A Conversation With Blues Master Toby Walker

By Steven Brodsky

At what age did you first pick up a guitar?
I was nine, but baseball got in the way. I picked it up again when I was 14 and was off and running.

Toby Walker Photo by Larry Sribnick

You started learning with an instructional book, yes?
I just learned chords from a chord chart and started to write my own songs with them.
Were there people locally who also taught you?
Many of my friends also played guitar and we all wound up constantly learning from each other. One of my early influences was a local guy named Mike Zuchlich, who was several years older than me. He played some wonderful blues and turned me on to some artists that, as a kid, I had never heard of. That would be John Mayall, among others.
When did you start to develop an interest in performance?
When I realized that the girls in my neighborhood liked guitar players!! We, meaning the guys I hung out with that played guitar, would try and out-write and play each other in order to impress those girls.
Which musicians did you most want to model, at first?
Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, David Bromberg, Robert Johnson, Johnny Winter, Jorma Kaukonen, Michael Bloomfield, Jimmy Reed, Keith Richards, John Hammond, Merle Travis,… the list goes on and on.
What fueled the intensity of your desire to master the guitar?
It was a way out of my neighborhood and a neat way to earn a living.
What sacrifices did you make in your pursuit of blues excellence?
The kind that any artist has to make in order to master their craft. While other folks were going to college, getting married, having kids, getting the mortgage… starting “real” jobs, blah, blah, blah , I honed my craft.
Did you ever question whether the personal costs were too high?
Not once. Ever. What was too high was NOT going after my passion.
Some of your training took place on the porches of blues masters in the Deep South. Share a few of your memories about those times and tell us about some of what you learned.
The most important thing I learned was to develop your own sound. Every one of the folks that I visited and learned from put their own, unique stamp on any song that they played. The stories are numerous. Check out this link on my site: http://www.littletobywalker.com/learning-from-the-masters1.html.
You have won international acclaim for your skills in a variety of music genres. Where did the diversity of your expertise come from?
From following my heart. If there was an artist, a song, or a particular genre that turned my head around, I did everything I could to find a way to bring that into my playing.
Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane is quoted as saying about you, “Flat out… you have to hear this great musician…I’m blown away.” (Toby is a down-to-earth guy.) How do you maintain humbleness after receiving that kind of praise?
I try not to think about that, or at least not let something like that go to my head. Jorma was one of my main influences and I have to keep pinching myself knowing that I get to teach at his guitar camp and actually hang with the guy while I’m there. That’s pretty heady stuff.
You’ve taught for years at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. Do you love teaching there?
I love teaching anywhere, but that place has its own mojo. I can’t explain it, other than everyone that goes there comes away with something special, students and instructors alike.
You are highly in demand as a music teacher. How and where do students learn from you?
Well, in camps like Fur Peace, private lessons in my studio and digital lessons. I’ve put out 8 DVDs with Homespun Instructional Music, as well as dozens of my own downloadable lessons that folks can find on my web site.
When teaching, do memories from those front porch years sometimes arise?
You bet, especially when I’m teaching the songs I learned from the folks that I studied from like James “Son” Thomas, Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, Etta Baker and R.L. Burnside.
Of the awards that you’ve received, which ones are particularly meaningful to you?
I’d have to say the very first one, that I won back in 2002. That was the International Blues Challenge award. It was real nice to be recognized nationally like that. But… equally saying, the one I was awarded from my stomping grounds of Long Island… the Long Island Sound Award from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame was just as rewarding. It’s nice to be recognized by your “homies” as well.
If it were it possible to bring to life, for a couple of hours, any of the now deceased blues masters who you never had the opportunity to meet, who would you most like to bring back and why?
I think I would’ve liked to have met and studied with Gary Davis. I missed that opportunity because when he was around I was too young. Everyone that studied from him said that besides being such a great player, he was a wonderful teacher as well.
What primes your own music creation pump? Do lyrics and tunes generally come easily to you?
Lyrics never come easy, but music always has. I usually start listening to whatever happens to catch my ear at the time and take if from there. Inspiration usually happens when you open yourself up to it.
How do you protect your singing voice?
I never thought about that. I suppose I don’t.
Do you sing in the shower?
I’d get too much shampoo in my mouth.
Do you sing in your vehicle while en route to performance venues?
Sometimes.
You’ll be leaving shortly for an overseas tour. When does the tour begin and end?
I leave the day after Labor Day and come home October 7, 2016.
What countries will you be performing in?
Germany, Austria and Cyprus.
Of all the concerts you’ve given, which one is most memorable to you and why?
I think it was a club in Wales many years ago. Those folks go nuts for any type of music and their energy is incredible. They’re already primed long before I show up at the venues. After this one particular gig, I was invited to join everyone at the local pub across from my hotel. When I showed up the whole place cheered. One of the folks came up to me and asked me to walk over to a wall where there was this stuffed bird on a shelf. I had never seen anything like it. The thing was part pheasant and part duck. Then I noticed the little sign underneath it, which read ‘This is a Phuck.’ When I turned around the whole room exploded into laughter.
What’s most gratifying to you about your life in the blues?
It keeps me off the ledge.
Posted 8/26/2016

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