Nothing But The Blues
Full tabs and explanations on how to play blues guitar like Johnny Winter
"There ain't no one alive that knows more blues licks than Johnny Winter," says no less an authority than Winter's own late-Sixties drummer, Uncle John "Red" Turner. Red knows first-hand the depth of Winter's immersion into the blues idiom. "Johnny had thousands of blues records-more blues records than I'd ever seen-and he studied every one of them."
Tommy Shannon, the other half of Winter's Sixties rhythm section, adds, "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. Johnny could sit and play along with every single one of these records. He knew them all inside and out."
Winter's guitar playing can best be described as an amalgam of blues guitar's greatest players, intertwined with his unique, fire-breathing approach and sound. Elements of the Kings-B.B., Albert and Freddie-are blended with such disparate influences as Otis Rush, Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Robert Johnson, Son House, Lightning Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker. Winter successfully assimilated the stylistic elements of these influences while forging a distinctly original blues/rock guitar style, one that cut new ground, yet retaining the heart and soul of his roots. His soloing style is earmarked by blazing speed, crystal-clear articulation and a consistently spontaneous flow of ideas, while his melodic inventions are delivered with pure rhythmic drive. Winter's lines effortlessly spin into each other, creating the impression of constant and relentless forward motion.
Winter's favorite scale for improvisation is the minor pentatonic, which is a five-tone scale spelled, intervallically, 1, b3 (flatted third), 4, 5, b7 (flatted, or "dominant," seventh). In the key of A, this scale is spelled A, C, D, E, G. Winter often expands this scale by adding the b5 (flatted fifth), resulting in a scale known as the blues scale, spelled, intervallically, 1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7. In the key of A, this scale is spelled A, C, D, Eb, E, G.
Though these are minor scales, both are often used within a dominant tonality, wherein the chords are built from roots, major thirds, fifths and dominant sevenths. In the key of A, a dominant I-IV-V (one-four-five) blues progression would utilize the chords A7, D7 and E7.
FIGURES 1-5 are Johnny Winter-style lead licks based primarily on A minor pentatonic, with brief allusions to the A blues scale. In bars 1 and 2 of FIGURE 1, the b3, C, is subtly bent up a quarter tone, hinting at C#, the major third. This pitch-bending technique strengthens the bond between Winter's minor pentatonic-based improvised lines and the inherent dominant tonality of the underlying chords. Notice also how the lines are rhythmically propelled forward by shifting from the moderate use of 16th-note triplets in bar 1 to the steady 16th-note triplet phrasing found in bar 2.
In FIGURE 2, the phrase begins in bar 1 with a steady flow of 16th notes, followed in bar 2 by a succession of oblique bends. On beats 1, 2 and 3 of this bar, the higher note, G, remains stationary while the lower note is bent and released, from D to E and back to D. This technique, a favorite of Winter's, finds its origins in country and rural blues guitar playing.
The unique sound of the lick shown in FIGURE 3 owes greatly to the position within which it is played: up in the 14th position, the minor third, C (3rd string/17th fret), is bent up one half step to the major third, C#, followed by a high A root note (1st string/17th fret). The line then descends the A minor pentatonic scale back to the initial C note, which is now bent up a whopping two whole steps, to E, and then released. This two-step "overbend" reveals the influence of Albert King. The melodic phrase is repeated in bar 2, albeit with a different ending, indicating motivic resolution.
FIGURE 4 offers an excellent example of the kind of forceful rhythmic drive for which Winter's lead guitar style is heralded. Played entirely in blazing 16th-note triplets, this A blues scale lick is expanded with the brief use of the ninth (or major second), B. The use of this interval within the blues scale can be traced back to T-Bone Walker. Another guitarist influenced by this sound was Jimi Hendrix, who utilized it extensively in his "All Along the Watchtower" solo. Notice the deft use of hammer-ons and pull-offs throughout this technically challenging riff.
