Remembering Guitarist and Teacher Dix Bruce 1952–2023

The versatile, knowledgeable, and always cheerful musician and educator Dix Bruce passed away suddenly and peacefully in his sleep at age 70.
Dix Bruce with mandolin

In late January, San Francisco Bay Area guitarist Dix Bruce posted a video teaching the guitar chords for “Sweet Georgia Brown” and explaining how the progression uses the cycle of fifths.

“I sure have had a ton of fun over the years learning this progression, and when it finally sunk in what it was, how the progression moved, it was just like a lightbulb lighting up above my head,” he said. “I’ve played this with jazz bands, I’ve played this with country bands, I’ve played this with bluegrass bands, and you’ll find that there are literally hundreds of thousands of other tunes that use this basic cycle-of-fifths pattern.” 

Just over a week later came the shocking news that this versatile, knowledgeable, and always cheerful musician/educator had passed away suddenly and peacefully in his sleep. Bruce was 70, a devoted husband, father, and grandfather, and as always in the midst of all sorts of musical projects. 

As a teacher, Bruce was remarkably prolific, the creator of more than 50 titles for Mel Bay Publications alone, as well as founder of his own instructional company, Musix. But he did so much more on all sides of the acoustic music world. Drawn into David Grisman’s orbit early on by his interests in bluegrass and acoustic jazz, Bruce served as editor of Grisman’s Mandolin World News from 1978 to 1984. Over the years Bruce worked for Arhoolie Records, as a recording engineer, and as a songwriter—even composing music heard in the Sims City computer games. He began contributing lessons to Acoustic Guitar during my tenure as editor, and in recent years he created a series of videos for Acoustic Guitar Auctions showcasing instruments with a range of country, folk, blues, and jazz tunes.

Dix Bruce with his granddaughters
Dix Bruce with his granddaughters Tilly and Cece. Photo courtesy Gennie Bruce Gorback. 

As a performer, Bruce released the old-time/traditional solo album My Folk Heart, played big band music with the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, recorded with bluegrass mandolin master Frank Wakefield, and was the guitarist for 30 years with Jeremy Cohen’s Violinjazz band. (On April 15, Cohen is hosting a memorial for Bruce at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, California.)

Bruce also had a long-running duo with flatpicker Jim Nunally (Nell and Jim Band, John Reischman and the Jaybirds, David Grisman Bluegrass Experience). Bruce and Nunally made four albums of rootsy duets and also traveled widely as Martin Guitar clinicians. “The job, if one could call it that, was to go to stores or events that feature Martin guitars and play them for the attendees,” Nunally recalls. “Is that a dream job or what?”

Dix Bruce and Jim Nunally both with guitars
Dix Bruce and Jim Nunally. 

On their second album, The Way Things Are, Bruce and Nunally recorded Bruce’s original song “When I Die,” written in the style of a classic bluegrass duet. “I loved playing that song with him from the first time he played it to me and every show we performed it on,” says Nunally. “People connect to that song.”

Needless to say, Bruce’s song has taken on new resonance for his family and friends since his passing.

“I can’t express the deep connection between that song and the way I feel now,” says Nunally. “I wish he could somehow tell us all now what he knows.”

When I Die 

Words and music by Dix Bruce 

Will I float with the clouds up above when I die? 
With the stars in the heavens, will I fly? 
Will I shine with the sun, bound to the earth as one 
When I die, when I die? 

Will my soul be set free to walk the shallow stream 
Of the sweet thoughts and dreams in my mind? 
Will my heart beat as one with the earth and the sun 
When I die, when I die? 

Will I roam through the fields, down the mountains, ’cross the land 
Wade the rivers down to the ocean sand? 
Will I touch trusted friends in a whisper of the wind 
When I die, when I die? 

Can I be with my family, can I visit with my friends 
As they spend the short time they were lent? 
Will they quietly know that I really did not go 
When I die, when I die? 

Will the ones that I love someday join me up above? 
Will we laugh, will we sing, will we cry? 
Together will we be through all eternity
When I die, when I die?

Will I grow in the hearts of those I have known? 
Will they think of me fondly now and then? 
Will I live on and on when my life on earth is done 
When I die, when I die?

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, founding editor of Acoustic Guitar, is a grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter, Beyond Strumming, and other books and videos for musicians. In addition to his ongoing work with AG, he offers live workshops for guitarists and songwriters, plus video lessons, song charts, and tab, on Patreon.

34 Comments

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  1. OMG he’ll be missed. I’ve sold several of his books in my online store over the years. I really loved the ones for gypsy jazz mandolin and guitar. My condolences to his family and friends.

  2. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful tribute. I loved learning from Dix, whether in person or using many of his instructional DVD’s he published . He opened so many doors for me.
    My condolences to his family

  3. Such a marvelous and humble man. I got to meet Dix and sing a song with him some years ago at his Brother Terry’s wedding in Wisconsin. Terry had been my Brother-in-law. He was a wonderful guitarist as well.
    Their Sister Mary is also a good singer.
    Such talent and lovely family.
    Dix was not a boastful person and he certainly could have been. His accomplishments are phenomenal 💗🎼
    What a gift he left to the world.

