Warren Haynes Interview: High & Mighty

By: Brian D. Holland

Warren Haynes

Warren Haynes began his professional career in the early ’80s as a guitarist for David Allen Coe. He appeared on nine albums and toured the world extensively with the outlaw country pioneer. This experience was no doubt a crucial step in the development and direction of the future leader of Gov’t Mule and member of The Allman Brothers Band. It was through Coe that he met Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman.

Dickey Betts recognized Warren’s unique vocal ability and guitar playing talent and invited Haynes to perform on his 1988 release Pattern Disruptive. This led to Warren joining the reunited version of The Allman Brothers Band, a version that also included future Gov’t Mule bassist Allen Woody.

Warren received his first guitar at the age of 12, but it was singing that interested him initially. His older brothers introduced him to the Motown sound and the soulful vocals of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. He eventually discovered the guitar-oriented rock of Eric Clapton and Cream, as well as others.

Curiosity about this music’s origin led him to appreciate the blues. These early influences of soul, R&B, rock, and blues, mixed with the country gigs, steered him toward his eventual musical destination.

The career of Warren Haynes has been an interesting one. Though he has ridden the roller coaster ride that befalls many famous rock and rollers, he keeps going strong and is the type of musician who never settles down for long. Labeled as the hardest working guitarist in the rock world, Warren could never be accused of avoiding the prospect of creating good music.

After he and Matt Abts were dealt the heartbreaking blow of the loss of their friend and colleague Allen Woody in August of 2000, Gov’t Mule had no other choice but to go through a transition of sorts. They persevered and throughout the changes and a bass player revolving door situation, some excellent music was made.

With Woody making a final audio appearance on a cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s “Sin’s A Good Man’s Brother,” The Deep End – Vol. I was released, with numerous distinguished players filling in the bass spot on other tracks.

With the spirit of Allen Woody surrounding him still, Warren Haynes continues to lead Gov’t Mule to new heights. Simultaneously, he sustains membership in The Allman Brothers Band, pursues his solo efforts, and joins in on collaborations and the efforts of others.

Following the releases made by the original Mule lineup (1995’s Gov’t Mule, 1998’s Dose, 2000’s Life Before Insanity, and the live material), the Deep End volumes were released, as well as more live material.

Deja Voodoo, the debut album introducing the additions to today’s lineup: bassist Andy Hess and keyboardist Danny Louis, was released in 2004. And let’s not leave out 2003’s Hittin’ The Note by The Allman Bothers Band. This classic album marked the Brothers first studio release in ten years.

2006 marked the release of High & Mighty, an album of such quality that it could be considered both the best of Mule to-date and one of the true rock classics of all time.

Below is my 2006, interview with Warren Haynes that took place while Gov’t Mule was preparing for a show in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our conversation was delayed a bit because of sound check issues. Understanding the dilemma, I waited patiently, aware of the fact that I was about to talk to the hardest working guitarist in rock ‘n’ roll.

******

Warren Haynes

Brian Holland: I hear that you just had a little sound check problem.

Warren Haynes: It has been a very hectic few days. Today was no exception for sure.

Brian: They don’t call you hardest working guitarist in rock for nothing.

Warren Haynes: The last few days have been crazier than normal, you know, because I’m doing double duty with Gov’t Mule and The Allman Brothers.

Brian: Warren, I’ve been into your music for quite a while now. I think the new album, High & Mighty, is your best to-date.

Warren Haynes: Thank you. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

Brian: Mule has been making great music for over a decade. Is it as good for you now as it ever was?

Warren Haynes: I think it’s better. When I say that, I don’t want people to take it the wrong way, but the way that the band sounds now, with Danny and Andy, is just an extension of all the nights playing with Matt and Woody and myself as a trio. You know, with each year the band gets better and better.

I feel like we’re back at a place now where the band consistently sounds amazing on a nightly basis. After Woody died it took us awhile to get back at that place. And, you know, it’s just one of those things you encounter when something like that happens. Of course, we worked with so many guest musicians.

That helped us to kind of relax and make some beautiful music without putting the kind of pressure on the situation that would only have made it worse. Once Andy and Danny settled into being permanent members the band just got better and better. I look forward to every night we walk onstage.

Brian: You’ve been referred to as the hardest working guitarist in rock. Does it feel that way to you?

Warren Haynes: No. I mean, musicians are blessed, you know. We get to do what we love for a living. I’m taking advantage of opportunities that have been given to me that I feel I’d regret if I turned them down. But, you know, I don’t feel like I work as hard as the average housewife.

