Dr. Feelgood
Wilko Johnson earned his reputation as guitar player with the legendary Dr. Feelgood (octobre 1985)

Propos recueillis par Neville Marten © Guitarist

 

We're on holiday at the moment, but we've been gigging pretty hard. The band started in February - that's when I got in touch with Norman (Norman Watt-Roy). Working with him gave it a new lease of life. He's always been my favourite bass player and it’s really something the way his technique works with what I do. Up till now I suppose we've been doing my basic thing but, when we get going again, we want to start doing some new stuff.
We went to Japan a couple of weeks ago which was pretty good.

How well known are you over there ?
Quite well. It's the first time any of us had ever been there, but it was great. I mean, there were loads of people and it really went down well. People were coming up who'd got every single record I've ever made - more than I've got. They queue up and you're giving them autographs and they're bowing and all this. I mean, we loved it there. We had a really good time.

Are you still doing some of the old Feelgood stuff, Roxette and so on ?
Yeah. When I got going again after Feelgood, I tried not to do any of those songs, but people want you to do them and I think they feel let down if you don't. So there’s always some of them. All you can do is rotate them a bit, so you don't get too fed up with them yourself. But the song I've always kept in is a song called Paradise, but maybe that's just for myself. Songs like Back in the Night always go down well ; people really like it and if you don't use it in the set, you end up using it in the encore.

Do you find you have to play the oldies just to get people going and more prepared to accept the newer stuff ?
No. Things that are sure fire successes with audiences, things that you know will go down well, I'd rather leave for encores. You have to really get across with what you are doing, rather than rely on what you know is going to go down well through familiarity, otherwise you're not giving anything else a chance. I don't want to turn into a sort of 'golden oldies' thing, but on the other hand I wouldn't like to go and see Chuck Berry and not hear Memphis Tennesee - not that I'm placing myself in that bracket...

What's the line up, is it still guitar, bass and drums ?
Well, there's me and Norman and a young Italian chap called Salvatore Ramundo, who's from Southend ! Last year things kept changing; people kept coming and going and it was all very difficult. This year it's all come together.

I know it's very difficult but can you explain your method of playing - your unique style ?
Well I think it's fairly well known and fairly obvious to anyone who's listened, that a lot of it came from copying Mick Green. When I was learning, I'd heard some Johnny Kidd and the Pirates records and I just wanted to play exactly like that. I tried to copy it and I went through the usual processes, getting bits wrong and finding a few bits out for yourself. So I think his influence is pretty clear in what I do.
I don't look on myself as being original for that reason, because I think all the real inventions, the technique - playing lead and rhythm together - is really something he developed. You'd have to ask him how he does it
People often remark that we don't sound alike and we don't, because I think that, while I got the basis from him, there are a lot of guitar players who, although I've never tried copying, I listen to and a lot of things have sunk in here and there. The rest of it comes from who knows where !
I've always thought that in rock'n'roll terms the way something looks is often as important as the way it sounds. If you play a mediocre solo, but look ferocious while you are doing it, it's going to get people off. The aim of the kind of music I play is to excite people and I think anything you can do to excite people is legitimate - hence the funny walk and everything ! Also I think you have to be excited yourself really.
Going back to the way I play, there's nothing in the technique itself that demands that I don't use a pick, but seeing as I don't, what I'm usually doing is holding my hand like a fist and when I'm playing a down stroke I'm going across the back of my fingernails, then upwards with the back of my thumbnail. When I'm soloing sometimes I'm actually picking upwards with my fingers or I just continue to bash away with my fist. It's like riding a bike really; it's very easy to do but very hard to describe.

What I'm doing is playing rhythm. That often gives people the idea of just a blur of chords being strummed and things like that, but it's not that kind of rhythm. If you think of rhythm, the basis of the rhythm section is, of course, the drummer and the way I play rhythm is very percussive. That's something I learned from Mick Green. It's like you're chopping the chords. The chords are always cut off, so you hit a chord and almost immediately damp it to get a nice kind of choppy sound, almost like a snare beat. In a similar way, just as a drummer can do fills which go across and around the rhythm and between the lines, you can do a similar thing with guitar. That’s what it’s all about – making rhythm in a percussive way. You might be doing it by playing on the sixth string and alternating that with a chord, you can then vary that by adding percussive fills on the chord.

Another way of getting a nice percussive sound on a chord IS to play the chord and immediately damp it by lifting your fingers a bit Also, say you’re playing an F shape chord In the middle of playing rhythm just stick your third ?nger on to the third string, bend It and then do a little Steve Cropper type lick. Your right hand is going over SIX strings all the time and it just happens that the note you re bending is the only one you’re actually sounding and you just fall right back into the chord again So, whether you’re playing a chord that’s sounding, a damped chord that’s just clicking, or a lead fill, your right hand just keeps going over those six strings and the left is shaping up what you are doing.

