DAVID GWYNN: ONE GUITAR GREAT
This is the third, and final interview and article, in the series about three guys that taught me more about guitar and guitars, than they will ever know.
The first of these interviews was with Steve Soest, “famous guitar guy”, musician, and author, as well as a contributor to Jackaboutguitars with his “Keepin’ It Real” column where he fields your guitar questions.
The second was with guitarist Larry Hanson, another “famous guitar guy” and musician who has played with a lot of the greats. If you need more info on Larry, check out the article. It’s worth your time.
The third and final interview is with David Gwynn, the guitarist I have known the longest of the three mentioned, and the lead guitarist of the first band I ever had the opportunity to be a part of, that actually made money playing for people, when I was just sixteen years old.
A GUITAR PLAYER LIKE NO OTHER
David Gwynn (originally David Guynes) was born December 4, 1952 in San Francisco, California into a family with a deep musical tradition. His father was a country songwriter, and his grandmother would critically listen to his attempts at playing the blues while she sang old Bessie Smith and Billy Holiday tunes. The sound of country, blues, and rock and roll was a constant companion during his youth.
At ten years of age he was playing guitar instrumentals with his first band. After that was the strong influence of the “British Invasion” of the sixties. A little later David was going out to see The Butterfield Blues Band, other unique west coast groups such as Spirit, and great guitarists such as Roy Buchanan at every possible opportunity. He became interested in Indian classical music, attending numerous concerts of the renowned masters around the San Francisco Bay area.
David worked professionally on the west coast as a guitarist throughout the 70’s, including with some legends of country music history. In 1984, David lands in Madrid, Spain and has since worked as a producer, composer, and studio musician – recording and touring with many Spanish artists and groups.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the luxury of traveling to Madrid to get this interview in person with David. We both put in a bunch of computer time getting the interview together. It was a fun process, however, as all of these interviews have been. Here’s what David had to say.
JAG: The first question I have to ask is, what got you interested in playing guitar? Was your dad a big influence?
GWYNN: When I was little there were always people coming over who played guitar. My dad wrote country songs in his spare time and he knew a lot of singers and songwriters, and the guitar playing part didn’t look too difficult. I think I just assumed that I would start to play the guitar at some point.
JAG: What year was that and how old were you at the time?
GWYNN: I started trying to learn the guitar when I was about ten years old, around 1963.
JAG: Who were your influences in the beginning?
GWYNN: Probably all the country musicians my dad knew. I think seeing someone play up close is more of an influence than listening to a record. He wrote a song with a friend named Harlan Howard called Keeper of the Key, and at the time he thought the song was perfect for Elvis Presley, but couldn’t manage to get the song to him. But he was happy when it became a country hit by Wynn Stewart, and also later recorded by Carl Perkins and many others.
Many years later when the Million Dollar Quartet album came out (Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis), my dad was thrilled to hear them do his song. You can hear Elvis come in with a great harmony and at the end you hear him say, “What a pretty song, that’s a beautiful song.”
So my first influences were watching people like Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller. And when my dad could sneak me into places, I would hear great pedal steel players. I secretly listened to blues late at night on radio XERB with a little Sony transistor turned down real low and pressed against my ear so my parents wouldn’t hear it in the next room.
You would also see blues artists on certain late night TV programs. I remember Freddie King would come on a lot on channel 5 (KTLA) out of Los Angeles. We had country, blues, western swing, and rock and roll records. In the car, country music was inevitably on the radio when there wasn’t a Dodgers or Lakers game.
There used to be a lot of guitar instrumentals on the radio – whatever happened to that? I devoured The Ventures albums because it was an easy, fun way to learn how to get around on the guitar. Then, of course, I tried to learn anything I could of The Beatles. I owe George Harrison a lot in guitar lessons.
JAG: Influences later on?
GWYNN: I was already playing guitar and rehearsing every Saturday in the garage with our first band “The Knaves” when music started to become psychedelic. Somehow I could tell very early on when someone had the depth that usually comes from having strong musical roots, but then I would be waiting for the guitar player to really get out there and do something different- which didn’t seem to always happen in traditional styles.
In the first interview I read with Hendrix, when asked who he liked at the time, I was surprised when he said John Fogerty. He considered that they were on a similar trip – keeping one foot firmly rooted, while the other was free to soar with imagination.
It took me a while to understand that, and it was an idea I often considered. I remember my dad telling me that Creedence Clearwater was his favorite rock band. I had a friend in a “rival” high school band who actually did Fogerty songs pretty well (Editor’s note: that would be the writer of JAG’s “Keepin’ It Real” column – none other than Steve Soest) – I don’t think I felt confident enough at the time to simply play within my range. I was always trying to do more than I really could.
I would go see The Butterfield Blues Band every time they came to the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach. We were also all big fans of the group Spirit. They are probably my overall favorite live band of all time. The Jordan Bosstone sound of Randy California really got to me.
JAG: Tell me about your first bands.
GWYNN: Al McShane, Gerry Huerta and I started talking about being a band in the 6th grade. We went to Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Westminster, California. We started to arouse the suspicions of the nuns at recess, because instead of playing baseball, we would talk about how we had just figured out a guitar part from a Beatles song, etc. We later found out that they assumed we were talking about you know what.
