Today we’re talking with Brad Davis, a guitar icon in the world of country and bluegrass music. As you’ll hear on this episode, Brad has had an amazing career. As a go-to stage and session player in Nashville he’s played on Grammy-winning albums and worked with artists like Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Earl Scruggs, Emmy Lou Harris and Johnny Cash. He’s also an artist in his own right, recording critically-acclaimed albums under his own name and writing songs that have been recorded by well-known artists like Tim McGraw and Billy Bob Thornton.
With that resumé you might be expecting a lot of swagger and pride – but Brad is one of the most down-to-earth and humble musicians we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. We found that really inspiring.
This episode is a bit longer than most because there was just so much to learn from Brad. We talk about how he got started and what it took to rise rapidly through the ranks and perform with some of the biggest names in the world. How he was forging his own path from the beginning and how to do that without getting lost and stalling out like so many who try to go their own way do.
He also shared a lot of killer insights for the guitarists in our audience, like
• How and why his “double down up” guitar technique can be like adding a second language alongside the traditional “down up” technique. Don’t miss the videos we’ll have in the shownotes to see this in action!
• How he’s able to hone in on exactly the right region of the strings for his right hand to bring out the best sound on any guitar.
• Which of your two hands is the most important to train on technique – and even as a busy recording artist and record producer he’s still doing this 15 minutes every day himself.
The conversation is quite a blend of guitar specifics and deep insights on career and collaboration in music – so if you’re not a guitarist yourself please don’t be put off – and in fact if you pay attention, a lot of Brad’s comments about guitar can be highly instructive for any musician.
Oh, and don’t miss Brad revealing the embarrassing nickname he earned around Nashville – and why!
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show Brad. Thank you for joining us today.
Brad: It’s good to be here and thanks for serving some digital coffee for me. I appreciate that.
Christopher: (Laughs) So I’d love to hear — you’ve had an incredible career in music, you know, the people you’ve collaborated with and the success you’ve had. I’d love to hear in your own words what that journey’s been like. How did you first get started and what was your — what was it like to develop as a musician over the years and have such career success in different areas?
Brad: You know, I started at an early age and you got a little bit of that information that’s gonna be in this podcast but I started early because got inspired. You know, John Denver, Norman Blake, Doc Watson, Eddie Van Halen, John — you know, there were several — Tony Rice, obviously, Clarence White. Anyway, there were several batches of players that inspired me and I think they inspired me on a broad range. It wasn’t like the one, it was, like, the 14 or the 20 or the 30 and that was a problem for me a little bit, I think because it spread me kind of wide but I think as people listen to this to get better I had to grab one of them. I had to grab one piece and had to eat that and digest that one first and once that was done I could kind of like — I had a little, if you want to call it, a little stripe on the shoulder and I went up to the next one, and then to the next one and then to the next one, so I had to do that, but I think they all influenced me audibly, you know, as a player and made me go, “Wow, this is great. It’s such a big garden, and I want all the vegetables in the garden, but I’ve got to eat, you know, this thing first, and, to get back to the tomatoes and that, you know, it was, so it was kind of, that kind of an idea. Played in the Metroplex for years, you know, and developing, listening to different musicians and when I first heard Van Halen I didn’t see them, I only heard them on the radio and so I heard this biddley- biddley- biddley tapping thing that Eddie Van Halen does and I had listened to it prior to that.
I was inspired. I thought, “Wow, he’s probably doing that with a pick,” so I didn’t know any different. I thought, “I’m gonna take my pick and try to mimic that sound the best I can.” So I did so and came up with this technique called double-down-up.
And so it’s — I asked all my heroes — Tony Rice, Dan Curry and Doc Watson — you know, all those players, Norman Blake, all those players out there that I love so much and still do, “Do you do this?” and they, “No, don’t do that. That’s not good. Don’t do that. Two downs and one up?” And so I thought, “Well it sounds really cool. I like the way it sounds,” and even my instructor, he got me started and I showed him this technique and he said, “Don’t do that. That’s, that’s weird. Don’t do, you know, you need to go, down-up, down-up, down-up,” and I go, “Well, I know I need to go down-up, down-up, down-up, but I wanna add something else. I wanna — this is neat. It sounds great,” and basically when I met a drummer he said, “Well, that’s a rudiment. Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat. That’s a rudiment for a drummer and that’s how we would practice with our sticks on a pad, you know, we’d go, dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat, weave back and forth with our sticks left and right.”
And I thought, “Wow, that’s really crazy, man.” You know, I loved the rhythm and so I’m a rhythm freak. I love rhythms, you know? I’m really a freak about rhythms and that’s probably why I play a lot of other instruments besides guitar and I’m not just a guitar guy, but it lead me to believe that I got something kinda unique and then I saw Van Halen live and I thought, “Wow, I totally missed the boat. This guy’s got his tongue stickin’ out, like, seven inches and he’s tappin’ on the guitar on this huge stage with this massive crowd and I totally missed it. He’s tappin’. I’m not — you know, I’m doing it with a pick.” So, I said, “Man, I really messed up on this,” but you know, anyway. So I kinda got a little discouraged with it for a while and then started working on fiddle tunes with it and taking, like, traditional fiddle tunes and basically putting the technique in with that and if I found a place where I was having an issue on speed I would plug it in.
So what happened is the technique came to me from Van Halen but I didn’t have any licks. No one knew about it, “Man, don’t. Never heard of it before. Don’t do that. This is terrible. That’s awful. Don’t try to integrate that.” So that’s all I got from everybody.
So basically I had no licks so I just muted my left hand and I got a metronome as I was learning and playing all kinds of other music and songs and I would take a little bit of time each day to go dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat just on the strings, muted. No left hand. So what it did is it allowed me to focus. So that kind of helped me later on now in years as I do instructional material to tell people to focus on this right hand. If they don’t get the right hand down they might as well just quit because the left hand will always follow and so I worked really hard just on that rudiment just to get it super fast and actually it’s a great way to practice if you’re at home and the T.V.’s on. If your wife’s watchin’ Hallmark and you don’t want to disturb her you can cover the neck with a towel and you can practice, you know, and still get your brownie points while you’re at the house so it works really great.
So that technique basically when I saw Van Halen do it, I thought, “Wow, this is really crazy. I totally messed up,” and then it got integrated into fiddle tunes and I started using it live with, we had a group, Davis and Company and a couple of local groups that we had down through the years and it started, you know, started garnering some “Wow,” you know, “what are you doing? Your hand is not moving. What are you doing there?” And so I’m just going, down-down-up, down-down-up, down-down-up, you know. And then the technique got a little bit more expanded and I started to flip it upside down and I started to also instead of flipping it upside down I started adding some standard down-ups in front and back and basically the, down-down-up was a train car and I was basically gonna either use the train car by itself but I was gonna add a couple of links in front of the train car or behind it to expand the lick or double the train car, or, you know, that kind of theory and just pretty simplistic way to look at it, but it allowed me to kind of figure out mathematically how I was gonna try to broaden this and I’m not a technical guy. I learn by ear, however I’m adjunct at Texas A&M and I do audio production for A&M and so I’ve had to kind of quantify analytically and academically the things that I know to teach in that arena.
I always made fun of PhD’s and, you know, for years but I have a high respect for them and I should have always had a high respect for them because I’m kind of sitting in that thing as artist-in-residence and they do treat me with respect because I know more about what I do than they do at this particular college. So, but the technique has really given me a little bit of a calling card even though my down-up, down-up is fundamentally necessary for survival. You have to have down-up, down-up, down-up.
