What to Look For When Buying a Squareneck Resonator Guitar

Scheerhorn 3

From the Squareneck Journal Facebook Discussion Group
Rob Anderlik I’d like to pose a few questions to the more experienced players here, players with at least 10 years of experience and/or players who have owned or played a wide variety of different resonator guitars.

Without mentioning brands or a particular builder please comment on the following questions:

1) What are the key qualities that you look for in a squareneck resonator guitar?
2) How important is a guitar to getting your sound? Is a particular guitar essential to your sound or is it more of a matter of your preference? If so, what are those preferences?
3) What are the key differences between an entry model resonator guitar and a professional grade guitar?
4) What advice would you give to someone who is looking to move up from an entry level resonator guitar to a professional grade instrument?

Howard Parker Generally speaking, I have a sound in my head. Depending on guitar it is more/less difficult for me to achieve that sound. My preferences have changed over time so, I’ve chosen those guitars that have enabled me to play what I “hear”.

Greg Tucker-Kellogg
I’m a bit of a a gear nerd. I’ve played many, many squareneck guitars, currently own four, and have owned and sold three others. In my view playability and sound are kind of separate dimensions for squareneck guitars. For example, a relatively small investment can improve an entry level resonator guitar, but improves playability a lot more than sound. These are the standard recommendations: quality nut and saddle, good spider bridge and cone, all properly set up. Everyone agrees this improves tone, but string spacing is usually a bit wider (and more consistent) on professional grade instruments, The bridge saddle is more solid too, so the whole thing just suddenly becomes more playable. I bet most people would sound better on entry level instruments if they replaced the bridge saddle and nut, even if they left the spider and cone alone, because of improved playability.

Most entry level instruments use a soundwell design; most professional grade instruments don’t. Removing the soundwell has a huge impact in sound; IMO entirely for the better. The innovations that are possible after the soundwell has been removed add a lot of individuality to the sound, and make it worth trying different instruments.

My advice to someone interested in moving up would be first to make their instrument as playable as possible, with the string spacing and basic fittings of a professional grade instrument. Then get used to that, so when trying a better instrument they aren’t seduced by the change in basic parameters. Finally, go to a convention, like IBMA or NAMM, where there are a lot of instruments to try. Squareneck guitars aren’t like roundneck guitars; you may need to make a trip, since the mountain won’t come to Moses.

Colin Henry – Overall tone in a particular guitar is very much a matter of personal preference and this is affected by construction and materials and even by strings. My own criteria are depth of tone, sustain particularly on the top strings and up the neck, good bass response but with an eveness across the strings and fairly good volume. I find that really only the modern guitars (basically non soundwell) give me the sound that I want. However, the reality is that many of the nuances in tone are only appreciated by the regular player. I have two high end guitars and a number of older style guitars. To me the high end are much superior however at one rehearsal I deliberately played the older (and to my ears lesser sounding) guitar. It looked like one of the high end guitars. After 2-3 hours rehearsal I asked the others what they thought of the dobro sound that evening. They all thought I was playing my regular custom guitar and to a man (and one woman) they all said that it sounded great and remarked on how good the ‘custom’ guitar was. As we all know, and it is oft said, the players hands (and brain) are the major deciding factor particularly to the ‘outside world’ . To many a slide is a slide is a slide and it is what it is note wise and where it is in the music that matters most. Banjos have a similar experience but lets not go there:-)

Alan Minietta I have owned a number of squarenecks both high end and low.I’ve also played many from a boutique build by a local luthier to a budget model with a very good set up and I try to road test others if I run across them.To me it all comes down to the set up.I recently bought a low end model for a practice guitar for out of town trips.I really like the string spacing which is critical for me,the sound well was very similar in construction to a higher end instrument I have.The cone is top notch and very good quality hardware.Since it was used and in excellent condition with a hard case it was so inexpensive that I couldn’t pass it up.I took a set up workshop years ago and just the right amount of adjustments,a good quality cone and good parts can make a big difference. BTW my only complaint with the budget reso is that the string height is a bit low for my taste and my fingerpicks hit the top of the coverplate more often that with my other 2 resos at home.

Bill Arnold I like what Howard said. Basically any guitar that helps you find the sound you hear in your head. Specifically, I like a quick response and there’s a certain “sparkle” I need to hear. I also like a guitar that moves when I play it. Some guitars push sound from the wood and some PULL from it. I like guitars (not exclusive to square necks……or resonators for that matter) that have the “whole body experience”. Hard to put in words. It’s something that punches into your chest from a good flat top, or resonates into your arms and lap from a great square neck. I dunno…..everybody’s different like every guitar’s different.

Greg Booth I like a dobro that I don’t have to work hard to be heard or get decent tone. With some exceptions such as Jerry on his pre-wars, the harder you play beyond a certain point the tone suffers IMO. Mike got his sweet tone playing light and cleanly. For me and my style I love the modern powerful guitars. When you dig in they always have more. I like sparkle without being tinny or harsh, and I like the fullness of the modern sound. Without naming guitars there is one that stands out for me but there are many others that fit this category as well. Everybody’s hands, touch and style are a little different so there is no one size fits all here. What sounds great on somebody’s lap won’t sound the same on another so it’s important to try them all and then spend ample time playing and adjusting to what brings out your sound on that guitar.

