Edgar Winter: Expanding Rock Horizons
[Reprinted from Contemporary Keyboard, 1976. See also our recent Edgar Winter articles:
The Art of Synth Soloing - Frankenstein Revisited and
5 Things Edgar Winter has Learned About Having a Career in Music.]
EDGAR WINTER, the white-haired, thunder-throated leader of such bands as White Trash and The Edgar Winter Group, was once described as a traditional Texas gentleman. Nowadays, that description might be a little hard to swallow given that in concert this " gentleman" can be seen bouncing across the stage with a synthesizer keyboard slung around his neck while pulling notes from everywhere in his four-octave vocal range-creating the kind of hard-hitting musical performance that turns good rock songs into full-blown, high-powered extravaganzas.
A native of Beaumont, Texas, Edgar grew up in a musical family. His first instruments were the ukulele and banjo. At the age of eight, Edgar, along with his older brother Johnny (Who also played ukulele and banjo), appeared in talent shows and even on television. As Edgar recalls, "We used to do Everly Brothers things like 'Wake Up Little Susie,' but we weren’t really serious about it." Winter's mother played classical piano and Edgar used to listen to her for hours on end. He credits her as a big influence on his early playing.
By the time Edgar was eleven, he was playing drums and piano in a rock band with his brother, who had by then graduated from ukulele to guitar. "Then I decided I wanted to play saxophone," Edgar recalls. "But Johnny said, ‘I don’t want a saxophone in my band’. So I started my own." The brothers were to be reunited in a band called Black Plague a few years later. They played in go-go clubs throughout the South, doing music by Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding-mostly rhythm and blues things, in which Winter found himself playing lots of saxophone and organ. Black Plague disbanded when, as Edgar puts it, "The car fell apart, and nobody wanted to buy a new one."
Winter then received his high school diploma through a correspondence course, and almost enrolled in a music college. But, on advice from friends attending the college, he joined a band instead. He explains, "The guys told me I could learn just as much playing in a band, and that suited me fine. I had always hated school because my poor eyesight made it hard to do the stuff you have to do."
Meanwhile, Edgar's brother had been signed to the Columbia label. And it wasn't long before Edgar was called in to play sax on Johnny's first album, Johnny Winter And [Columbia, C-30221). Steve Paul, who had signed Johnny to Columbia, began talking to Edgar about making an album of his own. After much deliberation and five weeks in the studio, Edgar's Entrance album [Epic, BG-33770) was released.
The album did little towards establishing Winter as a figure of note, so he set about forming a band-a commercially oriented band. Pulling together some friends and local musicians, Winter launched an eight-piece group, White Trash. It received wide acceptance and their first record, White Trash [Epic, KE-30512), far outsold the Entrance LP. In 1972, a double-album set entitled Roadwork [Epic, PEC-31261) was released, a short time after the band had actually broken up. It provided Edgar with a firm foothold in the pop music world.
The next stage of Winter's development was The Edgar Winter Group, which at various times featured guitarists Ronnie Montrose and Rick Derringer, bassists Dan Hartman and Randy Hobbs, and drummer Chuck Ruff. Their first album, They Only Come Out At Night [Epic, PEQ -31584), included a tune called "Frankenstein," which was just tacked on to the end of the LP. Edgar didn't think it was commercial enough, yet shortly after the LP was released, “Frankenstein" became a million-selling, Number-One hit. It showcased some of Edgar's first synthesizer work. The Edgar Winter Group released two more albums before biting the dust, Shock Treatment [Epic, PEQ-32461), and The Edgar Winter Croup With Rick Derringer [Blue Sky, P2Q-33798).
Winter also has another solo album to his credit, Jasmine Nightdreams [Blue Sky, P2Q-33283), and his next project, scheduled to begin shortly, is an album with the legendary disco team of Gamble and Huff.
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What effect did the synthesizer have on your music?
I got my first synthesizer when White Trash broke up. I realized that it would never fit into a group like White Trash: we had been playing R&B, and I found that we were doing mostly unoriginal material. I didn't think that that was a very creative contribution to the world. I wanted to expand the music I was doing. The synthesizer helped shape the direction that I went in.
How did you get your first synthesizer?
I just went into Manny's Music Store [156 W. 48th St., New York, NY 10036) and said, "Hey, you got any synthesizers?" And the guy said, "Oh, sure." I bought an ARP 2600. I had heard synthesizers on records and thought that they sounded great. I wanted one. I had no idea what it was supposed to do, but I knew that I didn't want to start out on a small one and have to graduate to a larger one.