So you are basically pulling licks out of the rhythm ?
Yeah, and soloing is just a kind of development of that The licks and the lead lines just sort of take over a bit.
If you’ve been playing big fat chords and you’ve got a solo, then you’ve got to compensate somehow for the loss of the rhythm and you can do it with simple tricks. If you’re playing in A it’s beautiful you just leave the A string open, droning away, and solo around that. Of course you can incorporate a few chords into the solo and if you’re still at a loss, just jump up and down !

How do you get round the problem of sounding messy, especially for someone new to the technique ? I can imagine if you are, say, playing in A, using the open fifth string as your bass note, you would find it terribly easy to hit the bottom E, which would then sound pretty dreadful.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I suppose I encountered difficulties like that but you can overcome it. For instance, in the example you're giving, using that A string trick, you don't want the E interfering so you just keep our thumb over the top damping it. It will be messy at first, but then all playing is messy at first. When guys are learning the more conventional rock lead guitarist approach, they're very messy because they're overamplified and teed back. It sounds awful until they learn to control all that. In the some way, doing the sort of thing I do will sound messy but, as you practice, you get more precision. You will be able to hit the inside four strings or the top tour or whatever. I mean, I can bash in the general direction of the strings and hit just the one that I want to hit. While you are at the stage where you are actually aiming at something and consciously trying to do it, that's when you're messy. When you reach the point, where you do it without thinking, then you can pull it together a bit more.

Why is it that the British can take what is basically an ethnic musical form from a place and time for removed from here, capitalise on it and, in some cases, improve on it ?
Well, I don't know, but probably the best white current blues exponents are people like the Thunderbirds who are, in fact, American. Blues is something that is a real ethnic form and it seems to be black people who deliver the real thing. But it's not just black people, it's black American people. I mean, Jamaican guys don't play it - I've never heard Jamaicans playing the Blues.
It's just such an extraordinary powerful and expressive thing that anybody can understand it. You don't have to be a black American to understand it. In fact, if you are, you're probably tar more interested in going down the disco anyway, because the thing is so universal in its appeal, people from anywhere are going to try to do it. I think in the sixties it did catch on a great deal here; it became so much part of the rock music that even those people who go back as far as Eric Clapton and no further, even if they don't know it, have got the blues in what they're doing.
My attitude to it has always been that it's a black American thing and the real expression comes from them. And that's the way I like to hear it. I mean it certainly touches things that are real. You have to try to find what it is that gets to you, that turns you on about it, and then use that to come out with something that’s to do with you. I’m not black, I’m not American, I’ve never had hard times down in Alabama and I've never been down to the crossroads and tried to flag a ride (well, perhaps I have), but then I've never tried to play Blues, although there's a lot of blues in what I do. I've never tried to copy Blues men. If you hear the way Buddy Guy sounds and then you try to play First Time I Met The Blues, it makes you sound silly. You really know what he's going on about when he sings it but if you heard someone like me trying to do it I don't think it would come across.
I think the difference is something to do with feeling. When I ?rst wanted to play, I always imagined myself as a guitar player in a rhythm and blues band - standing back in the rhythm section playing really mean guitar, not doing great big solos or being up front at all. As it turned out, I ended up being fairly up front but the feeling was that of being ‘in the music’. To me guitar is part of the band - that's howl like to hear it. I've never been one for guitar heroics or extended soloing, or things like that. The guitar has to work with other instruments and lock in with them That’s the feeling I look for and perhaps primarily I’m a rhythm guitarist. If you say you’re a rhythm guitarist it sounds a bit boring but that’ s what it is and that’ s where the feeling of it is I like to hear the whole feeling of the thing I like to hear the whole band with the drums nice and loud to keep it all locked in together
A lot of lead guitarists don seem to do that. They’re absolutely aching for the moment when they can fling the old head back and start doing it ! It’s a different way of playing, really. Generally that sort of thing doesn’t excite me when I see it, you know, guitar solos don t give me a thrill.
Even people who I think are brilliant soloists like BB King that gives me a thrill but maybe that’ s because he’s always got a fantastic rhythm section so he’s playing on top of a whole feeling Generally the people who are seen as guitar heroes, I find quite depressing
Anybody who’s keen on the blues knows that there are so many people more or less unknown to the world at large, who have got such a special feeling and who can do things that some of the more famous people couldn't even touch. I mean how many people know John Lee Hooker ? He's a major figure in the blues, but he's hardly a household name. There are a lot of guitar heroes in that boogie sort of style, but if you want to hear the essence of it, you should listen to John Lee Hooker. A lot of the rock players have come a long long way from that by the time it's all been cranked up to a thousand watts, but in John Lee Hooker you can hear where it's come from. At least, that's where I like to hear it.

