Jerry Jeff Walker said it best. Describing David Bromberg’s contribution to Walker’s trademark 1968 song, “Mr. Bojangles,” he said simply that Bromberg was “the reason man created stringed instruments.” And when he played, “Wood and wire and flesh spoke.”
Kind words. More importantly, though, they offer rare – and oft-forgotten – insight to the multi-instrumentalist’s influence. Bromberg has released a score of stunning solo albums over the years, but it’s as a sideman and producer that he has time and again swayed the course of some of our favorite music.
Bromberg’s resumé is almost ridiculously impressive. He played at the side of Rev. Gary Davis, and contributed to albums by Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Mike Auldridge, the Eagles, John Prine, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen – the list goes on and on. And he produced John Hartford’s genre-busting Aereo-Plain album in 1971, which reinvigorated staid bluegrass into “newgrass,” the echoes of which are alive and well today.
Bromberg proved himself a master of the guitar, Dobro, fiddle, and mandolin on his own albums, starting with his ’71 eponymous debut. Throughout the ’70s, he was prolific on all fronts. His albums often ranged widely from the blues to folk, country fiddle tunes to rock and roll – and injected his own brand of humor. Bromberg’s music was even sampled by the Beastie Boys.
In 1980, however, Bromberg went quiet. The toils of touring had tired him out, and he set aside his guitar to retreat from the scene. Still, he kept his hands in music by studying violin making then launching David Bromberg Fine Violins, which he continues to helm today.
After two decades of silence, he returned to playing with 2007’s Try Me One More Time, followed by a live album, then Use Me (in 2011) and Only Slightly Mad (’13). Now, he has a new album, The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues. As Bromberg jests, “Yeah, it’s pretty much all about the blues.” It provided an ideal opportunity to sit and talk guitars.
On your early albums, you were known as one of the fastest flatpickers around.
Fast flatpicking is not possible for me any more. Soulful is what I like best now, anyhow.
Thus, a blues album?
The first time I asked [multi-instrumentalist and friend] Larry Campbell to produce an album for me, I suggested we do all blues because I’d never done a homogenous album before. He said, “Naw, let’s do an old-time David Bromberg album – everything but the kitchen sink.” And that’s what we did [with Only Slightly Mad]. Now, both Larry and I felt it was time for the homogenous one. But it’s not all that homogenous, actually, beyond the connecting element of the blues. And that’s about as homogenous as I can get.
And your sense of humor continues on the new album, from the title and cover to your interjections within songs.
There’s nothing much I can do about that – it’s what I do. But people sometimes confuse irony with humor. To me, good blues has to be ironic; the most famous blues line is, “I’ve been down so long it feels like up to me.” You can’t get too much more ironic than that. At the same time, it’s also kind of funny. The important thing, really, to me, is the irony. That’s just the way I am.
In 1980, you stepped aside from recording and releasing albums…
Yes, but only for 22 years. I actually learned to build violins as a means to an end. What I was really interested in was learning how to identify them. If a guitar says “Gibson” on it, the chances are very good that it was made by the Gibson company. But if a violin says “Stradivarius,” that doesn’t improve its chances of being a Stradivarius; you got to know what they look like. I went to violin-making school so I could understand how they were made, so I could begin to get an idea of who made what, when, and where.
And over the years you gathered an incredible collection of vintage violins – some 250 made by about that many different builders.
It took me 50 years to put the collection together. The Library of Congress has agreed to try to find a buyer for it within a couple years.
You’ve also owned – and played – quite a collection of guitars.
The collection I have now is nothing like I used to have. If we start talking about the collection I used to have, we’d both be in tears. During the period when I wasn’t playing, I thought I’d never play again, so when I needed money – which was often enough – I sold them. Still, I kept a few of my favorites and now have a lot of new ones.
Is the Fender Esquire one of those? Is it the same one shown on your ’70s albums.
Yes, I kept that ’58 /’59 Esquire maybe because I didn’t think it was worth a lot. But I know now that I’ll die owning that guitar, that’s for sure. It has my sound and no other guitar does and when other people play it, it doesn’t sound the same.
I can’t even remember where I found that guitar. But when I bought it, it was used – now it’s vintage. I’ve had it since the ’60s. I don’t even remember if it had that added humbucker [neck] pickup.
I used it on albums through the ’70s. I used to play it more on the humbucker, but these days I play it more on the back pickup, which is a Velvet Hammer made by Red Rhodes. It’s more powerful than the original.
How does the Esquire differ from your early Tele?
The Tele is kind of a mutt. It’s a ’57 neck, though it looks kind of white since I just had it re-fretted. The body and back pickup are from ’59. That guitar’s a recent acquisition. It’s pretty funny. I was at a guitar show and ran into Matt Umanov. I told him I was looking for a couple guitars, including an electric. I told him I’d like to find a ’50s Telecaster, but there’d probably need to be something wrong with it so I could afford it. And his answer was, “You and the rest of the world!” And then I walked maybe 40 feet – and there was this guitar! I’d been looking for one for a number of years, and it was exactly what I wanted.
It has a very different sound than the Esquire. I didn’t want to duplicate that.
