The New Guitar Gods: Doyle Bramhall II & Derek Trucks
“It’s a full-on guitar army,” says Derek Trucks, laughing. The slide-guitar ace is speaking from Cologne, Germany, where he has just completed another magical night as a member of Eric Clapton’s backing band. Texan guitar wrangler Doyle Bramhall II is also in the group. Robert Cray is the opening act and sits in during Clapton’s set on a nightly basis. With a backline like that, and with Slowhand out front, tossing off those incandescent leads that have made him a living legend, it truly is a full-on guitar onslaught. “Every night is amazing,” says Bramhall. “We played ‘Let it Rain’ the other night, and in the outro section, Eric and Derek just went off into the stratosphere. They were playing these harmonized parts that sounded like they’d been worked out in advance. But they hadn’t been. It was totally spontaneous. That kind of thing happens all the time with this band.” The opportunity to play alongside the ultimate six-string icon— the guitarist was once dubbed “God,” in the Sixties—is the ultimate stroke of good guitar karma. Bramhall and Trucks are ideally suited for this honor. Like Clapton himself, both have wide-ranging interests and accomplishments as guitarists and songwriters. But, also like Clapton, everything they do is deeply grounded in the primordial language of the blues. “The blues is pretty much the base and root of all the music I play, says Trucks. “That’s the foundation. You just have to adapt it to 2006.” Trucks and Bramhall each descend from an important bluesbased American dynasty. Derek is the nephew of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks. From a tender age, the younger Trucks was playing in latter-day Allmans lineups as well as fronting his own group, the Derek Trucks Band. Doyle Bramhall’s dad played drums for blues great Lightnin’ Hopkins, not to mention Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan, all part of the rich Texas blues tradition. “My family and the Vaughan family started out in Dallas in the late Sixties,” the younger Bramhall explains. “Then all this great music started happening in Austin in the early Seventies, so they migrated down there and got a band together. For three years, we all lived in the same house. So Jimmy Vaughan was basically like my uncle, and Stevie was more like a big brother. We spent a lot of time together.” Needless to say, the young Bramhall heard a lot of blues records in that house. “The things that hit me most,” he recalls, “were listening to Albert King, Freddie King and a lot of the Louisiana blues artists from Guitar Slim to Lightning Slim to Slim Harpo. They all seemed to have the same names. All the Kings and the Slims.” Doyle’s vinyl education was generously supplemented by Austin’s fertile live music scene. “Freddie King was very prominent down there at that time, playing at the Armadillo. Jimmy Vaughan and sometimes my dad would play with Freddie. And Lightnin’ Hopkins would be around, and they’d play with him. All these Texas blues guys. Also, when Antone [Clifford Antone, proprietor of the legendary Austin club, Antone’s] came on the scene, he brought all these blues legends down to play in Austin. So I began to see firsthand all these people I’d been listening to or just reading about.” By sixteen, Doyle II was touring with Jimmy Vaughan’s band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. By ’92, he’d formed his own group, the Arc Angels, with another Austin guitar great, Charlie Sexton, plus Stevie Ray’s Double Trouble rhythm section, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton. With 1996’s Doyle Bramhall II album, the guitarist struck off on his own. Since then he’s balanced a productive solo career with high-profile work as a sideman. Bramhall backed Roger Waters on the Pink Floyd vet’s 2000 In the Flesh tour. That same year, he hooked up with Clapton. “While I was on the road with Roger, my manager sent a CD of mine to Eric, who was on tour in Japan at the time. Eric enjoyed the record. He called my manager back and said, ‘I really want to talk with this guy.’ ” Bramhall first worked with Clapton on the latter’s 2000 collaboration with B.B. King, Riding with the King. The youthful Texan has gone on to be an integral part of Reptile (2001) and Me and Mr. Johnson (2004). Few other guitarists on earth are as intimately acquainted with Clapton’s modus operandi. “In the studio with Eric, it’s very relaxed,” says Bramhall. “He’s very easygoing. You feel good. He usually surrounds himself with people who are really talented and who play the way he likes. So you can be yourself, and that will please him. It’s not the norm for a legend like that to be so generous. But Eric is.”
