Oh, please stay just a little bit more

There’s an important truth about the famous singer-songwriters whose names have appeared on the charts and theater marquises over the years: By and large, their music was made much more interesting and dynamic because of the contributions of incredibly talented session musicians and touring sidemen.

To the public at large, even to many music lovers, these superb instrumentalists are mostly anonymous. Their peers in the music business know who they are — these unsung heroes who play guitars, fiddles, saxes, keyboards and percussion to fill out the arrangements of songs written by the main recording artist — but the majority of the listening audience doesn’t have a clue and probably doesn’t much care.

So the passing of the extraordinarily gifted David Lindley earlier this month most likely went unnoticed by casual music fans, even those who have enjoyed his playing without knowing who he was.

Take my word for it: If you loved the music of the acts coming out of Laurel Canyon and greater Los Angeles in the 1970s, you most definitely have heard Lindley’s work. Best known for his many appearances on records and on tour with Jackson Browne, Lindley was also an important collaborator with Graham Nash, David Crosby, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon and a few dozen other major and minor artists in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.

Because I’m an aficionado (read: music trivia nerd) who absorbs all sorts of information about the albums I’ve bought and the artists I’ve seen in concert, I’m one of the exceptions to the rule. I’ve been aware of Lindley’s name since at least 1972 when it appeared on the credits of Browne’s debut LP, and I’ve made note of his musical contributions ever since. He was a master of so many stringed instruments, most notably lap steel guitar, fiddle and mandolin, and the accompaniment he provided was essential to countless classic tracks.

Take a moment and peruse this list:

Nine Browne LPs: “Saturate Before Using” (1972), “For Everyman” (1973), “Late For the Sky” (1974), “The Pretender (1976), “Running on Empty” (1977), “Hold Out” (1980), “Lives in the Balance (1986), “World in Motion” (1989), “I’m Alive” (1993) and “Looking East” (1996)

Five Zevon albums: “Warren Zevon” (1976), “Sentimental Hygiene” (1987), “Transverse City” (1989), “Mutineer” (1994) and “The Wind” (2003)

Ronstadt’s “Heart Like A Wheel” (1974), “Prisoner in Disguise” (1975) and “Simple Dreams” (1977)

Three Nash solo LPs: “Songs For Beginners” (1971), “Wild Tales” (1973) and “Earth and Sky” (1980)

Ry Cooder’s “Jazz” (1978) and “Bop ‘Til You Drop” (1979)

Crosby & Nash’s “Wind On the Water” (1975) and “Whistling Down the Wire” (1976)

Shawn Colvin’s “Fat City” (1992)

James Taylor’s “In the Pocket” (1976)

Maria Muldaur’s 1973 debut

Karla Bonoff’s “Restless Nights” (1979)

Various LPs by America, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, John Prine, Marshall Crenshaw, Emmylou Harris, Joe Walsh and Leo Sayer

The guy seemed to be everywhere, largely in a subtle, understated way, providing sweet lap steel guitar passages, lovely fiddle phrasings and distinctive slide guitar solos. That’s the important characteristic of the very best session musicians: They play TO the song and the arrangement, bringing just the right amount of finesse that the track required, no more and no less.

One reason certain musicians are in such high demand for recording sessions is they have shown time and time again that they are reliably proficient at their instrument and how to provide just the right atmosphere and the combination of notes, sustains and rests. In L.A. in the ’70s, if you wanted fiddle in the mix, your first call was to Lindley. Mandolin? Lindley again. Slide guitar? Lap steel guitar? Plain ol’ acoustic guitar? You just never went wrong when Lindley was in your studio.

Perhaps his most recognizable bit was the slide guitar that was prominently featured on Browne’s 1977 Top Ten tune “Running on Empty” and made it such an enduring hit, capturing both the exhilaration and exhaustion of life on the road. Lindley also had his moment of comic relief on that album and tour when he sang the exaggerated falsetto in the middle of Browne’s cover of the 1962 chestnut “Stay.”

