Interview with multitalented Paul Nelson, guitarist of Johnny Winter and one of the most emerging producers

"The fact that blues is not just as simple as it seems. To play true blues, and correctly, it is very difficult. Less is more. Especially when you go back and listen to the traditional masters of the past."

Paul Nelson: Blues Hall of Fame

Paul Nelson has a solo career, is a session musician, music writer and also the guitarist of the Johnny Winter Band. Paul began his recording career with the ground breaking group Liege Lord gaining him national attention as their lead guitarist extraordinaire on Metal Blade records. He has performed live and or on recordings along side a list of today's top artists such as Johnny Winter, Leslie West, Slash, Warren Haynes, Sonny Landreth, Vince Gill, Los Lobos, Kim Wilson, Elvin Bishop, Kenny Wayne Sheperd, Steve Morse, John Popper, Derek Trucks, Larry Carlton, Steve Vai, Joe Louis Walker, Hubert Sumlin, Rick Derringer, Harvey Brooks, Bill Evans, James Cotton, Coco Montoya, Reese Wynans, Edgar Winter, Ray Davis, James Cotton, Anthony Jackson, Dickey Betts to name a few. Paul has had the distinction of appearing as both guitarist and songwriter on Rock/Blues legend Johnny Winter's release "I'm A Bluesman" as well as producer and performer on Winter's "Roots".                 Photo by Michael Weintrob

He has also appeared as guest guitarist with the group Halifax on their CD entitled "Inevitability of a Strange World". Nelson, who studied with Steve Vai in his Berklee days, and jazz fusion great Steve Khan, has created a tour de force with his latest all-instrumental rock/fusion solo release, entitled LOOK. Johnny Winter’s critically acclaimed album, "Step Back," won the 2015 Best Blues Album Grammy. Paul Nelson produced the album and played guitar on every track on the album. Paul tours continually with his own band and the Johnny Winter All Star Band and released the album "Bad Ass Generation" (2016), also produced and performed on the most recent Joe Louis Walker blues-rock album, "Everybody Wants a Piece". Paul also produced and performed on the new "James Montgomery Blues Band: A Tribute to Paul Butterfield" album and a Tribute to Junior Wells album that will feature high-profile guest artists, will be released in 2017. Paul has also started working with actor/musician Steven Seagal as musical director and guitarist for Steven’s band. Recognized as one of music's top guitarist, songwriter, producers Paul continues his musical journey recording and touring the world over. Paul Nelson inducted into the NY Blues Hall of Fame as Master Blues Artist and Legendary Manager.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues & Rock n’ Roll counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I’ve always known that the Blues have played an integral part in all forms of music. So I always made sure I have studied blues history and added a form of blues to all of the music I play and record. The blues is always with me wherever I travel and whomever I might record and perform with. I love many types of music, but my heart is closest to the blues.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Blues culture?

I’ve learned to come to respect and love all of the great blues and rock music that has come to be performed and recorded over the years. I’ve learned how to become a better musician, songwriter and performing/recording artists from listening to and talking to many of the musical greats that have both come before me and are currently still here with us. I’ve come to learn that if someone truly has a passion for something and works hard to turn those passions into a reality, that one can become successful.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?

Early on, right before I went to music college. I listened to Hendrix, Johnny Winter, and Clapton. And, in reading interviews by them I found out who inlfuenced them.

"It’s very hard to describe. It’s just a feeling that you get from an audience when you’re playing your best and they are enjoying it. It is definitely a “high.” (Photo: Paul Nelson and Eric Clapton)

Who were your first idols? Which artists have you worked with?

Hendrix, Tommy Bolin, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Alan Holdsworth, Mike Stern, Larry Carlton and the list goes on and on. Too many to count; and still climbing. My association with Johnny Winter has allowed me the opportunity to play and record with even more.

Which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best?

