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?


Kent Schoonover




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.


Curly Maple Schoonover Resophonic Guitar



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


Sapele/Sitka Spruce “Black Lacquer” Schoonover Resophonic Guitar




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.


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.


Black Acacia/Western Red Cedar Schoonover Resophonic Guitar



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.


Southeast Asian Rosewood Schoonover Resophonic Guitar



IMG_0405 (2)

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.

IMG_0312 (2)

Claro Walnut Schoonover Resonator Guitar


IMG_0315 (3)

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.


Schoonover Modular Spider




Schoonover Modular Spider with ebony capped saddle



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.


  • 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


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

Our Pleasant Surprise mp3

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.

Whispering Bill mp3

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?


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?


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!

Possessions mp3

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?


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!.


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



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.



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?


Right side 1Left side 1Back 3

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?


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


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.


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.

Duck the Halls 012

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?

horn 7 horn 6
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?

Happy Champ

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




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.



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.


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



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?


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.


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.?

martin gross

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.

Michael Bean

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


SJ: There are many things that I admire about your music, but let’s start at the beginning…I am willing to bet that you’ve been a musician for a long time, correct? Where did you grow up; how/when did you get started playing music and when did you start writing your own tunes? Do you write both instrumental and vocal tunes?

MB: First of all, thanks, Rob, for including me in your series; I really enjoy all that your website has to offer. Ok, I grew up in Peabody, Massachusetts, about 20 miles north of Boston, in the 60’s and 70’s. Both of my parents were music teachers and pianists, so you are right about being a musician for a long time. I played cornet and bass clarinet in the school bands and didn’t really enjoy playing until one day when I was twelve, my Dad brought home a bass guitar. I was hooked immediately. I started copying tunes off of records and really developed my ear quickly. A year later Dad brought home an acoustic guitar, so I started in on that. I listened to and learned everything that I heard, and that was a wide variety of music, between my parents and my older sisters and all the great stuff that was on AM radio at the time. I played bass and occasionally guitar in bands throughout my teens until I started playing bass in my Dad’s piano trio when I was seventeen. This is when my musicianship really grew. We played a lot of standards and dance tunes and there were always requests that I never heard before. So, Dad explained to me that rather than looking at a major scale as C D E F G etc, look at it as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc with half steps between 3&4 and 7&1 and all the other intervals as whole steps. This way he could call out to me “Key of C; 1, 6, 2, 5” and I would know he meant C, Am, Dm, G7. It made total sense and it opened up the fingerboard for me.

I’ll skip ahead to the writing: one day when I was around twenty-two, as I was driving somewhere, I singing the ideas that were playing in my head. I thought “Duh, I should make these into a song!” So I ordered a Tascam 244 Portastudio 4-Track recorder and started writing progressive guitar instrumentals and lousy vocal pop tunes that sound like the 80’s era. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, the instrumentals I wrote were very Dixie Dregs and then Joe Satriani influenced. After that I went through my bebop jazz period and wrote jazz/funk/fusion tunes. I am planning on writing vocal tunes again in the future.

SJ: I did a gig one time with a songwriter that I did not know very well (we did not rehearse prior to the gig) Long story short, it was a terribly boring gig! About the 3rd song into the gig it dawned on me – his songs were (more or less) completely driven by lyrics and rhythm, but little/no melody! He kept motioning to me to play solos but there was no melody line demanding the chords he was playing and that made it really tedious to improvise over the changes. O.k. that’s a long sidebar, but I think it’s important to my next question: How do you manage to write such great melody lines in your music? Where do you get your inspiration and ideas from as a writer? Who do you admire in this regard? And…is writing music hard work for you?

MB:  Ah, the melody! My earliest memories of great melodies were listening to the Beatles when I was four years old. Those songs grabbed me and I realized what set them apart were the endless supply of great melodies. I have always been moved by great melodies and chord changes and it’s what I really want to hear in music, most of the time. I love great playing, bluesiness, and funkiness, but the melody, chord changes, counterpoint, and a great arrangement are what can bring me to tears. My Dad was really brilliant in his arrangements; he had a knack for great melodies and counterpoint. Even when he played the simplest melody he would have something great moving around under it—there would always be something interesting going on. He taught Traditional Counterpoint at Berklee College during the early 60’s and played a lot of Bach and Chopin on piano, so his generous use of melody and counterpoint has been my biggest influence.

I see soloing as putting together little melodies. To me, the best soloists are the ones who play over changes and you can hear the chord changes in their playing. First it was Duane Allman and Dicky Betts whose melodic playing captured me. Then Dad and his bass player when I was growing up, a fellow named Dennis Lantry; they always played with a great sense of adventure and that helped form my playing. Then, the big one: Charlie Parker—the master improviser and melody creator. Transcribing and learning his solos really opened up my sense of melody. No matter what instrument I play, whether it’s dobro, mando, guitar, or bass, some Charlie Parker influence shows in my playing. Two of my favorite improvisers now are Bela Fleck and Chris Thile. They always have something musically interesting to say.

SJ: Your melody lines as so good, so distinct, that I can’t tell what instrument they were written on…What is your approach/philosophy of creativity? Do you write music with a specific instrument in your hands? Does it make a difference which instrument you write with?

MB: Each instrument can inspire different ideas for a tune. It may give me a starting point of a song then most of the ideas come about when I am just thinking about the song while driving or mowing the lawn or something. I’ll mull about an idea and then try it on an instrument to see if it works. Then I may try a certain arrangement on guitar because of its wider range, to see if particular notes work together.

SJ: What advice/insights can you share with someone who is interested in writing their own music on the dobro? For example does the tuning have a big effect on how you approach writing/composing music on the dobro? Any other tips?

MB: I don’t necessarily write that much on the dobro, or for the dobro, really—if I do, it may be part of a song or a basic theme of a tune. I mostly use the dobro as a melody line that will stand out in a tune. I love its flexibility of pitch: the sliding, legato sound. I haven’t written a solo dobro tune like Jerry’s “New Day Medley” or “Peador O’Donnell”. I have started songs like that but most of the time I want to hear more lines or harmonies going on. The instrument has its practical limitations: playing with a bar is like playing with only one finger and you can’t really play an open string or lower fret if it’s in the middle of your bar. So it may start out as a solo tune but it ends up with other instruments. I really prefer ensemble playing over solo instruments; I love the interplay, counterpoint, and freedom one has when he doesn’t have to provide his own accompaniment. I love the way instruments blend and make another sound. I enjoy hearing players inspired by the people they play with.

SJ: Apparently you play just about any/every string instrument. Which was your first; how many do you play; do you consider one to be your primary instrument?

