by Ari Surdoval
From his start with country hell raiser David Allan Coe, to 16 years with the Allman Brothers, to the heavy and melodic improvisation of Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes has blazed a trail that draws on the best of American music. With the voice of an old-school soul shouter and the guitar prowess of a legend, Haynes is both a formidable band leader and a blistering sideman who cares deeply about music. Articulate and insightful, Haynes took time out to speak to Gibson about the Allmans, Mule, and his approach to playing—with a cranked Custom Shop Les Paul in his lap the whole time.
Be sure to listen to the sound clips for a taste of Haynes’ incredible tone and phrasing.
I started singing when I was about seven, and all my influences were soul singers: Otis Redding, James Brown, the Four Tops, the Temptations. I discovered rock music a few years later. My oldest brother got an acoustic guitar when I was 11 and I played it more than he did, so my dad got me an electric guitar for my twelfth birthday. My first electric guitar was a Norma guitar and a Norma amplifier—both bought at the local hardware store, $49 for one and $59 for the other. Of course that was 1972 dollars. Still, they were not the greatest. A year later, my dad upgraded and got me a Lyle copy of a Gibson SG. My first real Gibson guitar was a year after that, which was an SG Junior. And then, about a year after that, I got an SG Custom. So I had a history with SGs there for a little while.
When I first started—chronologically speaking—Hendrix and Clapton and Johnny Winter were the first three people I got turned on to. That was the Cream era of Clapton. Then eventually, I heard the Allman Brothers and everybody else from that era that I stole something from (laughs). Of course, I would read interviews with all these people and find out who they listened to. And they all listened to B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Elmore James, so I would go back and discover that stuff.
I used to sit at the turntable and play songs over and over, trying to cop licks off of the records, wearing holes in the vinyl. In the old days you could slow the turntable down. Sometimes that would make it easier. Not always (laughs). I just spent hours and hours in my room playing along with records, trying to learn the solos. Especially the nice short solos (laughs). Learning long solos back then was not very easy to do.
I remember when my oldest brother turned me on to Howlin’ Wolf. The way he got me into Wolf was he said, “Clapton plays on this London Sessions Howlin’ Wolf record.” Which in hindsight is definitely not the best Howlin' Wolf record. It is still a great record, but there are others that are a lot more authentic. But the solo from “I Ain’t Superstitious” was short and sweet. I remember learning that note-for-note and playing it in my room.
I also loved more melodic players, like Jesse Colin Young and Dave Mason, who just sounded like they were singing their solos. I would learn solos by them as well. I also discovered Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Dickey had these really melodic solos, as well, that you could learn a lot from. I always loved people who sounded like they were singing through their instruments. So Duane Allman was a big inspiration. Jeff Beck was a big inspiration. Because they had this vocal-like quality. Maybe since I started as a singer, that was always something that was very important to me.
Yeah, when you hear somebody trying to emulate the human voice, a lot of it has to do with the timbre of the note, with the attack, with the vibrato. You get that … (plays) … so you’ve got all this dynamic range. When a singer pushes hard, the sound is different. When they back off, the sound is different. It is very emotional and it is very human.
Slide guitar is emulating blues harmonica, and blues harmonica is emulating the human voice. So once again it goes back to the vocal. When I discovered slide, it was a whole 'nother way of expressing yourself, because you could slide into the note and out of the note in a way that you couldn’t really do even bending strings on guitar, and you definitely couldn’t do on piano. So slide guitar had an even more vocal-like quality in some ways. When singers sing, they don’t attack the note head-on. Maybe in opera music or something. But blues singers and soul singers slide into the notes and out of the notes and it makes it much more vulnerable I think. So slide guitar achieves that.
I was in all local bands and regional bands in Asheville, North Carolina, trying to get a record deal—to no avail. When I got the call from David Allan Coe, I had no idea that at that time he had done records like Penitentiary Blues and stuff like that. I remember saying to him on the phone, “I don’t really consider myself a country guitar player, and I’m not really interested in being in a country band.” I was 19, or just had turned 20. I was a young, cocky kid. I think he liked the fact that I was cocky and full of myself. But, actually, I was really shy. I just knew what I wanted to do musically and that didn’t seem to fit the plan. But he said, “I want a blues rock guitar player who can add an edge to my music.”
