A Conversation with Resophonic Guitar Luthier Kent Schoonover

SJ: About ten years ago I was visiting Jimmy Heffernan at his home in New Jersey when he handed me a squareneck resonator guitar to play. As soon as I played it I looked up at him and said “this is a great guitar! Who made this?” Up until that point I had never heard of Schoonover Resophonic Guitars. What inspired you to start building your own instruments and what is the background story of Schoonover Resonator Guitars?

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Kent Schoonover

 

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KS: The inspiration came quite early for me. My dad was a fiddle player and some of my earliest recollections were of him playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” and my older sister and I dancing a circle around him as he played. By the time I was ten years old he had me sitting down with his D-18 trying to learn to play rhythm for his fiddle. He loved Tommy Jackson, Chubby Wise and Scotty Stoneman. August of 1971 found the family camped in a big tent at Bill Grant’s Salt Creek Park Bluegrass Festival in Hugo, OK. I was 13 years old. It changed our lives. We slogged through the mud for five days catching the stage shows and the all-night jams. As a family, we continued to make the yearly trip to Hugo through the 1970s.

After returning home that first year, I started learning the banjo and my brother Craig (known by all as Bozo) started to learn the dobro. Hey, every dobro player has to have a nick-name right? Well, we didn’t have a Dobro at the time so Daddy put a nut extender on his D-18 to get him started. Soon after, he bought Bozo an OMI Dobro through the mail from Slim Ritchey in Dallas.
The fascination for lutherie came from yearning for one of those beautiful, powerful banjos I encountered at the Bluegrass festivals. The Hugo festival hosted instrument contests and I remember the prize for the banjo contest was this gorgeous hand-made Thomas Banjo. I was blown away by the banjo playing of Don Thomas and seeing these great banjos that he made really made a mark on me.

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Curly Maple Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

 

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Back home, Bozo and I woodshedded with Daddy’s collection of Flatt and Scruggs. You know,
putting the LP on the turn table and slowing it down to 16 RPMs. I also had Earl’s 5-String Banjo Instruction book. It was there in the back of that book that I found some basic information on building a banjo. I remember thinking “we could build a banjo”!

I think at this point I should tell you a little about our family. We were the ones that, you know, if the water well pump quit we pulled it out and fixed it. If the truck engine was worn out, we overhauled it. If the house needed a roof……you get the picture. The music was a part of our lives just as much as our spirt of being self- sufficient. There were many talented craftspeople in our family and extended family. I think we were all inspired by each other. My dad was always tinkering with fiddles. He would bring home a fiddle, sometimes in pieces, and put it all back together. There was an old fiddle maker in Ardmore that he would visit when he had something special to show him and I went with him one time. I was really drawn to that level of craftsmanship. Well, I never built that banjo. We saved our money and went to see Don Thomas and I came home with the banjo that I play to this day. But receiving that custom banjo and knowing the sacrifice the whole family had made in order for me to have it and knowing the great person who made it inspired me to write a paper in high school of my desire to build instruments.

After High School, I went to work in a paper mill and I was spending my spare time with old Chevy trucks and hunting and fishing. Bozo came home one day with this Walnut R.Q. Jones Resophonic Guitar! He and Mom and Dad had made a few trips to Wanette, Oklahoma to see Rudy and ordered that guitar. I remember seeing some photos he snapped of Rudy’s shop. Rudy had this big ole bandsaw and workbenches with guitar bodies and parts in this old brick storefront building with this sign that read “R.Q. Jones Resonator Guitars, Worlds Finest”. I thought that was the coolest thing! While working in the oil patch in South Texas I managed to build a mandolin from scratch and I cannibalized a cheap import for the tuners and fretboard. It was really bad. My Dad had Roger Siminoff’s book on Building a Bluegrass Mandolin which I studied but paid no attention to in the building of that mandolin. After moving back home to Oklahoma, I set up a workshop where I satisfied my need to create by building furniture and repairing the pawn shop specials my Dad would bring to me. I also built a few mountain dulcimers. I really don’t know why. I didn’t care for them much but I thought it would be a good place to learn some of the basic construction methods that I had ignored on that first mandolin.

By the fall of 1992 I had just finished building an 18’ Cedar-Strip canoe. Bozo brought his R.Q. Jones over complaining about a buzz. We opened it up and discovered the buzz was a result of the glue joints failing on some of the support posts. We repaired it and put it back together. Bozo said to me “why don’t you build me a dobro”?

Gaven Largent playing his rosewood/cedar Schoonover Resonator Guitar

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Sapele/Sitka Spruce “Black Lacquer” Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

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SJ: So what process did you go through to learn how to build guitars? What qualities were you most concerned with when you designed your first guitar?

KS: Well, that first reso was just a copy of the RQ Jones – more or less. In our neck of the woods the Jones was King! So, why not start there? I had a lot of Walnut lumber from trees I had cut down and milled with a chainsaw mill. I had Irving Sloan’s book on Classical Guitar construction to guide me in the basics. So that first guitar was Walnut. After completing it, I remember thinking….this is not the way to build an acoustic instrument. Every great guitar that I had ever encountered was light and responsive in my hands. Studying my brother’s OMI Dobro and his R.Q. Jones I found they were built to withstand very heavy loads from top to back. However, the body was not well equipped to counter the over 200 pounds of string tension from the tailpiece to the neck. This resulted in the soundwell or the cone ledge becoming egg-shaped. My brother’s R.Q. Jones, which I had just copied, was built like a bridge. You could drive a car over it! I thought it was interesting that the back was so heavily braced and seemed to be designed to support the resonator yet the top was flimsy and prone to deformation from the string tension. This deformation, I believed, would have a negative effect on the cone’s resonance and sustain.
I thought about this day and night. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to build another reso but I had no desire to build it with what I saw as a poor structural design.

What quality was I most concerned with? Well, ultimately, if you are building a musical instrument it is going to be tone. There is a tone that you hear in your head. You know it when you hear it. You know when you don’t. But it is more than that. It is the sustain, the response, the projection, the attack, and the decay…. If it does not have a voice that speaks to you it is just a guitar-shaped piece of furniture. Having built only one reso at this point, I felt that a richer more guitar-like tone might be achieved by getting rid of all that lumber on the back and build the strength into the top. I understood the importance of providing the cone a solid platform on which it could resonate; I just did not want the back to support it. My first and foremost challenge in designing the Schoonover reso was this. And this is what kept me up all those nights. To create a structural member for the top that connected the neck block to the tail block to withstand the tension of the strings without deformation. I thought by building the strength into the top, I would be able to brace the back in a more traditional guitar-like manner and keep it free and responsive. So, my goal was great tone that was more than just the cone but I felt the path to that goal was structural change.

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Quilted Maple Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

 

SJ: Has the design and construction of your guitars changed or evolved over the years? If so, in what ways?