Steve Kaufman has a camp and I got asked there one year to teach only because the students asked. Steve does not like my technique. I love Steve to death. He’s a very talented player and won a lot of contests and he’s brilliant, the things that he’s done for our industry but he does not like my technique at all because his technique he teaches is, down-up, down-up, down-up and you have to use a certain pick and that’s really important until you decide you want to maybe integrate French into your language or Spanish into your language or, you know, I look at double-down-up as another language, just like if you added jazz or sweeping. It’s another language and you already speak. So it’s always been impressive to me that someone’s bilingual or they’re quadlingual or whatever, you know, it blows me away, like, “Wow. No, I know one language, man. That’s all I know.”
So to be able to do that on the guitar, it’s kind of like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So I really wanted to integrate that in. I got asked to the camp one year and it didn’t turn out well. I haven’t been asked back because they — it’s like having candy. When you show them something like the double-down-up that’s so simple, down-down-up, that’s all it is, and you repeat that a million times over, it’s like starting the motor. You go, “B-r-r,” and this right hand just does , down-down-up, down-down-up, you know, and you just rotate that like a stylus across the strings.
Knowing where to put it is important and that’s a little bit of a technique and a little bit of, it takes a little bit of time to do that but the thing is that it’s, they hear it and they go, “Whoa. That’s amazing. That does not sound like this guy,” and that, to me, Christopher, I mean, if I can do anything in this business it’s having a thumbprint. If I do anything, if I can just have a thumbprint and someone go, “That guy sounded different,” that’s payoff, total payoff for me, man, you know, so it ended up being something that made me have two guns in the holsters. I had a right and a left gun at this point. I had my down-up, down-up with me and then the double-down-up and so when I got, I did a session in Abilene, Texas and stop me if you need to, but I did a session in Abilene, Texas with Ricky Skaggs’ band leader at the time, Gary Smith and I was excited, “Wow,” you know, “This is great. Gary Smith.” They were hot. Ricky’s hit just came out that was really big on the country charts and I was a fan, obviously. He was a bluegrasser that had moved into country, so I was, like, “Wow. This is great.” So I got asked, “Man, you’re fantastic. We’d love for you to sing harmony and play rhythm,” and I said, “That would be great, man.”
Well, I was going to North Texas State University at that time which is now University of Texas. I was an art major. I was trying to get a backup. In case I moved to Nashville I’d have some kind of a backup but would jam with the One O’Clock Band during my breaks in the hallway so we had a lot of fun, man, and I got to meet Clint Strong, the guitar player for Merle Haggard for years and anyway, I got to really kind of get a little taste of some other stuff at that point but I got a chance to work for Skaggs and my professor said, “Go, you’ll never get this opportunity again. Leave. Go do it. You have one year left. Go do it.”
So I left and got there, got my apartment and said, “I’m comin’ up,” and he said, “Great. Great. We’ll set up the meeting with Ricky and I kind of knew Ricky already. I had met him a couple of times, you know, at bluegrass festivals and the neat thing about a bluegrass festival, I think, is that you can actually walk up and meet people. It’s gettin’ a little bit different. People have managers and I’m in the same boat. I have agents and people that represent me and they do that for a reason, to keep you safe and not wear you out and that kind of thing, but you can actually get close to folks and that’s kind of nice and so I kind of had met Ricky prior, you know, maybe a couple of years ago and so I got to town and two weeks went by. No phone call. I get my apartment, I’m in Nashville, it was this pretty big deal. I had just moved, I’m 28 years old and I’m like, “Wow, you know, this is great. No phone call,” and I’m just sitting in the apartment, you know, thinking, “What’s up with this?” So had Country Boy, I think that was a song that had just gone number one for Ricky and I had it on the coda phone, you know, back when we had coda phones, and I had it just blistering fast and I played it and said, “Brad Davis, if you want me, leave a message,” kind of a thing. And so I had that on my coda phone which leads to something right after this, so I wanted to tell you about that and then I got a call two weeks later and Gary Smith said, “You don’t have the job,” and I was, like, “What, are you kidding me? I’ve told my family.”
Christopher: You’d left university, you’d moved to the city. You’d waited a few weeks and only to be told that, no, actually, you don’t have the gig.
Brad: Oh, it was terrible, man. I mean, you know, I was, like, “Wow. Wow. You mean, I’ve told the entire world that I’ve got this job, and I don’t? So what am I, a liar?” So anyway, Wheland Patent had been offered the job, and Wheland was a very good singer and a very talented artist and songwriter and they had offered it to him. He turned it down and so they offered it to me and so when I got to town Wheland said, “You know, I think I want that job,” and so he called Ricky back and Ricky said, “Okay. We’ll,” you know, “call Brad. Tell him, ‘You’re out’.” So I was like, “Oh, you got to be kiddin’ me, man. This is awful.” So I had about three days of just sheer, dark depression, you know? I remember. And it was great for me. It was the, probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me because it gave me this really thick skin and I think, I guess the positive thing is if you can get through that and just get on the other side and go, “Okay,” dust yourself off and go,”Okay. I guess I’ll work at Walmart, no big deal,” you know, “whatever it takes.”
So I got a job at Opryland. Opryland was hiring at that point and I did not have, I mean, I played guitar. I wanted to play guitar. It was what I was best at. So I got there and all the guitar positions were taken. And they said, “Well, then you can take fiddle,” and I said “Well I’m pretty darn good on mandolin but I don’t really play fiddle that well.” And so I bought a $200 fiddle, just pawn shop. I had tuners on it so I could tune it easier than the regular tuners and so I started working on fiddle because they, all they wanted was that scratchy riverboat fiddle. They didn’t need anything like, super detailed. So thank God for me it was really just basic fiddle and that was just, bew-dee-dee, you know, doing the old simple stuff as you walk on the riverboat there at Opryland and I did that for about six months and then I got the call from Gary’s brother, Jack Smith.
And Jack was the band leader for the Forester Sisters and they were signed to Warner Bros and they’d had three number ones and were getting ready to do their fourth number one and Jack said, “I just got a call from my brother.” He says, “You didn’t get the job with Skaggs,” and so I was pretty broke apart about that, you know, and he says, “but if that’s you playing on this machine, you’re hired.” And I was like, “Hired to do what?” And he said, “Play the lead guitar.” And I said, “Wow. Lead guitar. Wow. This is amazing,” you know. So, you never know. Things always work out.
So it was for the Forester Sisters and they had just had their hit, “Just in Case You Ever Change Your Mind” — “Just in Case” — I guess that was what they called it, but so I get the job and we open for Conway Twitty in arenas, I mean, so I go from a quiet bluegrass player to massive volumes, you know, and huge crowds. The guy who left the gig was a really good flatpicker, Roy Curry, and a good friend of mine and I don’t know if he had any play in getting me in on the gig but he was amazing and I saw videos of him and I was like, “Man, I got to step it up,” you know? “This guy’s good, man.”
So all I had to do was learn the material and mimic it exactly the way he played it for at least a couple months, and I’ve learned this over time, and then you morph it into your own thing and they like you and they’re comfortable and, but you got to give them what they’re used to. You really do.
And so I did it. I stepped into the gig. I didn’t have electric guitar at the time. I went down and bought one at the pawn shop and a pedal and then I had to rig, the electric rig was onstage and so they made us wear these baggy black pleated pants and these shirts and the band had to match and I was glad because my legs were shakin’. I didn’t want anybody to know that my legs were shakin’. So the baggier the pants were, you know, it was better but it was scary, you know. I had to learn all of these lead parts and I had a good ear because I had been learning bluegrass, I’d been learning off records. We didn’t have a slow-mo box. We didn’t have any that stuff that’s strictly off-album so we had to listen multiple times and this is — I teach a class with this as we roll along, you know, through time I teach a class where you get played a lick or a phrase and you’ve got to memorize it instantly.
