Warren Haynes Discusses Gov’t Mule’s New Album, the Allman Brothers and How to Get a Great Blues Tone on a Budget
via Guitar Player
Whether fronting Gov’t Mule or performing with acts across the genres, Warren Haynes is the heart and soul of the music.
“I’ve always enjoyed opening myself up to a lot of different types of music,” Warren Haynes says. “I don’t think I could ever be happy doing just one thing.”
Indeed, one look at the man’s long and remarkably varied career bears out this fact over and over. It’s evident in the path he followed, from his early days with David Allen Coe to his quarter-century with the Allman Brothers Band to his tenure with Grateful Dead off shoots like the Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends to his own solo outings. He’s worked with the Dave Matthews Band and the Dickey Betts Band and taken guest spots with everyone from Blues Traveler to Peter Frampton to Corrosion of Conformity.
As a result, Haynes has remained a busy and in-demand player for well over three decades. And this doesn’t even include his work with his other outfit, Gov’t Mule, who are currently celebrating their own 25-year anniversary, a swath of time that has seen them explore muscular hard rock, swampy blues and sprawling, highly improvisatory jam music, as well as R&B, soul, instrumental jazz, and dub and reggae styles.
For an overview of just what the Mule is capable of (though in some respects it’s also just the tip of the iceberg), look no further than the new Bring on the Music—Live at the Capitol Theatre (Provogue), a two-disc concert document that presents Haynes and the band – bassist Jorgen Carlsson, drummer Matt Abts and keyboardist Danny Louis – onstage at the titular New York venue in 2018. The supersized package is accompanied by a video documentary shot and directed by photographer and filmmaker Danny Clinch, who captures the Mule onstage, in interviews and behind the scenes.
“Knowing that the 25th anniversary of the band was approaching, it seemed like the timing was right to do this sort of thing,” Haynes explains.
The format is right as well, given that Haynes’ status and reputation as a live performer is virtually unparalleled in the world of rock and blues guitar, even if he is characteristically humble about his own playing. “I remember somebody once asking me, ‘What’s the key to playing a great, long guitar solo?’” he says. “And I told them, ‘The key is who you’re playing with. If you’re playing with the wrong people, your solo gets short real quick. But if you’re playing with the right people, you can play forever.’”
Speaking of playing forever, Haynes has plenty of future projects up his sleeve, including a new Gov’t Mule album, as he reveals in this conversation with Guitar Player. Additionally, he offers tips for blues and rock guitarists at every stage of the game, from what he’s learned from performing onstage to developing your own technique and sound to working with different musicians and in various styles.
What’s most important? Just play, he says. A lot. “If you’re gonna do it at all, you have to give it 110 percent,” Haynes says. “All of the time.”
What led you to want to put together an audio-visual concert document of Gov’t Mule at this point in the band’s career?
I’d been talking to Danny Clinch for several years about us doing something together. He’s photographed Gov’t Mule so many times through the years, especially early on, before he even started his career as a film director. He took the photos for the first several Gov’t Mule records, including the front cover of our first record with the mule draped in the American flag. So we have a long relationship, and with the 25th anniversary of the band approaching, it seemed like the timing was right. We all feel like the band is in a really good place musically right now, so we just thought it would be the right thing to do, and that Danny would be the right guy and that the Capitol Theatre would be the right place. It all just kind of fell in line.
Live albums held pride of place back in the ’70s and ’80s. This package feels like something of a return to that era, when concerts were regarded as events.
Yeah. I mean, I grew up at a time when all my favorite bands and artists were releasing live albums, and the people that I was hanging out with, a lot of their favorite records were live albums. So it was always a really important part of the overall picture. And then, of course, you had the movie aspect of it. When you take into consideration Woodstock and The Last Waltz and films like that, they were life-changing. That’s where turning it over to Danny and letting him kind of follow his vision on this thing was really important, because he has such reverence for those kinds of films too.
The live show is such an integral part of the Gov’t Mule experience. Can you talk a bit about some of the benefits of playing in a group onstage, in front of an audience, as opposed to in a rehearsal space, or even just woodshedding in your bedroom?
Well, speaking for myself in the time period that I grew up in, improvisation was the key part of all my favorite music. Whether it was rock music, soul music, blues, jazz, it was all music that was created in the moment. And so learning how to play not just as an individual but with a band depended so much on learning how to play onstage. It was about learning how to play together and listening deeply to what everybody was playing, and then responding to that, rather than just creating a part and sticking to it. You had to allow the music to go wherever it was going to go based on who you were playing with. So the more opportunities you have to play onstage, the better you get at that sort of thing. And for a variety of reasons.
