You might expect a certain degree of cockiness from a guitarist whose resume includes studio and live work with names such as Elton John, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, T Bone Burnett, Gregg Allman, Allen Toussaint, Sheryl Crow, Billy Preston, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Dr. John, Michael McDonald, Questlove and Meshell Ndegeocello.
But you don’t get a trace of conceit from Doyle Bramhall II. The Austin-born picker stresses that most of his good fortune — or his “charmed life,” as he puts it — stems from having grown up with a supportive father, famed Texan drummer Doyle Bramhall, a collaborator with the likes of Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins, who opened doors for his young son by introducing him to some of his famous colleagues.
“My father really got me going,” Bramhall explains. “Right from the beginning, he put me in front of people like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Stevie talked about me in interviews, and he brought me onstage with him. He’s the reason why I got in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He recommended me to Jimmie Vaughan as second guitarist.” Bramhall also singles out Clifford Antone, the legendary Austin kingmaker, whose nightclub, Antone’s, became the hub of Texas blues after it opened in 1975. “Clifford put me onstage with Albert Collins and Muddy Waters’ original band,” Bramhall explains. “He created a lot of opportunities for me when I was just coming up.”
Pedigree and famous boosters can take you pretty far, but Bramhall — a southpaw who plays his guitar turned upside-down and strung righty — notes that his lucky breaks wouldn’t have mattered if he didn’t have the chops to back them up. “It’s not like I’m Forrest Gump, lucking my way through life,” he cautions. “You get onstage with somebody, you’ve got to have the goods, for sure. But again, I have to credit the people who brought me along, because they taught me the true spirit of musicianship, listening and collaborating. I learned from the best, and that helped me go from one musical experience to the next.”
After stints with the Fabulous Thunderbirds as well as his own band, the Arc Angels, which included fellow Austin guitar ace Charlie Sexton and SRV’s Double Trouble rhythm section (bassist Chris Layton and drummer Tommy Shannon), Bramhall embarked on a solo career, issuing a pair of well-received albums, Doyle Bramhall II (1996) and Jellycream (1999). He would have continued happily on a solo career path had it not been for two iconic musicians who called upon his services. First there was Roger Waters, who tapped Bramhall to play guitar and sing both lead and backup vocals on his 1999–2000 In the Flesh world tour.
Next came the opportunity of a lifetime, in 2000, when Eric Clapton invited him to take part in the recording of his Grammy-winning duet with B.B. King, Riding with the King. Bramhall and Clapton clicked so well that they became practically inseparable. In addition to joining Clapton’s touring band, Bramhall played guitar on his 2004 Robert Johnson tribute albums, Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J, and his own songs were woven into Clapton’s records. Eventually, Bramhall graduated to co-producer on the albums Clapton (2010) and Old Sock (2013). “There’s no way I can adequately describe what Eric has meant to me all of these years,” Bramhall says. “The musical lessons he taught me have been immense, and I’m proud to call him my dear friend.”
Between touring the world with Clapton, Bramhall concentrated on his burgeoning career as sideman and producer (he helmed records by Sheryl Crow and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, among others). It wasn’t until 2016 that he finally got back to making his own albums, starting with Rich Man, on which he mixed turbulent blues and southern soul with splashes of Middle Eastern sounds he’d picked up during his travels. On his newest release, Shades (Provogue), Bramhall grabs these elements, along with amp-frying garage rock, elegant balladry and transfixing neo-psychedelia, and tosses them all into a Cuisinart. The results are stirring, heartfelt and uniquely his own. “The new record finally feels like I’m comfortable in my own skin,” Bramhall has said, “like I don’t have anything to prove other than trying to express myself as honestly as I can.”
As you might expect, the well-connected guitarist is joined by a few of his famous friends, including Norah Jones, the Greyhounds and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Even Slowhand himself turns up on the standout R&B-laced track “Everything You Need.” The onetime mentor and protégé trade licks in the kind of musical exchange that could only come from two players who have spent enough time together to absorb each other’s styles completely.
