporaries. Second Winter offered more original tunes, but began his transition toward rock.
Under pressure from Columbia, Winter added Rick Derringer as a second guitarist and pursued stardom with the influential Johnny Winter And and Still Alive and Well albums in 1970 and 1973. Between those releases he also developed a heroin problem that was quickly replaced by the methadone addiction that would dog him for decades. Those albums, along with the Allman Brothers first titles, cast the die for two-guitar blues-rock ensemble playing. Nonetheless, 41 years later Winter still complained that Derringer played too much and too loud. “All I need to play well is a good strong snare beat and other musicians who don’t get in the way,” he observed.
By 1974 he was a fixture in the consciousness of rock ’n’ roll with his white, wraith-like, often-shirtless frame wrapped around the 1963 Gibson Firebird that still accompanied him onstage during his final performances. Winter’s concert igniting howl “rock ’n’ roll” was already a ritual, and he’d jammed with every famous string-slinger in rock and blues, including Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
For Winter, however, the highest satisfaction came from the albums he made with blues godfather Muddy Waters in the late 1970s: Winter’s own Nothin’ but the Blues and the Grammy-winning trio Hard Again, I’m Ready, and King Bee that he produced for Waters.
“I had so much fun making those records,” Winter recalled. “I learned pretty much everything from Muddy—from his old records—so I knew exactly what he was going to do, which is why I was so good at producing him. Muddy, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Elmore James got me interested in slide.”
In the ’80s Winter settled into a routine of playing clubs and festivals that he continued until the present, playing 120 or more dates a year. There were high points along the way, like the three albums he recorded for reigning blues independent label, Alligator Records, starting with 1984’s Guitar Slinger, and 1992’s semi-acoustic Hey, Where’s Your Brother?—a nod to Edgar Winter.
Addiction was unkind to Winter. As the ’90s turned into the 2000s, his methadone and alcohol issues sometimes made him seem a shell of his former self onstage. Winter credited Paul Nelson—his friend, manager, second guitarist, and producer, who he met in 2004 — with saving his career and his life.
“I had a good time and enjoyed drugs and drinking,” he said, “but I overdid it. It was great in my 20s. The older I got the worse it was for me. A lot of people I know are dead. I could have died a bunch of times. Maybe I died years ago, but God was on my side.”
In 2011 Winter broke a seven-year recording hiatus with the album Roots, revisiting some of his favorite blues numbers with the help of Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Vince Gill, Edgar Winter, and other heavyweights. The disc was heralded as a partial return to form. This February the four-disc retrospective True to the Blues: The Johnny Winter Story was released, providing a new generation of listeners an opportunity to delve into his fiery early catalog. And his upcoming Step Back is an edgier sequel to Roots, with guest appearances by Eric Clapton, Leslie West, and Billy Gibbons, to name a few.
Winter had a few unscratched items on his bucket list. He told Premier Guitar that he wanted to win a Grammy for an album of his own. He also wanted to write more original tunes, which he hadn’t done for over a decade. He hoped for induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall and Fame, and wanted to travel to Egypt to see the pyramids. He also wanted to be remembered as a torchbearer for the music he loved, remarking that he hoped his name was synonymous with “good blues.”
“The music reflects me, of course,” he said. “I play what makes me feel good, and I’m interested in sharing that feeling with other people.”
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
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Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.