David Berchtold has been playing the guitar for more than 40 years. He plays a wide range of folk, rock and blues, but Piedmont Blues style fingerpicking is his specialty. Though he makes it look as smooth as spreading warm butter on cinnamon toast, his ten fingers are flying in several directions simultaneously, picking out the rhythm, bass lines, and melody all at the same time. It is magic to behold.
A native of Illinois, Berchtold has studied with Jorma Kaukonen at the infamous Fur Peace Ranch and he teaches Piedmont Fingerpicking at festivals and colleges. With a rich repertoire from the greatest fingerpickers, including Rev. Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Leo Kottke, and Chet Atkins, David also has a solid hour of innovative original tunes, rooted in tradition but proving that this style of playing is very much alive in his hands.
A Conversation with David Berchtold
by Brian “Fox” Ellis
The first time David Berchtold picked up a guitar it belonged to his older brother. He was amazed how much he could change the sound by simply pushing the strings down. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he recalled. But he has been noodling around on a guitar ever since.
His parents left this world while he was still quite young, but the guitar went with him and became a way for him to escape into other worlds.
Mike Wimberly, a childhoold friend who grew up to study at the Berkeley School of Music, was his first formal guitar teacher. “I remember riding my ten speed home from lessons, riding with no hands and practicing what he had just taught me!” While peddling his bike down the street mind you!
“The first thing I learned was a fingerpicking pattern from Mike Wimberly's song "Meadowbrook Farm." which I still play.” And as if I did not believe him he picked up his guitar and played it with much more style and nuance than any young student ever had, but he still plays with the deep joy of someone making new discoveries every time he picks up a guitar. Clearly he has practiced his lessons well since those early days.
He admitted that he has played on and off ever since, though he did not stick exclusively to finger picking.
“In 1988, the year my son was born, I took lessons from Bob Applegate. The book, ‘Fingerpicking Fiddle Tunes,' by Ken Perlman was a huge influence.” (For those who are not from Peoria, Applegate was an icon of local folk music who also taught in the public schools inspiring literally thousands of students to pursue music). “Learning all of these great old Appalachian, Irish, Scottish tunes measure by measure, this discipline and meditation got me to the point where an alternating thumb felt natural.”
Berchtold was on a roll, “Bob Applegate presented theory that opened up new music so I could learn a song in days, what used to take months. And then I began playing with alternate tunings. Alternate tunings give you a sound you cannot get otherwise.”
Though he has always had a day job, for many years working in IT, playing guitar has been his primary passion. Berchtold works as many gigs on weeknights as weekends and gigs as much as many full time touring musicians. Counting down to an early retirement, he is already beginning to expand his repertoire and his touring radius. From wineries to local pubs, libraries to arts council concert series, blues festivals to house concerts, it is not unusual for him to play more than a dozen shows each month.
“The shows most fun to play are the small venue concerts where you are within 75 - 100 feet of everyone in the room. You can see and feel their enjoyment and read their body language during the performance.”
“The songs I enjoy playing are the ones that move me musically and also have a great story behind them. I feel comfortable in the tune and confident to let let the melody and picking carry the moment.” Having heard Berchtold play a number of these tunes, I can say the audience also shares this bliss of being lead by the melody and awed by the moment. He is the master of the quiet, thoughtful, deeply moving melodies, singing softly, challenging the audience to listen more deeply.
David Berchtold has a recognizable sound honed from years of listening to Hot Tuna, Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis and recently playing with Jorma Kaukonen at the infamous Fur Peace Ranch. If you get a chance to catch a live show, get there early so you can sit up close and watch those amazing fingers effortlessly dance across the strings. You can also add David Berchtold to your Pandora or iTunes play list to hear the nuances again and again so the music gets deep inside. Clearly, the best of it is alive and well in his hands!