KS: The basic design idea of the neck-to-tail top support with the free back has not changed although the materials and construction methods have evolved. The first Schoonover designed resos (#2 through #6) had the top support made from steam-bent 1/4″ x 3/4″ maple strips laminated into what I referred to as a “tennis racquet”. I started with a single Maple strip formed into a hoop and then wrapped that with 2 more laminations with a filler strip between them that resembled a handle. The handle end was mortised into the neck block. The rounded hoop end was connected to the tail block. I built elaborate fixtures to bend and clamp the steamed strips to shape. Then, when dry, I glued it all together and ran it through a thickness sander. It was crazy! I really enjoyed the process at the time, but it was very labor intensive. In an effort to reduce the labor in each guitar I began cutting the top supports out of Finnish Birch plywood as one-piece units. I found this to be an improvement both structurally and tonally.

I was really pleased with the guitars and they were selling. But, I noticed that the sound was not as focused as my brother’s R.Q. Jones, and it seemed that the back was being overpowered. I was bracing the back dead flat at the time and the body depth was consistent all around on the sides. So I started tapering the sides and bracing the back in a dome and that tightened up the back. My construction methods have evolved to suit my build style and the tools and machines that I have. Some of my construction methods may be somewhat unconventional. For instance, I don’t cut the holes in the top until the guitar is completely finished and buffed. I do the same with the tuner holes and neck attachment bolt holes. The neck is never attached to the body until it is ready to be set-up. It is properly fit to the body with the correct angle and flossed in but can’t be attached until I cut the holes in the top. I built only that R. Q. Jones body style until just last year when I added (after much prodding from my son, Kyle) an “L” body.

Jeff Partin playing his mahogany/spruce Schoonover Resonator guitar

SJ: Interesting! What are the actual size differences between the Jones body style and your newer L body guitars? How do they compare from a sound/volume/playability perspective?

KS: There is virtually no size difference. The new body is a modification of a Martin “D” and scaled down in some dimensions. It is just a sexier-looking body to me. The upper bout and shoulders are more rounded than the Jones body. The construction of them is identical. If I had to pick-out any difference in the sound I would probably say that the Jones body may emphasize the mid-range a bit more. No difference in the playability.

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Black Acacia/Western Red Cedar Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

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SJ: From a builder’s perspective, what are the most important design features of your guitars that go into creating great playability and responsiveness?

KS: I feel when the structural requirements of the design with the proper execution of each construction detail balances with a minimum amount of material, great things happen. I build great strength into the body by interconnecting all the key structural elements. The top support is bracketed into the sides; the back is free of posts and domed with braces that are tucked into the lining. The neck heel is full width and allows the use of 3 attachment bolts. The fingerboard extension is also bolted down from the inside with 4 machine bolts. It is a very solid unit. It is lightly built with regards to the amount of material, but very strong. These things when coupled with a proper set-up help to advance the player’s experience with regards to playability and responsiveness.

SJ: So your guitars have been an open bodied design from day one, correct? No soundwell?

KS: That is correct. I have never made a soundwell guitar. The only guitar I ever built that utilized posts was that first guitar.

SJ: What constitutes a good set up on a resonator guitar? How do you go about setting up your own guitars – what kinds of materials go into a good set up to get the best sound out of a resonator guitar?

KS: Whoa! Really? OK! Three words…… Every little thing. No…. Every minute thing!
The sound of any reso is only as good as its set-up. The finest tonewoods assembled into a reso with the most gifted hands, utilizing the best hardware and set-up by someone without a clear understanding of what works will be totally uninspiring. What is a good set-up? Well, it starts with a structurally sound guitar. When I am setting up a customer’s reso I first evaluate it. If there are issues with the cone ledge not being flat and true, I start there. I feel it is very important for the cone to rest on a perfectly flat shelf. A resonator that is forced to conform to a cone ledge that looks like a potato chip will not be ideal. I have found this to be an issue with resos that utilize posts and domed backs. With fluctuations in temperature and humidity, the back will either dome up (high humidity which can cause the posts’ glue joints to fail) or flatten out (low humidity which can cause the cone ledge to rise under each post). I have a platform that I mount to the top of the reso and route the cone ledge or soundwell flat and true again. The neck joint must be secure and at the proper angle.

For my own guitars, the cone ledge is created when I route the holes in the top. I use a specific setup for the route so all of my guitars have a consistent cone ledge depth. I cut the neck heel to provide a specific amount of relief at the nut when a straight edge is laid on the guitar top and on the neck shaft without the fretboard. This accounts for the tension of the strings so that when strung to pitch the neck will be on the same plane as the top of the body. I arch the spider and level the tips of the legs perfectly by manipulating it with a hammer and lapping it on a granite plate. The backside of the spider “hub” is machined to further lighten it. The bridge height is adjusted to maximize the available space under the coverplate’s palmrest. I also mount the Modular Bridge about 3 degrees off of perpendicular to the Modular Spider with the top of the bridge angled back toward the tailpiece. I use a spacer under the tailpiece if I want to moderate the down-pressure on the cone. One thing I have learned is how to calculate the maximum bridge height for a guitar. If I know the cone ledge depth and what cone and coverplate are used, I can solve for the bridge height. It takes the guesswork out of it. Cutting the string slots in the nut and saddle is where the Mojo is. You can have every other thing right, but if you don’t get this right there is no magic. It takes practice and an understanding of a string’s dynamics to have consistent success.

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Southeast Asian Rosewood Schoonover Resophonic Guitar

 

 

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In terms of materials, the following are important:

  • Bone nut: correct height, properly fitted, shaped and polished. I am an advocate of cutting string slots that give equal space between strings as opposed to string slots that are cut center to center. It looks right to my eye and I like the playability better.
  • Cone: At one time it was only Quarterman. Now, I let the customer decide as long as it is a Quarterman, Scheerhorn, or Beard.
  • Spider: Schoonover Modular Spider
  • Bridge: Schoonover Modular Bridge Phenolic-capped Maple.

SJ: I’ve played a lot of different squareneck resonator guitars over the years and I’m sometimes puzzled at how two different builders can build a guitar with the same kinds of wood and yet those guitars may sound/play very differently. How do you view the intersection between the design of a guitar and the craftsmanship of the builder vs. the influence of tone woods used to build the guitar?

KS: I absolutely believe the differences between two luthier’s design and skill will outweigh any similarities one might expect to hear because of the use of the same wood species. You also have to understand that we tend to discuss different woods and harp on their generalities. You know, Maple is bright, Mahogany is sweet, and Brazilian Rosewood is…insert divine adjective here. In reality, there is a lot of variability in wood within species. There can be a lot of variability in wood from the same tree! Even the way the grain is oriented in the wood affects its stiffness and will therefore have to be considered in the construction for the way it can influence the sound.

SJ: On your website you list options for different tone woods – I’m curious to know which wood combinations are the most popular and what kind of process do you go through to help some select the tone woods for their guitar?

KS: Overall, the most popular wood for my guitars has been Maple. But, there have been cycles. There was a time it seemed Rosewood/Spruce was very popular. It’s funny, the first two guitars I built were Walnut and I didn’t build another Walnut guitar for over 20 years. I have built three in the last year!