  4. Dix was a great guy. Great picker, great singer, great sense of humor and a great sense of what it was all about. I enjoyed a couple of years working with him and Jim, setting up Martin clinics in the Northwest and the Rocky Mountain states. Working with him, which was really not working, was a great experience for me. Sad deal, he is missed. Remembering the good times we had.

  5. Dix ,wrote an article about my Dad :smokey george gilbertsen in mandolin world news magazine,Thank you Dix!! will miss you …jerry gilbertsen

  6. Dix was the most friendly bluegrass musician/teacher, funny as I’d ever met, talented, creative. I had just downloaded his latest songbook for mandolin, and ordered his Mandolin World sweatshirt, and received a thank you note right before I read of his passing. Big loss for us bluegrass and I wear his t-shirt in his honor. Godspeed Dix.

  7. Really unfortunate news. I feel like Dix was a personal friend, although we never met. He’s been a partner in my own musical journey for a long time and will surely miss his company. Thanks for all the great lessons and great music over the years Dix. And thanks for all those licks I copped from you.

  8. This is heartbreaking. Dix was a talented musician, gifted teacher and outstanding human being. I was planning, like many, to take another lesson or seminar from him, but that will no longer be possible.

    My sincerest sympathy to his wife, adult children and grand children. He is surely missed by everyone who knows him.

  9. Such sad news, but a wonderful rememberance. Dix and I never met, but corresponded many times. He was always patient with my endless questions. My journeys on mandolin and guitar are so much better because of Dix.

  10. Dix and I met over 25 years ago. Our original connection was through music — he provided me with guitar and mandolin lessons, and in exchange I designed his cd and book covers. I had a concert series back then, and he played several times for my audiences. He was notorious not only for his music, but for weaving stories into his performance. He had a wonderful way of connecting with his audience. He was also an inspiring teacher. He would get so excited explaining the theory behind chord progressions, like the “circle of fifths”. His enthusiasm was contagious. Over the years, our friendship grew to include other mutual interests — photography, Yosemite, and (of all things) birds. I can’t believe he’s gone. He and Kathi were planning to go to Yosemite next month, and my husband and I were going to meet them there since we were going to be in the Valley at the same time. RIP, my old friend. You will be sorely missed.

  11. Dix was in my first bluegrass outfit, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the mid-70s. I was just learning the fiddle and scraped along with him and other locals — he was cheerful, optimistic, funny, and a wonderful mentor to my nascent musical abilities. In the early 80s, he had me join Back Up & Push for a Mando World News concert in SF. I was pretty outclassed by all the outstanding talent there, but boy did I have a wonderful time with him! I am terribly saddened to hear of his passing.

    • Hi, Peter,
      Hurtful news about Dix, isn’t it ? You might remember me as Peach during the Madison years., rather than as Kevin Donleavy. I was one of the devotees/followers of ECR, enjoying yer music for several years. Drop me e-line if ya want. And let’s say Sayonara to our pal Dix.

  12. My regular Wednesday lessons with Dix helped reawaken my love for the acoustic guitar and roots music of all sorts. Although my abilities never matched my enthusiasm for the instrument, Dix was a kind, patient and encouraging teacher. We also shared a common interest in large format photography and I enjoyed listening to him recount his newest adventures with a recently acquired press camera. Dix had created a considerable archive of photographs of various performers over the past 5 decades. What a tribute it would be should these be published, as Dix had aspired!

    Dix, in your duet with Jim Nunnally you ask,

    “Will I grow in the hearts of those I have known?
    Will they think of me fondly now and then?
    Will I live on and on when my life on earth is done
    When I die, when I die?”

    My answer is a resounding “Yes!”
    Rest in peace, my friend.

  13. Dix and I played together for 37 years in Violinjazz. Our kids were in nursery school together. Hard to put into words these years of friendship and collaboration Cassettes, CDs, books and more. We miss him sorely, (not to mention his corny jokes) and he takes a piece of us with him. Tell your own friends how much you appreciate them while they are here.

  14. Just found out this news. I was shocked. My tears have dried now. I met Dix several times. Long ago, I had a few lessons at his home. I would see him several times over the years (worked in SF 21 yrs) when he would play with a bluegrass band at Noontime concerts, occasionally at the Freight. When he would see me in the audience, I would get a nod & smile from him in recognition. Once, fortune fell upon me to be at Jim Nun’s home, whereupon Dix & Jim played and sang together. Dix is a funny, skilled versatile musician, entertaining person, great storyteller. To the family, friends & people that knew him, be grateful for those times that you had with him. His spirit lives on with his vast legacy of books and music. Comfort yourselves with the love, gentle kindness and knowledge that he shared with everyone. This world could use a lot more humans like him.

  15. Dix was the recording engineer from his home for 2 of my CD’s
    He was patient, knowledgeable, and full of creative ideas. Plus he was a nice guy. He will be missed.

