From his start with country hell raiser David Allan Coe, to 16 years with the Allman Brothers, to the heavy and melodic improvisation of Gov’t Mule, Warren Haynes has blazed a trail that draws on the best of American music. With the voice of an old-school soul shouter and the guitar prowess of a legend, Haynes is both a formidable band leader and a blistering sideman who cares deeply about music. Articulate and insightful, Haynes took time out to speak to Gibson about the Allmans, Mule, and his approach to playing—with a cranked Custom Shop Les Paul in his lap the whole time.
Be sure to listen to the sound clips for a taste of Haynes’ incredible tone and phrasing.
When did you start playing music?
I started singing when I was about seven, and all my influences were soul singers: Otis Redding, James Brown, the Four Tops, the Temptations. I discovered rock music a few years later. My oldest brother got an acoustic guitar when I was 11 and I played it more than he did, so my dad got me an electric guitar for my twelfth birthday. My first electric guitar was a Norma guitar and a Norma amplifier—both bought at the local hardware store, $49 for one and $59 for the other. Of course that was 1972 dollars. Still, they were not the greatest. A year later, my dad upgraded and got me a Lyle copy of a Gibson SG. My first real Gibson guitar was a year after that, which was an SG Junior. And then, about a year after that, I got an SG Custom. So I had a history with SGs there for a little while.
Who were your main guitar influences when you started?
When I first started—chronologically speaking—Hendrix and Clapton and Johnny Winter were the first three people I got turned on to. That was the Cream era of Clapton. Then eventually, I heard the Allman Brothers and everybody else from that era that I stole something from (laughs). Of course, I would read interviews with all these people and find out who they listened to. And they all listened to B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King and Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and Elmore James, so I would go back and discover that stuff.
I used to sit at the turntable and play songs over and over, trying to cop licks off of the records, wearing holes in the vinyl. In the old days you could slow the turntable down. Sometimes that would make it easier. Not always (laughs). I just spent hours and hours in my room playing along with records, trying to learn the solos. Especially the nice short solos (laughs). Learning long solos back then was not very easy to do.
Was there a moment when you knew you were on to something?
I remember when my oldest brother turned me on to Howlin’ Wolf. The way he got me into Wolf was he said, “Clapton plays on this London Sessions Howlin’ Wolf record.” Which in hindsight is definitely not the best Howlin' Wolf record. It is still a great record, but there are others that are a lot more authentic. But the solo from “I Ain’t Superstitious” was short and sweet. I remember learning that note-for-note and playing it in my room.
I also loved more melodic players, like Jesse Colin Young and Dave Mason, who just sounded like they were singing their solos. I would learn solos by them as well. I also discovered Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Dickey had these really melodic solos, as well, that you could learn a lot from. I always loved people who sounded like they were singing through their instruments. So Duane Allman was a big inspiration. Jeff Beck was a big inspiration. Because they had this vocal-like quality. Maybe since I started as a singer, that was always something that was very important to me.
Can you demonstrate the vocal-like quality of a guitar?
Yeah, when you hear somebody trying to emulate the human voice, a lot of it has to do with the timbre of the note, with the attack, with the vibrato. You get that … (plays) … so you’ve got all this dynamic range. When a singer pushes hard, the sound is different. When they back off, the sound is different. It is very emotional and it is very human.
It must have been a natural transition into playing slide.
Slide guitar is emulating blues harmonica, and blues harmonica is emulating the human voice. So once again it goes back to the vocal. When I discovered slide, it was a whole 'nother way of expressing yourself, because you could slide into the note and out of the note in a way that you couldn’t really do even bending strings on guitar, and you definitely couldn’t do on piano. So slide guitar had an even more vocal-like quality in some ways. When singers sing, they don’t attack the note head-on. Maybe in opera music or something. But blues singers and soul singers slide into the notes and out of the notes and it makes it much more vulnerable I think. So slide guitar achieves that.
Your first big break was playing with David Allan Coe. How did that come about?
I was in all local bands and regional bands in Asheville, North Carolina, trying to get a record deal—to no avail. When I got the call from David Allan Coe, I had no idea that at that time he had done records like Penitentiary Blues and stuff like that. I remember saying to him on the phone, “I don’t really consider myself a country guitar player, and I’m not really interested in being in a country band.” I was 19, or just had turned 20. I was a young, cocky kid. I think he liked the fact that I was cocky and full of myself. But, actually, I was really shy. I just knew what I wanted to do musically and that didn’t seem to fit the plan. But he said, “I want a blues rock guitar player who can add an edge to my music.”