MB: I started on bass, then guitar. I learned tenor banjo in 1979 when I was playing some Dixieland tunes in a band. This helped out years later when I started to learn mandolin because they are both tuned in 5ths. I play some 5-string banjo—I’d like to eventually get competent on that because I’ve always been intrigued by the rapid-fire banjo picking. Before I started playing dobro I played some lap steel in the C6 tuning; I really love the Western swing stuff on that. I play some Appalachian dulcimer–that’s a great soothing sound– my wife loves that. Although bass and guitar are my most comfortable instruments, my focus now is on dobro, then mando. I eventually want to play fiddle. That will take a big commitment because beginning fiddle sure isn’t pretty. There’s not enough time for that now.

SJ: What process do you use to record multiple instruments and wind up sounding like a complete band? Which instrument do you record first and how do you layer sounds without sounding like they were overdubbed?

MB: Home recording, for me, is a pretty involved and painstaking process. First, I start with usually a guide acoustic guitar track and a click track. If the main instrument is dobro, I’ll put down a reference melody track with some reference solo tracks to kind of get the idea where it’s going. Then I add the bass, details, and other instruments. It’s a gradual thing where I’ll try different ideas, listen back to it, go out and think about it, lose sleep at bedtime because it’s still playing in my head. It takes a long time to get a tune done because I don’t have other guys around to get input from.

SJ: Let’s get the lowdown on your equipment for all those interested: tell us about your instruments and recording gear. Is there anything that you have learned along the way that you would like to pass on to someone just getting started?

MB: My dobro and mandolin are both built by Stephen Pierce of Lowell, MA, as is the loaner banjo that is on some of my tunes. Steve’s a nice guy who builds great quality yet affordable instruments and his service is fantastic. My recording gear is pretty basic: a condenser mic into a Presonus Bluetube preamp, to FMR Audio RNC compressor, into the LINE IN of the Creative Soundblaster soundcard that came with the PC. The mics are Oktava MK-319 and MC-012, and a Rode NT1. The software is Cakewalk Home Studio 2002. The essential elements to getting a decent sounding recording is the condenser mic and preamp. The condenser is very sensitive and full range and is great for recording acoustic instruments. Dynamic mics like the SM57 won’t pick up the nuances of an acoustic instrument so save those for live performance.

SJ: How did you get interested in playing dobro? Where do you draw your musicial heritage from as a dobro guy?

MB: During the late 90’s I was playing a lot of blues and some jazz but I was still looking for something else. It wasn’t satisfying. One day, an engineer I worked with brought in the CD “Songs From The Mountain” with Tim O’Brien. The natural sounds of the old time music really grabbed me. I started seeking out more of this stuff and decided to pick up a mandolin. I went into a music store to look for a mandolin and there was a Dean squareneck reso on the wall. After playing it there for a while I decided I had to have it. This was January of 2001. I don’t remember what the first songs I learned were but I set out to learn the fingerboard and how I could apply what I knew on guitar to this new instrument. I was aware of Jerry Douglas because of years of reading guitar player magazine so I sought out recordings he was on. After hearing discs such as Strength In Numbers, Bela Fleck’s Drive, and Chris Thile’s Not All Who Wander Are Lost, I found that here is a music that is based on tradition but unlimited in its creativity. I thought “Aha! This is right up my alley!” I recently rerecorded a few of my tunes were written 10-15 years ago when I was playing electric shred/funk/jazz fusion. They seem to sit better, to my ear, with the acoustic instruments than with the electric—replacing the distorted wailing lead guitar with a clean singing dobro is less aggravating to my ears. The thing that I like about the bluegrass scene is that creative, adventurous playing is encouraged. With blues, you are limited by the chord changes and narrow vocabulary and if you take it too far outside, it’s not blues anymore. In blues and jazz, there was a lot of pretentiousness in these communities; in rock, image is a big factor. I’ve found that in bluegrass/newgrass, the audiences are ready for anything as long as you keep most of the traditional instrumentation. In this acoustic music, age and image are not a factor. There are kids playing along side seasoned veterans and old timers. It’s all about the music. I feel like I’ve finally found the music I want to play, on the instruments I want to play. I feel as though I’ve just begun. Plus, since my Dad passed away a few years ago, I feel more responsibility to create adventurous music and continue what he gave to me.

SJ: Are you a gigging musician? Do you play with a band or as a backup musician on dobro, etc?

MB: I gig a fair amount. There are a few bands that I work with regularly and occasionally. One is an acoustic duo based on an electric blues/rock/funk full band called Paws Up that I sometimes play guitar with. With the duo, I bring out the guitar, dobro, and mando. With the electric band, I bring a 50’s Supro lapsteel and dobro in addition to a Strat or Tele. There is a lot of room to stretch out with Paws Up—it’s always fun and adventurous. My brother Christopher plays drums with them so it makes it even more fun. I sometimes play bass with a great cover band called Roundabout—they are primarily a vocal band. I would like to get in a semi-regular bluegrass situation. I have a lot of great New England bluegrass pals that I jam with; they are more traditional, so I always learn from them. There was a time in the late 80’s when I played music fulltime and I had some professional success as a bass player. I became discouraged with the music business and how it was all about packaging and presentation and image—it was all so fake. I went back to school and got a degree in electronics and now work a fulltime job as a manufacturing engineer. I enjoy music much more now that I don’t make my living from it and can be selective as to what I play.

SJ: Do you have a CD available? How can someone preview or purchase your music?

MB: I don’t have a CD available at the moment. I am looking at recording one over the next year—it’ll take me that long to put it together. I have a page at http://songramp.com/beanbass where I upload my tunes for the public to hear. I also upload them occasionally at http://www.reso-nation.org in the sound bites section. Look for “beanbass” as the author.

SJ: Are there any closing comments or insights that you would like to share with our audience?

MB: Yes, learn some basic theory. I think it important to see how the notes are related to each other. For instance, learn the neck and the relationship between strings (in intervals):

G to B = maj 3rd, B to D = min 3rd, D to G = 4th.
Learn the major scale as numbers and steps: half step at 3 & 4 and 7 & 8; all others are whole steps. Do it on one string and then cross over to neighboring strings at random points. This can be transposed to any key.
See how the minor scale is different from the major (minor = flat 3, 6, 7). Always be aware of what scale number you are on; be aware of where your root is in relation to where you are at the moment.
Know that 1-3-5 of the scale make up the root chord of your key; the IV chord is made from the 4-6-1 of your scale and the V chord is made up of 5-7-2 of the scale. See this in all positions up the neck.
I feel that this is the road map to being able to use the whole neck. Learn it to the point where you don’t have to think about it. This is applicable to any instrument. Once you see how it’s put together, the rest is just playing, and that’s when it becomes fun.

Thanks again for having me, Rob. I think this is the golden age of resophonic guitar and I appreciate all you are doing for the reso community.

Ivan Rosenberg

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


SJ: How did you get started playing dobro and/or Weissenborn guitar? Who were your hero’s when you were getting started?

