Godhead: The musical sorcery of David Lindley

Picasso, Marley, Kurosawa. The highest honor an artist of any genre can attain is to be known by one name. Among my friends, there’s a saying to describe and define someone who does something as good as it can be done: Godhead. The first time I ever heard this phrase used was in regard to the musicianship of David Lindley.

Finding instruments and amplifiers with the desired tone is the required life’s work (and play) of every musician. There will be arrivals, departures, detours, short-term letdowns and long-term triumphs. But beyond even the finest equipment, the heart of each individual’s sound lives in the mystery; the most powerful musical sounds have a mystery at the end of every note and every beat. The touch and feel Lindley has, on the many instruments he plays, is straight-up sorcery.

In 1958, my grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, founded what is today the Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, California, 60 miles due east of West Los Angeles. I spent my entire youth in this rich musical environment. I would watch in wonderment as my Grandpa and Lindley would perfect the art of appraising a Hawaiian guitar or an oud. And I have vivid childhood memories of Lindley coming into the store and filling up the room with the most astonishing sounds I had ever heard. His daughter and I were childhood companions, carting off to her dad’s gigs for summer adventures. Our families have been bound by music and friendship for almost 50 years.

Guitar, lap steel, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, oud, bouzouki, tambour, saz–each one of these instruments individually could fill an entire interview. The amount of first-hand knowledge Lindley has about music, instruments, players and their histories is staggering. These were inherent challenges going in. Spending numerous hours in conversation, I realized there would be no beginning or ending point. There would be, however, a warm welcome into the past, present and future of the world’s greatest (stringed) multi-instrumentalist.

The Beginning

Ben Harper: Let’s talk about music in your house growing up.

David Lindley: My dad listened to all kinds of stuff: I heard Uday Shankar [Ravi Shankar’s uncle]; I heard Mohammed El-Bakkar, the oud player; I heard Carlos Montoya under Segovia and a guitarist named David Moreno, who would overdub himself.

BH: Your dad was onto it?

DL: He knew what to get and he would go to these different records stores. He loved all that stuff. He had the original, clear-red-vinyl Carlos Montoya Stinson recording; I played that thing to death. He also had Greek bouzouki music that he would play, 78s.

BH: About how old were you when it was starting to hit you?

DL: When it started to hit me? Right from the beginning–4 years old. Just all the time. My dad would play music all the time, and my uncle had his piano at our house for a while. He would play; he would practice.

BH: Your uncle was a player?

DL: Yeah, Howard Wells. He was a fine player. He would be on the piano, and then my brother, Patrick, was learning to play piano. He loved the harpsichord, so I’d hear Wanda Landowska playing the Well-Tempered Clavier.

BH: And your mom was a good sport about all this?

DL: She was OK. When I started with the five-string banjo, it was, “My son, the hillbilly!” It was one of those things. I saw a mandolin when I was a little kid. I was like 6 years old or so. And I knew what lutes were and I knew all these different instruments.

BH: Even as a kid, you knew lutes and mandolins?

DL: I knew because I asked. I said, “What is that instrument? What’s that sound? What’s that?” So I would go by pawnshops in Pasadena after church and I saw this taterbug mandolin hanging in the window. I thought, Oh, that’s a child’s lute, because it was small, for small hands. It was eight strings and had beautiful, fabulous-looking mother of pearl. It was a taste–you could taste the instrument, you know? So I checked that out, and we’d go by there all the time, and I’d say, “I want that.”

BH: At that age? How old were you?

DL: Five or 6.

BH: OK, 5 or 6, and you’re reaching for a mandolin or a fiddle or a violin?

DL: I even opened up the upright piano in the playhouse out in back of my parents’ house to get at the strings. And my first grade teacher, Miss Pavelko, played the guitar–a Gibson guitar. She was there forever; she retired when she was 80 or something like that. She would play the autoharp and sing, and then she would play the guitar. I saw it and I said, “Miss Pavelko, can I play the guitar?” “Oh, no, dear. Oh, no, dear. No, we have to be very careful of this. This is a very valuable instrument.” And then one day I went back in the cloak room and opened up her case and looked at it and went exploring. That was it.

They would try out people in the orchestra in school, the music class. They said, “We need someone to play the upright bass in the orchestra.” And I said, “I can do it!” I was a very small kid. She said, “Oh, no, David, you’re too short for this. We need taller boys for this.” This was my first introduction. So I said, “Oh, I can do it. I know I can do it! Let me try. Give me a stool.” And I kept at it.

BH: So before the guitar it was bass?

DL: That one time–that one day. I wanted to show them that short people could play.

BH: OK, so it wasn’t that you were infatuated with the bass?

DL: No, anything that had strings–anything, because it was the windings. It was the wound strings. What are the big notes on the piano?

BH: Low end is just such an integral part of your sound, so is mid and high, but, I mean, the bass register you get out of the Weissenborn…

DL: It’s got to be there–I have to have that. The low end, it has always been the thing. When my uncle would play on the piano, I’d watch the strings vibrate. I was short enough so I could walk under the piano.

It was being exposed to that when I was a little kid; that was what made all the difference in the world. Howard, my uncle, let me hide under the piano when they were doing their rehearsals.

BH:  So what was your first fretted instrument?

DL: My dad’s ukulele. I played around with that; it was a Kamaka, really nice, really beautiful, very fancy koa wood.

BH: And before guitar it was banjo?