Some customers know exactly what they want. Some don’t….I have to tell a story. A man called and made arrangements to meet me at my shop. He had seen one of my guitars and was excited to have a reso made. He drove from the Texas Panhandle, about a five hour trip, to spec out his guitar. I think we looked at every stick of wood I had. After hours of discussion and lunch and even a little pickin’ he says “I can’t decide between a Maple or Rosewood/ Spruce, I think I’ll just have to have one of each!” That was a fun day and I made a really great friend. I mostly do a lot of listening. I want to know what type music they play, and in what type of setting. Are they into tradition or more contemporary in their leanings? If it is a long distance customer I offer to email photos of particular sets of wood. Last year, I had a customer in Japan choose his wood from several sets of Claro Walnut using this method. If the customer has distinct desires regarding tone, without a clear choice in species, I make recommendations based on my experience. For instance, I had a customer who said he loved the look of Maple but he did not like that “bright, harsh sound”. I chose a set of outstanding Quilted Bigleaf Western Maple. Tonally, I have found this wood to be more like Mahogany than Maple.

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Claro Walnut Schoonover Resonator Guitar

 

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SJ: What was the inspiration to design and create the Schoonover Modular Spider? It seems to me that your Modular Spider was a perfect solution for some of the issues associated with the installation of the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup, but I’m not sure which came first.

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Schoonover Modular Spider

 

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Schoonover Modular Spider with ebony capped saddle

 

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Schoonover Modular Spider w/Fishman Nashville Series Pickup assembly

 

KS: You know the old expression – “necessity is the mother of invention” – in this case it was frustration. After building several guitars and all the various jigs a guitar builder tends to rely on and refining my methods of work, I had everything ironed out to suit me. Everything was a breeze until I went to set-up the spider-bridge inserts. I don’t know why I hated that so. I hated fiddling with those tiny bits of wood, pressing them into that ragged slot. I never felt good about that. Well, I had lots of spider bridges to fiddle with. I had visited with Bob Reed at his shop a few times back in 1993 and I was buying my spider bridges from him. After he passed, I approached his family about acquiring the match plate for the spider bridge which I did. This was the spider that Rudy had used in his guitars. So I began having these spiders cast and sold many of them through Beverly King and Country Heritage. Over the years I spent many hours experimenting with spiders by filing, drilling, grinding, resonance tuning and measuring deflection. I just thought there had to be some room for improvement. I noticed all of the different bridges available for banjos and how a bridge change could alter the tone and I thought how great it would be if I could change a bridge as easily as a banjo player does. So, I machined the bridge slot boss off flat on a spider and fashioned a few bridges of different materials. At first, these were two-piece bridges. I liked how they made the guitar sound and the fact that I could easily alter the tonal character of the reso. So I tooled-up (had to make more jigs) and had some custom cutters made and started machining the one-piece bridge stock in strips. I had a few of them in guitars when the Fishman Nashville Series Pickup hit the market. I had a customer order a guitar with the pickup so I ordered the Adjustable #14 for it. I installed that pickup and it worked out okay. But I thought how cool would it be if Fishman would install their pickup in my Modular Bridge. I called Fishman and explained what I had and asked if I could I send them a sample. They just said their production was setup and that I would just have to find a way to make it work. Little did they know my moto in life has been “Find a way or make one”. ☺

SJ: It’s got to be exciting that two of the hottest new players on the scene – Jeff Partin and Gaven Largent – are playing your guitars. How did you come to meet both of those fine players? I’m also curious to know what wood combinations they choose when they commissioned you to build them a guitar? Did they know what they wanted or did you guide them through that process as described earlier?

KS: It is really exciting for me to hear the music these guys make. That is what every luthier wants, I think. To have your instruments put to use at that level. Gaven tears it up! I mean, you should see his guitar! It looks so cool, like it’s 60 years old already! I received a phone call from a man in Florida about 2 years ago. He says “I saw one of your resos at a festival. It was a great sounding guitar.” He continued, “It looked like the thing had been in a house fire!” I said with a grin…..You must have run into Gaven Largent! Kyle was living in Nashville and met Gaven at Reso-Summit a few years back. Gaven bought a Rosewood/Cedar guitar that Kyle had on hand at the time. He has commissioned me to build him a new Flamed Maple guitar that is just now getting underway. He is excited. Though, probably no more than I!

I have to credit Kyle for getting a guitar into Jeff’s hands as well. I don’t get away much but Kyle is like the Schoonover Resophonic Guitars PR division. He contacted Jeff and told him about a Mahogany/Spruce with Snakewood trim I had built for a show that I did not make it to. Jeff jumped on it. He can really make that thing sound good. Jeff really knows what to play for the song. He is a very talented musician. I think that Mahogany/Spruce fits him nicely.

SJ: Can you give us a quick synopsis of the base price for your guitars, different options and current wait times?

KS: Sure. The base price is $3,300.00. That is for a Flamed Maple, Black Walnut or Genuine Mahogany guitar. Fully bound with black, tortoise, or ivoroid. No up-charge for shaded finish. Includes Premium Custom Case.

Options

  • Wood Binding
  • Various purfling schemes
  • Custom Inlay
  • Many available body woods

Current wait time is about 12 months.

SJ: How do you like the daily life of a luthier? Do you sort of revel in the smells and the sawdust and the chips and the band-aids? Any closing comments for our readers?

KS: Well, I love it! I love working with wood. I love the music. The people I have come into contact with have all been a blessing to me. Every single one. I am thankful to God for the opportunity to spend some of my days building resophonic guitars that are used to bring joy to the people who play them. And without the unwavering support of my wife Tammie, I would not be building instruments at all. I try to get to the shop every day and make something good happen. I have been able to meet some really top-shelf luthiers over the years and have aspired to be a luthier for so long; it sometimes startles me when I am called that. When I am called a luthier I am reminded of former Phillies first baseman John Kruk’s response after being called an athlete……”I’m not an athlete, I’m a baseball player!”

Brad Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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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!

A conversation with Tim Scheerhorn

 

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SJ: How did you get started designing and building squareneck resonator guitars? Was there a master plan or was your path an evolutionary process?

TS: Well to start out, I was a player and I wanted to build a guitar I couldn’t buy. I played really nice old Regal guitars – just like Mike Auldridge’s vintage Regal’s – and they got buried in a jam session. I couldn’t get them to cut through the mix, but they sounded great. I wanted to come up with a design that would project a fuller sound out of the guitar. So I started out with that thought process in mind – as a player – never dreaming that I would build them for a living, but it certainly evolved into that later on. I knew there was a lot more going on the inside of a resonator guitar than most people had an inkling of. Early on there were a few builders – Rudy Jones, Bobby Wolfe, Dick DeNeve – that did some internal things that hinted that there was more going on inside a resonator guitar than the Dopyera’s ever thought. So mechanically I knew there were some things I could do which would improve projection. So that was the first motive. Certainly not wanting to change the way the guitars sounded like. Once I built the first guitar it evolved into the baffle. The baffle design really told me a lot.