Obviously Johnny Winter is pretty much at the top of the list, but it was great working with Warren Haynes, Slash, Larry Carlton, Edgar Winter, Derek Trucks and John Popper.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The best moment of my career was recording this record. It was a big highlight for me, as was recording on the record before this. There were some giant festivals that were pretty cool, but we do a lot of those. I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had too many bad situations.

What do you think were the reasons for the blues boom at the last years?

Music has a habit of recycling itself every 20 years. So as there was a blues boom then, ie. Stevie Ray Vaughan, which explains its resurgence now. Also, a lot of the big blues names are dying off.

What are your plans for the future? Is “the blues” a way of life?

Just to continue touring and recording, performing, producing. Absolutely, but I have prided myself into being into many different types of music; fusion, pop, rock, R&B, you name it.

What was your relationship when you don'r worked with Johnny Winter?

Pretty much the same. I’m always working.

"The fact that blues is not just as simple as it seems. To play true blues, and correctly, it is very difficult. Less is more." (Photo: Paul Nelson and Johnny Winter)

Three words to describe the late great Johnny Winter...What has made you laugh?

A blues icon!!

There’s a great story I heard about Johnny that was told to me, which goes like this….he was on a plane and went to the bathroom. He was extremely drunk. When he came out of the bathroom, he yelled to everyone on the plane, “What is everyone doing on my tour bus!” That story always makes me laugh.

Are there any memories from the late Johnny Winter which you’d like to share with us?

I was sitting in the studio with him recording for the last time (which was his Grammy winning Step Back album) and him saying to me, “If we don’t get a Grammy for this album, the Recording Academy is nuts.” And than being able to say with pride to everyone, “yes, we did win the Grammy.” Unfortunately, Johnny wasn’t here to share in it.  But he would have been so proud and happy.  Somehow I do believe he knows he won the Grammy and he is happy about it.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Johnny told me I should stay true to myself and to my music, which I have done. Johnny was my friend, confidante and role model. Johnny stayed true to himself and to his music throughout his life and I have learned to do the same. Johnny has been one of the greatest influences in my life, both personally and professionally. I miss him very much.

How do you describe ‘Bad Ass Generation’ sound and songbook?

I would call the music on that album retro 70s rock with a modern day twist. It has elements of classic rock from bands like Bad Company, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin along with holding true to blues and the jam music forms. I tried to give the album a more modern production sound, which I think I accomplished. But all of the great classic rock bands from back in the 70s also used the blues as a platform to record whatever rock music they wrote and recorded, and I’ve tried to do the same. The melding of blues and rock back in the 70s made it a musical era unlike any other to come before or after it. I have great respect for both the blues and the classic rock era of the 70s.

What characterize album’s philosophy?

The philosophy was to pay homage to the music of the past…blues and classic rock. I wanted it to sound retro yet fresh.

Paul Nelson / Photo by Michael Weintrob

Why did you think that the Junior Wells music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Like all blues legends of the past, it’s timeless music. His playing and writing are one of a kind. His music has and will stand the test of time. Johnny was a huge fan of Junior’s music as am I. He was a tremendous blues harp player, of course, and his live shows were amazing; tons of energy and passion. I think people today of all ages can respect an artist like Junior who used the blues to create an original sound of his own. His music is still relevant today, which is another reason people continue to listen to it and be influenced by it.

Do the media help the blues and what does BLUES mean to you?

Sure it does the best it can. Especially if it is guitar orientated. Then guitarists in the blues world cross over more into the mainsteam when they become interviwed in the more prominent guitar publications. The word “historic” comes to mind. It’s the most purest of musical forms with the farthest reaching influence on all other styles of music.

Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?

Yes, absolutely. I think now, more so than ever. We are all influenced by the blues. Most of the resurgence of classic rock helped the rekinlded interest in blues because most of those players grew up listening to muddy Waters T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry. It’s only natural that people go back and search the roots of their favorite artists and in return bring that musical style back to the forefront.

What does guitar offered you and how would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? Do you feel more like a producer or a guitarist?