Do you prefer to play slide on one or the other?
I play whatever needs playing on them.
Which amps do you run them through?
I’ve had my ’59 Bassman since the ’60s. I bought it from SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals) in New York. They thought it had gotten too funky to rent out anymore, so they sold it to me and I’ve played it ever since.
And you have a small vintage Electar.
I did a record called Use Me and I asked a bunch of musicians to write a song for me, then produce me doing that song. Obviously, I have balls of brass! And believe it or not, pretty near everyone I asked did it. One of the people was John Hiatt. When I went to record with John, he brought in a Valco; I had never played through anything that didn’t say “Fender” on it, and I really liked that amp. So I became interested in non-Fender amps.
A guy I was recording with had this small brown Electar in his basement, and hadn’t bothered with it for years. My wife bought it for me as a birthday present. I’ve never had such a good amp, I’m wild about it. I take it on the road; it goes in the overhead. Onstage, I always have my amps pointed toward me, and up; that’s how I used that amp onstage. And of course, we mic it.
It spurred you to collect Electars?
Yeah. They used to be all over eBay, and I bought a bunch because I got really curious about them.
What did you use to get the tones on the album?
That’s the Esquire through an amp that I take on the road when I don’t fly; it’s a Tone King Falcon, their smallest model. I play it on the road because one time my little brown Electar was left on overnight and caught fire – the shielding on the wires got cooked. My manager is convinced it’s going to do that again, but it won’t.
You get a nice, lowdown, gritty sound on some songs. Do you use effects to help with that?
Nope, that’s my guitar and the Electar turned up loud, but not deafening. You need to turn them up a certain amount to get a nice sound. I used it at a John Lennon tribute show with a band of New York studio players, and they made me turn it down. That tiny little thing! It’s not much watts, but puts out more than you might expect.
On the acoustic front, you have a lovely Martin O-42.
That was a gift from Joan Baez… must have been 15 years ago. It was one of hers, and it’s gorgeous – one of the nicest presents anybody’s ever given me. I don’t know the vintage.
You have other Martins, as well, including some that aren’t instantly recognizable…
In the ’60s, a bunch of people started getting interested in F-7s and F-9s, which are the same shape as triple-Os, but bigger. A number of people made conversions; I know of three before mine and the first was probably done by George Gruhn. They didn’t sound like archtops – they sounded like flat-tops, so everybody made them into flat-tops. John Lundberg did one. Mark Silber worked for Lundberg, and he came to New York City and did one.
One day, Matt Umanov called and said, “I have a guitar here. Come down and buy it, and I’ll give you a present.” So I went down, and the guitar was 400 bucks, maybe 450. I didn’t know what he was going to do, but he gave me what today is called either an M or a OOOO-42.
George Gruhn hates to hear this, but the conversions that he and John Lundberg and Mark Silber did used the original necks for the guitars, which were very pretty. But Matty put on a dreadnought neck, and that makes a humongous difference. Martin borrowed mine and copied it.
So what is its sound like?
The original necks were short-scale, so the strings were looser and it didn’t have that really taut bass that mine has. As a matter of fact, Martin didn’t believe it would have any bass. They came when I was doing a show and said, “We’ve got a couple of guitars we’d like you to try.” I said, “Sure!” I was flattered. They gave me what eventually became known as their Jumbo guitar. After a couple weeks, I was back in the area and they came and asked, “What do you think?” And I said, “It’s a very nice guitar…” and they looked very pleased. “But I’d never play it,” I said, then their faces fell.
They said, “We didn’t want to tell you, but we want to build a guitar like what you play.” And I said, “Why don’t you build one like what I play, then?” And they said, “Because yours has no bass!” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” So I handed them one of my guitars and they were very surprised. I let them borrow it, and they copied it.
That became my signature model; it’s pretty much a copy of the guitar Matty made and I used exclusively for years before a guy fell on it in Texas. So I stopped taking it out. It was not in a condition where it could be played, and Martin kindly repaired it. It’s once again really good. The only difference between it and the signature guitar is that one doesn’t have the signature and the headstock just has the gold Martin script.
What about the OOOO-21?
That’s the one I play every night. It’s a wonderful guitar. I found it at Gruhn’s. It was George’s very intelligent idea to ask Martin to have their Custom Shop make some with hide glue, and he decided on the quadruple-O shape with the old thicknesses and shaped braces.
Your D-45 is also stupendous!
It’s a new guitar. I went to visit Martin because I wanted a rosewood dreadnought, and thought it was the best-sounding guitar there. They told me it was one they’d made to give to their best shop clients, but evidently they made one more than they needed, and so they let me take it.
And you have a D-21 Custom…
I found that at Fred Oster’s shop and fell in love with it in about 45 seconds. I’ve used it onstage a number of times – it’s a very rich and excellent dreadnought. It was made in 2011, in the Custom Shop and I’d be having a difficult time if it weren’t for the Martin Custom Shop, because the guitars they’re making are literally as good as anything they’ve ever made. Otherwise, I’d be crying myself to sleep every night.
This article originally appeared in VG July 2017 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.