And my ear was good enough to learn this stuff note-for-note and to actually know where the timbre was and where he played it at, you know, I’d go, like, “No, that’s not right. He’s up here,” and, you know, most guitar players, and people always need to remember this, they’re gonna go for the easiest place possible. They are gonna go the easiest route. We are lazy musicians. I say that loosely because I’m always on time and a 5 a.m. kind of guy and I say that about everybody else loosely as well. But it’s the old joke, right? But the thing is you want to go to the easiest possible spot to play that so you’ve got to think, “No, I’ll never be able to figure that out. There’s no way.” No, you go the easiest spot, man, you think it’s gonna be at and start there and then go to the next spot that obviously would be an octave higher or just a note that’s the same note, it’s just up the neck and on the guitar we’ve got that availability to go up the neck and play the same thing. So you always got to think about: it’s not gonna be that tough. It’s not gonna be that hard.
And the reason I say that is years later if I can interject I got hired to play with John Jorgenson’s quintet and it was a pile of material that I had never, ever looked at in my entire life. I mean, chords, I mean, I knew some jazz chords but I could fake my way but I really didn’t know what it was all about so and I’m just gonna interject quickly on this because I had no idea and I thought, “Oh my gosh, how am I gonna do this?” and then I had to basically go to that simple part, that simple area that I thought this guy was playing the rhythm at and I had to get there first and get my head wrapped around it and then I could expand on it because it’s overwhelming. I mean, you get 15 CD’s on Friday night at 8 o’clock, you do a two-hour rehearsal. The bus leaves Saturday at midnight and that’s all the rehearsal you’ve got and you’ve got to learn all of these songs note for note to go and start doing a show. You’re at the Knitting Factory in New York on Sunday. I mean, so you’re freakin’ out. You’re goin’ like, “I’m not gonna sleep. I’m just not gonna sleep at all. I’m gonna just drink coffee and stay up and learn all this stuff.”
So you got to think about those easy spots but, you know, it was — playing with the Forester Sisters was great. I had my technique. My main thing was to not really try to integrate it but it was trying to mimic the guy that I was coming in to replace. We opened for Conway Twitty for a year and then we opened for Kenny and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, big stages, huge venues and so it was a bit of a shock to me, you know, when I first came in on this thing. I was there five years and it gave me a chance to kind of say, “I’m with so-and-so.” That was really what helped a lot. I actually had a, “Well, who are you playing with?” “Uh, I’m playing with so-and-so,” you know, and so that helped a lot in town. It gave me a lot of credibility and it was a tough job. It was four ladies and it was a four-cylinder PMS motor and they wouldn’t mind me saying that. One day two would love you. That same day two would hate you and it was a tough gig, you know, you had to deal with that dynamic but it really helped me dealing with people, I think. It helped me to know when to say things and when not to say things and be a little bit more, have a really good bedside manner about things and it kept ya humble, because they were on ya all the time if you made a mistake they would all four would look across the stage and I’m thinking, “Don’t do that. No one knows I made the mistake. No one knows, and now they do.” So what it did —
Christopher: So I heard there’s a whole — sorry. Go ahead.
Brad: No, no. Go ahead.
Christopher: I hate to interrupt. I know there’s whole extra phase we haven’t even covered to your musical journey but I think it’s fascinating that you were able to kind of jump in and swim at the deep end like that and…
Brad: Woo, scary.
Christopher: …as an instructor yourself I’m sure you’ve encountered this with students where they’re torn between wanting to follow a course or follow what they’re told to do versus finding their own path and learning in their own way and it sounds like you were very much kind of forging your own path, learning by ear, figuring out your own technique. Where did the confidence to do that come from and do you have any insight on what made that work, because, you know, there are so many students who go that route and just kind of wander in the wilderness without really making progress.
Brad: I think the one thing that made that work was there was a fiddle player named Vern Solomon. Vernon Solomon was his name and he was a fiddle player, a traditional Texas fiddle player and at a jam session one time he grabbed my pinkie and he grabbed a pair of nips for strings, you know, to trim his strings off and was threatening to cut my pinkie off and he said, “You don’t use it, so I’m taking it off. I don’t see you using it at all,” so I said, “Okay, fine, man. That’s great. I’ll use it, you know? I’ll try to use it.”
So anyway, I started using it and he, he said, you know, “Take that fiddle tune and you know it in C? Yeah, you’re real confident.” “Oh, man, I got this in C.” So you’ve got to get one key confident. You should take one tune that you know the melody so well that you could hum it all the way through the part A and part B and if you can’t hum the melody all the way through you should pick another song. Pick one song that you really have the melody learned really well and then you take that song,” and he suggested learning it in D, “You already know it. Just throw it in D.” So now the challenge is not so hard, right? So you’re, you kind of know what you’re doing. You’re kind of a little bit familiar with it and you throw it in G and you throw it in F and throw it in about five different keys and when you do that your confidence level quadruples, I mean, I can’t tell you what it does for you, but it will absolutely turn you into Superman to where you feel like, “Wow, man, I, you know, I can –” it’s almost like speaking five languages. You know it in C and a lot of times you get in a jam session and go, “We’re gonna do “Soldier’s Joy,” and so it’s either in G or C, you know, one of the two keys. So what key are we gonna do it in? We’re gonna do it in C. So yeah, you do it C. The fiddle players like it in C, but if you modulate and pull it to another key all of a sudden you’re almost looked as being a little bit of a bluegrass professor. You’ve jumped it up a notch. You’ve popped it up into this next realm, you know, and everybody’s going, “I don’t know it in A but this guy does,” and so all of a sudden your confidence level shoots way up and that’s the first way to do it, is to take something very simple and you may wanna take something as simple. I’ve got some classes that I do that are beginner classes and we’re getting ready to do a bucketload of new stuff with Alvarez and based on this type of thing where you may wanna take “Jingle Bells.” It’s Christmas. Take something you know by the back of your hand and you know the melody, but learn it and about five different keys. Just the front of it, you know, jingle bells, jingle bells, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. That’s it. Just learn that in about five different keys. Take a little at a time. Bite off a little bit at a time.
I do know this, that in my own playing, seven days a week in the studio. And I love producing, I love writing. Writing is why I got in the business. It’s actually the main reason I was going to get in the business was to write songs. Love to write songs but I have a studio here because I didn’t really know if I was gonna have work. We came back to Texas for a sick father-in-law to be with him and I had left Sam Busch at the time, which we’ll get into that later, but they all said, “You’re committing career suicide.” I said, “Well, you know, he’s only going to last six months.”
So anyway, we moved back here, set up a studio. So we’re seven days a week, here, but at the same time I’m busy, I try to take at least ten minutes or fifteen minutes a day and I practice RPP, rhythm pick pattern in my double-down-up so I practice those things with a muted left hand. I do not use my left hand in notes because I don’t have time. I don’t have time to focus. What’s gonna happen, Christopher, is I’ll get in and I’ll get a song idea and then all of sudden I’m off to an hour session and I don’t have time for that but I’m not gonna be able to shut that down and I’ll have to record on the phone and try to keep some notes so I can come back to it later. It makes it frustrating.
So I practice muted left hand and the RPP pattern is, quickly, is thinking just basically the first stage is G, C, and D and on G, you’re gonna play , down-up, down-up, down-up and you’re gonna do 6-4-3-2, 6-4-3-2 while you’re holding the G chord and so basically that’s gonna give you , down-up, down-up, 6-4-3-2, 6-4-3-2 and it gives you basically the pattern and rhythm, however it’s like taking a photo and blowing it up five times and seeing all the pixels. It allows you to get inside the network of the rhythm and see the, you know, the skeleton of what you’re doing.
When you play fast, it’s kind of loose and you kind of, you want to make sure you maintain the groove but when you slow down you’re able to grab more notes and so you’re able to spread that photo really wide and you’re opening up the pixels and you’re able to grab on each note individually. So I practice on that G in 6-4-3-2 and C is 5-4-3-2. Obviously we start with the base note on C at the top which is the low section of the guitar but it’s the top where the strings are. And then D, start 4-3-2-1 and so those patterns of dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat, you know, run through them and I’ll do the muted left hand and then I’ll do my double-down-up. So those patterns help me keep fresh.
