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Doyle Bramhall II: The Spiritualist

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

He grew up with the Vaughan brothers. He’s been a sideman to Roger Waters and Eric Clapton. Now he’s ended a 15-year recording drought with the powerful Rich Man.

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.

“Eric [Clapton] was responsible for me getting into producing in the first place. He brought it to my attention that I was doing that anyways in the work that I do.”

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.

At Nashville’s City Winery in October 2016, Bramhall ranged through material from his entire career and played a plethora of guitars, including this Eastwood Sidejack Baritone DLX in metallic blue. Photo by Andy Ellis

The solo on “Your Mama Can’t Help You” is especially hip. What was your setup for that?
It was the Strat through the Pro, but I think I was using a Uni-Vibe and maybe a Prescription Electronics COB. I do like to solo on the Strat, but on “Rich Man” I played a vintage Guild Aristocrat, which is one of my favorite guitars to record with. I also used a vintage Epiphone Casino on quite a few songs.

How often, if at all, do you play “normal” left-handed guitar?
I haven’t spent as much time [doing that] as I would like to, but I like to do that. It’s interesting to me that when I pick it up I can play a lot of rhythmic stuff that just completely falls into place naturally. That stuff is a lot harder for me to play upside down.

Doyle Bramhall II’s Gear

• 1964 Fender Stratocaster
• 1959 Guild Aristocrat
• 1966 Epiphone Casino
• 1960 Gibson J-45
• 1964 Epiphone Texan
• Eastwood Sidejack Baritone DLX

• 1968 Fender Pro Reverb
• 1965 Fender Super Reverb
• ’70s Marshall Super Bass
• 1961 Magnatone 262

• Prescription Electronics Experience
• Prescription Electronics COB
• The Zonk Machine
• Shin-Ei Vibe-Bro
• 1968 Vox wah
• 1968 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face

Strings and Picks
• D’Addario EXL115 Nickel Wound sets (.011–.049)
• Fender heavy picks

Considering your interest in exploring a ton of different sounds in the studio, how do you prepare a rig to cover those tones on the road?
Dave Phillips at L.A. Sound Design is putting together a pedalboard for me, and I had all my new songs in mind when I was thinking of what I should bring.

What’s going on the board?
I have a ’68 Vox wah that I’ve used forever, a Vemuram Jan Ray overdrive, and I’m actually trying out the new Leslie G pedal. Apparently, I really like fuzzes because I’m bringing the COB, a Prescription Electronics Experience, the Zonk Machine, a Third Stone by Berkos, and an original ’68 Dallas Arbiter that Berkos put in a new box. There’s also a new remake of the Shin-Ei vibe called a Vibe-Bro. I’ve tried five of the best Uni-Vibe copies around and this by far is the best. It’s pretty amazing and I’ve noticed with this one that I keep it on quite a bit. It’s so musical.

How did “Mama Can’t Help You” come together?
I wrote that specifically for [drummer] James Gadson’s 16th-note groove. I had that in my head. He just has one of the most powerful signature grooves of all time. I had him booked for two weeks and when he finally came in I didn’t have any songs left because we had recorded everything that I’d written. I wrote that song an hour before I had to drive to the studio and we basically finished it in an hour. We did, like, three passes of it and I think that we might have actually used the first take of that—and then we did a few guitar overdubs.

When I was tracking the song I had a scratch vocal mic up just so I could tell the guys where to change, and as I was leading them I also sang melodies just so we had a rough idea of what the song was. I had said “your mama can’t help you” in the chorus, so I had lines throughout the song and it sort of exposed itself even though I didn’t have any lyrics going into it. Whatever I blurted out was more than just a phonetic thing; it actually had a story in there that needed to come out. I went back in a couple days after that and finished the lyrics.

On “Keep You Dreamin’ ” you also play some steel drum. How did that come about?
I’m always hearing different sounds in my head, so if I’m playing a song and I get something in my head I can actually find what that sound is in an instrument, because Woody has one of the greatest instrument collections I’ve ever seen. I was hearing steel drum in my head and I was going to emulate that sound by using an Octavia like Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. While he is using an Octavia and he turns the volume down, it sounds like he is playing steel drum to me. But Woody had an actual steel drum, and fortunately it was perfectly tuned.

Does the pressure of having a studio and musicians booked before all of the songs are together affect the music?
I thought I thrived on it, but that wasn’t the case this time. [Laughs.] I mean, I always thought I worked much better on a deadline, which I think that I have in the past, but I’m 47 years old and basically starting over. Even though I have fans all over the world, I have to figure out a way to connect the dots so that everybody knows that the Roger Waters guy is the same guy that played with Eric Clapton all these years and then did all the work with Sheryl Crow. There was more pressure on this just because it has been 15 years since my last album. Because I didn’t want to really be a part of the music industry anymore. To get back into it when I’ve been travelling around the world listening to Sufi music in its purest form, with no intent on commerce, it was a different thing to me. I’d ask myself, “How do I do this? How am I relevant?” Once I sort of let it go I was able to tell a story in music. This is my story, so it is what it is and people can like it or not, but if I like it, then that’s everything.

You’re credited with playing a host of instruments on the album. Have you always had an interest in being a multi-instrumentalist?
I started playing drums when I was 6 years old and then I switched to the bass when I was 11. At 14 I picked up the guitar, sort of by default, because it was all drummers in our family band. I figured if someone was going to play guitar it might as well be me. I’ve always been into rhythms. I think that’s why I love traveling and spending time in Morocco and India. When I write songs, I always start with rhythms and grooves and then I start piecing melodies and chords and different things on top of the rhythm.

