Discovering The Fingerstyle Guitar Of Davey Graham

David Michael Gordon “Davey” Graham came into our world in 1940. It is hard to imagine that it was 1940 because his music was and still has a timeless quality to it. I was introduced to him by my good friend Raymond Morin and my guitar life, like many others, has not been quite the same since. If this is your first time learning about this wonderful musician and his work with fingerstlye guitar, then consider yourself no longer ignorant.

Before Fingerstyle Guitar Fame

Dave (he actually preferred this to Davey), a Brit, was one of the most influential guitar figures in the 1960s British folk revival. He inspired many famous practitioners of the fingerstyle acoustic guitar such as Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, John Martyn, Paul Simon and Jimmy Page, who based his solo “White Summer” on Graham’s “She Moved Through the Fair”.  But before any of this occurred, he began his journey with the harmonica in a way that reminds me of another godfather of guitar, Doc Watson.

“I started playing harmonica as a child, and then a little piano although I never studied formally. I found I could remember almost anything that I had heard.¹” Though Doc never played piano, this idea of beginning a musical journey with just the melody and a simple instrument is always intriguing to me. Dave later studied classical guitar with Oliver Hunt. But what I find fascinating about Dave is that he was always exploring and experimenting. It led him away from classical guitar to just about any style and culture of music that he could find. This is evident from his teenage years where he was strongly influenced by the folk guitar player Steve Benbow, who had travelled widely with the army and played a guitar style influenced by Moroccan music.

Exploring And Learning Came Before Success

Dave developed a large following but that was never his intent. In the same interview referenced above Dave makes these statements.

"I never wanted to have a following. I was never interested in the big time, just to be good at what I was doing. I found that studying languages and music was the same thing. One should always learn another language, to release yourself from thought patterns in your own language. Speaking English, which is a forest of metaphor, is to some extent a mixed blessing. Every time you breathe out, some of your thoughts pass into the void where they’re picked up on by those around you. Those thoughts aren’t always understood when you’re in another country.¹"

Dave was doing what we as humans are supposed to do. Explore, master something to the point that it has meaning for you, and then move on to explore and master something else.  [On a side note, if you are interested in this idea of mastering check out the book Micromastery: Learn Small, Learn Fast, and Unlock Your Potential to Achieve Anything by Robert Twigger.] I like the idea of encouraging people to not just read and listen to stories, but in his words, “go to some of the places I’ve been and find out for themselves.¹” From all I’ve read, I believe Dave lived by this kind of thinking his entire life.

Anji And DADGAD Tuning

Dave is probably best known for his acoustic instrumental, “Anji” and for popularizing DADGAD tuning, which has been widely adopted by acoustic guitarists. Apparently the new tuning was from his desire to play traditional Morrocan oud music on his instrument as close to the original as possible.² To realize the importance of this tuning, here are the words of a Davey Graham influenced guitarist John Renbourn:

"If Davy had done little else except become the inventor of DADGAD, his immorality would still be assured. It quickly became virtually the standard tuning for the accompaniment of traditional material, and has spawned a host of variants - altered tuning of the types which have lead to a distinct branch of contemporary finger style playing, culminating in the work of such players as Pierre Bensusan, Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges - players who have taken the steel string guitar into wonderful new areas while being lumped together under the New Age banner, a welcome development clearly traceable back in concept to Davy’s early guitar work.³"

Concerning his smash hit Anji, which has been recorded by many and  a right of passage by almost every steel string fingerstyle player, Dave had this to say:

"A medley of a hit is always a bit of a bore, but it’s a little bit upsetting to be thought of in no other connection. As soon as you define something you’ve really said that it has no right to be anything other than what you define it as. I felt some of my twenty other compositions deserved more attention, perhaps ’20 Ton Parachute’ or ‘Tristiana’. The inspiration for ‘Angie’ passed away about three weeks ago by the way, which is a bit sad.¹"

After quite a long journey through life Dave continued to contribute to so much more than just music. Yes, he recorded over 20 albums but I think it is important that he was much more than that. I believe that the “much more” contributed just as much to the music he created. He became a very active in mental health through the organization Mind. He had experience and seen many of his friends and colleagues go down a path without the help they needed and wanted to be a participant in making a change of his own. He could also speak and studied many languages including Gaelic, French, Greek, and Turkish.

Where To Begin With Davey Graham

To enter into the world of Davey Graham I want to suggest the album The Compete Guitarist. There is such breadth and life and variety in the work displayed that you may get a since of the largeness of Dave’s musical thoughts. Here is a review from Alex Henderson on the recording.

"To those who are unfamiliar with Davey Graham’s work, The Complete Guitarist might seem like a lofty title for this album. But it’s a title that the Scottish musician, who has commanded a lot of respect in U.K. folk circles since emerging in the 1960s, lives up to on these unaccompanied acoustic solo-guitar recordings from the late 1970s. Diversity is the rule on this album, and Graham successfully turns his attention to an abundance of traditional Celtic songs (both Scottish and Irish) as well as everything from Bach’s “Ein Feste Burg” to blues classics like Big Bill Broonzy’s “When I Been Drinking” and Memphis Slim’s “How Come You Do Me Like You Do.” Whether it’s Celtic music, classical, blues, or jazz, Graham has no problem tackling a variety of styles and demonstrating that he really is the complete guitarist. Originally released as a vinyl LP in the late 1970s, The Complete Guitarist was, in 1999, reissued on CD with eight bonus tracks from 1979-1980 added.⁴"

Davey Graham was a treasure given to the guitar community and the music world at large. Though my words do not do much justice to his memory, I hope you will take the time to listen and absorb the music and spirit of Davey Graham at some point in your own journey.

  1. Interview Nick Saloman / Phil McMullen, (c) Terrascope 1991

  2. Irwin, Colin (16 June 2011). “Davey Graham invents DAGDAD”. The Guardian. London.

  3. Article “Who is Davy (Davey) Graham - Folk Blues & Beyond” John Renbourn (Booklet from All That Moody © Rollercoaster Records.)

  4. AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson