Renowned Fingerstyle Guitarist Dale Miller Dead at 69
“My wife came up with a great simile a couple of years ago when she said making a commercial recording for a small specialty label like Kicking Mule Productions was like putting a message in a few thousand bottles and tossing them into the ocean,” Dale Miller wrote in the liner notes of his 1974 album Finger Picking Rags & Other Delights. “You don’t know how many will come to shore or where and when they’ll be discovered.”
That classic solo-guitar album, reissued in 1996 on the Fantasy label, found its way into the hearts of acoustic-guitar enthusiasts. And though Miller never achieved the status of such peers as John Fahey or Leo Kottke, this gentle soul built a dedicated following among fans who appreciated his gentle music and wit.
A mostly self-taught guitarist, he had a distinct sound, mostly using his right thumb, and index and middle fingers, except when he played classical or flamenco guitar. His fingerstyle technique was based on methods he gleaned from Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, and Mance Lipscomb, among others.
Miller, a Berkeley, California, resident and past contributor to Acoustic Guitar magazine, died August 19 of lymphoma. His website noted that Miller was undergoing treatment and hoped to be performing again this fall—he maintained a regular blog detailing his treatments and the course of the disease. He had recently uploaded several videos to his YouTube channel, including a solo-guitar version of Bob Dylan’s “Duquesne Whistle” and Mozart’s “La Ci Darem La Mano,” from the opera Don Giovanni.
Blogger Steven Rubio remembered Miller as an avid San Francisco Giants fan and a renaissance man who performed or recorded with such greats as Elizabeth Cotton, John Renbourn, and Tom Rush, to name a few; taught guitar lessons; co-owned a guitar store; and served in both the Peace Corps and VISTA.
At the time of his death, Miller was serving on the board of directors of the Berkeley PATH Wanderers Association, a non-profit dedicated to the creation of public parks and public spaces.
Miller, who once described himself as “a cornball-looking hippie in a cowboy hat,” was born in Washington, D.C. to two transplanted Texans. He developed a love of music as a toddler when his father, dale Sr., sang him and his younger brother, mead, to sleep with cowboy songs and pop hits from the 1920s and ’30s.
His older sister’s love of Elvis Presley and other 1950’s rock ’n’ roll artists expanded Dale’s musical horizons. He soon began listening to records by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, and rockabilly great Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps, as well as blues legend Jimmy Reed.
His introduction to folk music came through the Kingston Trio. Folk music led him to Dixieland, jazz, gospel, and other styles.
In the fall of 1960, while enrolled at the New Mexico Military Institute and inspired by Bob Dylan’s music, he began playing guitar.
While living in Greenwich Village in 1964, Miller first heard the recordings of pioneering solo steel-string guitarist John Fahey. As a student at the University of Texas in Austin, Miller branched out into blues and began studying instructional books by Stefan Grossman and Happy Traum. He also formed a jug band with his brother, Mead, a harmonica player.
Throughout the decade, Miller blended his love of folk music and social activism, helping migrant workers as a VISTA volunteer and teaming up with activist and folk guitarist U. Utah Phillips.
In the 1970s, he studied music theory and began arranging ragtime tunes. He rambled around Europe with Grossman and recorded the LP Contemporary Ragtime Guitar on the then—new Kicking Mule label, founded by Grossman and former Takoma Records co-owner Ted Denson.
He also produced records by Duck Baker and Nick Katzman.
In 1980, he settled in San Francisco, becoming part owner of Noe Valley Music, a small guitar shop. He continued to perform solo and teamed up in duos with guitarists Roy Rogers, Danny Kalb of the Blues Project and Amos Garrett.
He began teaching music and writing for Acoustic Guitar magazine, interviewing key folk and blues figures and detailing the history ofMTV Unplugged—three of his music lessons are included in the recent Acoustic Blues Guitar Essentials instructional guide.
In the 1990s, he worked as a computer-systems administrator at a small law firm. And he moved to Berkeley with his wife, a successful immigration attorney.
Miller purchased a Porsche 911 SC, a car, he noted on his website, that he had “lusted” after for years.
“I met Dale in the mid-90s through Duck Baker,” Acoustic Guitar senior editor Teja Gerken recalls. “Even though we were separated by a generation in age, we hit it off right away, and ended up playing quite a few gigs together, including a really memorable show with Peter Lang in San Francisco. Not only was Dale incredibly supportive at a time when I was just starting out performing and recording my own music, he had a unique kind of enthusiasm about the projects he tackled himself. Even though he was a regular at the San Francisco opera, Dale surprised us all when he came out with Azzuro Verdi, his stunning album of country-blues style arrangements of Italian opera classics.
"But besides having great times around the guitar with Dale (like the time we spend a day in his backyard, checking out seven resonator guitars for a review in Acoustic Guitar), I’m also happy to have gotten to share a meal at his favorite restaurant, Chez Panisse, and to have gotten rides in his beloved green Porsche 911.
“Dale was a class act, and he’ll be missed greatly!”
Teja Gerken is organizing an October 30 tribute to Dale Miller at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.