A Conversation with Resophonic Guitar Luthier Kent Schoonover

SJ: About ten years ago I was visiting Jimmy Heffernan at his home in New Jersey when he handed me a squareneck resonator guitar to play. As soon as I played it I looked up at him and said “this is a great guitar! Who made this?” Up until that point I had never heard of Schoonover Resophonic Guitars. What inspired you to start building your own instruments and what is the background story of Schoonover Resonator Guitars?

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Kent Schoonover

 

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KS: The inspiration came quite early for me. My dad was a fiddle player and some of my earliest recollections were of him playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” and my older sister and I dancing a circle around him as he played. By the time I was ten years old he had me sitting down with his D-18 trying to learn to play rhythm for his fiddle. He loved Tommy Jackson, Chubby Wise and Scotty Stoneman. August of 1971 found the family camped in a big tent at Bill Grant’s Salt Creek Park Bluegrass Festival in Hugo, OK. I was 13 years old. It changed our lives. We slogged through the mud for five days catching the stage shows and the all-night jams. As a family, we continued to make the yearly trip to Hugo through the 1970s.

After returning home that first year, I started learning the banjo and my brother Craig (known by all as Bozo) started to learn the dobro. Hey, every dobro player has to have a nick-name right? Well, we didn’t have a Dobro at the time so Daddy put a nut extender on his D-18 to get him started. Soon after, he bought Bozo an OMI Dobro through the mail from Slim Ritchey in Dallas.
The fascination for lutherie came from yearning for one of those beautiful, powerful banjos I encountered at the Bluegrass festivals. The Hugo festival hosted instrument contests and I remember the prize for the banjo contest was this gorgeous hand-made Thomas Banjo. I was blown away by the banjo playing of Don Thomas and seeing these great banjos that he made really made a mark on me.

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Curly Maple Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

 

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Back home, Bozo and I woodshedded with Daddy’s collection of Flatt and Scruggs. You know,
putting the LP on the turn table and slowing it down to 16 RPMs. I also had Earl’s 5-String Banjo Instruction book. It was there in the back of that book that I found some basic information on building a banjo. I remember thinking “we could build a banjo”!

I think at this point I should tell you a little about our family. We were the ones that, you know, if the water well pump quit we pulled it out and fixed it. If the truck engine was worn out, we overhauled it. If the house needed a roof……you get the picture. The music was a part of our lives just as much as our spirt of being self- sufficient. There were many talented craftspeople in our family and extended family. I think we were all inspired by each other. My dad was always tinkering with fiddles. He would bring home a fiddle, sometimes in pieces, and put it all back together. There was an old fiddle maker in Ardmore that he would visit when he had something special to show him and I went with him one time. I was really drawn to that level of craftsmanship. Well, I never built that banjo. We saved our money and went to see Don Thomas and I came home with the banjo that I play to this day. But receiving that custom banjo and knowing the sacrifice the whole family had made in order for me to have it and knowing the great person who made it inspired me to write a paper in high school of my desire to build instruments.

After High School, I went to work in a paper mill and I was spending my spare time with old Chevy trucks and hunting and fishing. Bozo came home one day with this Walnut R.Q. Jones Resophonic Guitar! He and Mom and Dad had made a few trips to Wanette, Oklahoma to see Rudy and ordered that guitar. I remember seeing some photos he snapped of Rudy’s shop. Rudy had this big ole bandsaw and workbenches with guitar bodies and parts in this old brick storefront building with this sign that read “R.Q. Jones Resonator Guitars, Worlds Finest”. I thought that was the coolest thing! While working in the oil patch in South Texas I managed to build a mandolin from scratch and I cannibalized a cheap import for the tuners and fretboard. It was really bad. My Dad had Roger Siminoff’s book on Building a Bluegrass Mandolin which I studied but paid no attention to in the building of that mandolin. After moving back home to Oklahoma, I set up a workshop where I satisfied my need to create by building furniture and repairing the pawn shop specials my Dad would bring to me. I also built a few mountain dulcimers. I really don’t know why. I didn’t care for them much but I thought it would be a good place to learn some of the basic construction methods that I had ignored on that first mandolin.

By the fall of 1992 I had just finished building an 18’ Cedar-Strip canoe. Bozo brought his R.Q. Jones over complaining about a buzz. We opened it up and discovered the buzz was a result of the glue joints failing on some of the support posts. We repaired it and put it back together. Bozo said to me “why don’t you build me a dobro”?

Gaven Largent playing his rosewood/cedar Schoonover Resonator Guitar

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Sapele/Sitka Spruce “Black Lacquer” Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

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SJ: So what process did you go through to learn how to build guitars? What qualities were you most concerned with when you designed your first guitar?

KS: Well, that first reso was just a copy of the RQ Jones – more or less. In our neck of the woods the Jones was King! So, why not start there? I had a lot of Walnut lumber from trees I had cut down and milled with a chainsaw mill. I had Irving Sloan’s book on Classical Guitar construction to guide me in the basics. So that first guitar was Walnut. After completing it, I remember thinking….this is not the way to build an acoustic instrument. Every great guitar that I had ever encountered was light and responsive in my hands. Studying my brother’s OMI Dobro and his R.Q. Jones I found they were built to withstand very heavy loads from top to back. However, the body was not well equipped to counter the over 200 pounds of string tension from the tailpiece to the neck. This resulted in the soundwell or the cone ledge becoming egg-shaped. My brother’s R.Q. Jones, which I had just copied, was built like a bridge. You could drive a car over it! I thought it was interesting that the back was so heavily braced and seemed to be designed to support the resonator yet the top was flimsy and prone to deformation from the string tension. This deformation, I believed, would have a negative effect on the cone’s resonance and sustain.
I thought about this day and night. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to build another reso but I had no desire to build it with what I saw as a poor structural design.

What quality was I most concerned with? Well, ultimately, if you are building a musical instrument it is going to be tone. There is a tone that you hear in your head. You know it when you hear it. You know when you don’t. But it is more than that. It is the sustain, the response, the projection, the attack, and the decay…. If it does not have a voice that speaks to you it is just a guitar-shaped piece of furniture. Having built only one reso at this point, I felt that a richer more guitar-like tone might be achieved by getting rid of all that lumber on the back and build the strength into the top. I understood the importance of providing the cone a solid platform on which it could resonate; I just did not want the back to support it. My first and foremost challenge in designing the Schoonover reso was this. And this is what kept me up all those nights. To create a structural member for the top that connected the neck block to the tail block to withstand the tension of the strings without deformation. I thought by building the strength into the top, I would be able to brace the back in a more traditional guitar-like manner and keep it free and responsive. So, my goal was great tone that was more than just the cone but I felt the path to that goal was structural change.

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Quilted Maple Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

 

SJ: Has the design and construction of your guitars changed or evolved over the years? If so, in what ways?

KS: The basic design idea of the neck-to-tail top support with the free back has not changed although the materials and construction methods have evolved. The first Schoonover designed resos (#2 through #6) had the top support made from steam-bent 1/4″ x 3/4″ maple strips laminated into what I referred to as a “tennis racquet”. I started with a single Maple strip formed into a hoop and then wrapped that with 2 more laminations with a filler strip between them that resembled a handle. The handle end was mortised into the neck block. The rounded hoop end was connected to the tail block. I built elaborate fixtures to bend and clamp the steamed strips to shape. Then, when dry, I glued it all together and ran it through a thickness sander. It was crazy! I really enjoyed the process at the time, but it was very labor intensive. In an effort to reduce the labor in each guitar I began cutting the top supports out of Finnish Birch plywood as one-piece units. I found this to be an improvement both structurally and tonally.

I was really pleased with the guitars and they were selling. But, I noticed that the sound was not as focused as my brother’s R.Q. Jones, and it seemed that the back was being overpowered. I was bracing the back dead flat at the time and the body depth was consistent all around on the sides. So I started tapering the sides and bracing the back in a dome and that tightened up the back. My construction methods have evolved to suit my build style and the tools and machines that I have. Some of my construction methods may be somewhat unconventional. For instance, I don’t cut the holes in the top until the guitar is completely finished and buffed. I do the same with the tuner holes and neck attachment bolt holes. The neck is never attached to the body until it is ready to be set-up. It is properly fit to the body with the correct angle and flossed in but can’t be attached until I cut the holes in the top. I built only that R. Q. Jones body style until just last year when I added (after much prodding from my son, Kyle) an “L” body.

Jeff Partin playing his mahogany/spruce Schoonover Resonator guitar

SJ: Interesting! What are the actual size differences between the Jones body style and your newer L body guitars? How do they compare from a sound/volume/playability perspective?

KS: There is virtually no size difference. The new body is a modification of a Martin “D” and scaled down in some dimensions. It is just a sexier-looking body to me. The upper bout and shoulders are more rounded than the Jones body. The construction of them is identical. If I had to pick-out any difference in the sound I would probably say that the Jones body may emphasize the mid-range a bit more. No difference in the playability.

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Black Acacia/Western Red Cedar Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

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SJ: From a builder’s perspective, what are the most important design features of your guitars that go into creating great playability and responsiveness?

KS: I feel when the structural requirements of the design with the proper execution of each construction detail balances with a minimum amount of material, great things happen. I build great strength into the body by interconnecting all the key structural elements. The top support is bracketed into the sides; the back is free of posts and domed with braces that are tucked into the lining. The neck heel is full width and allows the use of 3 attachment bolts. The fingerboard extension is also bolted down from the inside with 4 machine bolts. It is a very solid unit. It is lightly built with regards to the amount of material, but very strong. These things when coupled with a proper set-up help to advance the player’s experience with regards to playability and responsiveness.

SJ: So your guitars have been an open bodied design from day one, correct? No soundwell?

KS: That is correct. I have never made a soundwell guitar. The only guitar I ever built that utilized posts was that first guitar.

SJ: What constitutes a good set up on a resonator guitar? How do you go about setting up your own guitars – what kinds of materials go into a good set up to get the best sound out of a resonator guitar?

KS: Whoa! Really? OK! Three words…… Every little thing. No…. Every minute thing!
The sound of any reso is only as good as its set-up. The finest tonewoods assembled into a reso with the most gifted hands, utilizing the best hardware and set-up by someone without a clear understanding of what works will be totally uninspiring. What is a good set-up? Well, it starts with a structurally sound guitar. When I am setting up a customer’s reso I first evaluate it. If there are issues with the cone ledge not being flat and true, I start there. I feel it is very important for the cone to rest on a perfectly flat shelf. A resonator that is forced to conform to a cone ledge that looks like a potato chip will not be ideal. I have found this to be an issue with resos that utilize posts and domed backs. With fluctuations in temperature and humidity, the back will either dome up (high humidity which can cause the posts’ glue joints to fail) or flatten out (low humidity which can cause the cone ledge to rise under each post). I have a platform that I mount to the top of the reso and route the cone ledge or soundwell flat and true again. The neck joint must be secure and at the proper angle.

For my own guitars, the cone ledge is created when I route the holes in the top. I use a specific setup for the route so all of my guitars have a consistent cone ledge depth. I cut the neck heel to provide a specific amount of relief at the nut when a straight edge is laid on the guitar top and on the neck shaft without the fretboard. This accounts for the tension of the strings so that when strung to pitch the neck will be on the same plane as the top of the body. I arch the spider and level the tips of the legs perfectly by manipulating it with a hammer and lapping it on a granite plate. The backside of the spider “hub” is machined to further lighten it. The bridge height is adjusted to maximize the available space under the coverplate’s palmrest. I also mount the Modular Bridge about 3 degrees off of perpendicular to the Modular Spider with the top of the bridge angled back toward the tailpiece. I use a spacer under the tailpiece if I want to moderate the down-pressure on the cone. One thing I have learned is how to calculate the maximum bridge height for a guitar. If I know the cone ledge depth and what cone and coverplate are used, I can solve for the bridge height. It takes the guesswork out of it. Cutting the string slots in the nut and saddle is where the Mojo is. You can have every other thing right, but if you don’t get this right there is no magic. It takes practice and an understanding of a string’s dynamics to have consistent success.

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Southeast Asian Rosewood Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

 

 

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In terms of materials, the following are important:

  • Bone nut: correct height, properly fitted, shaped and polished. I am an advocate of cutting string slots that give equal space between strings as opposed to string slots that are cut center to center. It looks right to my eye and I like the playability better.
  • Cone: At one time it was only Quarterman. Now, I let the customer decide as long as it is a Quarterman, Scheerhorn, or Beard.
  • Spider: Schoonover Modular Spider
  • Bridge: Schoonover Modular Bridge Phenolic-capped Maple.

SJ: I’ve played a lot of different squareneck resonator guitars over the years and I’m sometimes puzzled at how two different builders can build a guitar with the same kinds of wood and yet those guitars may sound/play very differently. How do you view the intersection between the design of a guitar and the craftsmanship of the builder vs. the influence of tone woods used to build the guitar?

KS: I absolutely believe the differences between two luthier’s design and skill will outweigh any similarities one might expect to hear because of the use of the same wood species. You also have to understand that we tend to discuss different woods and harp on their generalities. You know, Maple is bright, Mahogany is sweet, and Brazilian Rosewood is…insert divine adjective here. In reality, there is a lot of variability in wood within species. There can be a lot of variability in wood from the same tree! Even the way the grain is oriented in the wood affects its stiffness and will therefore have to be considered in the construction for the way it can influence the sound.

SJ: On your website you list options for different tone woods – I’m curious to know which wood combinations are the most popular and what kind of process do you go through to help some select the tone woods for their guitar?

KS: Overall, the most popular wood for my guitars has been Maple. But, there have been cycles. There was a time it seemed Rosewood/Spruce was very popular. It’s funny, the first two guitars I built were Walnut and I didn’t build another Walnut guitar for over 20 years. I have built three in the last year!

