Rafe Bradford’s musical journey from dukey to domro to divas
Rafe Bradford sat mesmerized in front of the TV. As a young kid in the late 1970s, the future bass extraordinaire saw George Duke and his keytar perform the goofball funk hit “Dukey Stick” on Wolfman Jack’s “Midnight Special Show.” The song broke into its electrifying bass solo, with Byron Miller tearing his white P-bass a new one.
“I want to do that!” Rafe recalled thinking at the time, more amazed by Miller’s instrument than the campy Star Wars-esque magic wand being waved around the stage. “I had been listening to the record, but seeing someone do that live really changed things for me.”
Bradford, who these days calls the Los Angeles area home, grew into a solid bass player with a well-rounded resume and reputation. We’re proud to count Rafe as one of Nordstrand Guitars and Pickups’ favorite friends, and that’s not at all influenced by what Bradford holds in his hands on stage. Rafe plays three Nordstrand basses: a Nordy vJ5 Modern, an SC5 fretted and an SC5 fretless. Well, OK, we like him even more because of it because we think he’s an innovative player with style galore.
You’ve most likely heard Rafe play. Bradford contributed bass on recordings as diverse as the “how about a bacon double cheese, double cheese” McDonald’s commercial and the “Get With the Program” Oprah jingle. Yes, Oprah! Rafe has worked with Uncle Art and Bill Boris of Beeswax Records on too many projects to count, including others for Golden Grahams and Crest.
Bradford’s hometown of Chicago was a hotbed for jingle and TV show work up through the ’90s, which helped Rafe create a diverse resume, rounded out by a gazillion gigs and touring with high-profile artists such as Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.
Rafe’s stellar bass playing and professionalism have landed him on stages with the aforementioned divas, as well as Luther Vandross, Stanley Turrentine, Nancy Wilson and Mavis Staples during the 1980s and early ’90s. Bradford even did time as part of the live house bands for the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” and most recently “The Bonnie Hunt Show.”
But it’s his studio time that appeals to Rafe’s hyper-focused, inner perfectionist. Bradford’s recorded with an eclectic mix of musicians who play rock, jazz, R&B, pop, country and folk including The Sons of the Never Wrong, Michelle Cross, Dylan Rice and Poi Dog Pondering. And we’re not even sure how to categorize SuperNaked, which adds knee-slappers to the mix of riotous f-bombs, silliness and solid chops for some super fun.
That range is probably because Rafe could hear and sing complicated bass lines before he knew the difference between a bass and its guitar cousin. At 11, when Bradford asked his parents for a guitar he was disappointed his new instrument wasn’t making the sounds to match those in his head.
Rafe promptly removed the top two strings from his six-string acoustic guitar and re-cut the nut and bridge to space the strings evenly. And just like that, Bradford began growing into the bass player he always dreamed he’d become.
Growing up, Rafe went on to study acoustic double bass performance at University of Urbana Champaign. It was there he met his music mentor, University of Illinois Jazz Program Director John Garvey. John, a violinist/violist by trade, shared stages with some of the biggest bands of the 1950s and created the University of Illinois Jazz Band more than five decades ago. The celebrated music teacher passed away in 2006.
“He was a master of phrasing, and we’d spend days working on just a few measures of an intricate big band arrangement,” Bradford said. Rafe’s understanding of musicality, his phrasing and counting concepts developed under John’s tutelage. Unexpected musical experiences resulted, as well.
Rafe joined the university’s Russian Folk Orchestra, which John conducted. Bradford fell in love with the music and played in the ensemble for several years.
“Imagine a room full of older Russian immigrants and 19-year-old me playing wooden-triangle-shaped (Balalaika) and olive-shaped (Domro) instruments,” Rafe said before getting to the more intriguing details. “There was a guy who ate a softball-sized raw onion at every rehearsal.”
That’s not to say that Bradford didn’t soak up the playing of more contemporary bass players, although he was never interested in parroting their styles. “I respected all the usual suspects—Stanley (Clarke), Jaco (Pastorius), (James) Jamerson—but I was always comfortable with my voice and interpretation of a song,” Bradford said.
By eighth grade, Rafe was in a band with some neighborhood kids. At 15, he was gigging with music teachers. Within another year he sat in the shadows at nightclubs he wasn’t old enough to be in during his bands’ breaks. Bradford’s chauffeur to and from shows was his mother.
When it was time for Rafe to choose a major in school, his parents were not thrilled he had his sights on pursuing a music degree. His father, despite being an ardent jazz fan, would have preferred that Bradford follow in his footsteps as an electrical engineer. “In the end they let me follow my passion,” Rafe said. Although it’s not quite the type of engineering Rafe’s father hoped for, he does see some electronics during his time behind the boards, remixing and mastering.
“I always enjoyed the back story to music and producing artists actually got me into mixing,” Bradford said. “It’s all from the drive to display your sonic vision. For me, it was easier learning to create the sound I’m hearing, rather than hoping to explain it effectively to someone else. I’d always be wondering if I could have been better.”
That work ethic comes from within. “I have just always loved to play,” Rafe said. “There wasn’t something that really inspired me to work hard because I always just loved playing and working hard at it.” There’s no mailing in of anything.
Bradford and Carey Nordstrand share that drive for excellence. The two met at the NAMM show in 2004 while Rafe was on a mission to play every bass possible in search of The One.
“The Nordstrand felt right,” Rafe said. “Well made, great attention to detail and very playable.”
But that’s just not giving enough credit to the man plucking the strings. “He’s one of those rare players that just seems to always know the right thing to play,” Carey says. “He’s been doing it so long that it’s just a part of who he is.”
Carey and Rafe have spent time together at the Nordstrand in-house studio, with Bradford nailing songs on the first take, over and over. “It’s not a matter of ability because he doesn’t have any limitations that way. It’s a matter of getting the right part for the song. And he can deliver that every time. Quickly. And of course, he has a great sound. I’m proud to be a part of that,” Nordstrand commented.