Steve Winwood

Voice of a Guitar Great
Steve Winwood
Winwood in early March 2008 at the unveiling of his new album, Nine Lives, where Gibson presented him with this reissue Firebird. Photo by Dave Allocca/

It would seem contradictory to describe someone as both underrated and a virtuoso, but such is the case with Steve Winwood, particularly regarding his guitar playing. • The reaction of even longtime fans when they see him perform live is invariably, “I had no idea he could play guitar like that!” But, ironically, their surprise has less to do with his six-string talents and more to do with his stature as one of rock’s greatest keyboard players – outstripped only by the fact that he possesses one of the great singing voices in pop music.

He’s also no slouch on bass, mandolin, harmonica, and drums, and he’s helped write a catchy tune or two – from “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m A Man” with the Spencer Davis Group to solo hits “While You See A Chance,” “Higher Love,” and “Roll With It,” with classics like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and Traffic’s “Paper Sun,” “Pearly Queen,” and “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys” in between.

In point of fact, the lead guitar on the vast majority of Winwood’s recordings was supplied by him – from his teenaged years with the Spencer Davis Group through Traffic’s many incarnations, with a brief stop to trade solos with Eric Clapton in Blind Faith.

“He had the unique ability of covering not only keyboards and bass, but guitar,” the late Jim Capaldi said in an interview for the DVD of The Last Great Traffic Jam reunion. “Steve had guitar at any level that you like. Steve’s one of my favorite guitar players.”

Lest you think Winwood’s Traffic band mate and longtime writing partner was a tad biased, check out the Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007 DVD, where Winwood all but steals the show (on a bill with Clapton, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin, Buddy Guy, and others) with his bluesy but melodic solo soaring on the classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

“I think if you do one thing, it’s easy for you to be identified,” he mused in an early-March interview with VG. “It’s one of those things where I think if you work outside of your box, as it were, and do several things, it can sometimes work against you. People don’t really know. I play guitar; I play keyboards; I’m a writer; I’m a record producer; a singer. I suppose at the end of the day it just gives me a little element of surprise up my sleeve.”

Winwood, who turns 60 in May, sat down to talk shop – touching on every chapter of his 45-year career – one week after his triumphant, sold-out, three-night Madison Square Garden stint with Clapton.

His soon-to-be-released ninth solo album, Nine Lives (Columbia) is his first new studio effort in five years. Although Jose Neto handles the lion’s share of guitar duties, the set opens with the bluesy “I’m Not Drowning,” centered around Winwood’s acoustic picking. Steve then employs a gut-string for the lead on “We’re All Looking” and delivers the distorted rhythm to Clapton’s guest solo on “Dirty City.” The CD strikes a perfect balance between the infectious pop of Back In The High Life and the visceral R&B of Roll With It sprinkled with Traffic-like eclecticism.

In 1989, Winwood collaborated with English rock critic Chris Welch on Steve Winwood: Roll With It. If a biography of a 41-year-old seems premature (another third of his life has taken place since it was published), the first picture in the photo section puts things into perspective. Taken in 1956, it shows a dance band seated onstage behind homemade music stands with the letters “RA,” standing for the Ron Atkinson Band. The 40-ish musicians – on drums, upright bass, piano, and (Winwood’s father) tenor sax – are wearing tuxedos. Seated behind his father is Steve’s older brother, Muff, holding an electric guitar. Next to him, holding another electric guitar of unknown origin, is Steve, eight years old. Upon closer inspection, Steve’s outfit doesn’t quite match those of the rest of the group. He’s wearing short pants.

That the child prodigy came from a musical family is not surprising. But whereas Muff went on to play bass in the Spencer Davis Group and produce Dire Straits’ debut album, among others, he initially struggled while Steve flourished. As he told Welch, “Steve was about seven, I think, when he picked up my guitar and said, ‘All you have to do is this’ And started playing. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I remember throwing it down and saying to my mum, ‘I’m not going to play; it’s a waste of time. Every time I try to play anything, he just picks it up and does it a hundred times better. What chance have I got?’”

The brothers were eventually invited to join their amateur sax-playing dad, where in addition to the group’s “’40s dance music,” as Steve describes it, they mixed in rock instrumentals by the Shadows, Duane Eddy, and Johnny & The Hurricanes.

As for early guitar influences, Winwood says, “Well, in the ’50s, there weren’t really that many guitar players, and the guitar was a kind of different instrument to what it is today. There were just a handful of guitarists in the ’50s before rock and roll came – and even the early days of rock. The main guitarists were Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian and the fellow who used to play with Count Basie – Freddie Green. Then also there was this phenomenon that kind of stormed England in the ’50s called skiffle. I only realized this much, much later, but it was mainly versions of American bluegrass songs played by Irish and Scottish and English people – although bluegrass derived from English and Irish and Scottish and Celtic music. That was going on at the time coupled with some early rock and roll things – Buddy Holly, Elvis, Carl Perkins.”