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Tim playing with his band in the late 1980’s

SJ: In what way?

TS: Well, initially I had nothing but a skirt baffle similar to a RQ Jones resonator guitar. Then I opened it up on the top and the bottom, realizing that the upper bout contributed a tremendous amount, especially in the bass and midrange. And then evolutionary design tipped it forward to the parabolic baffle that I use today. Non baffle guitars have a certain overtone that not everybody hears. But that overtone is annoying to me. It’s like an oscilloscope – (makes whooshing sounds) – that’s out of sync.

SJ: So this was part of the process that went into designing and building your first guitar?

TS: Correct, that’s the guitar (points to wall). My first guitar wound up being the same dimensions as a Regal – same physical size and depth.

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the first Scheerhorn resonator guitar

 

SJ: So, when you finally put that guitar together, did the final set up and played it for the first time – what did you think? What was your reaction?

TS: I thought it kicked ass! (laughs)

I built that first guitar in 1989 and that July I took it with me to Winterhawk (bluegrass festival) where Mike Auldridge and the Seldom Scene were playing. I had taken it to some jam sessions around Michigan and had gotten a lot of good feedback from everyone that had played it. But at that point in time Mike was a God to me and was up on a pedestal so high. There was an intimidation factor which I overcame and I introduced myself as he walked offstage and asked him if he had a few minutes to look at a guitar that I had built. I told him “people back home in Michigan think it sounds pretty good but I sure would like your opinion.” He said “sure, I’ve got a few minutes.” So he sat on the fender of his car for the better part of an hour playing my guitar. We got to know each other; exchanged addresses and phone numbers and I told him I was so appreciative of him test driving my guitar and giving me his honest feedback. Two weeks later I got this letter in the mail (points to framed letter on wall near workbench).

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SJ: What role did his feedback and/or the feedback from other players in the evolution of the design of your guitars from the original smaller body guitars to what became the L body guitars?

TS: Cosmetically I did some things differently on my very first guitar. So I wanted to refine a few things. I wanted to come up a little more unique way of putting a signature on the guitar vs. writing it on the headstock. So I got thinking about the end of the fingerboard. I had put the “S” on the peghead of the original guitar and I thought “man that was a pain” (laughs).

SJ: So it was a pain to do the inlay work – the “S” on the peghead?

TS: Correct. It was a pain to do it and then I got to thinking that most people put a strap on it and you can’t see it anyway. And so I got thinking about the Gibson Mastertone banjo which has the logo at the end of the fingerboard and I though that would look kind of cool. So I inlaid the next 4 guitars like that and it’s been that way ever since. When I first met Jerry Douglas he played two of those guitars and wound up ordering what became guitar #6. I met him backstage during the Master of the Steel String Guitars tour. They were playing in Lansing, Michigan. I had no idea how to get ahold of him, but I called information and got him on the phone (laughs). He said,  “call me the day before the show and I’ll let you know what time we can meet.” So I drove to Lansing. We met about 3 hours before the show in the green room and he played #3 and #5.

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first batch of Scheerhorn guitars

 

SJ: What was the path from building your own guitars in Michigan to become a well-known builder? Was it a long process?

TS: Well, it happened really fast. But it was directly a result of meeting Jerry and Mike. The reason Jerry was willing to meet with me was because Mike had told him about me. During my meeting with Jerry I mentioned that I thought Sally Van Meter might be interested in a guitar like this and he said “she needs a guitar like this.” And I said “you wouldn’t happen to have her phone number”and he said “yes I do.” Back then no one had cell phones. So he got me her phone number and I didn’t have the guts to call her. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage. I mean these players were my idols. These were the people that I wish I could play like. So I called Sally and said “ hi this is Tim Scheerhorn” She said “ I know you. How much?” She got guitar #3. She got it mid-week and went to Strawberry Festival the following weekend. Two people ordered guitars shortly after. One call I got was from a guy named Randy Cole who has since then become a good friend. The other call was from Rob Ickes. Now this was 1990. So technically, those were spec guitars. The first ordered guitar was from Jerry Douglas. The second was Randy Cole. The third was Rob Ickes.

SJ: So if we shift a little bit from the players themselves. What happened between those first days to creating the L body guitar?

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“Wavy Gravy” Koa L Body

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TS: There was a period of time where every guitar was curly maple. It was kind of like Henry Ford – you could have any color as long as it was black. I always figured if curly maple was good enough for Lloyd Loar it was good enough for me. But Jerry asked me to build a mahogany guitar for him with a spruce top and that’s when I ventured into something different. He ended up playing that guitar on the Great Dobro Sessions record. Through the years that guitar wound up being Sasha Ostrowski’s guitar (with Bering Straits, now plays with Darius Rucker). Anyway, the evolution into different woods, from mahogany to Brazilian rosewood which Rob wound getting. I had taken a trip to Nashviile where Rob played that guitar and he really liked it. Several people had seen that guitar – Brazilian rosewood/spruce top with herringbone trim and mentioned that it needed some tortoise on it. So I came home and designed the tortoise pickguard and then Rob called and wanted that guitar. Awhile later I got a call from Jerry Douglas. We got to talking and he asked me if I would consider experimenting with building a larger guitar to produce a fuller sound which led to a lot of experimenting on my part to develop what later became the L body design.

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SJ: Interesting! When I got my first guitar from you in 1994 – a maple guitar – I took it to a jam session and let a couple of other players give it a test drive. The first person that played it made the comment to me “wow, this guitar plays fast.”  A couple of years later when I sold that guitar and bought one of your mahogany/spruce guitars I spent a few days going back and forth between those two guitars and thinking I had made a mistake because the mahogany guitar did not project like the maple guitar. A few years later when I got my L body maple guitar I was really astonished by the differences. When I went back and compared all three guitars (I had sold the small body maple guitar to a friend of mine) the maple small body guitar had a very strong projection but didn’t have near the depth and fullness of sound of the L body maple. Whereas the small body mahogany/spruce guitar had an incredibly warm presence to it which I liked much more than the small body maple guitar. In other words, my opinion of each guitar was affected by comparing it to the other.

TS: You’re expressing it exactly how it happens. The voice is in the wood. And truthfully, we’re not talking volume. We’re talking physics and we’re talking voice. The physics of maple – it’s punchy and bright. Then you get into mahogany which is a darker voice. By comparison when you bring the L body design into the picture you have a depth and fullness of tone which wasn’t there with the smaller guitars. It’s a fuller sound, but the voice just carries with the design of the guitar itself. Curly maple is going to be a brighter and punchier sound. Comparing a standard body mahogany and now L Body mahogany – are two different worlds – but the same voice characteristics of the wood in a different way. But the voice is still in the wood.

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Sinker Mahogany L Body

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SJ: One way I’ve thought about this is that the standard body guitars had a more focused sound.

TS: Let’s back up a little bit. The other reason for wanting to design my own guitar was that I wanted to create an acoustic guitar out of a dobro, whereas the Dopyeras wanted to button it up by gluing the back to the top with a soundwell. No movement at all in the guitar except for the mechanical parts moving in the resonator. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted an acoustic guitar as much as I could. So the voice characteristics of these species of tonewoods really came out.