Mike Elliott
Sound is an important quality I look for in a guitar. Too much of a peticular frequency can hinder what you are trying to do musically. The guitar I play and endorse has a great bass but the high end does not overpower. I recently got a guitar that does not have the deep bass but it has an “old” sound like a guitar built in the 30’s which I use when playing Flatt and Scruggs oriented material. You have to try reso guitars to know if they are right for you.The action( string width and heighth) across the neck is a factor. If your strings are too close, you can’t play fast and clean. A guitar has to “fit ” you, so to speak on a variety of levels . I have played guitars that were great sounding but I could’t play them on a regular basis because they didn’t feel right to me.Some body else may play the same reso and it fits them perfect in every aspect.A guitar custom made for you will fit you and will grow with you as you progress and grow musically.

Howard Parker
Comparing preferences is like asking someone to describe the color “red”.

Rob Anderlik
Here’s what I’ve learned. It’s difficult, if not impossible to make an accurate judgment about a guitars sound and playability by listening to someone else play that guitar. A discerning listener may be able to hear differences between an entry level vs professional grade instrument played by an experienced musician but those differences are usually quite nominal. What’s harder to discern, but hugely important from the players point of view is not only sound, but playability/responsiveness and feel. What does it take to produce a good sound or great tone on that instrument on the players part? A good player can make any guitar sound good but will gravitate toward an instrument which is easy to play, super responsive and feels good in their hands. This is where things get a little tricky because playability/responsiveness and feel are very subjective factors and one size does not fit all. That said, if you play an instrument long enough you will eventually learn to get the best sound out of it. I would argue that 80% of a players sound/tone is in their hands, maybe 20% is the guitar. My main advice for someone looking to move up to a professional grade instrument is that there is no substitute for playing an instrument for yourself. If at all possible visit a gathering where you can play a bunch of different high-end professional grade guitars at the same time

Bill Arnold
– Spot on!!

Orville Johnson
Agreed. You can’t tell anything from listening to sound clips thru crappy computer speakers recorded with questionable/unknown mikes and mike positioning. You have to play the guitar to get an idea about it. That said, when I had Ivan Guernsey make me a guitar my instructions to him were, “Make it sound exactly like Mike Auldridge’s number one guitar!”. Mike was playing Guernseys at that time and I had played his main guitar (Thanks, Mike!), so I had a good idea of how it might end up sounding.

Mark Clifton Agree to all that. When we sit and play a guitar either it feels good or it doesn’t. We all know when we play that one “comfortable” guitar that works for us. Feels good right away. Feels good in our hands and makes it a pleasure to play. Each to his own sound.

Sally Van Meter Bottom line for me is a guitar that will play what I hear in my head. Off the top, the first string tone is critical,and has to have strong round tone beyond the 5th fret, another thing is that the strings don’t stop ringing beyond the 5th fret. I want a guitar to give me everything it can, to have been built well enough to possess that quality. I really don’t want to have to work hard for sustain. I don’t really care who the builder is as long as that sustain and warmth is always present, whether it is on the 2nd fret or the 17th fret. The final thing for me is to be able to find the perfect balance of tones across all the strings. That helps me with clarity issues. I do believe as well that a good player can make an inexpensive reso sound pretty good just by the nature of their own tone production. I play lots of different sounds for different folks, so sometimes a solid mahogany will give me what I want for that particular session, and sometimes an all maple will give me a little edge. Sometimes it is a spruce and Indian redwood or other times, I am looking for the kind of sound an all walnut will produce. The one reso that I think is the toughest for me to produce the sound my head/heart hears is a guitar that is all Koa. On a Weissenborn it sounds great. On a reso, for my ears it always feels too bright and lacks a depth that my head wants to hear.

It really does depend on the player and their own feel for tone and responsiveness from a reso. I agree with Rob that one size does not fit all and he gives solid advice to try out as many as possible before you settle on one that feels so right in your hands.

Rob Anderlik Sally, thanks so much for posting this! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better description of what it means for a squareneck guitar to have great playability and responsiveness. More often than not, when I play a guitar for the first time I have an intuitive sense of whether I like it or not, but I’m not always able to articulate the reasons why. The insights shared in your post above are a great addition to this discussion. Thanks!

Sally Van Meter I liked how you posed the question, and especially that you said not too mention builders, Keeps the discussion more to the point, and no competitiveness to it. I like that. Glad to have been a part of it!

DOBRO ROOTS – A Conversation with Player/Author/Collector Steve Toth

Steve w Model 37 HiDef

Steve Toth with his 1936 Model 37 Dobro

 

SJ: How did you get started playing the dobro? Who or what inspired you to start playing?