One being that when there’s an audience, they bring this extra tier of energy to the situation that is very inspiring. It pushes you beyond what you’re capable of in an empty room. Also, when you make a mistake in your bedroom, you’re likely to make it again. But when you make it in front of an audience, you’re likely to not make it again. [laughs] So the pressure helps you. It’s like playing a sport: When the pressure’s on, you learn more.
Do you have any tips for players who are just beginning to learn how to solo in a blues or rock format?
When you’re first starting out, it’s very important to learn all the basics, stuff that at some point you might consider cliché but that is a very important part of the vocabulary. And it’s also really important to develop a sense of melody and a sense of phrasing that sounds natural and familiar within normal musical structures and boundaries.
But the longer you continue to pursue the instrument, the more important it becomes to go beyond that and figure out ways to challenge the norms and color outside the box a little bit. For me, I’ve always listened a lot to guitar players who also were singers, or guitar players who were singing through their instruments. I gravitated toward the type of player that had that vocal-esque sense of phrasing and choice of notes and choice of melodies. And that had an influence on the sound I started to develop for myself.
Another thing that’s important is to listen to as much music as possible. You know, a lot of what you learn as a musician happens through osmosis, from exposing yourself not only to a lot of music but also to a lot of different types of music. And as you log hundreds and, eventually, thousands of hours of playing time, stuff just starts coming out that you’ve stored away, that you’ve heard in the past. Maybe you don’t even know where it came from, but now it’s part of your musical vocabulary. So I think it’s just really important to listen to as much music as possible, to play as much music as possible and to play with as many musicians as possible, because it’s all part of this huge learning experience.
You mentioned that you’re attracted to guitarists that have a “vocal-esque” quality to their playing. I would imagine, for you, that’s part of the appeal of slide guitar.
Absolutely. Slide guitar allows you to express yourself in more of a human-like way, because you’re sliding in and out of the notes. And sure, when you’re playing with your fingers you can do things like bend up to the note or bend down from the note. But with a slide, it’s completely open territory. It’s like violin in a way.
One thing that’s unusual about your slide approach is that you tend to play in standard, as opposed to open, tuning.
My story is a little interesting in that I started playing in standard tuning in the very beginning because I didn’t realize that open tunings existed. [laughs] But once I discovered that there was such a thing as open tunings, I started dabbling in that and learning how to play in open E and open G. But I went back to standard because I feel it gives you more options of what to play based on what you’re hearing in your head, as opposed to just being stuck in the box.
So I would say it’s nice to have both, but I guess I prefer standard, because if I feel like playing slide in the middle of a song that I’ve never played slide in before, I don’t have to switch guitars. I keep my action high enough to where I can play slide on pretty much any guitar that I have. And in standard I can play more of what comes into my head instead of having to just stick to preordained slide licks.
It sounds like when you’re onstage, a fair amount of your playing choices, especially when it comes to soloing, are made in the moment.
I actually think the majority of Gov’t Mule’s music, especially the instrumental sections, is much more improvisational than people might even expect. Whenever I start a solo, I’m usually looking to hear what somebody else in the band will play that will throw me off of whatever path I was on. I’ll respond to that, and then it changes course instantly. There are so many ways of approaching a solo, but I think one of the cool challenges is not just playing what you thought you were going to play but going against the grain of what’s in your head – whether it’s intentional or because you’re listening to what someone else, like the bassist or drummer or keyboardist, is doing – and then taking off in a different direction from there.
Looking at your gear, a lot of your guitars are in alternate tunings. Why is that, and how do you keep them straight during a show?
I write and record a lot of the songs in different tunings, so I keep a guitar handy in each of those tunings. Since we do a different set list every night, some of the tunings don’t get used for several days at a time, or longer. Keeping on top of how to play in each one is a bit of a challenge. Sometimes I have to brush up on one of the tunings if I haven’t used it in a while.
You’ve played with so many different musicians and in so many different styles over the course of your career. Do you have to be conscious of striking a balance between being faithful to a sound – say, with the Allman Brothers or the Dead – and being true to yourself?
I try to pursue the challenges of being able to play all different types of music to varying degrees. But if I look at it based on what I was just saying about how I approach soloing, when I go play with someone like the Dave Matthews Band, I don’t know what I’m going to play until Carter Beauford plays the first drum fill during my solo. That makes me think differently. So no matter who I’m playing with, I just try to open myself up to listening to what everybody onstage is playing and key off of any and all of it, all the while knowing that, to a certain extent, I’m going to play differently in that environment than I would play with Gov’t Mule. But to a certain extent as well, I’m just going to be myself.
