Interview: Warren Haynes on Tommy Bolin, Hubert Sumlin, Allman Brothers acoustic

Warren Haynes performs with The Warren Haynes Band in Los Angeles, June 2011. © Paul R. Giunta/Corbis

Asked whether he would consider adding another band to his bulging resume, Warren Haynes lets out a loud laugh. "I'm not actively seeking that," he says, "but it would depend on the band. I've learned to never say 'never.'"

The better question, of course, would be: Where would he find the time? As leader of The Warren Haynes Band and Gov't Mule, along his key role as a guitarist and vocalist in The Allman Brothers Band, not to mention ongoing stints in Phil Lesh & Friends, The Dead and various high-profile appearances (such as his recent performance at the White House with fellow blues greats, followed shortly after with a heartfelt turn at the Hubert Sumlin tribute show in New York City), it's clear that Haynes' dance card is booked solid.

Despite his air-tight schedule, however, Haynes found the time last year to co-produce (along with Greg Hampton) a stirring tribute album to the late guitarist Tommy Bolin titled Great Gypsy Soul. The record utilizes unused Bolin tracks on which Haynes and a glittering array of fellow six-string stars (Derek Trucks, Steve Morse, Joe Bonamassa, Nels Cline, Peter Frampton, John Scofield, Brad Whitford, Steve Lukather, Sonny Landreth and Oz Noy) provide newly recorded guitar and vocal performances.

Somehow, we managed to get Haynes - who didn't call his last solo album Man In Motion for nothing - to sit down long enough to talk about it all. No mean feat.

When you played at the White House, were you surprised when President Obama sang Sweet Home Chicago, or were you tipped off that he might do that?

"I'm glad you asked that, because I can definitely tell you that it was impromptu; it was not planned at all. The truth is, he didn't want to sing. Buddy Guy put on the spot: 'Hey, we heard you sing some Al Green, so now you've got to sing some blues.' Finally, when Mick Jagger handed him the microphone, I guess he just felt compelled. But he was trying to get out of that, so in no way was it planned."

He seemed to know some of the words.

"Well, he's from Chicago, and we were playing Sweet Home Chicago! [laughs] I'll tell you, it was amazing. When we got the call that this was happening, it fit into a time period that was petty hectic. But we couldn't say no - it was an incredible opportunity. The actual experience was great, the music was great, the performances were fantastic - it was a win-win all around."

Shortly after the White House gig, you performed at the Hubert Sumlin tribute in New York City. How much of an influence was Hubert on your playing?

"He was a huge influence on me and so many others. The stuff he did with Howlin' Wolf is monumental in my brain. We were also good friends and played together many, many times. He was just the sweetest man on the planet. I was honored to know him.

"I would have wanted to have been at the show anyway, but when I was told the cast of characters who would be there, well, I had to go. Billy Gibbons and I got to do some stuff together. It was a beautiful night. The Apollo is smaller than a lot of people expect, so it was tight quarters. But it was cool having every shoulder to shoulder - it was good that way."

What do you think Hubert's legacy will be?

"That's an interesting one. The average person doesn't think of Hubert Sumlin the way he might think about BB King, Buddy Guy, Freddie King or Albert King, because they're solo artists. Hubert was a sideman, but he played on some of the greatest blues sessions ever recorded.

"When guitar players talk about Hubert, they're always smiling and laughing at this crazy, wild sound he had. And it was crazy and ridiculous - but beautiful. He got his personality into those Wolf records. That's timeless music; it's going to be around forever."

Another player who had a big impact on you was Tommy Bolin. When did you first get into him?

"I was a fan when I was a teenager. I don't remember what I heard first; it was all kind of simultaneous. I heard what he did on the Billy Cobham Spectrum album, and then having two older brothers who were collectors, I was exposed to the James Gang stuff, after he took Joe Walsh's place, and then the Deep Purple stuff, after he replaced Ritchie Blackmore.

"His solo records are what really connected with me. I would've loved to have seen where he would have gone from there. Those records really stand up today, more so than a lot of albums from that era. When I got the call to get involved with this tribute record, I was initially hesitant - tribute records aren't something I'd normally want to spend a lot of time on. But this one was different.

"We took Tommy's original vocal and guitar recordings, along with the other people who played on the tracks - we're talking Jeff Porcaro, Jan Hammer, David Sanborn, and some other amazing musicians - and we used alternate versions or outtakes, cleaned 'em up and made acceptable masters out of them.

"Most of the original tapes were in pretty good shape; a few of them needed some work. That wasn't my responsibility. I was more brought in to recruit guitar players and to be part of the creative process once the tapes were in shape. So we added other guitar players and singers, and basically they're doing the songs with Tommy and the original cast. It was really cool, and the more I got involved with it, the more intrigued I became."

When making the record, was it ever strange to be playing with a guy who wasn't around to tell you what he did or didn't like?