ST: When I was growing up, my father loved country and western music and he would listen to it all the time on the radio so naturally I would hear it too. My parents would also take the family on vacations to a dude ranch each summer and I would hear country music there. Back then, in the mid 1950’s, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, they would play bluegrass music on the country station in the New York area where I grew up. They played the bluegrass performers right along with the country artists like Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow, Ray Price, etc. since in those days bluegrass was still simply a part of country music. And two groups I would hear frequently had dobro in their music – the Osborne Brothers and Flatt &Scruggs. That was my initial exposure to the dobro. Then, every once in a while Flatt & Scruggs would do a show in our area and my parents would take my brother and I to see them and that’s when I got to see Uncle Josh Graves for the first time. Wow, was he terrific! Seeing him in person really lit the flame in me for the dobro or the “old hound dog“ guitar as Lester Flatt would call it when he introduced Josh!

Uncle Josh

Josh Graves with his 1935 Model 27 Dobro (from DOBRO ROOTS)

SJ: How did you learn to play? Did you take formal lessons or were you self-taught? Looking back, what were the things that were most helpful in learning to play the dobro?

ST: I picked up the Flatt & Scruggs LP record album called Foggy Mountain Banjo which had great dobro on it by Uncle Josh and an Osborne Brothers LP album, I think it was called Country Pickin’ and Hillside Singin’, which also had a lot of dobro on it. I later learned that it was Shot Jackson playing dobro on that album but I didn’t have any idea who it was at that time. I would also buy Flatt & Scruggs 45 rpm records with their early hits on them. So, it was from those early records that I taught myself to play the dobro in the late 1950’s.

Catalog cut - Cal 5 Series

Original Dobro catalog cut – “California 5 Series” – From DOBRO ROOTS

SJ: What model was your first dobro? In addition, it’d be great if you could give us an idea of the different kinds of dobro brands and models that were available when you got started.

ST: My first “dobro”was actually a National Tricone! My father got it for me from a music store he knew about and that was all they had available so he bought it. I played it for a short time but it just didn’t have the volume and tone for bluegrass style picking so we returned it to the store. That was a big mistake! It cost less than $100 at the time and in later years it would have risen in value to a few thousand dollars. Since we were not aware of any stores or anyone in the New York City area that had a dobro for sale, I ended up with a National Duolian with a warped neck and broken neck heel. But, with a high nut on it, it played OK and had pretty good volume. We got it in Upstate New York and I still have it! I played that until around 1972 when I got my first real “Dobro”, a 1930 Model 55.

Mike Auldridge

Mike Auldridge with his 1936 Model 37 Dobro made by Regal (from DOBRO ROOTS)

There was basically nothing available as far as dobros were concerned where I lived in the mid to late 1950’s. I was certainly not aware of anything and even now the history of the dobro during that period is still quite vague. I’m sure there were many prewar Dobro’s out there somewhere –under beds, in closets, in attics, in barns –but they would not surface for many years to come. It may have been the folk music boom of the early 60’s and then the Flatt and Scruggs appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies TV Show that made many people aware of what they, their parents or grandparents had. But there was still relatively no market for them so they stayed where they were stashed away.

Catalog cut - Cal 6 Series

From 1933 Dobro catalog cut – “California 6 Series”

SJ: How/when did you start building a collection of prewar Dobro’s? Did you start out to become a collector or did that evolve over time? I’d also be curious to know what the market looked like when you got started vs. the way it is today. In other words, how has the value of prewar Dobro’s changed over time?

ST: I once said I would never collect prewar Dobros because it took me about 15 years to find just one for sale. But as the years went by, more and more prewar Dobros came on the market for sale but there were very few buyers. I wish I had started collecting in the 70’s when the values were in the $300 to $600 range. But, alas, I didn’t start actually collecting until around the year 2000. I happened to meet someone who had about 10 prewar Dobros in his collection and he couldn’t even play the Dobro! So I decided that it would be alright if I started collecting them too since I always had a love for them. And it was only possible because of the Internet. I would never have had access to the number of instruments I was able to see on the Internet which were up for sale at any time without that resource at my disposal. I decided to start by looking for one of each model made in the prewar period focusing on the wood body Dobros with the round screens. I was also looking for ones that sounded good too, if possible. In the case of the rare models sound was of less importance. I started to find that the lower end models like the Model 27 and Model 37 seemed to have a better sound than the higher end walnut models. This confirmed what Bobby Wolfe had said in his great articles about the Model 27 Dobros. I would also work on setting up each Dobro to sound the best I could get it since most were poorly set up when I got them. I would also try modern cones in them and experiment back and forth with the original and modern cone. I found that, in most cases, a good modern cone tended to improve the sound, to my ears, by adding more low end and generally more volume. I always felt that changing a cone did not hurt the originality of a prewar Dobro anymore than changing out a calf skin head in a prewar Mastertone banjo for a modern plastic head, which is universally done, lessens the value and collectability of a prewar Mastertone banjo. It was more about which sounded the best to me. Of course, I would keep the original cone so it could be re-installed at a later date if I wanted to. By the time I started collecting prewar Dobros the values had increased to roughly the $1,000 to $2,000 range and up. However, over the last several years the prices of prewar Dobros and most vintage instruments, in general, have come down a bit.