Some customers know exactly what they want. Some don’t….I have to tell a story. A man called and made arrangements to meet me at my shop. He had seen one of my guitars and was excited to have a reso made. He drove from the Texas Panhandle, about a five hour trip, to spec out his guitar. I think we looked at every stick of wood I had. After hours of discussion and lunch and even a little pickin’ he says “I can’t decide between a Maple or Rosewood/ Spruce, I think I’ll just have to have one of each!” That was a fun day and I made a really great friend. I mostly do a lot of listening. I want to know what type music they play, and in what type of setting. Are they into tradition or more contemporary in their leanings? If it is a long distance customer I offer to email photos of particular sets of wood. Last year, I had a customer in Japan choose his wood from several sets of Claro Walnut using this method. If the customer has distinct desires regarding tone, without a clear choice in species, I make recommendations based on my experience. For instance, I had a customer who said he loved the look of Maple but he did not like that “bright, harsh sound”. I chose a set of outstanding Quilted Bigleaf Western Maple. Tonally, I have found this wood to be more like Mahogany than Maple.

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Claro Walnut Schoonover Resonator Guitar

 

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SJ: What was the inspiration to design and create the Schoonover Modular Spider? It seems to me that your Modular Spider was a perfect solution for some of the issues associated with the installation of the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup, but I’m not sure which came first.

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Schoonover Modular Spider

 

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Schoonover Modular Spider with ebony capped saddle

 

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Schoonover Modular Spider w/Fishman Nashville Series Pickup assembly

 

KS: You know the old expression – “necessity is the mother of invention” – in this case it was frustration. After building several guitars and all the various jigs a guitar builder tends to rely on and refining my methods of work, I had everything ironed out to suit me. Everything was a breeze until I went to set-up the spider-bridge inserts. I don’t know why I hated that so. I hated fiddling with those tiny bits of wood, pressing them into that ragged slot. I never felt good about that. Well, I had lots of spider bridges to fiddle with. I had visited with Bob Reed at his shop a few times back in 1993 and I was buying my spider bridges from him. After he passed, I approached his family about acquiring the match plate for the spider bridge which I did. This was the spider that Rudy had used in his guitars. So I began having these spiders cast and sold many of them through Beverly King and Country Heritage. Over the years I spent many hours experimenting with spiders by filing, drilling, grinding, resonance tuning and measuring deflection. I just thought there had to be some room for improvement. I noticed all of the different bridges available for banjos and how a bridge change could alter the tone and I thought how great it would be if I could change a bridge as easily as a banjo player does. So, I machined the bridge slot boss off flat on a spider and fashioned a few bridges of different materials. At first, these were two-piece bridges. I liked how they made the guitar sound and the fact that I could easily alter the tonal character of the reso. So I tooled-up (had to make more jigs) and had some custom cutters made and started machining the one-piece bridge stock in strips. I had a few of them in guitars when the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup hit the market. I had a customer order a guitar with the pickup so I ordered the Adjustable #14 for it. I installed that pickup and it worked out okay. But I thought how cool would it be if Fishman would install their pickup in my Modular Bridge. I called Fishman and explained what I had and asked if I could I send them a sample. They just said their production was setup and that I would just have to find a way to make it work. Little did they know my moto in life has been “Find a way or make one”. ☺

SJ: It’s got to be exciting that two of the hottest new players on the scene – Jeff Partin and Gaven Largent – are playing your guitars. How did you come to meet both of those fine players? I’m also curious to know what wood combinations they choose when they commissioned you to build them a guitar? Did they know what they wanted or did you guide them through that process as described earlier?

KS: It is really exciting for me to hear the music these guys make. That is what every luthier wants, I think. To have your instruments put to use at that level. Gaven tears it up! I mean, you should see his guitar! It looks so cool, like it’s 60 years old already! I received a phone call from a man in Florida about 2 years ago. He says “I saw one of your resos at a festival. It was a great sounding guitar.” He continued, “It looked like the thing had been in a house fire!” I said with a grin…..You must have run into Gaven Largent! Kyle was living in Nashville and met Gaven at Reso-Summit a few years back. Gaven bought a Rosewood/Cedar guitar that Kyle had on hand at the time. He has commissioned me to build him a new Flamed Maple guitar that is just now getting underway. He is excited. Though, probably no more than I!

I have to credit Kyle for getting a guitar into Jeff’s hands as well. I don’t get away much but Kyle is like the Schoonover Resophonic Guitars PR division. He contacted Jeff and told him about a Mahogany/Spruce with Snakewood trim I had built for a show that I did not make it to. Jeff jumped on it. He can really make that thing sound good. Jeff really knows what to play for the song. He is a very talented musician. I think that Mahogany/Spruce fits him nicely.

SJ: Can you give us a quick synopsis of the base price for your guitars, different options and current wait times?

KS: Sure. The base price is $3,300.00. That is for a Flamed Maple, Black Walnut or Genuine Mahogany guitar. Fully bound with black, tortoise, or ivoroid. No up-charge for shaded finish. Includes Premium Custom Case.

Options

  • Wood Binding
  • Various purfling schemes
  • Custom Inlay
  • Many available body woods

Current wait time is about 12 months.

SJ: How do you like the daily life of a luthier? Do you sort of revel in the smells and the sawdust and the chips and the band-aids? Any closing comments for our readers?

KS: Well, I love it! I love working with wood. I love the music. The people I have come into contact with have all been a blessing to me. Every single one. I am thankful to God for the opportunity to spend some of my days building resophonic guitars that are used to bring joy to the people who play them. And without the unwavering support of my wife Tammie, I would not be building instruments at all. I try to get to the shop every day and make something good happen. I have been able to meet some really top-shelf luthiers over the years and have aspired to be a luthier for so long; it sometimes startles me when I am called that. When I am called a luthier I am reminded of former Phillies first baseman John Kruk’s response after being called an athlete……”I’m not an athlete, I’m a baseball player!”

Brad Harper

Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2007

SJ: Where did you grow up and how did you get started playing music?

BH: I grew up in Lewisville, a small town (now has one stoplight) near Winston-Salem, NC. It’s about 2 hours from the mountains and 3.5 hours from the beach. I started playing music as a 6th grader in school band… I played trombone for 2 years and then switched and played Tuba at the state band level by 8th grade. I really wanted to play sax and eventually did in college for a while (tenor) but at that point my interest in reso had taken over.

SJ: What kind of music did you listen to when you growing up?

BH: Hmm… Anything you can imagine really, From Enya to Wu Tang Clan and just about everything in between. At one point in college I owned over 600 compact discs but have trimmed down the collection quite significantly since. I really just like anything that captures my attention and that I can connect to either from a rhythmic, lyrical or musical perspective. I also tend to engrain music in my head in association with specific periods of my life, sorta like a sonic primary key to a row in the brain database. I’ve always stored a tremendous amount of auditory detail about music; I’m not exactly sure it’s normal, but I’m glad I can do it.

SJ: How/when did you decide to take up the dobro?

BH: I was introduced to dobro the summer after my freshman year of college. I was 19 and moving furniture and lifeguarding as summer jobs. Some co-workers were very into bluegrass and acoustic music. They had me over one afternoon after work to a pickin’ party and the one instrument in the room that nobody picked up was a late-70’s regal. I noodled with it that day and on the way home stopped at a Best Buy and bought my first two reso albums… ‘The Seldom Scene – Act IV’ and ‘Jerry Douglas & Peter Rowan – Yonder.’ Mike’s break on Tennessee Blues and Jerry’s solo on Wayside Tavern made me feel like I was taking crazy pills. Within a week I had purchased my own rd-45 from the Music Barn in Greensboro, NC. My dad was ticked, I’d spent a weeks worth of summer wages on this stupid alien-looking instrument. It’s been an obsession ever since, and I’ve never looked back.

SJ: How did you learn to play the dobro? What were some of the most important factors that helped shaped your style and approach to playing the dobro?

BH: I guess I learned by listening mostly. There weren’t any teachers around that I knew of so I’d sit with cd’s and learn breaks as best I could. I also tried to mimic lines from songs in other genres. I guess in retrospect, I took a brute force approach with theory, imitating licks and intense noodling. When I started to meet other resoists, the intensity level really picked up. I would hear licks and ideas and immediately try to fit them into my repertoire and make them my own. At first, it was all the speedy hammers of Douglas that mesmerized me. Only after a few years did I start to appreciate how he complements vocal lines so well… how he could add depth and detail to the imagery created by a song. I think I first heard that on ‘Slide Rule – I don’t believe you’ve met my baby.’ I think he is the best at adding color using fills. Later on, meeting with Rob Ickes blew me away and introduced me to a whole new mindset for improvisation and tone. It took me a while to understand Ickes but once I did (at least I think I do), I learned to fully appreciate the complex-simplicity of his mastery. The next milestone was a lesson with Randy Kohrs at SPBGMA one year. That 2-hour period of time probably did more for my confidence/playing than anything else. He gave me constructive criticism and complemented my strengths. For the first time I felt like I was actually going to learn to play this thing. His technical ability and unbelievable power on the instrument made me feel like a toddler and immediately changed the direction of my approach.

Most recently, meeting and becoming friends with Jim Heffernan completely changed my attitude and relationship with music. He helped me think outside the box and not be afraid to play what’s in my head even if it’s a bit ‘out there.’ After all, you’re never going to play anyone else’s game as good as they are so you better just stick to what’s in your own head and lets the chips fall as they may. I knew enough theory to understand keys and chord structure, but he got me to think 3-dimensionally (modularly) instead of 2- dimensionally. Most importantly, Jim made me feel like a musician, and I hope he knows how much that meant to me. He’s a great musician, teacher, and friend. I think time will tell that he’s been an invaluable resource to the reso community.

SJ: What were some of the most difficult  and/or valuable learning experiences for you? What motivated you to push your technique to the next level?

BH: I’ve always tried to stay in over my head (play with better musicians). I typically respond well to that type of situation; it’s worked for me so far. Sometimes half the battle of becoming a better picker is just to be able to put your finger on what needs changing. Picking with other (better) players helps you isolate your weaknesses. Also, trying to emulate phrases and licks from other instruments is a good way to point out where you are lacking. Although, sometimes it’s a pointless exercise because some licks are simply not applicable (maybe practical is a more appropriate term) to this instrument in my humble opinion.

SJ: Have you had any formal training in music? Is it important to understand the fundamentals of music in order to play dobro?

BH: Not formal as in music school, but I read quite a bit and have learned from people that have been “formally” trained. I think to take your music past a certain threshold you must understand general music theory; continuing to learn will help take it even further.

SJ: How did you team up with Melonie Cannon? What have been some of your favorite gigs?

BH: (I’ve recently left Melonie’s band to focus more on building guitars and a family ;-] )
I joined Melonie through a musician name Jody King who lives in Virginia. Jody is a very talented multi- instrumentalist (plays guitar, banjo, and mandolin… not a bad reso player) that’s been around bluegrass for quite a while. He got involved through Ronnie Bowman (a former bandmate) who produced Melonie’s first album and was put in charge of pulling together a band for her. Jody and I were playing in a band together in NC, and I got offered an opportunity to tryout. My first show with her was the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ in the Ryman (some ice-breaker huh?). That was probably one of my favorite shows because my wife and family (mom, dad, brother) were there, and I felt like all the time that I’ve spent on this instrument and all the sacrifice they had made for me to be obsessed were rewarded with something I was extremely proud of. I had never thought that I’d have the opportunity to play on such a historic presentation in such a highly regarded venue. That was a very memorable night. Playing at Ft. Hood in Texas for the troops was a fun show, and playing ‘The Station Inn’ was always something that meant a lot to me.

SJ: How orchestrated are the song arrangements with the M.C. band? Is there room for improvisation?

BH: The general structure was pretty much set. On songs that breath a bit I was free to add fills ad hoc as long as I didn’t step on anyone’s toes. The more up tempo songs were pretty much set as far as arrangement. Improvising on the breaks was pretty much fair game though.

SJ: How do you view your role as a time-keeper in your band? Please describe your approach to playing rhythm: can you share any examples or specific techniques you’ve learned with aspiring players?

BH: For me, in a full band, I only chop when the mandolin is taking a break. Other than that I stay off his toes with the exception of maybe highlighting an ending chord change with a bit of syncopation (as Ickes does so well). As far as learning, that’s a somewhat humorous topic. I don’t play guitar so strumming/rhythmic chopping didn’t come naturally to me. I really had to practice to get the movement and motion honed so it was bearable. I’m in the car a lot (at least I used to be) so I started to chop on the steering wheel as I was driving and listening to music. I now do it nonstop. I get made fun of a lot but it’s really helped me copy other rhythmic ideas and concepts from mandolins & guitars. I’ve been doing it for about 5 years now, and it’s really helped me rhythmically & it also helps build the muscles in your arm and shoulder to chop with endurance. My chop is still not where I want it to be, but I’ll get there some day.

SJ: I’ve heard it said that 80% of a dobro-players tone comes from the right hand. Do you agree or disagree? Please describe your right hand positioning and technique.

BH: I agree. My tone changed significantly when I started to pick harder and build up strength in my right hand. My right thumb muscle is noticeably larger than my left, and the added strength gives you so much more control and accuracy over what you are doing. I think my right hand technique is probably a little peculiar. My most comfortable hand position is at an angle where I must strike all the strings at an angle with my picks. So I never come across the string with a completely perpendicular stroke…. it’s always a brushing, glancing attack. My picks really show it by being extremely worn on the edge that faces towards the neck of the guitar. It’s a bit hard to visualize… but in a relaxed state on the guitar, my thumb points towards the upper bout farthest from me, and my index and middle fingers both point towards the upper bout closest to me. My hand also sits behind the palmrest because of the angle of my arm across the guitar. I’ve been told it’s a bit weird, but it works for me. There is no ‘one ring to rule them all’ as far as I’m concerned.

SJ: You are well-known as a player but also as a luthier. How did you decide to start building resonator guitars? When did you know this was going to become your full-time gig?

BH: I started because my home finance committee (little wifey) would not approve the acquisition of a new Scheerhorn Resonator guitar for the 2002 fiscal budget. I decided that if I couldn’t buy a new guitar, I’d try to build one. I had toyed with the idea of building since I’d started playing and finally had just enough motivation. I really didn’t plan on building more than one. Surprisingly the first one sounded pretty good and at that point it became yet another subject of my OCD, and I just had to make another. I had no idea it would turn into a fulltime (almost) occupation (and its still not 100% fulltime). I’m still tapping into my computer science background occasionally to help with funding (sound gear, dog food, new home etc.). It takes a lot of money to start and run a business… especially in a creative field. My goal is to be supporting us completely through music related occupations within 5 years.