IR: I guess I got started like many other dobro pickers—by seeing Jerry Douglas play live. In college I was playing some fingerpicked guitar and getting into flatpicking via Norman Blake and Doc Watson (my Dad got me started on Travis picking—he does all the Chet Atkins and Merle Travis kind of stuff). I went to see a show called Masters of the Steel String Guitar, which had premier guitarist from various styles: Tal Farlow on jazz guitar, Wayne Henderson playing bluegrass, etc. Jerry Douglas was playing dobro in that show. I’d never seen or heard a dobro before, but I owned one within about 12 hours. “Me and My Guitar” by Tony Rice was the first bluegrass tape I bought, largely because I wanted to hear what bluegrass covers of Gordon Lightfoot songs would sound like, and from there, I picked up just about everything I could find with Jerry Douglas on it.

I grew up in the Bay Area in California, so I also got to see Sally Van Meter play a lot with the Good Ol’ Persons. In 1995 I moved to Montana I got a lesson from a great player out there named Jack Mauer. I wound up going to a Rob Ickes one-day workshop around ’96, which really helped me understand the techniques that went into making all those bluegrass dobro sounds I was hearing. Unfortunately, I found out about Rob right after he moved from California to Nashville. But that was about all the instruction I could round up at the time, so mostly I just learned from records. Other players I listened to a lot were Mike Auldridge, Uncle Josh, Henrich Novak, Stacy Phillips, Randy Kohrs, Roger Williams, Junior Barber, Gene Wooten, Tut Taylor, Lubos Novotny, and Phil Leadbetter. When I was in grad school in Sonoma I poached a few ideas from a great player named Gerry Szostak and a couple of years later, about the time when I started recording CDs, I got a couple of lessons from Mike Witcher. Witcher really helped me improve my tone and timing—he got me sounding like I was sliding with a steel bar instead of a sausage link and showed me the importance of slowing down. I also learned some country licks and alternate tunings a couple of years ago from Livingston, Montana-based country/swing slide genius “Dobro” Dick Dillof.

Anyway, while I had a pretty good ear and could deduce a lot of fretboard ideas from listening to CDs, it was probably a 10- or 12-year process to be able to get through a typical bluegrass solo with decent tone and timing. I learned that technique was important way too late in the game. That’s why I really hammer that stuff in at workshops—I hope I can shave 5 or 7 years off someone’s learning curve if I can instill what good technique looks and sounds like as well as the importance of practicing purposefully if your goal is to improve.

SJ: How long were you playing before you started playing in a band? Tell us about the bands you’ve played in. What kind of influence have other musicians that you have played with in bands had on own your own development as a musician?


IR: I’ve been playing in bands on and off since around 1995, but didn’t start playing full-time until around 2002. The first band I played with was called “Widow’s Creek”—it was a trio and I played guitar, banjo, and dobro. We only played at Rowdy’s Cabin, a restaurant/casino in Missoula, Montana. Our first gig was only attended by the mandolin player’s girlfriend. Our second gig had a slightly bigger crowd, which included one guy who felt compelled to hurl a few chicken wings at us.

The first actual bluegrass band I played in was called “The Crazy Water String Band,” also in Missoula. We were really fired up on bluegrass and wound up doing a tour of the Czech Republic, where ironically enough we got a great lesson in traditional bluegrass from lots of very talented Czech musicians. Playing with that band I had to figure out what all the instruments do throughout a song—how each instrument trades solos, fills, rhythm chops, etc. Being aware of such things is definitely essential to being a good band member.

Other Montana bands I played with at one time or another include The Mountain Poodles (wish I had a t-shirt from that band), 9 Pound Hammer (runner-up at the 2000 Telluride Band Contest), The Rank Strangers (yes, one of 8 gazillion bands called The Rank Strangers), and Iron Lasso. Iron Lasso specialized in rowdy bluegrass versions of cornball pop-rock songs: “Love Train” by the O’Jays, “Sweet Caroline,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” (based heavily on the Tiffany version of that song), “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” etc. We were also known for hurling pancakes and other food- related projectiles at the crowd. Iron Lasso got the worst review in Bluegrass Unlimited history for the CD “Live in Parkfield,” which we were extremely proud of!

I played and recorded for a couple of years with Chris Stuart & Backcountry (singer/songwriter style bluegrass), and to play with that band I had to get a lot better, especially with timing and intonation. The songs were often really sparsely arranged, so you’d hear it if a note was a cent flat or sharp. I got another lesson with Mike Witcher right before recording the first CSB CD, and instead of trying to learn licks or the fretboard, I just asked him how he practiced. It was really slow—I think he walked me through Big Mon at about 60 beats per minute. It was slow enough to hear everything. When I tried it, I could hear the little pitch problems, the bar rattle, the extra ringing strings, etc., so after that I started practicing slowly with a metronome. Within a couple of months my technique, while far from perfect, was way better—good enough to play in a good band anyway. That band only had 2 soloists, banjo and dobro, so I also had to have a couple of solo variations for every song, and really had to get my chop going since there was no mandolin.

Last year I moved to North Carolina and mostly played with a cool newgrass/Americana band called Steel String Theory, which was in many ways the polar opposite kind of band. The music was usually pretty rowdy and SST doesn’t mind passing the solos around a few times. Sometimes playing the melody didn’t sound quite right after everyone else had taken ripping fast scale- oriented solos, so I spent some time coming up with some multi-purpose jam-it-out licks, and that was a lot of fun.


Now that I’m back in the Northwest, I’m planning on playing or recording some with a couple of Vancouver, BC bands: Slow Drag and The Breakmen. I’ll also be getting a dobro duet CD and show together with Seattle dobroist Mike Grigoni.

SJ: You are very well known as an instructor and have taught numerous
workshops both here in the U.S. and Europe. What have you learned from doing dobro/Weissenborn workshops? Any observations or words of wisdom that you can share with someone who is learning to play?

IR: I think I have a slightly different approach to workshops than most teachers, and that’s because I learned in the same way that many of the students are learning: listening to CDs, trying to copy someone else’s licks, attending workshops, taking a couple of lessons, buying books and videos, and then trying to come up with a unique style out of that background. I have almost no natural ability (that’s just the truth, not me being self-deprecating), and I had to learn everything very purposefully. I made the transition from a decent campground picker to more of a recording artist/band member—the goal of many workshop attendees—and during my learning process I found that some very specific exercises and practice routines allowed me to do that, and it’s fun to share those ideas and help other pickers advance in their skills.

When learning dobro from books or videos there’s a tendency to skip Chapter 1, 2, and 3, and move right to the fancy licks, without ever learning how to practice tone, timing, or intonation. The first few chapters are usually gold! So a lot of my workshop time goes to revisiting the fundamentals. Better technique makes you a better player, instead of the same level player with a few more licks. Besides that, there’s a trick to finding bluegrass melodies easily, which I like to teach as well. If the melody is at the core of your solo, it will be coherent and musical, and everyone can learn how to play the melody in bluegrass or folk music. Being able to play a few great notes well, and at the right time, will make others want to play with you and probably get you in a good band.