DL: I went to Bernardo’s Guitar Shop on Brooklyn Avenue [now Candelas Guitars on what has been renamed Cesar Chavez Boulevard] in East L.A., and I got a Weymann Keystone State plectrum. And I had Pilo [luthier Porfirio Delgado] make a neck for it, a Seeger [long five-string neck]. And Pilo’s necks were great. I remember going down there and seeing Charles [Chase, Harper’s grandfather]. Charles always went down there. That’s where I first met Charles, at Bernardo’s. And Charles knew a lot about banjos, especially the old Stewarts and things like that.

And Walt Pittman would go in there. Walt was the first real bluegrass player that I met. He had a Mastertone, with the brown case and the pink lining.

BH: And your first guitar was?

DL: A Paracho nylon-stringed guitar that I bought from Bernardo’s–a really great-sounding guitar. I liked the sound of Victor steel strings on it.

Topanga and the Ash Grove

BH: How did you and Ry Cooder meet?

DL: At [Los Angeles folk venue] the Ash Grove. He was playing a lot of banjo stuff…, and Taj [Mahal] was playing a lot of five-string banjo, and we all would kind of meet. It was like a gunfight at the Topanga Canyon Banjo Fiddle Contests. What you got?

BH: You won the contests a boatload of times–that’s the lore. Did they finally tell you that you can’t play anymore?

DL: Yeah. I won under Three-Finger Bluegrass Picking and then Traditional–separate divisions. And then they finally told me, “Lindley, don’t enter anymore!” So they made me a judge. And I said, “You mean I’m supposed to judge people’s musical worth?” And they said, “Yeah, you can do that.”

BH: I think it was Taj who told me that you walked up and tied a hand behind your back and won it one-handed. Is that true?

DL: No, I didn’t tie my hand behind my back. I did it all legato.

BH: But it was all one-handed? You won it with one hand?

DL: Yeah, it was “Arkansas Traveler.” I learned [that tune] with one hand, the whole thing. And then I won once with two banjos at one time–just legato.

BH: That’s what he said, that’s what he said!

DL: People just threw up and did cartwheels. I did it because I knew what would get the judges. That was the thing: You figure, who are the judges? I’d figure out what would do it, you know, and then do that.

BH: Incredible.

DL: And then I heard this guy, Jean Carignan, a fiddle player from Montreal. This was like ‘64, ‘65. I heard this guy play the fiddle, and it was just, like, Wow. The most frightening fiddle player you ever heard or saw, and he would clog when he played. It was the scariest thing you ever heard. Gypsy stuff, Paganini gypsy stuff, except it was French-Canadian. This guy scared me to death.

BH: But at this time you were immersed in banjo?

DL: I was totally five-string banjo.

BH: And this cat hit your radar?

DL: Yeah, and then there’s another guy, James Crase. He was great. It was old-time, but it wasn’t the Appalachian old-time fiddle, it was another thing. He played “Soldier’s Joy,” and I said I’ll have to learn that. That was it. I was off and I went nuts for the fiddle–the French-Canadian style, especially, because that was flash, but it also had a smell to it. On this VHS tape I have, [Carignan] says, “My bow is my whip!”

That kind of fiddle-playing stuff is a whole world unto itself. I had to get out of it when I started playing other things like the saz, the oud and bouzouki. I got away from the fiddle. And then I was playing with Jackson [Browne] a lot. That was another style of fiddle playing.

BH: Because there’s bluegrass and there’s country fiddle?

DL: Right.

BH: I like what you said: “I want to be on my front porch playin’ the fiddle.”

DL: Oh, yeah.

BH: “That’s what I want–that’s what I really want to do,” you said to me once. Front-porch fiddle is a style, isn’t it?

DL: As opposed to back porch fiddle! [laughs]

BH: Absolutely!

DL: It really is. Front-porch fiddle is a little more for the neighbors [laughs]. Your back-porch fiddle is for the gathering that’s right there, and you get your beers or your Jack Daniels and you play, and everybody passes instruments around. That’s your back porch!

And then I met Scotty Stoneman. Scotty Stoneman used to win all the fiddle contents all over the U.S. He would showboat fiddle and do the kinds of stuff where you hold the bow between [your] knees and hold the fiddle and do all that stuff, and then he played it behind his back. He’d play it with his teeth! I mean, it was really something else.

He went to the Ash Grove and scared the shit out of everybody there because no one had ever heard triple stops on “Sweet Georgia Brown.” It was really scary. He was a big influence on every fiddle player in L.A. because they did a residence thing there at the Ash Grove. He lived at Richard Greene’s house, so Richard learned a lot of stuff from him. Scotty was one of the greatest fiddle players that ever lived.

I remember sitting in the front room at the Ash Grove when they first got there, and there was Clarence White and Roland White…

BH: They were performing?

DL: Oh, no, this was just in the audience. It was like, God, he’s going to play! We called everybody up, everybody who would be interested in this, to see [Stoneman] play. Richard Greene called me and said, “You have to see this. This is going to be phenomenal.” It was a little bigger than this room, and Scotty’s just there with his fiddle, and he starts playing and, immediately, he starts playing “Lee Highway Blues” and then “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” all the show stuff.

BH: So the Ash Grove was …

DL: …was the place. You could go see Doc Watson, Son House or Mance Lipscomb at the Ash Grove, and they would be there for two weeks. Jesse Fuller would come down; he would sleep onstage–come down in his station wagon and bring his “fotdella” and his 12-string. I would stay for all the shows and see every one of them. Sometimes they would have three shows a night.

