For Warren Haynes there's no doubt about it, music matters. "We've got to keep the music alive," he insists, "Not just blues music, but all music. We've got to keep new, aspiring musicians and new talent flowing all the time. It's really important that that river continues to flow." As guitarist in the legendary Allman Brothers Band and bandleader of cult favorites Gov't Mule, Haynes is something of an expert on keeping the traditions of the past flowing and evolving into the future. And that makes him the perfect choice to headline this year's Guitar Center King of the Blues finals.
King of the Blues is all about the balance between tradition and innovation, finding your voice using the past as your guide, or as the contest's byline says, "Know your roots. Be original." And that sense of originality steeped in tradition is part of what makes the true greats stand apart. "That is the ultimate goal," says Haynes, "When you hear someone and know who it is as soon as you hear them play. That to me is a testament to the ultimate achievement for an instrumentalist, especially a guitar player.
"It takes awhile," he continues, "But you can hear someone who's establishing their own voice and identity. They've got the tone, the phrasing, hopefully that human quality that a great instrumentalist possesses that sounds like a human voice; because all the best soloists are emulating the human voice. The human voice is the greatest instrument of all."
For King of the Blues hopefuls, and all aspiring players for that matter, Warren Haynes' words of wisdom provide valuable insight into the very soul of the blues and why it has remained, after so many years, a vital and constantly fertile source of inspiration for countless artists. "On one hand there would be no rock music without the blues," Haynes reminds us, "So you've got to start there. But maybe even more importantly is what the blues means from an emotional level, where that music came from. And people think, ‘Oh, the blues is sad. It's depressing.' No. It's the antidote for sadness and depression. It's what makes you feel better. The music lifts you out of that. And that's the human condition. That's going to be here forever in every human being, so any person who thinks they never had the blues just doesn't really know what that means."
That quality, the emotional depth essential to genuine blues, is part of what makes true blues mastery so elusive. It's not like a player can simply master the right licks or techniques and presto… blues! On the contrary, growth as a player is inextricably tied to the inevitable road of hardships and heartbreaks we all travel. "When you're learning to play guitar," Haynes elaborates, "You're learning how to play fast and play all the fancy licks and acquire the chops as a kid. Then a few years later you get your heart broken and you learn what one note means."
The first step is getting to know your blues ancestors, Haynes insists, because it all starts with tradition, but it doesn't end there. You take what you learn from the past and move forward to find your own voice. "It's like a family tree and you're going backwards," says Haynes. "And so everybody listens to Freddy King. Everybody listens to Albert King. Everybody listens to B.B., of course. But then you get like Robert Johnson and Son House, when you're really young that stuff may not connect with you as much as it might a couple of years later. So you just have to keep following that path and exposing yourself to all the masters and eventually all the connections will kind of solidify and you'll start to be able to play like yourself."
Warren Haynes has carved out a very impressive career by playing like himself. Along with his own Gov't Mule and the Allman Brothers, Haynes also tours with The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends. Perhaps rock's ultimate road warrior, Haynes is a world-class guitarist and singer who honed his playing the old fashioned way, live on stage, night after night. Haynes' playing and writing draws on a wide variety of influences from rock to jazz to reggae, but the constant thread that connects it all is the blues. From the earliest innovators to latter-day virtuosos, Haynes preaches the value of absorbing it all and really studying the tradition. "I think there's something to be learned from every aspect of the blues." He says. "There's as much to be learned from John Lee Hooker as there is from someone who's more flashy. If you're going to tackle the blues, if you're going to take on that assignment, you can't just study certain aspects of it. You've got to study all of it and you've got to try to figure out where it all comes from and what it all means."
All that work and tracing of roots pays dividends you can hear, says Haynes, "When you hear that depth and that maturity in someone's playing, they've done a lot of listening and a lot of soul searching and opened their mind and their hearts to a lot of music."
