Doyle Dykes is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest fingerstyle guitarists. He’s shared the stage with Chet Atkins, Duane Eddy, Vince Gill, and Larry Carlton among others – and this September, Doyle makes a pit stop at the London Acoustic Show. Alison Richter finds out what to expect…
Quite often during interviews, there’s an instant when the subject says something – a revelation, an “a-ha” statement, a reminiscence – that brings everything to a split-second halt. With Doyle Dykes, an undisputed master of the guitar, it happens while he’s casually discussing technique. ‘I never felt that I had the facility that a lot of guys have in some ways,’ he says. Now let that sink in for a moment.
Dykes is bringing his facility to the London Acoustic Show, where he will perform and hold a masterclass. He’s no stranger to the magazine, having written a column for the publication early on. ‘I do love the acoustic guitar, and I love what the UK is doing to promote it,’ he says. ‘There are some fine young fingerstyle guitar players in England. Sometimes it seems that in England, music is still in the forefront, more than in the States, and I admire that greatly. I wish we had more of that love and passion for music and live music.’
With years of concerts and clinics to his credit, he has a keen sense of what the audience wants to hear and know, and he looks forward to the Q&A sessions. ‘I always like interacting with the audience, and I encourage them to ask questions because it’s about them more than it’s about me,’ he says. ‘Having done this for so long, I kind of know what they’re looking for. But there are a few things that I like to discuss about how I approach a song and how I use the guitar as a voice – because I’m not a great singer! I can sing, I like to do that, but when I have a guitar in my hands, I feel something very different and very special. I think it’s part of the gift, and I give credit to God for that. But there are certain ways that I approach a song that I feel lends itself more to getting the attention of people and keeping the melody upfront, rather than just playing. I’d rather focus on the song.’
In addition to performances, Dykes has new projects in the works. Firstly, fans can download the Periscope app to enjoy behind-the-scenes live footage. Secondly, there’s a free online guitar-lesson series, soon to debut. Thirdly, he is recording, as well as re-recording some previous material, for a late 2015/early 2016 release. It’s quite an undertaking, as he revisits early tracks, unreleased recordings, personal recordings, cover songs, and hymns.
He reached a milestone in June: the anniversary of his 50th year as a guitarist. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, church was the fulcrum of his life; at 11, he had what he describes as “a personal experience with God,” a pivotal moment that reshaped his destiny. A short time later, he gravitated toward the guitar – after futile efforts by his parents to encourage him to pursue an instrument. His faith has never wavered, and it remains an integral element of his music. His repertoire, wherever he performs, includes hymns alongside classic country songs, Beatles hits, and U2 medleys. ‘I don’t want to alienate myself from any place or anybody,’ he says. ‘I think people know that spiritual side of me, and I’ve never been able to separate it, so to me, that’s where it all comes from. I’ve said this at the Grand Ole Opry, at churches, and at the Cavern Club: I think it’s a gift from God. You tap into that source and it’s a wellspring. In Proverbs, it says, “When the desire comes, it is a tree of life.” A tree of life of course bears fruit, and I’ve been living off of that for a long time, I guess, but it was as desire that came through that direction in my life. So 50 years of actually being a born-again Christian and 50 years playing the guitar – that’s just all comes together for me.’
He’ll arrive in London with at least two guitars: his Olson and Kirk Sand six-string models – and possibly an Ovation 12-string. If his new Olson arrives in time, it too will also accompany him. He had signature models with Guild/Fender, but those models ‘all went away in one day,’ he says, when Fender closed the Ovation factory, where Guild guitars were also made. ‘I was recording a song called ‘New Hartford,’ where the factory was [in Connecticut], in honor of the guys who built my guitars, on the very day they closed,’ he says. ‘Ovation guitars were ahead of their time. The Ovation was the only guitar that you could plug in and be heard and it still sounded more acoustic. It was such an innovation. People still love Ovation, so when they asked if I would play some of their guitars, I told them I would help them out in hopes of at least getting the custom shop going and hiring some of those guys back. That’s exactly what they’ve done, and I’m very happy about it. Ovation was my first endorsement back in the 1980s, so I may carry one of those [to London] if I can.’
Several years ago, while he was a Taylor Guitars artist, Dykes attended a guitar show where Kirk Sand introduced him to James Olson, who expressed interest in someday building him a guitar. Through a unique set of circumstances – a fundraising event to help a pastor friend in Texas, playing an Olson that belonged to the gentleman in whose home the fundraiser was held, their mutual friendship with Olson player Phil Keaggy, a call to Keaggy and playing one of his Olsons – Dykes made the call to purchase a guitar, traveled to Minnesota, tried three models that had been built on spec, bought one, and brought it home. He was awaiting a second guitar, a cutaway, at the time of our interview, in hopes of bringing it to London as well. ‘Jim’s [James Olson] guitars are very expensive, but they’re incredible,’ he says. ‘They fill up a room when you play them. It’s amazing the sound you get. I am so honored to have a James Olson guitar. I can’t tell you how happy I am.’
