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Dudley Taft: Delta Grunge

Seattle’s Dudley Taft cranks out blues-rock informed by everything from his hometown alt-rock heroes to ZZ Top, Stevie Wonder, and Tower of Power.

Photo by Vic Wright

Clad in a black leather cowboy hat and sporting a long, pointed beard, Dudley Taft peers out from behind his dark glasses, picks up his guitar, retrieves a pick from its headstock, and warms up his fingers while waiting for his amp’s tubes to do the same. Once the amp is ready, he blazes through runs up and down the neck before settling on a chord and strumming blues so Delta you can almost smell the swamp. It’s hard to believe such a soulful blues player cut his teeth on ’90s alt rock, but around the time grunge and alt-rock frontrunners were gaining momentum, Taft was playing with the popular Seattle band Sweet Water. And though his passion for the last few years has largely been in the blues realm, he credits his time in Sweet Water with helping him to hone his songwriting abilities.

“Left to my own devices, I might’ve written Frank Zappa riffs. But the writing was very collaborative in Sweet Water,” says Taft. “When I joined them they were starting to realize that their friends in Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were onto something, so we started gravitating towards the alternative-rock direction. They would bring in three-chord ideas, and I would write the chorus or a solo or a bridge, and it helped me figure out how to take my impulses and make them blue collar. They helped me write more palatably—you have to write things that vibrate people. ZZ Top and Joe Walsh play simple things, yet it really resonates and is still creative.”

After a long run of rock-oriented projects, Taft set out to explore his passion for the blues around 2006. Merging his love of hard rock with deep Delta riffs, Taft released his first solo CD, Left for Dead—an album comprised of his own guitar-heavy compositions and an eclectic mix of classic covers—in 2010.

Left for Dead was really about me experimenting—writing songs in new directions,” says Taft. “My first idea was to start a ZZ Top cover band, and that led me to study Freddie King—and that really made me immerse myself in the players of the blues. It opened up my playing and writing in a lot of new ways.”

  Photo by Vic Wright

After a successful run of tours in support of Left for Dead, Taft further expanded his repertoire while putting together his material for this year’s Deep Deep Blue. The album blends shredding blues riffs with blazing rock compositions and shades of Seattle grunge, highlighting an impressive evolution of Taft’s skill as a songwriter.

“This album is more of a refinement of my playing than ever before,” he says. “People love the dance tunes and things that make them move, but I don’t want to make bar music by any means. I really like dark stuff. I like blues because it touches on dark and heavy things. There’s a turn of a melody behind certain chords that has a flavor to it that you don’t get from blues and you see it in bands nowadays like Radiohead. I’ve always believed that it’s important to have old and new influences.“

Photo by Jerry Levin

These dark influences become evident on tracks such as “Deep Deep Blue” and “Wishing Well.” On the former, Taft hybrid-picks sultry, clean-toned minor chords to create a backdrop for his vocal lamentations before breaking into a delectably slow-building solo that calls to mind a moody Gary Moore. And on the latter, deft acoustic flatpicking lays the groundwork for swampy grooves and a couple of gristly bridge-pickup solos. Meanwhile, “Meet Me in the Morning” starts off sounding a bit like Billy Gibbons getting cheeky with a shuffling twist on the “Chopsticks” piano exercise, and “The Waiting” has a little more of a driving, fried-chicken boogie flavor, with tastily sustained chords expertly wiggled and wobbled with the trem bar. “Feeling Good Now” turns up the funk grit with horn-doubled riffs that call to mind Tower of Power.

“This is my second album doing blues rock,” says Taft. “Once I started doing the blues-rock thing, it felt really comfortable for me—there are a lot of different shades of it that are interesting. I never enter writing an album with a specific theme or anything, though. When you talk to Joe Bonamassa, he’ll say that the buzzword for an album is ‘swampy’ or something, but I don’t work that way. My songs come out as they are and I don’t think I could write a concept album like that.”

Whether on the road, in the studio, or at home writing, Taft is constantly practicing and exploring new possibilities—which is evident in his “Riff a Day” campaign on his YouTube channel. “On this album, I’m using a lot of tight intervals,” he explains. “The fills and the solos proper are full of double stops. If you’re playing an E on the B string on the 5th fret, and then you play a G on the high E string on the 3rd fret, that’s a minor third, and that’s an interval that a lot of people use. But if you take it down to the next degree in the pentatonic scale and play the 3rd fret on the B string against the open E, which is a second, it sounds amazing.

“I’ve also been using a lot of cluster chords recently,” Taft continues. “I just sort of picture a scale on the neck, and then I picture notes that you might play in succession, but I play them all at once on different strings. I work my way up the scale, and it makes me discover chords that aren’t dominant or major—they’re weird six, nine or two chords. I really love how those sound, and they’re really fun to play.”

Dudley Taft’s Gear

1994 Fender Relic Stratocaster, 1996 Gibson Les Paul, Gibson 335-S Custom

Tonehunter Clear Water head driving a Tonehunter ported 2x12 cab

Velvet Minotaur, Tonehunter Juicy Fruit, Fulltone OCD, Lovedrive, Vox V847a wah

Strings and Picks
DR Strings BTR-10 (.010–.052) sets, Dunlop 1 mm Ultex picks

Although Taft has long used a mix of Gibson Les Pauls, Fenders, and acoustics, he rediscovered one particular axe that’d been lying dormant in his closet for a while, and it quickly became his go-to instrument for Deep Deep Blue.

“I got this Relic Strat from one of the first batches at Fender—it’s No. 199, and it’s one-piece swamp ash with a bird’s-eye maple neck,” says Taft. “I bought it in 1995 and I didn’t really like it, so I threw it in the closest. A decade later I realized it was my best-sounding Strat—and possibly the best-sounding guitar that I owned. It has an agreement between the neck and the body, where the harmonics boom when you hit it in the right place. It has really low-output pickups, so you just have to hammer it with overdrive.”

Dudley Taft and his band do a wailing, “Seattle-style” version of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” at the Highway 99 Blues Club in the Emerald City itself.