Brian: Yeah. [Laughing There may be a lot of truth to that.

Warren Haynes: I have the best job in the world. What can I say? I’m a very lucky person.

Brian: Do you ever yearn for the typical family life of the average middle-aged man?

Warren Haynes: Yeah, well, I don’t see my wife enough. My personal time is limited, more so than I wish. However, my wife and I have talked about the fact that there are opportunities right now that won’t be there forever.

For example, when the Grateful Dead offered me to tour in 2004, my first reaction was to say no, I just can’t do it. Then my wife said, “Well, let’s rethink this. You don’t want to look back down the road and say, I could’ve done that, but I said no.” So, we made it work.

Warren Haynes

Brian: In working with both The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, is there a different mindset you need to gear yourself up for when going between the music of both?

Warren Haynes: A little bit. But it happens more naturally than people might think. You just respond to your surroundings. If I were to play for 4, 5, or 6 hours, I’d rather play in two different bands than in the same band because each has its own challenges. It’s kind of refreshing to do both.

Brian: You utilize many nice guitar tones on High & Mighty. Talk about recording the guitar on that CD and what you went through to achieve those tones.

Warren Haynes: Well, I’ll start by saying that we worked with Gordie Johnson for the first time. Gordie’s a great guitar player in his own right and he’s a great engineer. That’s a good combination when it comes to getting guitar sounds.

The entire time in Austin, Texas, we kept the same setup as far as amplifiers were concerned. We recorded with a combination of my Soldano SLO-100, which has been modified, and my César Diaz CD100, both through 4/12 cabinets. We also included a Fender Pro Jr., which is a very small amp with one speaker.

We mixed those three amps together, regardless of which guitar was plugged into them, and that combination of amps responded very well. We tweaked the knobs from song to song and guitar to guitar, but every song was recorded with that combination. It turned out to be really cool. I used a lot of different guitars on the record, more so than normal.

Brian: “So Weak, So Strong” is an amazing song, in arrangement and tone. I see it as a real rock anthem for today. Did you use the Les Paul 12-string on that?

Warren Haynes: Yes. It’s a beautiful sounding guitar and I’m real happy with the way it recorded. I like the way that song turned out a lot.

Brian: I like the way “Brighter Days” sounds as well. The slide is beautiful, dirty, and dark. Was that the ’61 Gibson ES-335?

Warren Haynes: No. That was actually a  Gibson RD that belongs to Gordie Johnson. It was tuned to an open C chord. It had gigantic strings on it. The tuning, from high to low, is C-C-G-C-G-C.

That’s the same guitar and the same tuning that was used on ‘Like Flies’. I used the ’61 ES-335 on “Mr. High & Mighty” and “Streamline Woman.” I used a ’58 Les Paul Special on “Brand New Angel” and “Unring The Bell.” I used a ’64 Firebird on “Child Of The Earth.”

Gibson RD Guitar

Brian: What are your personal favorite songs on the High & Mighty CD and which do you prefer playing live?

Warren Haynes: I like all of them. I’m real happy with the entire record. The ones that tend to be my favorites are usually the departures. You know, the ones that don’t sound like anything we’ve ever done, like “So Weak, So Strong,” “Endless Parade,” “Unring The Bell,” and “Nothing Again.” All of those songs are so different for us. I really like them a lot.

We haven’t played “So Weak, So Strong,” “Nothing Again,” “Brighter Days,” or “Like Flies” live yet. We may play “So Weak, So Strong” tonight. We rehearsed it at sound check and it sounded really good, so we may play it tonight for the first time.

Brian: How do you go about songwriting? Is there a certain method you follow?

Warren Haynes: No. There’s no certain method, but my usual approach is that I wait until I’m lyrically inspired to write. I don’t usually sit around trying to come up with riffs and guitar motifs and stuff unless I have something to say. It doesn’t always work out that way; it’s just my normal thing. Recently, I’ve been making myself write music first, just to do something different and shake it up a little bit, you know.

Brian: Do you ever suffer writer’s block? If so, do you have a cure?

Warren Haynes: I’m not one of those people who write all the time. Sometimes I’ll go several months without writing anything. I’ll sometimes second guess myself and wonder if I’ll ever write another song. Then something starts coming, and two or three ideas will happen all at once. The next thing you know I’m writing again. You’d think I’d just learn to go with it, but it scares me every time it happens.

