Renowned maxi-instrumentalist David Lindley passed away March 3, 2023, at the age of 78. Republished here is a profile and in-depth interview with Lindley, which originally ran as cover story for Acoustic Guitar’s June 2000 issue. —Ed.
The Weird and Wonderful World of String Wizard David Lindley by Paul Kotapish
David Lindley has been smashing music barriers and fusing idioms from his earliest days. There’s a wonderful tale about the tiebreaking round in a mid-’60s Topanga Banjo Contest, with Taj Mahal and Lindley as the finalists. To determine the winner, the judges required them each to play a version of “John Henry.” Taj Mahal threw down the gauntlet with a calypso-tinged rendition of the old banjo favorite. Lindley met the challenge head-on with an impassioned flamenco-on-the-five-string rave-up, replete with clawhammer rasgueados and old-timey falsetas.
That kind of playful, pan-cultural approach has informed Lindley’s music in all its incarnations, from his early bluegrass-meets-Paganini endeavors with the Dry City Scat Band through the psychedelic Middle Eastern experiments of Kaleidoscope, the incendiary reggae grooves of El Rayo-X, and his acoustic duets with Jordanian dumbek wizard Hani Naser and percussionist Wally Ingram. Along the way, Lindley has collaborated on albums and film scores with Ry Cooder, provided stratospheric slide solos on Jackson Browne hits, and laid down hundreds of tracks as hired axman on records by everyone from Rod Stewart to Dolly Parton to contemplative new age shakuhachi master Kazu Matsui. Lindley also made musical pilgrimages to Madagascar and Norway with guitarist Henry Kaiser, trips that resulted in the wildly popular A World Out of Time and The Sweet Sunny North recordings.
Lindley’s encyclopedic knowledge of music, his indomitable arsenal of stringed instruments, and his deft touch in every style put him on the top of everyone’s list of most able sidemen. When Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby, and Bonnie Raitt teamed up for a concert tour last fall, they chose Lindley to lead the band. Last December I visited Lindley in his Southern California home during a break between the tour and the initial sessions of his first studio album in more than a decade. Over cups of strong coffee and amid the amiable clutter of a life bursting with music—stringed instruments of diverse ethnic origins, CDs, concert posters in every language, capos, and picks of all sorts—we talked about the strange and wondrous strings connecting pianos, archery, dentist drills, bouzoukis, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Over the years you’ve done an incredible amount of studio work. Have you worked on anything recently that you’re particularly excited about?
I just recorded a couple of songs with Geoff Muldaur, me and Wally [Ingram]. Really amazing. He does this kind of John McCormack operatic thing, and his vibrato is just perfect for that. Well, I’ve been listening to Geoff ever since I was a little kid, so this was great. The tunes he wanted to do were just exactly what I’m into right now: these old blues things that he wanted all these weird instruments on. It was take-your-teeth-out music. We just did all kinds of variations on stuff. I played slide and bouzouki.
When you are heading into the studio, how do you decide which instruments to take?
Now I say, “Send me a tape,” and from that I’ll try to figure out what will work. What used to happen is that I would take everything—sazes, ouds, everything—and I’d always end up playing mandolin. Mandolin’s not too far afield for anyone. It’s a recognizable sound. Some people are a little more adventurous. If they have a pop music background they tend to play it safe. If they come from a folk music background or from country music, they tend to be a little more adventuresome. Or if they’re crazy. Or if they are into indie music. Some people want you to break out something they don’t recognize and go, “What the hell is that?” I like it when there’s that spirit in the studio. In general, though, I don’t do as many sessions anymore.
Some people will ask me to do a session and I’ll do it—for Jennifer Warnes or Jackson Browne—for people I have a history with or people who know what they want. Dolly Parton, for example, is one of the easiest people to work with ’cause she’ll say exactly what she wants. I like her ears, and it’s very easy to understand what she wants. She’ll say, “Play the fiddle on two strings and play like an old man.” Or, “Oh no, that banjo sounds too bluegrassy. Use the old-time one with the skin head. Yeah, that’s it.” And she moves beautifully through the recording process. Some people don’t know what they’re talking about. They want the magic moment, and they want you to come up with it, pull it out of your ear, and that’s really hard to do on demand. So I only do the sessions I’m interested in now.
