John Primer: “I tried the Cry Baby wah pedal and a phase shifter, but the blues guys said, ‘Hey, you throw that thing in the garbage’”

John Primer
(Image credit: Eric Kriesant)

Chicago bluesman John Primer earned his musical education the hard way, playing long sets at blues clubs on the city’s South Side up to seven nights a week. But that training helped him earn plum gigs with legends Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.

Not long after joining Dixon’s band in 1979, Primer traveled with them to Mexico City, where Waters took a shine to his playing. “He asked Willie, ‘Who’s that young man playing your guitar? Where’d you get him?’ ‘Oh, he works at Theresa’s Lounge.’ He said, ‘That man sure knows my music.’”

Waters was right on the money – Primer had learned his early acoustic music, and later his electric blues style from the 1971 album Live (At Mr. Kelly’s). Like Waters, he had moved up from Mississippi, where he had lived on a sharecropping farm until age 18. When Waters’ band quit in 1981, the Hoochie Coochie Man tracked down Primer at Theresa’s and offered him the lead guitar spot. 

Primer accepted in time to participate in the famed gig where the Rolling Stones backed Waters, immortalized on Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981.

“Everybody was tore up that night – even Muddy was feeling good,” Primer says. “Keith Richards passed me a cigarette. I don’t even smoke. I should have kept that cigarette.” Richards and Ronnie Wood watched Primer and followed his lead, which gave Primer a thrill. He played with Waters until his untimely death in 1983 and started his own solo career in 1991 with Poor Man’s Blues.

Hard Times, Primer’s latest solo studio album, is informed by decades spent woodshedding his guitar licks with the masters and leading his own band. Echoing the playing traditions of Elmore James, B.B. King and Luther Allison, Primer rips through roadhouse blues on Don’t Wait Too Long and Chicago, swings on Tough Times and All Alone, and leans into the country blues of his early years on the title track. Ever the purist, he does it all without the aid of effects.

“I learned how to play blues on my own, and I didn’t have no foot pedals,” he says. “I tried the Cry Baby wah-wah pedal [and a] phase shifter, [but] the blues guys said, ‘Hey, you throw that thing in the garbage and go somewhere and jam and get your sound.’ [Now], a lot of [players] use it for playing blues – I guess to make it sound different – but when they go to their wah-wah pedals, it’s all rock ’n’ roll.”

  • Hard Times is out now via Blues House Productions.

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Jim Beaugez

Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs, a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.