A Conversation with Jerry Douglas

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SJ: It’s really great to hear you going back to your roots with the Earls of Leicester! How did this project come about and what have been some of the highlights of playing vintage dobro’s and channeling your first hero on the instrument – Josh Graves?

JD: Well, The Earls of Leicester is one of the best things to ever happen to me. From the first time I heard Josh Graves, and that was probably when I was around six or seven years old, I have been enamored by the sound of the Dobro guitar, but it was the guitar in his hands, that’s where my love of this sound began. I have played on more than one Johnny Warren record and his approach to his father’s fiddle playing was so spot on that I would instantly revert from my own personality to Josh’ s style of Dobro playing. It just sounded right. Anything else to me was blasphemous and trite. When Johnny was doing his newest recording, banjo player Charlie Cushman was more than laying down the Earl Scruggs lines, he was channeling Earl Scruggs to the point that his and Johnny’s parts were in parallel. When I laid my part in with them, either just chopping rhythm or soloing, I was doing the same, relaying Josh parts in there without thinking about it. We three grew up living and breathing this stuff. We loved it and that sound has never left what we do. At that moment I decided I was at a point in my career where I could use my name to get this band quickly through a few doors, and this sound back into the social consciousness. We didn’t have to call it Flatt and Scruggs tribute material either. It’s just how we played, naturally. By adding Barry Bales strong bass to the mix, we had the core of the sound. All we needed was someone to sing the songs and give us a canvas to paint on. I wracked my brain for the longest time on who could pull off the Lester essence without injecting their own trip into it. My first calls were to Del McCoury and Tim O’Brien. That could have worked, but Del was busy with two bands running the roads while trying to slow his life down at the same time. So it wasn’t fair to ask him to join us and complicate his life any further. Also looking back now, the sound would be seriously changed and leaned toward a trademark Del McCoury sound, which wasn’t the direction for this to go, leaving Tim O’Brien, another strong, well-known singer in his own right. Feeling right back at the drawing board, my wife Jill mentioned Shawn Camp. I had recorded with Shawn and seen him in his country bands and really enjoyed his vocal abilities, but never heard him as a singer in a bluegrass band. With Tim still in the mix as our Curly Seckler, we set a rehearsal at my house. From the first kickoff through the chorus the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I was scared to death. I had found the combination that I had been waiting for for forty years. We needed to record soon. I realized right away that old Dobros were the only thing I could use for this type of music. The newer hybrids are much louder and bassy than the original guitars that were built in the thirties, and I am one of the main culprits in changing that sound, first with Rudy Jones, then Tim Scheerhorn and Paul Beard. Those guitars were so different sounding and overpowering that I went back to my old model 37 from my J.D. Crowe days and also purchased a couple of model 27’s to throw into the mix. The sound is complete. It’s the only way to go and get the growl and snap that Josh played with. I love them. They are the sound that drew me to the Dobro in the first place.

SJ: I’m guessing that you started out to play like Josh Graves but somewhere along the way you developed your own approach, your own technique and your own unique signature style. What were some of the key elements that inspired you to search for your own voice on the instrument and what came first – the sounds you were looking for or the techniques, especially the right hand techniques, to create those sounds?

JD: When I was in the Country Gentlemen during the middle 70’s, I was cloning Mike Auldridge as he was the exciting new guy on the block and taking Dobro to another level. Not with his rolls so much as with his taste in knowing what to play behind the vocal in which the subject matter was much different than anything other bands were attempting at the time. I met him when he was with Emerson and Waldron. He just killed me with his right hand as he moved it to emit different emotions that guided the songs through their changes. From light to dark I would say. He first instilled in me this idea that we are all painting backgrounds for these lyrics to sit on. Otherwise they are just words against a blank canvas. I decided, or knew naturally that to present yourself as an artist, you need your own brushstroke in a sense. I had the fast fiddle tune right hand, and could play all the notes to the melodies of the instrumentals thanks to the Josh training. Next, I needed to learn how to create counter melodies that would enhance the lyrics and complete the thoughts behind the songs. That’s what I worked on with everyone I performed with from then on. I slowly built a mental encyclopedia of ins and outs for intros that were interchangeable on the fly. Not quite that cut and dried, but I think having something at your ready to get you from point A to B is important. I paid attention to the lyrics and tried to stay with the singer, but not be too predictable or cute. Watching my range as to not be too close to the singer’s unless a harmony should be implied. Sometimes playing nothing spoke volumes, where notes would only clutter a thought provoking line. I had the chops to fly along with the thousand notes per second guys, but wanted to be the opposite when I needed to be.

SJ: In the past you’ve mentioned the powerful effect other musicians have had on your own development and playing style. Can you give us an example of how collaborating with some of your favorite musicians influenced your approach to playing the dobro?

JD: Tony Rice is my most obvious choice of someone I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with. Our instruments are not that different really, forcing us to mirror each other at times. Also, we listened to a lot of the same other musicians to get new ideas and inspiration from. I loved playing with him and we have a huge body of work together. The songs he would pick for his own early recordings were very accessible to me and gave me a chance to do what I have previously mentioned about going from the world of speed to vulnerability in song content. His knowledge of chord structure was so important. I would play entire barred chords against his choices to create rich, heavy layers he could then sing over. Giving him note substitutions that could change the direction of the melody. I do the same with Alison many times against what Ron Block or Dan Tyminski might be playing. The result is lush and more pleasing to the ear than if it were just left to the root chord. Sam Bush’s powerful backbeat and Bela Fleck’s adventuresome melodic sense have taken me to places I could never have gone otherwise. These musicians are just from another planet, and I love to travel with them. We all pull things out of each other that we don’t know are there until we lead each other out to the end of the tree branch.

SJ: One of the things that I love about your music is that even your most complex tunes are really playful, and not complex for the sake of complexity. For example, tunes like Pushed Too Far or We Hide and Seek, which have extra beats and phrasing which is (at least for me) difficult to count but it all notes out correctly and is totally musical! Can you give us any insights into your creative songwriting process? Do you intentionally sit down to write a tune or do ideas bubble up out of the blue?