Did you take any lessons on the 2600?
I'm very impatient, so I took lessons from the guy that does work with Stevie Wonder. He gave me three lessons. He'd drill me and I felt like I was back in school. I was very technically minded in school, but in this instance I just wanted to learn as much as I could in a short period of time. I didn't want to hear about waveforms and such. I learned enough from that to take it on my own. I could understand what was going on pretty much, because I used to mess around with electronics when I was younger. I'd try to build radios, but I'd always burn my face or singe my hair or something. I wasn't totally in the dark about synthesizers; it wasn't so much like groping. I think that somebody who doesn't have preconceived ideas about something attacks it more objectively. They can come up with something more original. They don't have that much knowledge of convention. Somebody who has learned by a method can be limited. It's hard to break away from conventional things. I've always wanted to be the adventurer and figure things out for myself.
Is that the way you approach learning the piano also?
It's always been the way I approach things. I had piano lessons for about three years. And I just played from memory because I couldn't see well enough to sight-read. I listened to my piano teacher and then played the passage that she played by ear. I've always had the ability to listen to somebody playa line and then sit' down and play the same line. My piano teacher liked that. It made her job easy.
Did your piano training help you with the synthesizer?
Yeah. Knowledge of piano to me is basic to understanding music. It's the easiest thing to learn theory on. You can see the keyboard and visualize the concepts. It's not the same as if you had a guitar and someone pointed at the frets and said, "this makes a fourth." You can hear that, but you can't visualize it. I learned the most about music from playing in my brother's band, though.
Do you still utilize theory-consciously think, "I'm playing a sixth here, a fourth there"?
All the time. I set up control oscillators to raise the pitch a fourth, or lower it a fifth. All those kinds of things use theory. It's indirect, but it enters into things.
What about your actual approach to the synthesizer?
I think it is less technical than most people's because I like the flexibility of bending notes. In most cases I try to play it as expressively as possible, utilizing the mechanical functions that you have at your disposal. I intend to get more into new sounds-things that I haven't heard before. I haven't heard anything that's totally unfamiliar to my ear.
Then you're not into mimicking the sound of other instruments with the synthesizer?
I don't think that's what I want to do. But I love Tomita. I love listening to his strings. They don't sound exactly like strings-in fact; they sound a little better than life. Too real. Too perfect. There's no way you can use an electronic instrument to mimic acoustic instruments perfectly because it leaves out the human element of Imperfection. With an electronic instrument you will always get the same overtone pattern. It's programmed. A human playing a violin still has that random element in it. I have written some studies for the piano that might lend themselves to an electronic orchestration. I'd like to try to out-do Tomita with them.
Have you ever attempted anything like that before?
The closest I've come to anything like that is dubbing five string parts on top of each other in "Miracle of Love" on the Shock Treatment album. After that I bought one of those
Salina string units. I get tired of hearing it, though. They don't sound like strings. They just create the same impression-the atmosphere. I stopped dubbing string parts with the 2600 after I got the Salina, but the sound I've gotten from it has never been realistic enough for my purposes. When I do those etudes, I'll probably end up using real strings. What I really want to get into, however, is spacey, weird sounds.
You've stuck with the ARP 2600 synthesizer from the start?
Yes. I have eight of them that I carry around on the road with me. You can never tell. They're pretty stable, but we have to have a voltage regulator to make sure they stay in tune. I'm an intonation freak. If something is out of tune it really bothers me. That's the reason I have so many 2600s.
They do strange things when they get moved around. I have to make sure that the units are turned on two hours before I get to the hall. We have someone watching the stage voltage at all times, because that can have an effect on the tuning too.
There are better synthesizers than the 2600, but I haven't played any of them. I got used to the 2600 to the point of not having to look at the panel to know where everything is on it.
I've wanted to get an ARP 2500 for a long time, but I've never had the time to spend learning a new piece of gear. It's been hit the road, get back, organize the material for the next record, hit the road again, and so on.
Do you use patch cords?
I use them in recording, but when I play 'live,' it's just too difficult to switch them around. Since I wear my synthesizer keyboard around my neck, all the changes that I make have to be quick. What I usually do is have little strips of masking tape that I preset in the dressing room so that I can just push the sliders and they're where I want them. For recording, I experiment with the patches until I come up with something I like. I don't write them down, because it seems I can never get exactly the same sound twice. I like to treat each time I'm at the synthesizer as if it were the first.
