The New Guitar Gods: Doyle Bramhall II & Derek Trucks
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.