My favorite Lindley contribution came in “For a Dancer,” Browne’s heartbreaking 1974 tearjerker about a friend who had died. Lindley’s fiddle part throughout tugs at the listener’s heartstrings in such an integral way that it’s near impossible to imagine the song without it. Go back five years earlier to The Youngbloods’ intense “Darkness, Darkness” and you’ll hear a young Lindley’s fiddle adding just the right mystical touch to that song, later re-recorded by its composer, Jesse Colin Young.

Even Bruce Springsteen made use of Lindley’s talents, although it took a long time for us to hear it. That’s his fiddle gracing the alternate take of “Racing in the Streets,” found on the 2010 package “The Promise,” a track originally from Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” LP.

So where did this instrumental wunderkind come from? Lindley was born and raised in San Marino, an LA suburb near Pasadena, the son of a music enthusiast who exposed him to a broad range of musical genres and instruments through an extensive record collection. Korean folk music, Indian sitar albums, West Virginia bluegrass, Greek bouzouki, Bakersfield country music — all of it and more made an impact on Lindley from a young age. He was only four when he started playing violin, then ukulele by six, guitar at eight and banjo at 11.

He was a voracious student of the musical styles and techniques he was hearing and sought to emulate them on a wide array of stringed instruments. “I even opened up the upright piano in the playhouse out in back of my parents’ house to get at the strings and see how they worked,” he recalled in a 2008 interview. He said he had no idea how many different instruments he could play, but a photo taken for Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2000 (see below) gives a pretty good indication. From dulcimer to autoharp, from the Middle Eastern our to the Turkish saz, Lindley could coax amazing sounds from them all.

David Lindley and his collection of instruments

As a teen, he won the Topanga Canyon Banjo/Fiddle Contest five straight years, and often frequented the Ash Grove and Troubadour clubs to hear some of the more eclectic genres not necessarily in vogue on the radio. It was there that he formed a bond with Ry Cooder, who shared his love for folk and roots music.

Lindley soon partnered with Chris Darrow and others to form a band called Kaleidoscope that offered “psychedelic folk,” and although their albums barely charted, they were favorites of such major influencers as Jimmy Page (who called them “my ideal band, absolutely brilliant”) and San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue. At the bottom of this piece, I’ve included a handful of Kaleidoscope tracks in a diverse Spotify playlist that chronicles Lindley’s recorded legacy.

Following that project, Lindley spent a couple of years in England playing with guitarist/singer Terry Reid before returning to L.A., where he became fast friends with Browne just as his star was beginning to rise. His work on Browne’s records (check out the slide guitar on “The Fuse” from 1976’s “The Pretender”) attracted the attention of Nash, Crosby, Ronstadt, Taylor and others.

Lindley left Browne’s band after the 1980 “Hold Out” tour, largely because Browne encouraged him to branch out. “I thought he should be appreciated in his own right,” said Browne in 2010, “but there were times when I thought it was the craziest and stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”

Lindley’s 1981 LP “El Rayo-X”

In 1981, Lindley’s one brush with commercial success came with his solo debut, “El Rayo-X,” one of the most eccentric and wildly disparate albums of its time. With the help of seasoned players like Bill Payne, Garth Hudson and Bob Glaub, and Browne adding some vocals, Lindley offered up funk, snarling blues, vintage rock & roll, Cajun, Zydeco, reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms, and it reached a modest #81 on the US album charts.

For a guy who found himself in the vortex of Southern California hedonistic excess, Lindley kept all of that at arm’s length. On tour, when most of the band and entourage were partying hard at after-show gatherings, Lindley tended to retreat to his hotel room with an instrument or two, always looking for new ways to inject life into a song. “There are all sorts of variations,” he once said. “Some fans don’t get it. They say, ‘What you do is so good — why don’t you guys just keep playing like that?’ But when I see that exotic cheesecake in the glass case, I think, ‘I want to try that. It looks really good.’ I’m always looking to experiment with new sounds, new ways of playing things.”