Now, when it comes to something like the Allman Brothers, the reason I was chosen to be there in the first place is because I had a lot of reverence for that music. But I was in that band for 25 years, and even at the beginning, they wanted me to be myself and not copy Duane Allman. It was the same when I worked with the Dead. There was no encouragement to play it like Jerry Garcia. When I started playing with Phil Lesh in the late ’90s, it was the opposite. Phil wanted to play that music with other musicians but also get as far away from Jerry’s approach as possible while still respecting the music. And that’s a beautiful thing. I have a lot of admiration for him for looking at it that way.
But to answer your question, let me go back to the Allman Brothers for a minute. In songs that had shorter solos, a lot of times I would do something a little more similar to what was played in the original versions. But in the longer, more improv-oriented solos, like “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” it went wherever it wanted to go on a nightly basis, and hopefully that was somewhere different every night. And then, eventually, the music onstage was a balance between older songs from the original band and newer songs that I had actually played on the records. So there was a wide variety of approaches.
On a related note, Gov’t Mule has occasionally taken deep dives into other bands’ catalogs, whether it’s an entire set of Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd songs, or playing classic albums like Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy or the Who’s Who’s Next in full. As a guitarist, do you get something unique out of immersing yourself so deeply in another band’s music as opposed to just learning a cover tune here and there?
When we dig into this stuff and learn more about it, it starts to influence the way we play and write, just based on having new musical information. But in general, this is music I grew up listening to, so I kind of know a lot of it in my head. And we’re not looking to learn it note for note or inflection for inflection. We’re not trying to be a karaoke version of it. We’re looking to do our own thing, but at the same time pay homage to it as much as possible.
Do you tend to change up your gear when you’re stepping into other artists’ musical shoes?
I definitely change up the gear. As an example, we recently did a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Woodstock at Mountain Jam. We played a Santana song and I played an SG. We played “Voodoo Child” and I played a Hendrix Strat. We did a Ten Years After song and I played an ES-345. In some cases I’ll switch to a different amp as well, or set my rig up differently. But at the very least I try to honor the tone, starting with the instrument.
You’ve managed to amass a great collection of guitars and other equipment over the years. But for someone that doesn’t have access to this type of gear, how would you suggest they go about achieving a great blues-rock sound?
There are tons of ways to get a good sound on a budget. Actually, in a lot of cases, cheaper guitars sound as good or better than expensive guitars. There are less expensive Gibsons and Fenders and Epiphones that sound fantastic. And you can get small amplifiers that sound really good, like the Fender Pro Junior – not that it’s a cheap amplifier, but it’s a small amplifier that I record with a lot. And it’s hard to go wrong with a Fender Deluxe Reverb. I enjoy recording with small amplifiers, and in some cases they sound as good or better than the big amps.
But, generally, I find that you can get a really good sound with almost any guitar and almost any amplifier, as long as there’s some amount of versatility there. A big part of it is just knowing what you’re looking for. That’s why when you hear a great guitar player plug any guitar into any amp, they can make it sound like themselves just by twisting the knobs and doing what they do.
Looking ahead, is there anything you’d like to tackle musically that you haven’t gotten around to yet?
Right now I’m thinking about what the next Gov’t Mule record is going to be. And I’ve been writing some instrumental music, which feels good. Otherwise, at some point I’d still like to do a jazz-influenced all-instrumental record, which is something I’ve never done. We did the live record with John Scofield [2015’s Sco-Mule], which was all-instrumental, but it wasn’t a studio record. And I’ve never done a real blues record. At some point I’d like to do that too.
Another thing I want to do is a follow-up to [2015’s] Ashes & Dust, which was a more folky, singer-songwriter type of record, and a follow-up to [2011’s] Man in Motion, which was more of a soul music record. I’ve been writing a lot of songs that fall in between those two, so maybe I’ll do a record that combines those influences together, like a Muscle Shoals kind of thing.
As someone who’s had such a long and varied career, what would you say is the key to being a successful working musician?
I’ve been fortunate that all the decisions I’ve made throughout my career have been based on what it was that I really wanted to do. I’ve never tried to second guess what would be the clearest path to moving up. Let’s look at Gov’t Mule, which has been the last 25 years of my life, as an example. None of our decisions have been made based on what people expected of us or what the music business expected of us. I don’t know that that’s even good advice to give someone, but it’s worked for me.
So one thing I can say is, if you’re going to be a working musician, it’s a lot of commitment and a lot of sacrifice, and in a lot of cases for very little reward. So when people ask for my advice, I tell them truthfully that if you think you might change your mind 10 years or 20 years down the road, then the music business is not for you. Just enjoy it as a hobby and don’t put the pressure on your music of trying to make a living financially. Only do it if you know it’s what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.