I remember, when people were leaving, I was hanging around and I saw him take out his bedroll; he moved all his stuff and he’d take his bedroll out. He’d sleep with his instruments, onstage. He had his pillow, his little lamp, and he’d come down from the Bay Area in his station wagon. Jesse Fuller, the harmonica rack, a foot-operated bass thing called a fotdella–he was a one-man-band thing.

And that was the kind of thing that was always at the Ash Grove. It was so valuable, really, to be able to go and see people like that. Ed and Bernice Pearl wanted to make sure that people saw the original people, the real thing. Because in folk music, there was the commercial folk-music kind of thing–Peter, Paul & Mary–then there was the other stuff, the real stuff. They wanted to make sure that people saw that.

Jesse Fuller made his own universe and invited you in there…. So you’d go in and you’d get to hang out with him afterwards. There was the vestibule thing right by the dressing room, and these guys would go into the dressing room, and then they’d come out and have a beer and stuff. You could sit down with them.

You could sit down with Mississippi John Hurt and say, “How do you do that?” He says, “Ah, I’ll show ya, I’ll show ya.” He says, “You start on the fourth string, and it’s the fourth string and then the sixth string”–one-two, one-two, so it’s backwards.

BH: Yeah, see, I’m still trying to figure that out.

DL: Yeah, Jackson Browne can do it really well.

BH: He can. I am blown away by Jackson’s playing.

DL: And [Jackson] studied that whole thing and was determined to find out exactly what it was. He went after it and learned. You could do that at the Ash Grove; you could sit down with Mississippi John Hurt or Doc Watson and say, “Doc, what’s that? How do you do that run?” And he’d say, “Oh, well, you start here…”

BH: There’s no substitute for sitting in front of it.

DL: No, no, no, that’s the traditional thing that’s been going on ever since there were musical instruments: sitting down, watching somebody play up close. Remember this thing here when they put that stuff in there? Remember this? Oh, no, no, it’s the fourth string first and then the sixth string, then the other strings play the melody, OK? That made it possible. Ed Pearl made it possible for everybody to experience all that. Super important.

The circuit was the Bay Area, then you’d play in L.A. for two weeks, and then there was a place in San Diego. And then there was the East Coast: Cambridge and Boston, Hartford and New York City.

BH: Boston was big, wasn’t it?

DL: Boston, and Cambridge, was huge. And there was a whole bluegrass movement in the Boston-Cambridge area. When I played with Richard Greene and those guys, we didn’t get back there to do that. I was going to school. But later on, I met Bob Siggins, who was the Charles River Valley Boys’ five-string-banjo player, and he could play. He experimented around and did a version of “Greensleeves.” I remember sitting down with him, facing each other, and he would play what he came up with, and it was almost exactly the same as what I came up with. He played it, and I said, “This is going to be creepy.”

Me and Richard Greene and Pete Madlem, Dick Hargreaves and Mark Levine and Mayne Smith, we did a version of Paganini’s “Perpetual Motion.” And Richard called it “Peg and Annie”–[a recording] exists somewhere. This was a bluegrass band; there were two fiddle players, so we would play double-fiddle stuff, and then there were two banjo players. Pete Madlem and I would double with Richard Greene on the fiddle, and then I would double on the banjo with Pete Madlem, who was also a Dobro player. This is the Dry City Scat Band.

BH: This is one of your earliest collectives?

DL: Yeah, that was real serious, real serious–you know, nose to the grindstone.

BH: It must have been an incredible time to be making music, outside the machine of the music business.

DL: Yeah, it was. It was fun, and the fact that you might record was there in your mind, but mainly you played live gigs. You played live gigs and then the banjo contests. Everyone had that in the back of their mind: banjo-fiddle contests. I always did–every year that they had that. I’d practice for it and plot and scheme and woodshed. But mainly it was making money by playing live gigs all over the place, all the time.

BH: Was working as a musician at Disneyland your first real, professional gig?

DL: Disneyland wasn’t my first professional gig, but it was where I learned to drink. It was playing for grad night until dawn. We got $19 a piece for playing for grad night at Disneyland. It was, like, four sets!

Playing and Technique

BH: How have you been able to master so many instruments? There’s no way to get good at something other than to practice, right?

DL: Yeah, you gotta do it.

BH: Just the amount of hours–from the oud to the bouzouki to the tambour and guitar and banjo and fiddle. Each one takes a lifetime.

DL: And the thing is, what I’ve done is, on each one I’ve done maybe a few tunes. I don’t play everything on everything. You do a few tunes that make use of what you can do on an instrument.

BH: Oh, so that’s an entry point.

DL: It’s a big one. And the other thing is that there’s a certain section of your brain that you make so that they’re almost the same instrument. The fiddle is the only one that’s not. How do you play that? Ya f***in’ rub it with a stick!

BH: Now, David, that’s what I mean. Guitar and slide guitar are one thing–even the slide guitar has the markers–but when you then remove the frets…

DL: You do it visually–a combination of visually and [with] hearing. When you see somebody like Yo-Yo Ma play the cello, that’s a long scale–it’s muscle memory. I’ve seen John Bilezikjian, who is one of the greatest oud players in the world, I’ve seen him miss and have his pitch be kind of sloppy because he’s not really intending to play totally in tune. I was surprised–he was just showing me what this oud sounded like, and it was a little different than the regular oud that he played all the time. And then he picks up his Karibian [oud] and he knows the feel of the whole thing, and his brain remembers that; his hands remember how it feels. Absolutely, perfectly in tune.

