Ivan Rosenberg

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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