Are your ARPs modified?
No. They're stock 2600s. The only real thing of technical interest that I'm involved with is a unit called the Cromulizer, which will convert the alto sax into a synthesizer triggering device. It has pads under the keys that read which ones are pressed and convert that knowledge into the proper control voltage. Then that feeds into the 2600. I think that synthesizers are still in their infant stages, but they're going to come into prominence pretty soon. Many of the components that are in synthesizers have been around ever since science fiction movies have been. They had oscillators and filters-all that stuff. It's just that someone came along, threw them all into one package, and called it a synthesizer. What I'm waiting for is for someone to come up with a pitch-to-voltage converter, so you can plug a guitar into a synthesizer. I don't think that the Walter Sear unit [the Synthesar] is very good. It doesn't work that well, and costs something like $15,000.
Do you still use a Univox electric piano?
I haven't used that for two years now. The main advantage of it was mobility. But one of the first shows I played with it slung around my neck was with Billy Preston. Right after that I saw him doing it. I was sort of taken aback by that. I don't suppose I could have patented the idea or anything, and I'm sort of flattered now. But I got tired of playing electronic-type keyboards. There's really very little expression to them: You just touch a key and there's a note. You can beat it as hard as you like and the same note will come out at the same volume.
The Univox had a trashy sound too. We had to use a lot of equalization on it to get it to sound even fairly decent. The amps we used, Ampeg SVTs, didn't help much either. I'd much prefer feeding everything direct into the PA. It's much cleaner that way. The only thing I'll put around my neck anymore is the synthesizer keyboard. But I just started playing acoustic piano again. On the last tour I did with The Edgar Winter Group I was using a Steinway grand with a Help in still pickup. And on a later tour I did with my brother Johnny, I didn’t have room on stage for a grand piano so I used a Rhodes. I've always liked them. They don't sound quite like a piano, but the sound they do have I nice. I only use the synthesizer on about three tunes With The Edgar Winter Group, when we played 'live.' 12 the studio I'd use it for bass lines and things, but on stage Frankenstein was the main number I used it on.
What other kind of equipment did you use with The Edgar Winter Group?
I had two 2600s on stage. One was mobile; the other was on a stand. And I had the Univox. As I said, the amps I used were Ampeg SVTs. Monster, 300-watt amps. I tried to keep the situation on stage as simple as possible. The drawback I have is that my vision restricts me. I can't possibly have a whole bank of equipment like Keith Emerson. Having to look at all that stuff would be too much of a problem. The lighting on stage is always changing and that makes it kind of spacey as it is.
You mentioned that you had a Salina string synthesizer. Have you ever used a Mellotron or Chamberlin?
I have a Chamberlin. I used it on our very last album, The Edgar Winter Group With Rick Derringer. I used some flutes, ‘cellos, vibes, and violins. That’s a very sensitive unit, too. I was afraid to take it on the road, because I knew what would happen to it. But it's good. The tapes that go along with them are a problem. How can you possibly get good tapes? You tell some string player that he's going to record some notes for an instrument that's going to put him out of work, and he's not going to be very inclined to do that.
Has your saxophone playing influenced the way you play the synthesizer?
The saxophone is my favorite instrument, and it has definitely influenced my synthesizer style. I think that the more instruments you play, the better your overall concept of music will be. Since the instruments are technically different, I play things on sax that wouldn't lend themselves easily to keyboard and visa versa. I do transpose lines that I've figured out on one instrument to the other, though. When I first started playing synthesizer, I did things that you might normally hear played on other instruments. The difference would be that they had the synthesizer sound rather than their normal one. I think that's a more realistic approach for a beginning synthesist to take. I didn't want things to be overpowered by synthesizer. There are already people doing that-Keith Emerson being the most obvious example. I wanted to take a different approach. I didn't want to compete with those other people. I just wanted the synthesizer to be another voice in the group's texture.
Do you change your keyboard style at all when you play with Rick Derringer as opposed to your brother or Ronnie Montrose?
No, what I play on keyboards is never affected by what the guitarists play. There are other things that I alter, like scat singing with Ronnie Montrose. That was more like a duel than a duet.
What are your impressions of what synthesists are doing today?
You hear synthesizer players all the time now, but you don't hear too many new sounds. On most things you could figure out what they're doing with little or no trouble. With an instrument that's about as unlimited as any instrument can be, I think there's more that can be done on the creative level. That's what I'm aiming for.