I have a blast at workshops—it’s always fun getting to meet all the other people who geek out on dobro music all day, and I’ve wound up with some really good friends by traveling around to teach. I also learn quite a bit from students: I learned how to pick block from the students in my class at the Sore Fingers Week bluegrass workshop in the U.K. They’d learned it from Sally Van Meter when she taught there. Previously I’d only been damping with my bar hand, but now I think pick blocking is totally essential—it’s really cleaned up my playing. I should have been paying the students for that part of the class!

SJ: Tell us about your records. How did they come about, who played and
produced your records? What kind of a learning experience was it to cut your first c.d.?

I had co-producing help from Jim Nunally on Ashes and Coals, which was recorded at Jim’s studio. Otherwise, I self-produced all of my CDs. My inspiration for my first CD was the lack of original dobro music—I was wearing out the same 10 CDs and couldn’t find any more. I found that it’s not as hard as you might think to write tunes. You just have to come up with some chords and a melody line, repeat it, add a B part, and you’re pretty much done. But recording can be a painstaking process—knowing what you really sound like can be an eye-opener.

Anyway, for my first 2 CDs, “The Lost Coast” and “Back to the Pasture.” The producing part was easy. I wanted everyone to mostly play the melody, so I rounded up players who would do that naturally. Back to the Pasture had Jason Mowery on mandolin and fiddle (he’s also an awesome dobro player, and currently the fiddler with “Big and Rich”), Chad Manning on fiddle (from The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience), Eric Uglum on guitar and Marshall Andrews on bass (from Lost Highway), Janet Beazley on banjo (Chris Stuart), and Crazy Pat Conway (Rural Wastewater Engineer supreme) with a guest vocal. “The Lost Coast” had all of those folks with the exception of Crazy Pat, as well as Mason Tuttle on guitar (Iron Lasso/Chris Stuart) and Julie Elkins, John Lowell, Dave Thompson, and Ben Winship (from Kane’s River).

SJ: Your latest c.d. – Ashes and Coals has some really beautiful tunes. I think it’s great! It’s also a valuable addition in the sense that there’s really not much new material written for and recorded on Weissenborn and dobro. How do you go about composing new tunes for Weissenborn guitar and/or dobro?

IR: Hey, thanks—glad you like the CD! That one came about because I wanted to have a totally low- key, mostly-solo dobro CD. I wasn’t familiar with anything quite like that, but I thought a lot of dobro players might like to hear some slower, melodic, more accessible tunes. I wrote most of them by just messing around until I found a nice melody line and then building the tune from there. With solo dobro tunes, a lot of ground has already been covered by Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, so I had to do a bit of editing to remove things that were too reminiscent of their tunes. I just got my first “weissenborn” last year—it’s a myrtlewood Hawaiian that Todd Clinesmith built, and those were the first tunes I wrote on the instrument (and the only tunes I know how to play on it). I came up with what might be an original tuning for those tunes. From high to low, it’s DBGDGE, and it’s great for playing out of Em or E modal.

For my other CDs, I wrote most of the bluegrass songs on guitar, and that’s so the melodies weren’t just assemblies of dobro licks I happened to know. I try to have melodies you can sing instead of lick or scale melodies, so usually I just get the guitar out, come up with a chord progression, and try to sing a melody line along with the chords, then get the dobro out and find a key where that melody lines up pretty well on the fretboard. For my next CD, it’s a little different, and that’s largely because there wasn’t room in the car for my guitar when I loaded up to move west from North Carolina. So most of my new tunes were written on clawhammer banjo. I had one or two clawhammer tunes on previous CDs, but have really been getting into it lately. I usually play in C, D, B, or Bb on clawhammer, so quite a few tunes will be in those keys, which I’m hoping will make me stretch out a bit on the dobro. The music will mostly be kind of modern old-time/new acoustic/bluegrass stuff with a band, but with clawhammer and dobro doing most of the solos.

SJ: Tell us about your equipment: what kind of guitars do you play?

IR: I’ve been performing and recording with 3 resonator guitars lately: 2 Clinesmiths and a Rayco. I used the smaller body red maple Clinesmith on Chris Stuart & Backcountry “Mojave River,” “Ashes and Coals,” and Julie Elkins’ new CD “My Feet Won’t Miss This Ground” (which just came out; I think my best dobro playing is on this CD). On the latter 2, I had the action lowered for a mellower sound, which suited those CDs, but I’ve since had the action raised again for general bluegrass playing. My newer, larger body blue Clinesmith maple is the one I used on “Relapse” and on recent CDs by Larry Gangi and Jake Schepps, and it’s the main guitar I’ve been performing with lately. I’ve also been using a walnut Rayco lately—it has a nice, clean, up-front tone that really suits certain types of music and instrumentation. I recently used it for a CD of Swedish bluegrass by Jan Johannson and to score out am upcoming documentary by High Plains Films. I also have the myrtlewood Hawaiian and a few electric guitars, too, including an Asher electro-Hawaiian and a wood Rickenbacher lap steel, but I haven’t used them all that much. As for other gear, I’ve been using Bobby Poff’s straps ever since I found out about them-those have made it much easier for me to play standing up without flubbing licks or getting shoulder and back pain. I have 2 of those, one for each Clinesmith, and one of his banjo straps on the way for the clawhammer. Also, lately I’ve been using another beautiful strap for the Rayco. It was made by Martin Gross, an excellent dobro player who lives in Germany and makes his own dobro accessories. I also use EG Smith or Scheerhorn steels, single-wrap pro-picks, Slick-pick thumb picks, Bradley or Flux capos, bulk phosphor-bronze strings, Peterson virtual strobe and Sabine contact tuners, and some occasional fast fret on the strings to clean them up.

SJ: What does your live rig look like?

I actually don’t have much of a live rig. I usually just use whatever mics are provided at a given gig, or if the sound people aren’t used to acoustic music, I just use my Shure 57. I recently got a Schertler pickup and a Roland acoustic amp, but haven’t had much of a chance to use them yet. I’m always scouring the dobro message boards for any advice!

SJ: Everybody is familiar with Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, et.al. Who are some of the dobro/Weissenborn players that you admire who are not everyday household names?