SJ: Is it necessary to play the resonator guitar in order to build them? Does one influence the other?

BH: It’s not necessary to be a player in order to build resos, but I think it certainly helps. I think the more intimate you are with your intended tone, responsiveness, volume and playability the better chance you have of building something that you and others will be inspired and motivated to play.

SJ: How do you think about/trace the history of resonator guitars from the Dopyera brothers to modern day instruments? What have been some of the major advances/improvements of resonator guitars over the years?

BH: I think the trends we’ve seen in custom building in the last 20 years have all played an integral role in creation of the “new” breed of resos. From a construction perspective, although I’ve played really great soundwell guitars (McKenna, Beard R), I think opening up the body has been one of the most influential mutations. I think enlarging the sound chamber really evens out the frequency response. In older soundwell guitars, I hear a lot of mid-range frequencies that aren’t accompanied by matching high and low end frequencies. In my opinion that’s why older Dobros have that “honky” (for lack of a better word) sound. Another change that’s helped engage more of the low-end frequencies is deepening the body. The increase in internal volume (size not sound) allows air to move a bit more and larger sound waves to fully develop. To complement the increased low end, advances in setup components, materials & techniques have brought that sparkling high-end that balances out with the bass response. Best of all, we’ve gotten away from the slotted headstock (sorry Bob)!!

SJ: How did you come up with the design for your guitars?

BH: My design was originally done in Illustrator and AutoCAD based on my aesthetic ideas for the exterior, and the Scheerhorn baffling system with my bracing design inside the box. The headstock was drawn in the spirit of the Weissenborn guitar which I am a really big fan of. The original body shape had elements of the Scheerhorn lower bout and the RQ Jones/Reed upper bout. There have been subtle changes in the bracing and neck dimensions, and I’ve added 1/4• in width to the waist of the guitar. The backs are now arched a bit more (15•radius), and the top brace is one piece that runs neck to tail. The hardest part to grasp and the part that I’ve spent more time on than anything is the setup. I had no idea how delicate and crucial a proper setup is. I still haven’t mastered it by any means but I’m happy with where I’m at as a setup guy.

SJ: Awhile back I put up a page on my website with sound clips of several different resonator and Weissenborn guitars. After recording several clips I started to realize there is one factor that is difficult, maybe impossible to communicate with a sound clip: and that is playability/responsiveness! What, in your opinion, are things that influence the responsiveness of a resonator guitar?

BH: The type of wood the guitar is made of and the density/hardness ratio of the nut/saddle material both play major roles. I think setup can dictate quite a bit of the responsiveness but can only go so far depending on the two elements I previously mentioned. By the way, anytime I mention setup related specifics I’m assuming the setup is comprised of high-end components (#14 spider or equivalent, Quarterman cone or equivalent, bone nut and the appropriate bridge material(s) of your choice). String diameter in relation to how hard a player picks can also affect the responsiveness.

SJ: I recently saw a post on a website claiming that while L body guitars were best suited for jazz, pop, etc, R body guitars were the only guitars capable of producing an authentic bluegrass sound. What is your view on this sort of thing? Is it all about the size of the guitar, or is it more complicated than that; including the construction and design of the guitar (tone posts, baffles, tone ring/no tone ring, etc)? 

BH Honestly, I think it’s what you do with the guitar more than anything. Rob Ickes could play a stock regal on a jazz/swing tune, and you know it would still sound sweet. Now, it might not do everything his ‘Horn’ will do, but he’ll get his message across for sure. I think guitar type/style/brand is much like politics… most people just want to pick a jersey and proclaim it. I guess its human nature to want to reinforce your own decisions by preaching them to others… I do it too. However, there are very few resos that I’ve picked up and not liked something about. I like them all. With that being said… sure some guitars are going to lend themselves more to a particular type of music. A guitar with more sustain & presence might sound more natural in a jazz setting because we’re used to hearing horns with huge tone and controlled sustain. A maple guitar may sound better in a bluegrass setting because its brightness enable it to be heard a bit more. Some guitars may be better in the studio or on stage, but to say you have to play an L or an R body to fit in a particular genre is a bit of a stretch. Again, it’s more about what you are doing with it in my opinion. To me the tone, body-style, brand (jersey) is more about how it inspires the picker and makes them want to sit down at the dobro-desk and play.

SJ: Along the lines of the question above: how much influence does a professional set-up have on a resonator guitar? What exactly is a professional set-up? Can a professional set-up make a cheap guitar sound like a custom made Harper?

BH: A proper setup is incomparable. It can make a tremendous difference. To me setup controls ~ 60% of the presentation of the guitar. Sure, construction, body depth, bracing, material type and every other variable matters but in a reso, the cone, spider, nut material & slotting, bridge material & slotting and strings are responsible for creating the tone (signal) that the body only serves as a host to. If you send the guitar body a crappy signal, it’s going to project a crappy response. If you send it a clean, tuned signal it will project a clean, tuned response. At this point in time, to me a professional setup is: top grade components (Quarterman cone, #14 spider, bone nut, hard maple bridges & a hard, durable cap), detailed slotting and profiling of nut & bridges, proper string height & proper tension between cone and spider. There may be more to it (matching components, etc), but I’ve no indisputable evidence of it in my limited experience. A valuable illustration occurred when I first started building, and I had a spider/cone/bridge assembly from my Scheerhorn guitar. Every guitar I owned at that point could be instantly transformed into a banjo-eating machine with beautifully smooth tone and playability by simply installing that component group alone. Not only did they sound good, they actually sound ‘Horn-like.’ The components and attention to detail make a huge difference.

SJ: What does your live rig consist of? What is your opinion on the microphone vs. pickup question?

BH: I’ve been a huge proponent of the latest pickups to hit the reso market, and the bar has been drastically raised. However, I still only think they are appropriate as a last resort in noisy environments or venues where extreme volume is necessary. In any situation where a mic is possible, that’s what I’d choose hands down. My current live setup is either a Shure KSM-44 or KSM-32. I like them both, and when properly EQ’d they can sound very similar. I usually use the 32 because it’d be cheaper to replace. For pickups, I’m currently using a stereo combo of a Fishman Passive and a Schertler Basik. I’ve wired them in stereo with the Fishman to the tip so I can tune without requiring “phantom” power. When I’m actually plugged in to send sound to the house, I run them both through a Presonus AcoustiQ, a Peterson StroboStomp for tuning, a Schertler Unico for a monitor and then to the house. I usually use ~ 80:20 Schertler/Fishman ratio. The Basik thumps on the low-end and the Fishman gives a cutting crispness. Plus, I still use the mic if possible for additional volume control.

SJ: In addition to being well-known as a builder and a player, you are also host of http://www.reso-nation.org, one of the most popular websites of its kind. How have managed to create such a positive culture among the 1000+ members of reso-nation and avoid some of mean-spirited chatter so prevalent on other sites?

BH: I haven’t had to do much at all to be honest. I think when you have a great community it tends to be self- policing. I’m fairly certain I can count the number of posts that have been deleted on one hand. I’m really pleased with the response the site has received. I wanted a site that was simple, organized, and informative. I also wanted a website that I could easily use as if I had nothing to do with (just be another user), and reso- nation has served those purposes well. Thanks to everyone for being a member.

SJ: What are some of your favorite reso or music related websites?

BH: I typically scan the usual suspects (Jerry’s and Rob’s sites) just to keep track of the latest gossip. I also grab quite a bit of live music from http://www.bluegrassbox.com. Other than that I mostly do technology and political/philosophy reading online.

SJ: How do you balance your career as a builder, player and webmaster?

BH: As best I can… sometimes it’s a bit wobbly. I have a lot going on, and I have to remember what’s really important… in addition to all my hobbies I’m married, have to mow the lawn and feed three cats and a big, hyper chocolate lab. I stay extremely busy and don’t get much (enough) sleep. Things come and go in surges… they usually balance out fairly well… if not, my wife tends to set me straight!!

SJ: What are your plans for the future? Do you have any plans to record a solo cd?

BH: I just want to keep pursuing my passion. I’ve got so much to learn as a player and as a builder…. I just want to keep the pedal down as long as I can. As far as a solo project, it’s in the works now. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past few months so I invested into a mobile recording rig, and I’ve got a great group of musicians helping me out. It should be a project that the reso community will enjoy. There’s even going to be a multi-resoist contemporary reincarnation of ‘Fireball Mail’ done in the spirit of “The Great Dobro Sessions” that I’m really happy to be a part of. I hope it will be ready by the end of the summer but who knows how long it will take… could be done just in time to be a last minute stocking stuffer (coal replacement) for all the horridly behaved children in my family

Chris Stockwell

Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2008

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SJ: How did you get started playing music and when/how did the dobro enter into the picture?

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CS: Thanks Rob! I’ve been around music for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up My mom was a singer in a bluegrass gospel band called the Christainairs and they played all over the West Virginia/Ohio region. So I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by gospel and bluegrass music throughout my childhood. My mom would pull me up on stage to sing when I was 2 years old and I traveled with them until I was a teenager. I started playing Drums when i was 12, and played in all sorts of different bands all through high school – mostly rock and country bands, but I always had a love and appreciation for bluegrass and acoustic music. I was in The high school choir and show choir all through high school and attended Potomac State College In Keyser, West Virginia. I majored in vocal performance and music education.I was there for a year and decided that i wanted to put college on hold and move to Morgantown, West Virginia to check out the music scene there. I was still drumming at the time and was listening to a lot of jazz and bluegrass. I had always a big fan of Jerry Douglas wanted to buy a Dobro to see if i could teach myself to play it. So I went out and bought a Johnson D60 model Dobro to learn on. That was around 2002.

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SJ: I really admire that you have managed to become a good player in a few short years. Can you share any insights into your practice routine or any learning techniques?

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CS: Well thanks for the compliment! I practice at least an hour everyday, sometimes longer. I also  like to practice with cd’s!. When I started out I would play along to CD’s with other Dobro players to pick up licks and work on my timing with rolls and improve my technique for better tone and just to pick up new ideas. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of guitar players – acoustic and electric – as well as horn players. IMO finding the melody is a key when playing Dobro! I bought both of Rob Ickes’s instructional video’s and learned a lot from both of them! Rob is great teacher as well as an awesome player!

SJ: Without knowing any better I’m inclined to think that the Dobro is more prevalent in West Virginia than where I live in Chicago. So…what’s the local music scene like where you live? What kinds of gigs are available in your area?

CS: Great question! You would think there would be a lot of Dobro players In West Virginia, but there are only a handful of people who I know of that play. Bluegrass is very popular here and there are quite a few places that feature live bluegrass music. We have a few different Opry houses here that have live bluegrass on the weekends and some of the local pub’s feature live bluegrass during the week.

SJ: Tell us about the bands and musicians you play with: do you consider yourself primarily a bluegrass dobro player? Are you open to playing in a variety of musical settings, etc?

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CS: At the moment I’m not really playing full time with a band. I’m in a side band called Rush Hour. It’s more of a progressive style of bluegrass; kind of like a New Grass Revival type of band. We have won 7 major band contests and we showcased At IBMA in 2004. I had a short stint with Lou Reid and Carolina and the first band I played with when I started playing Dobro was with John Douglas and Acoustic Heritage. John is Jerry Douglas dad and Jerry’s brother Blaine Douglas was the bass player in that band. Needless to say I had to make myself a better player quick! (laughs). I have been involved with several other bands – The 3rd String band, Shavers Crossing, Buck Carroll and Breaking new Ground – all from the West Virginia /Kentucky region. Recently I have been playing some shows with 4 Fret Chord – which is a great band based out of Gatlinburg,TN. I also play with Chet Lowther a great Singer/Songwriter from Washington D.C.from time to time. I don’t consider myself primarily a bluegrass player. Don’t get me wrong – I love to play bluegrass music! It’s one of my first loves, but I also love to play the blues, as well as country music and I’ve been working on a lot on jazz standards. I’m a big Miles Davis fan and its really fun to work out his solos, especially his early stuff on the Dobro. I love John Scofield and Bill Frisell as well and I would love to play in that kind of setting one day!

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SJ: When I listen to your playing you seem to have mastered the art of playing melodies with rhythmic drive. Can you give us any insights into your right hand technique and tone production. Do you utilize the so-called “ping pong” ball right hand position? Can you share any general comments on playing with good timing and good tone?

CS: I try to keep my right hand stationary near the palm rest when I’m playing rolls. That’s where the best tone comes through for me. I do use the ping pong hand position. Playing fast bluegrass is challenging and good technique helps me play at the speed I need for rolls and fast hammer on’s and pull off’s. Playing a little harder when doing pull-off’s helps me to play with better tone and not putting too much pressure on the bar,not pushing down on the strings will help your tone as well.for timing I say practice with a metronome.I might be bias to this, since I played drums for so long.but I think it will definitely help your timing out.

SJ: You may have heard me say this before; but I have a strong belief that musical friendships and playing music with “real” people – is an essential part of anyone’s development as a musician. Along those lines, are there any musicians in particular that have had a significant impact on your own development as a musician?

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CS: I agree 100% that playing with people will help develop you into a better musician! My friend Duane Simpson has made a big impact on my playing and growing as a musician. We both grew up playing in bands together and he was my roommate when I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. We played music all the time. He is a jazz/blues/classical guitar player and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Duane is a wonderful musician, dear friend and a great influence on my playing.

SJ: Let’s talk about the creative side of musicianship for a moment: Any comments about your approach to creativity and/or improvisation on the dobro? Do you write your own tunes?

CS: I try not to rip off other Dobro players. Its hard to not to do that because the instrument is so young. It’s very easy to pick up licks from other players. I try to listen and pick up influence from singers and other musicians,  not just Dobro players. I really try to play what I feel. I write my own material and I’m trying to put together a solo cd to be released in the spring. I’ve recorded a few songs and I have a bunch of idea’s that i can’t wait to layout and see what happens with them.

SJ: Tell us about your gear: what kind of guitars do you play? Also, what does your live performance rig consist of?

