Interview:Always A Guitar Player

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Steve Winwood Always A Guitar Player
by Scott Tribble


Bring up the name "Steve Winwood," and most music fans immediately think piano and organ, not to mention the soulful vocals behind a stream of popular hits from the past four decades. But how many also know that Winwood's an accomplished guitarist whose memorable riffs and tasteful soloing punctuate many all-time classic songs, including Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home"?


Unfortunately, not enough, and would like to take the occasion of Winwood's imminent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Traffic to celebrate the man's many contributions on guitar. Whether fronting Traffic or teaming with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith, rock's first super-group, or even in his own mega-successful solo career, Winwood has experimented at will, fusing jazz, folk, and blues styles in his playing; his often-improvised guitar solos have stretched the confines of the standard rock format, inspiring a legion of modern jam bands such as String Cheese Incident and Widespread Panic. Winwood counts among his collaborators and jam partners seminal guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, Al DiMeola, and Jimmy Page.


So why is it that Winwood often finds himself underrated or underappreciated when it comes to guitar? To some extent, his guitar legacy suffers from his own formidable talents on piano and organ, which have somewhat obscured his guitar skills over the years. Moreover, put simply, the quiet and unassuming Winwood isn't one to toot his own guitar, so to speak. got Winwood to open up some about his guitar history in an interview conducted this past February while Winwood was on tour in the United Kingdom to support his latest release, About Time (2003). Among other topics, Winwood shares his earliest memories of playing guitar and discusses the inspiration and gear behind several rock classics. Did you pick up guitar or piano first?


Steve Winwood: I picked up the piano first. At what age did you start playing guitar?


Winwood: I started playing guitar at about the age of nine. Do you remember your first guitar? What kind was it? How did you get it?


Winwood: It was back in 1957. Guitars were quite hard to get hold of - they weren't as common as they are today. The instrument I had was some kind of German or Austrian guitar. It had a round hole and steel strings. My father had gotten it for me. My brother already had a guitar, and I was making some interesting sounds on his guitar. My dad was a great supporter of any musical venture I wanted to do. There were always instruments in the house, and so he wanted to buy a guitar for me, since I had shown an interest. We used to put microphones inside it to try and amplify it, and we used to mess around with tape recorders. We were lucky enough to have an uncle who was a bit of a boffin; he made tape recorders and would let us have these cast-offs to play with. Did you receive any instruction from a teacher on guitar or were you largely self-taught? Was that different from piano?


Winwood: I did have guitar lessons from a very large German lady called Miss Hartman, who taught at my school and taught me pieces by Ferdinando Carulli and other classical guitarists. Although it was useful to know, it was generally hard work, and I found that I could pick up other things that weren't available at that time to be taught—things that I had heard on records. I could pick those up easier. It was different from the piano—I had many more piano lessons than I did guitar lessons, but they all came in useful to me. Do you remember the first song you learned to play on guitar?


Winwood: The first song that I learned to play on guitar was... gosh, I don't remember. I think it could have been "Well All Right" by Buddy Holly. What interested you about the guitar? What drew you away from the piano and onto guitar for some songs?


Winwood: When I went to see my brother and dad play gigs, sometimes I would be allowed to play with them. This was usually in a pub, and the pianos were pretty bad, so I thought, "Well if I'm going to play in a pub, I'll probably want to play the guitar and then I won't have to play these pianos." So, that drew me away from the piano slightly and onto the guitar for some songs. Who were your influences on guitar as a youngster?


Winwood: My influences on guitar as a youngster were John Lee Hooker and whoever played the guitar fills with Curtis Mayfield. Then, later on, I heard Buddy Guy and some of the younger—in that time, they were younger—Chicago bluesmen. T-Bone Walker. I also listened to Eddie Condon and many of the early jazz-electric guitar players. Did you have any favorite guitar records in those early days?


Winwood: I have loads of them. I loved the Vee-Jay recordings of John Lee Hooker. I also loved the Chess recordings of Muddy Waters. You came to prominence fronting the Spencer Davis Group ("Gimme Some Lovin', "I'm a Man") as a teenager. What gear did you use when you were in that band?


Winwood: I used several guitars. I started off using a Hofner, which was a German-made guitar and a semi-solid. I messed around with lots of different guitars. I think I even had a Les Paul one, at the time. I used to swap and borrow and play different people's guitars. At one point, I had a Stratocaster and a Telecaster; they both had the early maple necks. That would have been about 1966. Maple necks had gone out of production earlier, and they had just started making them again. They were both white with white maple necks. For amps, I generally used Marshalls, but I used to like combo amps. My preferred one was a 50-Watt, but I used to like 10-inch speakers—four 10-inch speakers. I used to like those a lot—I'm not sure what the model number was. Oh, I also played Harmony Guitars in the Spencer Davis Group... Some people cite the Spencer Davis Group's "Keep on Running" as the first song recorded with a separate distortion pedal, as opposed to just overdriving the amp. Is that indeed how you did it? If so, to your knowledge, were you the first to do that on record?


Winwood: That is indeed how we did it. I think [the fuzz box] was called a Big Muff. I'm not sure that we were the first to do that on record. We just went to the music shop and picked up these gadgets and tried them out— it sounded good for that song. When you recorded "Dear Mr. Fantasy" with Traffic, what guitar did you use? What were the elements (guitar, amp, effects) that allowed you to get that tone?