SJ: What about the contribution of the top of the guitar – the soundboard – in one of your guitars? How much does it contribute to the overall sound or tone of the guitar vs. the back and sides? Having played a bunch of your guitars I find that in certain combinations it can be huge, in other cases not so much.

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TS: It can be huge. Now we’re talking a much smaller percentage compared to an acoustic guitar, but yes the top does influences the voice. For example, cedar or spruce – woods with completely different densities – will change the voice, although with a small percentage number of influence, maybe 5%. But again, stop and think about listening. The hard part for most players to understand is that there are two ways of listening: listening as a player and listening to someone else play a guitar. The same guitar is going to respond totally different in those two different environments. The important thing is to satisfy both. Sit and play the guitar and feel it vibrate, feel what it’s doing, understand the complete vocal range and where you can get certain things out of it. But then have someone else play it and stand back 10 or 15 feet and then judge it, because it’s a combination of both of those things. Sitting and playing it is a completely different experience than standing back and listening to someone else play that same guitar.

SJ: That’s a great description. I love that! I find that trying to describe the way a guitar plays or the way it sounds, for that matter, is like trying to describe a glass of wine or the nuance of a one color vs. another. I can’t always articulate why I feel the way I do about a certain guitar, there’s more information there than I can express in just a few words.

TS: Well, you’re right. First of all listening is a huge factor. But secondly, feeling is another one. There are some guitars that feel like rubber and there are some guitars which almost play themselves. I’ve had lots of my customers tell me that about my guitars.

SJ: Back to my earlier comment about the guy who played my original standard body maple guitar – “this plays fast.” I knew what he meant. Speaking from my own experience, all things being equal I find that playability and responsiveness are probably the most important features of a guitar. I’ve never played a guitar that was hard to play that produced a sound I liked. I’ve always gravitated toward instruments which were easy to play.

TS: I think it would be extremely difficult for someone to build an instrument if they don’t play that instrument. You do hear occasionally about people building violins who can’t play a lick on them. I know guys that have tried to build dobro’s who don’t play much. Part of that playability and feel is neck angle, string height, scale length – all these things combined. I can’t put my finger on why guitars play so easily. I know exactly what you are saying but I can’t reduce that to one magic ingredient.

SJ: This is a perfect segue into my next question: what came first for you, learning to do a good set up or designing and building your own resonator guitars?

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Jigs for cutting string slots

 

TS: I played banjo for 13 years before I got interested in resonator guitars. So set up of banjos was in my blood. A friend of mine had a dobro which sounded and played really bad. I asked her if I could take it home and see if I could make it sound better. And that was before I even started playing the dobro. And I did make it sound better.

SJ: What did you do to it?

TS: I didn’t have a Quarterman cone available, but I started by straightening out the cone.  I was just looking at the mechanics; how the thing worked. The spider wasn’t level, so I leveled it. I didn’t read any manuals or anything like that; I was just looking at points of contact to make it as best I could. So, to answer your question I did a lot of set up work that carried over into how I designed and built my own guitars.

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SJ: In the past you’ve said something which really intrigued me. You said something to the effect that a good set up is not just a matter of quality parts; that it’s “in the hands.” This is something that I experienced when you did the set up on my OMI 60D. I called Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI to see if they could help me with some suggestions to amplify my dobro and they mentioned that you were building your own resonator guitars and might be able to help. When I called you we discussed the amplification stuff for a little while and you said “I’ll bet I can make your guitar sound 100% better.” Frankly, I didn’t know what to make out of that, but you certainly got my attention! What you didn’t know was that guitar never did play right from the day I bought it – it always played a little out of tune at the 12th fret, with a sort of dead spot. You did your set up – replaced the cheap plastic nut with a genuine bone nut, replaced the maple saddle inserts with ebony capped maple inserts, new #14 spider and Quarterman cone, assembled the guitar with maximum break angles to load the cone and – viola – not only did the dead spot go away, but the guitar projected better and played better than it ever had before. A few weeks later I took a lesson from a great dobro player in Chicago named Tom Boyd. When he heard my guitar – I’ll never forget the look on his face – his immediate reaction was “wow, what did you do to that guitar?” He definitely noticed the difference. Later on a student of mine purchased a OMI 60D – same guitar as mine – which was advertised as having been professionally set up. When he got the guitar it had all the same upgrades in materials but it played and sounded like crap with poorly cut string slots at the nut and the saddle and who knows what else. The difference was like night and day!

That’s a long way of getting to my question: what does it mean that it’s “in the hands?”

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TS: I kind of equate it similarly to being a player. I could study Rob Ickes and do my best to play his music note for note. You could play his songs note for note, but you are not going to play it like Rob. You could study Jerry Douglas and play his stuff note for note, but you’re not going to play it like Jerry. All of the top players have signature sounds and signature things they do which distinguish them. Earlier I mentioned listening:  I can listen to records and usually I can tell you who is playing. There are clones out there today, so I can get a little confused. Some of the young guns that are out there now may sound similar to Rob, in their approach, tonally, note selection, things like that. But it’s signature stuff that takes place and I equate setting up a guitar to that same dynamic.

SJ: What does that mean in practical terms?

TS: I’ve done set up workshops for a long time. I can show anyone what I do. It’s hard to describe other than to say that I have techniques that I’ve developed, little things that I look for. From that experience I pretty much know what the end result is going to be. I still may have to tweak it after I put strings on it, but usually that’s not the case.

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SJ: So, it’s 1000 little details?

TS: Yes

SJ: In the past you’ve mentioned that it’s what’s inside the guitar that counts.

TS: Yes

SJ: I think it’s hard for most people to understand that just because a guitar looks good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to sound or play good. You really can’t judge a book by its cover. When you say it’s what’s inside that counts are you referring to the design of the guitar, the skill of the builder in putting the guitar together, the attention to detail, etc.?
TS: It’s all of those things. You have to look at the whole package. As I mentioned earlier, my objective in designing and building a guitar was projection – I wanted the sound to come out of the guitar; acoustics – I wanted to have the instrument contribute to the overall sound acoustically. So it’s a combination of things. During a setup workshop I sometimes describe this as layers of stuff. If one thing is missing it’s not going to be a finished product. Something is going to be missing.

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SJ: Has your approach to building and setting up your guitars changed over the years or has it remained pretty consistent?

TS: Once I started making the L body guitars I haven’t changed a thing. I’ve honed in on my techniques a little bit, but as far as the physical construction of the guitars, I really haven’t changed a thing.

SJ: Any changes in how you approach setting up your guitar or set ups in general?

TS: There are a few details in materials, mainly in materials for bridge inserts. And certainly when I made the switch from Quarterman cones to making my own cones my goal was to come up with a cone that was the equivalent to a Quarterman, since it was the benchmark. To my surprise I feel that my cones were an improvement, especially in the bass and midrange clarity and sustain. Those key elements were better. I can tell you a story about that if you’d like.