CS: At the moment i’m playing a 2002 Gibson Hounddog F60,That I had Paul beard and his fine crew of luthiers set up for me and add a few baffles. I’m very happy with it!. It reminds of a late 70’s/Early 80’s R.Q Jones. I have played many of these Gibson models.and none of them compared to this one. I ‘m looking right now at the Meredith’s and thinking of ordering one of them! Tooter is making one fine instrument right now. I’d also love to have a Scheerhorn! They are just awesome! On stage i use a SM 57 Mic .It gives me the cut and tone I need on stage.they are great mics!.

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SJ: What are your plans for the future? Do you have any closing words for our readers?

CS:  Right now I’m looking to play as much as I can and continue to work on my technique and becoming a better dobro player! I have a few recording projects coming up that I’m looking forward to. I hope one day I can join a serious band and travel the world and play music or become a session player. My advice for the readers is play as much as you can. Practice, practice, practice – and play with as many people as possible. It can only make you better!

Dan Brooks

Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2008

 

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SJ: When did you start playing Dobro? What got you interested in Dobro in the first place?

DB: I started on Dobro back in about 1980. I had gotten into acoustic music around that time (I was a long-haired rock-n-roller before that). I had a copy of the first “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album. I was playing guitar then and was enamored with Doc Watson and Norman Blake. I kept hearing this sound on that record. When Roy Acuff would sing this instrument was just wailing away in the background. The more I listened, the more it appealed to me. I had to find out more about it. Somehow I discovered it was this thing called a “Dobro” being played by a guy named Bashful Brother Oswald. I kept searching and found out you played it with a bar lying on your lap. I had an old junk Harmony guitar and started trying to play it with a butane lighter for a steel. As time went on I got a real Dobro (and a real bar) and started looking for every recording I could find that had a Dobro on it. It’s been downhill ever since.

SJ: I’ve heard the Ohio has one of the largest and most active bluegrass communities in the United States. Tell us about the music scene in your neck of the woods: what kinds of gigs are available; are there a lot of jam sessions, etc?  

DB: There have been a lot of bands and pickers come out of here. I hate to try to name them because I know I’ll leave out some great ones. Suffice to say I’ve never had any trouble finding people to pick with or listen to. One example of that is The Herd. In our original lineup, the farthest guy only lived 35 miles away. That was quite a luxury. I’ve also never had to search too hard for live music. There are a bazillion festivals, both large and small. We have the MACC Festival (formerly Frontier Ranch) near Columbus. It’s one of the largest in the midwest. Many of the colleges in the state have opened up to Bluegrass in the last few years as well. I’m not real familiar with the jam sessions, although I do hear ads for them on our Bluegrass show on WOUB-FM here in town. That show by the way…”D-28 plus 5″…has been running since 1977. They have bands in to perform live on the first Sunday of every month.

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SJ: How/when did the Rarely Herd get started? How would you describe the band, the music and your role as Dobro player in the band?

DB: We started in 1989. Myself, my brother-in-law Jeff Weaver on bass, and fiddle player Alan Stack had picked together a good bit just for fun. The vocal blend seemed to work well and after a while we started seeking out a guitarist and a banjo player. After some hit and miss we found Calvin Leport on banjo and Alan’s brother Jim came in on guitar. One thing I’ll go into here is the band name. Down through the years we’ve caught a LOT of flak about it. We never intended or expected to play anywhere but right around home. We were all big Seldom Scene fans and we took the name as a (VERY respectful) play on their name. After a little while we got lucky and were picked up by Pinecastle Records. And then a cut or two from our first CD got on the National Bluegrass Chart, which we never saw coming. By the time our name got out to the world it was too late to change it. So we’ve just dealt with the band name BS and continued entertaining the fans (who, by the way, have never been the ones giving us the lip over the name).

I feel our music is a modern take on the traditional sound. We have a different sound that I credit to several factors. We all come from very different musical backgrounds. As I mentioned I was a rocker and became mezmerized with bluegrass, blues and other acoustic music. Jeff Weaver was in country-rock bands for about 10 years. Jim has been playing bluegrass and country since he was in his early teens. Calvin has always been into Bluegrass, but he’s also about 12 years younger than the rest of us so he has a different take on things. And our fiddle player, Jeff Hardin, had former Foggy Mountain Boy Paul Warren as a mentor for several years. (Jeff traveled with Lester Flatt and The Nashville Grass in the mid-70’s.) Our vocal trio is unique due to the varied musical experience of each member. And we’ve always tried to either write our own songs or find obscure songs from other writers and steer clear of the standards. We’ve also brought a lot of songs in from outside bluegrass. I think all these things add up to give us our own sound.

I’ve always thought my job was to embellish the vocals. Consequently, I never spent a whole lot of time working on instrumentals. I play my share of them but, for me, wringing the emotion out of a song with some good backup is what it’s really all about. I’ve always thought a Bluegrass band without a Dobro was just…a Bluegrass band. When you add the reso in there it opens up lots of musical and vocal possibilities and also lends a more modern sound. My ideal jam sessions are when somebody comes in with some songs they wrote and puts them out there. Then you’d better be on your toes and ready to improvise.

SJ: How would you describe your style as a Dobro player? Can you give us any insight into your tool box of techniques – slants, pulls, right-hand, etc, etc?

DB: I’ve always thought of myself as pretty much a mimic. At first I wanted to be Oswald Jr., then Uncle Josh Jr., Mike Auldridge Jr., Jerry Douglas Jr., etc., etc. I guess over the years my playing has become an amalgam of everything I’ve heard and learned. I could never copy those guys directly but I could do something that I thought sounded like it. Now I just sound like me. Depending on the song, I may think “this sounds like Oz” or “I bet Douglas would try it this way”. When I hear my playing back on recordings I can hear the flavor of those other players but it comes out sounding like Dan Brooks. I will, though, on occasion deliberately try to copy a break or style to the note. Usually just for fun, or effect. My tricks and techniques are just things I’ve learned over the years. I do use slants pretty regularly. I’m too uncoordinated to do the string pulls behind the bar, unless I’ve got 2 or 3 measures to get ready for it. I use hammers and pulls pretty often but I try to watch because they can get really monotonous. I’ve been playing so long I don’t really think much about what I’m doing anymore. A couple of years ago a boy asked me to show him a break I did on one of our songs. I had to spend 10 minutes watching myself play it just so I could tell him what I was doing!

SJ: Can you comment about your approach to providing rhythmic support on Dobro? What techniques – chops, chucks, rolls, etc – do you use with the Rarely Herd to provide rhythmic support?

DB: On uptempo numbers I’ll usually chop on the back beat, unless there’s a mandolin. Then I’ll back way off and maybe hit some accent chords or tighten my chop up to small pops. One thing I do (probably too much, but I can’t help it…I like it) is hit a big, quick brush chord at the end of certain phrases on fast songs. Josh used to do it and I think it really kicks the song and the rhythm in the butt. I really like slower pieces because I have a lot more freedom to do different things. I may roll all through the song, or play licks that emphasize chord changes. There are just a few players that can do a pleasing rhythm chop on the Dobro. It can easily sound like somebody beating spoons on a garbage can lid.

SJ: Do you ever play in smaller ensembles and if so, does that change how you approach your role as an accompanist?

DB: Sadly, I don’t get to play a whole lot outside the band. With our schedule and my guitar business it’s hard to find the time. When I do it’s a real pleasure. What and how I play depends on what instruments are there. If there’s no guitar I’ll play more full chords and passing phrases. The same if it’s just myself and a guitar. I’ll also mix up my rhythmic techniques a lot more, just to keep things from getting zingy and monotone. If it’s, say, guitar and mandolin I may play more like a banjo. More rolls and syncopation. The Dobro’s kind of like spackle…fill the holes.

SJ: I’d like to switch gears now and find out more about Dan Brooks the luthier: how/when did you start building resonator guitars? What were your original goals in creating a design for your guitars in terms of volume/tone/projection/responsiveness, etc? What does B&B stand for?

 

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DB: 6 or 7 years ago I had become really dissatisfied with my guitars. I’ve had several reso’s down through the years and, although some of them were pretty good, I was never completely satisfied. A good friend of mine is luthier Todd Sams of Sams Guitars. We had known each other for years and together quite a bit. I was whining to him about not being satisfied and he said “then build your own Dobro”. For some reason I had never really considered that an option. My Dad is a lifelong woodworker and he and I (with the help of Todd’s expertise and mentoring) started in trying to build me a Dobro. (B & B stands for Brooks and Brooks, my dad and myself. I thought he might stay involved but he only helped on the first one. I decided to keep the name because I wouldn’t know a bandsaw from a table saw if it wasn’t for him.) I knew there were certain things I was after. Volume had always been an issue, as had bass response. Naturally I had studied on reso’s since the beginning and I knew the soundwell lent a tone I wasn’t fond of. Tim Scheerhorn’s guitars sounded great but I also wasn’t a fan of the effect created by baffles. I settled on an open design with 1/4″ soundposts and a deeper body. When the guitar was complete and I strung it up I couldn’t believe my ears. I had stumbled upon the exact sound I’d been hearing in my head for years. I build all my guitars the same as that first one, which, by the way, I’ve played exclusively ever since. I have volume to spare, great bass and it’s held up to the road with absolutely no problems of any kind. Now there are players in the U.S. and Europe playing B & B’s. It’s really taking off and I couldn’t be happier.

SJ: I’ve seen quite a few comments on various discussion boards about certain resonator guitars being either “traditional” or “modern” sounding, where “traditional”=soundwell and “modern”=soundposts/baffle: what is your assessment of this kind of thinking? How do you describe your guitars to someone who wants to put guitars in the “trad/modern” either/or box?

DB: I figure what folks mean by the “traditional” sound is the sound Oz and Josh got from those old 30’s dobros. And the modern sound is what today’s players get on recordings. My opinion is that most of whatever “sound” people hear is about 80% the player’s style. Jerry Douglas used a 1930’s “Dobro” until the 80’s but his playing always sounded pretty modern. Those soundwell guitars usually sound like the old records because that’s what they played…the same for today’s CD’s and the new reso’s. It’s all about what sound a player wants to emulate and who’s playing what guitar. I suppose my guitars would fall into the “modern” box, but I can play Oswald songs on mine and it does just fine.

In addition to the trad/modern dichotomy, another “hot” topic is wood and its effect on tone/volume/responsiveness: how do you view choice of different woods and its influence on the “voice” of your guitars? What’s the best way for someone to make an intelligent choice on wood when they don’t have the opportunity to “test drive” a guitar before buying it?
My view on wood is that it isn’t as crucial a factor in a resophonic as in a guitar or mandolin. A guitar or mando functions a little like a bellows (on a minute level). When a string in picked it transfers the vibration/motion to the top through the bridge. The top and back are braced in such a way as to allow them to vibrate up and down which, in turn, pumps air in and out of the box. The primary sound production in a reso is from the cone/spider. The wood’s main function is to reflect the sound pressure out through the screen holes and back through the cone. However, certain woods do give reso’s a particular sound. Maple tends to be brighter whereas mahogany is a bit warmer or mellower. A spruce top will also take the edge off in a Dobro. If you like the more “modern” tone, maple would be the way to go. Walnut and koa would be a close second. My bodies are a little deeper so, even with the maple, the bass response is still powerful. If you prefer less edge, a mahogany body or a rosewood with a spruce top would be the way to go. There’s a lot of talk against laminated wood (plywood) in body construction. I’ve heard some great guitars with plywood bodies. It goes back to what I said earlier, the body mainly reflects sound pressure. I personally prefer solid wood because I think it looks better and is more consistent. It’s also more of a challenge to work with and I enjoy that aspect as well.

SJ: Years ago Acoustic Guitar magazine showed a photo of an acoustic guitar that Bob Taylor (Taylor Guitars) made completely out of oak from a wood pallet that he took from of the back of his shop. If I recall correctly, there were a few holes in the guitar where the nails had been! He built the guitar to prove the point that the design of the builder (and of course, the execution/attention to detail/craftsmanship) is more important than wood. What is your view on this? How important is design and craftsmanship vs. wood in building quality instruments?
DB: I completely agree. You could have a $1000.00 set of tonewood and if the guitar is poorly fitted and constructed it’ll end up junk. I’ve built 2 dreadnoughts, a lap steel and a Dobro or two out of wood that was considered cast-off. I defy anybody to pick them out. If your building techniques are sound and consistent, you could build a guitar from a kitchen table and it would sound good. Once you have your skills down then you can take a $1000.00 set of wood and make it look and sound like $100,000.00. Good builders can even make bad spots, knots, wormholes or other anomalies into eye-catching features on an instrument.

SJ: Where do you come down on the issue of microphone vs. pickups for resonator guitars? What does your live rig consist of? What kind of recommendations do you have for getting a good tone in performance situations and playing with enough power to “cut” through the mix when playing with a band?

DB: I guess I’m pretty archaic in this field. I’ve always just played through whatever was set up at the gig. It usually works out well but I have been butchered by goofball soundmen several times down through the years. Playing with musicians that know when to step back is a HUGE plus. The Dobro is notorious for getting drowned out, but learning to jam your guitar right into that microphone helps immensely. I’m pretty illiterate on pickups. The ones I’ve heard never sounded good to me so, consequently, I never gave them much thought. Jerry Douglas’ rig sounds super but he’s also got a rack of outboard equipment you couldn’t fit in a pickup truck. I have heard some great microphones on Dobro. The Shure KSM 32 sounds great. I’ve also heard some nice Sennheisers. I’m kind of a purist I guess. Whatever makes your Dobro sound exactly like your Dobro laying on your lap (only LOUDER) is what I like.

SJ: Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

p_Dan

DB: First of all thanks a million for allowing me this opportunity. I hope the folks reading this can make some sense of what I’ve said and can get something from it. Also, visit my website and let me know what you think of B & B Resophonic Guitars. One more thing…after nearly 30 years of playing and being around this music I do have one piece of advice for aspiring dobro pickers. Don’t get hung up on things like what strap to use, what bar, what picks, what angle does the guitar need to hang from your body, what shoes to wear, what does the latest hot picker eat for breakfast…. PLAY YOUR DOBRO!! There is only one way to get proficient…put in the time picking. You’ll find what works as you go. And just because something works for one player absolutely does not mean it will work for you. Try things and if they work, stick with them. If they don’t…pitch ’em.