JD: When I write, its always in fits and starts. I may record, “always push record”, bits and pieces from sessions of just playing a stream of consciousness, then return to them later to see what fits together and what needs to go to magnetic heaven. Never to be heard from again. Several of my tunes have come very easily and just fallen out, but if I want to get a little tricky, I still want these songs or parts of songs to sound easy and accessible. I am not into blowing over the listener’s head. I want to keep them involved. The quickest way to lose them is to get cute or suddenly launch out of a straight-ahead tune into 7/4 or something like that with no warning. I try to build future surprises, or hints into the front of a song, so when it does really hit the fan, at least you’ve been warned. “Pushed Too Far” is that way. It starts out with a long phrase that is just that to me. I don’t want to count something I’m listening to, I want to just hear it as a full piece. Folks who can count these harder lines impress me, but they always seem to be counting it to impress each other that they know how. I realize though that sometimes to learn the phrase it is important to take it apart like. Maybe there’s a measure of 6, then 5, then another bar of 6, before it settles into the groove. These should be fun to listen to and not frustrating to listen to. If you’re frustrated, I’m doing something wrong.

SJ: You seem to have a knack for putting yourself into a great frame of mind during live performances. One of my favorite aspects of watching your performances have been watching/ listening to you improvise. As an aspiring dobro player I’m curious to know – how do you manage to ride that improvisational wave without getting overstimulated – thinking too much – and crashing every now and then?

JD: I just love to play. That’s the truth. I’m no stranger to digging a huge hole and not being able to find my way out of it. But that is the challenge. To take a little trip down the rabbit hole and see if I can get back to daylight. I’ve been playing a long time and kind of forget what it’s like to learn some of the fundamentals. I might start off a solo by entering on the anticipation of beat 3 instead of jumping right on the top of the tune, which puts you into a completely different mindset. Also heading down the scale instead of up as we usually do can mix things up a little. Painting yourself into a corner can be fun. Just don’t do it every time.

SJ: I loved your first 2 records but I was completely thunderstruck on several levels when you came out with Under The Wire (1986 MCA Master Series record). In an instant I could see that the dobro was capable of so much more than bluegrass and country music. But in addition, I was awestruck by the sonic landscape of that record. It seemed to me that Bil VornDick’s engineering gave your guitar an “otherworldly” sound that was inspiring to listen to. Did you intend Under the Wire and (the other Master Series records – Changing Channels and Plant Early) as a departure from your bluegrass roots, a conscious efforts to expand the range of the instrument, a combination of both, etc? Also, any comments about the engineering that went into making Under the Wire and the MCA Master Series recordings?

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JD: The MCA Master Series recordings were right on the front end of the new all digital age. That probably accounts for a small bit of the tone, but not much. I am still an analog guy and have to hit at least quarter-inch tape (not a plug-in) at least once in the process of making a record (CD). They were the dream of MCA head Tony Brown to compete with the very popular Windham Hill Series. He really stuck his neck out for us. It was the first time any of us had been given budgets of this size and have complete artistic control over what we recorded. I was given the keys to go completely out of my comfort zone and record with drums and keyboards and every other thing that was not viewed as kosher with the listening Bluegrass public. I was essentially a new artist in a foreign land, being introduced to a brand new audience. What turned out happening was all of our regular audiences went with us and seemed to enjoy the fact that we could play our instruments in another genre. I did enjoy the change and found an addition to the audience I already had listening. It was a win/win. Because of the openness of the songs and landscapes, we mic’d the dobro differently than before. A little more distant, more mics, big diaphramed Neumann U-67’s and M-49’s and a lot more effects. Delays, long reverbs, and Eventide chorusing that had unlimited parameters. These effects gave us a completely different playing field. We weren’t so affected by bleedover from banjos and fiddles that were so prevalent on the more Bluegrass recordings. Those were replaced by a lot of electric keyboards, and the fact that we used more booths for separation. I wrote these tunes as vehicles for the dobro as the lead vocalist. So there was a real effort to depart the Bluegrass world with those. With all that done though, I don’t believe I ever went that far from where my roots really were. Whenever I hear something from that era, I still hear Josh and Mike once in a while. It’s a dobro after all.

SJ: One of the highlights of your work with Alison Krauss is the way you manage to frame the vocals and heighten the emotional drama of the song. It seems pretty clear that you approach backing up vocals as a composer; that your lines are composed, not improvised, correct? Is there a certain approach to creating your parts for backing up vocals? Can you give us an example of the process that you went through to create your parts for a specific song?

JD: If we use a song like “New Favorite” for an example, I didn’t really head out in a direction to compose the lines behind Alison. When we rehearsed the song the first time, I got ideas or hooks, if you will, that could reoccur in sections throughout the song. Sometimes those can be as powerful and recognizable as the lyrics. Then I set about supporting the vocal and lyrics. I try to develop a sound for the track and stick with it. I can add other dobros later, or a lap steel often to give the dobro support down low where I run out of range and sustain. The more tools I have at my disposal, the bigger the picture I can create. In this case, Alison overdubbed a chorus of fiddle and viola over my lap steel lines and created a huge backdrop for some of the more meaningful lines to emphasize the lyric and took the song to another level. There is a lot of thought that goes into these recordings. We have a really high bar we are striving to top every time we go in. It’s fun to go under that microscope.

SJ: There are very few musicians who have influenced their instrument the way you have influenced the dobro. Where are you in this stage of your career? Are you still actively searching for new ideas & new sounds?

JD: I feel like I’m in the prime years of my career. I have more musical ideas now than I have ever had on a daily basis, and more friends and collaborators than ever before to make them fruitful. I’m so happy to say that my hands are in good shape, and love having a show where I feel I can pull off almost anything I can imagine hearing.
In the last few years, I have worked with Larry Fishman and Paul Beard to create another path for all of us that uses a pickup system to take the dobro guitar to places not possible to go in the past. I never tire of looking for the next best thing.

SJ: Any closing thoughts for all of the aspiring dobro players out there?

