Doyle Bramhall II Puts it All Together on 'Rich Man'

You could hardly have blamed Doyle Bramhall II if he had kind of coasted through life after his rather storied childhood.
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PHOTO by Tracy Anne Hart – The Heights Gallery

You could hardly have blamed Doyle Bramhall II if he had kind of coasted through life after his rather storied childhood. The kid of a famous drummer and songwriter, he had the opportunity to live with and get pointers from Stevie Ray Vaughan and then gigged with SRV’s brother Jimmie while still a teenager. Along the way he developed a distinctive blues-rock style, characterized by a bold and fiery attack, wicked vibrato, massive tone, and unique phrasing, which was partially informed by his “upside-down” technique of playing lefty on guitars that are strung righty.

Rather than stand pat with all of that, Bramhall has continually forged ahead, playing with the Arc Angels, releasing solo albums, touring with Roger Waters, and being in a band with a guy known as Slowhand. Uh, okay. Good enough? Well, not exactly. Despite all the success, the accolades, and the “Are you kidding me?” jam sessions, Bramhall continued to search, continued to learn, and continued to try to put the sounds, melodies, and grooves that he heard in his head into a single, cohesive statement. And with his latest release, Rich Man [Concord], he got there. It’s a spectacular collection of tunes that showcases his love of blues, soul music, Band of Gypsys-era psychedelia, and Eastern and African sounds, and somehow melds them all into a living, breathing thing that happens to have kickass guitar all over it.

The last time we spoke was in 1999, when you released your album Jellycream. How would you say your playing has evolved in the meantime?

I think I have evolved from being a guitar player to more of a musician. I grew up being sort of a team player—playing in the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Arc Angels, and then with Roger Waters and Eric Clapton. So I’ve always had the ability to accompany on guitar, but I feel like my music in general has evolved into an extension of my singing voice. When there are things that I can’t do vocally, I’m fine doing them on a different instrument. I’m more proficient on guitar, but these days I’m happy to get the sounds and the melodies that I need on other instruments.

This current record of yours covers a tremendous amount of stylistic ground, but it still manages to sound cohesive. Do you find that surprising?

Not really. That’s something I’ve always wanted, but I never really knew how to pull it all together. I think now it’s just innately happening. I can do whatever I do and for some reason there’s continuity between all those different styles and inspirations. It’s many different forms of expression, but it’s all me.

I’ve been studying Arabic music and music in Northern Africa for the last ten years. When I travel to different countries and hear their music, I’m able to just listen and feel how they’re affecting me and inspiring me. Later, it’s almost like I have that inside me and it’s a part of the fabric of who I am. It’s easy for me to tap into that inspiration and it naturally comes out as a part of me. It doesn’t feel like I’m wearing a hat, like, “This is my Arabian hat.” [Laughs.]

How did “The Veil” come together?

That was the first song I recorded for this album. There was sort of an African-influenced drum loop that I created in the studio, and it was double the tempo of what’s on the record now. It was a much more tribal song, and it wasn’t until I wrote the lyrics and went back to play the bass line on it that I had the idea of taking it down to halftime and making it more of a soul track. I replaced everything that was on there and started building around what I sang. So I think I actually subtracted a lot more than I added to that song. Because it was the first song I did, I was really looking for the sound of what I wanted this record to be. That was the tune I found the sound on.

There are a lot of cool guitar textures on that song—there’s a clean tone, a wah part, the dreamy single-note line, and the solo.

The solo on that was my ’64 Strat into a Prescription Electronics COB pedal and my ’68 Silverface Pro Fender Reverb. That’s sort of been my magic studio amp. I used a ’68 Vox Wah for the wah tone. The clean stuff was just the Strat straight into the Pro.

In the solo, there are a couple of really cool growling noises where it seems like you’re going to land on a note, but instead it’s like an animal sound. What’s going on there?

Those are overtones from the COB pedal. The COB pedal was sort of based on the old Roger Mayer Octavia. It gets really percussive and throaty, and if you miss a note and you don’t land on it, you get those kinds of sounds.

What about the lead tone in the song “Hands Up”? What’s going on there?