I just hope all the players out there continue to play and get better. And enjoy every second of it…I have, and continue to do so. Besides, I need players to steal licks from!

Greg Booth

Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2009

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SJ: Before we dive into “Dobro World” can you tell us a bit about your musical background and chronology?

GB: As far back as I can remember I was always interested in music, my parents both played in their college orchestras and we always had a piano in the house that I would mess around with. I remember in 2nd grade when the class would have music time I would sing harmony parts, it just came naturally. Oddly enough though, my parents never insisted I have formal music training or piano lessons because they always hated that their own parents forced it on them. I am fortunate to play regularly and record with the talented young Angela Oudean (www.bearfootbluegrass.com). When people ask her mom how she got Angela interested in music she says, “I told her, ‘See those instruments in the corner? Those are mine; you keep your paws off ’em!” I think you’ll put a lot more effort into something when it’s your own idea! When I was 15 a friend gave me a copy of the Kentucky Colonels album “Appalachian Swing” with Leroy Mack, Clarence and Roland White and Billy Ray Latham on banjo. This was the first time I had heard instrumental bluegrass music and I just became driven to learn how to play. I started with the banjo and my mom signed me up for lessons at a nearby music store in Arlington, Va. The banjo teacher turned out to be the great Bill Emerson of Jimmy Martin fame and The Country Gentlemen, etc. I was a fast learner and eager and I think he enjoyed that. Sometimes my half hour would stretch into more than an hour and the waiting room would back up with fidgety kids who would bound out of there, relieved when Bill would say he was running late and to come back next week. He’d tell me, “It’s o.k.; they only come because their moms make ’em.” Within a couple years I was attending college in Oregon and playing in a popular Northwest band called Puddle City; we recorded an album on 2″ tape and released a 45 rpm single. It was a great experience for a teenager. I picked up the mandolin, bass and some guitar during the 3 yrs. I played with the band, and during my final year in school I became fascinated by the pedal steel guitar. After I graduated I went to work right away in a west coast country rock band doing Flying Burrito Bros, Byrds, New Riders etc. type music. My future wife and I decided to take a road trip to Alaska (I had lived there before, age 8-11) and found a thriving music scene in Anchorage, clubs flush with oil pipeline money and live music 7 nights a week. That was 32 yrs. ago and I made a living with the steel guitar for most of it. Eventually the live music scene declined along with my desire to keep pursuing it. My steel spent more and more time in its case, sometimes more than a year. I credit my son Dan (who I never pressured to play) with his talent and passion for music for getting me active again and the dobro for giving me a new passion to pursue.

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SJ: Can you help me demystify some of the commonly held notions about pedal steel vs. dobro? It seems that John Q. Public assumes that if you play the one you automatically can play the other. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I’ve heard that pedal steel players tend to be very meticulous because playing the instrument is like driving a fancy sports car with multiple gear levers! I’ve also heard that pedal steel players tend to have a lot of theoretical knowledge but not all can adapt to the more physical demands of playing the dobro.

GB: Picking up the dobro was really frustrating for me for quite awhile, it felt like I had both hands tied! The tuning and the pedals and the knee levers on my steel all make everything available in pockets within a few frets. I can play a 3 voice harmonized scale that contains major, minor and dominant 7th triads all in the space of 2 frets! On dobro your options are limited and you have to chase all over the neck to find the notes. Many chords are just plain not possible so you do what you can by playing fewer notes. The bar used by steel players is round with a bullet nose and heavy compared to dobro bars. Rarely do you ever pick it up or do any hammers or pull-offs or use open strings on psg. I was tempted to just use the bullet bar I was comfortable with but have you ever tried to do a pull-off with one? Forget it! I realized if I wanted to try to play bluegrass like Jerry and Rob I had to use the same tools. So the left hand technique is radically different. The right hand is just as different! My steel has 12 strings per neck and the spacing is almost twice as close. On steel you need a really light touch, and the sustain lasts essentially forever. To get decent tone out of a dobro you have to pick 2-3 times as hard. The high strings on steel are .010, and .013, compared to .017 and .019 on dobro so the feel is way different. With the sustain on steel guitar in order to play cleanly without a bunch of notes overrunning everything you have to do some form of blocking. Same is true for dobro, but even more critical on steel. I call it note control. While players like Rob Ickes do this mainly with the left hand, steel players do it solely with the right hand by palm blocking or pick blocking. So you ask how does playing steel help with learning dobro? One big part is playing in tune, the ear-hand coordination you develop playing with the bar. I would say the biggest advantage is mental. Steel guitar playing teaches you a lot about the nuts and bolts of making music and trains your ear to hear and recognize notes and intervals. Is dobro more physically demanding? I would say no, just different. Playing steel means coordinating your hands, feet and both knees without thinking about them. The right hand touch is critical on steel. Not to mention the physical demands of packing up a 90 lb guitar and a 90 lb amp before and after the gig! That’s reason enough right there to switch! I think playing banjo helped me a lot because the dobro G tuning is much closer to the banjo and some of the rolls and melodic runs from banjo go right over to the dobro. Sometimes I tell people if you put a banjo and a steel in a blender it’s like playing dobro.

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SJ: I’ve never thought of it that way, but that makes perfect sense! Can you elaborate a little more how playing psg is demanding in terms of ear training and other aspects related to music theory? How has your experience in playing psg affected your approach to arranging melodies, for example? Does it give you a different toolbox to work with than if you had grown up listening to and playing the dobro exclusively?
GB: I came to the pedal steel from the banjo where I was more or less stuck thinking out of the key of G. To play in different keys usually meant just put on a capo but you’re still thinking in G! The steel liberated me from that trap, plus the chord progressions of different styles of music forced me to get a grasp of chord construction and what makes a chord sound the way it does. I’m no monster theory guy but I know enough to figure out most things eventually, “The Christmas Song” for example. On the psg you can navigate through a chord progression a lot of different ways, press a pedal or two, move up two frets, engage a knee lever, move back a fret, that kind of thing. I rarely use open strings so all the moves work in any key. If the girl singer (is it P.C. to call her that anymore?) wants to sing “Crazy” in A flat, F sharp or Z double flat? No problem! The bar is like a big capo. I eventually stopped thinking in keys and chord names and only think in the number system, you know, 1,2m,3m,4,5,6m etc. But I think anyone who plays professionally in a variety of musical styles gets a handle on this stuff. The pedal steel just allows you see and hear certain aspects of music instantly; for example, if you engage the lever that lowers the root notes a half step, (in a G chord, the G notes) voila! You have a 3m chord! (Bm). Or if you engage the lever that raises them instead, you have most of a diminished chord that inverts every three frets up and down the neck. You discover other interesting stuff like substituting chords, e.g. if you play a 3m triad over the 1 you have a nice lush major 7th sound. So I think if I had gone to the dobro from the banjo I’d probably still be thinking in G all the time. Having the steel was always handy for figuring out 3 part harmonies and helped train my ear for that job. Three singers are basically just singing a chord, and since the psg can play just about any major or minor chord, 6th , 7th , 9th etc, I can show somebody the part they keep messing up! Plus there’s just a fair amount of licks and ideas that you accumulate just from playing a long time, good ones and bad! The licks usually don’t work on the dobro but sometimes you can adapt the ideas.

SJ: Over the years, I have come to appreciate how even a basic knowledge of music theory — if nothing else, the number system – can really help you to think on your feet! It’s embarrassing, but I can remember doing coffee house gigs “way back” in the early 90’s playing M3rd’s in a tune built around a I-VII chord change and wondering why it didn’t sound good! (laughs). One of the aspects of your dobro playing that I admire is that your arrangements and ideas seem to be coming from somewhere other than “dobro-land” i.e. the influence of contemporary players. What process do you go through when you come up with an arrangement of a given tune? For example, how did you come up with your arrangement of The Christmas Song? 

GB: What? You mean I don’t sound like Rob Ickes? (laughs) I tried and tried to learn to play Monrobro, at the RockyGrass academy, I even had him show it to me note for note on video! I can play it sort of, but it sounds like someone doing a bad imitation! Nobody can do Rob Ickes as well as he can. Sometime during all those years playing steel in bands I stopped copying and just played the thing. At least half of the stuff I had to play didn’t have steel parts on the records anyway so I was on my own. Of course I’d trade my playing for Jerry’s or Rob’s if I could, but I’m stuck with mine so I just play and make the best of it. The Alaska Mando cd was a real challenge to come up with solos for because I’m really still learning how to play dobro! I’m not usually at a loss for ideas though, so I would just work up licks and phrases until I had a part. And the good thing is that when I play them, I’m using the licks and phrasing that comes naturally to me. I can do a much better job at imitating myself! When I decided to figure out The Christmas Song, first I got the chord chart off the internet; then I went to the iTunes music store and listened to a bunch of clips to find one that resembled what I had in mind. I paid the 99 cents and downloaded a version from “Christmas Jazz” that was saxophone with piano, drums and bass. I was kind of familiar with the song already, just needed something to check back to. Around that time I had started playing around with the low G tuned down to E and I found it was perfect for playing all those minor 7th chords on the chart. I wanted to play it with all the interesting chords in it, at least to the extent I could on the dobro. It took me a few days to work it out and I was really possessed by it! I’d wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning with the song on my mind. I have no doubt it’s not perfect and some jazz guy will find fault with it, but some of the clips I heard were pretty out to lunch so this is just my interpretation. My Panhandle Rag version came one day when I was just noodling and just started playing it from memory of some old vinyl steel guitar album, not even sure which one. I tried different keys and I stumbled on the D6th chord at the 7th fret by leaving the top 2 strings open. I liked the sound so I put it together around that, putting in swing steel sounds. I have a new solo worked up that’s going on my solo cd that’s pretty cool; it has a lick that goes up to the 24th fret. Unfortunately my guitar only has 19, so I had to put a piece of tape up there as a reference. Anyway, I hope that answers your question. I spend most of my dobro effort figuring out ways to play rather than copying stuff. I hope that doesn’t sound cocky because there’re lots of great players who can show me a lot, you included Rob! I’m doing the RockyGrass academy with Rob Ickes again this summer. That whole RG experience is so awesome. About 20 of us set up a big Alaska camp on the river and host an Alaskan salmon barbeque that spawns (har) some great celebrity jams. I would be remiss if I didn’t give the credit to fellow Alaskans, Dave and Patty Hamre for this. I waited until the last minute but I signed up for the ResoSummit in Nashville as well.

4th ave Iditarod Well Strung with Dadda 2

 

SJ: The Alaska Mando c.d. gets my vote for instrumental record of the year! The title may be Alaska Mando, but it strikes me as an ensemble approach, rather than your typical “mando c.d.” with the other instruments playing more of a background role. Additionally, the songwriting is first rate and the overall musicianship and interplay between the band members is absolutely amazing! In some ways listening to this c.d. introduced me to the bluegrass side of your playing. It sounds like you are playing more “single-string-modern-bluegrass-dobro” stuff – lots of hammer-ons and pull-offs, but once again your ideas/arrangements are really cool and seem to avoid any typical dobro clichés. Can you expand a bit on how you approached some of the faster tempo tunes on the c.d.? Does your background playing banjo come into play from a right hand perspective in the more up-tempo bluegrassy numbers?

GB: I’m proud to have been a part of the AK Mando cd and happy that Joe Page wanted my dobro to play a substantial role in the music. We have played in several bands together during the last 15 yrs, but this was my first experience with his original music. I think it’s great and I enjoyed taking it for a spin on the dobro. On the fast material I certainly did use banjo rolls and runs where possible. At the end of my break on “Behind the Curve”, the12th track, there are 2 measures (4 beats) of 16th notes straight from the banjo. Most of the bluegrassy stuff is probably more typical single string dobro technique with a lot of pull-offs! I think mostly I just did the best I could to keep up! The fastest tempo is only about 136 bpm so it’s not like Ronny McCoury playing Rawhide or something that’s just insane. In some ways even if the actual technique is a little different I think it helps that I like to play fast and am pretty comfortable playing banjo fast. I feel a little self conscious talking about my technique since I’ve only been playing dobro about 20 months now and my technique is still developing along with my repertoire.
SJ: Let’s switch gears and talk about guitars and performance/live sound equipment for a moment: What instruments do you play; what does your live rig consist of? Do you have any comments about gear in general?

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GB: I’ll list my non-reso stuff first, I play an autographed Gibson Earl Scruggs model banjo, an MSA double 12 psg with 8 pedals and 4 knee levers through a Peavey Session 500 amp. I play a Wechter Scheerhorn Elite model 9520 dobro, flamed maple, into a Shure KSM-32 microphone. This guitar has always sounded very good to me since I got in 12/05. All the clips I have posted on ResoNation were recorded with it as is. Last October I had Tim Scheerhorn do some work on the setup and he discovered the cone had collapsed. He put in a new Quarterman and did his setup magic and made it sound the best ever. First let me say that I don’t think there is a best resonator guitar for everyone. The same guitar can sound totally different for different players. In choosing an instrument it’s essential to try them out yourself and find the one that sounds the best with your hands and style. Since I started playing dobro in 7/05 I’ve been trying every make of guitar I could get my hands on. I decided to go to IBMA week in Nashville last fall for the first time to do all the usual fun festival stuff, but mainly to try out as many different guitars as I could and place an order. Looking back and counting I recall playing at least 22 different top notch instruments by at least 7 builders. The verdict? For me, with my hands, without exception the 9 Scheerhorns I tried had the sound, responsiveness and power I’m looking for. Some guitars seem to hit a plateau with their output, with the Scheerhorn you can dig in and there always seems to be more! Plus I just love the tone, deep bass and crystalline highs. I get this visual imagery of looking into a deep pool of crystal clear water. I got to hang out with Tim some at IBMA and later out at his shop and watched while he worked on my guitar. Something that I think is special is that this is a one man show. Tim’s hands are the ones doing it all, and when he quits that’s the end of it. I think making instruments at this level is an art form like playing music. Two different musicians can play the same song note for note but it doesn’t sound the same. Other builders have copied the Scheerhorn but they don’t sound exactly alike. I hope you guys that love your non-Scheerhorn guitars forgive me for getting carried away, but Rob asked me to talk a little about how I ended up on Tim’s waiting list. There are other beautiful resos I would love to own, Harper, Meredith, Beard, Clinesmith etc. and I hope someday I can.