At first “The Knaves” were two guitars and drums. We started with two acoustic guitars, a pair of bongos played (and destroyed) by sticks, and a cymbal held in place by a nail at the end of a toilet plunger stuck to a table. We started out doing guitar instrumentals – I think we called ourselves the Torquays for a short time until our song list became so varied that a surf name didn’t fit anymore.
We eventually had two cheap electric guitars and two Sears Silvertone amps. I think that it was in 8th grade that Galen Marquis came in playing organ with bass pedals. Later on he had a Lowrey portable organ and Wurlitzer piano, and Gerry got a Fender Precision Bass. The following year Al wanted to surf on Saturdays instead of coming to band practice, and a guy named Chuck Lenga started playing drums. (I think we maybe stole him from that rival band I mentioned before).
I remember that learning was a very slow process, but I was lucky because at Westminster High School there were older guys who knew more. Chuck Fraher (later Jason Ball) sat in with Paul Butterfield (with Mike Bloomfield) at the Golden Bear, and built his first Vox fuzz tone (the one that plugged into the amp) into his candy apple red Telecaster when he was like 16!
Larry Hanson told me that putting in new tubes and having the amp properly biased was a real important thing. Bob Deal, who later transformed into Mick Mars of Motley Crue, went to our school sometimes but I never really knew him. I remember he had a real blues feeling in his playing.
Our bass player, Gerry, showed up for band practice one day and played “Classical Gas” on the guitar note for note, and made me realize I played with a pick the whole time. We all sort of pushed each other forward in different ways.
We had shifted into more of a blues focus and I felt insecure about singing so we had a lead singer for a while named Roy Young. That’s when we became The Sweet and Sour Blues Band. Roy didn’t stay with the band too long and that was pretty much the line-up all through high school. We mixed blues with anything else we felt like exploring. At some high school sock hops we possibly weren’t the most appropriate band. We graduated in 1970.
The Sweet and Sour Blues Band
After high school, Gerry Huerta went on to study art and design (that was the end of having the coolest band card) and his brother Jack came in to replace him on bass(JAG Jack). Al McShane took up drums again and rejoined the band. Later Galen left to follow academic pursuits and Steve Soest joined us on guitar, vocals, and a bit of Wurlitzer electric piano. We became “Raincoat Harry” for maybe a year.
JAG: Tell me about some of your first guitars and amps.
GWYNN: My dad bought a Martin 000-18 in 1954, which was the guitar that was always hanging around the house. I still have it and it’s a particularly good one. When I was about 10 I got my first electric guitar. It was a Japanese two pickup “Rodeo” brand purchased at White Front along with the Sears Silvertone 1-12” amp.
After a year or so, I probably wanted a Fender, but since my dad was friends with Jimmy Bryant, he took me to the Magnatone factory and Jimmy picked out a blue metal flake Typhoon for me.
Maybe about the first year of high school I got a used Telecaster, and a Super Reverb. Since the P.A. systems then were for voices only (just barely) a Super Reverb – even though plenty loud anywhere nowadays- sometimes left you needing more in a huge high school gym. (Maybe not really needing more, but wanting more.) So I traded it and some money for a Twin Reverb. I was probably way too loud a lot of times. I would put it off to one side and tilt it back.
JAG: After that?
GWYNN: Shortly afterwards, when Eric Clapton came out on the John Mayall Blues Breaker record, I started thinking I wanted to sound like that. I didn’t realize it had so much to do with the amp. It was unthinkable to have more than one guitar and amp, so I sold the telecaster to Dan Fulweiler (later Dan Carlin) and bought a Gibson SG from Skip Hahn. Those two guys always had good bands with great vocal harmonies. Dan has come out to visit me a couple of times here in Madrid and we have arranged concerts together.
It took several years to get over my one guitar only taboo and started also playing a Fender Strat. Steve Soest traded me a better neck for it and made a little adaptor for the input jack so I could plug in the Bosstone. If Hendrix had been lucky enough to know Steve, he probably would have used a Bosstone.
I still had both the SG, Strat, and Twin when I moved up to the bay area and later Santa Cruz. I eventually sold them and for many years used two Les Paul Specials, one with 3 Seymour Duncan single coils, and the other had Hi-A (Bartolini) humbuckers. I used Music Man amps through the late 70´s, and later modified a Fender 75 amp to actually sound good.
One day, probably about 1980, I had just taken the JBL’s out of a used silver face Twin I had purchased for $250 to experiment on, and I had it in the car for some reason. I stopped at this used guitar store that was right as you came into Santa Cruz off the freeway. I don’t remember the name. I spotted an old Martin 00-15 way in the back and was just starting to ask about it when a kid came in wanting to buy a Fender Twin Reverb. I interrupted the owner as he was telling the kid he didn’t have a Twin with, “So, how about if I leave my Twin with you in exchange for that old, little, funky brown guitar without a case?” And he said yes!
That’s the guitar on the duo record with Smiling Jack Smith. It was made in 1949. I also bought a couple of used Deluxe Reverbs around that time, which is what I still use today.