That’s my secret. Do I have to give up my secret?

You do not have to give up any secrets.

That was a pedal I was turned on to by Woody Jackson, who was one of my co-producers on this record. He’s an amazing guitar player and producer, and I recorded half of my album at his studio in Los Angeles. “Hands Up” was just a jam one evening. Woody handed me this English pedal from the ’60s called the Zonk Machine. What it had that I liked was this sort of sizzle to it—almost like the Octavia or the COB pedal, but without the octave. It has this percussive quality and growl. I actually used that pedal quite a bit after Woody turned me on to it. Fortunately, he gave me one because I think the original pedals are like five grand.

One of the most powerful things about your guitar playing is your attack—the way you dig into a note. Talk about how you will lean into a note or a phrase, and the way you approach the actual art of getting sound out of a guitar.

I started out as a drummer when I was six years old, and obviously my dad was a drummer. I like a really percussive sound. I like that attack. I think I got that from the blues players I saw growing up. Freddie King had that, and so did Albert King. Albert Collins, Johnny Guitar Watson, and Jimi Hendrix all had it. They all had that fiery, “kill you with a note” kind of thing, and it was very percussive. Albert King could play one note, over and over, and it would always sound like the first time he had played it. It would just kill you every time. I don’t know how someone does that, but it’s pretty amazing. And Albert King started out as a drummer, too. Maybe it has something to do with that. I think it’s also about having inside you this killer instinct to go with it. It’s like going into the ring like Mike Tyson and knocking people out in the first round with your notes.

When you and I talked last time, you mentioned that you did some playing with a guitar that was strung lefty, and you said you liked how you played rhythm that way.

I still do that. I really like playing that way, although I don’t do it that often. I enjoy it because everything seems to fall into place easily, like the way it’s supposed to be. It also changes things up and makes me play differently. For some reason I’m able to transpose fairly quickly when I’m playing a guitar strung lefty. I have an interesting story about that. I was in the studio with Paul McCartney and Clapton. Paul was playing upright bass on a track for Eric, and he was playing left-handed, upside-down—strung righty. I obviously knew him to be a “left-handed/strung left-handed” player. He did four or five passes of this song—a song with a lot of changes and passing notes—and he played the song perfectly. When he came out of the iso booth I asked him about that and he said that he’s always been able to transpose everything and play it that way. He said he and John used to do that just for fun. They would trade guitars and he said John could do that even faster than he could. I love that.

You’ve been able to play with some of the greatest musicians of all time, and obviously some of the greatest guitarists of all time. What does it take to get your attention and make you go, “wow”? What blows your mind from other guitarists?

I guess just good music—somebody that’s very musical. It immediately gets my attention when somebody is really playing music and really listening to the other musicians he or she’s playing with. My good friend Derek Trucks is mind-blowing in his ability—when he plays slide he sounds like a voice, almost like he taps into the Sufi singers that he listens to. Susan Tedeschi blows my mind when she sings because she’s so effortless and can just sing anything. I played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that was a great moment for me. I was doing the Stevie Ray Vaughan induction set with Jimmie Vaughan, Gary Clark, Jr., and John Mayer. Ringo was being inducted by Paul McCartney. At the very end of the night there was a big jam, and they had positioned my amp right next to Paul’s bass amp. He’s always been one of my favorite bass players, but when I was playing next to him, I felt how musical he was. I don’t know what he’s channeling there, but he’s got something that’s just so powerful. It’s like he plays drums, guitar, keyboards—everything—in his bass. He’s the one that was driving the song and everything was locking into him. It was crazy it was so good. That seriously blew my mind.

This latest record might be the best thing you’ve ever done.

I think it is. I love different aspects of the albums I’ve made, but it never felt like one album of music was my entire statement. I feel like this definitely has that. It also has a story from beginning to end. The continuity runs through it. I think I’m realized now as an artist and a producer. All the sounds are one thing, and the lyrics match the sounds of the music. It’s one organism, rather than being a bunch of broken-up pieces. Derek Trucks said that this record felt like my opus. I have never been this proud of any album I’ve done before.