When I joined Coe’s band, I realized how much he loved blues. Whenever his voice was tired on tour, we would go out just the two of us and open up with a bunch of Jimmy Reed songs. Then segue that into the show. One by one, the drummer would walk on and the bass player would walk on, and eventually the whole band would be onstage. He was really influenced by Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That stuff was way back in his formative years, so whenever it came out, it was very genuine.
I was mostly raised by my dad. My parents divorced when I was really young. My dad was always very supportive. He always made sure I had a better guitar and a better amp. He worked 12 hours a day to provide for his family, and he would go that extra mile to make sure I had some decent equipment. So from the beginning, my dad was very supportive. He was a singer, but he never pursued a career or anything. He just had a beautiful, natural voice. So I think in some ways, he loved the fact that I pursued music. He was a just a very supportive role model. So he was into it. As a country music fan, I think he realized how controversial Coe was, and thought, “Wow, what is my kid getting into here.” (laughs) But I think he really liked it. He’d come to a lot of the shows. He still does.
I was in the studio in Nashville with Coe, shortly after I had joined the band, and he knew I was a big Allman Brothers fan. He was really just trying to impress me with the fact that he knew them. So he sent one of his limousines over to the studio where the Allman Brothers were recording and picked up Dickey Betts and Don Johnson and Greg Allman, and Guy Clarke came by that night. And me and Dickey and Guy Clarke sat around with acoustic guitars. There were three acoustic guitars, and we just passed ’em around, because on one of them, the action was about this high, so every third song, you had to play the guitar with the terrible action. We just sat and swapped riffs and songs and stories and stuff. And for me, as a kid, it was a really, really memorable experience, and it led to me joining Dickey’s band, which led to me joining the Allman Brothers.
Joining the Allmans was not as overwhelming as it would have been had I not been in Dickey’s band for almost three years prior to that. The ironic thing was that the entire time I was in Dickey Betts’ band, the thought of putting the Allman Brothers back together was pretty much nonexistent. Every time it got talked about, it was a resounding, “No, that is never gonna happen.” Then one day, out of the blue, they buried the hatchet and said, “We’re reforming the Allman Brothers and we want you to join.”
So it was a shock to me when it happened, and a really strange dilemma. Because I was just signing a record deal of my own as a solo artist, and was really looking forward to making my first solo record. And then I get this call saying they wanted me to be a part of putting the Allman Brothers back together. I couldn’t really turn that down, so it meant putting my solo career on hold for a great opportunity.
Dickey and I automatically had a good chemistry and a good rapport, because I had grown up listening to and studying that music. The Allman Brothers were one of my favorite bands. But I had also studied and listened to so many other types of music that we weren’t too similar, but we weren’t too dissimilar. And I think that is what makes a good tandem between two guitar players: If there is enough common ground that they make sense together, but enough differences that the sum of the parts is yet another entity. That is what Dickey and I had. And it made me concentrate on my slide playing. So from ’86, up until I left the Allman Brothers in ’97, I was playing tons of slide guitar, which was really good for me.
I definitely had the Switzerland role. If Dickey and Greg weren’t talking to each other, they would talk through me (laughs). Again, it was easier for me, because I had three years playing in Dickey’s band, whereas Allen Woody auditioned and the next day he was in the Allman Brothers. That’s much harder. I had this whole initiation period. It really made it less intimidating for me. I didn’t really look at is as filling somebody else’s shoes. And the audience was very kind, and very accepting.
The real challenge was how much to sound like myself, and how much to pay homage to Duane Allman. Because I was taking on that role: the slide guitar, the person opposite to Dickey Betts. They were kind enough, and smart enough, to know that the right person for the job was someone who wasn’t cloning someone else. So they got Allen Woody to play bass, who had a lot of Berry Oakley influence, but who was obviously his own person. And the same with myself. They didn’t tell us how or what to play. They just said, “We hired you—play the way you want to play.”
