by Jane Roser
“Everyone’s got their own character, and that’s the thing that’s amazed me about guitar playing since the day I first picked it up. Everyone’s approach to what can come out of six strings is different from another person, but it’s all valid.”
When I read that quote by Jimmy Page, it just gave more validation to Nashville musician Daniel Donato’s inspiring and easy-to-follow teaching style on his newly released DVD and accompanying instructional book “Daniel Donato The New Master Of The Telecaster: Pathways To Dynamic Solos.” Showcasing two jam sessions with a full band which form as bookends to his hour long guitar lessons, Donato teaches his unique approach to playing pathways, chromatic notes, double stops (which “add that spankin’ twang”) and bends. Donato stresses the importance of incorporating these concepts into your own style and adapting them; mixing and mastering to make them your own.
It’s a fun and nifty new way to add flair to your playing and Donato’s obvious passion and mastery of his art can turn anyone with a basic knowledge of the instrument into the next B.B. King. Or at least beat your cousin at Guitar Hero after Thanksgiving dinner. “I wanted it to be really personalized,” explains Donato, “I didn’t want it to be like country guitar 101 and I’m so proud of it.”
Moving from New Jersey to Nashville when he was nine, the now nineteen year old is the youngest guitarist to ever play with the popular Don Kelley Band. They perform four nights a week at Robert’s Western World on Lower Broadway for tourists and locals, as well as rock and country superstars who come to Robert’s specifically because they’ve heard of Donato and want to see him in action.
“I’d only been playing guitar for six or seven months,” recalls Donato, “we had family in town, so we took them down to Broadway. We were only in [Robert’s] for a minute because it was so packed, but I’ll never forget it. The guitar player (J.D. Simo, formerly with the Don Kelley Band) was literally terrifying (in a good way). It was one of the first live show experiences that changed me forever.”
Donato briefly took lessons from Johnny Hiland, but is mostly self-taught, explaining that he learns best that way. When he was 14, Donato packed up his acoustic guitar every Saturday and his dad would take him downtown where Donato would sit in with a street band playing for tips so that he could eventually buy his own Telecaster.
“I did that for two or three years consistently,” says Donato, “and people started recognizing me. Word got around about this young guitar player who could play country and play it fast. Every Saturday my dad and I would go see Don’s band and I learned every one of their songs-and there’s like, 75 songs. When the time came that J.D. was ready to leave, Don gave me a shot at the slot. I guess he liked what I did and it’s been great ever since. I’ve been very fortunate”
Don Kelley is known for finding the best players in town and they’ve all gone on to win Grammy awards or be hired by stars such as Patty Loveless. Vince Gill and Brad Paisley stop by to check out the current line up and Merle Haggard is a fan. Earlier this year, The Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett stopped by Robert’s while he was in town recording with Zac Brown.
“Chris is a huge fan of old style/traditional country guitar,” says Donato, “we ended up hanging out and playing together at the studio for awhile, then he invited me to their show at the Ryman. That show was just amazing, I’ll never forget it. Another musician I really respect who has come into Robert’s is Jason Isbell. It’s so surreal because these [artists] seem to know who I am before I even talk to them. They’re always extremely nice and generous; they’re everything you’d want in a hero.”
Donato, of course, has his favorite tunes he loves to play. “The Grateful Dead, The Eagles, The Allman Brothers…really anything that I find I can get lost in. All of the hobbies we have, they’re all just a medium for us to be in the moment. I have a friend who goes bird watching and he’s so in the moment when he’s watching a bird; now, I could never be in the moment watching birds,” he laughs, “I don’t find that very entertaining.”
But, Donato encourages people to follow their passion, no matter what it may be. His advice for beginner guitarists? “Do everything from your own compass, don’t let any outside influences determine your decisions, whether that be the venues you play, what you record, what you write…don’t set limitations and do everything with a good purpose.”
That kind of dedication and respect for his craft has made Donato one of the most sought after talents in Nashville. He recently played on singer/songwriter Kim Logan’s new album and performs live shows with Harrison Whitford, whom he met when they played Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Music Festival. “We had such a musical vibe together,” says Donato, “so we started writing songs and playing shows with two other friends; it’s been a really cool endeavor and it’s great to have friends you can also make music with, which is a relationship that doesn’t necessarily always exist.”
Two years ago Donato caught the attention of Fender who offered him an endorsement deal and a brand spankin’ new Telecaster in the coolest color-seafoam green. “I love that color,” laughs Donato, “my desk is that color, I’m having a pedalboard made in that color and a couple of amps…but this photographer found me and threw me to Fender- he helps them find new talent, basically to help keep Fender relevant to the current generation. The country guitar market is not a very popular one with young people and Fender holds the torch for country guitar. All of the classic musicians used Telecasters and I love that guitar, it’s amazing.”
I first saw Daniel Donato performing with the Don Kelley Band at Robert’s last month and he blew everyone in the joint away with his powerful, blisteringly fast playing and colorful stage presence. When he reached the end of “Ramblin’ Man” after one of the longest, most epic guitar solos I’ve ever witnessed, every person in the room stood up and cheered. My sister turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen anyone get a standing ovation in a bar.” I told her this wasn’t just ‘a bar’ and that wasn’t just a guitar solo, that was mind-blowing magic at work.
If you happen to be in Nashville, head on down to Robert’s Western World Wednesday through Saturday nights, but just be prepared to stay for awhile. I added an extra day on to my trip just so I could take my sister to see Donato’s fiery playing because you only live once, so might as well strap on the hero hair, light the gunpowder and enjoy the fireworks.