BH: Are you thinking in terms of instinct and feel, or are you thinking in terms of notes, or both? Or does it depend on the instrument?

DL: No.

BH: You’re just going?

DL: You play. Just play the f***ing thing! That’s exactly it. It’s the same thing with the bow [and arrow]. Pick up the bow, not the arrow. All of a sudden, your elbow comes up, and you remember exactly what it feels like in your hand. You’re pushing on the bow and you’re pulling on the bow back here, and then the arrow goes in the “x” ring. It’s the same thing as playing [music]. It’s a set of circuits in your brain–you know, the Yo-Yo Ma circuits that make it so that you can play the cello in tune, the Bilezikjian circuits…

BH: Or the Charlie Parker circuits…

DL: The Charlie Parker circuits.

BH: The John Coltrane circuits!

DL: Yeah, that’s another one. [laughs] Those guys totally understood every note they played in one section of their brain, and then the other section drove that.

BH: Some cats have the multiple sections. They can do the feel and the note, and it becomes one, and there’s no separation.

DL: That’s exactly it. Can’t say it better than that. And some people are only technicians.

BH: They’re thinking in terms of notes and what they’re reading; it’s all notes.

DL: And then you hear Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler. Violin is really one of those instruments that you practice enough so that you remember everything. The fingerboard is this long, and all of the rest of it is done like an ant. It’s done by taste and hearing and feel, and everything’s one organ. So playing this stuff–double stops and all this kind of stuff–you don’t think about it, you just play it.

You see a lot of these orchestras–they’re reading this stuff and playing it at the same time. What the hell is that? I’ve tried that before with the classical guitar, and I’ve sat in orchestras with instruments and having memorized my part, knowing exactly where to play, because I can’t sight read for the Weissenborn.

BH: It’s the old joke: How do you stop a classical musician from playing? Take the music. How do you stop a guitar player from playing? Put music in front of him.

DL: That’s so cruel, but true! But the stuff that we do is: write songs, write tunes, have interesting instruments, and then you have instrumental hooks and things like that. I think if you hear [musicians] enough, their way of thinking gets transmitted with the music.

BH: I get it. Like [your daughter] Roseanne and I, carting off to your gigs, best buddies, neighbors, childhood companions. And there’d be you with Jackson, you with El Rayo-X, just you, but no matter what the situation was musically, I would just hear what you were doing.

DL: Really?

BH: It was as if everyone else was silent, and I would just be hearing you on your instrument. And then I had the luxury of watching you when you would come into the Folk Music Center, and I could just sit there. You probably had no idea I was sitting there.

DL: Oh, no, I was completely aware of that. In fact, I showed you a lot of stuff that you didn’t know you were being shown. I didn’t have to say, Well, you think of this, and then you think of this, and then you keep this in mind while you’re doing this… It all came out at once. It’s a circuit that gets activated, and once it’s activated, then you can take in anything.

BH: You said the other day that you can hear horn lines in some of your solos. I would have never connected it. When you said that, it opened something up. I didn’t originally recognize horn lines, but going back and listening to your stuff after you said that… Wow!

DL: You listen to classical Indian music, and you hear the vocalist–they sing a certain way. Then you hear the sarangi player or you hear a sitar player or a violin. You get instruments that are capable of following the human voice and doing the same kind of slides. A lot of Indian instruments can do that. So you have to think to yourself: Is the instrument imitating the voice, or is the voice imitating the instrument? Is George Jones imitating a pedal steel, or is the pedal steel imitating the way George Jones sings?

I watched B.B. King play, and he’s singing. The first time you see him on TV–he’s singing with the instrument. He’s a fabulous singer, too, but he’s singing with the instrument. I listen to these Persian players, and they’re singing, and a horn is very close to it because there’s a breath and the whole thing. Well, what B.B. King would do is, when he would play he would say something on the guitar, and then he’d take a breath and then play something. And you could almost tell what he was saying–you could almost tell with the guitar.

BH: And that’s a big moment: when you can hear what your instrument is singing without a word.

DL: Yeah, no words. And for years, that’s what I did with Jackson. When I played with Jackson, it was 40 percent of the time vocal lines, and then the rest of the time, the instrument itself was doing what it does the best–the big chords and the slides and then the solo…. [For] the fiddle stuff, I would play the harmony to the voice with the fiddle. I was singing the part–that’s what I was doing.

BH: It’s almost like your parts are standing up above. It’s what gives Aretha Franklin a voice in a group of incredible voices. There’s the choir, and every one of those people in that choir will take you out; they’re headhunters, they will sing your ass out of the room. And then Aretha stands up, and…

DL: And that’s it.

BH: I’m not saying anything other than your instruments and your solos are Aretha: They stand up and become the Aretha Franklin of the chorus.

DL: Oh, thank you. But it was being aware of what was said. I always had to hear the vocal and hear what was being said and hear how he was doing it.

BH: That version of “Something Fine” with you and Jackson on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test is one of the truly great musical moments in rock history.

DL: And that’s exactly what I’m talking about–that’s what was going on. It almost goes on automatic pilot, too. You get into that frame of mind–the zone. You get into the zone, and it comes automatically.

BH: It’s as natural as, like you said, when Bilezikjian puts his main axe in his hand. It just falls–it’s waiting there for him.

DL: Oh, yeah, it’s amazing when that happens. And he practices so much–it’s so automatic for him.

BH: And you could do the same thing with Jackson. I wouldn’t imagine you’ve ever played the same thing twice in Jackson’s band.

