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Daniel Donato is a young, 20-something guitar-slinger who’s lent his skills to numerous acts you’ve likely heard on the radio and Spotify playlists. Making a name for himself in the country game, he’s already an Americana Award nominee, and we recently had an opportunity to sit down and chat about his career and future plans.
You were touring the past month correct? And your tour was recently cancelled because of the Coronavirus…they shut down a lot of concerts and events [this month]. How was the tour going prior to that?
Yeah, the shows were good, we had a really healthy percentage of people and good things were happening, both in ways of music and business, like outward growth was happening, so yeah, I would say the tour was at a fantastic place.▼ Article continues below ▼
Do you plan on rescheduling some of the dates?
Yeah, we’re going to reschedule the dates to August.
I saw in an interview with Reverb.com that you started busking on the streets every weekend for eight hours a day as a teenager. This was in Nashville in the Lower Broadway area, correct?
Yeah, absolutely man, you know I really learned so much there and it would be hard to discount how crucial [busking] was to my life…It was a platform to network with people and the first way for people to learn what I do via having a stage and having ideas to execute live. It provided a lot of musical inspiration for me, it was a real jackpot of my life, like I really hit it there and it was a perfect example of what right time, right place is.
That’s cool – Nashville is one of my favorite cities. I like Carter Vintage Guitars there and Zollikoffee coffee shop. Were you born in that area?
No, I was eight years old when I moved to Nashville.
When did you hear about the Don Kelley Band and JD Simo?
When I was 14.
What kind of lessons did you learn from playing with Don Kelley?
I learned how to play guitar in the traditional sense of playing, both the rhythm and lead and how dynamics is the crucial difference between rhythm and lead, both in a volume sense and what you’re actually playing. I learned the CAGED system in a masterful way, that system mixes major and minor with chromaticism; it’s a system that allows you to execute ideas that are original, and it worked for how I was thinking at the time.
So, I was able to come up with original ideas and the biggest thing you mentioned there is that you need to have a platform that forces you to execute on a regular basis very similar to how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is always posting on social media about his physical health endeavors, his average working day, etc. that’s what the Don Kelley gig was for me.
Yeah, that platform where you can have that regular practice, almost like an athlete in rec league…putting you in a live environment helps, huh?
If you can have a live environment that’s most optimal, if you can have a live environment that makes you work your set and play what you practice every day in front of people and not just by yourself in a room, that…is one of the defining factors that can qualify a performer and help expand themselves.
You did a demo of the Fender Acoustasonic guitar and there’s also a cool video of you and Tyler Bryant trading some epic licks and going back and forth on the Acoustasonic Strat and Tele models. Isn’t the Telecaster your main guitar?
It is, I put a book out when I was 18 called, “The New Master of the Telecaster” and I wrote that when I was kind of a young prodigy. I’m still that person, but also different, like there’s more to me now and absolutely the Telecaster is what I do on guitar, it’s my voice.
What other kinds of pedals and amps are you using?
Right now, my main amps for the Cosmic Country sound are vintage blackface Fenders, so my sound source itself is very analog, but then the pedals I’m using are very much digital. I’m using mainly Keeley pedals right now and using the Gamechanger Audio Plus pedal.
I’m familiar with Keeley, I like their compressor a lot…
I actually have a signature Cosmic Country compressor with Keeley pedals.
Weren’t you using the T. Rex Gristle King for a while?
I was using it from 2010-2013, I’m definitely on the other side of the decade with that one now [laughs].
Let’s talk about your actual playing for a minute. Your style reminds me of famous country players like Johnny Hiland and Brent Mason, but you also play a really good blues like T-Bone Walker or you can like sound Jerry Garcia. Who are your actual influences?
All those players you mentioned are great; you have the great country players of our time who are Brent Mason and Johnny Hiland, Hank Marvin, Gary Marvin, Chet Atkins, those are the country players. Then you get to the other side of the country and more or less, it’s players who are more blues based and rock based. Of course, Slash was the reason I started playing guitar, Hendrix was a huge influence on me, Stevie Ray Vaughan of course, then Jerry Garcia is kind of like the biggest guy, him and Bob Weir are my biggest influences presently.
Bob Weir is an amazing rhythm player, he uses the CAGED system with chords, too.
Yeah, so those guys are big influences on me, I try to switch between them in terms of mindset — I’ll try to think like Bob or think like Jerry on certain parts of the song
Playing both roles, nice. When did you start giving guitar lessons for Reverb.com?
Back in 2019, sometime during Summer NAMM…
You had some good videos on there, and you were showcasing some great techniques. Aren’t you currently represented by William Morris Endeavor? How did you link up with those guys?
Right place, right time and the right people and a lot of luck.
Let’s talk about your new EP, Starlight for a bit. I like the songs “Luck of the Draw,” “Always Been a Lover” and “First Class.” What was the songwriting process like for those songs?
All those songs aside from “Sweet Tasting Tennessee” were written by just me, before I started co-writing with people. Before I made that record, I shifted my focus to only co-writing with people which is what I did all of last year. Those songs were the culmination of me writing songs by myself and those were the songs that were the strongest that I had gathered from my year of touring.
That was around 2018-2019 and I attempted to solo tour as Daniel Donato for the first time. I had to have a batch of originals to throw in there and all songs from Modern Machine and the Starlight EP are from that phase of my life — they’re very, very embryotic starting phase Daniel Donato songs.
Do you plan on continuing as a solo artist? You could easily tour behind an artist like Taylor Swift, you have those chops as a lead guitar player.
Yeah, but I also have the chops to be Daniel Donato. That’s the idea though, it’s like what is Taylor Swift? All these accolades and all this great esteem, all this great success…obviously I would never compare myself to Taylor Swift, I don’t view myself as a brand, but she is an artist and one of the defining artists of our time. But I would much rather have my name on it and own it all, 100%.
Do you have any more music or other new projects coming out?
Absolutely, yeah, we did a live record in December with Robben Ford producing, there’s 12 songs on that. It was recorded at Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville where Jason Isbell records, Waylon Jennings, Garth Brooks, a lot of country royalty has recorded there.
Well, you had me at Robben Ford, that’s my guy, he’s awesome! So, he’s on this live recording?
He produced it; he’s not playing on it, actually.
Gotcha. Any last words for the magazine?
I would like to suggest that people try to find the thing that they like to work hardest at and refine that skill enough, believe in that skill enough and make it as individual as possible so you can add value to the world and you can make that your gig. I think we live in a time now where if you can be you really well, you can be your own gig and I think people especially between the ages 18-35, those are the defining windows where you can make that happen.