Now, someone’s gonna ask, can I use them on other chords? Yes. Absolutely. If the base note starts on the six string, throw an F or an E or whatever you want to. Same thing with C, A minor, you got it. I mean, it’s pretty easy to figure out, you know, and mess with different chords using the RPP but the RPP will keep your right hand so dialed in for down-up, down-up, down-up and your rhythm. It’ll make you a different player, absolutely. But if you do it just a little each day, you know, and don’t bite off too much it makes a huge difference but it basically, you know, that technique of playing down-up, down-up, and I will have to commend Steve Kaufman on that, is essential. I mean, it’s like having socks on before you put your shoes on. You got to have it. You can not move forward without it. I wouldn’t want to just have the double-down-up. It would be monotonous. It wouldn’t sound great, it would be like, way to many notes, it’s not that musical. You have to really work hard to make it musical, you know, that’s the problem. The left hand comes in on that particular part of the equation but —
Christopher: So I think that’s a great example, maybe, of how you approach this whole thing of, you know, sticking to the course versus forging your own path in that clearly you are — it’s funny, you said “bluegrass professor” there, I think that’s great. You know, you’ve found your own path and you’re constantly learning and learning by ear but clearly you were doing it in a very intentional, methodical and disciplined way. I mean, for someone who’s had your success to still be practicing technique 15 minutes a day is quite a sign of how seriously you take this and how thoughtful you are in developing your musicality and maintaining the abilities you’ve developed.
Brad: Yeah, and it’s the free-throw. I mean, the ball players never stop practicing a free throw. Basketball players don’t. And I’m not a sports guy because I don’t have time for sports but I know they always practice the free throw. They never stop. They never stop and so I look at this being the free throw. It helps me on electric as well and the one thing that it does — this is really important for players and I’m so in love with the idea of helping others. It’s fun, man. I love it. It’s rewarding
If anybody gets anything out of this interview, hopefully it’ll be this, but the guitar has got a tension from — on acoustic guitar — from the bottom of the fretboard all the way back to the bridge there’s a tension and I would say, towards the bottom of the fretboard it’s real loose and towards the bridge it’s tighter. Everybody’s different. Everybody feels that different. Everybody wants a different tension. They require a different tension for balance and it’s all basically based on your balance, how is your balance so when you play something you don’t crash. You’ve got a great, steady right hand and a lot of times people will practice and go, “I can’t get any faster than this. I’m as slow as I can.” I practice at 60 beats a minute when I do my RPP, it’s that slow. It’s extremely methodical and slow and so it’s almost like someone has said before, it’s like Chinese water torture. You hear that “doink!” the drop hittin’ you on the head and it’s like, “This is gonna drive me crazy, man.”
So what I do is I use a drum machine programmed to do it because, you know, a metronome would kill ya, after a while. You’d want to exit the planet if you had to do that every day but it’s nice having a drum machine because it gives you a little bit of a vibe on how to read the one and the three, you know, the kick snare, you know, kick, hat, snare, kick, hat, snare. It gives you a chance to learn how to read that and it helps a little bit better with playing with other people but 60 beats a minute is slow. It’s really slow, but the one thing about the RPP is that when you take it and you practice it, it helps you based on this tension thing I was talking about. It’s real spongy towards the fretboard and real tight towards the bridge. Same thing on electric guitar. They’re all the same so you’ve got to figure out where you’re at. Where’s your best spot? Where is, you know, when golfers go to play and they’re on T.V. they try to find that spot. They go, “This is my zone,” and they’re in it and if they can grab that zone and hit the ball, they know they’re gonna be able to control it and hit it wherever they want to. It’s the same thing about guitar. If you can just get yourself in that spot you can basically do what your brain wants you to do and what you’re trying to do for enjoyment or for work or whatever. The RPP will help you do that. When you do it left-hand muted, you’re basically, let’s say you do it for G, 6-4-3-2. You’re gonna start at the bridge and you’re either gonna post or you’re gonna float. Your right hand is gonna post or float but everybody’s different. Everybody likes to do it different.
I morph a lot because I’m doing an electric guitar on sessions and I’m doing mandolin and I’m doing acoustic guitar and bass so I’m constantly doing almost all of those because I have to, depending on the instrument and that’s the type of style that I’m working on but it forces you to move the hand towards the spongy part of the loose tension of the strings then try the 6-4-3-2 and go, “Ooh, I don’t like that at all.” So you pull it back a little bit and you go, “That’s a little better.” So you find that gauge where you feel really comfortable and as you do the RPP it forces your hand to go to that same spot every time, every single time and so if I get a guitar thrown at me that I don’t know the guitar, my right hand’s gonna find that spot. I mean, it’s almost like it’s a radar, man, it’s like a computer. My right hand goes right to that spot and someone says, “My guitar has never sounded that good.” The only reason is because I go to that spot that I’m comfortable in and I know I can dial in that tone. My ear hears the tone I’m after. My right hand goes for the weighted part of the strings. Both of those come together kind of like our audio and our video here and that basically helps you zero the laser in on your spot that you need to have that awesome feel where you’re totally relaxed and you’re barely hanging on to the pick. I barely hold a pick, barely hold it.
Now if I’ve got a banjo player and I’m jamming I’ll grab it and I’ll hold it a little tighter because I’m gonna have to get a little more muscle on the acoustic but for the most part when I’m doing double-down-ups I’m barely hanging on to the pick, just barely holding it. I wanna be in that super-relaxed zone and a lot of people go, “Man, you’re beatin’ the heck out of that guitar. It sounds like you’re just, wham, you know,” and I go, “I’m not. I mean, I’m playing lightly,” and I remember meeting Levon Helm. I was on tour with the Boxmasters and Billy Bob Thornton and Levon Helm were actually really good friends and we went to his Midnight Ramble, which was so cool, in New York, man, we got to go twice to that, but I saw Levon playing. Levon played like, you thought he was killing those drums, man, thought he was beating them to death. He was barely hittin’ ’em, but when you saw him you thought, “Wow.” It’s the same idea, you know, barely — that’s why people say your hand never moves when you’re doing the double-down-up. It’s like, “How are you doing that? You know, it just barely moves.” I said, “Man, I’m going the easiest route possible. I want to move as little as possible and make as little of effort so I can last longer while I’m doing what I’m doing.” And so it always goes back to that thing that I joke about. You know, musicians are lazy. They’ll go for the easiest path to the goal. And that’s true. And I know a lot of times you’ll go, “Oh, no, there’s a lot of players that are really advanced,” and yeah, there are, there are. They’re not as popular, I mean, you know, the guys that are simple are the ones that are actually, for some reason, are more popular.
I mean, look at Cash. Cash was not a great guitar player. He was an innovator. Emmy Lou Harris. Not a great guitar player. Innovator. You got Martin Offler. Not, like, an amazing b-r-r-r sit down and blow your head off but, man, he’s got technique that you just go, “Whoa.” I mean, I learned it. I mimicked it for years because I was amazed by it, you know, so I’m just saying simplicity is so important.
And as a bluegrass player it’s funny coming from me, a guy who plays a lot of notes on the double-down-up. I got a schooling, when I got with the Forester Sisters, I got a schooling on, you know, I thought, “Man I played with Skaggs. I’ll go, b-r-r-r.” I was playing a lot of notes even though I was a rhythm player. I had had grand ideas about playing a lot of notes and having fun but with the Forester Sisters, it was like, “You got to play what you got to play,” and then, “We need a break. I need four measures. I don’t want you to play anything. As a matter of fact you could smoke a cigarette. Shut up and smoke the cigarette. Give me a break,” you know.