Your solos tend to be very melodic. Do you work out your parts in advance, or are you improvising as you go?
It’s a combination of [finding] what works and stretching. I’ll try a few different things and try to remember the licks that seem to be good. A lot of times on the road I’ll fall into playing the same things. If the sound is bad, I’ll find myself playing the same old thing. If the balance is good and the sound is right, then I’m more willing to take chances and the subconscious stuff comes out. What I’ve tried to do, especially playing with Jackson, is to get into a place where it’s automatic. It just comes on, and you are watching yourself, like you’re looking over your shoulder. That’s the best of all, when you are watching yourself play. You actually get to sit back and say, “Where did that come from? Don’t ever do that again!” So it’s a combination of those things: finding what works and then messing with it. And some things just seem to come out without even trying. Gifts. Evidence of something beyond.
As the bandleader on the recent tour with Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby, and Bonnie Raitt, how much freedom did you have to shape the sounds?
I could do whatever I wanted—within a structure. Like the way flamenco works: you have structure and then you have freedom. Sometimes specific things had to be happening in a given song. We’d work that stuff out and then there would be a chance to stretch out. Especially playing with Bonnie, it was all different every night. She’d play solos and bounce stuff off of me, and it was great to play off of that. Bruce was wonderful to play with. Totally fearless. He’d try anything and pull it off. He had a great influence on all of us, his willingness to push things.
Shawn Colvin was fearless, too. She and Hornsby would do these amazing intros to her songs and try all kinds of strange and wonderful harmonies. It was a great experience. I was really kind of upset when it was over. We were sitting in the dressing room at the end, and Bonnie said, “It’s like summer camp, and it’s over.”
How did you decide what to play with each of the different artists?
It was really difficult—a very complex situation, with a lot of factors. And as a result, there were a lot of opportunities for sound colors on things that one didn’t take. Of course I can hear everything on everything. So I had to pick and choose. First of all, as part of my obsessive compulsion, I hear reggae guitar on everything. Everything. Obviously I couldn’t give in to that! On Shawn’s stuff the bouzouki seemed to work real well. The fiddle and accordion combination was really nice on a lot of things.
The monitor sound was not really good on this trip, because things were changing so much during the evening. “Oh, there’s no high end on the fiddle?” That’s a bad, bad experience. Eventually I tried the Hornsby approach: go with it, see what happens. It went wonderfully toward the end of the tour. But at the beginning of the tour it was tough.
There’s a funny thing when you play with a band and you take your cue off of the other musicians. If you take your cue off the bass and you suddenly can’t hear the bass, you’re in trouble. You have to cue off yourself. I played the song in my head and kept track of things bar by bar. That gets kind of complicated. Having in-ear monitors really helped, plus it helped keep the volume a lot lower, which is great.
Do you have hearing problems?
Are you kidding? We all do. If you play at the levels we did for so many years, you’re going to have problems. There are some people who won’t admit it, but we all do. I warn the younger players, “We did the research, dudes. People are now walking around deaf!”
There are a lot of multi-instrumentalists, but you are a kind of maxi-instrumentalist. How many instruments do you play?
How many instruments do you have?
I have absolutely no idea. I’ve been gathering them since the ’60s.
Was becoming multi-instrumental a conscious decision?
No, it was more, “There’s something. I love the way that sounds. I must learn to make that sound!” And you have to have it and learn to play it. That’s really the way it works. Ry Cooder said, “Lindley will pick something up and eat it.” Ry became obsessed with the diatonic accordion. He’d play for 14 hours a day with sweat bands on to keep the sweat out of the works. That’s eating the instrument, and that’s what I tend to do.
I was obsessed with stringed instruments since I was a little kid because I was around them a lot. My uncle was a concert pianist, and he held rehearsals with the Grillo Quartet at our house. I could walk under the piano, and I would take my head and place it directly under the soundboard and wedge my body between the floor and the soundboard of the piano. That’s one of the best things in the world. The sound literally went into me. I attribute a lot of my string obsession to those days.