Jerry Douglas.  Photo by Sundel Perry

Jerry Douglas. Photo by Sundel Perry

JD: I hear so many great young dobro players. Gaven Largent, Josh Swift, and Jay Starling are just a few. The difference from when I was learning to play to now is so vast. The tools for learning to play the instrument are more plentiful than ever. What Rob Ickes has done with the ResoSummit is remarkable. My advice to all aspiring dobro players is very basic up front; Listen to everything that comes your way. Listen to each other. Be very aware of other musicians around you and try to extend their ideas to get you through your next solo. Get inspiration anywhere you can find it. It doesn’t always have to be musical. And breathe.

http://jerrydouglas.com

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Rob Anderlik is a professional musician specializing in dobro and Weissenborn guitar. He is an active member of the music scene in Chicago and a frequent collaborator with players in a variety of musical genres and maintains an active schedule of gigs and studio projects. He can be found on the web at http://www.robanderlik.com

A Conversation with Ken Emerson by Sebastian Mueller

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Ken Emerson

 

Ken Emerson is one of the world’s most highly regarded traditional Hawaiian steel guitarists. His unique playing style reflects the Hawaiian guitar’s grassroots origins of over a century ago & towards present day. He is the only steel guitarist who is also a virtuoso in slack key guitar, he combines both styles in what he calls ‚slack/steel‘ a self-accompanying style that was popular in the very early days of hawaiian steel guitar.

But he is not focusing on Hawaiian music alone. His great musician ship and versatility lead to recording and touring the world with artists like Todd Rundgren, Tah Mahal, Jackson Brown, Donald Fagen and Charly Musselwhite, just to name a few.

He has a 4 albums available at Cord International, the latest is called ‚Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar‘ 14 recordings of old spiritual songs and features the distinct sounds of his vintage National Resophonic guitars.

SM: How did you get started playing steel guitar?
KE: I started playing ukulele at 7 and guitar at 9. I had lessons on cornet and accordion.

SM: Did you played any instruments before ?
KE: I started on mother’s ukulele. Then played guitar when my hands got bigger- lol.

SM: Did you had any teachers or are you basically self-taught ?
KE: I was self-taught for most of my playing styles. I developed a good ear for listening & learning. Later for some of the slack key & steel guitar I would watch and listen to the masters play. Just watch, and listen. Much of what I learned in the old acoustic style I learned from old 78 rpm recordings, because no one was playing that way anymore.

SM:Which steel guitar players influenced you the most ?
KE: When my brother and I started collecting 78 rpm records we discovered some really great Hawaiian style blues and jazz. Sol Ho’opi’i of course was probably the biggest influence, along with Sol K. Bright, Benny Nawahi and some of the others from that era. Why Sol Ho’opi’i was such a big influence was the fact that you could hear the extreme talent he had, as well as the great arrangements and what I like to call ‘humor in music’.. He had that for sure, personality, and I have tried to do that in my own playing, sort of carry on a tradition.

Ken Emerson with Johnny Winter

with Johnny Winter

SM: Please tell us about your steel guitars. Which instruments do you use the most ?
KE: I use mainly a 1928 National Tri-cone Style 1 for my acoustic steel playing. You can tell when they have never been taken apart, they are all tone and volume. I also use a 1930 National Style ‘0’, it’s another exceptional guitar. I like to use a 1937 Gibson EH-150 for my electric playing. I have an old Rickenbacker BD-6 that sounds great, but I am more comfortable playing the Gibson. I also have some Vegas, and other lap steels I use. But the EH-150 is a main axe.

SM: What was your first steel guitar ?
KE: My first acoustic steel was a mid/late 30’s National steel bodied single resonator, with the fake wood finish and bakelite headstock with national engraved. I have not ever heard a louder guitar in my life..lol.

SM: I read that you are using G-LowBass a lot. Any other tunings that you like to use ?
KE: I will use low bass tunings for acoustics & high bass tuning for electric lap steel, and play with variations of G tuning. Sometimes from GBDGBD i will raise the middle D string to E, and create a G6th tuning. Sometimes i will flatten the middle G to F# , sometimes both G strings to F#. I have experimented with other tunings as well, but basically I stay in G for the older style. I have played a bit in C6 and E9 but I keep G tuning as my base.

SM: You lived quite some time on Hawaii. Did you had the chance to meet some of the old heroes ? Any stories you can share ?
KE: Yes, many that were still living. George Kainapau, Sol K Bright, Alvin Issacs, Alice Namakelua, Genoa Keawe, and other classic musicians.
Uncle Sol was a real character. We talked about the old days in Hollywood. I told him I found a union book from 1930, and most of the Hawaiians were at the same address, a hotel. He had a good laugh about that. He said there was great tropical themed clubs back then, in the 20’s and early 30’s in L.A.. We talked about Sol Ho’opi’i and all the recording they did together back then. A few years later he said he was playing the “Hawaiian Cowboy” at a restaurant/club in Petaluma, in the middle of the great depression, in the early 1930’s. He said he hadn’t  finished the song, and a lady at the bar kept on him to play it, so he was making up verses as she was tipping him. It turned out later they were hundred dollar bills! We were doing a gig once at the Waikiki aquarium. Right in the middle of the song, Anapau, as it was my solo on steel, he started talking to me. He would ask, “Hey Ken, you married”? Without messing up the solo I’d hesitate and then say, “No”.. He would smile a big smile and say “enjoy life”..  I think he did that just to have fun and maybe try to throw me off a little, and when I didn’t flinch, I think he really liked that. He also occasionally would reach back to where he had a small pint of whiskey tucked into the back of his amp, and we’d nip at it slyly between songs. We played quite a bit together in the late 70’s/early 80’s. He was a big man in my eyes and I’ll never forget him.

SM: How old were you when you started to play steel guitar ?
KE: I started sliding on guitar around the age of 13, sliding a harmonica on the neck of an acoustic and mimic steel guitar and blues riffs. Later I got more serious about it and got a proper bottle neck slide. My dad had a great record collection and I would mimic the Hawaiian steel. Later on someone gave me a steel found in a basement, no one knew how it got there. I said I played so they gave it to me and away I went. It was a Gibson student model from early 1950’s, with a single coil pickup. I played high bass G tuning and along the way discovered the G6th, which i still use. I discovered resonator guitars and that was one of the Emerson Brothers big contributions to the Hawaiian music scene in the 1970’s, as acoustic steel was a dead art at that point.

