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What’s the most important thing you learned from Rev. Gary Davis?
I learned a lot of important things, and there was a lot of stuff I should have gotten that I didn’t. I learned how he formed his chords and would play those syncopated rolls, and I learned the idea of contrary motion of the bass against the treble. I went to him for guitar lessons, but I also learned what a moving singer he was. And from going to churches with him and hearing preachers, I learned about phrasing.
In some interviews B.B. King says that he tried to get his tone from Lonnie Johnson, and I can hear that. He says he got the vibrato from his cousin Bukka White, who played slide. But the phrasing of his guitar playing … that’s church. That’s straight from the preachers. The same with Albert King and all of my favorite black blues guitar players. You can hear the church in their phrasing.
For me, one of the big distinctions between the really fine white blues guitar players and the African-American blues guitar players is that African-American guitar players know how to use rests. That’s the church.
The slide tone on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” which begins the new album, is outstandingly gritty and deep. What are you playing?
I’m in standard tuning, using a straight pick and playing my ’58 Esquire with a Red Rhodes Velvet Hammer pickup in the bridge position and a PAF humbucker in the neck position. I’ll be buried with that guitar. When I bought it, it was used—now it’s vintage. At one point I sold off many of my guitars. I had a fantastic collection. But I couldn’t bear to part with that. And I’m playing it through one of my favorite amps, an Electar from the ’40s, plus one of Larry Campbell’s amps—I’m not sure what it was. That Electar can fit in the overhead compartment on an airplane.
What led you to violin making and dealing, rather then guitars?
Guitars, especially flattop guitars, are relatively simple compared to violins. Archtops are a little more complex, but with violins you have things that were designed centuries ago with very, very little change occurring over those centuries. But the variations are innumerable. If you get a guitar that says “Martin” on it, the odds are good it was made by the Martin Company in Nazareth. If you get a violin and it says “Stradivarius,” the odds are pretty good it was made long after he died. So it fascinates me to be able to look at instruments to tell when and where they were made, and perhaps by whom. And that’s what I’m studying.
What does Only Slightly Mad say about you as an artist, or as a person, today?
The first song—“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”—I believe that, and I feel it when I’m singing it. The last tune is, “You’ve Got to Mean It Too,” which is about that idea that you can’t just say things in life … you’ve got to mean them. And I believe that, too. Also there’s a song I wrote on there called “I’ll Rise Again,” which was of a little concern to me when I finished, because there’s a part in that song where I spoke, and I said some things that, when I listened back, seemed very revealing. I wasn’t sure I wanted that to go out. But then I thought about it and decided that when, as an artist, you reveal a part of yourself, that’s the best thing you can do.
Among the many things David Bromberg learned from blues legend Rev. Gary Davis is the song “Cocaine Blues.” Watch Bromberg deliver a perfect display of Davis’ distinctive bass and treble countermelody and rhythm lines, plus the Rev.’s rolling fills, during the solo at around 1:33.