The brothers graduated to the Muff Woody Jazz Band, with Steve on upright piano purposely turned to face the room so its underaged player would be hidden from the audience and the authorities. In 1963, playing clubs in their hometown of Birmingham, northwest of London, they crossed paths with Spencer Davis, who played acoustic guitar and sang folk-blues. With Muff switching to electric bass and the addition of drummer Pete York, the Rhythm & Blues Quartet was formed, later changing its name to the Spencer Davis Group, even though Steve’s role in the group grew rapidly – singing and adding organ, guitar, and harmonica to his arsenal.

The Spencer Davis Group’s first single was a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples,” cut in 1964, with Winwood’s bluesy vocal belying his age – not quite 16. By then he was also becoming an accomplished blues guitarist. As York told Welch, “It seemed as though he learnt to play the guitar totally in about six weeks. One minute he was fooling around and the next he was playing these wonderful solos.”

“The great influences were people like B.B. and Freddie King, T-Bone Walker – then ‘Little Hubert,’ Hubert Sumlin,” says Winwood. “Also Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, and we were discovering people like Louisiana Red in the early ’60s. There was a certain camaraderie with everyone who played it. In fact, when I was 16 years old and left school and left home, I went to London, and Eric Clapton, who was three years older than me, kind of took me under his wing – a bit like an older brother. We listened to a lot of stuff; he played me a lot of stuff, I played him some stuff. There were fewer people playing guitar like that then. There was a big excitement about that music. My brother had a band, and in his band he had some guys who were at art college. A lot of the guys at art college were big blues enthusiasts. They used to bring me records to hear all the time, just because they knew I was interested. It was a bit of a clique.”

Although Winwood refers to the Spencer Davis Group as “a blues band,” the quartet had a different sound than other English blues groups and the facility to cover a wide stylistic range and adapt well to pop tunes. Chris Blackwell, who’d launched Island Records with the hit single “My Boy Lollipop” by Jamaican ska singer Millie Small, brought in American Jimmy Miller as producer and Jamaican singer/songwriter Jackie Edwards to write material for the band. This Jamaican element also set the group apart from other British R&B bands, and Winwood agrees that Miller and Blackwell were responsible for that influence “to a point.” He clarifies: “Of course, I grew up in Birmingham, where in the early ’60s there was a big influx of Jamaican and Caribbean people. We got friendly with a lot of people in those formative years, so maybe there was that influence. Also, Spencer Davis himself was kind of like a folk musician, so that element came into our band, as well, which perhaps wasn’t in the other R&B bands of the time. And just the fact that I had this kind of Ray Charles thing going on, which was more of a jazz/bebop thing – before bebop became rock and roll. We probably had more of a mixture of influences than a lot of other bands whose eyes were on Chuck Berry or a particular kind of style.”

Edwards penned “Keep On Running,” which became the group’s first number one hit in the U.K., in late ’65. It got some airplay in the States, setting the stage for “Gimme Some Lovin’,” a Top 10 smash featuring Winwood’s Ray Charles-inspired vocals and wailing Hammond organ. When he cut it, Steve says, “I think I was about 17.”

Needless to say, Winwood wasn’t the first young rock talent (James Burton, the Collins Kids, and Stevie Wonder immediately come to mind), and he certainly wasn’t the last. Periodically there are waves of hotshot guitarists, like the clutch of blues wunderkinds that included Jonny Lang, Monster Mike Welch, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd a few years ago. But whereas in today’s climate, such acts’ age seems to be as important a part of how they’re promoted as their actual talent, Winwood’s age was something American audiences weren’t aware of until years later – due in part to the fact that the Spencer Davis Group never toured the U.S.

“Of course, the music business got much more corporate and much more focused on marketing since the late ’60s,” Winwood feels. “Record companies became big business. In the earlier ’60s, you had the main record companies, but the companies who were putting out the more interesting stuff were more like what we’d call boutique labels today – with people who were kind of like playboy mavericks who were music lovers. I think you could even go back to Atlantic Records and Ahmet Ertegun, which were also in the same ilk. It was much more about the music than the marketing and promotion.”

In his formative years, Winwood went through numerous guitars. “I think it was a Höfner,” he says of his first electric. “In England, we had a lot of rather dodgy German makes of guitars, like Framuses and Höfners, and Italian guitars. The American electric guitars didn’t come in until later on. The Stratocaster and the Tele were out of reach for a lot of musicians, financially. Later on, I had a Harmony, which Hubert Sumlin played as well. They’re good guitars.”

