Brad Davis: "The rhythmic underbelly, that fabric, is the key to better lead playing"

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With his many accomplishments and decades-long career, Brad Davis has earned the respect of peers and admiration of countless fans.

Through it all, he keeps a remarkably low profile. He is recognised among the upper echelon of guitarists, but little is written about him. Humble and admittedly somewhat camera-shy, he is not an active self-promoter, preferring instead to focus on his work and let it speak for itself.

Davis sings and plays guitar, mandolin, bass, fiddle, and banjo. He has recorded numerous instructional DVDs and five solo albums, including A Bluegrass Tribute to George Jones and Top 10 bluegrass gospel album Walk On Faith [both 2015].

Davis's career-defining move, and the one that volleyed him into the spotlight, came in 1992, when he joined Marty Stuart’s Hot Hillbilly Band, which later became the Rock and Roll Cowboys

A prolific writer, his songs have been cut by numerous artists, including Tim McGraw, Tony Trischka, and Jo El-Sonnier. With longtime co-writer Paula Breedlove, he charted a Number One bluegrass single, Derailed, performed by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

An in-demand session player, he has worked on movie soundtracks and recorded with artists in rock, country, and bluegrass. He received Grammy recognition for his performance on Warren Zevon’s final album, 2003’s The Wind [Grammy Folk Album of the Year], and earned his nickname, The Shredder, from Tommy Shaw while working on the Styx lead singer and guitarist’s bluegrass album, The Great Divide [2011].  

His career-defining move, and the one that volleyed him into the spotlight, came in 1992, when he joined Marty Stuart’s Hot Hillbilly Band, which later became the Rock and Roll Cowboys.

Country music was exploding into the mainstream with the 'New Traditionalist' movement, and Davis spent eleven years recording and touring with Stuart as he charted a long string of country hits and filled venues.

“Marty was a professional, and he made me want to follow in those footsteps,” he says. “The gutter guards were pretty tall in the music industry bowling alley at that time, but guys like Marty spread the mud left and right and made those gutter guard areas much wider. I would not be creating the music I make now if not for Marty and all the connections I made during those years. Marty gave me value.”

From there, Davis played lead guitar for Earl Scruggs, Billy Bob Thornton’s Boxmasters, and Sam Bush, until an illness in the family required that the Davises move back to Texas in 2005. They found a home in Commerce, and while he is grateful that they were able to spend those final months with a loved one, there was an eleven-month stretch of no calls, no work, and almost no income.

“I was still writing for Flatpicking Guitar magazine, and there were royalties from recordings I’d done, but it wasn’t enough to support a family,” he says. “It was hard. I thought I would have to go to work at Walmart, or any place that would bring us some money.”

One day I got a call from Dan Miller, my editor at Flatpicking Guitar. He told me that John Jorgenson was looking for a rhythm player for his [gypsy jazz] band, and would I be interested

“One day I got a call from Dan Miller, my editor at Flatpicking Guitar. He told me that John Jorgenson was looking for a rhythm player for his [gypsy jazz] band, and would I be interested. I had no experience with that music, but I’d known John for some time and had helped him get a job with Earl Scruggs. John is a great player, I’m a big fan, so of course I said yes.”

He spent eight months on the road with Jorgenson, returned to Texas, and got another call, this time from Billy Bob Thornton, who was restarting The Boxmasters. “I joined them again, and from there, thankfully, things got busy,” he says.  

Today, Davis’s BDM recording studio is active almost seven days a week with tracking, engineering, production, audio, and video projects. One of the rooms serves as a classroom where he teaches audio production as an artist in residence for Texas A&M University.

Son Landon, who plays bass and mandolin, engineers and assists him, and recently launched Pick Glue, a wax-based pick grip product distributed by St. Louis Music.  

Schedule permitting, Davis does clinics for Gretsch and Alvarez, with whom he has a new signature Yairi model. He also hosts a monthly songwriters’ showcase that is recorded and broadcast by National Public Radio.

In August, he will complete his audio engineering degree from the Berklee College of Music online, and is looking ahead to finishing his masters degree in creative songwriting at Texas A&M and teaching a full audio program for the university. He is currently working on a bluegrass-meets-classical-music album for CMH Records.

Most people became aware of you during the Marty Stuart years, but there is very little information online about your background. Here is what I found: you grew up in the Dallas area, your father played piano for Johnny Horton, your brother, Greg, is a musician, you played together as Davis & Company when you were young and recorded an album, Blue Without You.  