DL: No, there was a period where I’d find something that I really liked, and that Jackson really liked, and, if I remembered it, I’d repeat it–I’d do it again. And the way to start things–you start out lower, you start out higher, or the band comes down, and then you hit it a certain way.

BH: Tension?

DL: Right. Or else you start the solo right at the end of the line–on the same note sometimes or a fourth above or whatever. And then you go from that and build it. There are a lot of ways of doing that. I’ll pull back on the volume control, hit the whole chord, and then when it comes time, I’ll just swell it up like that. And then the phase shifter will take it, and then you do whatever you’re going to do.

With Jackson

BH: Let’s talk about the “Running on Empty” solo, because I think that is the beginning of lap-steel guitar becoming more than a background instrument; more than just a distant relative of the pedal steel, more than an accompaniment. The moment you hit that, the lap-steel guitar became as important as the guitar as a lead instrument

DL: It kind of was as important as the guitar, but also because of Lowell George, Bonnie [Raitt] and Ry, Duane Allman…

BH: Yeah, OK, but when you hit that solo, that thing communicated with other solar systems. That was the slide-guitar shot heard around the world. Truly. Tone, phrasing…

DL: Well, it was wired by that time. I knew what that thing did and how to do that. That was on automatic pilot. I wasn’t thinking of what I was doing; I was just watching where it went instead of listening to what it was doing.

BH: How did you meet Jackson?

DL: Oh, that was the CBS convention in Century City. I was there with Chesley Millikin, who was working with Kaleidoscope at that time.

BH: Kaleidoscope was on CBS as well?

DL: Yeah, it was Epic, and Chesley was associated with Epic Records, and he also had a club called the Magic Mushroom on Ventura Boulevard. Chesley was a prime mover in the whole California music thing.

BH: What was the Magic Mushroom like?

DL: The Magic Mushroom was unique, small. It was [around] during the late ‘60s. Kaleidoscope played there a lot. The Hour Glass played there a lot, which [became] the Allman Brothers. And Jackson wrote tunes for the Hour Glass. He was real young at that time. So he came to the CBS convention, and I found out that he used to go see [Kaleidoscope lead singer] Solomon [Feldthouse] at Sid’s Blue Beet and the Purple Onion, or someplace like that. He wasn’t old enough to get in, but he would stand outside and listen to Solomon play.

BH: So Jackson was hip to what you were doing?

DL: And then I gave him a ride home–he didn’t have a ride. And then I saw him years later at the Troubadour. Chesley said, “This guy’s really good. This guy writes some incredible songs.” So I played fiddle on the tune, and Ned Doheny played guitar. Jackson was having a rough time with the audience, so we got up there more like a gang–as kind of a backup.

BH: Did you plan on playing with him that night?

DL: No. I went to see Linda Ronstadt and Chris Darrow, who was playing in her band. And I used Chris’ fiddle to play with Jackson that night. He said, “You want to play a couple tunes and stuff?” I said, “Yeah, what key?” “D.” D is the fiddle key, so I did that, and it worked out really well–it sounded real good, it was really easy to do. And then I saw him at the Magic Mushroom in Cambridge, England, and I did a bunch of songs with him and said, “This was really good.”

BH: This is 1970?

DL: Yeah, ’69, ’70, ’71. Then I came back here to California, and one of the first things I did was play with Jackson.

BH: Were you living in England?

DL: Yeah, I lived there for 2½ years–me and [wife] Joanie and [daughter] Roseanne–and then we came back here.

BH: That’s between Kaleidoscope and Jackson?

DL: Yeah, I played and recorded with Terry Reid for three years, and with Graham Nash and a bunch of people. And then I came back, and one of the first things I did was look Jackson up. And he said, “Oh, yeah, we should play some stuff.” He was recording with a band, and I kind of sat in with him and played some stuff, and it worked out real good. And then he wanted to go on the road, so it was just he and I on the road, acoustic. I had mandolin, fiddle, guitar and Weissenborn. Just the two of us, and we did this big tour, and it was fun, really fun. It worked out great, so we said, “Let’s do this.”

Tone and Gear

BH: I noticed records, back in the day–the early Cat Stevens records and the early Jackson records–there was an innocence to tone. It’s not that people didn’t know what they were doing, but rock records were being born then, and they seemed to sound better than those being made now by even the biggest of the big-time producers. It doesn’t sound as good as it used to back then. Do you know what I mean?

DL: Yeah, people were learning about sound. We were learning about the amps to use. All I knew was that I sounded better playing through my Ampeg Reverberocket than I did playing through a Standel solid-state. And then I started experimenting with other amps, with bigger amps, and when I played with Terry Reid, I played [a Vox] AC30. And that ruined me forever.

BH: AC30 leads to Dumble?

DL: AC30 in England, because it’s different, it’s 240 [volts]–different transformer.

BH: Isn’t it great when you have the best gear and Dumbles and Neve preamps, and then you go to plug it in at some shitty-ass club that’s barely getting 110!

DL: That’s why with El Rayo-X I had a Variac [transformer]. God, that black [Fender] Bassman sounded so good when you’d goose it up to 120; the tubes would glow bright orange. I found out that Eddie Van Halen and Billy Gibbons and all these people were doing the same thing with a Variac. One from Radio Shack, with a big knob on it. You’d just goose it ‘til the tubes glowed a certain kind of orange. It’s like making a Samurai sword–and then you’d get this fabulous sound.

