While Rusty Zinn may be on the fast-track to blues stardom, it is his veneration for traditional Chicago blues that is his stock in trade. And with good reason. While still in his twenties Zinn had already toured and/or recorded with the likes of blues legend Jimmy Rogers, Windy City harp master Snooky Pryor, West Coast blues harmonicat Mark Hummel, and most notably Thunderbirds frontman Kim Wilson, who personally got Zinn his first record deal. That association led to Zinn's 1996 Black Top release Sittin' & Waitin', and his 1999 follow-up Confessin'.
Zinn's latest effort, The Chill, on new label Alligator, continues his fleet-fingered guitar stylings, while showcasing the now 30-year-old artist's growing songwriting skills. Guitar.com recently sat down with Zinn backstage at Buddy Guy's Legends in Chicago to discuss the blues, the guitar, and The Chill.
Guitar.com: How did somebody who grew up in Santa Cruz, California, in the age of MTV become interested in the blues?
Rusty Zinn: My brother. I already had a taste for rootsy music through my parents. My mom had a lot of 45s left over from when she was kid and the one's that I really remember I liked a lot were by Fats Domino and Elvis Presley. Then they used to play the Wolfman Jack radio show. My ears were perking up to rootsy music, do-wop, R&B, soul. When I was about 15, my brother brought home a Muddy Waters record, which pretty much flipped me out right then and there.
Guitar.com: What point did you start playing guitar?
Zinn: About a year-and-a-half later.
Guitar.com: And you got right into the blues stuff?
Zinn: Yeah, just jumped right on in.
Guitar.com: What were some of the first things you learned?
Zinn: 'Hideaway' by Freddie King. I used to sit down with that, and I really loved Buddy Guy. I used to sit down and kind flail away at that. I think I had some of his Chess stuff. I really liked his slow blues: Stone Crazy and 'Brokenhearted Blues? and stuff like that. I just sat there with the tape recorder in my room with the door shut so I wouldn't drive my parents up the wall. I found the notes and that's how I taught myself.
Guitar.com: You were strictly self-taught? You didn't take lessons?
Zinn: I tried to take a lesson from a local guitar player that was supposed to be a real hot shot. I was really enamored with the sound of Jimmy Rogers and Robert Junior Lockwood. That was what I really liked where the guitar was playing behind the harmonica. A lot of times there would be two guitars behind the harmonica and those guitars would be interweaving and snaking in and out around each other. That stuff really messed my head up. I really liked that. It was real subtle but I really dug it. I took some recordings of some Little Walter and Sonny Boy [Williams] stuff to this guitar teacher, paid him whatever was the hourly rate, and I ended up showing him stuff. It was useless. I got home and I was really frustrated. I thought this guy would unlock some secrets for me 'cause he was supposed to be a blues guitar master. He didn't show me nothing. So I had to go home and I said, 'Well, I'm just gonna buckle down and start trying to figure this stuff out for myself.'
Twelve years later, whenever I'm still trying to hear some of those things right, there's certain things that you hear different every time you listen to it and as your ears develop over the years, you might hear something a little differently. A lot of that has to do with the way those records were recorded too. Sometimes the fidelity is not the greatest. In a way that's kind of cool because I'm interpreting these styles. You get guys like Little Charlie [ed. note: Zinn is referring to blues guitar master Charlie Baty of Little Charlie and the Nightcats ? see Guitar.com's feature and video lessons with Little Charlie in our archives] and whoever else is influenced by the same kind of stuff. I think everyone of us has our own different spin or twist on a Robert Jr. Lockwood style or Louis Myers style, or Jimmy Rogers, because we all hear it differently. That's the beauty of it.
Guitar.com: Pick a few records in that style that you're talking about that you would recommend.
Zinn: One of the first blues records I ever had was called Chicago Bound by Jimmy Rogers. That's got loads of beautiful guitar from Jimmy and Muddy Waters. A lot of those recordings of Jimmy were recorded at the end of a Muddy Waters session, when Jimmy would take the forefront. Any Little Walter record is gonna have wonderful guitar, with The Best of Little Walter being the one to get if you wanna just go pick one up. Confessin' The Blues, that's a great Little Walter CD. Any kind of Sonny Boy Williamson, the second Sonny Boy Williamson: Rice Miller always does some real beautiful stuff, with Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Tucker. There's plenty more, but I think that's a good start.
Guitar.com: Can you give us an example, say for instance on a Little Walter record, the kind of guitar lines that are used. You mentioned weaving in and out behind the harmonica?
Zinn: A lot of these guys slide ninth cords around. There's endless variations on how to play beyond the harp and I think it would be kind of ludicrous of me to say that I've mastered it, but I've played with so many great harmonica players, old and young generation cats, that I've got a pretty good grasp on how to play all the different backup harmonica styles, and turnarounds too. I'm actually going to be co-authoring a book on turnarounds with Dave Rubin. I don't know when that is coming out.
Guitar.com: What are some of your favorites?
Zinn: I really like to sit at home and play the style people associated with Robert Johnson. There's so many, I can go on all day with that. When you're playing behind the harmonica, the turnaround is usually the bomb of the verse for the guitar because normally you should be pretty much staying in the background. But when it comes to the turnaround, a lot of times a lot of harp players won't even play the turn around. They just leave it to the guitar player to fill that hole ? except for Little Walter. He always had amazing turnarounds.
Guitar.com: How much of your set is more intricate fingerpicking, as opposed to more rocking flat-picked material?
Zinn: It used to be more like [intricate], but now we're in more of a contemporary bag on the live shows, depending on the room. If it's more of a concert type setting, where people are just sitting and listening, then I'd be more apt to play a few more of those kinds of blues, whereas if it's a dancing and drinking crowd, we're gonna keep the dance floor filled, so I'd probably use a straight pick all night, kind of stinging the guitar a little more.
Guitar.com: As you've traveled around the country doing your own music and things you've done in the past with Kim Wilson and some of the other people you've worked with, what's your favorite kind of gig or favorite kind of crowd?
Zinn: I really love playing for a listener, who will appreciate. An audience that's there to listen in a concert type setting. It seems like you can play a little quieter and a little deeper. But I also like playing for the more rowdy, dancing crowd. It needs to be both to keep my soul pleased. But I wish there was more of the concert type setting. It seems like you can relax and be more yourself on the guitar. You don't have to razzle-dazzle the audience quite as much, so it's a little more therapeutic for the soul.
Guitar.com: So as a front man beyond just a guitar player, do you have to mentally prepare differently to get out there on stage and be the frontman in the club?
Zinn: No, I know what to do. I'm ready to go. I would play in this room differently than in, say, there's this club in Seattle called the Jazz Alley and it's more of a jazz listening audience. They're sitting down at tables, eating dinner, real quiet, and they applaud after the solos. [In some places] you have to worry so much about keeping the dancers on the floor, that's where we would go more in a traditional bag and that's where I come from anyway. You don't have to worry about if we do too many slow blues, we're going to drive them all out. You just get up and play.