SJ: Have your motivations and/or reasons for playing music changed or evolved over the years? Do you have any closing comments about the role of music in your life and/or music in general?

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GB: Yes, some things have changed. The intrinsic enjoyment of playing music is still the same, the excitement and pleasure of having the sounds and rhythms come together is really fun and compelling. There was a period of time when I lost some of that, though. I made a living playing in house bands for 20+ years; I figure I played at least 4,000 nights. In the early years the pride and satisfaction of playing well and the magical moments that sometimes happen on the bandstand was enough to outweigh the drawbacks. Eventually the routine of playing dance music in smoky clubs for patrons burned me out and it wasn’t fun anymore, it was a job with politics and headaches just like any other job. I continued playing much too long with a dead battery. After I found a different career I found myself having a lot more fun with music. Now that my kids are playing, their energy and enthusiasm is contagious and I’ve experienced kind of a rebirth in my own musical energy. I find myself practicing the dobro for hours at a time daily, whereas before I went for years without practicing my instrument. I guess when you play that much you don’t really want to touch it in your free time. Nowadays I’m having a great time learning this new instrument and figuring out my style on it. I’ve really enjoyed the recording I’ve been able to do and I intend to keep working on sounding better and learning how to make better recordings. What may come of it I don’t know, but just having some new goals and avenues for my music is rejuvenating and exciting. About music in general, there is so much you can say. There’s a non-verbal communication that happens in music that you can’t really explain to somebody who doesn’t play. It’s a way to connect with people that you may or may not have much in common with. It’s a way to both give and gain respect regardless of who you are or whatever else you may have accomplished. Just today I got an email from a former banjo student I had over 30 yrs. ago who found my Myspace page. He just wanted me to know how my teaching way back then inspired and helped him persevere, and that the banjo and playing music has played a central role in his life. How cool is that? Well, I don’t have to explain that to you, Rob. Your teaching and this website is helping so many players to learn and to make playing music a rewarding part of their lives. I’m really flattered to be one of your featured artists.

Kathy Barwick

Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2008

 

 

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SJ: You play a variety of different instruments including banjo, guitar, bass and dobro, correct? Do you consider one to be your main instrument? How/when did the dobro enter into the picture?

KB: My first instrument was classical piano, which I played from age 12 to about 14. I started playing folk guitar at 16 after the required and ubiquitous exposure to camp counselors at Girl Scout camp. I pretty much taught myself the guitar, with one lesson on fingerpicking to get me going on the right hand. Figuring out chord progressions by ear and learning to transpose was a really great experience. Playing classical piano was I think fundamental in my understanding of time, and the folk guitar was great for establishing a basic understanding of chord progressions. Those two experiences provided the foundation for my later musical work. I started learning bluegrass banjo in 1976, eventually teaching banjo lessons full-time for a few years. During that time (early 1980s) I also returned to playing guitar, picked up the dobro, and learned bluegrass bass. I started transferring banjo licks to the dobro while I was teaching at Tiny Moore’s studio here in Sacramento (my first tune was “Pickaway”—a natural start for a banjo player). There was always a dobro or two hanging on the wall at Tiny’s, and during breaks between students I would pull one down and play banjo on it. I had a banjo student who attended a weekly jam. I asked if I could go along, he said no (he wanted to be the banjo player in the jam). When I asked if I could go as a dobro player, he said ok. That was really fun and perfect for me. It was kind of an intermediate-level jam, nothing too fast. So I got to play dobro in a comfortable environment and pretty soon there were people who didn’t even know I played banjo.

I became a “real” dobro player in the mid- to late1980s. I was in two bands during that time (The Bluegrass Philharmonic and The All Girl Boys) where I started out playing banjo. In both instances, I moved over to dobro in order to make room for someone else. In the Philharmonic, I started out doubling on banjo and dobro; Robert Bowden played mandolin. When Joe Craven moved to town, he became our mandolinist, Robert switched to banjo, and I became a full-time dobroist for the first time. With the AGB, we simply couldn’t find a female fiddler that was available at the time. Debby Cotter is not only a great banjo player, she’s also a great singer and songwriter. So again, I moved to dobro and by the time the mid-90s rolled around I hadn’t really played banjo for ten years (except at 3 in the morning at a bluegrass festival after enough Bushmills to override my usual good sense). I actually don’t even own a banjo anymore, which is a bit traumatic. At this point it’s hard to say which is my “main” instrument. In band and performance situations, I’m most often on dobro. But, at home and for fun it’s usually guitar. And underneath it all and in my head, I’m still a banjo player.

 

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SJ: How did you learn to play? Did you cop licks off of recordings, take lessons, etc…Were there any practice tools or techniques that you found particularly helpful?

KB: I’m pretty much self-taught on the dobro, as I am with all of the instruments I play (except for the six months of banjo lessons from Allen Hendricks). In my brain, it’s all banjo (except I guess when I’m playing bass). It seems that the banjo neck was the one that I learned, and everything else—especially flatpicking—stems from that. There’s the obvious transferability to the dobro. I have been trying to play fewer notes, as the sustain on the dobro reduces the need to play so much all the time. I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet but I keep trying. I still think too much like a banjo player on those up-tempo bluegrass tunes. I’m ashamed to say that I have not studied the early dobro masters as I should have. I’d say my training as a dobro player consisted mostly of studying the heck out of the first JD Crowe and the New South album (Rounder 0044), with a relatively-early and still- somewhat-accessible (to me anyway) Jerry Douglas for a teacher. I heard a lot of Mike Auldridge and studied him a bit, mostly for tone. Because I haven’t really done my dobro homework, I’m pretty unaware of the origins of some of the licks I use. It’s my hope this winter to spend some time listening to Josh. I think I’ll hear lots of familiar things that I didn’t know were his. I did take a lesson from Sally Van Meter, probably sometime in the later ‘80s. And, being from northern California, Sally has influenced me in a fundamental way, as she was the only player I really heard much locally. Sally sets such a high standard for tone; I’m continually striving to get that sound. (There was a reviewer in a Canadian bluegrass magazine that mistook me for Sally when reviewing the All Girl Boys CD. That was nice…for me, anyway!)

On the dobro, most of my practice time is spent playing along with CDs. Mostly Blue Highway. Or Jeff White’s two bluegrass CDs with Jerry on dobro. The Gibson Brothers with Junior Barber. This helps me warm up, and I find myself playing differently. When I hear something I like, I’ll stop the CD and figure out what’s going on. Or I find myself spontaneously copping a lick; then I need to stop and figure out what it is and why it works so that I can use in another context. Otherwise it’s gone. I’ll take an idea—or an approach—that I figure out this way, and try to focus on it for a while (during practice and performance) to see if I can integrate it into my playing. That takes quite a bit of focus. I can spend a whole evening trying to incorporate one new idea into my solos. I don’t typically try to learn licks note-for-note. More often I try to get the general shape of it and try to get the overall idea in a way that comes naturally to me, sort of put the idea through a “Kathy filter.” Those ideas are more likely to become part of my playing.

SJ: How would you describe your style/approach as a player? Who are the players that influenced you when you were taking up the instrument?

KB: My style is very simple. I think the essence of it is tone, phrasing and rhythm (of course, intonation is a fundamental here). I don’t spend as much time working on the dobro as I’d like to—and certainly not as much time as I should. I rely instead on playing notes that sound good and putting them in interesting places time-wise. I play lots of octaves, and sixths. The octaves give neat opportunities to play with time and slide around. One of the things I like best about the dobro is the texture it gives to the overall sound. I was really surprised when I first heard the AGB rough mixes on our CD. I really didn’t have much of an idea of what we sounded like until then. And the thing that struck me was the texture the dobro provided. Part of that was our producer, Jim Nunally. I was surprised at how far up in the mix he set the dobro chop. But I grew to like it, and since then have been more aggressive in playing rhythm almost right into the mic, where before I would have backed away. Also, I love the dobro for its rhythmic possibilities. I loving chopping rhythm and find all kinds of interesting things to do there.

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I do think it can be difficult for a dobro player in a bluegrass band to find space to play. You can roll like a banjo, chop like a mandolin, play sustained notes like a fiddle (ok, almost like a fiddle!) and rhythm like a guitar. You’re right there in the same sonic space as banjo and guitar… so sometimes it’s a little frustrating to find the right thing to do to add to what’s going on. Mountain Laurel banjoist Paul Siese is really good at providing me with some space. A good place to find that space is outside of bluegrass. I’ve lately been backing up local singer/songwriters, and that’s been really fun. I’ve also played recently with Sal Valentino (your older readers will recognize the name from the Beau Brummels and, later, Stoneground). Sal plays simple rhythm guitar and sings like the dickens. When it’s just the two of us, I have all the space in the world to back him up (or leave space), and his emotional vocal delivery inspires me. A funny thing though about Sal, he really messes with the melody. So my melody-focused approach can be really fun, as Sal and I switch roles—I play melody, he improvises around it. It’s neat. I find that technique is an interesting phenomenon. It’s generally very personal, everyone develops their own over time. Because I teach, I’m more aware of certain features of my own technique than I would be otherwise. I believe many of the fine points of someone’s technique comes from a biofeedback mechanism. You do stuff spontaneously, and if your ear likes the sound, that reinforces the technique and over time, voila! For instance, I have a habit of using rest strokes with my thumb. To do it, I push the thumbpick down into the guitar, and after pushing through the target string, the pick comes to rest on the next string. A string picked this way will be quite a bit louder than one picked the regular way. I don’t know if a lot of people do this; I’ve seen videos of me playing and it’s kind of striking, my hand actually kind of splays out (usually it’s kind of curled up over the cover plate. I’m guess that motion also brings more power into the thumbstroke. It looks pretty wasteful in terms of right-hand motion but it doesn’t seem to hold me back much.

I do some pick blocking but not consistently; I generally do it when a ringing string is bugging me and I just want it to stop. A benefit of the rest stroke I just described is that it will stop the string the thumbpick comes to rest on. This benefits me a lot when I use a rest stroke when playing the 3rd string and then it comes to rest on the B string, stopping it from ringing. That’s usually the note that I’m conscious of not wanting to hear anymore. I never tried consciously to learn these techniques, but I think I developed them unconsciously. Lots of right-hand stuff develops this way. As a banjoist, I remember having lots of trouble getting my thumb up to the second string. When I look now at what my right hand is doing, the thumb is not only playing the second string, but also the first. There’s a different sound and emphasis when it goes up there, and who knows when it learned to do that! I have another habit of curling my left-hand index finger so that instead of laying across the bar, only the base and the tip of the finger touch it. I don’t know why I do this, and occasionally my finger will lay down into the groove. Who knows why, seems to work for me though. Another feature of my dobro style, and this might not always be the best thing on the dobro, is play what in banjo playing would be called “melodic” licks—where you might arrange a sequence of notes in a way that doesn’t require playing a single string twice in a row. So, a G scale would be, open 3rd string, 4th string 7th fret, open 2nd, 3rd string 5th fret, open 1st, 2nd string 5th fret , 1st string 4th fret, then 1st string 5th fret. You get a lot of open string ringing but as a former banjoist I’m as likely to play around frets 5 and 7 as I am to do hammer/pull-offs by the nut. I figured out Curtis Burch’s “Rainbow Bridge” for a student and was pleased to find at least one other player using these positions. At any rate, I’m so much better with my right hand than I am with my left, and this kind of approach lets me play to my strength.

Final thought on technique and style, I’m somewhat known for my rhythm chops. I do them differently than most folks though; I use only my thumb, and do a backstroke with the back of the thumbpick. (No wonder my thumbpick’s always slipping!) More often than not, I’ll do this using the “universal chord” rather than fretting a chord. I find that’s pretty much my only opportunity to look up and around (and hope the photographer grabs a shot sans double-chin—sigh). I also don’t care much for the sound of a chop anywhere lower than the 4th fret and higher than 10.

SJ: Do you write your own tunes? Can you give us any insights into how you approach arranging tunes for the dobro?

KB: I hadn’t written many tunes until a few years ago. I found that a skill that’s very useful in improvisation—hearing similarities between tunes—was hampering me on the composing side. Everything sounded too much like something else to me. Then, a couple of years ago, I became obsessed with Ivan Rosenberg’s tunes on his “Back to the Pasture” CD. I had the opportunity to talk with Ivan at length about how he composed those tunes. He really inspired me, and I went right home and started writing some tunes. I lost the first one, because I started working on a B part before I recorded the A part, and lost it. I never got it back. But during that fall, I wrote five or six tunes I still haven’t recorded yet (except in my home studio). Ivan really helped me get over the barriers I had built against writing tunes. Arranging tunes for the dobro…first and foremost for me is finding the melody. I think chord first, then scale. The open scales are, to me, derived from the banjo (which explains why I’m only now learning scales other than G). For closed positions, I think, chord, plus “notes around the chord I can use”—which are, of course, scale notes. The other scale thing that I do is have a mental picture of the scale steps; that is, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half (for a major scale). A short cut way of thinking about this is to think, where are the half-steps? So where I end up at the end of a phrase or lick is in fact a particular point in the scale. So I can drop into using the scale wherever I end up. I’ll slide along using a scale till I get to a point where I want to play a roll in a closed position (say, where the melody stops for a few beats), so then I’d jump to that chord. A lot of this is by feel, using my ear, and from experience.

I’m not the kind of improviser that hears something in my head and then goes to play it. I actually have the feeling a lot of times that I’m actually part of the audience. I hear it when they do; sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t. My approach to the neck is rather mechanical, that is, I use certain rules (chord, scale, melody) to find things and work through the solo that way. It seems to me that whatever “creativity” I bring to a solo has more to do with phrasing and time than it does with melodic content. That part of creating a solo is very in the moment, and I’m often very surprised when I hear a recording of a solo performed live. In fact, I “learned” the second solo on “Powder Creek” from a recording of the AGB Strawberry performance in 1994. I had a lot of trouble figuring out something interesting for that solo, and when I heard the performance tape, I knew I had it. The solo is all about phrasing and time, and I think this is where my early classical training really benefits me.