SM: Which slide and picks do you use ?
KE: Well, I used Dunlops, because they were easy to find. I use the metal fingerpicks, because they are adjustable, and don’t feel thick and cumbersome like plastic one’s do. Oddly enough, my girlfriend is a neighbor of Jim Dunlop, so I still use them,  I just don’t buy them anymore.. lol. Sometimes Jim and I jam on the Nationals for fun.

SM: How do you amplify your acoustic steel when you play live ?
KE: I still don’t have pickups in the old Nationals. I have never found the right sound compared to the natural sound, so I mic them still. And maybe it’s a bit like bluegrass players, nothing beats the natural sound. I do have a modern electric Dobro I play in concerts.

SM: Do you have a favorite amp for electric steel guitar?
KE: I use a 1965 Fender Deluxe reverb. My favorite amp so far.

Ken Emerson with Jim Dunlop

with Jim Dunlop

SM: You are one of the few players who plays steel as well as slackkey guitar. Do
you play also the self accompanying style on the steel guitar ? I couldn’t find too many recordings in that style, Kanui and Lula and Charles Diamond come to mind. Alan Akaka told me that he was able to listen to some wax cylinder recordings of Joseph Kekuku, and he said it was also in that self accompanying style. Any more players you know of who played in that style ?
KE: I have some of those recordings, and they are interesting. I do play slack key, so I have developed my own way of playing solo steel. The right hand basically plays like a slack key guitarist, syncopating the bass strings. As for the left bar hand you have to do a lot of pulling up the back end of the bar, to free the bass strings to sound. So the bullet end gets a lot of use during single and double string runs (while the bass strings also being played) and then at times the steel is used as regular  steel all across the strings, while the bass strings are constantly being plucked in a steady rhythm. A challenge is doing forward and reverse slants while keeping the bass going, as well as harmonics. It’s a nice style. I recorded a song called “Ka Loke De Mi Corezon” featuring that style. Also on my “Slack & Steel” album from 1996 I played an old chant “uUa No Weo” in a minor tuning in that style, solo guitar. Unusual for the time. Well, even now. I’m pretty much alone in playing this way here in the islands.

SM:So you are using a Dunlop bullet steel ? Do you know which size ?
KE: Yes, it’s a medium size, I don’t use real thick bars.

SM:I love the story about Sol K. Did he still play steel when you played with him ?
KE: No, he hadn’t played steel in a long time. He was playing a great doghouse style upright bass though.. And sang a lot. old hulas, It was a blast. He liked the fact I was on a National.

SM: Talking about Sol K playing with Sol Hoopii,  I always wondered how a studio session
looked like in the 20s and 30s, did Sol talked about that ? Only one mic I guess .
KE: Yeah, i guess electrical recording was new then, so it was a big improvement. They did a fair amount of jamming/rehearsing before the sessions because, they didn’t get a lot of chances at multiple takes. And he said Ho’o’pi’i was so confident on his solos, he never stuck to a real worked out thing, as a real jazzman would do.

SM: Do you have a preferred microphone for micing the acoustic steel (live and/or studio) ? How do you place the mics ?
KE: I liked the older Sennheiser mics, the long square one. It was real multi-directional and seemed to really pick up the sound of the Tri-cone.

SM: How important is musical theory to you ?
KE: It’s important to know how to tie things together, and basic stuff like the circle of fifths, minor, diminished, octaves and partial chording. Also playing a chord while leaving open strings to sound.

SM: Are you mostly a feel person or do you know always exactly what you are doing when you play ?
KE: I am a real feel type player I think. I do hear things arranged in my head, and I have certain patterns on the neck I mentally project to. It is great because you can really cut loose when you tie the patterns together, for the changes the music is going through. So certain patterns you can do chords, or single/double/triple notes on. When you tie in the triplet techniques, you can really color the sound.

SM: Slackkey vs Steel Guitar: Right now slackkey is much more popular on the Hawaiian Islands compared to steel guitar. From the 30s until the 50s it was the other way around. Steel guitar was considered a very hip instrument. Why do you think that changed ?
KE: Yes, oddly enough at one time steel was king. Well, for one thing steel is a ‘feel’ instrument, as there are no frets to keep the notes true. Only where you hold the steel above the frets. So it is a more difficult instrument.In that regard. Slack key is fretted, so right away it is an easier instrument to learn.

SM: Which advise would you give to a players who just started out to play the steel
guitar ?
KE: Start with a 6 string acoustic, and work your way up to an electric steel if you desire, and go on to other versions with extra strings, or even into pedal steel if that’s your thing. But starting with a 6 string acoustic is basic, it’s easier, and not expensive. You literally only need a nut to raise the strings.

SM: What kind of muting do you use the most ? Left hand or palm blocking ?
KE: I use both, and after playing so long i don’t even think about it, or even realize I am doing it sometimes.. It becomes a part of your style.

SM: When you started out in the late 70s you said there was nobody around who played
acoustic Hawaiian steel. Today the situation looks a bit better, at least there’s a handful of instructional material around (Stacy Phillips: The Art of Hawaiian Steel Guitar Vol1+2 and Bob Brozman: Traditional Hawaiian Steel Guitar). In addition it’s not too hard to get a hold of the old 78s via iTunes, etc. But still it seems it’s only a small bunch of people worldwide playing in that old style. You play all over the world, do you think the old acoustic style gained popularity ?
KE: It was starting to perk in the early 70’s. When I played in the mid-later 60’s there was rarely anything on Hawaiian, just maybe some Dobro stuff, as bluegrass was, (and still is) popular back then. For Hawaiian, there wasn’t really much of anything. Brozman and I met in Santa Cruz when he first got there, we were in our early 20’s and did a similar thing. We stayed in touch over the years and played gigs like the Dobro Festival in Slovakia. He was perpetuating it on the mainland, and i returned to play Nationals in Hawaii in 1978, and eventually we both played all over the world. There are younger players now like the ‘Sweet Hollywaiians’ from Japan and other players like Pascal Mesnier) in places like France. So hopefully players like Brozman, Robert Armstrong and myself were there at the right time to help keep the ball rolling on period Hawaiian acoustic steel guitar. Robert Armstrong and I recorded an album
called “Escape to Jazz Island'” on the grass skirt label in England, and I have many recordings on the Hanaola /Cord international label – if people are interested in hearing more of this unique style of playing.

