Mention the blues, and most people will call to mind a song or two and visualize a certain performer.
More knowledgeable music fans might talk about different regional styles or slight variations within the genre.
It is highly unlikely that anyone would visualize self-proclaimed one-man band Dave Lange, belting out Mississippi Hill Country blues on a 3-string guitar made from an old cigar box while his black lab, Lucy, chews obliviously on a plastic chew toy near the pedals of his percussion kit.
Lange left a high-paying job as an outside sales representative and began giving guitar lessons full-time when balancing the six children in he and his wife’s “mine-hers-and-ours” family became too much of a strain. He left the teaching life behind about a year ago and formed up his one-man traveling band.
“It’s like my wife and I were both working two full-time jobs and something had to give,” the Cleveland native said. “I started a business and was teaching guitar in Pittsburgh. I had about 40 students, so when my wife would get home I would take off in the evenings and go to everyone’s home and teach guitar lessons.”
Dave and Michelle moved to Ashburn about 2 ½ years ago. With four of their children already out of the home and the couple’s daughter reaching age 10, they decided it was time for Lange to pursue a dream he had harbored for many years.
“I always wanted to perform,” he said. “It wasn’t until about a year ago that I actually decided I’m not going to do lessons anymore and I am just going to start performing. My wife was in agreement with that, so that’s what I have been doing.”
Lange began performing in small venues around Northern Virginia, such as wineries, breweries and small clubs.
“In a year’s time, I have played over 50 shows and I probably have another 50 or 60 lined up,” he said. “I have gotten hired to do gigs at different venues, and I would play at various farmers markets. From doing that, I have been hired for private parties, anything from adult birthday parties and anniversaries. Most recently, I got hired to do a big pig roast party up in Pennsylvania for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.”
Lange began his musical journey at a fairly young age, but his route has not been a straight line – more like the musical score for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
“I got into music when I was about 13,” he said. “My mother put an acoustic guitar for me underneath the Christmas tree. I started taking lessons for a while but I got bored with playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ I kind of quit lessons and just went off on my own and I am pretty much self-taught. Just from listening to people play and watching them.”
Lange went along like that for many years, content in knowing chords to play basic rock and/or blues standards. That all changed when he was steered into blues by the group that would become his inspiration — The Black Keys.
“Jimi Hendrix started it all for me, but where the Southern blues comes into play, it all started with the Black Keys,” Lange said. “I heard them for the first time on a radio station in Columbus, Ohio, and I started digging deep into anything I could find on them.”
What Lange found was a genre of music he quickly tried to emulate. He cited the Black Keys’ album “Chulahoma,” their cover of songs written by Chulahoma, Mississippi, native Junior Kimbrough, as the start of a new musical direction.
“There’s a whole brand of blues that comes from that area that never made it into the mainstream,” he said. “It’s very different than the Delta blues we’re all familiar with.”
In adopting the unique, Mississippi Hill Country Blues genre, Lange said he was forced to examine – and completely revise – his own guitar techniques.
“I actually retaught myself how to play the guitar,” he said. “I was watching these guys play and I thought, ‘They’re playing with their thumb and their finger.’ I was trained to play with a pick. I put the pick down and it took like a year at least to learn how to play with my thumb and my finger.”
This new technique allows Lange to be his own lead guitarist and lead singer while also providing the rhythm section of bass and percussion.
“I can be playing the melody with my finger and tapping out the bass-line with my thumb,” he said. “Then I work drums and cymbals with foot pedals.”
The result is a rich, bluesy sound that Lange can fine-tune based on the setting and the audience.
“They’re all different and I never know what to expect,” Lange said of the audiences he entertains. “Depending on where I’m at, there’s differing cultures and a different vibe. It’s mostly how aggressive I play. I can play light with a lot of melodies, or I can get after it and really hit it hard – like a raw, gin-joint style of blues.
“When I start out, I’ll lay back on the drums and back off on the guitar to get a feel for the vibe in the room. If I see their heads bobbing and that they are loosening up a little, then I will rip into it and throw it right out there. I prefer that.”
Last month, Lange moved into a new atmosphere, playing a set at Gypsy Sally’s Vinyl Lounge in Northwest D.C. He said it was a rewarding experience.
“It started out pretty laid back as the early crowd trickled in during the first hour of my performance,” he said. “I decided to keep it low key until the room filled up and started to buzz. After that, I turned up the volume and let it rip.
“I made some new friends, new fans, and had a fun time overall.”
As for the cigar-box guitar, Lange said he has had that for several years.
“I saw someone play one, so I went on the Internet to find somebody who was making them,” he said. “I found a guy in Ohio who made this one for me.”
As if to prove that it is more than a gimmick, Lange launches into one of his blues songs, putting the three-string showpiece through its paces.
“It’s pretty primitive, but it’s a lot of fun to play,” he said. “It breaks a lot. The strings don’t break; the guitar breaks.”
For more information or to find out when Lange will be performing, visit davelange.net.