I could tell what the voltage was out of the wall by how my Bassman sounded with the Telecaster with the Gibson pickups on there. I would say, “I can tell you what that is.” They said, “No you can’t.” I said, “Oh, yeah? 117.” I’d hear it–the certain glass sound that was gone. So these guys would go back there, and they’d check it out. Right on the number, you know, and you could tell. Some amps are real sensitive to the voltage out of the wall; the pre-CBS Bassman top was very sensitive to that.

BH: When you started with the lap steel, no one was playing it, other than maybe Sol Hoopii and some country-swing musicians.

DL: Glenn Ross Campbell, with Juicy Lucy, was playing it. Duane Allman was playing it. There was an incident in the Avalon Ballroom when somebody brought in a Fender lap steel. It was the Hour Glass and the Kaleidoscope in the dressing room. Somebody brought in this Fender lap steel. I said, “What is this?” And I got up, and Duane got up, and it was like a baseball bat–and I put my hand on the top. I won. It was really funny.

And I had seen [lap-steel blues player] Freddie Roulette. And then I went looking for National electrics and found one, because that’s what Freddie played.

BH: Like the Empire State Building model?

DL: No, this was the kind of grey-green one with the round peghead, and it has the two wings on the side. And then it has this funny metal fingerboard with the stair steps, and then another octave with the other stair steps, and then it had different symbols–an oval and then a diamond in different colors.

It had what looked like a giant humbucking pickup on it, which was [really] a single-coil pickup. Single-coil pickup, the bridge, the pickup and the tailpiece–all in one unit that bolted into the instrument, so that you had everything. The pickup, which was microphonic, was on a plate that the bridge was on, that the tailpiece was on, and the whole thing resonated as a unit. And it was brass, so that gave it these overtones that were really special.

BH: That was your first lap steel?

DL: The actual first lap before I got ahold of that was a Harmony. It was a regular guitar, a small-body guitar, yellow. I remember it had aluminum trim, like a dinette-set table. That was the first one. I think somebody put a Hawaiian nut on it. I got it in New York. And then when I got back to L.A., I went to this place on Santa Monica Boulevard, and they had a National, and I bought it. Everything happened at the same time, pretty much. ’68 or ’69.

BH: So your reference for the lap steel up to that point is?

DL: Dobro.

BH: You seemingly bypassed bottleneck and pedal steel.

DL: Yeah, but the reference point that I had for slide guitar was the Six and Seven-Eights String Band. They had a Dobro player, and I forget his name, [but] it was the Six and Seven-Eights String Band approach to Dobro, which was more like a clarinet that played melody lines. And so I put that together.

And I got to see Mayne Smith play Dobro. When Mayne would play, he played melodically. I remembered how he played and how the guy in the Six and Seven-Eights String Band played.

BH: Where were the Six and Seven-Eights String Band out of?

DL: New Orleans. They were FDR’s favorite band. It was string Dixieland.

BH: That’s hip.

DL: It was a unique sound, and that approach was a very logical approach for the lap steel.

BH: Any other references for lap steel in the late ‘60s? Was Lowell George on the scene yet?

DL: Yeah, a little. He was doing stuff. And Ry [Cooder] was doing stuff. Ry was a big reference. What he was doing on bottleneck, he’d do on lap steel. And seeing Freddie do what he did, and hearing the possibilities of what can be done with the lap steel from Freddie Roulette, that’s all you need. And that [Freddie Roulette] tone is hard to get. It’s not really a rock ‘n’ roll tone. It’s like, What do I do? So all I did was turn the amp up all the way.

BH: A Little Walter principle?

DL: Exactly. A Little Walter principle. And then you get that Fender grass-cloth amp sound, and that was it. The main thing was turning the amp up all the way, the [Fender] Deluxe.

BH: 1×12 speaker?

DL: 1×12. And then I started f***ing around with speakers. And I loved the AC30 sound. Put an AC-30 speaker in the Deluxe. Oh, boy! Then there was this guy, Van Webster. I went over to his house, and I said, “I want to get this thing covered.” It had green burlap or something on it. So he covered that Deluxe in vinyl snakeskin, and I put a Vox speaker in there. And then he took out the one 12AX7 [tube] and said it sounds better with a 12AY7. This was also at the same time I was going to Red Rhodes, so with a solid-state rectifier from Red Rhodes–12AY7 in there instead of 12AX7–it had this sound!

BH: So it’s the beginning of that quest–that’s where it starts: Vox speaker in the Deluxe.

DL: AC30 Vox speaker, the silver Vox-Jennings speaker, in the Fender Deluxe–single 12”. I played that on the road with Jackson for a long time. And that’s when I was experimenting with Bassmans. I went to a 2×12 Bassman–it was Bassman head, and then with a Vox AC30 bottom. That’s what I ended up with. And then I tried other things and then Dumble came along.

BH: So we’ve connected the dots.

DL: Yeah. And that’s basically how that happened.

BH: Dumble told me a great story. He said he had come down from Santa Cruz with a bunch of gear to meet you for the first time, and all he heard was, “David Lindley, David Lindley, David Lindley.” And the buildup was so huge, he just figured, This can’t be, you know?

So he comes to see you guys at the Paramount or the CBS lot, one of the movie lots, where you guys were rehearsing. And it’s a hot day, and he gets his gear and loads it in, and all of a sudden, the doors fly open–big stage doors. The sun was beating down from behind you, so you were backlit, huge hair, and the sun was coming from behind your head, so you had the sideburns and a haloed mane…

DL: An entrance! It was all the Samurai movies that I’d seen!

