Guitar.com catches up with Doyle Bramhall II, known for his work with the Fabulous Thunderbird, ArcAngels, and a critically acclaimed pair of solo albums. His impressive guitar skills are matched by his songwriting prowess, which lead to his gig as sideman to Eric Clapton. Bramhall has been producing and playing on a batch of neo-Soul records lately, including the new Sheryl Crow release, "100 Miles Form Memphis".
Guitar.com: You played 2nd guitar with T-Birds at 18…what did you learn about rhythm from Jimmy Vaughan?
Doyle Bramhall II: I was hired by Jimmie Vaughan after he got a call from his brother Stevie. I had been playing on and off and sitting in with Stevie from the time I was 15 until 17. He really liked what he heard so when Jimmie was looking for a second guitar player for the Powerful Stuff tour in 1988 he had recommended me. We had all grown up together anyway, so it was a natural fit.
Jimmie said later that the only reason he hired me was because of the way I dressed. Jimmie Vaughan is my favorite rhythm guitar player and my favorite lead player. I think because my role in the Thunderbirds was to play rhythm all night, and to to play second rhythm to Jimmie Vaughan, I basically played Rhythm guitar for two years every day. I had to learn to accompany and make music with another guitar player while just hanging on one kind of rhythm for long periods of time. Within that you have to keep it musical, thats where I learned a lot about how to be musical with really simple parts. I found all subtlety of music through those formative years with Jimmie. He really taught me the subtle beauty of guitar playing.
Guitar.com: What musicians other than guitarists would you recommend guitarists listen to?
Bramhall: I would recommend listening to anything that inspires melody...that’s why a lot of guitar players that I really love are influenced by different styles of music and different genres of music. Listen to John Coltrane or Miles Davis. I always listened to different African guitar players or kora players or sax players. I listen to a lot of jazz from the '60's and I get a lot of idea from that. Good music from around the world. I spit out ideas from what I learned just by listening to music, I don’t have to practice along with anything - I take it in like a sponge and go from there.
Guitar.com: How do you go about using the Blues as an influence as opposed to Blues torch bearing?
Bramhall: I think it’s something that just happens innately – I’ve never been that person who has tried to carry on the torch. Going from the Thunderbirds into the The Arc Angels, which was a band we put together after Stevie Ray Vaughan died, it’s an obvious thing for people to want to sort of typecast me in that role of guitar slinger or heir to something for it. I just don’t care about any of that, it doesn’t mean anything to me, Obviously it would mean something to me if SRV said to me that he thought I had something to carry it on, but I don’t think he would want me to do it in his voice, he would want me to do it in my voice. I’ve always been interested in authentic artists and musicians. I came from a long lineage of blues and musicians so that is innately in the playing, always, but I don’t really follow any sort of road map. I just go where the music takes me.
Guitar.com: What is your method for writing songs?
Bramhall: Coming out of that last answer of "just going where the music takes me", I also don’t have any real "method" to songwriting. Things just come into my body and I sort of have to just get them out. Usually I come up with melodies and then I’ll get beats going on to accommodate the melodies and then I’ll start working on chord structure. I will say that the only method that I really have is that I will wait until the very end of whatever process it is to write lyrics. I don’t know how much of that is procrastination or “my method.”
Guitar.com: Do you have a home studio? What gear are you using?
Bramhall: My home studio is my iphone and my studio application is Four Track. I’ve actually done pretty much everything, all of my production ideas including the entire Sheryl Crow album, on my iphone. We actually used some of the files from the Four Track off my iphone and it ended up making the final cut of Sheryl’s album. I travel all the time so my home studio is my iPhone.
Guitar.com: Can you describe your Sheryl Crow gig for us?
Bramhall: One word….AWESOME!
Guitar.com: One would have to imagine that fact to be oh so true. What are your changing roles when working with Eric Clapton, Susan Tedeschi, Betty Lavette, or Sheryl Crow?
Bramhall: Tedeschi is a long time friend and collaborator and I was hired by another producer friend of mine, Joe Henry, to play guitar on her record. We had known eachn other, we hit it off and connected musically, I am obviously a huge fan of what she does, she’s really talented. Since that time, I’ve become really close with her husband, Derek Trucks. I’ve basically been playing and writing with Susan for quite a while, and now I go down and work with Susan and Derek in their home studio in Jacksonville, FL They have a band together they are working on. I am a writer and idea person and I get together with them to let the creative ideas flow.
My role with Clapton has changed over the years. In the beginning my role was as a songwriter he was covering my songs and we were writing together, that turned into me opening for him on a couple tours, which then lead to me being in his touring band as his guitar player. A year and a half ago he asked me to produce his latest album Clapton, which was just released. For the last year I’ve been working on producing with Eric.
For Betty Lavette I was hired to play guitar on her album. This record was also produced by Joe Henry. Actually, me and Chris Bruce, who is the guitar player out on the road with Sheryl, both played guitar on Betty’s record.
My role with Sheryl Crow runs deep and it started with us just being fans of each other’s music and then she asked me to come and sing and play on her albums over the years. And then I toured with her with my band opening. She would ask me to come up and sit in with her. We just sort of love playing together. It always felt natural when we would do that, our voices sound good together. After I finished Eric's album, she asked me to produce with the co-producer Justin Stanley. So we produced the album and after we finished, she asked both Justin and I to go on the road. Now the role is very extensive - producing, writing partner, live touring guitar player, singer, I’m sort of everything!
Guitar.com: Are you getting hired for sessions to be Doyle Bramhall II or to be a chameleon and get asked to play in many different styles?
Bramhall: I think for the most part I get hired to be myself, the player, because I’m not really a real sessions kind of guitar player. I do everything by ear. I have my own sound, its not like I can copy a lot of different things or sight read. I’m pretty much hired to just be myself.
Guitar.com: Does your gear change for specific gigs? What are your go-to setups?
Bramhall: For sessions it always changes, sometimes I won’t even bring any gear, it depends. I like to be adaptable with each situation - I have to hear what the music is to make my choices. But luckily for the past year I’ve been in Henson Studios in LA where I am right next to John Shanks, so he’s given me carte blanche to borrow any of his gear. He has the most incredible guitar and amps and pedals. I’ll usually just borrow whatever he has.
Guitar.com: What is your recording approach for getting an old-school Soul sound?
Bramhall: As far as the retro thing, Eric wanted to record a lot of old songs, time-period songs. So we recorded them the way they were recorded back in that time, using old mics. A lot of this is Justin, since he is the facilitator of the sonic aspect of the recording and he knows a lot about what mics to use, what mics were used at what times and what studios. With Eric we went with whatever songs we were recording, which were a lot of covers, ranging from 1920 – 1960. With Sheryl she wanted to record an album that was in the vein of Muscle Shoals and Stax so we just sort of went with a set up that would lend itself to that sound. A lot of it has to do with song structure and the sounds that were coming out of our amps and the way Justin would set up mics for drums.
Guitar.com: What typifies a Texas guitar player?
Bramhall: Big strings and high action through a Super Reverb amp.
Guitar.com: Well said! Thanks for chatting with us!