Jerry Douglas

Jerry Douglas with his 1936 Model 37 Dobro made by Regal (from DOBRO ROOTS)

SJ: Your most recent book – DOBRO ROOTS – is the most comprehensive pictorial history/reference for wood-bodied pre-war Dobro’s ever published. In his foreword to the book Jerry Douglas hit the nail on the head when he referred to your book as the “Dobro Wish Book.” Now that Jerry is touring with the Earls of Leicester he’s returned to playing his prewar Dobro through a microphone. Not that the two are causally related but the combination of the two have certainly piqued interest in prewar Dobros! From a player’s perspective, how do you think about the difference between prewar Dobros and guitars made by contemporary builders like Paul Beard, Kent Schoonover and Tim Scheerhorn? What are the pros and cons of playing prewar Dobros vs. a modern style instrument?

Dobro-Roots-Front-Cover

DORBO ROOTS – A Photo Tour of Prewar Wood Body Dobros

Click here to purchase a copy of DOBRO ROOTS from Elderly Instruments 

ST: Thank you for the kind words about “DOBRO ROOTS”! And I, once again, want to thank my good friend, Jerry Douglas, for taking the time to write such a wonderful Foreword for the book. I would also like to thank my good friend, Larry Maltz, with his broad knowledge of prewar Dobros for his assistance on many aspects of the book.

It’s interesting that when I started the book I had not even heard of the Earls Of Leicester or Jerry’s involvement with that great group. The Earls do a fantastic job of recreating the essence of the “vintage” Flatt and Scruggs sound – including Josh Graves’ historic and wonderful Dobro work. I think the fact that the Earls Of Leicester Project/CD won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album demonstrates there is still a love and yearning for “vintage” bluegrass music, instruments and Dobros.

Music is an art form and I feel that the prewar Dobro including the sound it produces is an art form too and there is still a love for that vintage sound of the prewar Dobros. There are many great sounding prewar Dobro’s, but others can sound very weak and poor. One of the main problems with a lot of prewar Dobros  is the lack of volume, which the excellent contemporary builders have largely overcome.  If you can’t hear it, you can’t appreciate it and most of us know that often a prewar Dobro was difficult or impossible to hear in even a small jam session. And frequently the tonal qualities were limited by the huge inconsistency of the mass produced stamped cones that were installed in most prewar Dobros along with the lack of proper set up. So, in answer to your question about the difference between prewar Dobros and the resonator guitars built by the contemporary builders, I will start by stating that there are a number of items that we can identify including workmanship, volume, tone, feel, body depth, cone design and quality, peghead configuration, solid vs plywood construction and so on.

The prewar Dobro was a mass-produced item and many were great sounding instruments, but just as many were not. They were made to make money for a company whereas, in almost all cases, today the fine instruments made by the contemporary builders are built for the love of the instrument as the primary motivation and the monetary aspect is there but it is secondary. And, by increasing the body depth, controlling the fit and quality of the wood construction and the addition of a modern handmade spun cone the volume of the new resonator guitars easily surpass the unadjusted prewar Dobros. Also, by building the new instruments with a very high nut and high spider inserts made possible by a new coverplate design with a higher handrest, the volume and feel is also enhanced. The pegheads on newer instruments are typically solid which most folks feel are easier to change strings that the early prewar Dobros with slotted pegheads. Of course, around 1936 several prewar Dobro models were starting to be made with solid pegheads including the classic Model 37 made by Regal that was used by the Dobro greats Josh Graves (after he retired Julie, his 1930’s Model 27), Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas in the earlier years of their careers. And many folks feel that the use of solid wood in the modern resos as opposed to the laminated wood used in all the prewar Dobros enhances the sound. However, there are several excellent modern models made by Paul Beard and Ivan Guernsey, among others, with laminated wood which compare very favorably with the solid wood models. Also, the bodies of the early prewar Dobros produced were quite thin which limited the bass response. But when Regal started making Dobros they subcontracted out the construction of the bodies and their supplier happened to make the bodies considerably thicker. This produced a superior low end sound and enhanced the volume. Soon after this the California Dobros began being produced with thicker bodies and eventually by the mid 1930’s both the Regal and the California operation were producing a fine sounding Dobro with nice highs and fuller lows.

model 27 Regal

1934 Model 27 Dobro made by Regal (from DOBRO ROOTS)

model 37 Regal

1936 Model 37 Dobro made by Regal (from DOBRO ROOTS)

model 45

1934 Model 45 Dobro made in California (from DOBRO ROOTS)

Over the years I have been experimenting with improving the volume and sound of prewar Dobros to bring out the fullness of sound they were capable of producing. I always felt that in spite of the lack of high quality workmanship necessitated by the mass production process that there was a lot more sound and tone that could be produced by them. And I believe I have finally found several enhancements which can make many prewar models compare favorably in volume and tone with newer resos without losing the essence of the vintage prewar sound. They are relatively simple enhancements that can be added and removed, usually in less than an hour, without altering the original instrument’s construction. I will be looking for a way to disseminate this information sometime in the near future.

SJ: Does anyone really know the backstory of how/why John Dopyera and his brothers invented the dobro? The only thing I know is that they were trying to make a louder guitar. I’m curious to know if there are any anecdotal stories of how they came up with the original design for their instrument and whether they experimented with different designs and materials along the way.

