Wilko Johnson, Dr Feelgood guitarist and six-string pioneer, dies aged 75

Wilko Johnson
(Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Future)

Wilko Johnson, the trailblazing guitarist who helped define the 1970s pub-rock scene with Dr Feelgood, has died at his home on 21 November, aged 75. 

His death was announced via his official Twitter account. Johnson led a storied life. Most famous for influencing punk and post-punk guitarists across the world, many of whom first encountered him brandishing his Fender Telecaster as though it were a machine gun, he also made time for a quick appearance in Game of Thrones, starring in four episodes as the royal executioner Ilyn Payn. 

He was also briefly an English teacher before music came calling. Music gave him an energy like no one else. He was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2013, and instead of checking in for chemotherapy he went on tour.

Rock ’n’ roll informed his style, with Bo Diddley a guiding light for his songwriting, Mick Green of Johnny Kid and the Pirates on his guitar style. Those who caught Dr Feelgood tearing it up in the early ‘70s, taking a rock ’n’ roll and pushing it harder, pushing it towards punk, were enthralled and not a little menaced by his stage presence, and that stare. Those who were focused on his guitar, eschewing a pick and mangling it fingerstyle, had a new sound and style to explore.

Johnson’s unorthodox approach could be attributed to attitude and temperament, and the fire in his belly, but also the fact that, like many of his generation, he was a left-handed player who was forced to play right-handed. There just weren’t enough southpaw guitars to go around.

Speaking to MusicRadar in 2016, he admitted that he did own a left-handed model at the start; it was so bad that switching dexterities was less arduous than dealing with its inch-high action. It was, however, the making of him.

“I was useless. Everyone at school was better than me,” he said. “Then I got the opportunity to buy a slightly better right-handed guitar: a Watkins Rapier. It’s such an awkward thing to change over to playing right-handed. It's counter-intuitive. It makes you feel freaky. And in the midst of all this freakiness, holding onto a pick was one job too many. That's why I don’t use a pick.”

He moved onto Teles in 1965, and bought his main stage guitar – a ’62 refinished Telecaster pictured top – in 1974 when Dr Feelgood signed to United Artists. Such an uncomplicated and primal guitar choice made sense with the music Dr Feelgood made.

Johnson would release four albums with Dr Feelgood; Down By The Jetty and Malpractice in 1975, Stupidity in 1976, which hit number one in the charts, and Sneakin’ Suspicion in 1977, and soon after Johnson was out the band.

That brief, febrile era with Dr Feelgood inspired the likes of Paul Weller and the Jam, the Stranglers, Madness and many more, including John Lydon, whose stage presence affected a similarly confrontational disposition. His guitar style, though, an animalistic mish-mash of lead and rhythm was where his influence really took hold. 

In the video below, posted by Joe Coombs, Johnson demonstrates his approach. 

Johnson makes it look easy. He insisted it was, telling MusicRadar that “it can be explained in five minutes” but don’t bet on it. Mastering it is a different story. 

“I can play three chords, and 12 bars, and back that whole thing up with a bit of machine gun. And that’s it,” he said. “It’s simple. But it works.”

Johnson had sage advice for anyone struggle with the timing, phrasing, or getting a tone out of the guitar amp. Don’t worry about any of that stuff. 

“If you put a determined expression on and play loud, people are convinced,” he explained. “I don't rehearse. I don’t practise at home. The only time I pick my guitar up is when I walk onstage. So that’s how technical I am. I don't think people come to see me to hear any marvellous musical innovations.”

After Dr Feelgood, Johnson formed the Solid Senders, with fellow Feelgood alum John Potter on keys, releasing their eponymous debut in 1977. A short stint in the Blockheads with Ian Dury followed, with Johnson tracking one album, Laughter, in 1980, before The Wilko Johnson Band released their first full-length the following year, Ice On The Motorway. 

In 2014, Johnson and Roger Daltrey of the Who jumped in the studio together. Having bonded over a shared love of Johnny Kid and the Pirates, they reworked some Dr Feelgood and Solid Sender songs and released Going Back Home. All this was after Johnson’s cancer diagnosis.

He was well enough, or stubborn enough to continue, and after learning that the cancer was operable, the tumour was removed and he recovered. With a new perspective on life, he released his autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here, in 2016, and told MusicRadar the experience had changed him.

“It’s almost impossible to take in, the idea that I’m still alive,” he said. “That whole year, it’s like a strange dream. But I hope it’s changed me for the better. I think I’m a bit more tolerant now. Living with the idea that your life is about to come to an end, it forces into you what’s important, and what’s not.”

Looking at Johnson’s career, and his life, pressing on and persisting was one of the important things. He toured right up to the last, playing his final gig on 18 October at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, in London. 

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.