So I learned that early on, and I think what taught me a lot about that was in music I was having to learn by ear the lead playing that was on that record and Skinner and Wallace out of Muscle Shoals had produced this record that I actually had jumped on the road with the Foresters and so they had some great players on it. I mean, amazing Muscle Schoals players on this record. Ray Flack actually was one of the players from the U.K. and one of my favorite players of all time, and so I had to learn, you know, his, what he was doing, you know, and so there was a lot of space in there. It was tastefully done. Things were left out and it reminds of horn players. I’m such a horn freak about their technique because they breathe (sings) brah-dah-dah-n-dah-dat-dat-dat. (in breath) Dah…and then they come back in and they take a breath, you know? So they’re taking a breath and so they’re allowing things to kind of breathe like a real living thing and so that’s the way I want my guitar playing to be and I know that sounds crazy. A lot of people on there may listen and go, “Oh, that guy plays notes all the time, man. He’s, like, the note guy,” and, yes, there are times when it’s appropriate within the double-down-up technique if you do play a lot of notes — here’s the challenge with that as somebody who’s advanced at it and doing it as long as I have. You have to create — the notes become the bed and what happens on top of the notes is you create melody on top of that and so the melody on top of this bah-dah-dah-dah-dat-dat-dat — it’s like having the car running.
So the car’s running in the background and on top you’re having a conversation with your mother and so you can either talk a lot or you can listen and she can listen and it’s kind of that kind of a vibe but that motor’s running, dah-dah-dat-dat-data, in the background. So that’s kind of the way the double-down-up is. It’s purring in the background and you’re hitting notes that are basically creating almost simultaneous notes of the same note and so you’re not getting a lot of color. You’re maintaining this neutral kind of thing and on top of that you’re going, bah-dah-dah-dah-dat-dat-dat-doo-dah-dah. So that’s the easiest way I can describe it and so it’s almost like having a drummer back there playing and you’ve got Arsenio Hall’s guys, who I’ve become friends with on the horn section. The dummer’s back there, boom-tzz-bat-tzz. He’s hitting that and they’re going, bah-n-dah-dat-tzz-boom-teach-bat and they’re doing the same thing. They’re playing this drum beat, they play a phrase, they stay out. They play it. So it’s the exact same concept, mathematically, as the double-down-ups, you know, and a lot of times you hear those notes and you go, “Oh, God, this is just a little too much to handle.”
So I got to figure out a way to create this motor, you know, obviously the drums are playing in the band and you don’t think, “Argh, quit, it’s killing me.” You like that. The drums are playing, the bass is playing with it. The horns are playing with it. The piano’s playing with it and it sounds good so you don’t say, “Get rid of that.” You like that. So I wanted to create that type of an idea based on what I already knew about bands that would not offend a listener, you know?
Christopher: So, you were touring with the Forester Sisters and where did things go from there?
Brad: I, like, on those tours, you know, I had a chance to meet a lot of great players and rub elbows and those connections are endlessly valuable. I had heard that Marty Stuart had fired Ray Flack. There had been a problem somewhere, you know, maybe a personality problem, you never know. We know he’s one of the best players in the world, so no question there. But personalities are important, so I wanted that gig. I really wanted that gig and I’d been playing electric for about five years. I wasn’t great at it but I was pretty good. So I wanted that gig, so I told a friend of mine, “I’m gonna try out for that gig,” and they said, “Aww, you don’t want that gig. They’re, man, they’re wild on the road, these guys. They’re crazy. They’re nuts, and he’s hard to work with,” and blah, blah blah. So I said, “Well, I’m gonna try out, man,” you know.
So I went to the audition and the guy that told me not to show up was in the line of the audition about ten ahead of me. There were 31 guys. I was 31. I was the last guy there that day. So everybody tried out and a lot of really good players. Amazing players. And the only problem with that gig is that these players thought they’d be playing lead guitar wide open all of the time. Well, that wasn’t the gig. The gig was to support Marty Stuart, first and foremost. So a lot of really hotshot lead players tried out and they did not get the job, maybe because they weren’t — you could tell they were unwilling to support him, I don’t know, or attitude or whatever, but nonetheless they were, like, some of the best of the very best and so I was the last guy in. I brought in my amp, my guitar, and Marty Stuart, I wanted to kill him that day, I told him that later, because he said, “We’re gonna take all of the songs that you learned on the CD and we’re gonna sharp and flat them as we roll along, randomly. So get ready.” So it was, like, “You’re kiddin’ me, man. This is incredibly the worst thing in the world,” because some of these songs had to be played in certain keys because they just had to. That’s just the way they were written, and they didn’t sound right, and so I said, “Well, I’m gonna tell you first off that this is probably gonna really suck. I’m just gonna tell you right off the bat. It’s gonna suck, but it’s your show and if you wanna sharp and flat these and try me out, I’ll do the very best I can.”
Anyway, so we went through it and some things were great. Some things were not so great. He said, “Can you flat pick?” and I said, “I can flat pick.” So we played “Soldier’s Joy” and a couple of other songs and no problem there, because I knew the songs, you know? So he called back and said, “You’re the guy,” and I said, “What do you mean, I’m the guy?” because I knew some of these players that were in line. They were amazing. And he said, “I don’t need an attitude. I don’t need the best lead player in the world. I need a player that I can train and mold and that will take lessons from Richard Bennet,” and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Richard Bennett produced “Guitar Town” for Steve Earle. He was with Neil Diamond for 19 years and right now, since the recording industry’s kind of had a lull in Nashville, he’s on the road with Dire Straits, well, Mark Knofler. He’s Mark Knofler’s second guitar player. Richard’s amazing, amazing.
So I had to go to his house two days a week and take a lesson. His wife was from Britain and she would make a cup of tea every morning for us, you know, a spot of tea, that was what she called it. It was really amazing and I just really cherish those moments and Richard would say, “Here’s the intro. You can learn the rest of it,” and I said, “No, no, no, no, no. I have a cassette player.” Cassettes were really hot at that time. I said, “I’m gonna put it on record, I’m gonna set it down here. I want the whole song from front to back. Every song, I don’t wanna — just shoot.” Man, he went through every song in played it and I sucked that stuff up like a sponge. So what happened is it gave me a chance to fit in to this Marty gig, Marty Stuart gig, as the guy that actually played just like the record. I was playing it all and just, like, Richard, and anything that Ray did, I copied note for note and so it really gave me an advantage, so I went on tour with Marty and we started at the, oh, man, the famous club in L.A., the Palomino Club and I showed up. We’d been rehearsing all of the way out there and I was a good singer but I was doing singing and playing at the same time and so I was pretty unhappy with what I was doing because the band was so loud I couldn’t hear and so I had to really get my head wrapped around, how do I survive in this loud environment to where I can hear and do the best job I can?
And so on the way out there Johnny Cash was there that night. This was the Hillbilly Band, is what it was called, first of all and then it ended up changing to the Rock and Roll Cowboys when some of the members changed and left and went on to other things but I stayed with that band but it was the Cash that night Dwight Yoakum and Tony Brown from MCA records was there. So we played the first show and then I overheard Tony Brown telling Marty Stuart, “Man, this guy is awful, man. He can’t hardly sing and barely plays the parts right,” you know. And I was scared to death, you know, basically. I was nervous as can be.
So I thought, “Golly, man, you know, I got to step it up. I got to get better,” and so I started practicing. You know, we had hotel rooms on the road and we had our own hotel rooms at times and so I would just practice and practice and practice and practice, you know, millions of hours on these songs, you know, and trying to make sure I had them down. And so I was there for, you know, quite a while and with Marty Stuart you’d get fired and then you’d get hired back. It’s kind of like working for Johnny Cash, one of those kind of things, and sometimes you’d quit (laughs) but it was kind of like a family, you know, you’d come back.