So it was up to me how much of Duane’s influence to show at any give moment. So in some of the shorter pieces, like “Statesboro Blues,” I would stay a little closer to the bone. In songs like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Dreams” and “Whippin’ Post,” I would go more off into my own direction. And I guess the biggest challenge was: How do I sound like myself to the audience, but still sound like a member of the Allman Brothers? Because one day I wasn’t, and the next day I was. That was really the toughest challenge for me, but it was such an honor.
Since I play slide guitar in standard tuning and Duane played in open-E, already there was some difference that’s subtle, but obvious in its own way. So even in a song like “Statesboro Blues” … (plays) … It sounds different, even though those are Elmore James licks, filtered through Duane Allman, filtered through me. Duane was the conduit that brought the Robert Johnson, Elmore thing into the next generation and took it much further. Those licks sound different in standard tuning than they do in open-E.
One of the things that I love about standard tuning is that you can think in standard tuning. You don’t have to think about the open tuning. It’s a trade-off. Whenever you decide between standard and open tunings, I think one of the trades is that standard gives you more options, from a vocabulary standpoint, but the open tuning gives you a more natural, slide sound that’s familiar, that you’ve heard your whole life. Some of the licks that sound so amazing in open tuning are really easy to play, but they are the bread-and-butter of slide guitar. …
When I started playing more and more slide guitar in standard, I realized that I could think as if I didn’t have the slide on. And in some cases I would incorporate fingerstyle playing and slide playing together. So if I play … (plays) … It is kind of combining different techniques together like that.
Mick Taylor was one of the first people to do that, combining the two techniques. To go back a little further, Earl Hooker did it quite convincingly. He was amazing at that. I think it is important to take advantage of anything that will steer you toward your own voice. So that was one of the things for me that helped me find an identifiable sound. And I still love playing in standard tuning, and open tunings as well, but I’m more adept at playing in standard tunings. A lot of the improv stuff with the Allman Brothers was different every night, but it was nice not to feel that you didn’t have to do it a certain way.
When Woody and I first got the idea to form Gov’t Mule, it was a side project that we wanted to do in our spare time. Because the Allman Brothers only worked a small part of the year, we had plenty of time to do other things. And we felt that the improvisational rock trio was a dying art, and we wanted to bring it back, really just for fun. Woody and I both loved Cream and Band of Gypsies and the Hendrix Experience, even jazz trios had a unique sound.
In a trio, there is no chordal instruments behind the soloist, so there is a freedom that comes with that. You can ignore the chord changes, because there are no chord changes that are being heard. There are also limitations from that, because when there are chords in the backdrop, there are more options of what you can play that go with those chords. So a trio can be limiting and limitless at the same time. There is a certain amount of freedom, especially for the bass player.
If it is the right combination between the bass player and the drummer, the bass player takes on a much more aggressive role. Woody loved Jack Bruce, and loved that approach to playing. It’s hard—certain songs don’t lend themselves to a trio as much. So some of the songs we were writing worked great as a trio, some of them not so much. I found myself writing songs specifically for the sound of a trio, which is great—if you have a vehicle to write for like that. But by the time we got to the third record, which is Life Before Insanity, I was already starting to write a lot of material that needed larger ensembles. So we brought in Johnny Neal, our friend and keyboard player, to play on half that record. So at that point, it was half quartet, half trio. And that record is a good example of songs that work as a trio and songs that don’t work as a trio.
One of the things I love these days with Andy Hess and Danny Lewis in Gov’t Mule is that Danny plays guitar. So sometimes we can be a two-guitar band, with no keyboards, and then sometimes he’ll leave the stage, and we are a trio again. So there are options like that. One of the things that Jaimoe and I talked about in the Allman Brothers is that one of the beautiful things about being a seven-piece band is that at any moment it can be a seven-piece band, or a six-piece band, or a five-piece band, or a four-piece band, or a three-piece band, depending on who decides to lay out.
