Nashville Guitarist Daniel Donato has been making a stir on the scene as the lead guitarist of the Don Kelly band was has lead to a new Hal Leonard Release, Daniel Donato: The New Master Of The Telecaster. In this interview, Daniel talks about beginnings, influences, approaches and gear and offers some great insight and advice along the way.
Scott Collins: So let’s start at the beginning how does a born and bred New Jersey-ite make his way down to Nashville and become a country guitar player?
Daniel Donato: I got to Nashville when I was 9. My family had moved here for some odd reason…we had some family down here but I’m pretty sure they just wanted to relocate for a change. I started music when I was 12 and went through a Guitar Hero phase and with the Guitar Hero game, there was a big explosion of good classic Rock and Roll music getting to people and getting it to them in fashion that they could really take it in. So I started getting into classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Guns and Roses, Rush…I was listening to some Frank Zappa at the time, The Who, The Beatles,…bands like that. These bands have always been popular but that’s what my circle of friends and I were listening to at the time.
So I was jamming with those classic tracks (and tracks by Hendrix, the old Fleetwood Mac and groups like that). I did that on and off for about two years. When I was 14 my dad took me down to Lower Broadway in Nashville – which is right by the Ryman to see some random acts and when you go down that street it’s kind of a no-man’s land so you just go wherever you can find safe haven. We stumbled into a bar and watched an act for about 30 minutes or so. When they went to take a break, the bass player asked me if I played music because I had long hair and I did play a little music so I got up on stage with them and we played Bob Seeger’s Old Time Rock and Roll. I played on a Telecaster and I’d never played a Telecaster before and after that we played a classic Ray Price song (Ray Price is one of those iconic classic country musicians who recently passed away actually) and I remember playing that music and playing that guitar and I remember thinking that I’ll never be able to forget this experience because it just felt so perfect. It was the sound of the music and it was the sound of the guitar that was unbeatable. It was a match made in Heaven.
Not long after that I started busking on the street 7-8 hours a day with my dad so I could save up for a Telecaster. He’d never play but he’d watch me and be there to make sure no one was messing with me. I still busked after saving up and buying a Telecaster and then when I turned 16 I stated playing in the clubs. When you start playing in the clubs your name starts to get around town. There’s kind of a set group of people who come and see the same bands in the same bars every week. Your name becomes familiar downtown and it goes in a hat and you start getting around and playing different gigs here and there.
And then I found the Don Kelly band. When Johnny Highland came to town he played with that band and it was also the band Brent Mason played in when Chet Atkins came and saw him. At the time, there was a guy named J.D. Simo that played with them and J.D. had a style that was very similar to Danny Gatton and Roy Buchannan. I didn’t know about either of those players at the time and when I saw this band play – it just completely destroyed my world. It was the tightest band I’d ever seen in my life and they were giving the guitarist 1 or 2 long guitar solos per song. The guitar tone had a lot of reverb and slap back delay and it just changed my world. From that point on I knew that was what I wanted to do and that I needed to get into that band by the time I graduated high school. Having just graduated high school about a year ago, I’ve been with the band about a year.
After playing with the band, I think about 6 or 7 months, Hal Leonard contacted me and asked me if I wanted to do an instructional video. I was completely humbled by it and I thought, “what can I teach somebody” you know? But they gave me about 3 months to get everything together and sit on the idea and get really comfortable with it and then we went and recorded it in July and they were the best people I’ve ever worked with. It was just an amazing experience.
SC: What was what your process for developing your skillset on guitar?
DD: It was really a lot of persistence. I used to play 10-12 hours a day. I’d write out schedules every night before I went to bed and wake up before school to practice, I’d play at school and practice. I’d come home from school and practice. It was just relentless practice.
SC: What type of things were you practicing?
DD: I was just trying to learn everything I could. When you learn country guitar you have to try to get into a certain state of mind because it’s just a completely different musical language. So I’d go on YouTube and find videos of guys like Roy Buchannan and Danny Gatton…Roy Nichols, Don Rich and Grady Martin and I’d learn what they were playing whether it be from an interview or a solo from a record…I was just trying to learn the concepts and the state of mind they were in.
SC: How did you start integrating that into your style?
DD: A lot of it was just trial and error. I was playing about 4-5 shows a week with different bands and different genres and my goal was to always have something on my mind that I was trying to work with. So I would have write notes on little post-it notes that I’d stick behind my guitar and before I took a solo I’d look at the note and think, “How do I work this idea into the solo or this verse?” and it was really neat to be able to go through a bunch of trial and errors and see what fit. Now I guess it’s just kind of turned into my own way of playing -which I hope to God is still progressing.
SC: When you decided that the Don Kelly band was the band that you wanted to play in what were the steps that you took to go from the guy who was watching the band to the guy who got the gig?
