Doyle Bramhall II cradles his vintage Guild Aristocrat. He became the first guitar player in a family of drummers. “I figured if someone was going to play guitar, it might as well be me.” Photo by Danny Clinch
It’s been 15 years since Doyle Bramhall II’s previous solo album, Welcome, so one might think that Bramhall was sitting on a pile of material when he walked into Vox Recording Studios in Los Angeles with coproducer Woody Jackson to begin his new Rich Man. But he says, “This album took a year and four months to record and I started completely from scratch without any songs.” It was a bold move, yet the result is a deeply personal, introspective, and layered snapshot of an extremely talented artist who is still searching for his identity—in ways that are more than musical.
“I have been on this sort of spiritual quest for probably about six years,” says Bramhall, who has become engrossed in Transcendental Meditation. “As I’ve been taught, it’s sort of a trick into getting you into that meditative state of being as quickly as possible.” And with that state has come revelations. The resulting honesty and clarity beam through on Rich Man. One of the more poignant examples is “My People,” where Bramhall sings, in the surprisingly anthemic chorus, “Namaskar, Inshallah, Pranamasana.” That combination of a traditional Indian greeting, an Arabic term for “god willing,” and the word for the prayer pose in yoga is, he explains, “a universal chant that connects all people.”
The good news for guitar fiends is that Bramhall’s playing on Rich Man is visceral. He never overloads the moment with extraneous musical information. On “Mama Can’t Help You,” a forceful mid-tempo groover that’s soulful without being a lame imitation of a Stax B-side, his tone is punchy and truthful thanks to the inherent physical differences of playing a reverse-strung guitar. The left-hander pulls, rather than pushes, strings when he bends notes. That might seem like a slight difference, but it lends bending and chord stabs an attack that’s almost singular. “Nothing ever feels stock when I play with him,” says Derek Trucks. “There’s something always very refreshing, and he throws in a little twist that makes even a simple chord progression take on a different life.”
One of the transformative experiences that shaped the standout “November” was the loss of Bramhall’s father. Doyle Sr. was a Texas-sized man with a voice to match who played with Freddie King and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and was a lifetime collaborator with the Vaughan brothers. “In a way, we were close,” remembers Bramhall. “I would say I became sort of guarded with him and I’m not sure why.” Both Bramhalls went through struggles with substance abuse and came out the other side as sober men with a deeper level of self-awareness. A spiritual change began for Doyle II shortly before his father passed. “I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about it. I was going to talk to him about this whole shift in my life and why I was going to let him off the hook.”
As Bramhall was preparing for a tour with soul-rock guitarist Eric Krasno, he took some time to talk with PG about not only his spiritual journey, but the loss of his father and how he walks the line between artist and producer. And, of course, his love affair with the Fender Stratocaster—the instrument most associated with the blues-based music of his Lone Star homeland—and the other instruments he used to create Rich Man’s generous palette of sounds.
Rich Man was pieced together in a few different studios. Why did you feel now was the time for this album?
I felt like 15 years was probably enough time to go by until my next album came out. I started at Vox Studios in Los Angeles, which is one of my favorite studios in the world, and Woody Jackson, who owns the studio, went in with me and helped produce the first batch of songs.
What songs were in that first batch?
“Saga,” “Hands Up,” “Rich Man,” “Keep You Dreamin’,” “November,” “The Veil,” and “Mama Can’t Help You.” We did the tracking there, and then I did some of the guitar overdubs, but it took me over a year to finish the lyrics. I also recorded at Brooklyn Recording. Any time I would go away I would ask people to help me coproduce because I like collaborating and I feel like you get a lot more done and keep a real objective sounding board.
You’ve been on both sides of the glass, in terms of being an artist and a producer. How did that dynamic affect the music on Rich Man?
It gives me a clear sense of where I need to go when someone is listening to what I am doing as an artist. I can go in the other room and be the producer, but I need a coproducer there with me to help guide it when I am being an artist. Ultimately, it’s going to be my vision, so if they mention things and I really think they have a great idea that fits the song … then I will explore those. If I feel that it’s going away from the direction that I want to go in, then I will steer it back into the direction that I want it to go.
When was the first time you were brought on as a producer?
Eric [Clapton] was responsible for me getting into producing. He brought it to my attention that I was doing that already. I just didn’t know it, because I always thought that the producer was some big-wig who came in with dark sunglasses and a scarf and called all the shots, wrote out all the string arrangements, and barked at everyone. It was the opposite of what my demeanor was. But when Eric said, “I want you to produce my record with me,” I told him I didn’t think I could do that because I didn’t know how to do that. He said, “What are you talking about? Just do what you do.” It was entirely because of him that I started doing it, and then I realized all of the different parts of my craft that I have been doing all of my life were actually production skills.
I’ve seen you play live mostly with Strats. Was that the case for this album?
When I’m recording in the studio I like to use as many different guitars as I can. It’s possible for me not even to bring my own guitars. And I like experimenting sonically for the songs and finding what tones and overtones and different sounds I can get for different melodies and different feelings and different things that I want to express. I think the more guitars and amps and, in my case, pedals and anything where I can get different sounds to express all different feelings … because, you know, life has so many different colors and sounds and expressions. I don’t feel like I can get it all with just one guitar. Live, I play my ’64 Stratocaster that I bought for the Welcome album.
What is it about Strats that draws you in?
I’ve played Strats since I was young and in live settings it’s the most comfortable for me. I can get all the sounds I want, but when I’m recording I like to use different guitars. On this album I did use my Strat on songs. If I have to do bigger solos I’ll usually use my Strat. On a song like “Hands Up,” for instance, that is my Strat through this English fuzz pedal from the ’60s called a Zonk Machine and a ’68 Fender Pro Reverb. That Zonk Machine is now my favorite pedal.