Some songs lend themselves more to improvising than others. We are always looking for ways to incorporate some sort of improv into the songs, probably much more so than the average songwriter or the average band. That’s our lifeblood. Sometimes the studio version will be nice and concise, and then six months later we’ll figure out a way to open up the song in a cool way. It’s the same with the Allman Brothers; it’s the same with the Grateful Dead. My work with Phil Lesh and Friends was that way, to the nth power. We would constantly look for ways to change the songs, rearranging them, and stretching them. But I love doing that. I’m a big fan of songwriting, but I am also a big fan of improvisation. So trying to find the place where they meet is really important to me.
People ask me if I have any opinions on the jam band scene, and my only complaint would be that sometimes songwriting takes a back seat to jamming. The reason that the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers are still around is because the songs they wrote are great songs. And if they weren’t, the fact that they had this great chemistry would be overlooked. You look for that balance and that marriage between those two things. If you don’t have a song, you don’t have a premise
It’s funny, the whole term Southern rock is controversial. The guys in the Allman Brothers, who were really the guys who founded Southern rock, were really never comfortable with that term. They felt that the term “Southern rock” was coined so there would be a bin to put their records in. And they wanted to make music that was not stereotypical, and that was a way of stereotyping them. So I think from the beginning, they didn’t like that.
Through the years, the whole connecting Southern rock and rebel flags became very controversial as well. There is a whole movement in parts of Europe now, with bands who are influenced by Southern rock bands, and they have rebel flags on their stage. And they don’t realize that in America, that’s a derogatory, demeaning statement. I would meet some of these people and do interviews with these magazines, and they would ask me about it. As a Southerner, I would have to try to explain to them that their heart was in the right place, but the rebel flag is taboo at this point. It’s very much construed as negativity and racism, and it needs to be looked at as a thing of the past. We have all moved on. The South has moved on.
Also, to say that musicians from the South all sound the same is to say that Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix sound the same, because they are both from Seattle. R.E.M. is from the South, and they sound nothing like the Allman Brothers, but they are both from the state of Georgia. Having said that, when I was growing up, Southern musicians had different influences, because a lot of the influences were regional. Regional gospel music, regional blues music, that maybe people in other regions didn’t have. Not to mention the fact that pretty much all American music came from the South anyway. Blues came from the South. Jazz came from the South. Country music came from the South. Rock ’n’ roll came from the South. I remember being with Greg Allman one time and somebody asked us about it. And he said, “Well, to say ‘Southern rock’ is kind of redundant, isn’t it? It’s like saying ‘rock rock.’” Rock music was born in the South. So why do you have to clarify that?
As far as Gov’t Mule, or the Allman Brothers for that matter: We have never considered ourselves Southern rock. We are Southern musicians playing the music we love. And it wouldn’t be fair to not acknowledge the fact that the British Invasion influenced Southern rock. The Allman Brothers were influenced by Cream, by John Mayall, by Hendrix, who made his mark by going to England and coming back. For whatever reason, the British discovered American blues in a much heavier way than Americans did at the time. So we owe the British the debt of turning a white American audience onto music that they should have been loving the entire time, which is black American music. Something to do with it finding its way to Britain and back to the United States created a lot of amazing music. Bands like Skynyrd were influenced by bands like the Rolling Stones, and especially by Free. Free were a huge influence on Lynyryd Skynyrd.
So it’s a tough question to answer. Southern musicians have different influences, especially in the old days. Now, with the Internet, anyone can discover anything. Somebody in Antarctica is listening to Blind Blake. In the old days, it wasn’t that way. But it was always a touchy subject with the Allman Brothers, because they didn’t want to be associated with the rebel flag, and the racism that goes along with it, and they didn’t like being stereotyped.
John Coltrane was from North Carolina, Dizzy Gillespie was from South Carolina, Sun Ra was from Birmingham, Alabama. There is definitely a pattern there somewhere, but I think in any situation, it is very important to take influences that aren’t obvious and blend them together and find something new. And then, of course, at that point, somebody is gonna stereotype you! (laughs)