Wilko Johnson, Dr. Feelgood guitarist and major influence on the '70s English punk movement, dies aged 75

Wilko Johnson
(Image credit: Future)

Wilko Johnson, guitarist and vocalist of British rock band Dr. Feelgood who heavily influenced the English punk movement in the ‘70s, has died aged 75.

News of Johnson’s death was confirmed on his social media pages early this morning. Revealing that the guitarist died on Monday (November 21) in his home, a tribute reads: “This is the announcement we never wanted to make, and we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died.

“Thank you for respecting the family’s privacy at this very sad time. RIP Wilko Johnson.”

Posted by WilkoJohnsonBand on 

After being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2013, and subsequently choosing not to receive chemotherapy, Johnson significantly outlived his life expectancy; he was told he had just nine to 10 months to live at the time.

The following year, Johnson released Going Back Home, a collaborative album with The Who’s Roger Daltrey, and later underwent major surgery to remove a six-and-a-half-pound tumor, after which he was declared cancer free.

Speaking on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show [per NME (opens in new tab)] in 2014, Johnson said: “I think it took about 10 or 11 hours or something and they took this tumor out of me. This tumor weighed three kilos, that’s the size of a baby.

“I’d been carrying this thing on stage with me all year, my guitar used to stick out. My guitar used to rock on this tumor. Rocking away like a rocker! So, no, I shouldn’t be here at all.”

A longtime Telecaster player and Fender signature artist, Wilko Johnson was known for his percussive fingerstyle approach to electric guitar playing. His choppy style, inspired by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates guitarist Mick Green, helped pave the way for punk to flourish, and rebuilt blues playing for a new generation.

This, coupled with his band’s stripped-back, no-nonsense approach to rock ‘n’ roll at a time when the genre was becoming defined by overindulgence, created the perfect storm for Johnson’s lasting influence.

He appeared on three of Dr. Feelgood’s studio albums during his tenure between 1971 and 1977: Down by the Jetty (1975), Malpractice (1975), Sneakin’ Suspicion (1977). The group’s only Number One full-length was their 1976 live album, Stupidity. It was most likely helped, in part, by Johnson’s intense, unhinged stage persona.

The guitarist departed Dr. Feelgood under somewhat bitter circumstances in 1977, but he had already long made his impact on a generation of punk to come.

“Thousands of people play a Telecaster because of Joe Strummer. Well, Joe played a Telecaster because of me!” Johnson once told Guitarist [per Louder (opens in new tab)].

Following his time with Dr. Feelgood, Wilko Johnson formed both Solid Senders and the Wilko Johnson Band, and played with names including Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Roger Daltry and Johnny Thunders during his impressive six-decade career.

Johnson remained musically active until weeks before his death, playing UK shows in London, Poole Brighton and Birmingham in recent months. Speaking with Classic Rock in 2017, he explained: “I’m a miserable so-and-so. The only time I’m happy is when I’m playing, so that’s what I’m going to do. For as long as I’m still able to do so, playing music will fill my remaining allotted years.”

Despite his stratospheric impact on punk and the guitar in general, Johnson told Guitar World back in 2019 that he only ever owned six guitars throughout his career, and held on to just four of those at the time of the interview.

“I’ve only ever owned six guitars and I’ve still got four of them!” he said. “Two old Teles, [my] signature model [which arrived in 2013] and an old Strat. I love Strats and the way they look, but for what I do, the Telecaster is perfect.”

Outside of music, Johnson was an occasional actor, and made appearances in the first and second seasons of Game of Thrones as mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne.

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Sam is a Staff Writer at Guitar World, also creating content for Total Guitar, Guitarist and Guitar Player. He has well over 15 years of guitar playing under his belt, as well as a degree in Music Technology (Mixing and Mastering). He's a metalhead through and through, but has a thorough appreciation for all genres of music. In his spare time, Sam creates point-of-view guitar lesson videos on YouTube under the name Sightline Guitar (opens in new tab).