"Not like you might expect, because anything we did, we did with the spirit of staying true to Tommy and his songs. We put a lot of love and reverence into this. We were trying to respect his legacy at every turn, starting with who we chose to be part of it. I don't think we chose anyone who would make Tommy grimace - hopefully not! [laughs]

"These original recordings weren't finished, so doing what we did, we turned them into complete performances. That was really cool. I think it'll be interesting to see how the music stands up now. I think people will go, 'Oh, wow, that's pretty cool!' People who know Tommy's work should be pretty pleased with it, but I think that people who aren't familiar might go, 'Hey, this is great stuff. Why haven't I heard this guy before?'"

What was it like for Steve Lukather to play with his old Toto bandmate Jeff Porcaro? [Porcaro died in 1992.]

"Steve was very emotional doing that. I think it was a fulfilling but very difficult experience for him."

What made you choose the song Teaser for your own? Was it always one of your favorites?

"You know, I didn't really dwell on what song I was going to do; I was more concerned with what everybody else was going to do. Teaser just kind of trickled down to me. I think it might have been Greg Hampton's idea. Being that I was one of the producers, I wasn't going to pick my favorite; I didn't think that was appropriate. In hindsight, I always liked the song, so I'm glad it got chosen. But I probably would have been happy doing some of the other ones, too."

You just wrapped another Allman Brothers residency at the Beacon Theater. Does any particular moment stand out as a highlight or surprise?

"It's hard to pick a highlight because there's so many. We play a lot of nights, a lot of songs - every show is special in its own way. The biggest challenge we face with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon is that, because we've turned it into a tradition, we have special guests on a nightly basis. Whoever's in town wants to show up. So we have to accommodate those artists accordingly, pick the right songs and, ultimately, deliver performances that really stand up.

"Usually, that's the case, and that's the enjoyable part of it. We have all these musicians coming out and offering their services. It makes for an experience that the audience really enjoys, and hopefully, it'll continue to make them want to come back - they never know what they're going to get.

"One thing we did this year that was different was we played an acoustic set. We haven't done that in about 15 years. It was cool to come out at the start of the second set and do three or four songs acoustically. It takes the loud nature of the band down to a more intimate level. It was really beautiful."

Some of these songs you've played hundreds of times. Doing them acoustically, did you discover anything new about them?

"Well, I think it's a great contrast. We do a three, three-and-a-half hour show, and if we do 20 minutes of beautiful acoustic music, it sort of demands that we play and sing differently. Gregg Allman and I definitely sing differently over acoustic instruments than we do over a loud rock 'n' roll band. It's the same as a player: you adapt to the environment and something beautiful happens. We don't do 20-minute jams when we play acoustically; the songs are shorter, the solos are shorter."

Do you ever try to match guitars to fit certain bands? Are there guitars that you use only with the Allman Brothers or only with Gov't Mule?

"I will tailor a certain instrument to a gig, yes. Last night I did a show with Phil Lesh & Friends, and I played a Gibson Firebird, which has a much twangier sound than my normal Les Paul or ES-335. It fit the music better. In each situation, I choose the guitars and the amps to suit the music accordingly, and that allows me to express myself better."

People tend to focus on your guitar playing, but on your recent solo album, Man In Motion, your singing was exceptional.

"Thank you. You know, I guess people didn't expect the album to be so steeped in soul music, so maybe that was a little surprise - a good one, hopefully. I was taking a cue from old soul music, where the vocal was the centerpiece. It was a great opportunity for me to go back to the soul music I grew up on - I was into soul before I discovered blues or rock 'n' roll.

"There's the vocal aspect, but the album definitely reflects my love of players like BB King, Freddie King and Albert King, and with that, you can hear it in the guitar sounds. They're much more old school and pre-rock. They're cleaner and more traditional sounding; you don't hear the Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix influence, the psychedelic influence.

"A player reacts differently to a clean tone than to a dirty, distorted tone. I always tell young players, 'Don't play what's in your head, play what the guitar is giving you.' That's what the mission was for me on the record. It was challenging, but I wanted to go to that place.

"Also, on the album I used a lot of guitars I hadn't played much before. Most of my favorite vintage guitars are at home in New York, but since we recorded in Texas, I relied on some friends to bring me some things. It put me in a situation where I had to play differently, but again, that was the idea."

Haynes and guitarist Derek Trucks (left) during an Allman Brothers Band performance in Boston, December 2011. © Jason Bergman / Retna, Ltd./Retna Ltd./Corbis

You're heading back on the road with The Warren Haynes Band. What kind of set will you be playing?

"The tour is pretty much an extension of last year's tour. We'll be adding some new songs and covers, but we'll be doing all the stuff from Man In Motion, Tales Of Ordinary Madness and a few songs I wrote for other people. It's a completely different repertoire from Gov't Mule. There's a little overlap, but only a few songs. I always try to give the people something new and different."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.