  16. I am heartbroken to hear this news. Dix was a mensch and a sweetheart. I remember the “Backup and Push” years, and doing some graphics, stuff and things for him for Mandolin World News. Eternally optimistic, eternally about the music. He was one of a kind.

  17. I knew Dix back in Madison, Wisconsin in the Seventies when he was playing in several groups, notably for old-time and bluegrass music. His group called the Earth’s Crust Ramblers really “tore it up !” on such songs as “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Alligator Man” and a Charlie Poole song or two. Dix and his musical colleagues had a rabid group of devotees in Madison. We stayed in touch over the decades. But the news of his death ripped a whole in me, as I’m sure it did to loads of other folks.

  18. As so many others have said, it’s a real shock to learn of Dix’s death. He was one of those vibrant persons who exude life and it doesn’t seem possible that the flame in someone like Dix can be extinguished, especially so suddenly and seemingly out of the blue. His song, “When I Die” is beautiful and I fitting tribute to a life well lived. Like so many guitarists, I purchased many of his books, in particular old-timey, bluegrass and swing lessons. I had a few questions about a course one time and Dix wrote back and that began a long distance, brief friendship. He remembered I was an illustrator and when one of his many projects was unfolding, Dix asked me if I’d create cover art for a book about Scandinavian tunes by accordion player, Bruce Bollerud. The director at Mel Bay okayed the project and, although the fee was modest, I jumped at a chance to work with Dix. That book was “Accordion Uff Da! Let’s Dance”. Dix created another titled “Mandolin Uff Da Let’s Dance!” As I recall, there were fiddle and banjo versions, too. Dix was a joy to work with, as well as a master music maker and teacher. What a wonderful human being.
    R.I.P, dear Dix, we’ll miss you.

  19. Shocking and sad to hear . . . I had communicating with Bruce in the last few months regarding his Gypsy Swing and Hot Club Rhythm book for Mandolin.

    Had no idea how prolific and broad was his reach to the Acoustic Community.

    He will be sadly missed.

    Michael

  20. I was so sad to hear the news. Dix and I were roommates in Inverness in the Seventies sometime after his move to California. We played Bluegrass 4 or 5 days a week or so for several years until I moved away in 1977. I learned a lot from Dix. We kept in touch a bit over the years but not enough. He was just an all around good human being. I will miss him.

  21. Dix was great! I’ve learned so much from his DVDs and online lessons. I felt like he was a friend. I’m very sad for his family and I’m praying for them.

  22. I’ve been a fan of Dix Bruce for a long time. His books and instruction are amazing and he got me started on the road to Swing Jazz on the mandolin. I’d written and spoken with him many times and he was always kind and answered every question I ever had.

    I also like to learn about the mandolins that are used by players I like. This was the last correspondence I had from Dix from a few months ago, when I asked him about the beautiful oval hole mandolin that he played so often and was featured on so many of his publications. Such a kind and humble person. Glad to have known him.

    “The mandolin was built by Bob Schneider probably 20 years ago. Maybe longer. I met Bob in the mid-1970s and we played music together. He was an engineer. We’d fall in and out of touch over the years and in the 90s he came to show I did with Jim Nunally in Portland, OR. At that point he told me was retiring from engineering to make mandolins. I thought he was nuts. Eventually I saw the instruments he’d made and they were beautiful.

    One day he called me and said he wanted to give me a mandolin, a F-4/F-5 hybrid he’d made. I was bowled over and told him that was crazy, that he should get it to somebody famous, like David Grisman. I told him I’d help him get a mandolin to Grisman. I kinda remember him saying, “No, I want you to have it.”

    I hoped he’d change his mind or not get around to it or forget. Time passed and the next time we played in Portland there was Bob with a shiny new case and an even shinier new mandolin! Again, I was just bowled over. It was a beautiful mandolin, played well, sounded good, especially for the swing/jazz stuff. I used it mostly for that type of material.

    I don’t know what else to say about the instrument itself. If you have any specific questions I’ll do my best to answer them. Sadly, Bob is gone. He had prostate cancer of a particularly aggressive type. He had it for quite awhile and didn’t tell me about it until near the end. Obviously he knew things were serious when he gave me his mandolin. I’ve tried to use it as much as possible, publish photos of it and so on.

    It’s amazing not only that he made it but that he gave it to me. I told him then and maintain that I am not worthy.

    Best,
    Dix”

  23. Like others I am saddened to hear this news about Dix. I took weekly lessons from him over a couple of years

    Once I was at work and dreading going to my lesson that night because I hadn’t practiced all week and I knew Dix would know. I didn’t want to disappoint him or waste his time. My co-worker suggested I go anyway- see what happens

    Dix was so kind and understanding. “I’m really glad you came anyway- let’s just play some guitar together for your session…” it was a wonderful experience I’ll never forget

  24. I am just now hearing this and am sorry to hear it. I have enjoyed Dix’s books for years and still play his Christmas ones every year. Thank you for the kind writeup. Best wishes and condolences to his family. Regards

  25. His work on folk/country/ragtime on games of sim city soundtrack made me respect those music style. Unfortunately I’m aware of his passed. I´d love had to met him! Thats sad.