Paul Nelson and his boss, the legendary Johnny Winter

(photo by Alexander Chamas)

Paul Nelson is not only Johnny Winter’s second guitarist, but also the blues icon’s musical director, producer, songwriter and (many say) lifesaver. “Paul Nelson is one of my favorite guitarists” says Winter. Fans who have recently seen Johnny Winter will attest to Nelson’s own guitar prowess along with his unique ability to complement Winter. The resulting fireworks provide some of the best shows of Winter’s long career. The release of Johnny’s new album, “Step Back,” finds Nelson recording and performing alongside a big list of guitar greats.

TG: Many credit you with saving Johnny’s life and career. How did you get involved?

PN: I did a lot of session work at the Carriage House studios in Connecticut, where Johnny ended up recording a lot of his later work. I was in there recording some music for the XFL, the World Wrestling Foundation’s venture into football, and Johnny was in doing the rough demos for “I’m A Bluesman,” and he heard me doing a little bluesy clip, and he said “hey, I like your playing, wanna write me a tune? I’m looking for a slow blues.” And I said “sure!” so that night I wrote a song and had some of the session guys put it together with a singer who sounded like Johnny, and made I made a demo and I gave it to Johnny, and he said “Wow, this sounds like me! I’ll do that, you got two more?” He then asked me to play the second guitar part on that song, and said “would you like to play on the rest of the record?” I said “Fine” and next thing you know, I’m going on tour with him. He then said “Since you’re on tour with me and I’m having trouble with my manager, wanna manage me?” So one thing led to another to another and here I am.

TG: As a player, you’re obviously more trained in theory than Johnny – how does that gel with his more organic approach?

PN: My theory, theoretically (laughs) allows me to understand all the possibilities that exist in backing him up through the theory of chords voicings, where to find the holes and to not step on him by knowing about working the register of the instrument. My experience of being a gun for hire really helped me be a team player. At one point, I was playing for 30 bands at once…

TG: You went to Berklee, right?

PN: Yes that's where I met and studied guitar with Steve (Vai).

TG: What was studying with Steve Vai like? Did you get most of your theory from him?

PN: His lessons cost me a carton of cigarettes each lesson. Not that he smoked that many, but every couple of weeks, that would be the fee. I think I was one of his earliest students. We went over some great stuff I would sight read out of sax books with him My knowledge of theory came from guitarist Linc Chamberland and my other teachers - Steve Khan, Mike Stern and Berklee, along with my own concepts which I pass along at my Master Class clinics that I do on tour.

TG: Many who see Johnny’s recent shows will be surprised by the amount of guitar interplay, and the way your guitar complements and supports what Johnny plays, almost Allman Bros.-like in certain areas. Are you helping with the arrangements?

PN: As Johnny’s musical director, I work heavy with the drummer and bass player to ensure we have steady simple grooves allowing Johnny to breathe musically.

TG: What’s your favorite guitar and amp setup?

PN: I run in stereo, meaning everything happens from my pedalboard, and goes to 2 4x10 Fender Supers amps. Because of Johnny’s Gibson-y tone with the Lazer or the Firebird, I find the Strat really complements him well, although I do use the double stacked DiMarzio pickups to add to a thicker sound. I use 2 distortion pedals daisy chained, a TubeScreamer and a Boss OD1, I back off on the guitar volume, and it goes into a stereo chorus split into 2 delays, short and long. Lately I’ve been using this EB booster that adds a thickness to the tone. You’ve gotta complement Johnny’s powerful clean sound with something a little thicker and darker. I play Fender Strats but have recently have started using GJ2 “Glendora” guitars on tour which I love

TG: Are you doing a solo record and how does Johnny feel about your own musical career?

PN: I have my solo CD out called “LOOK” and plans are in the works for me to hit the studio as soon as I’m finished playing on and producing Johnny’s latest album.

TG: Tell us about that...

PN: The record is called “Step Back” and it should drop around the new year on Megaforce/Sony. It’s going to be a great album, and will feature Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Billy Gibbons, Mark Knopfler, Leslie West, Dr. John, Brian Setzer, David Grisman, and Joe Bonamassa and more. It’s a little more rock orientated than his “Roots” album. This album is loaded with great performances and will continue to give Johnny his just desserts.

About the author: After 4 albums with Mambo Sons, Tom Guerra is working on his first solo album.