Aloha pumehana kakou, k.e.

Sebastian Mueller is a musician, producer and sound designer located in Berlin/Germany.

After focusing mainly on electronic music for the last decade he discovered Hawaiian Steel guitar music during his frequent travels
to the Hawaiian Islands. Since then he is affected with the steel guitar virus, focusing mainly on the early style from the 20s and 30s.
He performs with the only Hawaiian Band in Berlin called ‚Hula Hut & The Seven Seas‘ www.hulahut.net

Mike Witcher

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Mike Witcher

 

 

You come from a musical family, but I’m not sure your story is well-known among your fans. How did your family get started playing music, how did you get started playing the dobro and how has coming from a musical family shaped your perspective on the world?

Well, there are some great musicians on both sides of my family. 

We got into Bluegrass after someone gave my dad a mandolin in the early 80’s. He and my Mom went to a couple of festivals and they liked the family environment. When I was about 3 years old my older brother Gabe started playing the fiddle. I remember dancing around while he and my dad and a few family friends would pick and sing. Whether it was live or on the stereo, there was always music playing in the house.

After giving the fiddle a try and a few years of piano lessons, my dad suggested I try the dobro. My twin brother Loren had taken up the bass and everyone but me seemed to be having fun picking and singing. I just wanted to have something to play so I could join in. The dobro was the only instrument left at that point.



So everyone already had an instrument picked out? 



Yes, and banjo wasn’t allowed. So the dobro was it. My Dad taught me my first few tunes; Cripple Creek, Fireball Mail and Steel Guitar Rag. I didn’t have my own instrument for the first 8 or 9 months. So I took my brother’s guitar – he had a mini guitar from when he was younger – and we raised the nut to set it up as a lap slide guitar. I mowed lawns to work up the $15 to buy a Steven’s steel (laughs). They eventually signed me up for lessons with Mark Switzer. He was the only guy in LA giving dobro lessons then and I think he still is the only guy in town now.

As soon as I got home from my first lesson, i dug out this compilation video that Mark had put together for my dad of The Seldom Scene with Mike Auldridge playing Walk Don’t Run/House Of The Rising Sun and Jerry Douglas playing a couple of solo pieces including A New Day Medley. The last part of it was Strength in Numbers on Austin City Limits. As soon as I watched that video it was over. I was hooked. I’m sure I watched it every day for a year.

Mike Witcher practices and fine tunes his guitar before performing Thursday at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity in Costa Mesa Thursday June 27 2013.  /// ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: 6/27/13 - cu.chuckjonesbenefit.0701 - STUART PALLEY, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER -  Folk music artists perform at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity on Thursday June 27, 2013 in Costa Mesa.

Clinesmith Koa Resonator Guitar

Take us back to when you were new to the instrument. What were some of the hurdles you faced when you were learning to play? 



Well, I didn’t know much about music and I wasn’t interested in learning music theory. My ear was pretty good, so I thought I could just rely on that. I just wanted to learn to play licks and solos. It took a long time before I got past that mind set.

My siblings had been playing for years and had already developed into great musicians. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do.



Nothing like that to give you motivation!

Exactly! I was more disciplined at practicing that first year than I’ve ever been. I would rush home from school and give myself 30 minutes to eat something and practice until dinner time, which gave me 3 to 3 ½ hours. If I could, I would practice some more until my parents went to bed. That was rare because I’d have to do some of my homework. That was everyday for at least 3 hours and up to 8 hours on the weekends.

Fr Kristen Bearfield 558574_3868877086170_1405860011_3597761_609632472_n

with Noam Pikelny, Chris Thile, Casey Dreissen, Josh Williams and Mark Schatz



I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet you didn’t learn to play by using tabs. 



Well, it was a combination of things. We had the Cindy Cashdollar DVD – her first dobro DVD – so I learned some things from that. My teacher Mark would tab out just about any solos that I wanted to learn. I would try to work them out by ear and refer to the tab when I got stuck. Eventually I didn’t need the tab.

So, were you setting goals for yourself along the way? Seems like you were highly motivated…



Yes. I had all sorts of goals. Daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals. I didn’t always reach them with in time frame I gave myself, but I kept working towards them anyway. I felt like I had a long way to go to catch up to my brothers.



I’ve always been a big advocate of encouraging students to find people to play with but that it’s not easy. It’s like trying to find the right spouse. There’s a girl around every corner but I’m not sure I want to get married to her. On the other hand you really advance a lot quicker if you learn by playing with others, especially good musicians. 



Totally! That was huge for me. I was pretty terrified of making mistakes. At the beginning I refused to take a solo. Even if we sat there for five minutes just playing the chords, they’d be telling me “take a solo” and wouldn’t stop until I played one. So right off the bat, I was learning by playing with other people. After a few months no one would play with me because I wanted to play all the time. (laughs)

Mike_and_Little_Jimmy_Dickens

With Little Jimmy Dickens

 

So you started when you were 14 years old. How long was it before you started doing gigs with the Witcher Brothers? 



9 months

9 months?

That’s when I started sitting in with my Dad’s band at their weekly pizza parlor gig in Simi Valley. After I sat in a few times I ended up filling in for my brother Gabe on a few shows. Around that same time I got my first call for a session. I didn’t know what the heck i was doing! (laughs) but I could fake my way around I-IV-V chords.

So all of that happened really fast. 

I guess we all go through this process of becoming your own man (or woman) on the instrument. You start out wanting to sound like your hero but you get to the point where you realize as hard as I might try I can’t be someone else and start learning to trust your own instincts. You must have gone through the process quicker than most.

TUT_Recording_Session

Tut Taylor recording sessions with Ronnie McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, Barry Bales & Fred Carpenter

I’m still going through that process! (laughs)

When did you get to the point where you felt like “those are my licks” This is my stuff

?

It’s been a number of years. But, I still feel like I’m just getting there right now. I’m getting more comfortable playing something the way I want it to sound instead of trying to recreate something I heard on a record. There’s still a lot I want to be able to do on this instrument that I haven’t quite figured out yet.