JAG: What age were you when you knew that being a musician was going to be the path you would follow?
GWYNN: Well, during my second year of college several things happened. My parents divorced. With the Vietnam War under way, the draft lottery based on birth date was implemented and mine came up #1. I had been doing well in school and was finding my way but the second year I was out on my own, trying to avoid the draft, and seeing my parents come apart.
Sometime later, I went up to San Francisco with drummer and friend, Al McShane, to visit his brother Ed. Ed had written some songs and had a small studio in his home. That’s when I discovered I could actually play from inside myself without thinking and without trying to sound like someone else. It just flowed out. Up until then I think my goal was basically always to try and come as close as possible to someone else´s sound and style. So for the first time, I heard myself recorded and recognized that it was really me. I felt encouraged about the possibility of learning to play better.
The following year Al and I moved up to the bay area, and we practiced and studied and recorded a lot. I was quite emotionally drained when I got there, but it was a very inspiring time. We went to a lot of concerts, and it was there that I started listening to Indian Classical music. I saw musicians such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, & Ram Narayan every chance I could.
I had no intention of trying to play that music or any of those instruments. I was interested in understanding the concept and structure of the music, and had the perception that its depth and organization could be applied to blues and rock – which seemed to be musical forms in their adolescence compared to an Indian raga.
That time with Ed McShane had a lot to do with defining my way of playing the guitar. We listened to a lot of stuff I might have otherwise overlooked. He had me watch the PBS special about Roy Buchanan, saying something like, “He plays something like you, but only a lot better.” He took me to see Captain Beefheart. Some of the material on the two albums I later recorded came out of that period.
We had the following system for going to the Winterland concerts: Ed would drop one of us off in the afternoon to hold a place in line for hours, and when they opened the door that person would run to our predetermined area and save 3 or 4 more seats for everyone else (not as easy as it sounds) who would then stroll in at show time.
I feel really lucky to have seen literally everyone you can possibly think of from about 1965 on, first down in the L.A. area, and then later in San Francisco. I remember when we went to the Greek Theater to see CSN & Y, with Joni Mitchell as the opening act. Sitting right behind us were The Turtles and they seemed to be celebrating having signed with a new manager.
The Turtles talk about managers on this video.
Seriously, one thing I do enjoy about the internet is being able to fill in earlier impressions. I remember seeing Hendrix and The Electric Flag at the Shrine Auditorium (Feb.10, 1968) and thinking, “Oh wow, there are some of the guys from Spirit in the audience, that’s cool they like Hendrix.” Then years later I find out that Randy Wolfe was 15 years old and had been playing with Jimi James and the Blue Flames for 3 months in Greenwich Village when Hendrix was discovered and taken to London to record. Hendrix actually named him California.
In 1973, I moved down to Santa Cruz to join a band with Jon Manners, who I had met while living in San Francisco. Jon is an amazing musician, songwriter and luthier. He plays several instruments, makes his own guitars, and records his own albums. Check him out, he is the real thing.
After that, even though what I was listening to and thinking about was very different, I discovered that country bands worked. I discovered that I had a natural feeling playing that not everyone with boots, a hat and a telecaster had. So from about the mid 70´s on I was living this double life of playing with country bands at night, and during the day I was experimenting with loops and all kinds of musical ideas.
I had one of the first Electro-Harmonix 16 second delays, the Roland 301 tape echo with sound on sound, and maybe the second E-Bow ever sold.
I also had a day job for a couple of years at Harbor Hi-fi, and the repair guy named Jack Smith taught me how to work on guitar electronics.
In the shop behind our store was a guy named Howard Dumble, who modified Fenders and also made his own amps. Later on at some point he started using his other name Alexander, but I knew him as Howard. He taught me some basic concepts for getting a good tone. I think maybe he was especially friendly with me because he really liked my girlfriend at the time. He would say, “Let me make you an amp”. I think he was possibly imagining how I might sound in the future, because I was playing a squeaky clean Music Man amp with a 15″ JBL speaker at the time and his amps kind of scared me.
He had me try his amps a few times before he sent them out to his clients. What I noticed is that even though he would set it for too much of everything, compared to what I was used to, you could actually fingerpick with it like that and it sounded gorgeous – as if the proportions of attack, sustain, and decay were proportional to a great acoustic guitar – but multiplied by 100.
I had a friend, Rick Williams, who worked down at the Guitar Works in Santa Cruz. I was basically just playing on weekends, working at Harbor Hi-Fi and kind of waiting around to see what was going to happen. Rick told me that someone was remodeling a place in Soquel and they were auditioning musicians to form a country house band. I got the gig, in spite of not looking the part, and that was when I actually started playing professionally. I played 5 nights a week at O.T. Price’s Music Hall for years.
JAG: Who are some of the people you have played with along the way that have been particularly interesting to you?
GWYNN: We are talking about almost 50 years. Most of the artists I´ve worked with over the last 25 years here in Spain probably aren’t known outside the country, but a few of them are quite remarkable. Some are also really good friends, like Jaime Anglada from Palma de Mallorca. I’ve recorded his last 4 albums and recently participated in a concert