When Jeff Beck went on tour recently, he asked 22-year-old blues guitarist Davy Knowles to open up for him. During one of those shows, Sammy Hagar and Joe Satriani — two members of the supergroup Chickenfoot, along with Chad Smith and Michael Anthony — were in the crowd and impressed by the talents of the young guitarist's solo acoustic performance. In fact, they liked him so much, they asked him to open for Chickenfoot's tour.
So, how does it feel to be opening for so many legends of rock in the beginning of your career? "Terrifying," Knowles, a native of the Isle of Man near the United Kingdom, says with a laugh. These days he's performing as a four-piece band labeled Davy Knowles and Back Door Slam. It's a new version of the three-piece Back Door Slam he was a part of up until recently. While all three members of that band decided to go in different directions, the name has been carried on by Knowles.
"They're wonderful musicians and wonderful guys and we had a wonderful time playing with each other, but it got to the point where we needed to do different things to progress as musicians individually," he says of the original group by phone from a recent tour stop in Minnesota. "These guys that I'm playing with now -- they're amazing musicians. I've never had so much fun playing music. I'm thoroughly getting my ass kicked. That's what you need though. There's no point in being the best guy in your band because you don't learn anything."
Knowles says there's a new energy in the band, in part because of the addition of a keyboard player, which has taken some of the pressure off of his guitar work. In the past, he tended to overplay in order to fill a void he felt was there. Now, he can "ease back and just let the music go."
Knowles said he's still proud of the album Roll Away that he released with Back Door Slam. The new group plays songs from that album though some have been reworked because of the keyboard addition. You'd guess their focus is more on the new album, Coming Up For Air, which was released this year.
When asked if he feels pressure when opening for such big names, Knowles says he enjoys the challenge.
"I just love playing," he says. "I guess there's a little bit of pressure to make sure you stay on top of your game and play your best every night and don't mess up too much. You get the odd group of people that might know a song at these gigs, but the whole point of these tours is to tag along to someone else's fame and try to win them over. The hardest gig was opening for Jeff Beck and doing a solo acoustic thing when he's an electric guitar player and everyone's expecting huge rock 'n' roll. That's kind of tough."
So how did it go? "It went fairly well. No one threw anything, so that's always a good sign," he says with a laugh.
Knowles feels most comfortable when he's playing guitar, though he also fills the role of singer and songwriter. He took on the role of singer in his first band when no one else wanted to do it. "Someone gave me a pat on the back one and said it was pretty good and I should keep it up," he says. "I started to enjoy it as well."
While Knowles always enjoyed writing riffs on the guitar, once he became a singer, he started to pay more attention to acoustic songwriters like James Taylor and Jim Croce. He's also able to find a balance in his songwriting and not overdo it on guitar work.
"I try to look at it as a song as a whole," he says. "If a song doesn't need a guitar solo, I wouldn't stick one in just to have one. I love the Eric Clapton 461 Ocean Boulevard album. He went from being a guitar hero with John Mayall, Cream and Blind Faith and started going solo and suddenly all of the guitar solos started disappearing. There are only two solos on that album or something. I really respect that. I think that's really cool."
He also focuses on keeping his guitar "voice" original, noting that many guitarists after Stevie Ray Vaughn fell into the trap of sounding like him. While Knowles is a huge fan of Vaughn's music, he tries not to follow that pattern.
"There has been a conscious effort to carve something out, but patience also plays a role in that," he says. "Over the past two years, I've learned more about that than playing in my bedroom on the Isle of Man. I think it just takes time and exposure to a lot of different music."
Knowles first picked up a guitar at age 11. His parents bought him a cheap, nylon-stringed, Spanish, acoustic guitar to see how he liked it. Knowles was hooked from the first strum. He'd often go to his local youth club to play the electric guitars they had and after a year of playing the acoustic, his parents got him a Peavey Stratocaster copy.
His blues influence comes partially from his sister who would often play cassettes with artists like Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry on them. One of the first albums he got for himself was by Dire Straits. He wore it out.
"My dad said, 'You need to listen to something else because you're driving me and your mum nuts,'" Knowles says with a laugh. "I remember buying the Dire Straits album Communiqué in Manchester airport on the way to a family holiday. That was the first CD I bought. No one had a CD player, so I had to wait two weeks to hear it, but I had the CD in my hand. I read the liner notes over and over."
For now, he plans to let the new album breathe while he continues his love of touring. He also plans to keep learning.
"Sometimes I'm not even in a comfort zone on guitar," Knowles says. "I listen to someone like Joe Satriani every night and think, 'Holy crap!' As soon as you start to get into a comfort zone, someone comes along that will kick you to the side. When I went on tour with Govt. Mule, I thought I was good until I saw Warren Haynes -- I'm never going to be that good. There's a long, long way to go for me."
Davy Knowles and Back Door Slam will open up for Chickenfoot at the Uptown Amphitheatre on Aug. 27. Tickets are $17 to $46.50.