John Dopyera

Photo of John Dopyera, inventor of the Dobro (from DOBRO ROOTS)

ST: John Dopyera was primarily attempting to make a Spanish guitar (as they referred to a regular six string guitar) louder so it could be heard in large settings or with many other band instruments and to do likewise for the Hawaiian guitar which was extremely popular in the early 1900’s. He was the actual inventor of the Dobro guitar and his brothers assisted in various aspects of the business and production. He invented the tricone guitar first which was produced under the brand name National in the mid 1920’s and then invented the single cone Dobro in about 1928.

John definitely experimented with many cone and material configurations before coming up with the National Tricone metal guitar that he always felt was his best achievement. John and the other Dopyera Brothers all worked for and were part owners of the National String Instrument Company but, after a dispute with his partners, John left National in 1928 and began producing the Dobro in 1929. His brothers joined him and they chose the name Dobro taking the “Do” from Dopyera and the “bro” from brothers to form the word Dobro. In addition, the word “dobro” meant “good” in their native Slovak language.

SJ: Does anyone know how the Dopyeras came up with the Dobro brand logo?

ST: The logo apparently came from a modification of the form of a Lyre, an ancient stringed musical instrument. In fact, the logo includes an image of a lyre and to that they added the letters “DOBRO” and created the now famous Dobro logo. Even the Dobro guitar itself was designed to emulate somewhat the shape of a Lyre which is where the 3 holes at the end of the fingerboard (on most prewar Dobros) came from.

Very early Prewar Dobro Logo with gold border

Very early Prewar Dobro Logo with gold border

SJ: Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of Dobro Roots? I believe you’ve concentrated on wood bodied pre-war instruments only. Is there some sort of timeline to help a newbie understand the history of the Dobro company, the different models they offered and the relationship between the Dobro company and Regal? Lastly, was there any overall quality difference between instruments made at the original dobro factory in California vs. the Regal factory in Chicago?

Timeline partial photo

“TIMELINE” of different prewar models offered by Dobro (from DOBRO ROOTS)

ST: DOBRO ROOTS starts out just like the title says – “DOBRO ROOTS” – A Photo Tour of Prewar Wood Body Dobros”. But it’s more than just a tour, it’s a tour in chronological order by model and follows each catalog series in the order they were released back in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. It also includes details of the various models including dimensions and anecdotal details including old catalogs showing the various Dobro lines. I have also created a numbering system for the various lines and I designate them as separate “Series”. For instance, the first line to come out in 1929 had each model ending in the number “5”. It had the Models 45, 55, 65, 85, 125 and 175 so I call this the California 5 Series since these were all made in California by the Dopyera Brothers. The next line had model numbers ending in “6” so I call this the California 6 Series. Then, around 1933, Dobro issued the Regal Co. in Chicago the right to produce and sell Dobro instruments east of the Mississippi River. The initial line of instruments that Regal produced I have designated the Regal First Series.

Each instrument in the book is displayed from original, high quality photos of actual prewar Dobros from my collection, the collections of a few friends of mine and a few borrowed instruments. We did a photo shoot on the west coast for my collection and a shoot on the east coast for my friends’ collections and the other instruments there. We then selected the best of the photos to use in the book. I also created a “Timeline” showing in a two page spread each Series and the various models in each versus a time scale showing the years when each was first offered and when it was phased out. This is the first time this type of information has been shown anywhere in this format which, hopefully, clarifies a lot of this information for readers, collectors and dobro enthusiasts. I based a lot of the information on the serial number data in George Gruhn’s great book “Guide to Vintage Guitars”, Third Edition. So the reader/user of the book has three key sources of information – first: a chart with Series’ designations, models and years; second: actual vintage catalog cuts showing the instruments and; third and primarily: high resolution photos of the actual prewar instruments as they exist today!

SJ: The photography in DOBRO ROOTS is outstanding! It’s truly a treasure chest of different vintage guitars! As a player, I’m curious to better understand the differences between the sound and playability of the different pre-war guitars in the book. For example, do the fancier, more expensive models play and sound better than the less expensive models or are the differences primarily cosmetic?

ST: Thank you for the nice complement on the photography in DOBRO ROOTS! But, I have to thank my two wonderful photographers, Anthony Donez and Ryan Collerd, who produced those great high resolution photos!

As far as sound and playability go, it’s a very interesting and unique fact that Dobros don’t follow the norm of higher price meaning a better sounding and playing instrument. As a matter of fact, it was just the opposite with Dobros! One of the best sounding prewar instruments, in the opinion of many experts and many of the great dobro players, was the low end Model 27 that was made of birch plywood. In addition, the Model 27 was a no frills instrument with binding only found on the top of the body, an unbound neck, simple tuning machines and an “ebonized” fingerboard of non-descript wood.

model 156

1932 Model 156 Dobro made in California (from DOBRO ROOTS)

On the other hand, the beautiful high end walnut laminated models, such as the Models 125, 156, 175 and the very rare Model 206, left a lot to be desired as far as sound was concerned. Although all the prewar Dobros were made of plywood or laminated wood it seems that the type of wood used – whether walnut, spruce, mahogany or birch, did play quite a big role in the sound that the instrument produced. Sure, the cone was the primary vibrating element but the wood also contributed greatly to the sound too. And playability seemed to mostly depend on who was on the assembly line at the set up stage of the final product. Although, in general, the higher end models did seem to have more attention paid to a good set up job than the lowly Model 19, 27 or the 37.