Probably the best example of Winwood’s guitar playing from his Spencer Davis years is “Stevie’s Blues” – almost inexplicably authentic and mature, with a gutsy, distorted guitar tone that’s amazing even by today’s standards. “To tell you the truth, I can’t tell you exactly what I was using,” he laughs. “I don’t remember. I used to go through a lot of guitars and amps. I was all the time switching and changing things. I think at that time I was using Marshall amps that had 10″ speakers, because they had a bit more drive to them. I remember at one point I played a Jaguar; then I had various Gibsons, including a Melody Maker. Then I had some weird Japanese guitar – a cheap old thing, but it had a good sound – and I used a Danelectro at one point.”

Early pictures of the Spencer Davis Group show Winwood playing a three-pickup Harmony H59 Rocket, with brother Muff playing a single-cutaway Harmony H22 Hi-Value bass with “batwing” pickguard, and Davis playing a Harmony H49 Deluxe Stratotone Jupiter. Steve is also quoted as playing a Stratotone variation. Band photos from 1966 show Winwood playing either a sunburst Jaguar, white Telecaster, or white Stratocaster. Pre-Spencer Davis shots of Winwood show him playing, among other makes and models, a blond Höfner Club 40 like the one in early pictures of John Lennon. (Vintage-guitar authority Steve Soest identified the aforementioned Japanese oddball as a Guyatone.)

In Clapton: The Autobiography his future Blind Faith band mate credits Winwood as the motivation for him buying a Stratocaster – in fact, a half dozen. “When I finally got to make some money, in about 1966, I ordered a couple of Fenders – a Strat and a Tele,” explains Winwood. “They were CBS, and they just started remaking the maple necks. Of course, I’d seen pictures of these old guys playing maple necks, and that was a big thing. I loved the kind of stuff that Curtis Mayfield was doing – that style – and Little Milton. It wasn’t so much a driven style of guitar; it was like a clean sound. I didn’t realize that I had convinced Eric to play the Strat until reading his book. In fact, I learned a lot of things about Eric’s and my relationship after I read his book.”

Winwood and Clapton at Crossroads Guitar Festival 2007.

By the time the Spencer Davis Group’s second American album, I’m A Man, was released, the singer/organist/co-writer of its hit-single title track had left the band and was already laying the foundation for one of the most revolutionary bands in rock history: Traffic.

Drummer Jim Capaldi, guitarist Dave Mason, sax and flute player Chris Wood, and Steve Winwood moved into a caretaker’s cottage on an estate in Berkshire, so they could jam any time of the day or night without bothering neighbors.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a band so eclectic and impossible to pigeonhole succeeding artistically, let alone commercially. Winwood confirms that being commercial was not a high priority. “It did start to filter in, and when it did that’s when we got rid of Dave Mason – because he was bringing something, we thought, that was much too commercial. There was always the feeling in those days – and it’s still something that exists to a certain extent in Europe, and there’s a backlash in America, too – that if something’s commercial it’s going for the wrong reasons. When we formed Traffic, I was coming off two big hit records with the Spencer Davis Group, so to actually leave didn’t make any commercial or career-move sense at all. But that wasn’t the only thing that we were interested in doing. I’d been in the Spencer Davis Group, which was a blues band, and in Traffic we discussed that we wanted to have a band that was not a blues band but would incorporate elements of folk, jazz, ethnic music, and classical music, and make something out of the music that would become our own. Our intention was to try and make a mixture and round off our musical ideas. That was our intention always – not to say, ‘Let’s make a million bucks and be famous.’”

The band released its debut in January ’68, by which time Mason had exited the group. So the American version pictured only Wood, Winwood, and Capaldi on the cover of Heaven Is In Your Mind as it was initially titled in America before being re-pressed as Mr. Fantasy to coincide with the English version, which had slightly different tracks. Mason played lead on “Heaven Is In Your Mind” and penned “House For Everyone” and “Hole In My Shoe,” which featured his sitar playing, as did “Paper Sun.” The remaining tracks, like “Coloured Rain,” “Smiling Phases,” “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” and “No Face, No Name, No Number,” were group collaborations by the other three or Winwood-Capaldi. The only tune all four co-wrote was the instrumental “Giving To You,” featuring Wood’s flute and showing the band’s confidence in a jazz vein.

Mason rejoined the band for their self-titled follow-up, only to leave again. This time his main contributions were the hit “Feelin’ Alright?” and the square-dance ditty “You Can All Join On,” featuring Winwood’s countrified guitar licks. With Winwood-Capaldi’s “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen,” the album was far from a sophomore jinx.

But, as Winwood points out, “Dave never toured America with us, so for me the core band was always the trio.” That’s where the real chemistry was, and that’s how the group performed live – with Winwood doubling on organ and guitar, Wood handling sax, flute, bass, and organ, and drummer/percussionist Capaldi (a bigger-than-life character Winwood describes as “half pirate, half Gypsy”) even switching to organ on “No Face, No Name.”