Well, Dumble’s a pretty imposing guy. I heard that his stuff is just amazing. We started talking about stuff, and he’s not your ordinary amp guy. I’d been hanging out with Doc Kauffman and Milt Owen and Leo Cribs, Red Rhodes. I wanted to get a certain sound. I played Dumble what I had. I said, “I love this sound, except it hisses too much.” And he went, “Oh, OK.” I said, “What I want to do is I want to be able to do this and to control the amount of distortion that it has.” He said, “OK.” And then he said, “What kind of tone?” Asked me all these questions…

BH: I love it, he asks the questions.

DL: Asks so many questions. He tunes his amplifiers that he builds for you to your playing. He listens to what you’ve done, or if he hasn’t, then he will listen to what’s available–who do you like, whose playing do you like? He’ll watch what you’re doing, and then he’ll ask you a bunch of questions. “Do you like it really to sustain a lot?”

And I think it basically got down to: I want [the amp] to sound really, really good. I want it to be scary; I want an animal. So he put this thing together, and it got the hiss down, and it just sounded fabulous. And then he had this cabinetry–he would tune the cabinets to the amp top, and then he’d tune the port in the back of the cabinet. He would tune everything so that it worked as a solid unit.

BH: He reads frequencies like it’s sheet music on an oscilloscope.

DL: It’s unbelievable. He can tell by looking–not a square wave in there. He told me one time, “What you like is the even-order harmonics. That’s what you like.” And I said, “What do you mean?” and so he demonstrated it for me. He said, “Here it is with not so many–play that. Here it is with more.” I said, “That’s it.”

He has an unlimited source of circuitry, and he looks at them and says, “Oh, this can be done better,” and he’ll make his own thing. And the ones that came out of his brain–those were the best, and that’s what he put in those amps. The Steel String Singer was more of a glassy sound, and then the “Distorto” Overdrive Special–that was the one that was the important one.

BH: The Overdrive Special?

DL: The Overdrive Special for the slide. For a guitar, it was a little more difficult. There were so many guitars that I was playing at the time, I had to have something that would work for all of them.

BH: So what was your first exposure to the Weissenborn?

DL: At Berry and Grassmueck Music Store in Pasadena, where I taught banjo, fiddle and guitar in the same studio that Jim Keltner taught drums. Across the hallway, this guitar player taught the Gibson method, and in his studio was a Weissenborn. It wasn’t the half neck, it was a full-on Weissenborn with a hollow neck, and I checked it out and went, Wow.

BH: So you pulled that Weissenborn off the wall?

DL: Yeah, it was leaning up against the wall, and I checked it out. It sounded fabulous; koa wood, Style 2.

BH: When was this?

DL: Oh, that was during the Kaleidoscope, I think it was, like, ’65.

BH: Did anyone else you know have one or play one at all?

DL: No, that was the only one I ever saw.

BH: So was that your first Weissenborn–the Style 2 from that store?

DL: No, I think that one remained with that guy. The first one I got was from Charles [Chase]. I said, “I know he has one.” If Charles Chase didn’t have one, he knew where there was one. So I went that route, and he happened to have one–a really good one. It started out acoustically with a microphone in front, and then when pickups came along–I forget what pickup I put in there first, but I ended up with a Sunrise.

And then, later, I needed another [Weissenborn] because I wanted to do a different tuning, and went to Charles again, and he had a Kona. I bought the Kona from him, really reasonable. The Kona was $150.

BH: And the Weissenborn?

DL: The Weissenborn was, like, $175–really, really reasonable, and I got him on a good day. He said, “I don’t know, that thing’s been around here; no one plays it.”

BH: When I came to them through you in the early ‘90s, they were still in the hundreds.

DL: Right. I can remember $175 was kind of the going price for them, and I remember finding one down at Blackie Taylor’s–the steel-guitar player down there in Hawaiian Gardens. Real shallow body, spruce top, maple back and sides.

BH: There are so many rumors as to what you’re playing on that “Running on Empty” solo.

DL: The slide guitar was a Rickenbacker–a Bakelite Rickenbacker–and the amp was the Overdrive Special number two, the orange-light one. I have two of them: One is the blue-light Dumble, and then one is the orange-light Dumble–a slightly different sound. Both Overdrive Specials. They are 50-watt with a 2×12 cabinet, which turns it into a monster. I never had it any higher than three. It’s a huge, giant sound, and it had this low end…

BH: No pedal?

DL: No, there was an MXR phase shifter. I had a very peculiar one, and I also had Dan Armstrong’s Purple Peekers. I had nine of those at one time.

BH: What are Purple Peekers?

DL: A Purple Peeker was a little box that would goose certain harmonics. He had a whole series of these little boxes; there’s the Orange Squeezer and some other things, too. The Purple Peeker would add certain harmonics, but I think it was just direct. I think [the solo used] just the phase shifter and the foot pedal and then the Overdrive number two.

BH: Does that mean it’s the second one ever made?

DL: Yeah, it’s the second Overdrive Special.

BH: Who’s got number one?

DL: I think Dumble has it.

BH: I’ve got number 93.

DL: You have number 93. There were some different periods, and they have different circuitry–slightly different things in there. Number eight is the blue-light one, which I ended up using all the time with El Rayo-X.

BH: Were you on [amp setting] FET [field-effect transistor] for “Running on Empty,” or were you on normal on the Dumble?

DL: FET. Always

BH: OK. And string gauges?

