Dennis Caplinger passes

Dennis Caplinger – photo by Dennis Andersen

Dennis Caplinger, described by close friend since high school days and former band mate John Moore as “a MONSTER banjo player,” passed away on Saturday morning, August 14, 2021. He was 57 years of age.

He is actually a multi-instrumentalist par excellence, being equally skilful on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, resophonic guitar, bass, piano, and percussion instruments, as can be noted by his work on many albums in CMH Record’s Pickin’ On series. These include tributes to Eric Clapton, Santana, Creed, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, Bonnie Raitt, Jim Morrison, Queen, Neil Diamond, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., ZZ Top, Lynrd Skynrd, Black Crowes, Phish, Dolly Parton, Brooks & Dunn, Lonestar, Lee Ann Womack, Jo Dee Messina, Tim McGraw, Montgomery Gentry, Clint Black, Tracy Byrd, Counting Crows, Indigo Girls, LeeAnn Rimes, and Rod Stewart.

Caplinger is one of the many artists who contribute to Strummin’ With The Devil: The Southern Side of Van Halen (released on June 6, 2006). This track showcases his skills in a dazzling solo banjo piece .. Eruption


From Vista, California (near San Diego) a virtuoso’s virtuoso and Grammy Award-winner, Caplinger began playing drums when he was just four years old and took up bluegrass music at the age of 12. A year later, he began playing professionally with the budding Bluegrass, Etc.

Speaking to The San Diego Union-Tribune in August 2017 Caplinger, nicknamed “Cannonball,” recalled, “About 1976 or ’77, I started playing with John Moore and his sister, Julie, in Bluegrass, Etc.” When Caplinger was 15 and 16, they had gigs every weekend. More so than anything else, these experiences influenced him in his efforts to play bluegrass music. 

In 1982 the band released its debut album, Tree Ripe N’ Ready To Pick, which featured Byron Berline as special guest. Over the period of about a further decade, Bluegrass, Etc. recorded four more albums. 

Later Caplinger studied violin as a music major at University of California San Diego (UCSD) but, he dropped out in order to play music professionally. 

He was a busy sideman and studio musician in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Nashville. His discography includes sessions for Eric Clapton; JJ Cale; One Direction; Vince Gill; Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen; Dan Crary; Byron Berline; John Reischman; MCA artist Jann Browne, for whom he produced Count Me In; Kevin Welch (Warner Brothers); Kelly Willis (MCA); Ray Price; Rita Coolidge, as part of the female trio Walela; Buck Howdy; and many San Diego-based artists, including the former Padres baseball player Tim Flannery; the award-winning Americana artist Eve Selis, Georgia-born singer/songwriter Barbara Nesbitt; American fiddle rock band Lexington Field; and Louisiana-born Ron Steven Houston, among others. 

When asked how many how many albums he played on Caplinger commented, “Geez! I’m not sure, but it’s definitely in the hundreds. A lot of times, the producers don’t even tell me what artist I’m recording for. That’s also common with TV and radio commercials.”

Sometimes when not in a studio, he went on the road with the likes of Browne; Welch; Willis; fiddler Richard Greene; singer-songwriter and guitarist Kenny Loggins; pop and country singer Juice Newton; B.J. Thomas, who had a hit with Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head; the Rock band America; and Nickel Creek alums Chris Thile and Sean Watkins. 

Along with Moore, Caplinger was a key mentor to the members of Nickel Creek.

Meanwhile his involvement with Bluegrass, Etc., lasting over four decades, took him throughout all the lower 48 states of the U.S.A., to various parts of Europe, Canada, Alaska, and Japan. 

Bluegrass, Etc. were mainstays at the near-20 year old Summergrass San Diego festivals; they are captured here in 2015 – Walk in the Irish Rain (Steve Spurgin) ….


Additionally, Caplinger played with The Ray Park Rangers, Death Valley Pizza, Kim Evans, Berkley Hart, Eve Selis, he was a long-time member of Tim Flannery’s band and of the Academy of Country Music Awards Show band. 

He was the author of three books in the Ultimate Beginner series, teaching the basics for banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Later he added DVDs to the books. 

His other writing credits include further books, with two in The Complete Idiot’s Guide series, one for banjo and another for mandolin; and frequent contributions to Banjo NewsLetter magazine. 

Caplinger recorded on a number of film soundtracks including Back To The Future III, starring Michael J. Fox (1990); El Diablo (1990); Rio Diablo, starring Kenny Rogers and Travis Tritt (1993); Midnight Run To Oklahoma; Steven King’s horror/thriller Apt Pupil (1998); and the Western/comedy A Million Ways To Die in the West (2014), among others; and played mandolin with the onstage band in the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell Broadway stage musical, Bright Star (2014).

He is one of the featured artists in the documentary Banjos, Bluegrass & Squirrel Barkers (2016), and played banjo and reso-guitar in When to Die, a feature length documentary about the history and culture of Civil War re-enacting (also 2016). 

Caplinger played on the soundtracks of animated children’s TV programs Histeria!; Pinky and the Brain; Family Guy; and The Simpsons, as well as in the HBO hit Western series, Deadwood. 

He was heard on numerous TV programs on PBS, A&E, TNN, Biography, and The History Channel, and appeared on the variety talk show Martha (aka The Martha Stewart TV Show).

Also, Caplinger, who had his own production company based in his home town and later in Murrieta, California, worked on countless commercials including some for New York Life, Home Depot, Subway Sandwiches, Discover Card, Cingular Wireless (with Bluegrass, Etc.), and several more. 

These two videos, shot at the Bluegrass on the Beach festival on the shores of Lake Havasu, Arizona, in March 2016, capture part of the Bluegrass, Etc. set – Dennis Caplinger (banjo), John Moore (vocals and guitar), and Steve Spurgin (vocals and bass) …. with the Marty Robbins’ classic Carmen.


…. and the cover of another classic, Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving you Again  

Videos courtesy Paul Grinvalsky, Alvin Blaine, and Old Blue Sound.

A gentle bear of a man, he had a very sensitive touch as an instrumentalist, no matter what style of music he was asked to perform, and he put his own stamp on everything that he did. 

John Moore has the last word, sharing these sentiments …. 

“He was a musical giant, but I’ll always know Dennis as a man of impeccable character and integrity who was absolutely loyal and honest to a fault.”

R.I.P. Dennis Caplinger 

An appeal has been launched seeking financial support to help with medical expenses and funeral costs. Donations can be made on their GoFundMe page. 

A Discography 

Bluegrass Etc. 

  • Tree Ripe N’ Ready To Pick (No label RE 1 06213, 1982) 
  • Bluegrass Etc. (Sierra Records SXCD 6014, October 17, 1995) 
  • Travelin’ Band (Sierra Records SXCD 6020, 1996)
  • Home Is Where The Heart Is (Tricopolis Records TRCD 004, 1999)
  • Classics (Tricopolis TRCD 0603, 2006) 

Selected others

  • Dan Crary – Jammed If I Do (Sugar Hill Records SH-CD 3824, 1994)
  • Byron Berline – A Fiddle & A Song (Sugar Hill Records SHCD-3838, 1995) 
  • John Reischman – Up In The Woods (Corvus Records CR004, 1999) 
  • Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen – Way Out West (Back Porch 72438-11978-2-0, 2002)

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.