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Lathe set up for spinning cones

 

SJ: Sure

TS: When I first started making cones I was really excited. I had a conversation with Rob Ickes about them. Even though we lived just 40 miles apart we couldn’t find time to meet up other than at an event in Nashville that happened to be an overnighter for me. So I was staying in a hotel room. We met and I mentioned the cones to Rob and he said “let’s do it.” So I wound up taking his guitar apart 4 times in my hotel room – Quarterman out Scheerhorn in, back and forth. If you’ve ever had to gut a resonator guitar on a hotel bed it’s not a lot of fun (laughs). His initial reaction was “I think I’ve lost high-end.” I said “Rob, no you haven’t – your ear is fooling you.” Now here I am telling Rob Ickes what to listen for. I told him “you’ve gained bass and midrange which has changed your perception about high-end.” He finally agreed with me. At that point I was his ears standing far away from the guitar. But I will say this – after doing this for so long – I hear things that some people might miss, but I know what to listen for. So the move to using my own cones was a huge change for me. Not business wise, for a huge element in the overall result as I far as I was concerned.

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SJ: It must have been kind of a wild ride going from building that first guitar to having a 4 year backlog and being in a position of – as I’ve heard it said – chasing the market – where you were taking orders at a certain price, but because the waiting time to get a new guitar was so long used Scheerhorn guitars were selling for more than new guitars.

TS: There was a long period of time when it was going that way.

SJ: In addition, I think there were a few folks that were ordering guitars strictly as investments, correct?

TS: People were ordering multiple guitars and in some cases would order 3 guitars, flip 2 of them and get a guitar for free.

SJ: I imagine that must have been frustrating for you

TS: First of all, to clarify my motive and reasoning behind my policy – I figured a deposit would lock in a price. My intention was to treat people the way I would want to be treated. For example if I ordered a custom guitar and the wait time was 4 years the last thing I would want would be for the builder to call me, tell me my guitar was ready, and “by the way, your price is 40% higher than what we originally discussed.” But the market said I was under priced. So raising my prices was difficult for me. I enjoyed making guitars, I wanted to make a living at it and I didn’t want to price myself out of the market. For years the people in NYC that I knew – some friends at Mandolin Brothers – kept telling me that my prices were too low. It started snowballing and I couldn’t stop it. It was an eye-opening thing when people were getting $2000 more for one of my guitars than I was charging for them. So I had a long heart to heart conversation with my wife and said “who is the dummy here?” The only control I had – and at that time I was swamped with a 4 year backlog and there was no way that was going to change – was to pull the plug and quit taking orders. As soon as that word got out the phone was ringing off the hook. Consequently, that’s how the Wish List got started. So the Wish List is nothing more than a phone number and a name, with no obligation on my part of their part. I was not obliged to build them a guitar. When I made that decision I still had 4 years of guitars to build.

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Ebony/Spruce L Body

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SJ: That was around?

TR: 2005 or 2006

SJ: It seemed to me that there was a lot of confusion about the dynamics at play in that situation. It certainly was a popular topic on the forums.

TS: First of all, it’s economics 101 – supply and demand – with speculation about the future.

SJ: Sort of the guitar version of Flip this House?

TS: Yes, but unfortunately I was caught in the middle of it. I had no control over those prices. I reacted to it in the only business like way I could

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SJ: $500 down to order a custom-made guitar is not out of reach for most people

TS: What that did is it allowed me to buy materials, prepare for those orders. However, I also had an unwritten policy that if you wanted to cancel the order – for whatever reason – I would take $50 and return the rest to the buyer. Most builders would keep the entire $500.

SJ: What have been some of the most satisfying aspects in your career as a builder?

TS: The high point for me has been getting up every day and doing what I love to do. Not having to punch a time clock. Although every customer was a boss I didn’t have to put up with the typical corporate BS. That eliminated a lot of stress for me and enabled me to do what I love to do.

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SJ: I imagine it must have been pretty exciting to have some of the greatest players on the music scene playing your guitars as well.

TS: Well, I do remember the first time seeing Jerry Douglas on television, on the American Music Shop. He was playing #6 and the camera went to a close up and on him playing my guitar and I looked at my wife and said “that was pretty cool.”

SJ: That reminds me of that Steven Seagal movie with Rob Ickes playing your guitar in that one scene.

TS: Oh yeah, Fire Down Below.

SJ: I don’t know who directed that movie but they must’ve been big fans of the resonator guitar. I do recall there was one scene with a close up of Rob Ickes playing his Scheerhorn.

TS: There’s actually a story behind that movie. Three days before he was supposed to fly out to L.A. to shoot that scene Rob Ickes was at a photo shoot for his first record and wound up dropping his guitar. Rob called me and said “Jennifer and I are flying up to visit you – I dropped my guitar and I need to have you fix it so I can make it out to L.A. to shoot a scene in a movie.” At that point he only had one guitar so he really needed to get it fixed. So they flew into Detroit late at night and wound up hitting a deer just a few miles away from my house. Couldn’t open the passenger door, it was really a messed up day! When they got to my house they were a little frazzled so we talked for a little while and I told him let’s deal with this in the morning. Now I’m an early riser, so I had the guitar repaired and ready to go by the time he woke up.

SJ: Did you replace the neck or something like that?

TS: No, he had cracked the lower bout, which left a big hole in the guitar. But, all the pieces were there so I put it all back together with epoxy. I think he was a little surprised I was able to fix it so fast. I do recall that he spent most of that morning on the phone with the insurance company from the rental car company discussing the deer accident.

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SJ: Your business model defies the logic of everything I’ve been taught about marketing – no marketing materials, no website, no social media, etc. Was that on purpose on your part?

TS: in 1989 I built my first guitar and in 1994 that I made the decision to leave corporate American and starting building guitars full-time. Initially I wasn’t sure how many guitars I could build in a year or how many I would have to build to keep me employed. There were a lot of unknowns, a lot of unanswered questions. Over the years I had built a few acoustic guitars and I thought about someday expanding my offering to include acoustic guitars as well as resonator guitars so I could make a living. Initially I thought if things slow down I would advertise in Bluegrass Unlimited or other magazines. Years ago I did place an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited, I think it was in 1991, but that was the one and only time I ever did that sort of advertising. Back in your business school, I’m sure they mentioned timing and in my situation timing truly was everything. Rudy Jones guitars had run their course. Bob Reed had taken over where Rudy left off, maybe not at the same pace. Dick DeNeve and Bobby Wolfe were both making resonator guitars and Paul Beard was just getting started. I was this close to trying to find an RQ Jones. If I couldn’t find a Jones I was going to look for a Reed. I also looked at Paul Beard’s guitars. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I wound up building my own. It certainly changed my life.

SJ: How did the agreement with National Guitars to build and offer a Scheerhorn L Body come about?