That’s such a valuable lesson. My wife is an actress so I wind up thinking about the similarities between acting and playing music. Anyway, I guess by analogy the dynamic would be like an actor trying to recreate the impact of someone else’s lines – trying to recreate someone else’s magic; but in a different time and place. No matter how much you study you can’t completely duplicate the internal process that led them to express themselves in their own unique way. “I could have been a contender” (quotes Marlo Brandon from the movie On The Waterfront).

Anyway, tell me more about that: getting into someone else’s head, their approach, etc 



I really admire Jerry Douglas’ musicianship. I think the reason he is able to move between multiple genres and make it work is because of the level of musicianship he brings to the table.

I’ve always been interested in understanding a musician’s approach and how they think on their feet. I realized early on that there are a couple of different ways of approaching building a solo. One common approach is lick based improvising. You learn a bunch of licks and piece them together and play over chord progressions. That’s how I started. That’s not always the best way to serve the song. Instead, you could start with the melody; work the phrasing and add a few embellishments, maybe a lick or two. It seems like my favorite musicians utilize this approach. 

At this point, all I want to do is play the melody in the most beautiful way i possible can. It can be really challenging.

Sam_Bush_Mike_Witcher

with Sam Bush

 

 

There’s a jazz saxophone player named Brian Kane with a website called www.jazzpath.com that I really like with applications for this. The short version is that after seeing scores of student’s complete programs in jazz studies he noticed that out of a graduating class maybe one or two students could improvise well. So he poses the obvious question: why is that? Why can’t most or all of the students improvise? Any his belief – and I think he’s right – is that the school of licks approach can work but it’s a really slow, tedious way to learn because it involves a lot of memorization and it takes most of us years and years to be able to digest that much information, synthesize it and generate our own ideas. Anyway, his approach is to get away from the school of licks approach and approach improvising with creative Intent and the use of stylistic inflections. For example one of the ways he does this is through an intervallic repetition exercise which restricts you to just four notes. The idea is learn to do a lot with just a few notes vs. doing very little with a lot of notes.

How do you approach teaching improvisation? 



Sounds like I have a new exercise to practice. Thanks! I don’t consider myself a great improviser. As much as I love Jazz, I can’t hang in those jams. Some of my friends can play for 10 or 15 minutes straight without repeating an idea. I’m not there yet. I spend most of my time backing up singer/song writers. I find my self in situations live and in the studio where I’m playing songs I’ve never heard. Of course I improvise in those situations, but it’s based on the melody. I’m trying to do my best to serve the song. So, when I teach, I teach lick based and melody based improvising. We look at how we can take that melody and find its essence and find all the different ways that we can phrase it, look for embellishments, play the melody in different positions on the fingerboard and so on. When I first started playing I didn’t want to learn scales. Other than a technical exercise they seemed like a waste of time to me. As soon as i started figuring out melodies on my own, scales became my friend. I try to get people to learn the scales and immediately use them to find the melody. It’s pretty exciting when a student realizes they can find the melody in 5 or 6 places across the fretboard. Then we find the unique characteristics that each position has to offer. We talk about what makes a great solo. We use a basic formula for a decent structure that isn’t flat all the way across but has a peak somewhere…

Right! With a beginning, middle and an end!



Exactly! A solo that goes somewhere; takes the listener somewhere. And use that concept to connect these different places that we can play the melody to make something interesting. So that’s my basic approach – find it’s essence; edit out all the notes that you don’t need to play in the melody (which is really important in fiddle tunes.) Then find creative ways of communicating that melody and little ways of embellishing it.

I’m sure you’ve felt this, but once you get beyond the sheer mechanics it’s really easy to get into this territory where you start restricting and censoring your own ideas. So one of the exercises I’ve done with students is to challenge them to improvise for 2-3 minutes without stopping. Most folks find this incredibly difficult! They start censoring their own ideas almost instantly. Then you get into this Zen territory where the best ideas really come out of your unconscious where you’re not thinking about what you are playing. 




Exactly! My favorite moments are when something completely unplanned pops up.



Let’s switch gears for a moment: You’ve played with a lot of great musicians over the years – Sara Watkins, Peter Rowan, Bette Midler, Dwight Yoakum, Dolly Parton, Missy Raines and the New Hip – what have been some of the highlights of those experiences and what have you learned along the way from your associations with other musicians.

Peter

with Peter Rowan and Keith Little

Most of my heroes that I’ve had the opportunity to meet and play with have all been incredibly kind and supportive. The year I started playing I met Mike Aldridge, Josh Graves, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas. They all took the time to talk to me and encourage me. It was pretty amazing, with in the first month of starting to play I got a lesson from both Rob Ickes and Mike Aldridge when they came through town. I studied those tapes for years and learned every note they played!

I remember when Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz came through L.A. I had played a few shows with Peter over the last year. I got to hang with them when they came through town. They got me up to play the whole second set of their LA show. It was ridiculous. I was 17 years old and had only been playing for 3 years! I played 3 or 4 shows with them. I still can’t believe that happened.

R_R_S_WITCHER_97or98

with Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz

 


If that was me – 17 years old and playing with Peter Rowan and Tony Rice – well on the one hand it’d be really exciting but I’d be scared to death!

I was! But I jumped in there and tried my best to hang on. That’s what it’s like playing with Peter Rowan; it’s jump in and hold on! (laughs) Even if you rehearse it’s still unpredictable. The one time we made a set list we didn’t play any of the songs on the list. If you can survive that, you’re ready for just about anything.



Well I guess that’s one of nice things about bluegrass music is that it trains you to be ready for anything, since there’s no written music. I mean there’s no choreographer and a set of dancers. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen; there’s a framework there, but there’s also a lot freedom.



Totally! Though I’ve played with plenty of artists who play the same exact solos every night and expect the show to sound just like the record.

Another really cool experience from when I was a teenager – I got a phone call one morning. I was still half asleep and this voice says “Michael? It’s Flux.” We chatted for a while and it turned out he had a gig playing with Dolly Parton in L.A. that he couldn’t make and wanted to know if I could do it. That was the coolest call. 

I was 18 or 19.