I remember my first year with Marty Stuart he came up to us about a week before Christmas and said, “I’m taking a year off. See you guys next year,” and at that particular point, and it was probably actually at about my third year in or fourth year in but I got married in Nashville, met my wife there and had our first kid and bought a van and all of a sudden we got a year off with no pay. Holy smokes!
So I ended up diving into session work pretty heavy but it gave me a name. Marty Stuart kind of gave me a name and Marty was fantastic in the fact that he’d say — Tony Brown would say, “You’re not gonna use your band. You’re gonna use Harry Stinson on drums and Matt Rollings on piano and Stuart Smith on guitar, blah-blah-blah-blah,” you know, and all this stuff that he wanted done for the record label because Marty Stuart took Steve Earle’s slot. That’s how Marty got into MCA Records. Steve Earle had had some serious medical issues and couldn’t pull himself out of where he was at and so they gave the entire slot to Marty and it fit perfectly because Steve Earle and Marty Stuart kind of had the same kind of outlaw thing.
So, you know, I did a lot of section work and Marty gave me the, Marty always used us. So Tony Brown would say, “You can’t use the band,” and he would say, “I’m using my band or I’m not gonna record,” so I got to hand it to him. He was just an amazing coach, an amazing advocate for us and we would play on Johnny Cash albums, we would play with Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, I mean, Dwight Yoakum, even Steve Rowan when he got back on his feet, I mean, all kinds of great opportunities, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, I mean, things that Marty would bring us in on.
And the reason why he was so confident is because I was nicknamed The Whipping Post in Nashville, behind my back. I didn’t know this, but basically they said that because I would pretty much do whatever Marty — it was Marty’s gig. I mean, I was hired to help Marty and do what he wanted me to do and if he wanted me to do this, that’s what my job was. My job was to do that and if I didn’t want to do that I should leave, but he knew that in confidence, they could say, “I need — Emmy Lou Harris is playing guitar today, and she’s gonna play rhythm, and her guitar playing is really cool but we’ll probably not gonna be able to keep that on the track. We’re probably gonna have to replace that,” but nonetheless, Emmy’s got an amazing style so Marty said, “I want you to watch her and I want you to replicate it as we’re tracking and we need your guitar to be her guitar on the track.” So I watched her and figured out exactly where her hand was, where it was on the guitar, and grabbed the same type of a Gibson and basically had her guitar in one ear louder than the rest of the band so that I could basically mimic that.
So that’s the kind of thing you were thrown into to really step it up and try to do the part that you needed to do. But anyway, so I was The Whipping Post, I think. For years they called me that, but I left at one point and went to work for the Sweethearts of the Rodeo and they had a bluegrass band and so I left and went to work for them and just needed a change.
I needed — I entered the Winfield Guitar Championship (sic) knowing I wouldn’t win with my double-down-up. So I had them at a certain level and I wanted to kind of show that off and I, you know, my wife said, “You’re probably gonna win,” and I go, “No, it’s either they’re gonna hate me or they’re gonna love me, one of two things, because they’re very traditional,” and so I remember getting onstage and had the crowd in a standing ovation but the judges were not happy because I was not doing a standard technique and they could tell but I made an impression.
The guy who won it next year said, “You’re the guy that got the standing ovation in the black leather jacket that played this double-down-up stuff.” He said, “I won that year. You should’ve won,” and I was like, “No, no, no. You were fantastic and you won,” and that’s what — I got up there for me. I got up there for me. I needed to do that, then. When I left Marty Stuart I went down there to, just, kind of, say, “I got to do something for myself.”
But I got a job with the Sweethearts and was able to record on their records and try my Brad Bender. I had patented the Brad Bender and it was a Bender that, you know — we’re working for Marty Stuart. He bends on guitars. You’re gonna get kind of sucked into it so I patented that and was able to work out the kinks onstage during touring and that kind of thing with him. I was there for about two years and then Marty Stuart hired me back and I came back with the Rock and Roll Cowboys at that point and worked there for a good while and it was fantastic. We had big venues. We co-headlined with Travis Trent, so there were arenas and it was fantastic, a great experience for me and I got a lot more credibility in the session world because I was asked back to a gig and paid more money, and, you know, it makes you look better and I wasn’t fired at that point. I had actually left. I was trying to leave without getting fired. Marty would just get a whim and go, “Everybody’s fired. You’re outta here,” and hire you back. (Laughs)
But that was kind of a normal thing. But it gave me a chance to work with a lot of great people that — Rose Maddox from the Maddox Bros in Los Angeles. I never would have worked for them. I never would have met Billy Bob Thornton and I never would have met Cash or Dwight Yoakum or the list goes on of the people that I met with Marty Stuart, because Marty Stuart crossed a lot of bounds.
He had dated Kirstie Alley for years when he was working with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash so he was kind of in that, he wasn’t just country. He was in that, I don’t know, that world folk art kind of cool thing and so he crossed a lot of boundaries and when he introduced me to Billy Bob Thornton we became good friends for some reason. We just made a contact there and I got to a certain point where it was time to leave the Rock and Roll Cowboys and Billy Bob was going on tour in the U.K. He had six-month tour in Europe. He had some film work to do and so we formed that band and I was able to jump in since I had so much credibility in the studio from Marty Stuart I was able to jump in and help co-produce that record. So it was, like, really awesome.
Marty was onboard to produce the first one for Luke Lewis at Mercury and then he got kind of busy and his career started taking off again and so he had to bail out and I hopped in the seat. It was an awesome opportunity, and, Christopher, at Billy’s house it was like Big Pink. He bought Slash’s house which was owned by Cecil B. DeMille on Sunset and Roxbury Drive and Slash had put a studio in there, lifted the house up and put a studio in there for Guns N Roses. Incredible. A ten million dollar house and he lifted it up five feet. Can you imagine what that cost? I don’t even want to think about it.
So Billy Bob and Angelina Jolie bought that house and so Marty was producing there and that’s how I met him there at the cave and then I engineered there for about seven years. I didn’t live in L.A. but Billy Bob Thornton had a room at his house and it was my room and I would just pop in. That’s how close we’ve been over the years and I was able to produce.
But I met the guy who produced Simon and Garfunkel there, Robby Robbins of the Band, John Hyatt, Tommy Sharp from Styx, I mean, all these people that I met I would have never met, ever, you know, and you know, my thing is I’ve always been around the business so long. It’s not like, “Oh, I got to get a — would you please sign this for my wife,” or what — I never said that and I probably should have, or probably just should have said, “How about a selfie, man?” Never said that. I never, always acted like, “Eh, I’m one of the guys. I’m runnin’ the board. I’m not gonna pay attention to that,” and make them feel comfortable. I probably missed out on a lot of opportunities but I just never felt like it was the right thing to do, you know, to bug them. But anyway.
Christopher: Well, I’ve probably got to jump in and ask couple of questions that I think are on everyone’s mind because you’ve mentioned such incredible stars there and there can be few musicians who have collaborated with so many incredible people over the years as you have and I’m sure the audience is wondering a couple of things, one is, you know, what was it like to work with people like, you know, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Cash, the top of the top? What do you — what was most striking about them? What set them apart from other musicians, would you say?
And the other, I think, is, how is it that you’ve been able to have such incredible success and be, I mean, you said, The Whipping Post, but I think you could equally be called The Chameleon or a secret weapon, you know, you’ve been behind the scenes in these incredible records that we all know and love. What is it in you, apart from, I think, clearly you’re a very humble guy and maybe you’re underselling yourself to a large extent, but what is it that let you collaborate with such big people?
Brad: You know, I didn’t know what that was, but you’ve got to look at that as part of your value, you know, in the business as a producer or a session guy or a live musician, whatever part of the tree you’re taking the limb on and I have to sit all those trees, or a teacher, or an instructor, and I realized what it was when I got with Billy Bob Thornton. I couldn’t, really didn’t know, you know, what is it, I do?