It was Bramhall who suggested Trucks for the current Clapton band. “I played on a record by Derek’s wife, Susan Tedeschi,” Doyle recollects. “I had known about her for a long time through the Austin music connection, and I had been listening to Derek Trucks as a fan. I knew what a fantastic player he was. So when Eric started shooting around ideas to add a third guitar player, I brought Derek’s name in. Eric checked him out and fell in love with his stuff.” And so Trucks found himself on an airplane, full with excitement and apprehension. “I flew out to do a session with Eric and J.J. Cale,” Derek says. “Billy Preston [the late keyboard player] was also on the session, so it was definitely a special experience. Those guys are all legends, but they’re also very humble. You go into something like that wanting to help out, if you can, and not be in the way. Eric was real good at making me feel comfortable and not like a fish out of water. He’s very good that way—amazingly personable for someone who could easily take another route. After recording a few tracks, he offered me this gig with his live band for the year.” This current tour marks the second time in history that the Allmans’ legacy has passed through Clapton’s musical universe. Duane Allman was a hot young slide player when he guested on 1971’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Clapton’s group Derek and the Dominoes, a nom du disque that played no small role in the choice of the name that Derek Trucks carries in this life. “My parents were huge fans of that record,” he says, laughing. “I think they just liked the name Derek on top of that, but that album definitely came into the equation. So yeah, it’s full circle.” Like Bramhall, Trucks grew up in a house filled with blues. “My dad had a lot of B.B. King albums and other great blues records,” he says. “And my mom was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell’s stuff. But the first records I really connected with were Layla, the Allman Brothers’ At the Fillmore East and The Best of Elmore James.” Slide guitar is the obvious common denominator among those three discs. Derek began to focus on slide playing shortly after picking up the guitar at the age of nine. He played his first gig by the time he was 11 and began touring with the Allman Brothers Band while still quite young. In 1997, he started his own group, the Derek Trucks Band, an outfit that has just released its sixth album, Songlines, and a concert DVD, Songlines Live. The DVD affords a great opportunity to see Trucks’ unique guitar technique in action. He plays in open E (low to high E B E Gs B E) and frequently switches between slide guitar and conventional fretting, in many instances several times in the course of a single song. He employs an unusual fingerpicking technique that looks a little bit like folk music’s traditional claw-hammer banjo-picking style. “Some of it does come from watching old footage of guys like Ralph Stanley play claw hammer,” Trucks acknowledges. “But really it’s just hearing things in your head that you want to play and finding a way of getting to them. Just getting it wrong, I suppose, but it feels right. I’m just more comfortable without a plectrum. I enjoy the sound more without it.” Another major factor in Trucks’ guitar approach is his love affair, starting at around age 16, with the sarod, a traditional Indian stringed instrument with a fretless metal neck on which the player sounds notes with the fingernails, rather than fingertips, of the left hand. “I found it tough after a while to play both sarod and guitar,” he says. “When you grow your nails out to play sarod, it kind of gets in the way when you’re playing guitar. So I had to let it go.” But the musical influence has stayed with him. The guitarist tosses a generous handful of Northern Indian and Middle Eastern influences into the melting pot of blues, R&B, jazz and world beat that the Derek Trucks Band play. More specifically, slide guitar allows him to reproduce the microtones of non-Western scales in a way that fretted playing doesn’t permit.
“The slide is really expressive,” he says. “You can emulate some of the more Middle Eastern melodies and microtones. But even in a straight blues context, it can really sound like human voice. There’s a lot of common threads that run through both those genres.” So while Trucks’ blues are rooted in the Mississippi Delta, they range all the way to the Nile Delta, the River Ganges and points beyond. Musical guests on past Derek Trucks Band albums have included salsa great Ruben Blades, Sufi devotional vocalist Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and American soul giant Solomon Burke, which gives Trucks’ group more spice than most jam band noodlers. “To me, it really comes down to any soulbased music,” says Trucks, “any music that’s traditional. It’s all human emotions coming out through sounds. You read Robert Palmer’s book Deep Blues and it traces different rhythmic patterns all the way back to Africa—different tribes, different sounds that made their way over to America. That’s one common thread. Also, it all seems to be a lot of music coming out of poverty. You hear a lot of the same themes, melodically and otherwise. When I was in Japan, somebody played me some traditional Korean music, and the first two or three bars sounded exactly like a Delta slide player. The human condition is pretty much the same anywhere. When you’re listening to a great gospel singer, a great blues singer or a great qawwal singer from Pakistan, there are moments when the feeling is exactly the same.” While not quite as international as Trucks, Bramhall’s guitar playing is also founded on an unconventional technique. He’s an “upsidedown” or “wrong way” lefty: a left-handed guitarist who plays a conventional right-hand stringing. This is something Bramhall shares with blues and folk greats like Albert King, Otis Rush, Elizabeth Cotton and Coco Montoya. In Doyle’s case, as in many others, it stems from being born left-handed but learning to play on other people’s guitars: “There were a lot of right-handed guitars laying around the house when I was growing up,” he says. “So I’d pick up a guitar when I was six or seven and mess around with it. I don’t think I even knew left from right at that point; I just held it the most comfortable way. And by the time I decided to take a lesson, the teacher told me I was playing the wrong way and if I wanted to be taught I would have to reverse the strings or start to play right-handed. But by that point, I’d already learned about 200 songs. I wasn’t about to start over.” To watch Bramhall play—particularly when he and Clapton are on acoustics, recreating one of Robert Johnson fingerstyle passages with chilling accuracy—is to realize that “the wrong way” is sometimes the best way. “I used to think that playing guitar left-handed upside down was a handicap,” he admits. “That you really can’t do what a right-handed guitarist can do. But that theory was completely blown out of the water when I saw this guy playing with [jazz organ great] Jimmy McGriff. I’m afraid I don’t know his name, but he was an upside-down lefty. And he played the greatest walking-chord lead I’d ever heard.”