Asked what they brought to Traffic’s sound and personality, Winwood declares, “The contributions of Jim and Chris were massive. Jim and I wrote a lot of the songs. We never sought out to be songwriters; we were musicians. We mostly wanted to jam and play. So the songwriting grew out of a need to actually have material because of our record company commitments and the nature of records, and just so we could play. It was more of a means to an end, for us, rather than what we set out to do. So that’s how Jim and I developed our songwriting relationship.

“And, of course, Chris Wood was very instrumental, because he would bring us music to listen to that we’d never heard before. For instance, he was the main reason that we heard and recorded ‘John Barleycorn.’ He used to play us Japanese classical music and incredible jazz stuff. He always was a very strong, driving force in Traffic.”

Of Wood’s instantly identifiable sax sound, Winwood smiles, “I know. He was a one-off.”

In the aforementioned Traffic Jam interview, Winwood said, “What a trio did enable us to do was improvise completely freely” – pointing out that they often worked with no set list and would invent things onstage. “A song for us was a vehicle to jam.”

The trio enabled more of the folk/ethnic side to come through. In Capaldi’s words, “This is why Traffic has such an eclectic shape, because there wasn’t much we couldn’t get into. Steve could basically go in any direction, really, that you needed to go.” Their instrumental and stylistic versatility, he said, “gave us the freedom to be able to be so musical, we could go anywhere. There aren’t many bands I can think of that could really go to the places we went to musically.”

Capaldi termed Traffic “an album band,” and not coincidentally the group’s ascent coincided with the advent of underground, noncommercial (more accurately, anti-commercial) radio. As Capaldi stated, “I’m quite proud of the fact that we pioneered, in a way, making stuff that wasn’t made out of monetary gain.” Winwood elaborated, “When America switched from AM to FM, FM became far less commercial. Therefore, they wanted to play songs that went on for 12 minutes and weren’t in a pop format. And I think Traffic came along, quite unknowingly – we weren’t aiming to do that; we just happened to be there – doing what they were looking for. And so it became part of that cult of underground music.”

Winwood with a Fender Stratocaster in ’65 onstage with Spencer Davis Group.

That scenario is about as opposite from today’s model as one could get – where fans pick and choose and download which songs they want, and the concept of an album (something that’s intended to be listened to as a whole) is vanishing. “It is,” Winwood agrees, “but I think it’s just a consequence of the technology, and, yes, it may be a loss in one way, but I think there will be lots of gains from it in other ways. I’m not exactly sure what those gains will be, but technology moves on. Everyone said it was terrible that all our artwork was 6″ x 6″, instead of 12″ x 12″, and we all have to wear eyeglasses to read what was on it, and we all mourned the demise of the thick vinyl, and there were cassettes and all kinds of things. It’s just technology. It does change the way music is conceived possibly, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think ultimately it will only be better for music. I think one of the bad things for music is the way the record companies at the moment can see the writing on the wall – because they’re all probably co-owned by TV channels and so forth – and therefore are embarking on these shows like ‘American Idol.’ For the record company, it’s good business for the moment, but I think it’s probably counterproductive to the quality of music compared to what was going on years ago.”

The new stylistic paths that Winwood went down with Traffic were part evolution but also just visiting different things that were already on his palette. “I’ve always had a broad view of guitar players. Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian formulated my ideas, but then when I heard the later blues guitarists I tried to incorporate that, and not to forget the early great American rock guitarists, like James Burton, and also some great acoustic players. All these people were having an influence, but I think it was getting mixed up.”

Invariably, people who play only one instrument (or none at all) are mystified by players like Winwood (or Stevie Wonder, or David Lindley, or Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo) who excel at a variety of instruments – wondering if there’s an all-encompassing philosophy or an attitude adjustment when switching from one instrument to another? “That’s an interesting question,” Winwood ponders. “Yes, if I pick up the guitar, I become a guitar player; I don’t try to play guitar like an organ – and vice versa, when I play organ. It’s a different kind of skill. You just have to wear a different hat. If I’m playing bass, I’m a bass player; if I’m playing mandolin, I’m a mandolin player.

“I often hear arrangements of music,” he continues. “It’s interesting, because when I write the music for a song, I will be thinking of what the drums do, what the bass is doing, what the guitar does, the keyboards. To me, that’s the writing of the song. In fact, in theory and technically it isn’t part of the song – and legally it isn’t part of [the composition] either. The song is the melody and the lyrics. Writing with Neto, Jose picks up the guitar and writes stuff all the time. But when he writes a song, very often he’s writing what he plays on the guitar. That’s the song. He hasn’t thought out perhaps what the other instruments will do. So I think people write different ways, and I think that probably has something to do with the fact that I play drums and bass after a fashion, or organ, or guitar. When I’m writing on the piano, I might be thinking of what the bass and guitar and drums should be doing. That’s the only cross-pollination.”

