Is Daniel Donato Really the New Master of the Telecaster?

At just 20 years old, Daniel Donato’s Olympic-level chops have made him the latest 6-string wizard in Don Kelley’s legendary honky-tonk band.

At just 20 years old, Daniel Donato’s Olympic-level chops have made him the latest 6-string wizard in Don Kelley’s legendary honky-tonk band. Donato actually started with Kelly three years ago, but he was wowing the crowds on Nashville’s Lower Broadway even earlier.

“At 14, I played on the street next to a shoebox out that said ‘Money for a Tele,’” he says.

Now, with a Hal Leonard instructional book entitled Daniel Donato: The New Master of the Telecaster, it appears those shoebox donations went to a very good cause.

What made you decide to play guitar?

My dad got me a Squier Strat when I was around ten because he thought I would be good at guitar, but I never wanted to play. When I finally picked it up at 12, he said, “You’re not going to learn this.” Once you say I’m not going to do something, I want to do it. Then, the summer before I entered high school, I sat in with a band at Legend’s Corner [Broadway, Nashville], and that was the first time I played a Telecaster. That was the coolest feeling in the world, and I thought, “This is what I’m going to do the rest of my life.”

What led you to country music?

I started learning “Mama Tried,” and Merle Haggard led to everything else. When I saw the Don Kelley Band, it sparked the fire even more. I was waking up mornings at seven, and playing until seven at night, every day when I wasn’t in school. I’d hear the songs they were doing downtown—like George Jones and Dwight Yoakam—and I’d find the records. The stuff Pete Anderson played on Dwight’s records was perfect to learn for someone just getting into the genre. I also sought out YouTube videos, instructional DVDs, and live recordings. I was taking in information. I even videotaped my street gigs to see what would make people stop. Learning an instrument today is totally different than in any other age, so I have no excuse to be anything but a music-learning machine.

What’s your main gear?

I have a Fender Custom Shop Telecaster based on a ’62. I also have a ’61 Gibson SG my girlfriend bought me. I string them with D’Addario NYXLs, gauged .010-.046. My amps are ’67 and ’68 blackface Fender Pro Reverbs. I have a Boss DM-2 Delay, a Wampler Ego Compressor, a Walrus Audio Plainsman for clean boosts, and, for overdrives, I currently use an Oddfellow Effects Caveman Drive and a Jetter Jetdrive. My tuner is a Sonic Research strobe.

What have you learned from the Don Kelley gig?

Don’s about doing what works for him— which is playing really loud and filling every musical hole. That’s my job, because I have to cover the pedal and fiddle parts on his records, and it helped me learn what I like and what I don’t like musically. I also learned that it’s not your fault if you don’t have “it” every night. The emotion is not always there. The muse isn’t always there.

How do you modify your playing for the studio?

I listen to what session players James Mitchell, Tom Bucovac, and Kenny Greenberg play on records. It’s just finding your place in the conversation.