In the wake of Lindley’s passing March 3rd at age 78, a number of his compatriots emerged with words of praise. “One of the most talented musicians I’ve ever known,” Graham Nash wrote. “David could play pretty much any instrument you put in front of him with incredible versatility and expression. He was truly a musician’s musician.”

“Lindley’s unique sound and style,” said guitarist Peter Frampton, “gave him away in one note.”

Warren Haynes, who played guitar for The Allman Brothers Band from 1989 to 2014, had this to say: “His lap steel playing in particular was a big influence on me. Often times when I’m approaching a song or solo in a major key, Lindley’s influence will appear automatically. His style was so vocalesque, and his sense of melody was a deep well. His solos became part of the song to the point where even non-musicians could hum along.”

R.I.P., Mr. Lindley. Your contributions have not gone unnoticed by your peers (nor by me and those who read this blog)…


He could play guitar just like ringin’ a bell

“This old guitar ain’t mine to keep,
Just taking care of it now,
It’s been around for years and years,
Just waiting in its old case,
It’s been up and down the country roads,
It’s brought a tear and a smile,
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style,
The more I play it, the better it sounds,
It cries when I leave it alone,
Silently it waits for me,
Or someone else I suppose…”

Neil Young wrote these heartfelt lyrics in 2005 for his excellent “Prairie Wind” LP after a brush with death from a brain aneurysm and complications from neurological surgery. The experience humbled him and had a profound effect on the songs he wrote next, particularly this one about how he cherishes his guitar but acknowledges he is only its caretaker for a while.

A number of famous guitarists have had such a symbiotic relationship with their chosen instruments that they have given them nicknames. B. B. King famously named his Gibson guitar “Lucille” after rescuing it from a fire in a club that had been started by two men fighting over a woman named Lucille. Eddie Van Halen came up with the guitar he called “Frankenstrat” by combining a Gibson sound with a Fender appearance and painting it red with black and white stripes. Willie Nelson’s acoustic guitar “Trigger” has been played for so long it has holes where the pick guard is supposed to be.

From rock music’s beginnings, the guitar has been the primary instrument, and the guitarist has been the focal point, so it’s not surprising that songwriters would eventually be composing songs about playing the guitar. I’ve gathered a dozen representative tunes that sing the praises of the guitar/guitarist bond, and you can hear them on the Spotify playlist at the end. (I would’ve most certainly included Young’s “This Old Guitar” among them, but he refuses to allow his music to be played via Spotify.)

As a guitar player myself, I’ve memorized most of these tracks, but a few I have only recently come to know. I can say this without reservation: If you’ve ever thought about learning to play guitar, I wholeheartedly recommend it!


“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Beatles, 1968

Any list of guitar-related songs has to start with this magnificent piece, perhaps the finest track on the band’s legendary “White Album.” When Harrison demo’ed it for the others, they showed an appalling lack of interest in it, so he took the unprecedented step of inviting his friend Eric Clapton to join the session at which it would be recorded, which put the others on their best behavior and resulted in an inspired studio effort from everyone present. Two other renditions of the song are worth mentioning here and are included on the Spotify playlist. On Carlos Santana’s 2010 LP “Guitar Heaven,” he collaborated with singer India Arie and cellist Yo-Yo Ma on a superb treatment. Even more impressive was when Tom Petty teamed up with Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Dhani Harrison at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in a tribute to Harrison in 2004, where Prince dropped jaws around the world with a guitar-shredding performance at the end.

“Guitar Man,” Elvis Presley, 1967

This infectious tune was written and originally released in 1967 by Jerry Reed, a then-new country artist who later had a few successful crossover hits (“Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”).  His version stalled at #53 on country charts, but when Elvis Presley took a stab at it (with Reed brought in to handle guitar duties), his rendition made it to #43 on the US pop charts.  Three years after Presley’s death, the song was remixed and re-released in 1980, reaching #16 on pop charts and #1 on country charts.  Its lyrics tell the story of an aspiring guitar player who tries in Memphis and other cities to find gigs, but without much luck until he reaches Mobile, Alabama and becomes the frontman for a popular local band.