"That’s correct, and I didn’t know about my dad playing piano for Johnny Horton until much later. At age five, I decided I wanted to play guitar. My parents got me a classical guitar and I started taking lessons. My brother played banjo, and I thought, 'I can’t keep playing classical guitar. It’s not loud enough!'

"My parents got me a Yamaha, and my brother and I challenged each other playing Flatt & Scruggs music at a little Opry in Grapevine, Texas. We were known as The Davis Brothers - with our bowl haircuts and black-framed glasses! After that, we started Davis & Company.

"A friend of mine from high school played mandolin, and we needed a bass player. Dad said, “I used to play a little piano.” It turned out that he had played piano with Johnny Horton many years before, but his parents told him, “You can’t do this. Get a real job,” so he became a court stenographer. We taught him to play bass, and he was kind enough to let us tell him what we thought was right!

"He drove the Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel, and the four of us traveled for years, playing festivals and having a blast.”

What brought you to Nashville? There was an audition with Ricky Skaggs?

I was scared to death onstage. I’d never played anything that loud in my life!

"I got a call to play on a session in Abilene. Ricky Skaggs’ piano player, Gary W. Smith, had flown out there and was the session leader. He told me that Ricky needed somebody. I moved to Nashville, auditioned, thought I had the gig, was there for two weeks, and got the call from Gary that I didn’t have the job. It was quite a letdown.

"Then I got a call from Gary’s brother, Jack Smith, who was the bandleader for The Forester Sisters. He hired me to play lead for them. I didn’t even play electric guitar at that time. I went to Donelson Music Center, bought a cheap Strat and a few pedals, and thought, 'I can do this.'

"But I was scared to death onstage. I’d never played anything that loud in my life! We opened for Conway Twitty in arenas that first year. We wore matching shirts with baggy pants and I’m so glad we did, because my legs were probably shaking like crazy! I was just petrified. But it was a lot of fun."

True or false: you worked at Opryland.

"True. I applied there when I found out I didn’t have the job with Ricky. I was depressed and I needed to find something. The guitar positions were filled, but they had an opening for a fiddle player. I thought, 'I play mandolin; maybe I can do this.' I bought a $200 fiddle with guitar tuners on it so it would stay in tune. I still have it.

"I worked there for six months, and it was a training ground to get your professional chops. You learned stamina, how to play six shows a day in 110-degree weather with 98 percent humidity and not lose your head. You got beaten up so bad, in a good way, that it made you bulletproof."

Whenever your name comes up, the first thing that’s mentioned is the double down-up. Has the technique changed over time?

"I had the fledgling parts of California written when I was with Marty. Now those double down-ups have all kinds of different connectors - ups or downs or traditional alternating patterns. When I started taking the classical guitar class at Berklee, I applied the double down up to some of the baroque pieces, which is not an easy feat because it’s so different than the right-hand technique on a classical guitar, but it fits classical music well. So when CMH asked me to do this bluegrass tribute to the top 10 classical songs of all time, I said yes, and I believe with this technique I will be able to pull it off.  

Every time I cut a tribute album, I put the original song into Pro Tools and use it as my click. I may double-time the tempo, but I keep the vocal melodies the same and cut them like the original, but with bluegrass instruments

"We’re starting with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and it’s pushing me to take this to the next level and make it as fluid as possible in that genre. I have to take every instrument in the score and figure out how to change them to bluegrass but still nod toward the original parts.

"Every time I cut a tribute album, I put the original song into Pro Tools and use it as my click. I may double-time the tempo, but I keep the vocal melodies the same and cut them like the original, but with bluegrass instruments. Classical music is absolutely pushing the limits, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s a good learning tool."

We have to talk about your signature Alvarez. The story goes that it started with a chance meeting in Nashville with Robert Lee, the Vice President of Sales for St. Louis Music.  

"I still cannot believe it. I’m so excited to have a signature guitar. St. Louis Music distributes Alvarez, and Chris [Meikle, Head of Development, Alvarez/Senior Vice President, St. Louis Music] and Robert sent me an incredible guitar. They wanted to build one for me in a coffee burst.

"Chris brought it to the studio, I strummed it, and it was amazing. The wood is over 50 years old and it’s so light. It’s like an old vintage instrument. They had one prototype that was a standard issue but very high-end. It was Honduran rosewood and Honduran mahogany - great woods, but the midrange was a little too big, 300-250 in that range, and a little too woofy. Chris understood what I wanted, so they made some tweaks and created the final one. When they brought the first signature model in; it was absolutely amazing. 