There’s a guy I know – Brian Nelligan – that had a similar experience. Do you know Brian? 



Yeah, we talked about it. He played Letterman with Dolly. 

I think Brian told me that he actually hung up on Jerry when he got that phone call! He thought he was pulling his leg and hung up on him, then thought about it and had to call him back a few minutes later! (laughs)

You are both a musician and a photographer. Do you see any analogies or parallels between the learning process in becoming a musician and photographer? I just wound up buying my first semi-pro DSLR but I am brand new to photography and I’m taking a lot of bad pictures!

I really approach them both the same way. There’s a technical side and a creative side to each. I went to school for photography and it was all about learning how the camera works, how light works. Once you learn how it works the fun part starts. It’s all about experimenting to get different looks and trying to mimic different styles. It’s kind of the same process with dobro. There are a few photographers whose work I really admire and have tried to emulate. I always fail miserably but I usually learn something in process. (laughs). In music I try to emulate my hero’s but I end up failing and hopefully learn something in process. 
What kind of camera did you buy?

A Canon 7D 



Nice. That’s the same camera I have. It’s an amazing camera.



I think it’s a great camera, but I don’t know how to use it. I’m sure there are folks out there who might listen to you play on your Clinesmith and think “wow, that guitar sounds great. If I had that guitar I’m going to sound just like that.” So to quote Lance Armstrong ‘it’s not about the bike.’ How do you think about the instrument and the sound of the instrument vs. the sound you can get out of the instrument and what advice do you have for someone who wants to make the leap from a starter instrument and move up to a professional quality instrument




There are a lot of great starter instruments out there. If the Gold Tone PBS guitars were around when I first started, I probably wouldn’t have gone through so many guitars before I bought my first Scheerhorn. I started out on a Regal import. I mowed lawns and washed cars; saved up all my money for that Regal. I played that guitar for about a year and eventually upgraded instruments a few times until I got a Scheerhorn. I struggled with getting a tone that I liked on the Regal. I was way into Mike Auldridge early on so I really like a nice, rich tone. I can see the effects of trying to make that Regal sound good in my technique today. It definitely shaped the way I put my hands on the guitar.

That’s such a great insight Mike. Over the years I’ve been asked countless times for advice on this or that instrument. Let’s put it this way – I love my Scheerhorn’s but I’ve played other guitars that I love too, you know… it doesn’t really matter to me what the brand is but it’s more about does the instrument give you the sound that you’re looking for? How do you think about this sort of thing?

I agree! I got my first Scheerhorn in 1998. I got it because that was the guitar that my hero’s were playing. I’ve played a lot of great guitars over the years…I don’t think one wood is best, one builder is best, one body style is best and so on. I think it’s a big combination. I have this sound in mind and I don’t care who made the instrument or what the parts are as long as it makes that sound. I eventually ordered an L Body Scheerhorn around 2002 or 2003. I loved that guitar. But, I felt like I was always wrestling with it to get what I wanted out of it. In 2008 Todd Clinesmith built me a beautiful Koa guitar. I played that guitar almost exclusively for 6 years. It totally changed my playing. I didn’t wrestle with that guitar. It gave me exactly what I wanted. Especially on the high string. It really sings! In 2014 I got my hands on a BlackBeard, one of the Jerry Douglas Signature Series Guitars made by Paul Beard. I’ve been playing this guitar almost exclusively for a little over a year now. I really love it. It’s top string really sings too. It has a huge sound but isn’t muddy in the mid range and low-end like most large body guitars. It doesn’t compete for space with a dreadnought acoustic guitar. It’s rich and beautiful and it cuts through. I’ve never heard or played anything like it.

Are there other builders that you admire?



There are so many great builders these days. Of course Beard and Scheerhorn make amazing instruments. I’m also really interested in Kent Schoonover’s guitars. I’d really like to own a Schoonover someday.



I played Jimmy Heffernan’s Schoonover a few years ago; a rosewood/spruce guitar. He handed it to me – I had no idea what kind of guitar it was – and I played it and thought – wow, this is a great guitar!

Kent is doing great work. His son Kyle is a great player and built an all mahogany guitar which is one the best guitars I’ve ever played.

I’m really glad to hear you say that. I’ve talked with Kent several times and I am so impressed with him and his guitars.

He’s really a great guy!

Yes he is.

I want to thank you for turning me on to his modular spiders. Let’s talk a little bit about your live performance rig: 



Up until the Aura system I hated plugging in. I’ve had the McIntyre, Feather and other pickups that have come along in the last 10-15 years and I absolutely despised them and avoided them whenever I could. Now I use the Aura pedal along with the Nashville series pickup and it’s amazing. Sometimes I even prefer to plug-in over using a microphone depending on the situation with the sound guy. I’ve gone through three generations of that pickup. The first two pickups (very early versions) went dead on me. Fishman was really great about overnighting replacements. The third time around I had Kent Schoonover install the pickup with his modular spider and the guitar sounded better, much better. The pickup sounds great. It’s been many years now and the pickup still sounds wonderful.

Did the pickup affect the acoustic sound of your instrument?



Yes, the early ones did. But I liked it 
.

Really?

It actually helped the sound of the Clinesmith. It’s been so long I’m not sure I can accurately describe what it did. I think it helped the sustain and controlled some of the harmonic overtones. I’ve also had so many different spider set-ups since I’ve changed from non-pickup to pickup and each one of those sounded different, but I’ve found that Kent’s modular spider sounds the best.

IMG_1517

Sara Watkins recording session with Dave Sinco, John Paul Jones, Sean & Sara Watkins, Mark Schatz and Ronnie McCoury

 

Let’s talk a little bit about your instructional materials. Over the years you’ve taught lessons the “old-fashioned” way – in face to face settings in private lessons, at group settings at Kaufman Kamp, etc, but you’ve also published a couple of books and have put together a comprehensive library of downloadable instructional videos on your website and through Peghead Nation. Can you tell us a little more about the range of instructional materials that you have available? I’m also curious to know how your experiences in teaching in a live setting has influenced your approach to creating instructional videos?