“Me and My Guitar,” James Taylor, 1974

Since his debut, Taylor positioned himself as a singer-songwriter and acoustic guitar picker, with many of his early classics offering lyrics that reference his love for singing and playing.  This was perhaps never more evident than in “Me and My Guitar,” a whimsical track from his overlooked 1974 LP, “Walking Man.”  The song describes the intertwined relationship between the man and his instrument:  “Me and my guitar. always in the same mood, /I am mostly flesh and bones and he is mostly wood…  Any fool can easily see that we go back a long time, /Feel something like fine to me, there’s no such thing as the wrong time, /He hops up on my knee, singing, ‘Get down, Pops, it’s song time’…”

“Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar,” Frank Zappa, 1981

As the iconoclastic leader of The Mothers of Invention and on his own, Zappa was about as prolific as anyone during his 30-year career (1966-1993), writing bizarrely original music and lyrics that brutally satirized American culture.  Often overlooked through it all was Zappa’s proficiency on electric guitar, on which he performed with improvisational virtuosity.  In particular, there’s “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar,” a three-LP set from 1981 that compiled many solos and guitar instrumentals taken mostly from live performances.  The title track is indicative of what you’ll find throughout the box set.  Said critic Sean Westergaard in 2010, “Zappa was one of the finest and most under-appreciated guitarists around, and this is album that should be heard by anyone who’s into serious guitar playing.”

“The Guitar Man,” Bread, 1972

David Gates, chief songwriter for the 1970s group Bread, came up with this wistful, dreamy song about the lonely nature of the guy who is compelled to get up on stage and perform on guitar every night.  Most of Gates’s hit songs are wispy ballads (“If,” “Diary,” “Everything I Own”), but “The Guitar Man” is dominated by a wah-wah guitar part (played by keyboardist Larry Knechtel) and uses the sound effects of an adoring crowd.  The lyrics paint a riveting picture:  “Who’s gonna steal the show, you know, baby, it’s the guitar man, /He can make you love, he can make you cry, /He will bring you down and he’ll get you high, /Something keeps him going miles and miles a day to find another place to play…”  It reached #11 on US pop charts in 1972 (#6 in Canada and #16 in UK).

“Guitar Boogie,” Chuck Berry, 1958

Known quite accurately as “the father of rock and roll,” Berry took rhythm and blues music, and refined and developed them into the major elements that defined the new genre, exemplified in iconic tracks like “Maybellene,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Each of these is anchored by original guitar riffs that are forever identified with Berry and have been copied endlessly ever since. Less well known, perhaps because of the absence of lyrics, is a deeper album track called “Guitar Boogie,” a blistering instrumental that features Berry’s guitar work as prominently as any piece he ever recorded. Even without lyrics, the track seems to show how much the man and the instrument work together to make magic.

“They Call Me Guitar Hurricane,” Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1980

Vaughan was the younger brother of guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who had founded The Fabulous Thunderbirds in the early 1980s.  Stevie Ray Vaughan came up through the same Austin, Texas blues scene, and ended up being even more highly regarded than his older brother.  His career was cut short when he died in a helicopter crash in 1990 at age 35.  Some of his earliest live recordings were unearthed and released posthumously on the 1992 album “In the Beginning.” One of the best tracks found there is this whirlwind guitar workout, in which his reputation as a guitar virtuoso precedes him:  “Yeah, they call me hurricane, and I’ve come to play in your town, /Yeah, they call me hurricane, and I’ve come to play in your town, /If I can’t play this guitar, I’m sure gonna drive to your town…”

“This Old Guitar,” John Denver, 1974

During his impressive run from the late ’60s well into the 1990s, Denver wrote and recorded more than 200 songs, performing primarily with an acoustic guitar as he sang about his love of nature and his enthusiasm for music. On his #1 album “Back Home Again” in 1974, Denver condensed his raison d’être into the lyrics for “This Old Guitar,” in which he thanked his instrument for bringing him the good things in life, including his success he had as a performing artist and songwriter: “This old guitar taught me to sing a love song, /It showed me how to laugh and how to cry, /It introduced me to some friends of mine and brightened up some days, /It helped me make it through some lonely nights, /What a friend to have on a cold and lonely night…”