TS: To answer that I need to go back to my arrangement with Wechter and Sweetwater Sound. Basically, the folks at Sweetwater had a difficult time marketing the instruments. Sweetwater’s business model is kind of unique – they have dozens of sales reps calling customers all day long – so for them to get in the business of making instruments was a step away from their core competency. The Wechter Scheehorn models involved a lot of assembly here in the United States, with the guitars being built in China and the final assembly taking place here. Sweetwater was not used to that kind of overhead and they weren’t used to selling guitars by calling all the smaller music stores all over the country. They wanted to expand the line by offering electric guitars and so on. And while the Wechter brand had some recognition, the Wechter Scheerhorn name had a very good reputation and the resonator guitars were – by far – the best-selling guitars offered by Wechter. So eventually Sweetwater made the decision to pull the plug on the Wechter brand. Fortunately, that meant that I became a free agent. I was in the process of talking with several high-profile companies about either building guitars in China and putting my name on them or something along those lines. The last thing I wanted to do was set up a warehouse somewhere here in the U.S., have containers come in and wind up rejecting guitars for poor quality. I’d known Don Young at National for many years, we were friends. So in our initial conversation I asked if he would be interested in importing guitars from China with my name on them and doing the set up work. It didn’t take him long to answer me. He said “no, but how about having us build the guitars?” Immediately the switch went on and I said “wow, that’s a no-brainer.” It’s a perfect fit for them and for me. What it did for National is give them a full spectrum of instruments – all the way from the pre-war historical National guitars to the contemporary spider style guitars. The motive for me of continuing on with something I didn’t build but designed and had influence on. It’s really about creating a legacy so that when I’m gone my grandchildren can look at say “that’s something my grandfather created.”

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SJ: Where are you at this point in your career as a builder and what do you foresee for the future?

TS: I’m building very few guitars. I built 4 guitars last year. I don’t intend to build more than that this year. As far as the future, I’ll continue to do set up and repair work, on a limited basis, but technically you could say that I’m semi-retired. I still get involved with the folks at National Guitars, I still do the Reso-Summit, a few things in Michigan but I’m at a point where most 68-year-old people are – retired, or tired (laughs). I’m at a point that most people look forward to and I’m addressing it the best way I can.

Hermann Weissenborn, the man and his guitars – an interview with author Tom Noe

 

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Click on book to order from Amazon.com

SJ: How did you get interested in researching and writing a book about Knutsen and Weissenborn guitar? How long did it take you to actually write the book?

TN: It began with an interest in learning what led up to the invention of the Dobro and National tri-cone guitars. I had a small collection of steel guitars, and I was finally able to buy a Weissenborn at the the 1992 Seattle Guitar Show from blues musician Phil Sottile. At that same show, another young man and I were reaching for an odd-looking Hawaiian guitar. That’s how I met Dan Most. The guitar was a Knutsen Harp Hawaiian guitar. Dan already had an array of Knutsen harp guitars, but knew very little about Chris Knutsen. And I knew very little about Hermann Weissenborn. But we were both passionate about our respective instruments, and Dan suggested that we take some photos and create a calendar. But as we gathered information (and guitars!) and did the research, the project morphed into a book. The research was tedious. There was no internet nor digital cameras. But as each bit and piece was uncovered, we fitted it into a story that grew by expansion over a period of seven years. We decided early on that the focus was to be on the instruments and not personalities. Except for Neil Russell’s Dyer Harp Guitar and Phil Sottile’s Kona, all the guitars in the book belonged to Dan and me.

SJ: How did a German immigrant come to build Hawaiian guitars in Los Angeles in the 1920s? Where did the original design for Weissenborn guitars come from?

Hermann and his son in the factory, circa 1926 (Hermann’s son died in 1926)

 

Hermann with Meta and her boys + Thelma

Hermann with Meta and her boys + Thelma

 

August Mayer + Mrs. Mayer – August was the bookkeeper for Hermann Weissenborn’s guitar business.

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This photo was taken in 1922 – that’s Concepcion Weissenborn playing a style 3 solid neck guitar, with Rosa Meyer on the right and Rosa & August Meyer’s niece in the middle

TR: Hermann Weissenborn was at a crossroads in late 1912. He had left his piano-building job in New York City to make violins with master violin maker Fritz Pulpaneck in Los Angeles, whom he had met in the piano factory. Even though the venture was called “Weissenborn & Pulpaneck, Violin Makers,” Weissenborn was relegated to an apprentice role, and soon the venture failed. Hermann leased a shop at 527 East 12th Street, to refurbish and repair pianos, the only trade he really knew. He hired a live-in housekeeper, 20-year-old Concepcion Ybarra, who had been recruited from Mexico to work in the non-union garment industry in Los Angeles. Concepcion could speak English, and she could play guitar. In her spare time, Concepcion took Hawaiian guitar lessons from Charles S. De Lano, who had a studio nearby. A loaner guitar Concepcion brought home to practice with changed Hermann’s life. The guitar was one built by Chris Knutsen in Seattle, Washington. Hermann set about copying the guitar, and a new venture was born. Concepcion introduced Hermann to De Lano. This was probably by mid-1913. Over the next two years, Hermann built almost three dozen steel guitars, mostly of what would become the Style 2 platform, with varying body depths from just one inch thick to William Pester’s 4-inch deep bodied Style 4.

SJ: Was Hermann Weissenborrn the originator of the hollow-necked steel guitar?

TN: The first hollow-necked steel guitar as we know it was created by Chris Knutsen in approximately 1909. Knutsen was known for his amazing resonant harp guitars, which had a hollow arm projecting from the upper bass bout and supporting sub-bass strings. Knutsen realized that if he “straightened” the harp arm and made a hollow box-like structure for the neck, he could make a steel guitar with improved sound quality. I have one of those 1909 Knutsen steel guitars, and there are photos of Willliam Pester, Palm Springs’ “nature boy” playing one in front of his hut. This was the guitar that Weissenborn copied and refined as he built dozens of them between 1913 and 1916. With the neck being part of the guitar body, the instruments were simple to build.

Knutsen - made in Seattle in 1909. "Patent Pending" Knutsen label

Knutsen – made in Seattle in 1909. “Patent Pending” Knutsen label

Patent Pending Knutsen Label

Patent Pending Knutsen Label

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Knutsen Hawaiian guitar

 

SJ: Was Hermann Weisenborn responding to a demand for lap style Hawaiian guitars or did he actually create the demand by building those instruments? Were there any famous players who helped to popularize the instrument?

