For the first 20 years of his career, David Bromberg—whose initial guitar lessons were with bluesman Reverend Gary Davis in the early 1960s—had a burgeoning solo career and played as a sideman for just about everybody: Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Richie Havens, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Doug Sahm, Johnny Shines, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, Jerry Jeff Walker, and others. But over time, all that touring took its toll, and Bromberg burned out.
In 1980, Bromberg startled fans when he quit performing to study violin building at the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. For the next three decades, he made his living identifying and assessing American-made violins at David Bromberg Fine Violins, LLC in Wilmington, Delaware, where he settled in 2002. In August of last year, Bromberg announced that he had made a deal to sell 263 of his vintage, American-made fiddles to the Library of Congress.
Meanwhile, during the past decade, the now 71-year-old Bromberg had started playing fingerstyle folk and blues again, returning to the studio for 2007’s Try Me One More Time (Appleseed), 2011’s Use Me (Appleseed), and 2013’s Only Slightly Mad (Appleseed). Now he’s released The Blues, the Whole Blues and Nothing but the Blues (Red House). It’s the closest he’s come to recording a full-blown blues album in years, with highlights that include electric versions of Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” and acoustic takes on Ray Charles’ “A Fool for You” as well as “Kentucky Blues” and the murder ballad “Delia,” a song he first recorded on his 1971 solo debut.
A lifetime later, with a full band behind him, he’s back at the top of his game, playing blues that are as funny as they are sad and talking about old songs, new chords, and his custom Martin 0000s.
I didn’t want to be one of these guys who drags his sorry ass onto the stage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love.
Why record a straight-ahead blues album?
Actually, it was [manager] Mark McKenna who had that idea, and when I first approached Larry Campbell about producing, I wanted to do an even more specific record: not just a record with all kinds of blues, but a Chicago blues record. And Larry said, “No, let’s do an old-fashioned David Bromberg record with everything in the world on it.” So the album is still a mix, but a lot less mixed than any other I’ve ever done. You know, the way I recorded back in the early ’70s, it was commercial suicide. If you wanted to sell records, the stores needed to know what bin to put them in. Nobody knew where to put me, so I was Mr. Miscellaneous. But I was doing what I wanted, so I didn’t much care.
You’ve been playing “Delia“ (aka “Dehlia”) for close to 50 years. Does it feel different now?
I think it feels very much the same. One of the things that has changed, however, is my knowledge of the song’s history. Delia Green was a real human being, and she was murdered in Savannah, Georgia, on Christmas Eve of 1900. The legend that goes with the song is that she was a prostitute. She may have been, but she was 14 years old and so was the guy who murdered her. The legend says [the murder sparked a riot] and the whole town took out after him and that he escaped the mob by going from house to house on the rooftops, which isn’t true. There are 22 or 23 songs about this murder, and I always thought the reason why there were so many songs was because of the riot. But the riot never took place.
Why does that song speak to you?
Here’s this woman who is said to be a prostitute and is beloved by the entire town, whatever she does. I just thought that was pretty fantastic. I learned it from the singing of Willie McTell [who recorded the song in 1940 and 1949]. Reverend Gary Davis did a version of it, too [released on Delia: Late Concert Recordings 1970–1971], but mine is closer to McTell’s. The Reverend played with a different kind of energy—it was a pretty different song.
How long have you been playing Little Hat Jones’ “Kentucky Blues“?
Not long. I’ve liked the song for a long time, about 40 or 50 years, and I thought I’d try it with an acoustic guitar and a whole band. “Kentucky Blues” sounds like a simple thing to play, but it’s really not. There’s a diminished chord in place of the IV chord, and a guy who teaches the tune online says it’s a mistake, because it’s dissonant. But it’s harder to make that chord than the plain old A or A7. You have to mean it to make it [work], and that’s one of the things I really like about the song. At the turnaround, where you’d expect a V chord, there’s a II minor chord. The whole thing is just a little weird, and I love it.
What about “A Fool for You“?
“A Fool for You” is a Ray Charles tune. I got a telephone call from a friend who came across a YouTube video of me performing “Drown in My Own Tears,” which is a Ray Charles song that’s fairly similar. He wanted to know, “How did you get the passing chords?” Well, what I did was listen to the Ray Charles performance until I had it really safely locked in my brain. Then I picked up my guitar and found where all those neat chords are. I had to make up a couple—of course, they exist, but I had never played them before. And I just love that the tune is in 6/8. It’s a specific kind of 6/8, a church 6/8, and when I say “church” I mean black church. It’s not so much like a waltz as it is a march, and I really love that feel.
How do you discover new chords?
I listen, and once I get the sound in my head, it’s just a matter of finding a way to play it on the guitar. Note by note. I’ve done this a few times. I wrote a bossa nova when I was in Brazil, and it’s got all kinds of sophisticated chords. I have no idea what the hell they are, but they sound the way I want them to sound.
And that’s the way you like to work.
Very much so.
What guitar are you playing on “A Fool for You”?
A Martin 0000-21. All of the quadruple-0 guitars that Martin makes—and I’m fairly certain they would confirm this—are copies of a guitar Matt Umanov made for me in the ’60s. Matty stayed at my house for a while, and after he found his own apartment, he called me up and said, “I have this guitar. Come down here and buy it and I’ll give you a present.” I found that intriguing. So I went down to his shop and the guitar was a Martin F-7 archtop, a carved-top guitar. I remember it was $400, so I bought it, and then a year-and-a-half or two years later, Matty gave me that guitar with a flattop and 42 appointments. Three people had done that kind of conversion before, but the one Matty did, instead of the original neck, he used a dreadnought neck, and that changed the whole thing. That made it a brilliant guitar and it’s what I’ve played ever since. It’s actually broader across the lower bout than a dreadnought, but the upper bout is narrower. It’s shaped like a 000, but one size bigger. It’s not as deep as a dreadnought, so you don’t get the sound rolling around—that dreadnought roar—which is such a wonderful thing in your living room, but a terrible thing if you’re going through a microphone, either to record or in performance.
Is that the one you’re playing on the album?
These days, I don’t take the one that Matty built out of the house. I used to use it in performances until a guy sat on it. So I leave it at home. And I have to tell you, this Martin 0000-21 is a custom-shop guitar and it’s really good. They used hide glue and did all the right things. I’m a violin maker, and if you use any other glue in making a violin, you’ll ruin the instrument. It will not sound.
Has building violins changed the way you play guitar?
I only built violins in order to learn how they are built. My idea was never to be a violin maker. My idea was to become a violin expert and be able to identify who made what, when, and where. That’s what I do. I am by default, evidently, the world’s expert on violins made in the United States, and the Library of Congress has agreed to try and raise the money to buy my collection of American violins. I hope, I hope, I hope.
I don’t play fast any longer. Not as fast as I used to, and I used to play pretty damn fast. But there’s something else that goes on that’s very . . . that works.
Do you play them?
They’re there for me to study. For identification. Other people will occasionally play one or two of them.
When you stopped performing, did you stop playing guitar?
For 22 years?
That’s right. Nearly completely. The closest I could come to describing it is this: If you’ve ever been on a picnic and somebody has a glove and a softball, you play softball. But you don’t pick up a glove or a ball until the next picnic. Or even think about it. That was the way I was with guitar.
You didn’t miss it?
I didn’t. I was pretty busy.
Yes. After a while I started to think about playing, but I really didn’t get into it that deeply until I moved to Wilmington. When I was thinking about moving here, I had lunch with the mayor, and he told me there used to be live music all up and down the street on which I live, and he’d really like to see that happen again. So I started some jam sessions. I figured I’d do this for a little while and then they’d either live or die on their own. But some really good musicians started showing up, and I started enjoying playing with people, and that was the difference. Playing with people. I’d stopped because I was burned out, I was just working too much. And I didn’t want to be one of these guys who drags his sorry ass onto the stage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love. So I decided to find another way to lead my life, and that was it. I study violins.
When you look back, are you surprised you spent 22 years without playing guitar?
What did it take to get back in shape?
There was some work before I could get up on a stage and feel secure again. Do you know [fiddler, bassist, and guitarist] Molly Mason? She had a brain tumor, and coming back from that surgery was very difficult. The place she first got back onstage was with my ensemble, so when I wanted to start performing again, I was able to do it with Molly and Jay [Ungar].
At what point did you think you’d made
I don’t know how to answer that. My playing and singing are different today. I’m a much better singer and my playing—I don’t play fast any longer. Not as fast as I used to, and I used to play pretty damn fast. But there’s something else that goes on that’s very . . . that works. I’m choosing different notes, I don’t know how else to put it. And I’m happy with my playing.
What is that something that goes on?
If I’d known, I would have told you. If I could have said it, I would have. I’m not trying to be coy. I’m choosing different notes, and I don’t know how else to put it.
What first drew you to blues?
Irony is very important in the blues.
People notice it in my songs as humor, and humor can be part of it, but the point is the irony. Like, “I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me.” That’s the typical ironic blues line. Think about it: Any good blues is drenched in irony.
Now that David Bromberg’s flattop F-7 is too precious to leave the house, he records with the next best thing: a Martin custom 0000-21 that’s based on the original Matt Umanov conversion.
“When the Martin people first approached me, they brought a guitar and asked if I’d give them an opinion,” Bromberg says. “I saw them a couple of weeks later and said, ‘Congratulations, it’s a very nice guitar, but it’s nothing I would ever play.’ And their faces dropped. They said, ‘We didn’t want to tell you, but people have been asking for a guitar like the one you play.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you use my guitar as a model?’ And they said, ‘Because it has no bass.’ And I said, ‘Who told you that?’ ‘Oh, all the executives say it can’t possibly have any bass.’ They thought that because it was thinner than a dreadnought, it would have no bass. I said, ‘Take it, take it. Here.’ So that’s what they used, and anything they make with the designation M is a copy of my old guitar.”
The custom acoustic guitar he plays on “A Fool for You” and “Kentucky Blues” is similar—and also similar to Martin’s M-42 David Bromberg Signature Model—with an Adirondack spruce top and scalloped braces, and Madagascar rosewood back and sides.
On “Delia,” recorded as a guitar duet with producer Larry Campbell, Bromberg plays a custom Martin D-21. He uses Martin medium-gauge Lifespan strings on both acoustics, along with Golden Gate thumb picks, National fingerpicks, and Pick World flat picks with his name on one side and “carpe per diem” (“Seize the check”) on the other.
For one of the electric tracks, Bromberg plays a new Fender Telecaster, which was sold as part of the album’s crowdfunding campaign, along with one of his bottleneck slides; a 120-minute recording session; a private guitar lesson; a 2011 Martin custom D-21; a fiddle from Bromberg’s collection; and a chance to appear on the front cover of The Blues, the Whole Blues and Nothing but the Blues. On the rest of the album’s electric songs, Bromberg plays a 1958 Fender Esquire with a patent-applied-for humbucker in the neck position and a Velvet Hammer pickup at the bridge.
“When I bought that in the ’60s, it was a used guitar,” Bromberg says. “Now it’s vintage. It’s got the sound I want and nothing else does. Anyone who’s played it has wanted it. It’s just tremendous, it’s a great guitar. That’s the guitar that will be buried with me.”
What’s a 1958 Fender Esquire going to do in a coffin?
“The same thing I do,” Bromberg says.
David Bromberg Essential Listening
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.