“Guitar Man,” J. J. Cale, 1996

Although he shunned the limelight, Cale is mentioned by numerous guitarists as a major influence on their style. He is one of the originators of the “Tulsa Sound,” a loose genre the draws on blues, rockabilly, country and jazz, and has written classics like “After Midnight,” “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine.” In 1996, the title track of his “Guitar Man” LP touched on the mystery of his art: “Your fingers move so swiftly across those silver strings, /It looks so nice and easy, how you make it sing, /Guitar man, tell me what your secret is, /Tell me please, can you put my mind at ease, /Guitar man, in a guitar jam, playing low, playing slow, /Playing loud, working the crowd, /Playing high, you seem to fly… (Hey man, have you seen my Stratocaster? Hand me that Gibson over there, will you? /Let my try your Martin, man, do you mind? /Plug it in that Marshall, turn it up a little bit louder!…)”

“Me and My Guitar,” Batdorf and Rodney, 1971

Singer-songwriter John Batdorf was only 19 when he took a batch of delightful acoustic-based originals, teamed up with guitarist Mark Rodney and released what, to me, was one of the finest LPs of that era, 1971’s “Off the Shelf.”  I’ve raved about this album many times on this blog, but I may not have focused before on this particular song, which has no relation to James Taylor’s tune of the same name (mentioned above).  In Batdorf’s song, he talks about how much he relies on his guitar to bring him the success in the music business he’s striving for:  “Oh, me and my guitar, keep our wheels a-turning, /Trying hard to find the perfect style….  /I play all day and sing the song that I wrote yesterday, /Hoping it will be the one that gets me on my way, /How long will it take?  How soon will it break?…”

“This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying),” George Harrison, 1975

Harrison’s post-Beatles solo debut LP, “All Things Must Pass,” was such an unqualified success that everything released afterwards seemed to be a comedown.  In particular, when he toured in 1974 in support of his ho-hum “Dark Horse” album, reviews were not kind, which soured Harrison on the music business for years to come.  One of the first songs he wrote in the aftermath of that episode was this moving track from his 1975 LP, “Extra Texture.”  Modeled somewhat after his stellar Beatles song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” this tune made it clear that his feelings were hurt by the criticism:  “This here guitar can feel quite sad, /Can be high strung, sometimes get mad, /Can’t understand or deal with hate, /Responds much better to love, /I thought by now you knew the score, /But you missed the point, just like before, /And this guitar can’t keep from crying…”

“Just Playing My Axe,” Buddy Guy, 1968; “Born to Play Guitar,” Buddy Guy, 2015

At 86 and still going strong, Guy has been cranking out Chicago blues since the late 1950s, inspiring generations of guitarists ever since. On his second LP in 1968, he recorded a tune called “Just Playing My Axe” that succinctly summed up his mission and his passion in just three lines: “I just wanna play my axe, /Let me play my axe one time, /Let me play my axe again.” Then he shut up and did exactly that. Nearly 50 years later, his song “Born to Play Guitar” offered a more detailed perspective on his life’s work: “I got a reputation, everybody knows my name, /I was born to play my guitar, I got the blues running through my veins, /I got six strings loaded on my bad machine, /Show me the money and I’ll make this damn thing scream, /I’m gonna keep on playing, and on my dying day, a polka-dot guitar will be resting on my grave…”


Honorable mention:

Play Guitar,” John Mellencamp, 1983; “Somebody Stole My Guitar,” Deep Purple, 1996; “Little Guitars,” Van Halen, 1982; “Scars on This Guitar,” Bon Jovi, 2018; “Guitar Boogie,” Tommy Emmanuel, 2010; “Close But No Guitar,” Toby Keith, 2018; “This Guitar,” Def Leppard with Alison Krauss, 2022; “Driving Guitars,” The Ventures, 1962.