When I joined Coe’s band, I realized how much he loved blues. Whenever his voice was tired on tour, we would go out just the two of us and open up with a bunch of Jimmy Reed songs. Then segue that into the show. One by one, the drummer would walk on and the bass player would walk on, and eventually the whole band would be onstage. He was really influenced by Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins. That stuff was way back in his formative years, so whenever it came out, it was very genuine.
Can you play a little of that?
Coe had quite a reputation. What did your parents think about you going on the road with him?
I was mostly raised by my dad. My parents divorced when I was really young. My dad was always very supportive. He always made sure I had a better guitar and a better amp. He worked 12 hours a day to provide for his family, and he would go that extra mile to make sure I had some decent equipment. So from the beginning, my dad was very supportive. He was a singer, but he never pursued a career or anything. He just had a beautiful, natural voice. So I think in some ways, he loved the fact that I pursued music. He was a just a very supportive role model. So he was into it. As a country music fan, I think he realized how controversial Coe was, and thought, “Wow, what is my kid getting into here.” (laughs) But I think he really liked it. He’d come to a lot of the shows. He still does.
And it was Coe who introduced you to the Allman Brothers.
I was in the studio in Nashville with Coe, shortly after I had joined the band, and he knew I was a big Allman Brothers fan. He was really just trying to impress me with the fact that he knew them. So he sent one of his limousines over to the studio where the Allman Brothers were recording and picked up Dickey Betts and Don Johnson and Greg Allman, and Guy Clarke came by that night. And me and Dickey and Guy Clarke sat around with acoustic guitars. There were three acoustic guitars, and we just passed ’em around, because on one of them, the action was about this high, so every third song, you had to play the guitar with the terrible action. We just sat and swapped riffs and songs and stories and stuff. And for me, as a kid, it was a really, really memorable experience, and it led to me joining Dickey’s band, which led to me joining the Allman Brothers.
What was it like joining the Allmans?
Joining the Allmans was not as overwhelming as it would have been had I not been in Dickey’s band for almost three years prior to that. The ironic thing was that the entire time I was in Dickey Betts’ band, the thought of putting the Allman Brothers back together was pretty much nonexistent. Every time it got talked about, it was a resounding, “No, that is never gonna happen.” Then one day, out of the blue, they buried the hatchet and said, “We’re reforming the Allman Brothers and we want you to join.”
So it was a shock to me when it happened, and a really strange dilemma. Because I was just signing a record deal of my own as a solo artist, and was really looking forward to making my first solo record. And then I get this call saying they wanted me to be a part of putting the Allman Brothers back together. I couldn’t really turn that down, so it meant putting my solo career on hold for a great opportunity.
Dickey and I automatically had a good chemistry and a good rapport, because I had grown up listening to and studying that music. The Allman Brothers were one of my favorite bands. But I had also studied and listened to so many other types of music that we weren’t too similar, but we weren’t too dissimilar. And I think that is what makes a good tandem between two guitar players: If there is enough common ground that they make sense together, but enough differences that the sum of the parts is yet another entity. That is what Dickey and I had. And it made me concentrate on my slide playing. So from ’86, up until I left the Allman Brothers in ’97, I was playing tons of slide guitar, which was really good for me.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you joined?
I definitely had the Switzerland role. If Dickey and Greg weren’t talking to each other, they would talk through me (laughs). Again, it was easier for me, because I had three years playing in Dickey’s band, whereas Allen Woody auditioned and the next day he was in the Allman Brothers. That’s much harder. I had this whole initiation period. It really made it less intimidating for me. I didn’t really look at is as filling somebody else’s shoes. And the audience was very kind, and very accepting.
The real challenge was how much to sound like myself, and how much to pay homage to Duane Allman. Because I was taking on that role: the slide guitar, the person opposite to Dickey Betts. They were kind enough, and smart enough, to know that the right person for the job was someone who wasn’t cloning someone else. So they got Allen Woody to play bass, who had a lot of Berry Oakley influence, but who was obviously his own person. And the same with myself. They didn’t tell us how or what to play. They just said, “We hired you—play the way you want to play.”
So it was up to me how much of Duane’s influence to show at any give moment. So in some of the shorter pieces, like “Statesboro Blues,” I would stay a little closer to the bone. In songs like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Dreams” and “Whippin’ Post,” I would go more off into my own direction. And I guess the biggest challenge was: How do I sound like myself to the audience, but still sound like a member of the Allman Brothers? Because one day I wasn’t, and the next day I was. That was really the toughest challenge for me, but it was such an honor. (continued)