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

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