Did you get to see a lot of string players up close?
All the time. Sitting behind the cello underneath the soundboard of the piano is one of the best places in the world when you are small and portable. And later I would go on little raids to music stores and make a pest of myself. I would go to Bernardo’s Guitar Shop in East L.A.—which is still there. Bernardo’s son is B.C. Rich. And Bernardo is a really fantastic guitar builder in his own right. David Hidalgo [of Los Lobos] used to hang out there. There was music in there all the time. You wouldn’t believe the players, great players from Mexico, so I would hear all that stuff—the harp stuff, cuatro stuff, everything. And it all goes in and stays there. The next thing you know, it’s busting out, something like Alien. You are constantly checking your chest for the alfalfa-sprout effect.
Were you also inspired by some of your music teachers?
There’s a place in Arcadia called the Cat’s Pajamas. People would go there and play. There was a resident cat there named Frank who played everything—guitar, mandolin, banjo, 12-string, dobro, accordion—all kinds of stuff. He’s still around. He had a way of putting things that was a big influence on me. I took banjo lessons from him.
My first instrument was guitar. I was into classical guitar and flamenco music, and I wanted to be a classical guitar player. My guitar teacher talked me out of it. Same with my saz teacher, a tolerant, long-suffering man. I made his life miserable. I said, “I want to play classical Turkish music. ” He said, “Lindley, you can spend your life and learn to play beautiful classical music, and you will starve. You stay with your rock ‘n’ roll.” It was like “What the… ? OK.”
How did you get turned on to Middle Eastern instruments?
I was always interested in everything, and I listened to everything. In [the band] Kaleidoscope I was messing around on various instruments, but I couldn’t find a saz. Even now it’s hard to find one made in the old way. I owned a five-string banjo, and I used to play tar stuff on that. I knew a couple of Eastern scales that I used to play on the banjo, and it worked out real good for imitating the maqams [Turkish modes].
Stuart [Brotman] also played everything. He was the upright bass player in Kaleidoscope. I actually studied stuff with Stuart. He would teach us songs in odd meters—five and seven—and teach us to play so that we could improvise. Then we’d plug in.
Does playing so many different instruments make it harder to maintain technique on any one ax?
Not if you consider them all one instrument. Some are slightly different—frets, no frets, slide—but you look at them as a many-headed dragon, and you slay them all the same way. There are all those [plucked] instruments and there is the fiddle, which can’t be rectified with the others, so there’s the twang and the bow. The bowed tambour is the only thing that spans those two—twang and bow—for me. I guess the thing that carries over might be the phrasing, which is an amazing thing. There’s a new motto: Amazing for Phrasing.
And basically it’s cross-pollination. You use techniques from one instrument or style on another one. I learned to use a lot of the classical and flamenco guitar stuff on the Weissenborn. It’s the Carcassi method gone awry—perverted to my own uses. Solomon Feldthouse was playing saz in Kaleidoscope and someone said to him, “Solomon, you play the saz like a bouzouki, and bouzouki like a saz.” Pretty cool. The Greeks and the Turks finally getting together. That’s it. Cross-pollination. That covers the entire thing.
You’ve broken out of the mold musically since your earliest days, and it seems that you have pretty neatly sidestepped the whole music business by putting out your own CDs and maintaining control over your music.
That was a conscious decision. I could have gone the other way with the music business, but I made that decision a long, long time ago. It was clear back with Kaleidoscope. We were sitting in the dressing room of the Whiskey a Go Go, and a manager guy comes in and says, “We can make you guys stars—huge. But you’ll have to do this, this, and this, and you’ll have to dress like this, too.” And we said, “Get the hell out of here!” and sent the guy packing. He was upset ’cause he could see the picture of money and everything, but we’d decided we didn’t want to do that. Even when I was in a bluegrass band, we said, “Let’s do some new music—let’s try to do some different combinations. Or if we use the old combinations, let’s do them differently. Let’s do Paganini’s ‘Perpetual Motion.’” Richard Greene was the fiddle player, and he could play all that stuff. So we did all that.
Was that the Dry City Scat Band?