I love teaching. From the raw beginner to advanced players. I love helping people find their voice on the instrument. A lot of times, people have bits and pieces and they just need help connecting them. It’s really fun to facilitate and watch it all come together. I’m a stickler for technique. That sort of stuff transfers really well from in person lessons to Skype lessons. I can move the camera and show full screen close-ups. It’s pretty amazing. It took a while for me to get used to teaching over the internet. It’s been 6 years and it’s going stronger than ever. My skype students are quite succesful too. It’s been really fun watching a handful of my students become professionals and the ones who are already professionals reach new levels! But, the most rewarding is watching people with no or little prior musical experience become musicians.

The downloadable lessons on my site cover the foundations for good technique. The songs give opportunities to apply that technique. Peghead Nation is really an extension of what’s available on my site and in my books. We lay a good technical foundation, but we also dive into understanding the fretboard and how to use some basic music theory concepts. Instead of just telling you to practice scales and arpeggio shapes, we show how to use those shapes to learn a song and connect every new song back to those shapes. I try to show my thought process for connecting the scales, triads and chord shapes in different positions to find the melody. I don’t want to teach people one way to play a song. I want to teach them how to find the melody for themselves and actualize the music they hear in their heads. That’s my goal with the Peghead Nation lessons. New lessons get posted every month. I head over to their studio every two or three months to record new lessons. Students can message me with what they want to learn and I try to work it into the lesson plan. I’m really happy to be working with them!

For what it’s worth I think your arrangements are really great. One of the things that I like is that they are true to the melodies; they are accessible and challenging for a beginner/intermediate student but not too challenging!

Thanks!

When I was learning I looked at the same books you did. I remember trying to learn from one particular book and it seemed liked that person picked the most difficult possible way to play something. I remember spending hours looking at that book and trying to learn that style and thinking “what the heck?” I quickly figured out that I didn’t want to play like that. So on a personal level I could relate to your style better. It made sense to me. I think there are probably some folks that can find value in the “100 licks you need to know” approach – I’m not saying that those things are bad. However, what I’ve found to be the most effective as an instructor and as a student is learning to play the repertoire in the bluegrass idiom. You go to a jam session, you play those tunes. That’s how you learn. Of course, in addition to learning where the notes are there’s always the issue of style and just learning how to play in tune.

It’s amazing how much instructional material has become available over the last 6 or 7 years. I think we are entering a whole new era of dobro playing. The internet has changed everything.

This instrument is really technically difficult. It makes so many buzzes and rattles with all of this metal on metal. Most of the technique is about getting rid of unwanted sounds. It’s rare for someone to actually master the technique and stop focusing on it so they put everything they have into the music. There are only a handful of people who have accomplished that.

 

Mike,Aoife,Rashad,Beppe

with Aoife O’Donovan, Rashad Eggleston and Beppe Gambetta

 

Right! The value of basic musicianship vs. focusing on a bunch of licks! I’ve had that same conversation with Ivan Rosenberg. He told me that he went through the same experience when he started all he wanted to do was play licks. I had the experience of taking a lesson from Sally Van Meter about 10-12 years ago. I started playing for her and she said “well I can see that you’re more than a weekend player. Why don’t you play the melody to Banks of the Ohio in the key of B?” So I start playing the tune and after a few bars she stops me and says “great, now play the melody.” So I play it again and she stops me and sings back to me what I was playing. It was pretty sobering. I was playing more licks than melody and in doing so I didn’t realize I was pulling the listener all over the map. (laughs!) So the best lessons that I’ve had didn’t involve learning where the notes were as much as they did gaining insights into my own playing and my own technique, more about understanding myself than anything else.

I’ve had similar experiences. In my case, most of those experiences came from playing music with my brother. We were playing a beautiful slow song. I started playing my solo and half way into it he stopped playing, looked at me and said “what are you doing?” I said “what are you talking about man?” He said “no, no. Listen to the song, Listen to the melody”. So eventually our little jam turned into an exercise in which I was only allowed to play on one string with two plucks for the entire solo. It was all about editing out all the B.S. and finding the essence of the melody. That was the most difficult exercise I’ve ever done and the most powerful.

That brings to mind when I was in graduate school I had to take a class in poetry and I remember reading some poems by Elizabeth Bishop and thinking “this is really simple stuff. I could write something like this.” Then I sat down and tried writing my own poetry and found out it wasn’t so easy. (laughs)



How has your style or perspective changed over the years? What excites you about playing the instruments these days? What are you working on?

Well, I’m not trying to sound like somebody else every time I pick up the instrument. There was a turning point when I started playing with Missy Raines & The New Hip. I had to start holding myself accountable for what was coming out of my instrument. We weren’t playing Bluegrass. I couldn’t fall back on my repertoire of bluegrass licks. That situation forced me to come up with my own ideas.

What continues to excite me about playing the dobro is its vocal quality. To me that’s the most unique quality the slide has to offer. When I play, I want to sound like a great singer. That’s why players like Jerry Douglas, Derek Trucks, The Campbell Brothers and Aubrey Ghent still interest me. The Sacred Steel tradition is all about that vocal sound.

Did you had a chance to see David Lindley play when you lived in Southern California?



Only a couple times, he’s another one of my all-time favorites. He’s not just a slide player, he’s an amazing musician and it’s his level of musicianship which makes him stand out on the instrument to me.



What does the future hold for you? 



Mike Witcher and Willy Watson

with Willy Watson

Well, I have a lot of irons in the fire. I’m not touring much this year. Mostly playing up and down the west coast and in the bay area with various artists. I’m continuing to build up a resource of instructional material on my site and with Peghead Nation. I just finished producing a project for my good friend Willy Tea Taylor. I expect to that one to be released in the near future. I had a great time working with a lot of talented people on that record. I’m looking forward to doing a lot more producing! I’m also working on a new trio project with mandolinist Dominick Leslie and guitarist Jordan Tice. We’re setting up a west coast tour for this fall. I’m still playing a few dates with Pete Rowan and also Keith Little & Little Band. There’s plenty more I’m not thinking of. I try to keep my calendar up to date on my site. That’s where I look when I need to know what’s coming up!

 

Brad Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Stockwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan Brooks

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p_Dan

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

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

Greg Booth

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

gregbooth1

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

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

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

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

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.