Check This Action: Remembering David Lindley

Check This Action: Remembering David Lindley
David Lindley: Peter Figen.

Much has been written about David Lindley since the 78-year-old passed away on March 3 of complications from long Covid. The ultimate sideman, proficient on seemingly any instrument with strings, he was best known for his lap-steel work with Jackson Browne. I was a huge fan, and in the course of interviewing him many times, we became friends. Hang around Lindley long enough and you’d get addicted to cheapo Silvertone, Eko, and Goya Rangemaster guitars. One of my prized possessions is a Teisco six-string bass he gave me, instructing me how to set it up for baritone tuning.

I first met him in 1977, having lined up an interview for Guitar Player. I’ve often said he was the most-fascinating person I ever interviewed, and I can’t think of a musician I saw live who was his equal. He soon turned me on to the Bothy Band from Ireland, a Jamaican reggae group called the Pioneers, the African Brothers Dance Band, and Okinawa’s Shoukichi Kina.

Among the biggest thrills in my career was playing “Mercury Blues” with David at a world-music festival in Quebec City in 1998. I was part of a “guitar summit” with Lindley, Bob Brozman, and Martin Simpson. These heavyweights could play Martian scales in 79/41 time signature if they wanted; my heroes, on the other hand, were Duane Eddy and the Ventures. Rather than leave me in the dust, Lindley was magnanimous, making sure there were sections where I could shine.

Major acts including Linda Ronstadt, Crosby & Nash, and James Taylor would book tours around Browne’s schedule so they could snare David’s services. But he wasn’t a faceless chameleon; he was the rare example of someone who could conform to the bandleader while exhibiting a uniquely identifiable style. Lindley could go from A to Z with ease, from chorus after searing chorus of “Running On Empty” to less-is-more Weissenborn on “To Know Him Is To Love Him” by the Trio (Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton) or layer parts on Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.”

When Lindley released his 1981 solo debut, El Rayo-X, nobody knew what to expect. He managed to corral his eclectic tastes into a cohesive sound he called “Topanga Canyon reggae.” “Taking from one culture or instrument and putting it on another is one of my favorite things to do,” he said. Fellow artists couldn’t make themselves accessible quickly enough. Jackson Browne told me, “When David plays, it really means a lot to me – just pure meaning. It always has, from the first time he ever played on one of my songs. He’s my hero.”

“He’s the guy you can go to with some of your weirder, more obscure ideas, and you know that he’ll understand them and he’ll know how to embellish them,” Ronstadt said. “But, God, he’s brilliant.”

He eventually pared down his live shows to just himself, sometimes with a percussionist, and was as famous for his wit (and originals like “Cat Food Sandwiches”) as he was for his musicianship. His bulging collection ran the gamut from “mutant” Danelectros to the mandolin he’s holding in the picture here, built and signed by Orville Gibson in 1918 – “probably the finest mandolin I’ve ever seen.”

No matter how many times I interviewed him, watched him rehearse his band at Alley Studio in North Hollywood, or had ginger crab at the Japanese restaurant in L.A.’s Gower Gulch neighborhood, there was always more to learn. In an interview I did not do, he cited Henry McCullough of The Grease Band as a major influence – someone whose name never came up with me. It just showed how wide and deep the guy’s well was.

Not every great player can articulate what it is they do or how they do it. Hubert Sumlin, one of the greatest bluesmen ever, couldn’t explain how or why he played what he played. Neither could Eddie Van Halen. It’s like trying to decode emotion. But in my October ’06 VG interview, Lindley detailed the “signal chain,” from heart to head to hands.

“It’s a subconscious thing,” he began. “When you play a solo, you don’t really play it; you kind of watch what’s going on. It’s a split second – it makes itself known. Like peripheral vision. You really screw up if you think, ‘Now I’ll do this, now I’ll do that.’ You can’t think that hard. The automatic part of it you have first – the technique and all – and then you put the emotion and other stuff in there. A lot of it is just 35 years of doing it. And being obsessed with that – going, ‘Stop! Go back. Turn the knob to 11:30, where it was. Get your hands off that. Take that reverb out of there. Step away from the board!’ That’s the way you do it; that’s the way anybody does it. Stop when it sounds good.”

I don’t know about heaven and stuff like that. I prefer to think of Lindley’s heavenly place as being in the hearts of people who loved the man and his music.

© 2023 Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author. Dan’s 2006 interview with Lindley can be read at

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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