DD: A lot of it was just going to see them. My dad and I would go down there every Saturday over the couple of years and Don. If you ever get the chance to meet Don or if you know anyone who’s met Don he’s kind of like the Drill Sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. He’s a real interesting guy and he’s got this strong Texas accent and I’d try to talk with him every week. I also did my research. I’d ask him about the old guitar players that were in his band. His band has been around since 1981 playing in and out of town so I asked him about Brent and Johnny and I started taking lessons from Johnny somewhere down the line and I let Don know about that. Joe Fick, the bass player that’s in the band now, he showed Don a YouTube video of me when they were at lunch one day (there’s a lot of videos of me up on YouTube) and Don liked it and invited me up the following week to play Working Man Blues – a classic Merle Haggard song that a lot of Telecaster guys love to play. I played it and Don liked it and asked me to start working with him.
SC: Let’s talk about the evolution of your sound. From the beginning you knew the Tele was going to be a key component of your sound but in regards to the rest of your pedal board and rig, were there specific player’s sounds that you were trying to emulate or was that also a trial and error process?
DD: It’s a bit of both. I think when you’re trying to copy anybody…maybe not copy…I’ve always been a fan of getting into (or at least trying to get into) somebody’s head. So it’s definitely been a mixture of trying to find a player I wanted to emulate and then just trial and error in terms of trying to understand their language. Some players that are huge for me are J.D. Simo, a local guy named James Mitchell that’s played on a bunch of records, Grady Martin – he played with Marty Robbins and did a lot of sessions in town, Hank Garland, Don Rich – he played with the Buckaroos, and Roy Nichols who played with Merle Haggard for many years.
SC: Let’s talk about the new DVD that’s out. You devote a lot of time to what you call “the pathways to guitar” which appears to be a triad-based approach of visualizing triads and inversions across the fretboard. How did you came up with the concept and how you utilize it in your playing?
DD: Absolutely! During the midst of the learning period where I was working and constantly practicing, my dad made a little web site for me and he put new concepts on the guitar for me to learn up there. I was asking what should I do and how should I progress and he has a great ear – he’s never been a musician professionally but he has a great ear. I asked him how to get better and he came across the idea of the CAGED system so on his website was a little quiz about CAGED and an explanation about what the CAGED system was.
When I first started learning that system it seemed so impractical. For example, you’re never ever going to play a G-shaped full 6-string chord in the Key of A – it would just be too hard to pull off. So I thought that there had to be a more practical way to go about this. When I started to examine triads and their inversions, (1st inversion, 2nd inversion etc) I saw that they repeated all over the place and served a sort of home base or a safety zone when soloing. So I started familiarizing myself with how those patterns occur on the fretboard and how I could associate them practically in my playing and my solos. I call those 3 note triads pathways….that was just the term I always used for them.
SC: In the DVD you discuss how you use triads in soloing over static tonal centers but how do you apply the approach to chord progressions?
DD: The pathways are so conveniently connected. That’s the thing about music…I never cease to be amazed by how perfectly they all connect. It’s so graceful. So how you’d use them in a chord progression is to just look at them as inversions. Let’s say we’re playing a I IV V in in the key of A [A, D, E7]. In a first inversion A triad is basically the root note is 1 fret away from your IV chord. A second inversion E triad is only 2-3 frets away from that IV chord. And then an E triad, that’s not inverted at all just a root position, is right near that D chord as well. Everything is really close to each other.
SC: It sounds like you’re using the pathways as a visualization tool in soloing and integrating triads as foundational and transitional material with licks that you’re already targeting for use.
DD: Yeah exactly. You almost see the notes after doing it for so many hours. You really start to see where all the triads are and where all the notes lie. So you use those notes in relation to the triads you’re already familiar with.
SC: How do you approach rhythm guitar?
DD: Rhythm guitar has always been a struggle for me. It’s something I never felt like I really got from the get-go. I still haven’t cracked it and it’s something I practice with a very basic state of mind. I still find myself strumming along to songs just to make sure that everything is good and ready to go for gigs. I approach rhythm guitar a lot like the way Johnny Highland would when it comes to the specific style of Telecaster that I’d like to play – very flashy. It’s not very basic. We play a lot of songs with dominant chords, there are a lot of dominant 7sus4 type chords, so I try to incorporate a lot of double stops and open strings in almost a percussive state of mind. That’s thing about country guitar though is you can use odd timing and do weird fills with your rhythm that works or you can apply individual notes to it. You can do like weird stopping or grips of notes that works but also has note content at the same time. I’d have to say I don’t approach it in a typically manner at all. I still think of it like I’m still soloing when I playing rhythm.
SC: Do you approach playing acoustic guitar any differently than electric?
DD: With acoustic guitar I’m much more laid back. I’m a big fan of a lot of bluegrass musicians. I love Bill Monroe Bill Skruggs and Lester Flatt, Tony Rice, Clarence White and all those guys. I try to combine that state of mind with an acoustic approach. So I have to say the way I approach acoustic and electric the same way – it’s just different influences.
SC: Let’s talk about your signal chain. I know you have a small board and a larger one. What are the differences between the two?
DD: The smaller board that’s in the video is not something I’ve used over the last couple of months. The board I use in town that I’m basically using every night of the week – it’s a board built by Westcoast Pedalboards.