There are a lot of great players who have stayed under the radar a bit, and it’s great that many of them are finally starting to get some recognition. I’ll start off with some dobro pals I’ve gotten to play with a lot over the last year or two. I think Billy Cardine is probably the most interesting player to come along since Rob Ickes. Until you spend some time trying to understand what he’s up to, his playing might seem like it’s “licky” (I’ve heard that comment from people before), but really he’s playing very creative musical ideas, and his technique is awesome. When I moved to North Carolina, he and his wife Mary were nice enough to invite me to be their roommate, and it was a blast, definitely my most enjoyable dobro year. By the way, Bill and I have written a few tunes together (one of which is on Resophonics Anonymous 2: The Relapse), and we’ll be starting on a full-length CD this winter. We’re also doing a workshop in February 2006 and there are still 2 spots open if anyone’s interested.

I’ve also had the chance to play quite a bit with Mike Grigoni, and he has some really interesting ways of getting around the fretboard. We played at the Vancouver Island Music Festival and the British Columbia Bluegrass Workshop last summer doing mostly low-key new acoustic dobro duets, and it went great. Our styles mesh really well, so I think our CD will just be 2 dobros and some occasional vocals. Our only hangup is that we tune our B strings differently: mine are 12 and 9 cents flat to the tuner, and his are dead on with the tuner. I’ll let you know if we figure out how to get around that one…

I also got to play a lot with Todd Livingston last year, and he tears it up! He can do wicked fast stuff on the low strings and also has some wild scale areas figured out.

As for players I don’t get to hang out with as much as I’d like to, Andy Hall is developing a really powerful style, and, along with Billy C, I think he’s the other newer dobro guy to look out for these days. Brad Harper has the fretboard totally dialed in, and has all sorts of interesting licks—I think playing with Melonie Cannon for the last year made him even better than before. Other awesome pickers I get a lot of inspiration from who I haven’t mentioned yet are Doug Cox, Orville Johnson, Todd Clinesmith (you gotta hear him play an 8-string!), Rob Anderlik (um… yeah! When are you finally going to do a solo CD???), Anders Beck, Tab Tabscott, Chris Stockwell, Kathy Barwick, Jim Heffernan, Lou Wamp, Matt Leadbetter, Michael Barton, Lee Hiers, Mark Thibeault, Bob Hamilton, Michael Dunn, Martin Gross, Mike Lundstrom, Ed Gerhard, Steve Dawson, Wolfgang Reimer, Fred Travers, and I’m sure there are more I’m not thinking of just now. But it’s great there are so many dobro pickers around these days, and we’re lucky to be in this weird little non-competitive dobro world where most folks are willing to freely share their ideas. You don’t really find that with banjos or autoharps.

Jimmy Heffernan

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



SJ: You are very well known these days as one of the most highly respected dobro instructors in the country, but, take us back to the beginning: how did you get started playing music?
JH: I worked as a dishwasher while I was in college and I would listen to the radio to keep my mind occupied. Even though I didn’t like it at first, I kept listening to country music because I liked that the music had fills, rather than just a groove, like in pop music. So I started listening to it and acquired a taste for it. I started going out buying used records in Boston where I lived. I didn’t know anything about who I was listening to but I started buying all these used records for $1.00. I’d buy anything where someone had a cowboy hat or a banjo on the cover so I accumulated a lot of great records and classics but I didn’t know what I was buying. Pretty soon I discovered Flatt & Scruggs with Josh Graves. The funny thing is – I didn’t really like it at first! I thought it was a little whiny! (Laughs)…but you know, like a lot of really cool things, they sometimes take time to grow on you. So, that’s how I got started, listening to the radio and then discovering Flatt and Scruggs.
SJ: You spent a number of years touring with various artists – starting with Raintree, Transatlantic Bluegrass, Larry Sparks, Red Allen, as well as Joe Diffie, Doug Kershaw, Brad Paisley and Mark Cosgrove. If I understand this correctly, you played a variety of different instruments along the way. What have been some of the highlights of those experiences?

JH: Well, there’s a whole book of experiences for each artist you mentioned – some good, some bad, but they all add up to a common experience that you take with you. With Raintree – which was the first band I had – we traveled all over the country playing 5-6 days a week, playing one-nighters for $50 a night at bars and festivals. We’d have to drive all night and you had to learn to sleep on the floor of the van. Things like that seasoned me to some of the difficulties that come with the territory. But Raintree was the first experience I had getting in front of a listening audience. This was a great experience in that it taught me how to put my music out there aggressively in front of an audience who was there to listen, you know? I guess the lesson I learned from that is to put your music out there aggressively and they’ll but it. You know, rather than trying to hide. So the Raintree experience taught me that when you can’t hide, you’re forced to either not play or put something out strongly. When you do that you get better, and you also learn to sell what are doing.


Larry Sparks was a huge experience in terms of learning about timing. I’d lived up north and played with bluegrass with bands and it was all good; I thought I had it all down. When I got together with Larry for the first time we were leaving at 5 or 6pm to play our first gig. There wasn’t really any rehearsal, we met a couple of hours before the gig we met just to run over a few things… from the first note I felt ‘oh my God, now I get it!’ I heard his records and thought I knew it, all of a sudden when it was right in my face! The timing aspect of it hit me. I’ll never forget it: I remember the room, I remember things that were on the wall; it was an earth shattering moment. I remember thinking these southern guys have this front side of the beat timing that is unbelievable. And that’s really what the music is about. It’s not about how intellectual you could be, how clever you are, it’s about nailing each individual note and having it being like a driver on a locomotive. So that was the Larry Sparks experience. I played with him for two years. Nothing was ever discussed. He never told me what to play. Everybody got it without speaking a word.


I played with Red Allen over the course of six months or so. He had always been one of my favorite singers… Anyway I came home late one night after a country gig in a bar and saw a note next the phone. I picked it up and almost dropped dead when I saw that it was from Red Allen. I guess it speaks to the respect that I had for him. It was an absolute joy to play with him. In between gigs he shared a lot of great stories – from his days playing with the Osbourne Brothers, back in the 50’s and when he used to sub for Lester Flatt in Flatt & Scruggs. And, you know, being such a big fan of the first generation guys, I wouldn’t sell it for all the money in the world. Little things like that shape you. Little things about the way he was. Little things that you take on as your own, that no one can teach you…

After that I started playing with country guys. I had re-located up north and there wasn’t really any bluegrass up here, so I figured I’d better learn to play pedal steel. So I bought a pedal steel and jumped in with really knowing what I was doing. I guess I fooled a bunch of people, playing in country bands in New Jersey because I started getting more and more calls, learning on their nickel, so to speak. So I started playing steel in country bands, which was a great thing. I wasn’t playing in big festivals anymore, but the benefit of playing in bars was I got to learn a new instrument. I did that for awhile and figured that I had got pretty good so I moved to Nashville.


After I had been there for awhile I was sitting on the front porch of my house when I heard a guy playing guitar next door. I thought that’s cool, maybe I’ll go play with him. Then he started singing and I thought that’s great we’ll have some songs to play together. I listened a little more and I thought ‘wow this guy’s amazing.’ Then I got a little scared, thinking ‘what am I doing in Nashville?’ ‘What right do I have to think that I can make it here when this guy is nobody and sounds completely amazing:’ Well it turns out that my next door neighbor was Joe Diffie!