Maybe it's because the people who are playing now were influenced by say Eric Clapton, who was in turn influenced by Freddie and BB King so perhaps it just gets lost in the translation ?
Yeah, you can get further and further away from where it comes from, stage by stage. Often, the furthest they'll go is to Eric Clapton and not realise that, obviously, he has been turned on by the Kings. It was because of The Rolling Stones that I started asking where it came from and started listening to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and people. So I think a lot of the time it can turn people on to something they wouldn't otherwise have heard. Some people don't look any further than that though and it does tend to degenerate.
The Rolling Stones listened to American rhythm and blues and then made something of their own, which I'll always admire and they've also, in their time, made some classic records. But really I think that their music came from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

What about your actual playing technique ? You don't seem to use a pick...
No, I don't use a pick. There are a lot of things about the way I play that don't really make a lot of sense; not using a pick doesn't make a lot of sense because you could probably do what I do better with one. The reason
behind it is that I'm left handed and when I first started I played left-handed but was a bit slow on the uptake. After a while I was still useless so I thought I'd try right-handed. It's a very awkward thing to do. I used to wake up in the morning feeling like I'd been turned inside out and I couldn't work out that it was because I was trying to force myself to do something that was unnatural. Anyway, I did eventually master it but one of the by-products of that was that I couldn't hang on to a plectrum so well. Also I once saw somebody playing without one and it looked impressive, so I thought I'd do it.

Do you think we refine it too much ?
I don't know what it is. If you want refinement, listen to BB King. His sense of melody is just so sophisticated and it makes a whole lot of rock music sound crass and crude. It's so refined and yet it's still the Blues. But there's no need to get an inferiority complex about it. Everybody, everywhere has got something about them that's them! It's just a matter of finding what your own thing is. You can certainly learn and steal what you like from anywhere else, whatever helps you put across your own feelings, your own existence. That's fair enough. I don't think there's a musician anywhere, good or bad, who's original. Everybody's ripped it off from somewhere. If you were totally original people probably wouldn't understand what you were doing - you wouldn't be getting across. Even a total original like Hendrix, you can see that he'd been listening to this for years. In later times I think he got a bit too psychedelic though, maybe a bit too 'white' or something.
Fast guitar playing often leaves me cold ; people make themselves look ridiculous when they play a million notes and not one of them means a thing but Hendrix was playing all those notes, but it was still the blues - every single note. That's where I get perplexed!

Are you still using the old Tele ?
Oh yeah, I settled very early on for a Telecaster. That's another thing – Mick Green played a Tele so I wanted one. It's so absolutely suitable for what l do that I never wanted to play any other guitar. I'm fairly stuck in my ways and l don't like to alter it in any way. Some people get into making hybrid guitars and changing this and changing that but, to me, the whole appeal of the Telecaster is that it is so basic and beautiful and simple. It has this sound and I just don't want to change it in any way. I don't like to put different pickups on.
I suppose I've got a certain amount of affection for the guitar I use. It's been with me a long while but at the same time I still look at it as a kind of tool. It does get horribly rusty in the corners and it doesn't look at all smart, but it's very workman- like. An ordinary bog standard, pre CBS Tele.

Do you think it makes a difference, Pre CBS, I mean ?
Yeah, the modern Telecasters aren't the same. Whether that's good or bad I don't know, but if I play a new one it doesn't feel the same. I'm not a guitar collector and I couldn't tell you exactly what year mine is. They are factory produced things, not like classical guitars, where somebody's selected all the woods and they are made by hand. But if it's pre-CBS, it doesn’t matter whether it's I 960 or 1963 and if it's survived this long - it's probably good.
I use an HH 100w Combo with Gauss speakers in it. I've had that amp for years. Again I just came upon HH and started using one and it made the sound I wanted, so I carried on with it. If you go abroad and you are having to hire a backline, sometimes HH are pretty hard to get hold of so I'll ask for a Fender combo, because you can get them all over the world. I think the amp does make quite a bit of difference. I like an amp that doesn't distort a lot, and some amps are built to distort. I don't use any effects either.

Have you any plans for recording ?
We're trying to get a recording deal at the moment. I want to get some new stuff down and l think when everybody comes back from their holidays, that's what we're going to do. I've found out in the last two or three years that you really have your ups and downs. It gives me quite a surprise sometimes when I realise I've been playing professionally for about 10 years now. I never expected that and it's just as good now! I heartily recommend it to anyone !

Wilko Johnson travaille sur un nouvel album
11 Mai 2017

Nouvelle biographie sur Lee Brilleaux
27 Novembre 2016

Docteur Wilko Johnson
20 Novembre 2016

31 Décembre 2017
Wilko Johnson
Les concerts à venir...
... sur le site officiel


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In Memory of Lee Brilleaux & Gypie Mayo