I’ve had the pleasure to see Dickey Betts in concert seven times – once with his own band in 1986, and six times with the Allman Brothers Band [1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995 (twice)]. That fact alone illustrates that Dickey Betts is one of my favorite guitarists since I’ve paid to see him more times than any other. He reluctantly stepped into the leadership void in the band left by the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Where Duane Allman drove the band with the sheer force of his personality, Dickey’s role came with his songwriting and his instrumental prowess. While Duane Allman was among the living, he received [unfairly to Dickey] the lion’s share of the credit for the Allman Brothers’ sound. Duane recognized this and went out of his way to sing Dickey Betts’ praises. Duane Allman once told an interviewer "I'm the famous guitar player, but Dickey is the good one." Whenever they played In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Duane always told audiences that it was Dickey’s song.. It was only after Duane’s death in 1971 that Dickey Betts began to receive recognition as a great guitar player. So why do I like Dickey Betts? Let me count the ways…
They Threw Away The Rule Book – Before Dickey teamed up with Duane Allman, rock bands that had two guitarists [think The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or The Kinks] had “traditional” lead/rhythm players. Duane and Dickey were both lead players who could go toe-to-toe with one another. They created intricate, interweaving lead harmony parts. While one played solos, the other played rhythm, and they could effortlessly switch the roles in mid-song. Their musical partnership was competitive in the sense that they drove each other to play better, not to see who could “one-up” the other. Duane Allman received many accolades for his playing during his lifetime [and deservedly so], but I argue that without Dickey Betts’ lead guitar, the Allman Brothers Band wouldn’t be unique – it would just be another band.
The Instrumentals – Unlike most guitarists whose work I have in my collection, Dickey Betts writes instrumentals. He’s written a bunch of them: In Memory of Elizabeth Reed [Idlewild South], Les Brers in A Minor [Eat a Peach], Jessica [Brothers and Sisters], High Falls [Win, Lose or Draw], Pegasus [Enlightened Rogues], Duane’s Tune [Pattern Disruptive – Dickey Betts Band], True Gravity [Seven Turns], Kind of Bird [Shades of Two Worlds]. These pieces allowed Dickey to show off his jazz chops. Jessica was inspired by his then two-year old daughter. He wanted to write a happy instrumental that could be played with two fingers, just like Django Reinhardt [a major influence]. Kind of Bird was written by Dickey and Warren Haynes after listening to Charlie Parker. He wrote much of True Gravity on one of Berry Oakley’s basses. He used that instrument just so he could try to compose an instrumental in a different way. Elizabeth Reed is pure magic. It clocks in just under seven minutes on Idlewild South, but on the live document At Fillmore East, Elizabeth Reed stretches to thirteen minutes. The magical part about Elizabeth Reed is that it doesn’t feel like thirteen minutes. You get lost in the music, and when it’s over it’s like snapping out of a trance. Dickey’s tribute to Duane Les Brers evolved from a solo Dickey played during Whipping Post. If you pay attention, you can hear the bit I’m talking about on At Fillmore East. If you’re interested, it starts at the 11:07 mark.
The Slide – With Duane Allman in the band, Dickey didn’t play slide. Why would he? If you had one of the best slide players in rock, would you? That changed after Duane died in 1971. When the band returned to Miami to finish Eat a Peach, one of the songs the band recorded was Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More. Dickey blew his bandmates away when he played slide all over the song. They didn’t even know he could play it. Dickey wasn’t comfortable playing it, but he kinda had to and he did it very well. Allman Brothers fans expect to hear the slide on songs like Statesboro Blues, and since he was the only guitarist in the band between 1972-1978, it fell to Dickey to play Duane’s parts. When the Allman Brothers returned to a two-guitar line-up, Dickey would play slide only if there was an acoustic song in the setlist, either Come On in My Kitchen or Midnight Blues. He was more than happy to let Warren Haynes play the Duane slide parts.
The Influences – Dickey’s influences are numerous and various. They include jazz, blues, country, psychedelic rock, bluegrass, and Western swing. Some specific musicians who influenced Dickey were Django Reinhardt, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Bob Wills – just to name a few. In Dickey’s recorded work, you can hear them all.
