SAN DIEGO — If multi-instrumental wizard Dennis Caplinger had any musical limitations, they were all but inaudible in a career that stretched from his teen years in the pioneering San Diego band Bluegrass Etc. in the mid-1970s until shortly before his death this month.
A featured musician on Grammy Award-winning albums by Eric Clapton and JJ Cale in 2007 and Buck Howdy in 2010, Caplinger died on Aug. 14 at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas. He was 57 and had been hospitalized for about a month. The cause of death was complications from sepsis, according to his son and fellow musician, Zachary Caplinger.
“My dad was very humble and never asked for any sort of compliments,” Zachary Caplinger said.
“But, from as far back as I can recall, he couldn’t go to a gig without everybody showering him with praise. He was the consummate professional, and he rose to every occasion.”
Those sentiments are shared by Poway Mayor and veteran singer-songwriter Steve Vaus, who credits Dennis Caplinger for consistently elevating Vaus’ music.
“If not for Dennis’ brilliance, I wouldn’t even have had one Grammy nomination, let alone four and a Grammy win,” said Vaus, who records under the name Buck Howdy.
“There was nothing with strings on it that Dennis couldn’t play. If heaven’s angels have harps, there’s no doubt he is already teaching them new licks. He makes everybody better. He was the ‘Lord of the Strings’.”
Dennis Fulton Caplinger was born May 10, 1963, at Tri-City Hospital in Oceanside. Drawn to music early on while growing up in Vista, he was only 13 when he co-founded Bluegrass Etc. with guitarist/mandolinist John Moore and his guitar-playing sister, Julie Moore.
“That single thing of starting to play with them, more so than anything else, influenced me as a kid trying to play bluegrass,” Caplinger said in a 2017 Union-Tribune interview. “Because they were really good for teenagers!”
So was Caplinger, who had switched from drums to banjo before he reached his teen years.
“I met Dennis at a bluegrass festival in Vista,” John Moore recalled. “He borrowed my banjo, because mine was better than his, and won the contest.
“Later, he also took up the fiddle, and he attacked it with the same passion as banjo. Whatever instrument he played in whatever genre, Dennis made it sound like he owned it, every time, and made it sound like it belonged there.”
From Vince Gill to One Direction
Caplinger enrolled at the University of California San Diego as a music major. He left before graduating to become a full-time professional musician. His versatility and virtuosity were demonstrated by the breadth of his career, which saw him record with everyone from Clapton and country-music star Vince Gill to Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Chris Hillman and the now-defunct teen boy band One Direction.
“In the case of (recording on the album ‘Four’ by) One Direction, I had no clue who they were. I’d never heard of them,” Caplinger recalled in his 2017 Union-Tribune interview. He spoke Murietta, where his family had moved from Vista in 2008.
A warm, friendly bear of a man, Caplinger recorded often in Los Angeles, where he had instruments stored and at the ready for his studio sessions. He was the featured instrumentalist on dozens of albums released as part of CMH Records’ “Pickin’ On” series.
He often performed on those albums as a one-man band, expertly creating, arranging and playing bluegrass versions of songs by Santana, Phish, Van Halen and more. His solo version of electric guitar legend Eddie Van Halen’s epic “Eruption” is a stunning example of Caplinger’s mastery of the banjo.
“There were so many times I would have Dennis come in and create a bluegrass record from scratch,” said award-winning San Diego musician and album producer Jeffrey Alan Berkley.
“We would put down the bass and guitar parts, and he would add the rest, in one day. The whole record! Banjo, mandolin, dobro and fiddle. … He could’ve done the guitar and bass, too, but he wanted us to feel needed.”
In addition to his son, Caplinger is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; daughters Rachel, 22, and Melissa, 33; and by his two older sisters, Virginia Sullivan, a Northern California resident, and Patty Chagnon, who lives in Texas.