A great musical adventure….It’s very hard to describe. It’s just a feeling that you get from an audience when you’re playing your best and they are enjoying it. It is definitely a “high.” A guitarist first. And as a musician/producer I feel it helps me immensely in the studio both by A: allows me to communicate with the other musicians easier and B: get the sounds that I like on the recording during the mixing process. I’ve met a lot of producers that were “would be” musicians and they just don’t get it.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Hard work, dedicatio, schooling, private lessons, it all adds up as long as you put in the time and effort. Very long hours of practice.

"Just to continue touring and recording, performing, producing." (Photo: Paul Nelson in Japan)

How do you want to be remembered your works with Johnny Winter?

As a player that complimented his playing and didn’t try to step on him or challenge him in any musical way. A player that pays for the sake of the song!

How was your recording hours with all your guests?

That was a great process. I had to really think out my guitar parts as to not clutter up the mix. Things like using many different instruments and amps. Plpaying in many different registers, different grooves, different accents. It was all thought out to enhance each individual track.

What mistake of the blues world and your career, you want to correct?

The fact that blues is not just as simple as it seems. To play true blues, and correctly, it is very difficult. Less is more. Especially when you go back and listen to the traditional masters of the past.

I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out. I pretty much plan everything that I do so there aren’t too many surprises or wrong tunrs.

You have traveling around the world. What are your conclusions?

My conclusion is that music is a great barrier breaker. There are no boundries or borderswhen people play and listen to music. It is if we are all the same for those moments. Music is a universal language.

Have you recorded new CD using a more old fashioned sound because you believe that there are no new paths of sound?

No way. Everything I do is for a reason, but even when I search for traditional sounds, I always combine them with an updted twist.

To which person do you want to send one from your CD songs?

Jeff Beck. Hahaha.

"Hard work, dedication, schooling, private lessons, it all adds up as long as you put in the time and effort. Very long hours of practice." (Photo: Paul Nelson and Jeff Beck)

When you get back home, what do you play besides the blues when you’re kicking back at home or just to have fun?

Like I said, I play everything. It’s no different than being on the road or if I’m at home.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

I miss the rawness, the energy, the soul and the feel of older blues music. It’s very important those elements stay in today’s music.  It’s always important to learn from the masters. And Johnny was my teacher.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hope I continue to play and record music like I have been doing. I hope the blues remains an influential and relevant form of music to our younger generations, both fans and for those who are musicians. I don’t really have any fears. As far as my own music, I continue to feel that I am constantly becoming a better musician and songwriter. And I feel that my best days as a musician are still ahead of me.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Better treatment for struggling musicians. Too many of the older musicians are broke and no one is taking care of them. I also wish for more opportunities for struggling artists to get their music heard by people.

"The blues is always with me wherever I travel and whomever I might record and perform with. I love many types of music, but my heart is closest to the blues." (Photo: Paul & Hubert Sumlin)

What is the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll culture and music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Well, music has influenced various cultures and races for years. I personally can’t imagine a world without music in it. Music is one of the great equalizers in the world.  No matter what one’s race is or political, cultural or social standing….music has an effect on everyone. To me, it’s the greatest art form in the world. Music has defined different eras; it has defined cultures…it has been at the forefront of some of the greatest times in the world’s history, even when those times have been turbulent. Long live music and its affect on humanity.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day..?

I would go back in time and write Stairway to Heaven one day before Led Zeppelin did! Ha ha.

What are your experiences from your visit to Greece?

We had a great time down there. I know we’re coming back sometime next year. I love Greece.

Describe the ideal rhythm section to you?

Victor Bailey on bass and Dennis Chambers on drums.

"The philosophy was to pay homage to the music of the past…blues and classic rock." (Photo by Michael Weintrob)

What was one of the last records you have bought?

My iPod is loaded. I couldn’t tell you.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, people like that.

Paul Nelson - Official website


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