I’m doin’ my best job with Marty Stuart and I’m doin’ exactly what he wants me to do and I do it with enthusiasm and I get it done and I listen and if I got a good idea I’ll suggest it and he’ll go, “Hm. Yeah, that’s okay,” or, “Not right now. We’ll do that maybe on another session,” you know, or whatever. He was always great about telling you straight up what to do but I realized this with Billy Bob Thornton is that there’s an energy that you can honestly kind of, you know, project out there and that energy, you know, can either be there or not and you can be too scared to have that energy available for those that are around you or you can be confident and making sure that energy gets out there.
And it’s not something you think about, “Well, I’m gonna let a lotta energy out on this session, because I know that so-and-so’s a hard guy to work with,” but I know that any time I work with somebody famous it’s difficult because of the way the business is structured and I remember — and this is an example, really quickly if I can say this — I was producing Tommy Shaw’s record, his acoustic record and I wanted Alison Krauss to play on my solo record, and I’d known Alison a long time and she wanted to do it but management would not allow her to do that because it was just not a cool thing for her to do that. I was with an indie label and it made sense but I waited and waited and waited and they were playing the game of playing the game and finally it went, oop, she can’t do it that day. And so when you’ve been through all of that, you kind of know the drill from A to Z of how people are treated and she wanted to do it and honestly did.
Anyway, so, Tommy Shaw called her to come in and actually I called her to come in and sing on Tommy’s record because Tommy was a fan. So I was in a different position at that point. I was the producer of the record. She was coming in to sing. I was not the artist wanting her to sing on my record. So the tables were turned, quite a bit. So she walked in and she said, you know, the phone call had come from my office at that point but she really didn’t know I was producing. So she said, “Who’s producing?” They go, “Brad Davis.” She goes, “Oh, Brad’s producing. Oh,” kind of shocked, you know?
And so she sang and Tommy was so enamored that he said, “I love it, I love it,” and she goes, “I don’t know. I think I should probably do that again,” and I pretty much stepped out and sat on the site of the console there and let Tommy sit in the producer’s seat because he’s well qualified, way more experienced than me, but she looked around the corner of the console where I was sitting and she said, “What do you think? Do you think I should do this again?” because Tommy would have taken anything she sang, and it was such a pleasure to say, “You need to sing it again. That part was not good enough. You need to hit it again,” and she knew she did. She totally knew it, but she needed to hear something honest back.
But the thing is is that, you know, when I work with Billy Bob and, you know, that energy I put out with Tommy as well and I think that’s why. I learned it from Billy and I met Tommy at Billy’s and so it kind of progressed as Tommy was A; Billy was B; Alison was C. I got to work with those people in that order. I learned that Billy was so charged when we got in the studio because I was so excited about working and creating. We would sit, shake hands, and go, “We’re not going to sleep for five days. Are you okay with that?” and I’d go, “Man, you know, I’m younger than you, not by much, but this is gonna kill me,” because at a point you kind of go, “Man, I’m tired of stayin’ up all night long,” you know, I mean, I was now in my 50’s but it was tough and so we would stay up and just kind of get euphoric, you know, the euphoria would hit and we’d be, like, “Okay, woo! This is great,” and we’d work and then sometimes we would just crash on the floor and on the couch and then get back up and start again. It was almost like being in Big Pink, you know, basically, the stories that I’d read, without the dope, because I didn’t do dope and Billy’s clean. He doesn’t do any dope.
And so it was almost, you know, that type of a deal where you can show that excitement or know when to turn it on and a lot of times with these players — you said, “What was it like working with those guys?” They knew the same thing that I’m talking about. They knew how to walk into a room and the radar could read it immediately whether or not they should be reserved and kind of hold their composure or if they should say, “Man, that’s amazing! Let’s rock and roll!”
They knew whether or not to flip that switch and so it’s the same thing. I’ll get in the studio with someone and I’ll know. I’ll go, “I need to watch my excitement. I need to just be a little careful here, because it’s gonna make the session go in the wrong direction,” and that’s something you can’t teach. There’s not a book on it. You almost have to be in those situations where if it’s really bad in a session you know it immediately. It’s not gonna turn out well. You’re gonna have to basically call a session and call it off and maybe do it another day or get another engineer or another producer and I’ve been in those situations and boy, they’re really, really tough. You could crack ice in a situation like that, but, you know, if you know how to — Sheryl Crow walked into the room and obviously very confident and she’s working with players that she already knows. Same with Emmy Lou Harris. Everybody knows everybody, you know.
I probably was the less known of anybody. Our band and Marty’s band, you know, and Sheryl really didn’t know us and Emmy Lou kind of knew me. Steve Burrell, I’d worked with him a couple times. Dwight Yoakum, I’d met him at the Palomino Club, you know, so a couple things. They kind of knew us, but I did not say, “Hey, Dwight,” you know, none of that, you know? I always stayed to myself because if I stayed reserved when they walked in they sensed confidence. They didn’t sense me going, “Oh man, it’s so good to see you,” you know. None of that went on. It was almost like, if they waved at me I’d say, you know, I’d say, “Hey, what’s goin’ on?” but I was doing my gig and I’m there to do a job and to be a professional and so I didn’t want to, you know, to show any signs of non-confidence, you know?
I wanted to make sure I’m very confident and I remember Marty Stuart said, “We’re going to get you a ’51 Telecaster,” and I said, “Why a ’51?” because I knew I couldn’t pay for it. He said, “Well, we’ll find it. I’ll pay for it. You pay me a little each week out of year pay, but you need that, because when we go in the studio the very first time with Tony Brown, it’s gonna be, like, a $300,000 record, a $400,000 record. Very serious deal.” He said, “He’s gonna hit the button on the talkback and he’s gonna say, ‘Davis, what kind of guitar do you got in there?’ and if you said you had a Peavey — nothing against Peavey — but it’s either got to be a Fender, a Strat or a Telecaster to be warranted as great, you know, because Tony was with Elvis, you know, back in the years, back in the day. He played piano.
“So if you have a ’51 Telecaster” he said “he will leave you alone.” “Okay, fine, great.” So that’s happened. It happened exactly the way he said it did. He walked in and was, “Who’s playing guitar today?” and Marty said, “Uh, Brad Davis.” Of course, Tony’s, like, going, you know, “We could have somebody better I the studio, like Stuart Smith, or Brent Rolan, or one of those guys,” and he says, “Davis. What kind of guitar do you got?” and I said, “A 1951 Telecaster.” Never said another word. I was totally cool.
So a lot of it, you know, had to be with your gear to some degree and then the other had to be with basically your demeanor, you know, but I always knew with Billy Bob that I could turn on that excitement and I think, you know, Steve Earl would walk in like the Tasmanian Devil. He had no barometer, at all. Zip. He was spinnin’ the whole time, because that was just the way Steve is, but Emmy would come in with her, you know, kind of laid back, checking things out. You could always see how they read the room, and that was really important.
And I think it’s super-important to be humble, definitely, I mean, I would rather walk into a room and someone not even know I play and let the guitar do all the talkin’. That’s more fun than ever sayin’ how good I am, you know and it’s always more fun to let that happen naturally, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be humble, because, you know, there’s just no reason for it. I mean, it’s just a waste of time to do it any other way than that.
Christopher: Awesome. Well, I think that humility has been recognized and rewarded, you know, between your album credits, your success with your own records and…
Brad: I appreciate it.
Christopher: … you with a signature guitar from Alvarez. Next time they ask what you’re playing in the studio, the answer will be, a Brad Davis. Tell us about that collaboration.