Brian: Of everything you’ve done, Mule, Allman Brothers, etc., what do you consider to be your best guitar work?

Warren Haynes: I don’t know. I mean, in my mind, I’m better now than I was a year ago, five years ago, or ten years ago. I feel I’m getting to be a better musician all the way around. When I listen to really old recordings I’m not happy with my playing, but I don’t know if I’m ever completely happy with my playing anyway. In general, I tend to like the newer stuff better.

Brian: You recently finished a European tour. Can you describe any differences between those and U.S. audiences?

Warren Haynes: Well, they tend to be very hardcore fans, fans that have waited a long time for us to come to Europe. Most of them have every CD we’ve put out. It’s quite amazing. I think there are more hardcore fans and fewer casual fans in the European crowds. It’s not uncommon for us to sign autographs at the end of the night for a long time. A lot of the people have stacks, sometimes of every CD I’ve ever played on. [Laughing]

They’re very appreciative, partly based on the fact that, you know, it took us until now to ever make it to Europe. It’s amazing to see audiences in some of these countries where they barely speak English sing along, and sing along with all of the words. They know the songs very well. I was shocked.

Brian: Do you take newer guitars on the road and keep the vintage stuff at home?

Warren Haynes: Usually, yes.

Brian: Are the Custom Shop models up to par with the vintage guitars?

Warren Haynes: The new Gibsons are better than they’ve been in a long time. The ones I play, the Custom Shop guitars, are really great guitars. I’m very happy with them. Sometimes I’ll go through several before I find the right one because they all sound different, and everybody looks for something different in a guitar. I like very meaty, dark, and warm sounding guitars. Some people like very bright guitars but that has never been my thing.

Gov't Mule Photo Credit: Neil Zlozower

Brian: You’ve been ranked in a few different positions in the many lists of greatest guitarists over the past few years. You were recently ranked 23rd in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Do you think the voters overlook many of history’s blues and jazz greats?

Warren Haynes: Yeah. I mean, it’s almost as if they should label them lists of rock ‘n’ roll guitar players. Most of the great jazz players are better than all of us. If you’re going to include jazz players then you’ve got to list Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Christian. Then, of course, there are people like Grant Green and Jim Hall whom I absolutely adore.

But at the same time, if blues guitarists are included, I’d have to include Albert King. I think Albert King was the blues guitarist who influenced rock guitarists more than anybody else. Without Albert, there’d have been no Hendrix, no Duane Allman, no Clapton, and no Stevie Ray Vaughan. There definitely wouldn’t have been a Warren Haynes because I’m a huge Albert freak.

Brian: When it comes to MP3 downloading, e-zines, and sites like YouTube, has the Internet been more of a help or a hindrance to the professional musician?

Warren Haynes: I think it has been more of a help than a hindrance, but it’s both. I think it serves more of a positive than a negative, although there are opinions to the contrary. With YouTube, it’s cool to see a video of Albert King that I’ve never seen before. But I guess everybody has different opinions about it.

There are a bunch of videos of us on YouTube; some are good and some aren’t. Then you get into copyright issues and all that kind of stuff. The world’s changing and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Brian: It was players like Peter Green and Roy Buchanan who first taught me that lead guitar could express human emotion, such as cries of pain, devastation, or joy. Your playing is expressive as well. Is this a trait that’s often missing in today’s music?

Warren Haynes: I think so, yeah. I think those were two great examples. I think the human voice is the greatest instrument in the world and every other instrument in some ways tries to emulate that. The musicians who can sing through their instrument are the ones who tend to connect with people more, especially people who want to be moved.

Sometimes, in the case of certain musicians, it goes beyond just singing through the instrument in terms of creating emotional sounds that come from the soul and into someone else’s. Roy was an amazing guitar player, Peter as well. Peter Green was one of my favorites. You could detect Roy’s dark personality in his playing.

Brian: Both in his and in Green’s, really.

Warren Haynes: Yeah, absolutely.

Brian: I know we touched on this a bit already, but talk about your guitars of choice – the Firebirds, the RD, the Les Pauls, the ES-335. Do their differences in tone dictate when to be used?

Warren Haynes: Yeah. For me, the Firebird is Gibson’s answer to the Fender. You know, if I want a brighter sound but still want the meat that a Gibson gives me, I’ll play a Firebird. P-90s have a sound; humbuckers have a sound. Usually these days, not always, but usually, when I’m playing a Firebird it’s tuned down a half step.