This points out something that I find interesting; that is, learning a solo from myself using this process is kind of like learning something from someone else, which is a completely different exercise than playing something spontaneously. Of course, in performance I wouldn’t play something that doesn’t come naturally to me, so learning from myself is easier than trying to figure out someone else’s solo from a CD. Still, it feels like a completely different kind of exercise than when I played it on stage. One interesting thing (to me, anyway) that’s happened to me lately: in my teaching, I am emphasizing scales for my students much more than I ever did when I was learning. I found that looking at scales was the only way I could compress decades of figuring stuff out by ear (the David Bromberg “one tune at a time” approach) into something useful for a student. I like to use scales as technique exercises, warm-ups, and as preparation to learn a tune. So, if we’re going to figure out a song, or try to improvise a melody (i.e., find it in real time), first we review the scale for the purpose of getting a visual idea of the pattern on the neck. This is to increase the odds of getting the right note—and more importantly, decrease the odds of hitting a clinker.

SJ: There are so few women dobro players! Why is that? Do you have any general comments on women in bluegrass and/or the dobro?

KB: Well, I don’t know. That question is routinely brought up in flatpicking circles (especially flatpick-l) and never results in an answer that seems to explain it. The lack of role models is pretty fundamental to the issue of women playing lead instruments. I think there are more women fiddlers because there are more women fiddlers. I didn’t play lead or go past the 5th fret on guitar until I saw Nina Gerber play with Kate Wolf. I don’t know why that is but I think we all build barriers in our minds to keep ourselves from possibly failing at something. I think that dobro is physically less demanding than flatpicking a guitar (at least it is for me). So it would be a natural for women. Still, the most important thing is to dig into the dobro and pull tone and volume out of it, so it’s still a physical challenge. There might be something about the competitive nature and raw power of bluegrass. Bluegrass is simultaneously a cooperative and a competitive endeavor so you could look at that either way. But my husband and I have talked about how there seems to be more women in old-time music (and I have noticed the same in Irish/Celtic circles). In those genres, the melodies are played as a group, and you aren’t put on the spot. I think you could think of them as more communal, and bluegrass as more individualistic. So I don’t know if this is the reason, but it’s interesting to think about. You also have to be pretty assertive to be a bluegrass player. (There’s a certain amount of a “who does she think she is” attitude that I’ve dealt with over time. Just something I had to get used to; and it’s certainly way less now than 20 years ago.) I guess a final thought is, there’s simply not enough time in life to do everything— especially if you’re raising children, an important and time-consuming job. I don’t think I could hold down a job, raise children, and spend enough time practicing to be a good musician. Two out of the three is hard enough! I think another good question would be, why don’t more guitar players also play dobro? At least in bluegrass circles, there are many many more guitar players than dobroists, and a lot of jams could use fewer guitars. Now I can understand that if you want to sing a lot you might want to stick to guitar (Andy Hall notwithstanding), but it just seems to me that you can make some awfully good music on the dobro if you learn how to make a good note.

SJ: If I understand this correctly, you’ve been involved in bluegrass music for almost 30 years now; as a performer, band member, teacher, and also as a writer. What have been some of the highlights of those experiences for you?

KB: Gee, has it really been that long? I had the very good fortune when I was first learning to be part of a bluegrass community that was not only supportive but full of really great players. In Sacramento, I hung out with John Green and Greg Townsend, both fabulous guitar players. My first band included Greg and mandolinist Stan Miller, both of whom went on to play in Laurie Lewis’s Grant Street String Band. I had played banjo for less than two years at that point, and the education I got from my bandmates was priceless. I played banjo (very briefly) in “The Barbelles”—a band put together for one gig, though we played several more. That band included Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Sally Van Meter, and Barbara Montoro (now Swan) on bass. That association brought me to a short period during which Sally left the Good Ol’ Persons. I filled in on banjo when they needed a fifth person. Playing with John Reischman and Paul Shelasky was incredible. You couldn’t play a cool lick without hearing it back moments later. And I was in way over my head. It was great, and I learned to dive in and trust that I’d be able to swim. Another highlight was my first gig on bass, which I learned to fill in those long summers when students quit their lessons. It was at the Freight & Salvage with High Country, and it was mandolinist Larry Hughes’ first gig as guitarist/singer for the band. Interesting night, but it went well. I played a lot of bass with High Country for a few years, when their regular bassist (Steve Pottier) wasn’t available. It was really fun. And, to this day, of all the instruments I play, I think I’m best at bluegrass bass (not the Missy Raines stuff, can’t do that!). I really enjoy the challenge of negotiating the time with the other players and deciding where to put the beat. A lot of people think bluegrass bass is easy, but that time thing makes it a real challenge, and fun, for me. I toured one summer (dobro and banjo) with Bill Grant & Delia Bell. That was fun. I kicked off almost all the songs, with Delia humming the tune for me so I could get it. Or she’d tell me, it’s just like some standard, and I’d just kick that one off and hear the song later. I had learned with the Good Ol’ Persons just to dive in to a kick-off. Kind of like diving off a cliff, not quite knowing where the water is. The All Girl Boys did a few tours, including showcasing at IBMA (1991). An Alaska tour was a highlight, as well as traveling to Vancouver BC. Playing the Strawberry festival was a real highlight. Making the AGB CD in 1994 was quite an experience, and I must say it changed how I hear things permanently. Maybe it was the 16-hour mastering session… Another really great experience was performing with Pete Grant at the “Loud and Clear: Resophonic Guitars and The Dopyera Brothers’ Legacy To American Music” exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Pete and I played as a duo, and they enjoyed it so much they asked us back for a second concert. This time we invited Steve Pottier to play bass, and Jim Beeler on guitar. We played both times in the ballroom at the Crocker mansion, and I was interviewed by the local NPR station. That always gets my work- mates’ attention, when they wake up to hearing me on the radio! And, I have to say how much I enjoy playing in my current bluegrass band, Mountain Laurel. We’ve done a number of great shows here in northern California—at the Palms, the Grass Valley Center for the Arts, and most recent but certainly not least, playing at the California Bluegrass Association’s annual Father’s Day Festival.

I’m also enjoying a renewed interest in teaching and mentoring. When I turned 50 (two years ago) I decided that I better get a-goin’—time’s a-wastin’! So I’m trying to play as much, teach as much, record as much, as I can. I am very much enjoying my current work as a regular columnist for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. Because I don’t get out much as a guitarist, it’s been a great opportunity for me to get some exposure as a guitarist and instructor. And I told you about the California Bluegrass Association Music Camp, where I taught beginning dobro, just this last June. I really enjoyed that and hope to return next year.

SJ: Tell us about Mountain Laurel (and other past projects such as the All Girl Boys)…How have the musical demands of the different projects you have been involved with challenged you as a player or helped you to grow as a musician? Are there any relationships with other musicians that have had an especially big impact on your own development as a musician?

KB: I started my performing career with people who were much better musicians and much more experienced than I was. I learned quickly to “get ‘er done.” No room for dilly- dallying around, being scared (though I was terrified), or playing wimpy. I was extremely fortunate to be invited into that circle and treated as an equal, and it was a challenge to me to step up to the plate. I have also been very lucky to play with great singers. I learned early on that I was an instrumentalist, not a singer. So I am always trying to sidle up to good singers. For me, hooking up with good singers is where it’s at. In both The All Girl Boys and Mountain Laurel, good singing was and is the primary focus. Specific musicians, I’d have to say my musical relationship with Mary Gibbons has had perhaps the biggest effect on how I approach music, and, especially, performing. Mary is not only a great singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist, she also has a keen ear for what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps most importantly, she has very high standards for her music. I learned from Mary to bring my best to the table and leave the not-best at home.

SJ: Tell us about your instruments: what kind of dobros do you play? What does your live performance rig consist of? Can you offer any general advice about things to consider when shopping for a resonator guitar?

KB: I bought my first dobro from mandolinist Tiny Moore, when I was teaching banjo at his studio. It was one of those all-metal Nationals. What was I thinking? I was pretty clueless. I traded that one in right quick. I’ve had many older Dobros, the finest of these was one I bought from Paul Shelasky. That one was stolen from my apartment (along with a not-very-good 1976 D-18). I spent quite a few years trying to replace that one. Trying to replace my stolen one, I bought and sold a series of old Dobros, including a Cyclops. The instrument I used on the The All-Girl Boys CD was loaned to me by Sally. It was a Scheerhorn Tim had given to her. I eventually purchased it from Sally and played it for a few years. In the meantime, I had demo’d a Randy Allen dobro at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival. It was a maple guitar with a very deep body, with fancy gold (brass?) appointments and a highly-engraved cover plate. This guitar was on the cover of a Guitarmaker magazine (you can see a picture at http://www.allenguitar.com/gtmkr36.htm). In the article, Randy talked about how he picked the wood/finish to go with the gold. Well, that guitar haunted me, and I finally bought it from Randy, but I made him take the gold off. Just too fancy for the likes of me. I still feel kind of guilty about that. (You can find out more about Randy’s approach to building dobros at http://www.allenguitar.com/gtmkr41.htm.)

The Scheerhorn, and then the Allen, changed my playing significantly. Modern dobros give their sound up much faster than the old ones, and I think the responsiveness translates into better playing, kind of a bio-feedback thing. When I was first playing Sally’s Scheerhorn, High Country dobroist Jim Mintun looked at me and said, “you play different now.” It was the guitar, and it did indeed change my playing. I eventually sold that Scheerhorn to Ivan Rosenberg, who subsequently sold it to Janet Beazley. I’d love to have it back, but I think she’s keeping it! I now play the Allen almost exclusively. I recently acquired a new Scheerhorn L-body but the Allen is still my main guitar, dobro-wise. It’s really great to have a locally-built guitar (Mountain Laurel has three locally-built instruments!). I can get it set up pretty much any time. Plus, I’ve dropped it three times and it’s a hoss. A little beat-up at this point (that last drop was a doozy) but as clumsy as I am, I’m kind of afraid to take the Scheerhorn out of the house. I plan to put the S.—which by the way is a fabulous guitar—into D tuning and explore that for awhile.

Though both of my dobros have pickups (a Schertler on the Scheerhorn, and a McIntyre on the Allen), I almost always use a mic in live performances, for two reasons. First, I’m used to it, and especially in the bluegrass band setting, I’m accustomed to mixing my own sound via using the mic. I’m currently using an AKG C1000 my husband bought me for recording. It turns out to be a great performance mic as well. The other reason is that I’m not a gearhead. This may be partly a gender thing, but I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into electronics (I’m using a pick-up on my guitar now). I have a pre-amp, and a volume pedal, but I’d still rather just use a mic if I can get away with it. I do use the pickup when sitting in with some young friends with drums; however, next time I do that I’m going to take the lap steel (I have a Vega New Yorker and an Oahu Diana from the 1930s, but I haven’t messed around with them much).

I’m not sure what advice I can give about dobro shopping—especially not being a gearhead. For lower-end guitars (and there’s some really good ones out there), I’d just say, make sure the bridge is high enough. Seems like a lot of them come with a lower bridge, which makes it hard to keep your fingerpicks from hitting the cover plate. Or maybe it’s a different shape of cover plate, I’m not sure. My own experience with instrument shopping is generally that I buy the one that facilitates my playing. It’s a feel thing. It’s really hard to shop for dobros though. We rarely get the opportunity to play them first, and especially to compare side-by-side. I have had the opportunity to play a couple of Gold Tones, and I think they’re a mighty fine choice for a first dobro. I use Tipton bars, the old-style Dunlop fingerpicks, and a Beard capo. I was complaining to a friend, Jonathan Schiele, about not being able to get the 4-hole Dunlops anymore (the new Dunlops, with the extra holes on the top of the wrap, really tear up my cuticles). He went on eBay and found me a whole brand-new tube of the old ones! So now I’m set for life. I’m now using the Zookie thumbpicks (thanks resoguit guys!). I do have difficulty with picks slipping (especially on those rest strokes), and getting thumbpicks that are small enough (for a big gal I’ve got really skinny fingers!). So that’s an ongoing issue for me. Oh, and I use GHS 1650 strings. Turns out the .28 G string is really important to me. I got my first Tipton bar from Ron himself, at IBMA in Owensboro (1991). Unfortunately, I loaned my original Tipton bar to a student who moved away and never gave it back (grrrr). The new ones are still good, but they’ve moved a little more toward the Scheerhorn bar shape (more slope on the shoulders). I’d sure like to get that old one back! I like the Beard capo but in fact I’m trying to use a capo as little as possible. About the only times I use one anymore are for fiddle tunes in A and sometimes D, folky tunes in E or F where I want to use the open D scale, which I think has a great sound for folk, or bluesy things in F or G where I want to use the open E stuff.

SJ: What kinds of things interest you or motivate you to learn new material on the dobro? Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

KB: Mostly, it’s band- or performance-driven. I need to learn something for a gig. Otherwise, the guitar actually takes up a lot of my practice time. This is kind of backwards, since dobro takes up most of my performance time. But, and maybe it’s because I’m a bit complacent on the dobro, the guitar is for me so difficult that I really have to practice it a lot if I’m to play it at all. I also have a recently-acquired interest in Irish music, which I mostly prefer to play on guitar, though there are a few tunes (Shebeg & Shemore, Far Away, Star of the County Down) that really sound great on dobro. Mostly, I’m leaving the Irish dobro slot to Pete Grant! Occasionally a tune will really grab me and I’ll learn it on a bunch of instruments to see where it sounds the best, or I’m just curious to how it would lay out on this other instrument. “Powder Creek” is a tune I’ve played on banjo, guitar, dobro, and even a little on mandolin. It’s fun to see where different instruments take you on a tune. Here’s the coolest thing about the dobro for me: it fits into all kinds of music. Phrasing, timing, rhythm…. it’s a great instrument for in-the-moment expression. For me, the dobro kind of floats on top of things, so you’re free to phrase things in the moment. Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to sit across from Orville Johnson and pick a few. It made me realize how much I have not been able to sit down with someone on dobro and trade licks, like I do on guitar—though it was hard backing Orville up and trying to check out what he was doing at the same time. I guess dobro players are still few and far between. I’m also inspired by Andy Hall. While folks like Jerry and Rob are incredibly fantastic, I am so beneath them that mostly I don’t get it. Or perhaps we just think in different ways. Andy on the other hand is incredibly fantastic but in a way that I can understand. So I’m really liking his playing, and because I do understand (most of) it conceptually, I can actually take something away from what he’s doing. It’s also humbling, because I can hear how much better I could be if I put more time into it.