Traffic’s original incarnation broke up in January ’69, after only two albums, with Island Records releasing a third that May. Titled (prematurely, it would turn out) Last Exit it was a collection of B-sides and live material recorded at Fillmore West. Meanwhile, Winwood had started jamming with his old friend Eric Clapton, following the breakup of Cream. With the addition of Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/violinist Rick Grech of Family, Blind Faith was formed.

Previously, the only recording Winwood and Clapton had done together was as part of Eric Clapton & The Powerhouse, an ad hoc group thrown together to cut three tracks for the Elektra compilation What’s Shakin’ in 1967, while Clapton was still with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Winwood was still with Spencer Davis. With Pete York on drums, Jack Bruce on bass, Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones on harmonica, and Ben Palmer on piano, Clapton played guitar while Winwood handled vocals – credited as “Steve Anglo” for contractual reasons.

Blind Faith became the polar opposite of the casual vibe of the Powerhouse (which cut Clapton’s first version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”). Though intended to be a Band-like retreat from the pressures of stardom and the excessive bravado of Cream, the press branded the quartet a “supergroup” before a note of their music had been heard. Staging their debut concert in Hyde Park in front of 100,000-plus fans didn’t help matters. The never-before-released film of that June ’69 show was recently issued on DVD, and calling the performance lackluster would be generous.

The band cut only one self-titled album and lasted most of one tour of America before splitting up. Which is unfortunate because, as the album illustrates, there was abundant potential, especially when Winwood and Clapton traded guitar solos, as on “Had To Cry Today.”

Winwood reflects; “Eric and I made a decision to form the band, but I didn’t realize that he didn’t really want to work with Ginger Baker at the time. He was quite disappointed that Ginger came in. Obviously there were great difficulties with Blind Faith, and it was difficult times for both of us in many ways. And when we went on to play live, we did get caught up in the financial world, and pressures were put on us to make a certain music. But I think with the Blind Faith record, Eric and I really achieved something much closer to what we were trying to do. The record does contain a lot more delicate kind of stuff. Of course, when we tried to play stuff on the record in front of big arenas used to rock music and Cream and all that, there were a lot of pressures on us to change what we were doing. Fortunately, we had already made the record, and I think it’s the record that stands the test of time today.”

All of 21, Winwood began work on his long-awaited solo debut. Originally intending to overdub all the instruments himself, something he’d come close to doing on some songs on Traffic, he soon called in Capaldi and Wood for support. Traffic was reformed, and the album, titled John Barleycorn Must Die, not only included such standouts as the traditional folk title tune, the jazzy instrumental “Glad,” and “Freedom Rider,” it was the group’s first release to reach the Top 10 of Billboard’s album chart.

In The Last Great Traffic Jam, Winwood said, “What we’d been trying to do was make pop music out of music that wasn’t pop music. I think at that point we somehow made the music we were making popular and accessible, but while maintaining what we felt was its integrity.”

Dave Mason rejoined the band yet again, and although he stuck around for only a handful of gigs, the result was a live album, Welcome To The Canteen, featuring Grech on bass, Reebop Kwaku Baah on percussion, and Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon (with Capaldi concentrating on vocals and percussion).

Though Traffic may have gone against commercial norms, they were popular and successful. But, true to form, they spent their money on the music. Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys, from late ’71, was the most popular of all Traffic albums, and its 12-minute title track still holds up as one of their high-water marks.

For the tour following its release, the band replaced Grech and Gordon with bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – which was already becoming legendary for its work with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Cliff, Cher, Herbie Mann, Linda Ronstadt, Albert King, and others. The Rhythm Section members made their living from not only playing sessions but from owning their own Alabama studio, so Traffic booked the studio for the extent of the tour and hired Rhythm Section guitarist Jimmy Johnson to be their house soundman.

“They booked the studio, and our pay rate was based on what we would have made playing sessions,” Hood detailed. “They even paid the engineers not to work, and [keyboardist] Barry Beckett went out to California to do some work while we were on the first tour, and he got paid the same thing I did – for not going. We didn’t know what to ask to go out on the road with someone like that; we hardly knew who Traffic was. I had to borrow a couple of Traffic albums, and then they sent us several, so we could kind of learn the songs. It was really kind of an adventure for us, because we’re studio guys. We were used to doing three-minute songs; when we played those 15-minute jams, I’d run out of things to play in about the first two minutes. I’m not sure if this is a fact or not, but I seem to remember finding out that they paid our total pay with one of their first dates on the tour. We played the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and the place held more people than my hometown holds!”