So, you get some warmth and darkness from the fact that the guitar’s tuned lower, and you get the brightness from the length of the neck and the body style, the type of wood and the pickups. Everybody’s looking for something different, and for me, the combination of Gibson guitars that I use covers a lot of ground. I’m able to get a lot of sounds from them.

Warren Haynes

Brian: The amp situation – it’s mainly the Soldano SLO-100 and the Marshall?

Warren Haynes: In the Allman Brothers I was using the Marshall instead of the Soldano for a while. So I was using the [César] Diaz and the Marshall. I’ve recently started back using the Soldano again.

In Gov’t Mule, predominantly, it’s been the Soldano and the Diaz together and sometimes a Fender Super Reverb. I’ve a lot of other amps that I really like and they come into play as well, but those mentioned get the most play from me.

Brian: How important is it to have a good guitar tech, like Brian Farmer, along with you?

Warren Haynes: Farmer is great. He makes my life much easier. As busy as I’ve been in the past six or seven years, and as many different guitars and amps as I have on the road, I couldn’t do it without him.

Brian: He’s known to say that you’re not gentle with your guitars. In fact, he has mentioned that you’re not gentle with him either. [Laughing]

Warren Haynes: [Laughing] Well, he likes to exaggerate. I’m not a real mellow guitar player. In fact, I can attack the guitar pretty hard. I like dynamics, everything from extremely soft to extremely loud and everything in between. That’s the only way you’ll get the sounds you’re looking for.

Brian: In my opinion, you’re part of a new breed of rock guitarist, like Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, and a handful of others, who are so into the music that substance abuse and similar issues, the errors of rockers of old, don’t appear to be part of the picture.

Warren Haynes: Yeah. I like to think people have learned a lot since the ’60s and ’70s. In that regard, you know, it’s a different era, a different time. Most of the people in the circles I run in with are there for the music. There’s a cool social scene, but the old sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll vibe is kind of a thing of the past, for the most part.

Brian: You handle fame quite well. Is there a secret to that?

Warren Haynes: You know, my dad and my two older brothers were all very good influences on me, and they tended to keep me pretty well grounded for the most part. Fortunately, I wasn’t thrown into instant fame at an early age. I know some who’ve had that done to them and it’s got to be hard.

When I was 20-years-old I started playing with David Allen Coe, but that wasn’t a very glamorous gig. It was more glamorous than what I was doing prior, but he was the star and I was the sideman. And even though a certain amount of glory and notoriety went along with it, I was able to watch the people around me and see the way in which they behaved. I learned from both the positives and the negatives and focused on the positives.

Brian: What music are you listening to these days, besides your own and the Allman Brothers?

Warren Haynes: I’m always listening to the stuff that I consider timeless, you know, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Van Morrison, and stuff I think will be around forever. I don’t discover a lot of new music; there are a few things here and there that I really like a lot. I listen to a lot of blues and jazz and a lot of soul music. There’s so much great old music you can never discover it all.

Brian: I read that you’re a big fan of Ray LaMontagne’s Trouble.

Warren Haynes: Yeah. I love that record.

Brian: I was surprised to see that you had said that because unfortunately, as great a record as it is, it still appears to be unknown to many.

Warren Haynes: Well, we’re friends as well. We’ve done a couple of things together. He opened for Gov’t Mule at Red Rocks two or three years ago and he performed last year at my Christmas Jam, the charity show that I do in North Carolina every year.

I really love that record and I just got his new one. I think I’m going to love that one as well. That record [Trouble] sounds like it could have been made in any era.

Brian: What motivates you as a musician, entertainer, and songwriter?

Warren Haynes: I love music; I love every aspect of it. When I get tired of guitar playing I’m usually happy with my singing and songwriting. When I get frustrated with my songwriting, usually I’m happy with my playing and singing.

Having all three of those things in my life keeps me from getting completely frustrated with myself. It’s very rare that I hate all three of those things. [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve made my best record yet. I don’t think I’ve written my best song yet.

Brian: What’s on the horizon for Warren Haynes?

Warren Haynes: I’d like to see Gov’t Mule continue for years and years to come, touring, recording, progressing and growing. I’d like to do another solo record at some point.

I’d like to get involved in producing other people’s records and stuff as the years continue. There’s a lot I want to do that I haven’t done, so I want to accomplish as much as possible.

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