So, I actually thought ‘gee I wonder what the guy pumping gas sounds like!’ Well not everybody in Nashville is Joe Diffie and this was before he got a record deal. A year or so after Joe got a record deal and started having some big records he replaced his steel player and he called me up to try out. I went down there, beat all those guys out and got it. Then I was on the road. This led to a new era – working 300 days a year, probably 250 days are show days, at least 50 days spent all day on the bus. I spent around 13 years doing that – 7 years with Joe and then I produced for a couple of years in Nashville and then took a job with Brad Paisley. It was the same thing, constantly on the road – 52 weeks a year. We had fun out there but after 13 years I figured it was time to do something else.

I do have to say about Joe and Brad that it was a wonderful experience to play with them in front of crowds that were sometimes 30-40,000 people. It was an unbelievable experience to play with those guys. With Brad, during sound checks we’d jam on old country songs by George Jones or Vern Gosdin, he start singing them and we’d play them. Brad is very improvisational and although there was some choreography he’d change it up. Sometimes in front a crowd of 20,000 people or on T.V. he’d motion to you to solo on a song that you’d never soloed on before. That would keep you on your toes! That was the cool part about it. It never got stale or stiff.
SJ: Presumably the Dobro was not an especially popular instrument when you started playing and I doubt there was much in the way of instructional material. So how did you learn to play?


JH: There weren’t many dobro’s around back then either. Back then there was just the dobro’s made by OMI and there were very few of those. So if you wanted to buy a dobro and you saw one for sale someplace you basically had to buy that one or you might be waiting a year or more to find another. There were some collectors around the country I guess, but few and far between. Anyway I got started playing by knocking the nut out of a cheap guitar and sticking a threaded bolt underneath, raising the strings up; got a socket wrench, some finger picks and started sliding around. I figured out that it was in G tuning. I think Mike Auldridge had a column in Guitar Player magazine at that time, so there was some information on dobro available and somehow I learned that dobro was in G tuning. So I did this right before there was a picking party next door to where I lived at the time. There were going to be some good players there and I figured they wouldn’t need another guitar player. So somehow I had the nerve to show up and start playing! All I did was run my finger across the strings in little arpeggio’s and slide the bar from chord to chord in the songs and I got such a response! Virtually every one there was going “Wow, that’s incredible! I didn’t know you could do that!” When I got home I thought to myself ‘that’s for me.’ (laughs) So that was the first experience. Then I got more serious after that. The first thing I learned was the dobro solo on a Merle Haggard song – Hobo Bill’s last ride. A great solo and I was pumped up that I could learn it. That kind of energized me to go forward and keep learning things. I got onto all the Oswald and Buck Graves stuff. Back then there was no tablature so I had to learn everything by ear. I would try and slow down a record by taking it from 33 to 16, moving the needle back and forth and try to hear what was going on. Hearing what was going on was the first step in being able to play something. The term back then was “slaving over a hot turntable.” There weren’t a lot of tapes really, cassettes weren’t as big as they became so you were stuck with a turntable.

SJ: I imagine there weren’t very many dobro players at festivals back then…

JH: No, you didn’t see very many and you didn’t see any young ones. There were people like Deacon Brumfield in the Northeast here that you would see sometimes. Roger Williams was the exception being a younger guy and he was playing wonderfully. Stacy Phillips was a big figure in the Northeast. He could do a variety of material and played with some bands in local bars and they’d play some very cool eclectic stuff. But when you sat down with Stacy he knew all the Josh Graves stuff; more mainstream material, he knew it as well as anybody. So I wound up sitting down with Stacy a couple of times and he pointed me in the right direction on several things.


SJ: How do you trace your own heritage as a player? Who was you hero when you got started? How long was it before you developed your own style and approach?

JH: When I lived in Boston I auditioned as a bass player for a band – I wasn’t really a very good bass player and I tried to fake my way through everything. Anyway I auditioned for a bluegrass band and the audition didn’t go very well; only I didn’t take the hint and didn’t have the sense the leave! (laughs). I guess they didn’t know what to do with me, so we started listening to records when one of the guys said “Hey man have you ever heard this?” and put on the Mike Auldridge dobro record? Well, when he put the needle on the record it was a life changing moment! That just shot through me like lightening! ‘This is what I want to do!’ I knew then that I had to learn to play exactly like that. Of course, you can’t be someone else. You absorb things; you get close on some things and so on; but, other things become your own – whether through lack of discipline or because your ear takes it another way and that’s a good thing, because there already is a Mike Auldridge and even if I had stayed with it and tried to be the best Mike Auldridge I could, he’s always going to be the better Mike Auldridge. And then, you factor in other things – periods of time when I got into Josh Graves, learned to play other instruments and so on to where it all combines and you sound like yourself. I might play a lick that I learned from Auldridge and someone might say “where did you learn that lick” even through they might have all of Mike’s records. Somehow, your own style evolves.
SJ: I’d like to tap into your experience as an instructor to try and get a better understanding of what you see as the necessary elements, the fundamentals needed to become a decent player. Not that I see myself as being even remotely on the same level as you, but as a local dobro teacher in Chicago, most of what I see are guitar players who are interested in dobro as a second instrument. Just about everyone under-estimates the critical importance of developing good right hand technique as perhaps the main stumbling block to developing as a decent player. I guess that’s a long-winded way of asking – what are the common hurdles that beginners face and what’s the best way to get over them?

JH: Rob, you are an incredible resource in the Chicago area. You know the right way to do so many things on the dobro that people should be flocking to your door. You’re absolutely correct about the right hand. I like to say that there are a lot of ways around the barn: there are many folks that can play things with unorthodox technique but get great results so I don’t know if there is an absolute right and wrong technique, however, if we’re talking classically – you want to sound like Rob Ickes or Jerry Douglas or Mike Graves – there are certain things that will hold you back and it’s usually in the right hand. After doing so many workshops I would ask myself why are so many people doing stuff so counterproductively with the right hand (well, some of it is in the left hand, but mostly in the right hand). I came to the conclusion that there is no natural way. So if you started playing on a desert island it would not come to your naturally to understand how the pros play. The dobro is also one of those instruments where it is relatively easy to get some basic sound out of it. Going back to my party story…you know, going to the party and playing. I could get sound pleasing sounds out of the guitar by just sliding around. You can’t do that with the mandolin or the fiddle or the guitar. You have to know the correct technique to get good sounds out of those instruments. Of course the basic up and down picking technique is central to playing guitar or mandolin. Well, that correlates to the dobro in that a lot of folks will use just one finger to play multiple notes. The other common thing is that folks will play the first string with their index finger. They’ll take their thumb and place it on the 3rd string then maybe they’ll play a note on the first string with their index finger. What this does is that it takes your middle finger totally out of action; puts it up there where there’s no string! So one of the big things I try to do is straighten out people’s right hand: bring it back into a tight ergonomic, efficient system for playing. Everybody marvels at the best players, which is all well and good, but there is a “trick” to it: it’s balancing out your right hand. It’s getting all 3 fingers in positions to be able to play notes that are all adjacent to the first note you play. To have them all there centered so that you have plenty of notes at your disposal. That’s how you get that flurry of notes. I hope that makes sense…
SJ: It makes perfect sense. It also leads my mind to the topic of flow: One of the most valuable aspects of my recent lesson with you was becoming aware of how I was over using pick blocking, in effect choking certain notes, and how that was affecting the overall flow of notes. I have had many experiences where I tried to deconstruct say a Jerry Douglas solo, for example and although I might come close to playing the right notes I would find that my sense of flow was not remotely close to what he was doing. I guess I’ve learned the hard way the simply transcribing someone solo does in itself help you to develop good flow as a musician.

