The Memorable Music of David Aguilar

Sonoma Treasure Artist releases new CD.

Story Jonah Raskin
Photos Steven Krause

Spend a lazy afternoon with David Aguilar over tea and muffins in a local café and you might feel you’re in the presence of a real-live celebrity. Everyone, young and old, seems to know him and revere him. That includes thousands of Sonomans who have heard him play music live, listened to his recordings, or rubbed shoulders with him in the Plaza, at Murphy’s Irish Pub, Hopmonk or countless other clubs around the North Bay. “Jazzniks” and rock ’n’ rollers alike recognize him and come up to talk. With his graying afro and beard and a big smile, he’s an iconic figure who’s instantly recognizable and exceedingly approachable.

“I’ve learned humility from many of the famous singers, songwriters and musicians with whom I’ve performed,” Aguilar says. “Talented people are usually gracious. Those who are insecure about themselves can be unpleasant. Mostly, I’ve met generous, unpretentious people in the music business. Norton Buffalo helped me greatly with my career and I remember him fondly.”

Over the years, Aguilar has made memorable music, not only with harmonica virtuoso Buffalo, but also with Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Barry Melton, Maria Muldaur, Lester Chambers (of the “Time-Has-Come-Today” Chambers Brothers), Nick Graventies and Bo Diddley, beloved for albums like Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger and Have Guitar, Will Travel.

Aguilar has also entertained North Bay audiences with his own band, “Tudo Bem,” whose members include Peter McAuley and Pat O’Connell, and who often play the less well-known songs by legendary artists like Frank Zappa, and Walter Becker and Donald Fagan who perform as Steely Dan.

The expression, “tudo bem,” comes from the Portuguese and might be translated as, “It’s all good,” which could serve as Aguilar’s mantra. Music has been very good to him (and he has been very good to music) since his father bought him a Sears guitar when he was 8. An ever-growing number of fans have watched him transform over the years from shy guy to electrifying performer, ripping it up on any one of the 50 or so guitars he owns and that grace his home in the Springs.

Aguilar is a true virtuoso. He makes those guitars sing, shout, whisper, wail and even weep. Sometimes his guitars seem to play him, and sometimes guitarist and guitar seem to blend into one.  

Now, at the age of 64, Aguilar is about to release a new CD that he recorded with Bronx-born Roy Blumenfeld, who once played with the Blues Project, and who always pays homage to rhythm and blues. Their new CD is titled The Aguilar Blumenfeld Project and Stanley Mouse—the legendary artist famous for his psychedelic posters and album covers for the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Journey and more—has done a trippy poster that will also serve as the cover for the CD. Aguilar and Blumenfeld are depicted as a couple of very hip, musical wolves, with Aguilar wearing a beard and Blumenfeld a beret.

The CD might be the capstone for Aguilar’s recording career, and he’s rightly jazzed about it. In the parking lot outside the Barking Dog coffee house, he played one track for me that’s titled “Plutonium Bob,” explaining it as “Zappish.” Indeed it is, and no doubt Frank Zappa himself would enjoy it.

Both a team player and a solo artist, Aguilar says he enjoys making music nearly all the time, and especially “in an ensemble when it all clicks and it feels effortless and it all flows together. There’s nothing like it.”

Guitars have been at the heart of Aguilar’s life for more than a half-century. Sonoma legend has it he had a guitar in his hands when he was born. Aguilar’s second guitar was electric and known as a “Kay Speed Demon,” which today can sell for thousands of dollars.

Like most of the members of the generation to which he belongs, Aguilar came of age with the sounds and the songs made popular by Phil and Don Everly (“Wake Up Little Susie”), who played steel-string, acoustic guitars. He also learned heaps by listening to those two Mississippi Delta giants, Muddy Waters and Sun House.

“Many of those early rock songs had a way of ripping out your heart,” Aguilar says. “The guitar was a perfect instrument for me as a teenager. Playing it was therapeutic.”

As a boy, Aguilar took music lessons from a real southern lady who lived in a real southern mansion and who taught him to play Hawaiian slide-style guitar. (She thought his hands were too small to play any other way.) From an early age, Aguilar was also an avid jazz fan. His dad took him to hear Chet Atkins, Boots Randall and Floyd Kramer, and after all these years he still remembers them fondly. To this day, he loves jazz; proof of his passion—he has long been associated with the Sonoma Jazz Society.

As the son of an officer in the military, Aguilar bounced around from one state to another. For a while he was a kind of rolling stone and roaming troubadour. His wanderlust took him all the way to North Dakota, where a guitarist named Chris LeFevre taught him, he says, “a lick that made everything fall into place.” Then, in Southern California, he settled down and attended UC Riverside, where he took a jazz appreciation class from the L.A. Times music critic Leonard Feather, that further deepened his knowledge of big bands, swing, bebop, hot jazz and cool jazz. In 1974, he graduated with a B.A. The following year he moved to Sonoma County, worked as a teacher’s assistant and then received a credential in special education, a subject he taught for 37 years at Sonoma Developmental Center. He has been married for 31 years to Wendy, who’s a visual artist and art teacher. They have two grown-up daughters, Ashley and Kristen, who have inherited the musical gene; they both sing and play the piano.

Clearly, Aguilar is no longer the proverbial rolling stone who makes his home wherever he roams. Indeed, he’s a rock for the ages: steady, reliable and community-minded, volunteering with his musical and sound engineering expertise all over the Valley. In 2013 his contributions to the culture of the Valley won him designation as the Sonoma Treasure Artist of the Year, only the fifth musician to be so honored.

After playing the guitar for decades, Aguilar began to make them. Samuel David Cohen, better known as “Fat Dog,” and who owns “Subway Guitars” in Berkeley, has been teaching him the craft of luthier. Aguilar makes guitars from walnut and maple. He’s picky about the materials he uses and it shows. An Aguilar guitar looks like a work of art. They’re in almost every room in his house; upstairs and downstairs, some of them fully assembled, others still in pieces. One is made from the floor of a basketball court. There are more guitars in Aguilar’s house than there are bottles of wine. He also has a collection of rare stringed instruments from around the world, including a rubab that’s played in Iran and Afghanistan.

Aguilar’s studio, in the deepest recesses of his garage, has all kinds of equipment for recording and for amplification, which he does under the umbrella of his company, Blue Blanket Recording. One wall of the studio boasts photos of Aguilar with famous musicians he’s known, including Les Paul and Mose Allison, the jazz pianist from Mississippi who died last year, and who wrote and sang classics like, “I Love the Life I Lead.”

David Aguilar loves the life he lives. His many fans love the music he has made, from Sonoma to Sweden and from Florida to Wales. You can bet he’ll go on making music as long as he can hold a guitar close to his heart and move his nimble fingers along its strings.



One Comment

  1. Dave is too cool for school .

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