DL: “Running on Empty” was Slinkies–nine on the top, because I tuned that thing up to A. Short scale, and those particular Rickenbackers were the ones with the wide magnets. There’s the narrow-magnet ones, with the chrome collar around them, and then there’s wide-magnet ones. It’s funky. And then there’s the ones that have the volume and tone [knobs] one on each side, and then there’s ones that have double [knobs] on the side, and there’s ones that have just volume.

BH: OK, which was this one?

DL: [The model with] one on each side.

BH: High end on the amp, or would you roll high end–what would you do tone-control-wise?

DL: On the amp, I would have it about 1 o’clock. Everything else, full-on–midrange, full-on; bass, full-on.

BH: And on the Bakelite, would you have the tone control all the way open?

DL: No. You back it off a little bit, ‘cause if you have it full-on treble on a Rickenbacker, only dogs can hear you! Certain harmonics would pop when you have to have the tone control in there, and I experimented with different values.

BH: Dumble loves doing that kind of stuff.

DL: Dumble just loved doing that, and we experimented with all kinds of different tone things. And I would do that with [repairman] Steve Soest and Red Rhodes–especially Red, because he was a pedal-steel guy, and that was really critical. You wanted to be able to tune a pedal steel to have that whine, and if you had the wrong setting on it all, it was just irritating. So you wanted to have certain frequencies ducted, and he would do that with resistors or capacitors. That was a big thing, the tone-control thing.

BH: Remarkable difference, right?

DL: Really, really a big difference.

Musical Worlds Collide

BH: You get it like it’s nobody’s business. It’s astonishing. And the way that you can add or subtract reggae music, blues music, Celtic music, Eastern, Middle Eastern, flamenco, Mesopotamian, whatever you want to call it–the way you blend those into one, where there’s no separation, it all meets with you.

DL: The thing that I noticed is that, in all the different kinds of music, there are the players that would play a certain way. You would hear Necati Çelik, this Turkish oud player who plays with this very low tuning, and you hear the way he would play, and you hear Paco de Lucia. They played together, by the way, and it was just mind-blowing.There’s a certain way of playing that is totally compatible, and then you hear Lightnin’ Hopkins play stuff and Son House and Clarence White play. There was a certain common thing there–you knew when it was there. I think it was attitude; it was the approach, you know? [Flamenco guitarist] Sabicas would play, and he’d have this intention right from the first thing.

Reggae. I don’t know where that came from. I think it was just being exposed to it in 1969 in England when I went there.

BH: I hear that reggae in your playing…

DL: Everything. Everything is reggae. Everything is reggae, everything is bluegrass, too. Yes, mon, because the reggae players heard the bluegrass stations. The powerful stations from Nashville and Shreveport, Louisiana–they got those stations. They listened to all this stuff. They listened to Eddy Arnold, who was hugely popular in Jamaica, and they would hear this stuff–it became totally unique. And the calypso thing, that’s a whole other world, but the intention’s the same. Those guys are the pioneers.

Sam Bush says, “I listened to Toots and the Maytals all the time. In fact, when I play rhythm mandolin, what I am doing is I’m playing reggae guitar.” He told me that!

BH: Is there anywhere you’ve never played that you want to?

DL: I’d like to play in China. And Turkey–the Istanbul Blues Festival. You’ve done that one before; I want to do that.

BH: And is there anyone who you’d like to session with out there? Is there anybody that is on the A list?

DL: Yeah, I would like to play with Bilezikjian. I would like to play nylon-string guitar and oud as an accompaniment to his playing. That’s what I would like to do, and learning those Armenian “Orange Blossom Special” tunes–the way he does all that stuff…

He’s one of the greatest players ever. He can play Bach on the oud, he did a toxim [prayer] improvisation on “Louie, Louie.” He calls himself “Johnny B. Oud”–that’s his email–and that’s so good. Here’s this incredibly articulate classical musician, also a classical violinist. It would be hard to play stuff with him, but we could work up some stuff I’m sure. I think it would be really nice; I think it would be wonderful.

BH: Have you talked about it with him at all?

DL: Yeah, I have, and I’m trying to figure out a way to do it–when I’ll have time enough to practice, because it’s a lot of practice. That stuff is not easy.

BH: To my grandparents, you were the flesh incarnation of the Folk Music Center.

DL: They had a big part in my life. I still haven’t done a concert [there], and that’s going to come up real soon, but I’m almost afraid to do a concert there. You know why?

BH: Tell me.

DL: Because that’s like the last stage, you know what I mean? It’s like a goodbye, the farewell-concert kind of thing, and I’ve been avoiding that. It’s just one of those things. It’s weird. I’m superstitious in a lot of ways about things like that.

BH: I am, too. The one thing I want to get on the record is how much I appreciate you letting me hang around as a kid. Iremember driving around with you after your gig at the Roxy, kind of lost on Sunset Boulevard, looking for some food to bring back to the Chateau Marmont hotel.

DL: Right.

BH: Even at the time, it was like, Shit, man. I’m with this bad motherf***er at midnight after a gig, trying to find something to eat. It was you and me, cruising around, and it was just something–such a special childhood experience that has had a huge part in shaping my entire musical world. I can’t thank you enough. I’m eternally indebted.

DL: And you took the ball and ran with it. It was a great thing to see that. It really was a great thing to see.

March 5, 2023 Editor’s Note: Our magazine is reader-supported. Typically, our features and interviews are found only in our keepsake print magazine and not online. In light of David’s passing, we’ve decided to share this piece from our 11th edition with everyone. If you’d like to support us, consider getting a subscription to the quarterly Fretboard Journal. Subscribe here

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