Brad: That’s crazy. Well, you know, Takamine bought my Fender, and when they split apart, big problems with the administration at Takamine. Just tried to hang on and pull things together. At the same time, I’m making a living. I’ve got two kids in college so I got to make a living and I can’t not make a living so I’m very, very slow to come away from someone who’s treated me so well after many years but I thought, “I can’t stay with this and hunt for another gig with another company and so I have to break ties right now with Takamine.” So all the Takamine executives and the administration went to Alvarez unbeknownst to my knowledge because they needed a gig and so I got a call from Robert E. Lee with — he used to be with Takamine. He’s now with St. Louis Music, and he said, “Brad, I’m with Alvarez now.” I hadn’t thought about Alvarez in 30 years. I hadn’t given them a thought, I can tell ya. And he said, “Well, I’m working with Alvarez and we’ve got an amazing luthier. His name is Chris and he’s fantastic and I just think you really need to check it out, because Jack Pearson from the Allman Brothers is with them,” and I thought, “Man, he’s one of my favorite guitar players. Yeah.”
So anyway, I gave it a listen. He sent me a prototype, just a rough, what they thought I would like, and it was amazing, I mean, it was as good as my 50-60-18. It was as good as any guitar I had in the studio and so I said, “Well, there’s a couple of changes I’d want to make, you know, I’d want to change the bracing slightly and change the tone a little bit. I’m looking for something light and something heirloomable, if I can use that word, that would be like an heirloom guitar, but I could use it in the studio and use it live, and, anyway — and I don’t want my name on it. I want my initials on it but not my name, because somebody may not want my name on it.” So anyway, they sent me the prototype. We’d kind of talk for awhile and it was just, I told my wife, “If I don’t accept this, I may never get asked again. I mean, I’m 54, I may lose my value so I need to say yes, and go with this.”
So the guitar was built with just a B and a D and I don’t know if you’ve seen the — I’ll show it to you in the video, but it’s just a B and a D. Real simple. And they wanted something fancy, and I understand that. I just wanted something simple, just this B and a D, and so Chris with Alvarez had to bring the guitar over. The guitar is from their vintage stash, so it’s 50 years old and so paperwork was slow getting it together. It was all illegal, it’s totally illegal until all the paperwork’s done so he had to fly from London to Japan and he’s in London. It’s where he’s located. He had to fly from London to Japan, pick up the guitar, and then fly out to the United States, hoping that I would like this guitar. (Laughs) So pretty big gamble. So I just, you know, they showed up here at the studio. They actually came to Commerce, man, the St. Louis guys and Alvarez and we called the press and I wasn’t gonna do that but I had a friend of mine that said, “You need to call the, you know, call the newspaper,” you know? “It’s a big deal.” I said, “I know it’s a big deal.”
So they came out, brought the guitar, I strummed it and it was, like, I’ve been looking for this guitar for 30 years and I was so blown away at how good it sounded and what’s crazy, Christopher, is I’ll get away and I’ll play one of my other guitars and I’ll come back to this and it’s at, where you play it and you just go, “Wow, it does –” you know, because it’s a, you know, Alvarez is not a Martin, it’s not a Gibson, it’s not those kind of guitars but your brain sometimes makes you think that Martins are great even if they’re not great, that that particular Martin is the best thing you’ve ever heard and I understand the mental thing about that, all the Pioneer advertising for so many years we’ve had to deal with. And Gibsons are great. Martins are great, no doubt. I’ve got each, one of each, many of each of those but when I play this, again, you play it, it’s just amazing. You hear it recorded and you think, “Wow, this is really an amazing guitar, man.”
So they’re gonna make 2,000 of the $3500 models and then thousands of $599 copy. That’ll be super-good quality tops and backs and sides but it won’t be heirloomable wood that’s over 50 years old and it’ll be a 599 production model and that’ll be a copy, which is the smartest thing I’ve ever heard anybody — I tried to get Takamine to do that and they wouldn’t but that’s smart, because not everybody can afford a guitar like that. I know I can’t on a regular basis afford guitars that expensive because I’m full-time in the business and you just don’t go blowin’ 3500 bucks on a guitar, man.
But anyway, it’s amazing and I’m so glad to have it, so glad to be part of the team, so now what we’re doing is we’re gonna be doing monthly videos and instructional stuff with Alvarez on a regular basis and they’re jumping in as support for touring. So our first show — I say our first show, I’m so used to being a side guy and being with a band — the first show I’m doing is gonna be February the 16th at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas and we’re gonna debut the guitar and hopefully have some of the production models available.
So it’s gonna be a lot of fun and it’s called the Brad Davis Guitar Café and what I’m gonna do, I’ve been confused for years. I love so many kinds of music. So many different kinds. It’s been a problem for me. So what I wanna do is do a show that’s gonna incorporate all of the music that I do on acoustic, which would be a tribute to the 80’s, a tribute to David Bowie. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of those cuts that I did. A lot of the cuts that we did with CMH Records, I’m in love with them, because I grew up with them. And then we’re also gonna take and do a lot of original material, which stems from blues all the way to classical.
I’m gettin’ ready to do a classical play on, a bluegrass classical play on for CMH. I’ll start on that next week and we’ll start with one song.
Christopher: The team here at Musical U have been absolutely loving those bluegrass tribute albums you’ve done, we’ll put a link in the shownotes so everyone can hear – I’d love to hear a bit about how you create one of those bluegrass arrangements.
Brad: I take the original track but I throw it into Pro Tools and that’s the only way to do it because I think a lot of — they tried to do the classical many times and failed, and a lot of classical players, I mean, bluegrass players may think, “Well, I’ll write a chart on this and we’ll try to cut it live.” Well, that’ll never work. You’ve got to have the original piece in there. If you’re gonna do a tribute you almost got to copy it, note for note, I mean, you almost have to. With regards to certain areas as a songwriter that I know I have legal flexibility to kind of bend it a little bit but I do that.
I’ll put the original track inside of Pro Tools and I’ll track with that as being my pilot. I did a Pearl Jam tribute which never came out. Legality. We couldn’t get it released because of legal issues. I tracked with them and they sped up, you know, they breathe. They speed up and slow down and same thing with Mumford and Sons. I had to do a tribute for those guys and they sped up and slowed down on the record Babel and I fell in love with those guys and now I think everybody in the business now — well, actually everybody outside the business that owns a guitar, they believe that to be bluegrass now because that’s such a big deal. I mean, they made it on Rolling Stone, they’re huge and they’re still touring and I love their music. It’s exciting, it’s different, it’s messed up, it’s got a dent in it, and I love things that have some kind of a thumbprint. I don’t want anything perfect, you know? I want something that’s kind of unique.
So that music has to be done with a track inside. I just believe there’s no other way to do it and these classical things have been tried five times at CMH and failed so they’re very reluctant to try one more time, however, they know that I’m pretty committed to making things sound just like the original and so that’s what we’re gonna start with, with (sings intro to Beethoven’s 5th ) dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum-dum. That’ll be our first song that we try and I’ll do it a little at a time, I’ll do the guitar work to a drum track. I will get that track locked into a drum track and then I’ll do the guitar and I’ll try to figure out what part, what instrument’s gonna be doing, and that takes probably about a week’s worth of work, you know, and just figuring that out and then I do the parts I can do. I’ll play banjo on it and bass and mandolin. I’ll probably hire a fiddle player because I’m not that good on fiddle. I don’t like my fiddle playing that much so I’ll hire somebody on fiddle. It may be possibly dobro, but it’ll be a lot of fun. That’ll be next to come out on the market.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, we have covered so much there and I must thank you for being so generous with year time and with sharing. I think you have such a striking and admirable attitude to all the work you’ve done and…
Brad: Thanks. Appreciate it.
Christopher: …clearly fame and success have not gone to your head and I think there’s so much our audience can learn and I can learn from listening to you explain how that journey has been for you, how you’ve managed to bridge, you know, technique development, forging your own path, having the right attitude walking into the studio or onto stage and just always retaining that humility and willingness to learn.
So thank you so much, Brad, for joining us today.
Brad: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.