OREM — You probably haven’t heard of Michael Dowdle, but you’ve heard his music. His guitar riffs and instrumentals have turned up everywhere — themes for "Monday Night Football," ABC college football, "Good Morning America," "The Today Show," KSL News, movie trailers, movie scores, national TV commercials, Utah Jazz season promos, not to mention thousands of albums.
If you’ve ever heard guitar music on a Mormon video, movie or CD, it’s almost certainly Dowdle. But as soon as you think you’ve got him pegged as a Mormon musician, he is playing a strap-your-seat-belt-on electric-guitar piece. He’s recorded everything from “I Am a Child of God” to “Convergence,” an original electric guitar instrumental performed at 220 beats per minute. It’s probably not something he will play in Provo at the LDS Missionary Training Center, where he serves in a branch presidency.
Passing up the Hollywood scene to stay home for family and religious reasons, Dowdle has carved out a 34-year career with his guitar from his home in Orem. He is one of the busiest musicians in the state. Dowdle has recorded five albums of original instrumental music — four pop jazz and one rock — plus eight albums of LDS hymns and three albums of Christmas music that feature his instrumental guitar arrangements.
He is in almost-constant demand for studio work, laying down guitar tracks for the music of other musicians, putting in four to five studio sessions. During three decades in the business, he has performed in around 7,000 studio sessions. Jazz, classical, blues, rock, folk, country, R&B, bluegrass, gospel — he does it all, which makes him a commodity for every type of musician, composer and singer.
He has performed and/or recorded with Donny and Marie Osmond, the Osmond Brothers, Brian Wilson, the Coasters, Peter Noon, Kurt Bestor, Sam Cardon, John Schneider, David Hasselhoff, Michael McLean, Janice Kapp Perry, the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
He has performed on numerous movie scores — “Born to be Wild,” “The Stand,” “Christmas in Connecticut,” “The Yearling” and “Hart to Hart” — and written and performed music for movie trailers — “Cool Runnings,” “The Three Musketeers,” “The Fan,” “Last Dance,” “Multiplicity, “The Cable Guy,” “Donnie Brasco” and “Antz,” to name some.
Veteran composer Cardon, who has worked with Dowdle since the beginning of his career, marvels at his range: “He can pull off every style — in rock, everything from punk to indie to speed metal; in R&B, everything from swampy blues to funk to jazz; and he can also play the most intricate passages on a classical guitar. Each one is convincing — not as a tourist in an unfamiliar style, but completely authentic.”
Bestor, another successful composer and arranger, agrees: “His knowledge of styles and musical genres is incredibly wide-ranging, which allows me to hire him to play (everything from) Renaissance lute parts to the most raucous rock and roll riffs.”
Unlike many popular guitarists, Dowdle has formal musical training. He was reared on classical music, starting piano lessons at 5 and violin at 7. He played in junior high and high school orchestras. Certainly, he was influenced by his mother Ruth, who played violin in the Oklahoma City Symphony and served as an organist in their local Mormon congregation for 40 years.
When he was 12, Michael, the fourth of six children, moved with his family from Oklahoma to Provo, where his father, Harold, taught Spanish at BYU. Three years later he discovered guitar. Michael’s older brother Larry played in a local rock band. Michael, who returned from school an hour earlier than his brother each day, sneaked into Larry’s room to play the guitar until he heard his brother’s school bus arriving, and then he’d put it away.
“He finally caught me one day,” Michael recalls. “He made me promise that I’d go on a (church) mission if he let me play his guitar. I agreed; I was going to go anyway.”
Dowdle dropped the violin and piano studies to teach himself the guitar. (“My mom was not happy,” he says.) He laid the foundation for his career when he and a friend took a summer job moving irrigation pipe on a farm in Idaho. They lived in a shack in the middle of a field, with no driver’s license or transportation. To kill the hours between morning and evening pipe changes, Michael played songs from a Beatles songbook to learn basic chords and played what he heard on the radio.
“I’d pick up songs off the radio and teach myself to play them,” he says. “I’d have to wait for another hour for the song to play again so I could get it all.”
When he returned home, he began playing in a band. Their first gig was playing for an LDS Primary activity — for children under the age of 12. They played Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and ZZ Top on stage in the cultural hall, which had to have raised a few eyebrows.
He set aside the guitar for two years to serve a mission in Texas and then enrolled again at BYU. He was going to be an architect and studied engineering. “I never considered music as an option,” he says.
Between classes he played in a band and worked at a local music store, where he sold guitars and played for customers. Cody Hale, whose family owns Hale Centre Theatre and had seen Dowdle play in the store, invited him to form a song-writing partnership, promising that he had Hollywood contacts. Dowdle dropped out of school and spent the next year writing music with Hale, and they landed a contract with Curb Records.
“But they just wanted Cody, not me,” Dowdle says.