"I can’t say enough about the workmanship. I have it here in the studio with my Martins and Merrills. My Takamines were more rugged for the road, and they’re so nice. This Alvarez is more of an heirloom model, light and thin. It vibrates really well, and that’s important for the studio. I have two - the prototype and the signature - and I’ll ask for a couple more for backups: one in open G, and a couple in regular tuning for when I play shows."

What do you need in a guitar, and how long did it take you to figure that out?

"It took a while. When I stumbled onto the double down-up, and even flatpicking prior to that, I realised that I like a wider bridge - the late-’30s Martin width on the bridge - and a slightly wider nut.

"I love rosewood, Brazilian and East Indian, but Honduran is the one I truly love. Rosewood is heavy and dark-sounding, but Honduran is not as dense and it vibrates well. It sounds like mahogany with a little bit of a harder edge. It’s got a 2kHz to 5kHz push in the higher-end, and it gives you a little bit more level. From an engineer’s standpoint, it’s got a better voice.

I always thought Strats and Teles were my guitars, but when I was working with Marty, I started playing a Gretsch 6120 that he gave me, and I still have. That guitar has so much blood and guts on it

"As far as electric guitars, alder bodies are fantastic. I tend to go medium weight for preference. I like a little bit of weight; I want it to sound good and have some mass. I love maple fretboards, and again, my biggest preference is rosewood because it seems to soften the blow a little bit. It’s not quite as bitey.  

"I always thought Strats and Teles were my guitars, but when I was working with Marty, I started playing a Gretsch 6120 that he gave me, and I still have. That guitar has so much blood and guts on it. It forced me to take a lot more breadth in the creative process. The Gretsch is well stated in those spots that lay in the background. It’s so atmospheric. It was my main guitar for The Boxmasters.

"I also have a Broadkaster that’s absolutely fantastic, like a Telecaster on steroids. It’s just wide open. It’s got so many voices - it sounds like a Telecaster on the bridge pickup and like a 6120 on the neck pickup. It’s an amazing guitar, a game-changer.

Something that comes up in your instructional videos is muscle memory and connecting the right and left hand for timing and clarity. Like any form of exercise, that requires practise and repetition - the two things everyone hates.

"That’s so important to me, and this is just my take, but the left hand will always follow and improve if the right hand is in the groove zone. To me, it accelerates learning.

"Everyone says, 'I don’t want to practice, this sucks, it’s terrible,' but I have found over the years of working with students [at guitar camps] that 15 minutes a day working with the left hand muted and the right hand playing, the picking pattern improves their playing almost 95 per cent faster than when they do right and left hand together.

"The biggest problem I see with most students is they’re afraid one hand won’t make the speed or the lick, and so both hands become tense and then both are out of whack. But once the right hand is dialled in, the sky is the limit.  

"It’s hard to play with a muted left hand sometimes, so you have to make it a repetitive workout, but it doesn’t have to last long. 15 minutes works great when I’m trying to get a technique turbocharged to where I’ve got it down with muscle memory. Now, when I have a good window of time, I will practice for a few hours. I’ll repetitively run through stuff with a metronome or a drum machine and work on licks over and over again."

Does your technique change from acoustic to electric?  

"When I got the job with The Forester Sisters, I thought, 'This is going to be really tough.' When I heard that Roy Curry was the guitar player that was quitting, I realised that a flatpicker could do that job, and it gave me some confidence.

"Roy was playing electric with the same technique I’d seen him use on acoustic, and when I talked to him about it, he said, 'Why change?' I like heavy strings, so I loaded all my electric guitars with 13-60s and used the same heavy pick. I incorporate the pinky and ring finger and middle finger with everything else at that point; they’re just another set of tools I add, but the picking right hand, the double down-up, is still there.  

"When you’ve got a certain tone you’re used to hearing in your head - you see great players pick up a guitar, and in a second their hands move to a spot that will give them their tone.

