Interview with veteran Johnny Whitehill, four-times best guitarist of the British Blues Awards in the ‘90s

"My biggest fear for the blues is that the current trend of not imposing any restrictions or parameters on what is and isn’t blues will lead to blues disappearing, because you can only change it so much before it becomes something else."

Johnny Whitehill: The Guitar Slinger

Veteran British blues guitarist Johnny Whitehill, the former Blues Burglar/Kingsnakes lead-guitarist is a four-times winner of the British Blues Awards in the ‘90s (Best UK Blues Guitarist 1997, 1998 & 1999). Johnny from Ashington lad who now leads the blues outfit Groove-a-Matics (winners of the 2012 New Brunswick battle of the blues bands), released the album "Keep It Clean". John has been a fixture on the British blues scene since the 1970s, emerging as a star while a member of the Blues Burglars, the band he formed with harpist Paul Lamb in the early '80s.

As a guitarist, his inspirations and influences came from the likes of B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Lightnin' Hopkins, et al., and, later on, fellow British bluesman Peter Green, among others.

Johnny has long since been regarded as one of the best Blues Guitarist in the UK by fellow Blues artists and fans; He started out playing in the North East of England with local famed Blues bands The Blues Burglars and The Real Deal.

He then left the North East to perform as lead guitarist with Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes for 20 odd years winning all manor of awards recording several CD's including a solo effort in 1998 entitled "Guitar Slinger" on indigo records and making many fans all over England and Europe. After a semi-retirement in his home town of Ashington, he is back on the road performing around the UK with Grove-a-Matics, a blend blues, r&b and soul into a rich musical gumbo

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

To me the blues is a means of expressing emotion and conveying it to other people, it has taught me that while being individuals we are all basically the same in as much we all face the same problems and feel the same pain. The ability to express this through music and make other people understand it is what makes a great bluesman. BB King and Peter Green were both masters of this.

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

I think blues continues to attract a following because it relates to everyday issues that everyone can relate to.

"I think blues continues to attract a following because it relates to everyday issues that everyone can relate to." Photo Johnny with Groove-A-Matics in studio

How do you describe Johnny Whitehill's sound and progress?

I try to play honestly but it’s not always easy, the temptation to show off needlessly is in all of us but the great players do not give in to this, players such as B.B., Peter Green, Otis Spann and Rice Miller to name but a few chose there notes carefully and that’s the kind of approach I strive for.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The most interesting periods of my life were, when I first started listening to blues, It seemed as if every day I was discovering a new player each more exciting than the last, I still remember the first time I heard Elmore James the sound was so big and atmospheric it was unreal.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

When I first moved to London I played in the House Band at Bobs Goodtime Blues, we never rehearsed, everything was jammed, and jamming with high class musicians such as Sam Kelly, Rod Demick, Detroit John Idan, Shakey Vick and others brought out the best in my playing so they were the best jams I was ever involved in. The most memorable gigs of my career were playing on the same bill as some of the blues greats such as Albert King, Albert Collins, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, because I got to play then listen and have a lesson all in one night.

"To me the blues is a means of expressing emotion and conveying it to other people, it has taught me that while being individuals we are all basically the same in as much we all face the same problems and feel the same pain." 

What do you miss most nowadays from the 70s and old days of British blues boom?

What I miss most from the British blues boom is Peter Green playing at his best and creating new songs for me to listen to.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of British blues?

My hopes for the future of British blues are that young players will continue to develop the music whilst still retaining the essence and feel of the music. My biggest fear for the blues is that the current trend of not imposing any restrictions or parameters on what is and isn’t blues will lead to blues disappearing, because you can only change it so much before it becomes something else.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the British blues circuit?

What has touched me emotionally from the British Blues scene recently is listening to old Peter Green’s records and seeing King King and Matt Schoffield.

"The most memorable gigs of my career were playing on the same bill as some of the blues greats such as Albert King, Albert Collins, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, because I got to play then listen and have a lesson all in one night."

What are the lines that connect the American and British Blues? What are the differences between UK and USA?

I don’t think there is any difference between American and British blues, trends seem to be universal, when British blues became rocky Americans played rocky. When American blues became funky Brits picked up on that, when American blues became authentic everyone picked up on that and now you have American rockers such as Ryan McGarvey and Billy Walton playing the same style as Brits like Virgil McMahon and Mitch Laddie.

When we talk about Blues usually refer to past moments. Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Although I prefer blues from the past I think real blues will exist as long as emotions exist. Which is forever !!

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

If I could go back in time I would go back to the sixties when most of my favorite players were alive and healthy so I could to see them and record it.

 

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