JH: Oh no, you can’t. The first thing that happens when you transcribe something and play it note for note is that you are trying to walk in someone’s shoes. And you are more consumed with fitting in those shoes than playing the song. Now Jerry, he’s up there like Gumby, he’s feeling the song. He’s not trying to be anybody; he’s trying to play the song. So, this methodical approach can lead to a situation where you are more consumed by trying to sound like somebody rather than trying to play the song.
SJ: Where do you come down on the topic of technique vs. repertoire? For example, I recently read a thread where someone was commenting that they wanted to learn to play some of the material from Rob Ickes latest record – Three Ring Circle; it was interesting to me because they specifically mentioned that they had no interest in bluegrass, yet it’s quite clear that Rob Ickes cut his teeth as a bluegrass dobro player. What do you see as being the fundamental techniques involved in playing dobro? Is one musical repertoire more demanding than another?

JH: Well, I guess that’s not an especially wide vision. I would tend to believe that the person that took that approach when they would get into playing would start to see the riches of different styles and players out there. As far as technique vs. repertoire: would it be fair to boil that down to should you learn songs or technique?

SJ:  Absolutely, yes… for example is it better to practice scales, hammer-ons and pull-off’s or songs

JH: Here’s the thing that I see out there: a lot of folks want to learn technique, but they are stuck on songs. So they’re stuck in learning tablature and they stick to the tablature like Moses stuck to the ark (laughs). They cling to it and even though they might be playing for 5 or 6 years they don’t play anything other than the tablature. So there’s a pitfall there. When you learn some technique and a dash of music theory it enables you to bring different tools to a given song. You might play Cripple Creek the way you learned it out of a Janet Davis book for example. But if you don’t start trying to learn different techniques which apart from songs you might play the same song that way until you die. So if you gain a few techniques – they might not be from Cripple Creek, they might be from a Rob Ickes record and then you’ll think hey I can twist this technique around a little bit and wedge that into Cripple Creek and all of a sudden you have something that sounds amazing, because it’s fresh to you, you know? So I lean more toward techniques, crucial techniques; I’d say more like 60/40: 60% toward technique, 40% toward songs. I mean you have to learn songs; you have to be able play certain tunes at jam sessions, standards, you know, – that’s all well and good. But I find that too many people spend too much time on that and not enough time learning technique. Let me just mention one example: the triplet is a very common musical technique, but not many players use it in parking lot picking. So if you just learn that one technique, it won’t take you longer than a day to learn it – and then apply it to your repertoire and you’re more interesting to listen to when you can infuse these different rhythmic ideas, say in a fiddle tune (hums straight 8th notes) and now (hums combination of 8th notes and triplets). You’re really not doing anything different, except you spent a day or so learning this musical technique and another couple of days trying to incorporate it.

SJ:  I believe you know this, but when I was just starting out one your 6 part instructional tape series and tablature was invaluable to me. Not only the left hand tab, but especially your insight into the right hand fingering… That was way before the internet, of course. The breadth and depth of your current instructional material is completely amazing…I only wish it would have existed back then! Can you give us an overview of the instructional material you have available? Also, what’s the best place to start?

JH: We’ll I’ve got a total of 4 DVD’s. The first one is “Resonator Guitar From Scratch.” which is designed for someone who is completely new to the instrument. I start out showing all the essential techniques as well as 3 or 4 songs. I have to say that I feel that the difference between my approach and some other stuff out there is that I don’t “dumb- down” my material. Not that I want to put down other material out there but some of the stuff available is overly simplistic and might take a tune like Will the Circle be Unbroken and although it teaches the melody it doesn’t play it a way you would actually play on the dobro. I’ve always felt that it takes as much time to learn a tune the right way vs. a dumbed-down arrangement so why would you want to waste your time learning that way? So I teach arrangements of tunes exactly the way I would play them on stage. I guess my interest in saying this is way back when there was an Earl Scruggs banjo book which had totally accurate transcriptions of how Earl would play his tunes. I also play the banjo and when I sat down with this book, inside of a week I could play Salty Dog the way he played it on a record, you know? So I always thought that was a great way to play, instead of a dumbed-down arrangement learn it the way it’s supposed to be played or the way you’re eventually going to want to play it. So that’s the paradigm I follow on the first DVD.

The second one I put out is One Hundred Licks, because I figured that was something everyone would want, at least I figured that was something that I’d want. That one has sold extremely well – they all have – but that one especially. I teach 100 licks but I spend very little time telling you what to do with them. For example, one lick might fit over a D to G chord change. Now if you think about bluegrass tunes how many of them include a change from a D to a G chord? It’s got to be in the 1000’s! So these are licks that you might hear Josh or Mike Auldridge or Jerry Douglas incorporate into solos. Because there are so many licks I don’t go into detail but I do give the information.

The 3rd DVD is Become a Better Dobro Player Overnight. This is a 2hour DVD of simple techniques that I feel if you put energy into it and approach learning right, meaning taking it slow, taking your time, etc. within an hour or 2 hours you can have a technique down. And then I break down the song Bury Me Beneath The Willow, playing it at first in a dumbed down arrangement, just the basic melody notes like a beginning piano book might teach you to play it. Then I show with each technique how to take that dumbed down arrangement and all of a sudden instead of (hum’s basic melody) it sounds (hum’s same melody with embellishments and triplets). See what I am saying? It’s hard to demonstrate this in writing. So I teach all these techniques which are not in themselves hard to learn and show how to incorporate them into your own arrangements of tunes. This is stuff that I don’t hear folks playing in my workshops or at jam sessions, yet when you listen to any of the records of any good dobro player you’ll hear some of these techniques in their playing. It seems to me that everyone gets overly focused on learning someone’s solo to Blackberry Blossom. So to me it’s more productive, more musical to spend some time learning Blackberry Blossom but learn some of these techniques and then squeeze them into your own repertoire; that’s what the pros do, So that’s Become a better dobro player overnight. It starts out very simple and winds up sounding like something that possibly Jerry Douglas might have played.