SJ: I have to admit I know next to nothing about prewar Dobros so if you don’t mind I’d like to get clarification on a few things: Were all prewar Dobros made with a soundwell? What was the function of the soundwell in the design of the instrument?

Soundwell

Prewar Dobro Soundwell

ST: No, not all prewar Dobros had soundwells. (By the way, for those not familiar with the term, I should mention that the soundwell was a ring of plywood running in a circle between the top and back of the body almost directly under the outside rim of the resonator cone.) Most prewar Dobros with round screen holes did have soundwells but some lower end instruments were produced with no soundwell apparently as a cost cutting measure. In addition, most f-hole models had no soundwell. The soundwell usually had holes in it, either round or parallelogram in shape, although a few have been seen with no holes at all.

The soundwell was primarily installed as a positive support for the resonator cone but it also acted to transmit the vibrations of the cone into the back of the body as well as the top. Modern open-body resonator guitars have soundposts to act in place of a soundwell. The prewar Dobros without soundwells had either a thicker one-half inch thick top or an extra wood ring just under the outside rim of the cone.

SJ: What’s the difference between a stamped and a spun cone in a prewar Dobro? Does one sound better than the other?

ST: A stamped cone was made from a sheet of aluminum that was stamped into the conical shape of the cone. A spun cone was made by placing the sheet of aluminum in a machine that would spin against the sheet forcing it into the conical shape. The prewar spun cones, especially those made in the later 1930’s, seemed to be more consistent in shape and thickness and that led to a more consistent and better sound. The stamped cones, on the other hand, were very inconsistent in thickness and had many ripples in them caused by the stamping process. This led to the sound being very inconsistent with some sounding great with bright highs and nice lows while others were thin sounding with almost no low end at all. In most cases, I prefer the sound of a modern spun cone installed in place of an original stamped cone whereas an original spun cone often sounds as good as a modern cone. But a good stamped cone has a wonderful old time“prewar” sound that can’t be matched by a modern spun cone. But, the sound of an instrument is very subjective especially when it comes to prewar and modern dobros and spun versus stamped cones.

SJ: What kind of materials did the factory use for bridge inserts and nuts? I’m assuming they used maple bridge inserts and a plastic nut, but I’m not 100% sure. Most, if not all of the vintage Dobro’s that I’ve played have been in dire need of a good set up. Is that a function of normal wear and tear over decades of use or has the notion of a good set up on a dobro changed over time?

IMG_0002

Bridge inserts on prewar Dobro – typically the inserts on a factory standard setup guitar were seated too low to create enough tension on the cone to maximize the volume potential of the instrument

ST: The spider bridge inserts, I have been told, were made of boxwood which is a very hard wood, probably harder than maple. And based on my observations the nuts were made of bone. However, the original set up of most prewar Dobros was very inconsistent and the inserts were typically much too low to drive the sound fully into the cone. And the nuts were also quite low compared to modern set up dimensions. So, it was a combination of inconsistency and the evolution of good dobro set up characteristics that hampered the prewar dobros from sounding as good as they could have sounded based on overall construction.

An interesting thing about prewar Dobros is that often they were played very little! They were most likely purchased with good intentions of learning to play Hawaiian music in the case of squareneck Dobros or western or jazz music in the case of round neck Dobros but the learning process never took place. So you can often find prewar Dobros in great condition most likely because they were stored under a bed, in a closet or an attic soon after the purchase was made.

SJ: What is the story behind the Cyclops model? How do the Cyclops models compare to other prewar guitars in sound and playability?

Dobro Cyclops - 1933

1933 Dobro Cyclops Model (from DOBRO ROOTS)

ST: The Cyclops Models were brought out in the middle of the Great Depression around 1933 apparently as a cost cutting measure. They were able to eliminate one of the two round screens. And, in the case of the Double Cyclops models the two holes were reduced in size and moved together so they could be made out of a single piece of metal covering a single hole in the body. Also, the Cyclops Dobros often had no soundwell to save on cost but they did have the one-half inch thick top. But, I came across a sandblasted Model 60 Cyclops with both a soundwell and a thick top which also sounded surprisingly good. But, in most cases, the sound of the Cyclops models did not compare favorably to the two openings with screens to allow more sound transmission out of the upper bout. So the Cyclops Models were a short lived line that was phased out within a year of introduction.

SJ: What is the function of the 3 small holes just below the fingerboard in some of the models?

ST: The 3 small holes at the end of the fingerboard were purely artistic with the intent of copying the appearance of a lyre! The holes serve no purpose as far as sound is concerned and were omitted on the Model 27 and most Model 37s around 1934/1935.

Dobro body with 3 small holes

 

SJ: What is a lug cone? What is a short spider?

Short Spider and Lug Cone

Short Spider and Lug Cone

ST: Both of these questions are directly related so I’ll answer them together. The lug cone was developed to provide a support position for the “short” spider bridge. The first Dobros produced had a long spider bridge that rested on the outer lip of the cone. But, after a few years they introduced a short spider that did not reach the outer lip. So a stamped cone was developed with 8 indentations or lugs, as they became known, to provide support points for the shorter legged spider bridge. I believe that this short spider and lug cone system was developed to produce a brighter and more brilliant sound with some additional volume from a Dobro. Apparently, the initial system was found to be lacking in volume and treble sound. Surprisingly many prewar Dobros can be found with a lug cone and a long spider! They did a lot of strange things back in the days of the prewar Dobros.