Which brings me to a final thought, about focus. I have chosen to split up my very limited time between several instruments. (I’m lucky to have a good job but it sure takes me away from the music.) Notice though that in the beginning of my musical career I was a serial instrumentalist—focusing for several years on one thing. At this point in my life I’m pretty frustrated by the lack of time I have to keep everything practiced up, do some composing, do some recording, teach more, write columns for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, garden. I love dinking around on the mandolin. But it seems like every minute I spend on one thing is a minute not spent on all the others. It’s pretty frustrating. I think there are costs and benefits associated with being a multi-instrumentalist. I’m ok with it at this point with it but it’s a constant struggle. Not to mention balancing the music with the day job. And family. My husband, Jon Hartley Fox, a writer in the music business, is incredibly supportive of my second career, so that helps a lot. There are benefits from being a multi-instrumentalist, but sometimes I wonder where I might be if I’d stuck with one thing. Who knows?

Martin Gross

Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2009

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SJ: I assume you grew up in Germany, correct? Where/when did you first hear or see a dobro? How did you get interested in playing one in the first place?

MG: This is absolutely correct. I grew up in Southern Germany. When I consciously listened to a dobro for the first time is hard to tell. In the seventies when I started playing the guitar and was listening to records by Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers or various Blues artists, the sound of this instrument always amazed me – that was a long time before I even knew its name. Only after I came across a record by the Allman Brothers whose cover showed a dobro did I realize what one looked like. I studied that picture closely and soon decided that I would one day possess such an incredible instrument. In the year 1978 I achieved my goal. On a trip through the USA I bought my first dobro in New Orleans. It was a metal body dobro which at that time cost $ 400 – and was identical with the one on the cover of the Allman Brothers record. I felt perfectly happy then. At that time I had no idea that there were also squareneck dobros and naturally I had never heard of Bluegrass music. Such was the situation in Germany when I grew up.

But this changed two weeks later when my journey led me to San Francisco. At the turning point of a cable car I happened to see a Bluegrass band and one of the boys played a dobro lap style. This took me by surprise and made me feel really excited. That technique of playing, that sound and that kind of Bluegrass music in general filled me with enthusiasm. After a long conversation with that musician I had found out that those instruments were produced in Huntington Beach. I knew where Huntington Beach was because I had passed it two days earlier. If only I had had that information at the time!!! Nevertheless, I decided to change my plans and travelled right back to Huntington Beach in order to visit the dobro factory. The manager, Ron Lazar, was incredibly nice, showed me around and informed me about the whole range of dobro manufacturing. Apart from that he gave me the address of a German dealer selling dobros close to Munich. When I returned home, it didn’t take long until I possessed my first squareneck dobro.

SJ: Where do you trace your musical heritage from on the dobro? Who were your heroes when you were learning to play?

MG: It was definitely Mike Auldridge. At that time there were no records, manuals or workshops whatsoever for people wanting to learn this instrument. Not to mention teachers. Luckily the dealer in Munich not only sold the dobro to me but also a Stevens steel bar and two Auldridge records. That was all I had to start with. In the following time I continually listened to the sound of those two records and tried to imitate the tunes as well as I could. Today I am really happy about the fact that it was Mike Auldridge who has had a formative influence on me at this early stage. Mike plays incredibly clean and has an excellent sound. As time went by I tried to find musicians in the region with mutual interests and found quite a few in Stuttgart. They were representatives of all kinds of styles like Irish Folk, Blues and there were even Bluegrass musicians, who made me acquainted with Stacy Phillips’ manual ‘The Dobro Book’. This really helped me a lot to learn more about playing techniques. Through those musicians I was able to obtain first-rate recordings and when I listened to Jerry Douglas for the first time it was clear that no other instrument would ever fascinate me as much as the dobro. Mike Auldridge, Stacy Phillips and Jerry Douglas had the greatest influence on me during my early years with this instrument.

SJ: How did you learn to play? Were there any special practice techniques or tools that you found especially helpful to advancing your playing skills?

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MG: In the first half year I played without fingerpicks. That was easy for me, because on the guitar I was able to play the ragtime finger-picking style. It seemed logical to me to simply transfer this technique onto the dobro. I quickly realized, however, that playing the dobro this way, you don’t have a chance to get heard among the other instruments in a jam, for example. The sound is bad, there is hardly volume and your fingers ache. So, thumbpicks and fingerpicks became essential. This meant a complete change and I felt like an absolute beginner once more. At least I could profit from one ragtime technique: dampening the strings with the fingers of the right hand didn’t cause me any problems. If you don’t have anybody to guide you in learning an instrument you can’t help getting things wrong and later it is extremely difficult to get rid of those wrong habits. For example, after having used the wrong technique for years, I only learned on a later journey to the US how to chop properly. Naturally I had to practise very hard to set things straight. One specific technique which I have studied a great deal is using string pulls. In fact they characterize my personal style and I like using them a lot. I think that this way you show a certain affinity to the pedal steel guitar and this is what I like.

SJ: Can you give us any examples into how you approach the general concept of creativity on the dobro? For example – do you write your own tunes? How do you find something “new” to play in the case where you are playing a familiar tune? Just curious, have you ever transposed any traditional German folk music for the dobro?

MG: I think that the creativity of a musician has, among other things, something to do with being open for all different styles of music. It’s clear that there’s a lot that you don’t like, and you forget that pretty quickly. There’s nothing wrong with that. The things you do like though are automatically stored in your head – at least that’s the way it is with me. It could be a melody, a harmony, a rhythm, a mood produced by a song, or even just a simple lick. It doesn’t matter, but whatever you like, you remember it in some form or another. The more music you listen to, the more these elements accumulate, and as time goes by a basis for your musical preferences develops. Now it does depend on how much imagination, fun, and boldness a musician has, in employing his gathered impressions and putting these elements together, mixing them, experimenting with them in whatever form they may be. In my case it’s not absolutely necessary to have an instrument on hand to do this. I, personally, have my best ideas while driving. I listen to something on the radio and suddenly I have an idea. Then I have to turn off the radio right away and start developing my idea. I can genuinely hear the tones and harmonies I am imagining. If I like what I hear, I don’t forget it in the course of the day, and in the evening when I have my peace and quiet, I sit down and work the chords and melody out on the guitar.

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It doesn’t really matter if that song lends itself to the Dobro or not. If so, all the better; if not, then it can be arranged for another instrument. This is how the basis of a song or instrumental number comes into being. Sometimes an idea comes while I’m just playing. I play some song on the Dobro and at a chord change I accidentally play at the wrong fret. It can be that I then say, “Hey, that actually sounds great!” and I’m suddenly hot on the trail of another idea, which I may be able to use. Sometimes, when no one’s listening, I go crazy on the Dobro and make a hellish noise, and play, very honestly, intentionally wrong. I just do this for my own fun. As absurd as this may sound, this is where I get my best songs. Jamming with other musicians is also very inspirational. It spontaneously produces an unbelievable potential for ideas. It’s just a shame that you can’t hold on to your idea and develop it further because the jam keeps on going. By the end you’ve forgotten everything. I always hope that at least the inspiration has been stored somewhere in my memory. It’s difficult to explain how creativity and composing really work. It certainly has something to do with inspiration, which in my case can take on the most diverse forms. What I know for certain is that I cannot just do it at will. I could never say that tomorrow afternoon between three and six pm I’m going to write a song. In answer to the last part of the question, I have to say that I recorded a German lullaby, composed by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897). It’s called „Guten Abend Gute Nacht“ (trans. Good Evening Good Night) and can be heard as a video clip on my home page. I’ve also arranged a folk song called “Das Loch in der Banane”(trans. Hole in the Banana) from the German guitarist Klaus Weiland and put it to music on “Heart of Steel”.

SJ: Tell us about the band you play with: what kinds of ensembles do you play with? Do you do any “solo” Dobro gigs?

MG: No, I don`t do any solo Dobro gigs. But there are two bands that I ́ve been playing with, for many years now. The musicians got together because Bluegrass Music was their common interest. We do about 25 gigs a year. Unfortunately we don`t have the time to practice together a lot but we have a big repertoire of songs and instrumentals that we can lay back on. The Phoenix-Stringband and was founded in 1991. These guys had been picking together for quite a while and needed a bass player. So I started playing bass in this band. It was in 1998 when we decided to include the dobro in our repertoire for an entire set. We do the dobro set without the banjo so another member has got the chance to play the bass. The Phoenix-Stringband plays different kind of styles like Swing, Jazz, Bluegrass, Folk and even does arrangements of Pop and Rock songs in order to present a variety show to the audience. It was in 1997, when I joined the second band. The Four Potatoes is a strictly Old Time Music band where I also play the bass. Even if historically the Dobro is too young for this style of music, we use it for a couple of songs.

SJ: Your musical interests seem to range well beyond bluegrass, as evidenced on your stellar solo c.d. – The Heart of Steel. How did Heart of Steel come together? Are these the same musicians you play with on a regular basis? Where can people purchase your c.d.?

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MG: If a musician makes music for a long period of time and focus interest to a special kind of instrument, there naturally comes the wish some day to show what he learned. I think this is an honest and natural need of every musician and has nothing to do with an image complex.
( Profilierungssucht ) I recorded the Heart of Steel because I had a lot of own composition material, that I wanted to keep for myself – in the first place. To me a CD is a document that shows the level of improvement, at the particular time it was recorded . This is important to me, because I want to control the progress in my development. The Heart of Steel is my first solo CD. Only local musicians were involved in this project. If you are interested in buying a copy, you can order it via PayPal on my home page http://www.martingross.com. (just click on shop in the menu). Betty Wheeler has a contingent of CD ́s in stock, and does the US shipping for me. The videos on your website are fantastic! I thought the quality of the images, the camera angle and of course, your playing is first rate. Are the videos available in a DVD format to folks here in the U.S.? Of course it makes me very happy every time I hear that people are enjoying the Videos on my home page. If you’ve already seen the Videos, you’ve probably noticed that they’re not perfectly synchronized. That’s because there’s two separate steps involved, the first one being the Audio track, and then the Video, which causes a slight delay. If anyone’s interested in a DVD, I’m open for suggestions and feel free to contact me any time. I’ve never really thought about selling any because there’s no Tablature to go along with them. That’s quite the assortment of resonator guitars on your website! It’s just a hunch on my part, but I suspect if I owned 10 guitars I would eventually find one that I liked the best and play it most of the time. Is that true for you?

SJ: Please tell us about the different guitars you own; did you go through any kind of consumer rationalization process before making each purchase?

MG: Yes, I do have an instrument that I favor the most and use it for most of my gigs. I have 5 Dobros and each and every one of them means something special to me. So much so, that I couldn’t even imagine ever actually selling one of them. As mentioned before, my first Dobro, bought in New Orleans in 1978 for $400,- is a round necked Metal Body Guitar. In 1979 I bought my first square neck in Munich. Unfortunately, I don’t have this one anymore. I can’t even remember exactly what model or make it was. I bought my first real quality square neck from Rudy Jones in 1982. I had the opportunity to try out a number of different models at his shop in Waynette Oklahoma and told him exactly what I was looking for. Then he built me a custom Dobro just the way I wanted it, I chose to go with Mahogany. The Reed Guitar came about through a friend of mine. He had it built for himself and shortly before the delivery date heard the news that Bob Reed’s shop had burned down. The Dobro, fortunately, was not damaged in the fire. At any rate, this is the very last Dobro that Bob Reed built. In the winter of 2003 I stumbled across the Sheerhorn on eBay. It was custom made for a person in Calif. in 1991 out of Maple. It’s the first one Tim ever made with F-Holes and has the serial No.26. My latest acquisition is from a Luthier here in Stuttgart named Siegfried Dessl, built to my specifications. The body is made of two different types of mahogany. The top is made out of Tobasco, with F-Holes, and the back and sides are out of Sapele.

SJ: You’ve been playing for awhile now, correct? Are there any techniques or goals that remain elusive for you? What kinds of things motivate you to tackle a new tune or technique?

MG: I got my first square neck in 1979 and that’s when I started to learn how to play. But between 1988 and 1998 barely played at all, as a result of focusing all my time and energy on Studio Recordings and Song Writing. At some point we decided to bring the Dobro back into the Band and that’s when I re-discovered my long lost love for the instrument. There’s so many things I’m interested in doing, and goals I’ve set for myself as a Musician. One of these is to really learn the right way to play my rhythm chops. I also feel I need to work on my timing. I would love to go to a Bluegrass Festival or two in America and attend some of the Workshops and get the opportunity to meet the whole Dobro Family. A second CD is also way up there on my list. The time and energy I spend striving to achieve all my personal goals and making my dreams come true is a constant source of motivation for me, and is a very important factor in my own musical development.

SJ: I was fascinated to see on your website that you had designed your own dobro capo. What inspired you to do that in the first place? How does your capo differ from other dobro capos available in the marketplace?

MG: Where did the motivation for designing my own Capo come from? You know the old saying, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”. Well, the fact is, I needed a Capo and I just didn’t have one. I tried fooling around with regular Guitar Capos that I’d modified for the Dobro, but wasn’t really satisfied with any of the results, so I decided design one myself. The first few prototypes were very promising and today I’m very happy with the Capo just the way it is. The advantages my Capo over the standard Capos are: The Capo is fairly massive and has a lot of substance, which constitutes in a very strong and solid tone.

  • Fast and easy to put on and take off
  • Always in tune while capoed
  • No Capo movement while playing, because it rests on the neck
  • More freedom for the pinky finger left hand

SJ: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story with us. Do you have any closing thoughts you would like to share?

MG: My pleasure Rob! I consider it an honor to be included in your Featured Artist series and want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of it all. I’d also like to thank you for all the work you’ve put into your Homepage, which is a great source of information and motivation for all of us.