Yeah. That was Dry City. There were different versions of that band. One with Mayne Smith, a great dobro player and lead singer. That reminds me, I owe him some money for royalties. That’s one of the things you’ve got to do. You’ve got to send the money to the performers and writers. Then you get to deal with the Harry Fox Agency. It’s like dealing with the front office at high school. I send them an email and they send it back all covered with red checks and circles and stuff like I should correct it. “Rewrite this, Mr. Lindley. C-minus.” Anyway, you have to deal with that. They’re pretty good about getting people their money, which is a good thing, ’cause a lot of people have been screwed out of their money. Ry wrote a song about it called “The Same Old Greasy Number.”
What was the idea behind El Rayo-X?
El Rayo-X is more or less a party band, but the lyrics are a bit radioactive. That music is for taking solo—it’s bluegrass music, really. That’s the way I construct all that stuff, except we’re not wearing our apricot, three-piece, sharkskin suits. We don’t have the string ties anymore. All of that is two-part or trio singing—real country music. The Grateful Dead were doing something similar with the bluegrass roots. It generates this whole new thing.
In recent years you’ve been doing a mostly acoustic thing with just one other player—first Hani Naser and now Wally Ingram. What inspired you to try the smaller, acoustic format?
I’d always wanted to do that. I saw Ali Farke Toure—guitar and calabash. That’s all he needed. There’s little big music and big little music, and big little music is where it’s at. That’s what we’re trying to do. Big little music. With guitar and percussion and singing you got almost all of it. The thing that’s missing is the harmony, but Wally is a wonderful singer, and we’re going to go more in that direction.
I’ve already done the electric band thing, and it could be that that will happen again. I like the party stuff OK. Much better than squirrels in bondage. That’s one of Ry’s great images—playing for an audience that wants to get up and dance and can’t because they are squirrels in bondage—sitting there with their paws together. But playing this way with acoustic instruments and Wally is the most fun. It’s the best of all combinations. Playing by yourself is good too; I’ve done tours that way. But you really have to focus. In a way it’s scary, ’cause if you get lost, you can’t just say, “Hey, play a drum solo.”
And there’s something to playing quietly. The louder you get, the more license you give people to talk louder and louder until it’s a big rave-up. Having people work to listen is better. I’ve also played with no sound system at all. The lights went out at a concert we were playing at Palookaville in Santa Cruz, and I just played everything acoustically. Wally played his drums with chopsticks and fingertips. The crowd just loved it. That’s the ultimate way. Segovia did that on concert stages. Just him and [luthier] Hermann Hauser. That was really something else.
Any plans for a new studio recording?
Yes, I’m getting that going now. All of the records I’ve done lately have been live. Once you get the sound, you’ve got the record. There it is. Wally and I have been rehearsing as if we were going out on the road. It’s still getting formed, but I’m thinking this record will be more about the tunes than the presentation. The tunes will get whatever they need in the studio to bring them alive—like painting them. We’re going to take a chance and try doing overdubs and things like that. It’s gonna be me and Wally, and we’re thinking of expanding—maybe having a guest or two.
What kind of material will you be doing?
I’ve got a couple Danny O’Keefe and Warren Zevon songs, one of Jackson’s songs, and I’m writing a lot more for this new record. I have a source for some new material. That’s because everything I’ve ever heard is in there [taps forehead], cataloged in the subconscious. I’m really into archery, and through that discipline I’ve discovered the door to the unconscious. It’s little and it’s gray. Because you have to concentrate so hard on putting the arrow right in the center, you have to take your mind down to the lowest level of action. And what happens is that your subconscious will mess with you.
It was pretty scary when I discovered that the reason that these notions come to your mind is that your subconscious is sending you messages all the time. Sometimes it happens when you are driving. Sometimes it happens when you play music. “Go ahead and do that.” It’s more refined in music, because instantly you hear whether it sounds good or it doesn’t sound good. Every once in a while when you take a chance and you pull it off, that’s the real thing. That’s the bull’s-eye.
You’ll find photos, as well as a transcription of Lindley’s slide arrangement of “Mercury Blues” by Robert Geddins and K.C. Douglas in the June 2000 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.