SJ: It sounds like a good one to get because it’s geared toward how to conceptually approach an arrangement

JH: Exactly! In the workshops lots of players that can pick out a melody, but in a very simplistic way. At times I see folks playing notes that where they play the note is usually closest to the last note, but that’s not always the best place to play the note. So sometimes they might be playing notes in a fiddle tune in the key of D around the D chord at the 7th fret for example,but those same notes might flow better out of the 2nd fret, because you have that nice big A chord that you can rake. And at the top of that chord you have that nice big melody note. So if you are doing the same thing all the time, it’s very akin to going to see a magician. If you see a magician do the same trick over and over again you are going to get bored. And then secondarily you are going to be able to predict – “oh he’s going to pull a rabbit out the hat.” You’ll be predictable. So just a handful of tricks and all of sudden you become unpredictable and unpredictable translates into becoming a better player.

SJ: You are a big advocate of Band-in-a-Box, correct? What are some of the other ways that a student of the dobro can utilize the power of the computer to speed up the learning process? Any do’s and don’ts you can share with our audience?

JH: Well, the first thing is don’t push the envelope too hard. I’m a big advocate of learning loops. Instead of trying to learn a song or arrangement from beginning to end its better to take the first piece of the arrangement that makes sense, which is usually one of two bars, etc. Anyway, take a section and stop there. Take the section and where you stop you loop it back to the beginning and do that over and over. So, that’s a loop. As far as Band in the Box, say I am learning Bill Cheatum: I’d set it to repeat the first two bars and practice that over and over again as a loop. Secondarily, and this is the beauty of the computer – I’d take the tempo and drop it down until I was able to hear and feel the power of every note I was playing. Remember every note has a place: it’s a word in a sentence. And, you have to learn how the place of each one of those notes, the power of each one of those notes and what its saying. So if you are trying to play too fast you’re not listening. You can’t. It’s hard. Your toes are all curled up; every muscle in your body is tense and so on. So when you slow everything down and you have BB backing you up you’re able to relax because the thing going to go around and around and around, you’ve got forever to sit there and focus on this small section. You can then begin to feel the power of every note. You’ve gone over this thing maybe a hundred times, and you know it, now you can begin to feel to power of each note. The next step is continue the next section of the tune, step by step until you learn the whole thing. The next step after that is to knock up the tempo, maybe two beats, almost imperceptibly, working up very slowly a little bit at a time without tensing up and so on.

Guys that play fast are not playing with every muscle in their body tensed up. There up there like Gumby; they’re like Jell-O, totally relaxed. And even though they’re playing lightening fast they are totally relaxed. So, how can they play so fast? It’s because they have it in their muscle memory and they didn’t push to get it there quickly. They brought it up slowly, over time.

It’s hard, because we all want to burn, you know. We all want to get it really quickly. And it’s very difficult to discipline yourself to do this. After 30 years of playing there are things that I can learn and play very quickly but when I young I really needed a tool like this. I had to play with a metronome and that was no fun. Playing with Band in the Box is fun because there are chords underneath you and you get the feeling of playing with a band. Why would you sit and practice all by yourself only to go out 2 months later to a jam session and discover 2 bars into a song and then discover that your tempo is off halfway through the tune.
SJ: All does not go as planned or as rehearsed in the living room?
JH: Exactly. So the point that I make is why labor like you’re in the dark ages? By the way, that’s the way I learned and it was sometimes painful and sometimes took me years to discover that I was playing something the wrong way. Why not discover this stuff right away? Its mind boggling to think about how much better I might have been if I had learned with this…
SJ: Tell us about your solo c.d. and the Resocasters project.

JH: I cut the solo c.d. around 1981. I think it still holds up today. The recording quality is not perhaps as good as it is today, but I had some good players on the recording and I think it holds up. Over time I guess I felt that I was under-recorded as a dobro player. I had gone on to play a lot steel in Nashville. Anyway, I had always hung out with Mike Auldridge; We’d sit in his basement and jam. At that point we were just hanging out and jamming together and as time went on we got into arranging some tunes for two dobro’s playing in harmony (where it made sense)…So, we tried to pick songs where it made sense to harmonize dobros, leaving out certain sections, etc. In the process of this we decided to make a record. During this time I thought of Hal Rugg, a dear friend of mine who recently passed on. Anyway Hal played an instrument that a lot of folks may not be familiar with called a Ped-a-Bro, which is a ten string pedal steel guitar that has dobro guts. So it’s a hybrid between a pedal steel and a dobro. Really a wonderful sound! Anyway Hal was such a wonderful versatile player; he played with the Osbournes in the 60’s. So I thought it would be a good idea to bring Hal into this, so we did it and Mike flipped out. He’s an absolute pedal steel nut and loved Hal’s playing. It was a wonderful project – great cuts and a great experience as well. It worked out very well; We were all pleased with it. Hal told me toward the end of his life that it was one of the best projects he ever did. Hal was a great friend and mentor; I can’t begin to tell you what an influence he was on me and my playing. It was extremely gratifying.

SJ: It has always seemed to me that playing with other musicians and the experience of developing friendships with other musicians is a big part of developing as a musician.

JH: That’s very true. I’ve had people who are both well known and unknown fill that role for me through all of my playing days. The friendship and association changes you. Your music and your personality are intertwined, so this is so important. Hal was that person for me for many, many years. That’s a great insight Rob.

SJ: I guess I am convinced that the principle of this applies whether you are a parking lot picker or a well-known world class musician.

JH: I see this in my workshops. For example, I know that there are a lot of dobro players in North Carolina that look up to Brad Harper. Jim Liner is someone who a lot of player in Texas look up to, Bozo Schoonover in Oklahoma (brother of reso-luthier Kent Schoonover), same thing.

SJ: What does the future hold for Jimmy Heffernan? Any closing words for our readers?

JH: Well, I am actually working on a new solo c.d. As I mentioned earlier, I cut my first solo c.d. around 1981, which is a long time ago now. I’ve learned a lot since then, and although I really enjoy teaching dobro I am better known as teacher than a player. So I think it’s time to put out a c.d. which reflects who I am as a player today. It should be released around summertime 2007. I am really excited about the project. Joe Diffie came by and sang a song on it. Jim Hurst sings and plays on it. Scott Vestal and the usual cast of characters from the ResoCasters are on it. I’ve written some songs which are on it and I think they’ll hold up. So we’ll see…

As far as closing comments – I’d trade it all for a little bit more, which is actually the title to the new record, It’s a line from the Simpson’s, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big Simpson’s fan. I’ve always played music for a living; I’m having the time on my life and I’d trade it all for a little bit more.