SJ: Was the idea behind a slotted headstock on some of the models to create a greater angle break behind the nut and increase the volume and projection of the guitar? My first dobro was a model 60D with a slotted headstock and I used to hate changing strings! (laughs).

 

Prewar Dobro Headstock 2

Prewar Dobro Headstock

ST: I believe the slotted headstock was used since it was the norm used on Spanish type guitars of that period. As far as I know, it had nothing to do with increasing the break angle at the nut. It wasn’t until tuning machines became economically available in approximately 1936 that Regal began making Dobros with solid headstocks. And when production of Dobros was started again in the 1960’s they were once again made with slotted headstocks in an attempt to replicate the original instruments of the prewar period. And, although changing strings is somewhat more difficult on a slotted headstock Dobro, it took the O.M.I. Company in the 1970’s several years before they started producing solid headstock instruments once again.

SJ: You’ve amassed an amazing collection of prewar Dobros over the years. I’m curious to know – do you have a favorite instrument? What have been some of the highlights of building such a nice collection of vintage Dobros over the years?

ST: It’s interesting and probably surprising that I really don’t have just one favorite Dobro. I seem to go in phases where I’ll play a certain Dobro for a period of time, say several months to years and then switch to a different Dobro for another time period. And at times I just switch back and forth depending on the gig and the type of music I’m playing.

Some of the highlights of obtaining my collection include finding my first Dobro, a Model 55 roundneck, and then, my second one, a square neck Model 37 Dobro made by Regal with a solid headstock very similar to the one on the wonderful classic Mike Auldridge Dobro album. And I still have both of them! Then another interesting one I purchased was a Model 125 Custom gold plated engraved round neck that Bobby Wolfe had pictured in his great book The Resophonics and the Pickers. After Bobby had sold it, I came across it by accident on the internet at a store in the Netherlands where they called it a Model 256, a model which never existed to my knowledge. But, when I received pictures of it, I recognized it as Bobby’s former Dobro. I jumped at the occasion and when it was delivered, UPS left it at the front door of the wrong house in my neighborhood around the corner from where I lived. But the tracking info said it was delivered so I went searching for it and found it just sitting there unattended near a neighbor’s front door. I just picked it up and took it home with no problem! And it was shipped in its case wrapped only in bubble wrap with no outer carton! It was the most unique delivery of one of the most unique Dobros I own. In fact, it is the Dobro on the cover of Dobro Roots!

And, of course, when I was alerted a few years ago by a friend back on the East coast that Gruhn Guitars had a 1932 Model 206 round neck for sale, I jumped on it and was able to purchase a Dobro I never in a million years thought I would one day own. It even has the original gold spider and gold stamped non-lug cone of the period. And since only three are known to still exist and the neck is quite straight I have only played it as a Spanish guitar. And it plays and sounds wonderful that way! So, I’ve never put a high nut on it to play it Dobro style so I can retain the neck in its near original condition. Although the cover plate gold is mostly worn off, it does have the pearl tuner buttons and gold sparkle binding, the spruce top and walnut back, sides and top.

SJ: Any closing comments for our readers?

ST: Well, I guess I would say that Dobros and all resonator guitars are wonderful, unique, and very different instruments. And the Dobro guitars from the prewar period (1929 to 1941) were the roots from which sprouted many limbs and branches, that is, the variations on the original design of John Dopyera together with the production work of his brothers. And just as there are a variety of sounding prewar Dobros there are also a variety of sounding post war (late 1950’s through today) Dobros and resonator guitars. Each is somewhat different and there is not one that is suited to every player, listener, collector or fan and there is not one that is necessarily better than any other. They are merely different just as the music that is played on one differs with the player, the musical genre, the surroundings, the playing style, the techniques used to make it sing and so on!

But there is one thing for sure, the prewar Dobros produced by the Dopyera Brothers in California and the Regal Company in Chicago can never be reproduced! There are a limited number of originals and there will never be any more. I guess that’s part of the reason I love to play them, collect them and look at them like works of art from another era. And if you are a dobro player and have never played a properly set up prewar Dobro, you owe it to yourself to give one a try, if you can find one. Happy hunting and have fun!

Mike Witcher

Mike_Witcher_italy_2014

Mike Witcher

 

 

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

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

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

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



So everyone already had an instrument picked out? 



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

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

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

Clinesmith Koa Resonator Guitar

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



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

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



Nothing like that to give you motivation!

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

Fr Kristen Bearfield 558574_3868877086170_1405860011_3597761_609632472_n

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



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



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

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



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



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



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

Mike_and_Little_Jimmy_Dickens

With Little Jimmy Dickens

 

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



9 months

9 months?

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

So all of that happened really fast. 

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

TUT_Recording_Session

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

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

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

?

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



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

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



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

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

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

Sam_Bush_Mike_Witcher

with Sam Bush

 

 

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

How do you approach teaching improvisation? 