How did the pre-production process for the album work? Did you make demos beforehand?
I didn’t make any demos. For instance, “Hands Up” was just a song that came when we went out into the studio to jam. I actually thought we were just getting sounds and that’s where Woody Jackson would help as a coproducer. He would realize before I would that it could actually be something. We went back in after we finished tuning and were like, “Oh, we may have a song here.” A lot of material was written on the days we went into the studio. I had three weeks in Vox with Woody and the engineer, Michael Harris. A lot of times I wouldn’t really have anything, so I would spend the morning trying to come up with something and piece it together in the studio.

There’s a theme of meditation and introspection on this album. How did that side of the music come together?
I started learning about different forms of meditation, because there are many and ultimately they all lead to the same place in their essence, but there are different paths to get to that state of being. The path that I chose, that I landed on after studying many different variations, was Transcendental Meditation, or TM. As I’ve been taught, it’s sort of a trick into getting you into that meditative state of being as quickly as possible. You’re almost tricking the mind through a simple mantra. You could meditate in the middle of the street in New York City and use the mantra to then become quiet amongst the storms.

This is definitely the most spiritual album you’ve done.
Yeah, by far. It’s also the most honest album I have ever done, because I’m really opening up and being vulnerable and doing things that I wasn’t capable of back then. I think I sort of dabbled in it. I was almost sort of faking it. But through my journeys, through my spiritual practice, and just everything that I’ve learned along the way, I was able to open up and show a part of myself and not be worried about what people think about me, which I’ve spent the majority of my life worrying about.

“November” is a really funky, soulful song. The sound and feeling is a real juxtaposition to the fact that it’s about your father. Was this one of the first songs where you really connected with those feelings about him passing away?
It was one of the first songs I wrote for the album and I didn’t actually have the lyrics for it. I didn’t even know that it would become about my father, but I knew it had some weight to it and I felt really close to this piece of music for some reason. I recorded it as a three-piece and I didn’t know how big it would become. I didn’t actually hear, at that time, the horn parts or string parts. But when I started feeling like it was the song that was going to be about my father, it felt like it should be orchestrated in a more majestic way. That was one of the songs that I spent a lot of time with and a lot of time crying to when I was singing it. Right after his death I went through about a six-week period of mourning and healing at the same time, and trying to connect with him in a way that I hadn’t been able to do when he was alive. I think the song, for me, is the conversation to him that is letting him know that I no longer have any of the hang-ups of my own about anything and letting him off the hook.

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Doyle Bramhall II plays his beloved ’64 Strat on this performance of “Little Queen of Spades,” from a 2006 tour with Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks. All three display different and incendiary approaches to performing a slow blues.

Stringing Endorsements from Vaughan, Clapton, and Trucks

Doyle Bramhall II often joined the Tedeschi Trucks Band during this summer’s “Wheels of Soul” tour, to close out the night. “With Doyle, you can hear the influences,” says Trucks, “but for the most part, he takes a roundabout way to get there and it’s beautifully confusing.” Photo by Jack Vartoogian

Throughout Doyle Bramhall II’s career, he’s had an uncanny knack for surrounding himself with some of guitardom’s most revered names. Vaughan, Clapton, and Trucks sit squarely at the top of that list—and all have weaved through his life at different but meaningful points. He’s a thread that connects the British blues of the ’60s, the gritty Austin scene that spawned a blues revolution, and the down-home soul of Southern rock.

Since the moment Bramhall was born, he’s literally been surrounded by Texas music royalty. The story goes that Doyle Sr. had a gig and wasn’t going to be able to make it to the hospital in time for his son’s birth, so he called in a sub: Jimmie Vaughan. Over the years the tale has been twisted so much that even Doyle II had some details mixed up. “I thought that my dad said he was in the birthing room,” says Bramhall. “A few months ago I was talking to Jimmie about that story and he said, ‘No, I wasn’t! Are you kidding me?’” Turns out Vaughan was there, but just in the waiting room. “Jimmie really came through for the Bramhall family that day.”

“Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and I were like his uncles,” says Vaughan, who started playing with Doyle’s father when he was around 15. “He was running around in his diapers in Austin and would hang with me and Doyle on the gig. I guess you could say he had a head start.” That head start led to Vaughan inviting a teenage Doyle II to play rhythm guitar in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “The thing about Doyle is that he has so much feeling. If you got ears, you can't miss it,” Vaughan notes. “Phrasing, tone, and soul.”

It wasn’t just Bramhall’s overall musicianship that landed him the gig of a lifetime with Slowhand. “He drove a beat-up, old Cadillac,” says Eric Clapton. Thanks to a mutual friend, Clapton received a copy of Bramhall’s Jellycream album and was so impressed that he ended up collaborating with Bramhall both on stage and off for nearly a decade. “He sings like Stevie Wonder, plays like a mixture of Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, and looks like a wild man. What a great mixture!” Clapton had heard a track by Erykah Badu that Bramhall had produced. “I thought he would make a great producer for me,” says Clapton, who brought him on as a coproducer for 2010’s Clapton and 2013’s Old Sock. “There’s something about the way he approaches playing blues and rock ’n’ roll,” states Clapton. “He pulls instead of pushes, and that makes an incredibly unique sound.”

It was during a tour with Clapton that Bramhall met Derek Trucks and the two bonded, both musically and personally, immediately. “I’ve never played with anyone who plays the way he does,” says Trucks. “It seems like where he will naturally go when writing a tune and where I naturally go really complement each other well. Our go-tos are never going to be in the way of each other.”

Throughout the recording of Rich Man, Bramhall sent Trucks bits and pieces to get his feedback. “To date, this is his life’s work,” says Trucks. “There’s an evolution to this album that feels different. It’s time for him to reclaim that throne that’s rightfully his.”