The area between the fretboard and the bridge, to me, is like a 'tone intention knob'. If you play up toward the soundhole, it’s spongy and it sounds real fat, and if you play back toward the bridge, it gets a little tighter

"You were talking about the right-hand thing - the area between the fretboard and the bridge, to me, is like a 'tone intention knob'. If you play up toward the soundhole, it’s spongy and it sounds real fat, and if you play back toward the bridge, it gets a little tighter. Everybody likes something different, and within that little range you’ve got to find that section where you can put your hand for the best support and the most confident, relaxed place for your tone. As you practice, you find where that is.  

"It’s the same with the electric guitar. Obviously it’s a little spongier than the acoustic, so again you’ve got to figure out 'Where’s my spot?' It’s almost like grabbing a golf club and knowing exactly the grip you need to hit the 9-iron.

"So I don’t change that much on both instruments. I try to keep the same technique for both, using the hybrid on the right hand and the double down-up. The only other thing that’s different is the sustain."

Here is something John Jorgenson said about you: “Probably my favourite thing about Brad as a player is his strong rhythmic drive. He’s got so much energy in his rhythm playing. It’s super-fun for me to play with him, whether I’m soloing or backing him up.” Let’s talk about the importance of being a good rhythm player.

"The rhythmic underbelly, that fabric, is the key to better lead playing because you’re in the groove. I learned this in Nashville. For example, Ricky Skaggs wants you on top of the beat. Willie Nelson’s band plays behind the beat. So which one is right? Well, both are right. If it feels good, you can’t argue with that.

"Think of the beat as a V. The drum hits right in that centre position, and you’ve got five per cent pushing and five per cent going away from the beat to make it sound a little lazier. There’s not one right one; there are three different levels and variations, and you need to be in the centre and practise that. 

That’s what most people have trouble with: the minute they change the left hand, the right hand changes a little bit and it won’t maintain

"Rhythm is so important. The bluegrass I played early on had to be dialled in, and it was slightly ahead of the beat. When I got to Nashville, I realised I had to pull it in and relax a little bit, and it can be quite a task to not hit the tempo properly. When John asked me to join his band, he said, 'Your rhythm is dead-on.' The chords were crazy, the music was fast, and I had never played that style, so to help me out he would legato the intros and play them without tempo, just play the melodies so that I could get it, and then he’d get to the end of that and kick it off fast. The fans loved it, so it became part of his show and it helped me.

"I had the lowest chair I could get, and I sat as close to the floor as possible, because I had, like, thirty charts that were incredibly long and intricate. It was a lot to learn because the chords changed so incredibly fast that the right hand had to stay the same.  

"A good practice for that is I get a drum machine going at maybe 120[bpm] on 2/4 or 4/4 or whatever, with a kick and a snare and a hat, and I mute with my left hand and cut the time in half. I’m doing a chunk-strum, my left hand is muted, I roll back to the first, second, and third fret, cover the frets, chunk-strum, go down to the 12th fret and mute, and so what I’m doing is I’m changing that left-hand pattern, but I’m really relaxed and my right hand maintains the same motion, so every time I change my left-hand pattern it doesn’t alter that right-hand motion.

"That’s what most people have trouble with: the minute they change the left hand, the right hand changes a little bit and it won’t maintain."

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but I can’t end this without asking about Strummin’ With The Devil. Eddie Van Halen is one of your influences, so you kind of came full circle rearranging his riffs into bluegrass, which is your foundation. And you worked with David Lee Roth!

"John got the call from CMH to produce that album, and he brought me in. [Among the other musicians were Scott Vestal - banjo, Rob Ickes - Dobro, and Stuart Duncan - fiddle.] David Lee Roth’s sister worked at the label, she played the tracks for Dave, and he wanted to sing on them. Then John told me we were going to tour with him. We showed up for rehearsals and he was so cool. We did eight late-night television shows in two weeks and some tour dates - amazing! We had such a blast.  

We came out with our bluegrass instruments, started playing Jump, and the fans booed. It was so loud from all the boos that I don’t even know if they could hear us

"We played a theatre in New York, came out with our bluegrass instruments, started playing Jump, and the fans booed. It was so loud from all the boos that I don’t even know if they could hear us. We did five songs with Dave before he played with his band. His guitar player joined us on rhythm to try to appease them, but it was a rowdy crowd, the place was packed, and they were not happy to see us. I thought, 'This is what Bob Dylan felt like! This is it!'

"I looked at John and his eyes were as big as quarters. I said, 'Be ready to run; it’s going to get ugly!' They were so upset that we were up there. Dave was really kind - he asked them to be patient and listen to us, and he tried to calm them down, but man, I thought we were going to get killed!"