TN: There was a real craze for Hawaiian music during this 1913-1915 period. The recording industry churned out records, and everybody want to learn to play the Hawaiian guitar. And, of course, the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco with its Hawaiian themes and musicians helped fuel the movement. By 1916, Hawaiian music, mostly guitar solos, became the most popular form of recorded music. Music teachers, including both C.S. De Lano and Frank J. Hart (Southern California Music Co.), rushed to procure Hawaiian guitars to sell to their students. De Lano turned to such sources as Knutsen and the Shireson brothers before settling on Weissenborn as a supplier, while Hart turned to C.F. Martin & Co. There was a second wave of Hawaiian music popularity in 1922 when radio broadcasts filled the airwaves. The acoustic steel guitars were at a disadvantage in a band setting, however, and attempts were made to increase their volume. Then in 1926 the resophonic guitar was invented, followed in 1931 by the electrical steel guitar. There are very few photos of Weissenborn guitars being played. The 1925 Stadlmair catalog has an endorsement photo of Bessie Keaunui playing what looks like a Style 1. Noted players of the day, such as Sol Hoopii, quickly discarded guitar after guitar as Weissenborns, then National tri-cones, and then electric steel guitars passed through his hands. Famous players such as John Fahey, David Lindley, and Ben Harper popularized a revival of the Weissenborn beginning in the 1960s and continuing to the present.

SJ: Did Hermann make all the guitars by himself or did he employ a staff of builders? 

TN: Up until 1916 Hermann built all the guitars himself. When he set up the small factory in 1916 to build Kona guitars, he hired workers because he was starting to standardize and wanted repetitive consistency. But even then, I think he continued to handbuild instruments, particularly the solid necks. It is clear he had his eye on factory production when he sent for his son in 1921 and moved the factory to a larger building at 1196 S. San Pedro. Templates were used to locate the bracing, bridge pin holes, and tuner holes. That Rudolph Dopyera was hired as shop foreman after Hermann Freidrich’s death in 1926 suggests a fairly large work force. In researching Hermann Friedrich’s wife, Ida, I found that after Hermann Friedrich’s death in 1926 she married Fred R. Meadows, who was a guitar finisher. After the introduction of nitrocellulose lacquer to finish guitars in 1927, Meadows went back into the furniture business as a furniture finisher.

SJ: How did Herman come to offer the different models – style 1- 4 what were the price points and differences between those guitars?

TN: By 1920 Hermann had already built examples of the four models that would become Styles 1-4. I think he received sage marketing advice from De Lano, various department stores and music stores he sold through, and from Harry Stadlmair (Henry Stadlmair’s son) who became the west coast manager for distributors Bruno & Sons. Different levels of ornamentation would satisfiy different tastes and different pocket books. The 1925 Stadlmair catalog listed the four styles: Style 1, no binding, simple position dots–$40; Style 2, black binding, “fancy selected position marks.”–$56; Style3, rope binding around the top and fingerboard edges, “extra fancy position marks”–$67.50; and Style 4; rope binding around top and back, headstock and fingerboard edges, “extra fancy position marks.”–$79.

1915 Style 1/Style 2 hybrid Weissenborn guitar

 

1916 Style 2 Weissenborn guitar

 

Style3-1

Style 3 Weissenborn

Style4-1-2

Style 4 Weissenborn

 

1930 Styles 1 & 4

SJ: Over the years I’ve played maybe 15-20 different vintage Weisenborn guitars. Ironically, The best sounding/playing guitars were the least expensive style 1 models. Can you give us an overview of how the production and construction of the guitars changed over the years and any insights into why certain models may sound better than others?

TN: In my opinion all Weissenborns sound good. But some do sound better than others. My best sounding Weissenborn is a Style 2 with a paper label from about 1920. All four styles of guitars from about 1916 to 1926 with the 3” body depth are structurally the same except for the binding. Beginning in mid-1926, efforts were made to increase the volume of the guitar by altering the top’s wood mass. Heavier braces, a larger bridge plate, and a reduced bridge size were all part of this effort. Also, some of these guitars received a heavy coat of nitrocellulose lacquer. A lot of the sound difference is in the koa wood itself. Arguments have been made about which side of the island and at what altitude the koa was grown, but it is factually true that some koa is denser than other wood, and air-dried koa has less moisture content than kiln-dried koa. Finally, the player’s touch has a lot to do with the sound. You may not know this, but one man procured and cut all of the koa wood used in Weissenborn guitars. He was Albert A. Kolb, who ran the lumber yard at 9th & Main near Weissenborn’s various shops, and who was also listed as a partner in a 1926 listing of Weissenborn Co. Ltd. Diagonal saw marks from his 60” diameter saw can be seen in guitars from 1914 to the 1930s. It is evident that in the ramp-up to launching the Weissenborn factory, Kolb procured a large quantity of high-quality air-dried koa logs. Some of the most beautiful and best sounding Weissenborns I have seen and heard are from about 1920 to about 1925. Most of these are Style 1s and 4s, with some 2s. Style 3s from this era are relatively rare. The magic in these guitars is a combination of the koa wood and the hollow body design.

SJ: Any insights into how Herman came to offer the teardrop model? And why are those models so rare and so expensive?

Teardrop=2

Teardrop Weissenborn

TN: The teardrop model did not originate with Weissenborn. Knutsen made a teardrop model in Seattle in 1910. Andrew Groehsl offered a teardrop model in 1920. Weissenborn first offered the teardrop model in about 1926, and it is nearly identical to Knutsen’s 1910 model. No one really knows why the new model was introduced. Teardrop manufacture continued into the 1930s. But not many were made, and for that reason they are rare and highly desirable. As far as I know, they are all Style 1s. Most feature rather plain koa wood, but they have a sweet sound. I have seen serial numbers staked into the headstocks of several, usually a 3-digit number in the 6xx or 7xx range.

SJ: Are there any known recordings of artists playing Weissenborn guitars from the 1920s? Were there any famous artists playing or endorsing Hermann’s guitars?

TN: There are very few photographs of Weissenborn guitars being played. Prolific recording artists such as Frank Ferrera played conventional guitars with raised nuts. The Weissenborn guitar had a very short time window before being supplanted in 1926 by resophonic instruments.

SJ: When did the factory quit offering guitars? What were the circumstances that led to this?

TN: Hermann Weissenborn moved his factory to a smaller building in 1935 as the depression and electric steel guitars took their toll on the business. Hermann worked his last day on January 7, 1937 and died of heart failure at age 73 on January 30, 1937. No factory records have ever been found, and the number of instruments he made is unknown.
SJ: In your opinion, was Hermann Weissenborn a genius or was he just lucky?

TN: I think he was a little bit of both. To me, genius implies some superior intellectual ability. Hermann was in the right place at the right time with the right people when he started building Hawaiian steel guitars. Everything fell into place. To me, that is pure happenstance. But Hermann had the background, skills, and vision to pull off a successful venture. He was passionate about the guitars and remained focused, and he was a risk taker. Remember, Hermann was about 50 years old when he built his first guitar! I have always been a believer that you make your own luck.
SJ: How has writing the book affected your life?

 

Tom

Author Tom Noe

TN:  I have an extensive background in writing and doing research, both as a technical writer and as a patent attorney, and it something I love to do. Working with Dan Most was one of the best experiences of my life, and we enjoyed a great camaraderie together. It was serendipitous that my company was acquired by another and I had accelerated stock options to pay for publication of the book, or it woudn’t have happened. I was 61 years old at the time. Since the book was published in 1999, I have met many wonderful people who have enriched my life. I still continue to research Hermann Weissenborn and his instruments, and I enjoy sharing my findings with others.