Johnny Winter

Guitar legend Johnny Winter was found dead at age 70 in his Zurich, Switzerland hotel room on Wednesday. Several weeks ago he gave one of his last major interviews to Gibson correspondent Ted Drozdowski. "Johnny was in great spirits when we spoke," Ted says. "He was laughing, said he felt better than he had in decades and was looking forward to the future. We even discussed his bucket list — obviously with no idea he'd have so little time to fulfill it." The interview appears below.

Johnny Winter has no qualms about discussing the hard stuff — his decades struggling with drug addiction, the physical toll heroin and, mostly, methadone took on him, and how he regained his sense of purpose with the arrival of his co-guitarist, producer, manger and good friend Paul Nelson nearly a decade ago. But he’d rather talk about the music, or let the music do the talking.

His brand new album Step Back says plenty about the 70-year-old legend who spun heads at Woodstock and jammed with the likes of Mike Bloomfield and Jimi Hendrix during his late 1960s ascent. The disc returns the Texas native to his true-blues roots, revisiting some of his favorite songs. Elmore James’s “Can’t Hold Out,” Magic Sam’s “Don’t Want No Woman,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Okie Dokie Stomp” and Son House’s “Death Letter” — the latter is Winter’s second recorded resonator guitar performance since 1969’s Johnny Winter album — are all on the set list. And Winter’s joined by an all star cast of friends including Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton, Ben Harper, Joe Bonamassa, Leslie West and Joe Perry.

The album’s true co-star, however, is the 1963 Gibson Firebird he’s owned since the early 1970s — a battered road-warrior’s broadsword that’s returned to his side in recent years as his primary instrument, still as ferocious as the day he bought it at a musical festival nearly 45 years ago.

The guitar slinger is also the subject of a new on-and-off-the-road documentary called Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty that premiered at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival and is making its way to theaters and DVD. The film captures Winter on stage, in his Winnebago rolling headquarters, at home, undergoing physical therapy and talking about his storied past while aiming toward the future.

For our conversation, the past seemed like a good place to start:

What’s the first time you went to a blues club and what was that like?

It was the Raven Bar. I went to see B.B. King. It was all black, about 1,500 to 2,000 people. No white people at all there. Nobody bothered us. I loved it. It was great music. I was 17 and B.B. let me play. It felt great to get a standing ovation from an all-black audience. He didn’t even know if I could play or not. If I was in his place I don’t think I would have let me. He’s just one of the nicest people in the world.

The first blues band I ever saw was Ray Charles at the Municipal Auditorium in Beaumount. There were a lot of white people at that point. People loved him, both black and white. I was 14 when I saw him.

Where you playing guitar then?

I was playing guitar since I was 12. I already knew blues was what I wanted to play. It was the most emotional music. It had so much feeling. I just loved it. I could really relate. 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. So that helped me relate to the black experience.

When did you get that ’63 Firebird?

Around 1970. At first I just liked the way it looked. Then I played it. It sounded good and played real good, too. It did everything. A guy from St. Louis was bringing guitars out to festivals. I can’t remember where I was playing, but he brought it out and I thought, “I’ve got to try that.” But I was already playing Gibsons. Les Pauls. The first really good guitar I got was the Black Beauty “fretless wonder.” I still play that same Firebird. Neck’s been broken four or five times. I keep getting it fixed. I always thought it was fine the way it was, so I never messed with it.

How did you develop your picking technique and the way you attack the strings? Were you always a finger-based player?

Yeah. I play with my thumb and first finger. A lot of the older black guys used thumb picks, but I started using one because I liked Chet Atkins, so my guitar teacher taught me how to do it.

Did being a fan of Chet Atkins influence your impressive speed as well?

Probably, yeah. Him and Merle Travis, too. Chet got his style from Merle Travis pretty much. They were both great guitar players. I would have loved to have met Chet.

Has tour technique changed much over the years?

Not very much at all. I still play the way I did when I was 15.

When you put your first band together, what was your goal?

I couldn’t play straight blues for white people so it was pretty much an R&B and rock ‘n’ roll band. I played a couple blues songs, but, really, white people didn’t want to hear blues until the late ’60s. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall and the Yardbirds got the white people into blues.

In the Down & Dirty movie you talk about your love of Robert Johnson. Are you a Son House fan, too?

Oh, I love Son! He almost was in a trance when he played. I was lucky to get to see him. On my new album I did “Death Letter,” a Son House song. I play it on the National. People have been asking me to play the National again for years. It was past due. I have the same slide style for both electric and resonator guitar. It’s just a little harder to play the National.

You produced three Grammy winning albums with Muddy Waters in the late 1970s. How important was working with Muddy?

I had so much fun making those records. I pretty much learned everything from Muddy — from his old records — so I knew exactly what he was going to do, which is why I was good at producing him. Muddy, Robert Johnson, Son House and Elmore James got me interested in slide.

What’s your stage rig like today?

I use Music Man 4x10s. It’s a little more powerful than the Super-Reverb. I use a Boss chorus pedal to just make things a little fuller.

Was it hard to be open about the drugs and your physical issues on camera for Down & Dirty?

I’ve always been pretty open. I don’t mind talking about the bad stuff. I always hope it will help other people going through the same kind of things. I feel great. Physical therapy helps, but so does not taking drugs and drinking, too. Takin’ dope is not good for you. [laughs]

How did you get started?

I was always interested in things that made you feel, like, grand. It just kind of… I had a good time and enjoyed drinking. I just overdid it. The older you get the worse it is for you. I enjoyed it when I was in my 20s, but…

Do you prepare for gigs and how many do you play each year?

I don’t, and I’m playing about 120 gigs a year.

What people hear “Johnny Winter,” what do you want them to think?

That they’re going to hear good blues. The music reflects me, of course. I play what makes me feel good to play and I’m interested in sharing that feeling with other people.

Of all the people you played with over the years, who was the most interesting or entertaining?

Muddy, without a doubt. On the first record we did together, Muddy didn’t play any slide at all. I played everything. He didn’t touch the guitar for that one. On the second one he played some. I met him at a club called the Vulcan Gas Company when we opened for him in Austin.

The Thirteenth Floor Elevators and all the other psychedelic guys played that place, too. Some of the psychedelic stuff got into me as well. I also liked playing with Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King. I’ve enjoyed playing the Crossroads festival. There’s a lot of guitar players in one place and I get to see people I never get to see anywhere else.

You’ve been playing on stage for literally 55 years. Do you still ever get lost in the music?

Yes, all the time. It takes you over. It depends on what you’re playing. But even when I’m taken over, I’m always aware of the audience.

How did you pick the songs for the new album?

I picked some of my favorites. There are thousands more I could have picked. I could make those records forever, because there’s so many good old songs. I haven’t written anything since 2004. I hope to write some new songs, but I don’t have any ideas.

What else is on your wish list?

I’d like to win a Grammy. I won Grammies for Muddy’s stuff, but never won one on my own. But I’ve been nominated a bunch of times. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame would be nice, but I’d rather win a Grammy. I’d like to go to Egypt, too, but it’s not a good time to go there. I’d like to see the pyramids.

How do you see blues these days?

It’s not like it was in the ’50s and ’60s. The only really great ones left are B.B. and Buddy Guy.

Any new players you like?

I like Paul a lot. He told me to say that. [laughs] And I like Derek Trucks. Warren Haynes is really good. Of course, Billy Gibbons is great, too.