“I’m very fortunate that I can call upon talented friends who want to be on my record,” Bramhall observes. “I always learn from all the experiences that I have when working with other musicians, and I’ve always come away with a new perspective on making music. I think that the one constant I have is that music is a collaborative effort. I love listening to people playing while I’m playing, and I love accompanying them. If they’re accompanying me, I’m in love with what they’re doing. That’s a foundation I have, and it’s always there.”
You had a long gap between solo albums while you were touring and recording with Eric Clapton. Any regrets about putting your own career on hold?
No, I don’t believe in having regrets. I don’t see what purpose they serve. On the other hand, I can say that it would have been nice to build my solo career and develop my own audience that entire time. In some ways, I had to start over. After all, you only get so much time on this planet. But I am working on being a centenarian, and I’m just about halfway there. There’s still a lot I can accomplish.
You give a lot of credit to people who took you under their wing when you were starting out. You were around some very heavy people — legends. Was that daunting at all?
No, because I loved it. I cared about the history of music, and I cared about other musicians, especially all the people that I grew up listening to. I remember when I opened for Albert King. After the show, this bouncer said to me, “Albert wants to meet you.” I sat down in front of him while he smoked his pipe, and after about five minutes he looked at me and said, “I heard you playing my licks.” And all I could say was “thank you.” I was grateful to be around these people who meant so much to me.
Tell me about how you got the gig with Roger Waters. I understand you had to make a demo tape for him.
I did. My A&R person at Geffen had played Roger’s producer, Patrick Leonard, my first album. Patrick told him that Roger was going on tour, and he was looking for somebody to play David Gilmour’s parts on some Floyd songs. And so my A&R guy said, “I’ve got the guy for you.” Patrick liked my record, and he called me and asked me to make a demo playing “Comfortably Numb.”
I had this big stereo that allowed me to record one cassette tape onto another. I could press a button, and the lead vocal and lead guitar went away — it was perfect. So I recorded my guitar part and tried to play the notes and match the tone as best I could. For the first solo, I did a note-for-note re-creation of Gilmour’s lead, but I played a little of my own thing on the second solo. It worked, and I got the gig.
And that gig led to your getting a call from Clapton. Did you have a similar kind of “audition” for him?
No, that was a totally different situation. Eric called me and said, “Do you want to get together at my house and help me learn these songs of yours?” He was getting ready to record with B.B. King, and he wanted to do some of my material. That was pretty incredible.
So I met with him, and we sat together with two guitars. He was trying to learn the way I played things. Finally, he said, “I can’t tell a thing of what you’re playing, but you obviously have a vision of what you do. Why don’t you just come in and play it yourself?” I don’t know if that was his plan all along, but it was interesting how it worked out.
That’s pretty mind blowing. He was trying to figure out your music, not the other way around.
Yeah, and I think that’s what made me feel so comfortable with him from the beginning. He didn’t make me feel out of my league. He was so supportive of me as an artist, constantly giving me words of support and asking me questions about the way I did things. It was almost disarming the way he could compliment me on so many different things. It was easy to be myself around him without thinking too much about who he is.
To most guitarists, working side by side with Clapton is the ultimate dream. From a playing standpoint, what did you learn from him?
You know, there are probably lots of things that rubbed off on me. Everything he plays has a purpose. There are no throwaway lines. If I had to pinpoint something about soloing, I would say it’s how commanding he is. His notes are big. There isn’t a lot of extraneous stuff, and even when he does get fiery, it’s always there for a reason. There’s emotion behind what he plays. He also understands the arrangement to a solo. He gets in big and he gets out big. It’s like he’s making a real statement. When you’re standing right next to him, you really feel it. When a song builds to a crescendo, it’s like he’s rising right along with it. And then, like I said, the way he gets out of a song is pretty dramatic. There’s always an urgency to what he’s playing. He’s taking you on a ride.
Let’s get into Shades. Did you have a main guitar-and-amp setup or did you approach each song differently?
I made the record in four different studios and two different countries. I started it in Hamburg, Germany, after some dates got canceled while we were touring Europe and the U.K. Instead of just sitting around doing nothing, I booked a studio in Hamburg and basically took the band there. Then I recorded at Vox Studios in Los Angeles, Brooklyn Recording Studios in Brooklyn, and then at Derek and Susan’s Tedeschi Trucks Band studio in Florida.
