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.

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