Winwood: I used a Fender Strat ? that was in fact, the white Fender Strat that I had with the Spencer Davis Group, which, alas, I no longer own. I just used the Fender guitar and the Marshall amp—that was all. I didn't use any gadgetry or effects at all for "Dear Mr. Fantasy." With "Dear Mr. Fantasy," which came first: your riff or Jim Capaldi's lyrics? [Ed. Note: Jim Capaldi was Traffic's drummer and co-writer in Traffic]


Winwood: The way we used to write songs with Traffic was that Jim would jot down some lyrics on a piece of paper and then, when we'd get to play, I'd stand the lyrics up and sing them. That's what we did [for "Dear Mr. Fantasy"]. Generally, the lyrics came first, and then I'd play the guitar and sing something that I thought suited the mood of the lyrics. Do you ever get frustrated by the fact that many people assume that it's Dave Mason and not you playing guitar on the original recording of "Dear Mr. Fantasy"?


Winwood: I don't get frustrated, no. In early Traffic, when you were playing live, how much did you improvise on guitar? Was it more or less than you did on organ/piano?


Winwood: In early Traffic, I think I used to do the same on guitar and on organ, particularly when we were a trio because Chris Wood [Ed. Note: Traffic's saxophonist/flautist] played bass on the organ and some bass guitar, in fact, so I would play on guitar. Looking back, did you prefer the freedom of the sound when Traffic was a trio with you, Jim Capaldi (drums), and Chris Wood (sax/flute) or did you prefer the fuller arrangements from when the band had as many as seven players in it?


Winwood: I think I did prefer the freedom of the trio's sound. It was very fluid and loose—it's a very wonderful thing to work within a trio. What was the genesis of the Traffic version of "John Barleycorn"? Who came up with the idea to record this folk ballad?


Winwood: It was Chris Wood who came up with the idea of doing "John Barleycorn." He found the song, which is an Oxfordshire version from the 16th century. Chris came up with the idea; he was always introducing us to very different styles of music. What kind of acoustic did you use on "John Barleycorn"?


Winwood: I think I used a Martin D28. With a capo. Do you prefer light- or heavy-gauge strings on your acoustics?


Winwood: I generally prefer medium-gauge strings. One of your other prominent acoustic numbers is Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home." Did you write that song on guitar?


Winwood: Yes, I wrote "Can't Find My Way Home" on an acoustic guitar. What model did you use on the recording?


Winwood: I used a nylon-stringed guitar for the recording. It was a very strange guitar... a European guitar with sympathetic bass strings— an Austrian zither-type guitar. Did you use standard tuning or an alternate tuning on "Can't Find My Way Home"? Which tunings do you generally prefer?


Winwood: Pretty much, I used standard tuning, except the bottom E string went down to D. I haven't been a big person for playing with alternate tunings and so I generally play with basic tuning, although I will take the bottom E string down to D. How did playing with Clapton in Blind Faith differ from Dave Mason?


Winwood: Co-leading with Eric Clapton was much different than with Dave Mason. Dave Mason very much liked to dominate what he was playing on; Eric Clapton was very much more a listener, perhaps in the same way that Hendrix was. With your first several solo albums, you played less guitar, with your sound moving more toward synthesizers and, later, embracing other guitar players such as Joe Walsh. Was there a conscious shift on your part away from playing guitar? What was the reasoning?


Winwood: I played my guitar less on my solo albums and also used other guitar players. The reason for moving away from myself playing guitar was that, whichever way I looked at it, without the magic of recording technology, I couldn't play both guitars and keyboards, though I did on some records— for instance, "Medicated Goo" and many of the Traffic songs. In order to play live, I had to play one or the other, so that was the reason for working with guitar players and using other guitar players and playing more keyboard through the 1980s. In the 1980s, you started incorporating mandolin into songs such as "Slowdown Sundown" and "Back in the High Life Again." When did you first start playing mandolin? What appealed to you about it?


Winwood: Mandolin always intrigued me as an instrument because it was tuned in fifths, as opposed to being in fourths like a guitar, so the fingering was quite different. But the tunings I used on mandolin for "Slowdown Sundown" and "Back in the High Life Again" were standard mandolin tunings, that is (starting from the first string): EADG. Over the years, you've had the opportunity to jam and record with many incredible guitarists. Who are some of the most memorable for you?


Winwood: Yes, I've had the chance to jam and record with many incredible artists, including Al DiMeola, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix... I've been lucky enough to play with some incredible guitar players. Also, Jose Neto [Ed Note: Winwood's current guitar collaborator and touring player]. All those ones that I've mentioned are particularly memorable for me, and I still enjoy hearing them today. How many guitars do you have in your collection? Do you have any favorites? Any particularly exotic models?


Winwood: Not sure how many I have in my collection—I'll have to get back to you at a later date. [As] for favorites, ... the Fender Strats that they made in the custom shop to my specifications. Does it bother you that many people see you only as a keyboardist and not realize your important guitar contributions over the years?


Winwood: It doesn't bother me that people only see me as a keyboard player. I think different people see me in different ways. In different countries, they even like different music that I've played, which is fine with me. It's always good to be appreciated whether it be as a musician, producer or singer-songwriter. What was your reaction to Traffic being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?


Winwood: Traffic has given much pleasure to many people over the years. Of course, the band has had many different members, and line-ups, and I am very happy for everyone who is associated with this remarkable band. I am honored that Traffic has been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I'm very grateful to the powers that be for putting them in this prestigious institution. Any plans to reunite Traffic to celebrate the band's induction?


Winwood: Sadly, Chris [Wood] is no longer with us, but, in fact, Randall Bramblett [Ed. Note: Winwood's current and past player on wind instruments] has always been very sensitive to Chris' style of playing and has done a great job performing the Traffic songs. In fact, Chris' sister gave Randall Chris' flute. Jim Capaldi and I enjoy working together very much, and Randall has always been in my band. I am hoping to release a Traffic DVD and CD later in the year. Although nothing is confirmed, it is a possibility that we may tour to honor Traffic; however, it is important to me to also continue my efforts this year with my own band and my latest release About Time.