Traffic’s next LP, Shootout At The Fantasy Factory, featured Hood and Hawkins. “That says it was recorded at Strawberry Hill Studio in Jamaica, but it was done at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios,” Hood reveals. “I think that was because they didn’t have the proper work permits to be recording in the United States.”

The Muscle Shoals boys toured in support of Shootout, this time with Beckett added on keyboards, resulting in the On The Road live album.

Winwood mentioned playing bass “after a fashion” – a typically modest assessment considering the groove he cops on “Empty Pages” from Barleycorn, as one example.

Hood is quick to point out, “Steve is a great bass player.” Probably best known as the bassist on the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” he reveals, “I think Steve played the bass parts on most of the things Traffic did, so I had to copy his parts. And it was always a challenge to get it to feel like he had, because he thinks a little differently than a regular bass player. But I would always try real hard to get the feel that he had, and it was always rewarding when I got it. He didn’t tell me what to play, but what was on the songs they’d recorded – that was where I would start, and base my part on. On Shootout At The Fantasy Factory, I just played what I wanted to play, because those were my parts.

“I have the utmost respect for Steve Winwood and the guys. To this day, I treasure those times working with them. Steve Winwood is a genius. I’ve always thought that. A very mild-mannered, quiet man in person, but he’s a musical genius.”

“Bass has always been an important part of what I’ve done and of music,” Winwood concurs. “Early influences, going through jazz styles, there was Ray Brown and, of course, Motown and James Jamerson. Then when I heard organists like Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, they were great bass players, too.”

In recent years, Winwood has incorporated the organ’s foot pedals, a la Smith and McGriff, so all the bass on Nine Lives and its predecessor, About Time, is organ bass. “In fact, I only learned how to play bass with the same technique they used and figured that out about 10 or so years ago – from watching Joey DeFrancesco and Dr. Lonnie Smith. I could never figure it out by listening – how the hell they could do that. It’s kind of left hand and foot going on, and you have to know what to do with your feet and let go with your left hand and take over with your feet. I think it goes back to Jimmy Smith’s 1957 recording of ‘The Sermon,’ which also has Kenny Burrell, going back to guitar influences – he was another.”

During the Muscle Shoals period, Winwood had a bout with peritonitis that almost cost him his life, at 25 years old. There would be one more Traffic album – When The Eagle Flies (1974), another Top 10 – with bassist Rosko Gee joining the original threesome. That would be the end of Traffic – at least for the next 20 years.

In 1977, Steve Winwood, the long-overdue solo debut, was released. It was largely overlooked – put out somewhere between disco’s demise and the rise of punk – and, ironically, failed to establish a strong identity for the unmistakable vocalist and instrumentalist behind some of rock’s most memorable songs.

Such would not be the case with its followup, 1980’s Arc Of A Diver. Years in the making, it marked a return to the overdubbed one-man-band experiments that had preceded John Barleycorn. It featured one radio-ready hit after another, and marked the beginning of a songwriting relationship with lyricist Will Jennings. If their “While You See A Chance” is by now engrained in everyone’s head, it should be; it went on to receive a Million Play Award from radio – and that was 1988!

Talking Back To The Night sounded a bit formulaic, and stiffed as a result, although it produced the hit “Valerie.” But Winwood got his groove back with 1986’s Back In The High Life, one of the most substantive dance records in recent memory. It yielded more Winwood-Jennings hits (“Higher Love,” “The Finer Things,” and the title track), as did 1988’s gritty Roll With It.

After Refugees Of The Heart, Winwood put his solo career on hold to reunite Traffic one more time. Sadly, Chris Wood had died at just 39 in 1983, from pneumonia brought on by liver disease, after years of struggling with drugs and alcohol. Capaldi and Winwood got together in 1994 for a CD (Far From Home) and an extended tour that yielded the live Last Great Traffic Jam – both featuring some of Winwood’s best guitar work. (In 2005, Steve’s longtime collaborator succumbed to cancer, and in 2007 Winwood and other friends – including Pete Townshend, Joe Walsh, Paul Weller, and Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Cat Stevens – celebrated Jim Capaldi’s life and music. The results are captured on the CD and DVD Dear Mr. Fantasy.)

Most of the songwriting Winwood has done throughout his career has been in tandem with a lyricist – his relationship with Capaldi producing the most interesting results. “There’ve been some exceptions,” he says of the typical format. “I kind of go in and out of doing lyrics. I wrote lyrics, for instance, on ‘Can’t Find My Way Home,’ ‘Gimme Some Lovin’,’ and also quite a few songs on About Time.”

Winwood performing in ’68 with a Gibson non-reverse Firebird.

One collaborator on 1997’s Junction Seven and 2003’s About Time was his wife, Eugenia. The former was knocked more for Narada Michael Walden’s slick production than for the material or Winwood’s performances.