For guitars, I mainly used my Heritage 575. That was a big guitar for me. I also used the same Fender Strat that I’ve played for a few years, and I used my Collings I-35 on some songs towards the end. Oh, and I used my mid-’60s Gibson 335. That was pretty much it for the record.
“Love and Pain” has a backward guitar solo. Was that the idea all along?
Not really. Backward solos sound great, but they’re also a last-resort cure if you can’t find something you like. I might play a solo 20 different ways, and if I can’t decide on one, I’ll just go, “All right, let’s try it backward.” But it’s not just a matter of reversing it; you need to listen to it and transpose it. You figure out where it wants to go and then you play it again. I wanted to do it on tape, but I used a tape simulator.
When you wrote “Everything You Need,” did you know immediately that you wanted Eric on it?
Not when I wrote it, but as soon as I recorded it I thought that it was the kind of song he would do. I’ve been on his records before, so I said to myself, It’d be cool to have him on one of my songs for a change. So I asked him, he said yes, and then I went to his studio in Ohio to record him.
In a situation like that, do you give Eric any kind of direction at all?
[laughs] No, you know, he’s Eric. He knows what he’s doing. I figured if he connects with the song, he’ll play something he likes. I didn’t give him direction other than to indicate where his parts should be, where the solo is. He did three or four passes that sounded great, and then I said, “Okay, I’ll take this back home and put my guitar around yours.” He looked at me and said, “Wait a second. You’re going to put your guitar on after I’ve already played my part?” I said, “Yeah,” and he was like, “Well, in that case, I’m gonna play one more.” That’s the take of his that’s on the record.
Your track with the Greyhounds, “Live Forever,” sounds like you’re blasting away old school in a garage.
That’s pretty much what it is. The Greyhounds have a studio right next to my sister’s hair salon in Austin. I was getting my hair cut, and I ran into [Greyhounds guitarist] Andrew [Trube]. He said he was a big Arc Angels fan and he liked my stuff, and I told him I was a fan of the Greyhounds. He said, “We should write something together,” and I was like, “Well, it just so happens that I’m making a record.” So the next day we called up some musicians who were available. We wrote the song and cut it in all of two hours.
What amps you were using? Because they sound great.
Well, that’s a funny one. It was a Peavey Bandit. That’s what Andrew had in the studio. He was like, “You gotta check this thing out.” I said, “A Peavey? Really? I haven’t used one of those since I was 15.” But I plugged into it, and it got all this crazy feedback and shit, and I was like, “Wow!” [laughs] Knowing him, it was probably a Selmer amp, and he just stuck a Peavey logo on it or something.
The Tedeschi Trucks Band join you on Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone.” How did that come about?
We had already done that song for a Gregg Allman tribute show in New York City. That was the song Derek and Susan asked me to play with them. It had such a powerful spirit to it that I thought, It would be great to cut this with them for the record. I was doing some work at their studio anyway, so the timing worked out. Derek and Susan and the whole TTB came in and played it the way we did it in New York.
Because you’ve worked together before, do you have kind of a telepathy with them? How does each guitarist work out their parts together?
It’s kind of unspoken. Derek has his thing. He’s a full-steam-ahead guitar player, whereas I’m more of a parts-oriented player. It’s easy to fit around what he’s doing because he’s always playing the main melody no matter what he’s doing. I think when you have a deep friendship with people, it’s easy to play together because you have such respect for one another. It’s always a lovefest when I get together with Derek and Susan and the band.
I imagine you have a pretty nice guitar collection. Any dream pieces you still want to acquire?
Oh, I’d love to have 200 guitars if I could. I have a lot of newer instruments, but I like old stuff. It would be nice to have an original ’50s Guild Aristocrat or a ’65 Casino. Maybe some more 335s and SGs. I’m a pedal freak, too. I’d like to have four different Uni-Vibes and maybe 20 or so Fuzz Faces.
When this article is published, you’ll get calls from people wanting to sell you stuff.
That would be perfect! If the right thing comes along, sure.