‘One reason that Jim’s guitars are so consistent is that there are no voids on the neck. The neck, in a lot of ways, is the most important component. A lot of people think that it’s the wood, that it’s the top, but it all works together. If the neck’s not right, it’s not going to sound the same, and a lot of builders miss that. Jim reinforces his necks to the point where it’s like an old L5. With the stripes and different tone woods mixed in, it makes that neck so rigid. The energy comes through that, and of course the top picks it up. An acoustic guitar is a speaker. Lloyd Baggs [LR Baggs pickups] explained that to me years ago. He said, “Your signal comes down through the neck, and where the signal hits on the bridge is the diaphragm. The top is like the speaker cone, the body is like the speaker cabinet, and that’s where the energy comes down that diaphragm.” It’s amazing. I never thought about it that way before. The way that energy comes through it has a lot to do with bracing, but on an Olson, a lot of it is the neck.’
Prior to becoming a soloist, Dykes toured the world with gospel legends the Stamps Quartet (who were also backing vocalists for Elvis Presley), and Grand Ole Opry star Grandpa Jones. He shared stages with a remarkable variety of guitarists, including Vince Gill, John Fogerty, Tommy Emmanuel, Les Paul, and Chet Atkins, whom he often references with great love and admiration as a teacher, colleague, friend, and mentor.
‘I’ve never been a big showboat kind of player,’ he says, ‘but I love to hear somebody sit down and play everything they know. I think it’s great. It tells me everything they’ve been into, what they’ve worked hard to do, where they are, and where they’re coming from. The difference is in how they affect an audience and what makes their sound. If you’re going to make a living out of this, you have to be able to move and touch people, no matter what genre. It’s important that we relate to people, but when you do all these calisthenics on guitar… as my daughter said about someone when they were all over a song, it was amazing what they could do with their voice – and she’s very careful not to ever put anyone down – but she said, “Just because you can doesn’t always mean you should,” because it ruined the song. That’s what I got early on from players like Chet Atkins and Les Paul. Les was a lot more flamboyant, but when you heard his records he was still so on the melody. I heard Chet say, “I’m a sucker for a melody,” and “The melody always comes first.” I learned that from him through his playing way before I ever heard him say it. Merle Travis also – you always heard the song. It’s fun when you improvise and go in a different direction. That’s where the licks and the tricks and all those little things come in. I don’t always play a song like it was written, but the melody always comes first.’
Dykes remains close friends with Taylor Guitars co-founder Bob Taylor and credits the company with taking his career to a new level. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be as high-profile with anybody as I was with Taylor,’ he says. During those years, he was easily the highlight of winter NAMM shows. His annual performances in the company’s showroom were packed beyond capacity, with crowds gathering hours ahead and standing wall-to-wall inside when he took the stage.
As a former pastor and man of deep faith, Dykes is open about his beliefs, but his ministry goes far beyond spoken words, as his music connects with listeners on an emotional and often spiritual level, something that also surprises him.
‘Most of the time I don’t get it. I really don’t,’ he says. ‘I know what I can do on guitar, but sometimes I have to build my faith up and build myself up. There are Scriptures that I use for it, Philippians 4:13 is one of them [“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”], and I say that to myself over and over before I get up to play, but when I see the reaction and I feel something that goes way beyond me, then I know there’s something behind that. But a lot of times when I was at the Taylor booth and it would fill up, I’d think, “Why are they here?” It would make me nervous. Grandpa Jones used to say, “It’ll be all right after the first song.” It’s true. You fall into it and find yourself. I’ve always known in my heart of hearts that when people say they like you and they like your music, it’s never about me. When I would do that Taylor stuff, or Sweetwater, or Guild — I love those guys; I made a lot of friends in that world, but I never thought it was about me. It was about whoever I was representing.’
‘I always say a prayer; I’ll say, “God, help me to represent Acoustic magazine in a great way, in a proper way, let me represent you in a great way, and bless what I do and myself. Let me play well, help me to perform well, but go beyond what I can do and do something that no one expects.” It adds such excitement when you know you can play your music, and when you have a new arrangement of a song. That’s a fun thing, but when you see things happen that go way beyond yourself… I’m not saying that it happens every single time, but if I didn’t think it happened in a special way every time, then I would stay home. You’ve got to be able to touch lives and impact people and have something special, or what’s it for? Music is here for a reason. It’s like my friend [award-winning trumpet player/singer/composer/producer] Phil Driscoll said: “In that moment, at that time, when those people are there, I expect something to happen that will impact them and make a difference.” Whether it’s the excitement about continuing to play, or learning to play, or maybe they’re going through something in their life and I don’t have to say anything, but they’re touched somehow and it gives them hope. There’s always something that’s greater than the music.’
Doyle Dykes will appear at the London Acoustic Show on September 12 & 13 2015. Get your tickets here: www.londonacousticshow.com