His Axes of Choice – For the most part, Dickey Betts is a Gibson Les Paul man. His main guitar for a long time was a 1957 Les Paul Goldtop, appropriately named “Goldie.” In the early days of the Allman Brothers Band, Dickey played a red 1961 Gibson SG. Gibson now has a signature Dickey Betts model SG. He gave that guitar to Duane Allman, who used that guitar as his main slide guitar. Dickey then switched to the Les Paul. When I saw them on tour in 1991, Dickey gave Goldie a rest and switched to a Paul Reed Smith model. He switched back to Goldie in 1994. When I saw the Brothers in 1995, Dickey played a red Gibson 335. After Warren Haynes left the band in 1997, Dickey switched to a Fender Stratocaster. But since his departure from the Allman Brothers Band, Dickey has stuck with the Les Paul. No matter the guitar, he always sounded like Dickey Betts. He seems to get the same sound no matter what he plays. That’s what my untrained ears tell me anyway.
The solos – Where do I start? So many solos, so little time, so I’ll hit the ones that stand out for me.
- Black Hearted Woman [The Allman Brothers Band] – Duane, Dickey and Gregg [on the Hammond B-3] play the song’s riff in unison. Dickey doesn’t play a solo until the end, but so what? Duane plays most of the solos, while Dickey plays a funky rhythm guitar throughout [that’s the cool part!]. At the end, it’s a Duane and Dickey free-for-all. This is a very cool song.
- Midnight Rider [Idlewild South] – Duane plays the acoustic throughout. Dickey makes his guitar sound like a pedal steel. How the hell did he do that?
- Leave My Blues at Home [Idlewild South] – This is an anomaly in the ABB catalog in that I can’t figure out who plays what. The interplay between Duane and Dickey is such that I can’t distinguish the two guitarists. I think Duane plays on the left channel and Dickey plays on the right, but the parts from both guitarists are magnificent. They play as one. Of all the Allman Brothers songs, this is one I won’t attempt to learn. It’s way beyond my limited capabilities.
- Blue Sky [Eat a Peach] – This has to be the best non-instrumental song Dickey Betts ever wrote. Duane plays the first solo, Dickey plays the second. I get visions of the “twirlers” every time I hear this song.
- One Way Out [Eat a Peach] – Dickey takes the first solo, and it’s absolutely smokin’. He emerged from Duane’s shadow on this song. Who played what on this song? Very easy – Duane played the slide, Dickey didn’t. Dickey played the main riff.
- Melissa [Eat a Peach] – This is Gregg Allman’s song. Duane Allman loved it; the Allman Brothers recorded it after his death. Dickey’s playing, his fills and the solo at the end, are perfect. Very emotional – it was a pleasure to learn how to play it.
- Come and Go Blues [Brothers and Sisters] – Chuck Leavell’s piano drives this song. Dickey’s role for most of the song is as a rhythm player, but at the 2:47 mark he steps out and takes over until 3:30. Again, another perfect solo from Dickey.
- Jelly, Jelly [Brothers and Sisters] – Dickey shows off his blues side with a masterful solo at the end, which is about a minute and a half long.
- Southbound [Brothers and Sisters] – Dickey has two solos on this one. After the Allman Brothers reunited, they did a radical rearrangement which was captured on their 1992 live CD An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band. The last time I saw the Brothers was in 1995 in Richmond, Virginia. Outlaws guitarist Chris Anderson sat in with the band on this song. It was seventeen minutes of guitar awesomeness – Dickey was on fire. Chris Anderson and Warren Haynes weren’t too shabby either. That is how I prefer to remember the band.
- Nobody Knows [Shades of Two Worlds] – This is the longest studio song the Brothers ever committed to tape. The studio version is about eleven minutes. They stretched it to sixteen minutes on An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band. Warren Haynes took the first solo, which was unrelenting in its intensity. Dickey took the second solo, which he started out quietly and built its intensity to a white-hot fury that would not have been out-of-place on At Fillmore East. The solo on the live version is a six-minute tour de force. Sometimes when I play it on my iPod I skip over the beginning of the song and get right to Dickey’s solo. It never gets old.
Sadly, Dickey Betts is no longer a member of the Allman Brothers Band. They had a falling out in 2000. The Allman Brothers have continued with guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Dickey formed his own band following his dismissal from the Allman Brothers. He’s released two CDs [Let’s Get Together and The Collectors #1] and one DVD, Back Where It All Begins Live At The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. In a perfect world, Dickey would still be in the band, but as we all know this world is far from perfect.