“On Nine Lives, I worked much more on the music. I worked with a fellow called Peter Godwin, who’s a great lyricist.” Winwood’s guitarist, Jose Neto, also co-wrote several songs. “He’s an interesting bloke,” according to Winwood. “He’s Brazilian, and he plays a nylon-string solidbody guitar. Although he grew up in Brazil playing Brazilian music, his big influences were also Hendrix and Zeppelin. So he kind of combines a lot of Brazilian harmonies and rhythms with rock – an interesting combination.”

Although About Time was recorded as a trio, live in the studio, with Winwood playing only Hammond organ, the expanded dual-disc version includes some stunning guitar work on a live version of “Dear Mr. Fantasy” from 2005.

After Cream’s successful reunion in 2005, when Clapton invited Winwood to play his second Crossroads Guitar Festival, it was inevitable that the set would include a mini Blind Faith reunion of sorts, with “Had To Cry Today,” “Presence Of The Lord,” and “Can’t Find My Way Home.” The two had so much fun, they revisited the idea seven months later in New York City.

“Yes, it was decided after the Crossroads thing,” Winwood affirms. “We had the offer to do those three days at Madison Square Garden, and obviously it was going to be a longer show than Crossroads. So then we started talking about material. Interestingly enough, Eric decided that he wanted to choose my material and I should choose his material. Which was an interesting way of doing it, because things came up that weren’t in fact what we’d have picked ourselves. Also, there was a lot of other material that we could have chosen. We initially had a long list that had to get shortened down to the two hours and 15 minutes that we did. So we had to pare some things down.

“It was also quite a trimmed down band; it was much smaller than Eric’s normal unit – just Willie Weeks, Chris Stainton, and Ian Thomas (on bass, keyboards, and drums, respectively). That kind of meant that certain songs weren’t available for us to do. We left out some things that were more complicated to play, so we could concentrate on performance rather than, you know, trying to remember what came next. Because it was only three days – not like a long tour where you get into the flow of things. We went through all those kinds of considerations.”

Was that the last chance for fans to see the pairing? “The shows went really well. There’s some talk about doing it again, but I don’t know where that will be or when.”

Asked what guitarists have been the most stimulating to play with in his illustrious career, Winwood immediately cites Clapton. “That’s a very difficult question, because they’re all different. Playing with Jose Neto is great, and last year I jammed with Robben Ford, who I think is great and very underrated. But also, of course, Hendrix was fantastic.”

He recalls the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix. “It was interesting because when he first came over to England, he was brought over by his manager, Chas Chandler. He took him around to play at different clubs in London, and he sat in with a couple of bands. And the very first band he played with was Jim Capaldi’s band, Deep Feeling. Suddenly he took what all us English guitar players had been trying do, and he kind of took it to another level. I think we all recognized that.”

Winwood played organ on the slow, bluesy version of “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland and he and Clapton reprised it at Madison Square Garden, with Steve supplanting Jimi’s vocal.

Next on Winwood’s agenda is an extended tour, opening for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. His band will be the same as the personnel on Nine Lives: Neto on guitar, Richard Bailey on drums, Paul Booth on sax and flute, Karl Vanden Bossche on percussion, with Winwood handling the usual duties.

Winwood proves you can get a great tone without having to mortgage your house to buy all vintage guitars and amps. His main guitar for several years has been a Surf Green American Custom Strat outfitted with Lace Sensors. Talking tone, he says, “It’s true that I’ve seen people get a different tone out of a piano to other people. Why, I have no idea; it doesn’t make any sense. Probably the hands mysteriously give a different sound out of the same guitar.”

An identical green Strat is tuned to dropped D for “Dirty City,” and he has a sunburst American Standard model as a spare. Strings are Dean Markley Custom Lights – .009, .011, .016, .026, .036, .046 – and picks are Fender Medium.

On “Can’t Find My Way Home,” in the Crossroads 2007 DVD, Winwood employs a nylon-string Telecaster Classical Thinline – a model Fender has since discontinued. Rather than fingerpicking, he says, “Now I use an arpeggio technique with a flatpick, but I used to use my fingers a lot. In fact, in the early days I used to use a thumbpick for everything. But not much now.” The guitar is tuned down a half-step with the lowest string tuned to C# for that song, using D’Addario Pro Arte Extra Hard Tension nylon strings.

His mandolin is a Washburn M3s with a Fishman M300 pickup and LaBella strings.