FIGURE 5 is a lick that combines many of the previously illustrated techniques: on beat 4 of bar 1, the C note is bent up one half step, to C# (the major third), followed by a quick, descending 16th-note triplet figure. On beat 1 of bar 2, G is bent up one half step to G#; the G# serves as a melodic passing tone to A, similar to the riff shown in bar 1, beat 2, of FIGURE 1. Like FIGURES 1 and 4, this lick wraps up with a quick barrage of 16th-note triplets.
Another favorite technique of Winter's is the tremolo-picking of triads (three-note chords), usually voiced on the top three strings. This technique is illustrated in FIGURE 6, where voice leading is used to connect the initial A triad (bar 1, beat 1) with subsequent A7 triads (bar 1, beat 4; bar 2, beat 1; bar 2, beat 4).
FIGURE 7 demonstrates the incorporation of the sixth and ninth scale degrees within the blues scale, as this line is based on the G blues scale (G, Bb, C, Db, D, F) and includes the sixth, E, and the ninth, A. This melodic/harmonic device was utilized extensively by another of Winter's guitar heroes, Chuck Berry, but Winter ups the ante by delivering these lines at burning speed.
FIGURE 8 expands on the previously illustrated technique: a "basic" melodic figure is introduced in bar 1, followed by first and second endings. Winter's natural sense of motivic development is similarly exemplified in FIGURE 3.
FIGURE 9 depicts a "stock" guitar riff used by countless rock players besides Winter (Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page are two good examples). When Johnny plays this riff, however, it has its own distinct sound, due to his precise picking attack and subtle use of pull-offs.
Though known primarily as a single-note player, Winter is also an excellent fingerpicker, especially when playing in a "country blues" style. FIGURE 10 illustrates a fingerpicked rhythm guitar part to be played over a slow blues. Notice how two- and three-note chords are beautifully intertwined with single-note melodic figures.
No survey of Johnny Winter's guitar style would be complete without an examination of his incendiary slide guitar work. Some of his slide guitar influences include Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Earl Hooker. Johnny's most well-known slide guitar performance is his classic cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," as heard on the album Second Winter. Johnny usually uses open tunings when he plays slide guitar, and "Highway 61 Revisited" is no exception. For this song, the guitar is tuned to open D (low to high: D A D F# A D), which is the same as open E tuning (low to high: E B E G# B E) transposed down one whole step. All of the slide guitar examples shown herein (FIGURES 11-15) are to be played in this tuning (notated in the key of E for the sake of familiarity, with the examples based primarily on the E minor pentatonic scale [E G A B D]).
FIGURE 11, played in a 12/8 time signature at a moderately fast tempo, features a line that's propelled forward by the steady use of eighth-note triplets. Notice that the slide is barred across the 3rd and 2nd strings at the 15th fret to sound the pitches in bar 1.
Winter wears a metal slide on his pinky, and lightly rests the other fingers of his fretting hand on the strings behind the slide, in order to eliminate any excess overtones and string noise. For correct intonation, position the slide directly above the given fret and be sure to keep the slide parallel with the fret at all times. The vibrato is executed by rapidly wiggling the slide to the left and to the right of the fret, (approximately one quarter to one half inch in either direction).
FIGURE 12 is an example of Johnny Winter-style slide work down in the 1st position. This figure makes abundant use of open strings, as the line begins with alternating triplet figures, followed by melodically strong lines built on shifting rhythmic patterns. If one were to venture into a full-scale investigation of Winter's slide guitar style, one would find that many of these figures are actually recurring melodic "themes" as opposed to improvisations.
FIGURE 13 is a simple one-bar phrase that is played repeatedly. This is another example of Johnny's "thematic" approach to soloing.
In FIGURE 14, the open high E string is played alternately with notes fretted high on the guitar neck on the same string. This wide-interval melodic technique is very effective, and is utilized extensively by Winter on many of his extended slide guitar workouts.
FIGURE 15 offers yet another example of Winter's "thematic" approach to slide soloing, as the rhythmically solid figure played in bar 1 is "answered" by the lick in bar 2. Winter then wraps up this melodically sound phrase with a repeat of the bar 1 figure in bar 3, followed by a definitive melodic resolution.