Bramhall plays in standard (right-handed) tuning. Like many “wrong way lefties,” he generally finds left-handed guitars—so as not to knock into the tone and volume controls with his picking arm—and then restrings them righty. “I have some straight left-handed guitars that I’ve restrung. But I’ve also got some that have a left-handed body and a right-handed neck.” Bramhall’s main ax is a ’64 Fender Stratocaster, but he’s also using two new Strats, a Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul and a Lindhof guitar on tour with Clapton, alternating between a Savage amp and a ’68 Super Bass Marshall. Trucks, for his part, is playing his trusty Gibson ’61 SG reissue through two Fender Super Reverbs. Both guitarists keep it simple, gearwise. Then again, with three great axmen in the band, there’s not much need for elaborate effects rigs. Trucks finds that a “less is more” approach is often best when it comes to equipment and guitar arrangements. “Some of the tunes on Layla had three guitars originally,” he says. “So on that stuff, it’s easy to delegate parts. But some of the other songs we’re playing originally had only one or two guitars, so you have to find your space. Sometimes not playing is the right thing to do. In an ensemble like that, everyone doesn’t have to be playing all the time. On certain tunes I find myself laying out for certain parts. And when you feel like you can add to it, you add. It’s almost like a horn section. You color it when you need to.” Given Derek’s slide prowess and Allman musical heritage, it’s only natural that he covers many of the slide guitar parts that Duane Allman originally played on the Layla album. “But it’s not that cut and dried,” he adds. “Because on a tune like ‘Motherless Children,’ Doyle and Eric are playing the slide. So everybody gets a hand at it.” Bramhall still seems a little amazed at this state of affairs. “At first I told Eric, ‘I don’t want to play any slide, because Derek’s so good at it.’ But Eric said, ‘Why not? C’mon.’ ” Trucks and Bramhall both characterize Clapton as a focused but flexible bandleader. “This is basically a new band for him,” says Trucks. “So he had a lot of different ideas at rehearsal. We ran through a ton of different things. This band naturally gravitated toward a certain era of tunes—the Derek and the Dominoes era and a lot of stuff recorded around that time—and that’s the material we ended up loading the set with. So even though Eric came in with some definite ideas in mind, he was also open to what was naturally gonna fit the band.” “It seems to me that Eric wanted to have different artists in this band,” says Bramhall. “Not just road musicians. He hired artists, so he basically just wants everybody to be themselves and do what they do. He sort of wants to showcase each of us.” “In the solo sections,” Trucks adds, “Eric gives me and Doyle a lot of freedom to do our thing. He’s really generous that way. And obviously when Eric gets into a slow blues, then we all know we’re going to hear some amazing solo playing.” But what does it mean, here in the 21st century, to stand up and play a 12-bar blues in front of an audience in Germany, Brazil or Japan? What does it mean to be a fourth or fifth generation bluesman? To carry that tradition in today’s world? “The blues is gonna be relevant always,” says Trucks. “John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Son House, Bukka White… I think that music stands the test of time. But I also feel that the pure forms of that music are gonna pass with that original generation. I don’t think that it is something that can ever be recreated. It was music that came out of a very specific set of circumstances. It was field-holler music; it was music learned on a plantation and then moved to Chicago or Detroit. So it would be insulting to the real legacy of the blues for someone like me to think that I can come from a suburb in Jacksonville, Florida, and play the same music that Charlie Patton and Son House were playing. But all those great old-time guys planted seeds for other things. All of that music continues to inspire new generations. But you have to make the music you play relevant to the time you’re living in. Otherwise you’re doing a disservice to it. “Blues and jazz are still young, compared with either Indian or Western classical music, where you’re talking 10 or 20 generations. With a classical form, you’re playing a composer’s pieces as they were written. While performance styles certainly evolve, the music doesn’t change that much. But blues is folk music, not classical music; it’s guttural and raw, a very personal thing. John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf weren’t rehashing old shit; they were changing the world with that music when they first came out with it. And that’s the ultimate goal I think—to tap into that spirit. The blues is still growing.” But will it have room to grow in today’s increasingly regimented, corporate musical environment? “At this point, music is in such a weird stage,” Bramhall concedes. “In the Sixties, you could turn on the radio and, even in a pop song, you would hear the influence of blues or jazz. Now you don’t hear it anymore, and the people who are doing it for real aren’t being heard. The only way to see them is to go to a local place and just happen on them. So it’s strange, because not a lot of people understand the blues these days. They think it’s just a primitive type music—easy to play—and that it’s not all that relevant to pop music right now. But I think that’s all about to change. Because there’s only so much people can take before they have to get back to what’s real in the world.”