Warren Haynes' own soul searching has lead to his new solo album, Man in Motion. This soulful, rootsy collection of songs harkens back to classic soul and R&B, and to find the right sounds Haynes had to think pre-rock. "It's all a more old school, low gain sort of vibe, which brings out a more kind of vocalesque approach to guitar playing. A lot of vintage hollow body guitars and small amplifiers and, you know, just trying to capture the spirit and the sound of that era without copying it. I want the record to sound like, or at least have the same spirit as the influences that helped make it."
Regardless of the project, Waren Haynes is a player whose sound remains powerful, expressive and highly recognizable. And it usually starts with the sound of Gibson guitars. "I like a bigger, fatter sound," he says, "Like a tenor saxophone or a tenor singer. I've mostly been a Gibson guy because it gives me more of the tone that I'm hearing in my head. I always tend to go back to that warmer kind of humbucker sound."
As a worldwide ambassador of great Gibson tone, Haynes has been honored with his own signature model Les Paul, which features a unique twist on the traditional LP formula. "It has this circuitry that was designed by John Cutler and Peter Miller who did a lot of stuff for Jerry Garcia," explains Haynes. "They called me one day and said they had designed this volume pot that, when you lower the volume, the tone didn't change. And I said, well, that's great, but a lot of the sounds that I use are based on the sound changing, the tone changing when I lower the volume. That's some of my favorite sounds. But if I could have it both ways, it would give me a ton of possibilities. So they made it switchable. There's a little switch, so when it's down it's a stock Les Paul and when it's up it engages this circuitry. So if I'm playing at a really soft volume with the guitar turned way down and I feel like I want it to be brighter I just hit that switch and all the top end comes back. And so it really gives you a multitude of sounds that a normal Les Paul wouldn't give you."
As far as amps go, Haynes has been enjoying getting to know the newer offerings from Paul Reed Smith. "I'm in the middle now of the Allman Brothers tour where I'm using two different Paul Reed Smith heads," says Haynes, "One is a new prototype. I'm kind of just experimenting with two or three different ones. I'm also, in my solo band, experimenting with some of the smaller combo Paul Reed Smith amps. Paul and I are working together, along with David Grissom and Derek Trucks to expand the amp line and give our own input about how we think the amps could work better for ourselves. So it's a work in progress and from the first time I plugged into his new amp series I really liked them a lot."
Just as Warren Haynes' playing takes the best of the past and moves it forward, his approach to the Gov't Mule fan community has moved the tape trading concept into the modern media marketplace, providing both great concert audio for fans and a great revenue stream for the band. "Gov't Mule started a website called Muletracks.com in 2004. Every show we've played since then is available to the public. You can download them for a fee and they are a special matrix mix, which combines the audience recording with the normal board mix. We have a guy that's in charge of that and that's what he does. That's turned out to be a really successful thing for us. We've sold over two million downloads. I think it works for a band like us that does a different show every night. It probably wouldn't work for a band that played the same songs the same way night after night, but we offer a really high quality recording of every show. And so if someone hears about a show but they couldn't attend they can go download it. Or if they attend the show and think, ‘Oh, that show was amazing, I'd like to have it for the future,' they can download it. But we still let tapers come in and record and tape and trade the shows for free. We just like offering this other alternative, which we feel is a better alternative, but both worlds still exist."
Thanks to a combination of well-crafted songs, great playing and a real dedication to the fans, Warren Haynes and Gov't mule have managed to not just survive, but prosper, in an ever-changing music scene that has many artists scrambling to find their footing. "The music business in general is down about 30 percent, I think," Haynes says, "We've been lucky that we've been able to continue doing as well or better than we have before and I'm thankful for that... The music business is kind of reinventing itself right now and I think it'll come out stronger on the other side, but we're in the middle of a lot of transitions."
Whatever happens to the biz, and whatever new technologies threaten to turn the world of music on its head, Warren Haynes is proof positive that with solid roots in the traditions of the past and a finger on the pulse of today, real music played by real musicians is still a living, breathing force to be reckoned with. And that is a comforting thought.