His parents were urging him to return to school, but Dowdle forged ahead with the music. Like most people his age, he wanted to be a rock star, but he soon realized there were other, more realistic, ways to make a living with a guitar. Every commercial, TV show, movie, radio show and recorded production needed guitar music; even other musicians needed guitar music. He started doing studio work and, to his surprise, made enough money to buy a small house for his young family.
He played in Utah’s hottest band of the day, London Bridge, which played at church dances in Utah, California, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah. His reputation as a studio musician continued to grow, and by 1983 he was getting steady recording work from other musicians.
He was hired to compose and arrange for Nonstop Productions, a music production company based in Salt Lake City, where he teamed up with staff writers Cardon and Bestor. They produced music for network TV shows and movie trailers for Paramount and Tri-Star, among other work. Dowdle wrote themes for CNN and CNBC and promotions for “Crossfire” and "Larry King Live" and commercials for Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet.
Nonstop eventually formed a label, Airus Records, and Dowdle began to cut his own albums of original music. Two of them climbed into the top 15 of the national radio charts. The music of those years became part of a library that is culled by TV shows and advertisers looking for tunes. Dowdle continues to earn royalties from that music decades later.
“I did my very first paid recording session with Mike,” Cardon says. “He was a pretty exotic creature in those days. He had hair down to the middle of his back and a Fu Manchu mustache trailing off into a scruffy beard … But there was something way different about Mike than the average dirtbag rocker: focus. It was intense. His classical violin training showed up in his playing, too. There was this amazing dual personality — the most exquisite rawness in the same moment as impeccable technique and finesse. It wasn't long before Mike became the dominant guitarist, and he has pretty much ruled that roost for 25 years.”
Says Bestor: “I am a better arranger/composer because I have a guitarist like Michael who takes my notes, adds his amazing creative spin to them, and hands me back my musical ideas with so much more attached. … He's the quintessential perfectionist, often asking for 'just one more take' so he can get it perfect even after I had announced that the last take was good enough.”
At the outset of his career, Dowdle considered a move to California, the base for the music industry. But the pull of faith and family — his parents and in-laws live in Utah — kept him home. Instead, he built an unlikely guitar career in Utah. He believes if he had gone to the L.A. recording scene, he might have been typecast — “There is so much competition that if you do nylon string guitar work, you tend to become the nylon string guitar guy,” he says — while in Utah he has been able to play all genres.
“My lifestyle has taken me out of that (L.A. recording) world,” he says. “But it’s fortunate. I can still enjoy music and the creative process and have real close access to my family and my religion. Those are major factors in the decisions I’ve made. I spend a lot of time with family and in church service.”
Dowdle, who raised four children with his wife, Eve, served as a bishop in a BYU ward from 2004 to 2007 and now serves as second counselor in an MTC branch presidency. His commitment to the LDS faith has carried over into his music. In 1984, he was commissioned to record an album of his acoustic guitar arrangements for 50 hymns, which led to a series of other albums with a variation on religious themes.
He is frequently retained by the LDS Church for various projects — movies for seminary students, movies that played on Temple Square ("The Testament," "Legacy"), various ads and shorts that run on TV or LDS.org. Among other things, he scored the music — piano and strings — for a short video called “Good Things to Come,” a story told by LDS Church Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland. Dowdle has won more than a dozen Pearl Awards from the Faith-Centered Music Association.
“I love doing stuff with the church,” Dowdle says. “I am diehard LDS. I’m really committed. I decided my main focus would be the gospel. My dream was to be a musician and make a living for my family through music. If someone asks what is the main reason for my success and I could answer the way I really feel, it would be God’s blessings.”
The 57-year-old Dowdle says this as he sits in the small basement office/recording studio of his home. He records some of his work here, but only after clearing the house of grandkids and warning all occupants not to flush the toilet, since the whooshing sound can be captured by his recording equipment. Besides recording, he still performs in a band called the Salamanders and plays in Bestor’s annual Christmas concert tour.
“One of the things I love about Mike is that the dual personality lives on even in his personal life and he's unapologetic about that,” says Cardon. “He's a devoted husband and father. He's served as a bishop. He's released several amazing recordings of sacred music. … He’s become a holy man. But, don't kid yourself. I was in a recording session with him just last week when he brought out the inner animal for some of the grittiest, stinkiest blues riffs I've ever heard .... of course impeccably performed.”
After all these years and all those hours in studio sessions, Dowdle says he still enjoys the simple pleasure of playing music on the guitar. When he has spare time, he’ll play the instrument for a couple of hours “just for fun.”
“Whatever you’re passionate about, whatever you love, you’ll be successful with it,” he says. “You’ll find a way to make money at it. But I think, too, you have to remember that to be successful you have to be really good at it.”
Dowdle's albums are all sold on his michaeldowdle.com website.