Regarding amps, he sheepishly says, “Your readers probably won’t like this much – Lace Sensors and a Cyber-Twin SE is what I’ve been using lately. It’s a kind of hybrid. It has valves – or tubes, as you call them – which give it a lot of flexibility. (Ed Note: Shane Nicholas, Senior Marketing Manager for Fender Amplifiers, details: “The SE, the second version of the Cyber-Twin, came out a few years ago. It’s basically a solidstate amp with a tube front-end, and Steve has some of his own presets programmed into the amp. It allows him to store effects, the level of gain, EQ, etc., for different songs onstage. It’s kind of like a modeling amp, except that modeling amps digitally simulate the characteristics of different amps. The Cyber-Twin engages and disengages different components; it’s actually changing what components are hooked up when you switch from, say, a tweed Twin to a blackface.”)

Steve’s guitar tech, Ross Mitchell, who has worked with Winwood for more than five years, reports: “The Cyber-Twin SE has two 12″ Celestions. Steve has basically four main sounds that he uses. Starting preset P85 Rhythm Blues, tone stack is set to Tweed with tube circuitry – reverb set to small room. This has a very slightly overdriven sound to it and he would use this for the verses in ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy.’ Starting preset P86 Cliff, tone stack set to British with Dyna Touch 3 circuitry and a large-hall reverb. This has quite a bit of low-end added with a very overdriven sound to it. He uses this in the heavier parts of ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ – chorus, bridge and solo. Starting preset P87 Morning Light, tone stack is set to Blackface with blackface tube circuitry. This is a very dry sound with a lot of the reverb taken out. He uses this for ‘Can’t Find My Way Home.’ Starting preset P88 Bread & Butter, tone stack set to British with HMB Tube 2 circuitry and a reverb set to Arena. This would be used for ‘Had To Cry Today.’”

It’s not that Winwood is adverse to vintage gear. “I’m thinking of looking at some more basic vintage stuff,” he says. “A lot of my old stuff got stolen. Gibson has just made this right-way-’round (non-reverse) Firebird that I used – which also got stolen, in about 1971 or ’72. I’ve been looking for one ever since, but there were so few made. Interestingly enough, I just got hold of a vintage one, and at the same time Gibson remade a model for me.”

Winwood has a place in Nashville, but most of his time is spent in England. When he’s home, he plays organ and sings in his church choir. “It’s very traditional,” he says. “I grew up as a Chorister, singing church music. It’s a small church choir, but it’s very, very traditional choral music, which ranges sometimes from 14th- and 15th-century to late 19th- and even early-20th-century. So I’m not singing gospel music. I’m singing more of my own roots, I suppose. It’s a different style of singing, and I have to sing in a different way, but it’s a music that I like very much. And actually, I’m thinking of possibly writing a choral work, and the choirmaster, Simon Wells, his expertise is 7th-century plainsong – the first-known recorded and written music. An Irish piper I work with, Davy Spillane [on Far From Home], is a big enthusiast of plainsong and Gregorian chants. I’ve got more interested in that recently, as well.”

Of the spiritual component of making music, be it religious or secular, he says, “I think there is a spiritual component, but on a more simple, basic level it’s just that music, I feel, should be to raise people’s spirits rather than dampen them. That’s really all it is. It’s not any more complicated than that. I’m not trying to indoctrinate people who listen to me with any kind of idea or anything; one of the basic requirements of music is just to uplift people’s spirits, if possible.”

The “zone” that players talk about, where the relationship between players (and between player and instrument) becomes telepathic, is something Winwood is definitely familiar with. “Oh, yes. Absolutely, all the time, you get this thing where the total is greater than the sum of the elements. It happens in songwriting; it happens in playing in a band – all the time. That’s one of the wonderful things about music and why music should be played by groups of people.”

Can he predict it, or is the unpredictability part of the magic?

“Oddly enough, it’s a bit of both. Sometimes experience helps predict it, but often there are many, many things you can’t predict, which just happen. Which is why it’s very important to keep everything in ‘record’ all the time, because sometimes these things happen. When you deliberately turn up at a certain time and certain day to try to make it happen, it might not. It sometimes happens when you least expect. With the last two records I’ve had everybody playing together at once, on one take. That was the concept for About Time and Nine Lives. On Nine Lives I actually took the music from some things that the band had been jamming; it was inspired by what the musicians themselves play anyway. It kind of gave it a bit more organic element.”

That syndrome is usually mentioned in the context of an ensemble, but the same spark comes to Winwood even when he’s working alone.

“It absolutely does. I don’t know why that is. It’s probably because you’re wearing different hats to do it, and then when you change hats, the part of you wearing another hat can kind of surprise you. So it does happen, but it happens in a different way. It is a valid way to make a record, by overdubbing like that, but they both have their pitfalls. Nothing is perfect. That’s why music is what it is; it’s always striving to make something as good as it can be.”

In Steve Winwood’s case, “as good as it can be” is a bar he set very high a long time ago and a standard he’s maintained for decades.

This article originally appeared in VG’s June 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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