Signal chain: Custom shop Tele > Lava and Planet Waves cables > Peterson Stomp Classic Strobe Tuner > Wampler Ego Compressor > Way Huge Pork Loin > Electro Harmonix Soul Food > MXR Echoplex Preamp to a Mooer Ana Echo to a Hardwire DL-8 >1967 Fender Pro Reverb with Weber Speakers. I also use an EP-3 Echoplex most nights!
SC: What’s different about the custom Telecaster you’re using right from a standard model?
DD: I’m proud and humbled to be endorsed by Fender which was a goal of mine when I first became aware of what the Telecaster really was. Fender sent me a couple of guitars like a road worn Tele and a ‘52 reissue, to play on and off while we finalized the endorsement. I didn’t want a guitar that wasn’t something that I wasn’t completely in love with so we decided a custom shop guitar that would be something I could bring home and play every day.
The guitar I have now is a sea foam green rosewood neck Tele. It’s pretty much stock. For the bridge I used a Glendale bridge. Glendale makes great old style cold rolled steel reproductions of what Leo Fender used to do at Fender. They have double cut walls. With any Telecaster the walls of the bridges are kind of high and it makes it hard to do effective muting. So what Danny Gatton did in the day was cut one of those walls down on his bridges to help with that. Glendale cuts down both walls which gives you great muting.
The only other thing I really changed are the pickups. The front pickup is something Seymour Duncan made for me. He got in touch with me right after I got my guitar, and he wanted to know what kind of pickups I wanted and he said he wanted me to play his pickups and I was completely humbled that he’s ask me and he sent me a set of pickups that was kind of between Brent Mason and Don Rich. There’s a 5 way selector for 2 pickups. The way the pickups are configured is that the first 3 positions are what you’d find on a standard Tele and the 4th position is a mixture of the neck and a (coil) tapped bridge and in the last positon it’s a fully tapped bridge by itself. It’s a really great sound and I love it.
SC: It sounds like you get a lot of tonal diversity from it as well.
DD: You do man! You really do and those old Fender amps…that all they allow because they’re really a blank canvas. They don’t add much that you’re not asking for. A lot of other amps I’ve tried add a lot of compression and a lot of other nonsense that I’m really not looking for.
SC: Let’s go back to the video. When you were approached about doing the video how did you prepare for it?
DD: I had asked a lot of people that I knew in town that had done videos like that before. Steve Krenz has a Master Guitar course and I went to school with his son right up until the day we graduated so I talked to him a lot about how I would go about filming and go into some details of that. Also a guy named Sol Philcox has several instructional videos out and also Doug Seven. When I first started country guitar, Doug Seven had put me on his student’s page and he put links to his student’s stuff there because he wants to help people. I sat down with these guys and I asked them what I should do and they all had the same answer which was to just show what I would have wanted to learn in the past couple of years. I talked to Doug and he gave me the same answer, “Just teach what you would have wanted to learn.
I sat down and looked over the material that I had and I realized that most of the material that’s taught in other videos isn’t the way I would have wanted to been taught so what I tried to show in the video was a practical concept that could be applied to any musical scenario for electric guitar to be appropriate.
SC: What types of things are you practicing these days?
DD: I’ve recently become a big fan of applying other instrument’s concepts to your own instrument. A lot of guitar players using this approach typically start with horn players. Clint Strong, for example, is all about transposing horn lines and applying them to guitar. I thought it would be a cool idea to use the same approach with mandolin lines so I’ve been learning a lot of mandolin solos on guitar. I love the way those players move across the neck. They incorporate a lot of notes that guitar players normally wouldn’t. These days, I listen to a lot of Bob Willis, Bill Monroe and Chris Thile. I’m also a huge fan of Jerry Garcia. I’m always learning some random Jerry Garcia solo.
SC: What advise do you have for people who want to break into the Nashville music scene?
DD: Be as social and as friendly as you can. I think that’s the biggest thing in Nashville. It’s who you know. That’s true in ANY scene in Nashville – whether you want to be a barista in a coffee bar of a musician down on Broadway or in the studio, it’s all about who you know and how easy you are to work with. It’s a guaranteed fact there’s probably somebody better than you right down the street so it’s all about how nice you are and how easy you are to work with people.
SC: So other than playing in the Don Kelly Band what else is on tap for 2014?
DD: I’d love to get a cool instrumental record out. I have a lot of ideas that are cool for me and that I think would be cool on an instrumental record. I’m also in a band called The Night Owls with my friend Harrison Whitford. We played Crossroads together last year and we’re trying to do a few more festivals together. We’re trying to get a record out this year it’s kind of a mixture of old country music with Folk music. There’s a lot of guitar in it and a lot of content in terms of lyrics.
SC: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring players right now who want to play music full time?
DD: I would say don’t be afraid to be yourself. Be as friendly as you can to people. Work with as many people as you can. Always put your own mark on things and do it with conviction. You should really own what you like. If you want to play your own idea in a solo – own it, be proud of it and don’t be afraid to be different. That’s really what it’s about now.
Daniel’s Hall Leonard Release, The New Master of The Telecaster is available now. Full information can be found at the Hall Leonard website. More information about Daniel can be found on his website – DanielDonato.com.