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

Right! With a beginning, middle and an end!



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

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




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



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

Peter

with Peter Rowan and Keith Little

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

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

R_R_S_WITCHER_97or98

with Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz

 


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

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



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



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

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

I was 18 or 19.

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



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

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

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

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

A Canon 7D 



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



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




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

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

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

Are there other builders that you admire?



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



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

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

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

He’s really a great guy!

Yes he is.

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



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

Did the pickup affect the acoustic sound of your instrument?



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

Really?

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

IMG_1517

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

 

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

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

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

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

Thanks!

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

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

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

 

Mike,Aoife,Rashad,Beppe

with Aoife O’Donovan, Rashad Eggleston and Beppe Gambetta

 

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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



What does the future hold for you? 



Mike Witcher and Willy Watson

with Willy Watson

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

 

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!”

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!

Jimmy Heffernan

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

 

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SJ: You are very well known these days as one of the most highly respected dobro instructors in the country, but, take us back to the beginning: how did you get started playing music?
JH: I worked as a dishwasher while I was in college and I would listen to the radio to keep my mind occupied. Even though I didn’t like it at first, I kept listening to country music because I liked that the music had fills, rather than just a groove, like in pop music. So I started listening to it and acquired a taste for it. I started going out buying used records in Boston where I lived. I didn’t know anything about who I was listening to but I started buying all these used records for $1.00. I’d buy anything where someone had a cowboy hat or a banjo on the cover so I accumulated a lot of great records and classics but I didn’t know what I was buying. Pretty soon I discovered Flatt & Scruggs with Josh Graves. The funny thing is – I didn’t really like it at first! I thought it was a little whiny! (Laughs)…but you know, like a lot of really cool things, they sometimes take time to grow on you. So, that’s how I got started, listening to the radio and then discovering Flatt and Scruggs.
SJ: You spent a number of years touring with various artists – starting with Raintree, Transatlantic Bluegrass, Larry Sparks, Red Allen, as well as Joe Diffie, Doug Kershaw, Brad Paisley and Mark Cosgrove. If I understand this correctly, you played a variety of different instruments along the way. What have been some of the highlights of those experiences?

JH: Well, there’s a whole book of experiences for each artist you mentioned – some good, some bad, but they all add up to a common experience that you take with you. With Raintree – which was the first band I had – we traveled all over the country playing 5-6 days a week, playing one-nighters for $50 a night at bars and festivals. We’d have to drive all night and you had to learn to sleep on the floor of the van. Things like that seasoned me to some of the difficulties that come with the territory. But Raintree was the first experience I had getting in front of a listening audience. This was a great experience in that it taught me how to put my music out there aggressively in front of an audience who was there to listen, you know? I guess the lesson I learned from that is to put your music out there aggressively and they’ll but it. You know, rather than trying to hide. So the Raintree experience taught me that when you can’t hide, you’re forced to either not play or put something out strongly. When you do that you get better, and you also learn to sell what are doing.

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Larry Sparks was a huge experience in terms of learning about timing. I’d lived up north and played with bluegrass with bands and it was all good; I thought I had it all down. When I got together with Larry for the first time we were leaving at 5 or 6pm to play our first gig. There wasn’t really any rehearsal, we met a couple of hours before the gig we met just to run over a few things… from the first note I felt ‘oh my God, now I get it!’ I heard his records and thought I knew it, all of a sudden when it was right in my face! The timing aspect of it hit me. I’ll never forget it: I remember the room, I remember things that were on the wall; it was an earth shattering moment. I remember thinking these southern guys have this front side of the beat timing that is unbelievable. And that’s really what the music is about. It’s not about how intellectual you could be, how clever you are, it’s about nailing each individual note and having it being like a driver on a locomotive. So that was the Larry Sparks experience. I played with him for two years. Nothing was ever discussed. He never told me what to play. Everybody got it without speaking a word.

 

I played with Red Allen over the course of six months or so. He had always been one of my favorite singers… Anyway I came home late one night after a country gig in a bar and saw a note next the phone. I picked it up and almost dropped dead when I saw that it was from Red Allen. I guess it speaks to the respect that I had for him. It was an absolute joy to play with him. In between gigs he shared a lot of great stories – from his days playing with the Osbourne Brothers, back in the 50’s and when he used to sub for Lester Flatt in Flatt & Scruggs. And, you know, being such a big fan of the first generation guys, I wouldn’t sell it for all the money in the world. Little things like that shape you. Little things about the way he was. Little things that you take on as your own, that no one can teach you…

After that I started playing with country guys. I had re-located up north and there wasn’t really any bluegrass up here, so I figured I’d better learn to play pedal steel. So I bought a pedal steel and jumped in with really knowing what I was doing. I guess I fooled a bunch of people, playing in country bands in New Jersey because I started getting more and more calls, learning on their nickel, so to speak. So I started playing steel in country bands, which was a great thing. I wasn’t playing in big festivals anymore, but the benefit of playing in bars was I got to learn a new instrument. I did that for awhile and figured that I had got pretty good so I moved to Nashville.

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After I had been there for awhile I was sitting on the front porch of my house when I heard a guy playing guitar next door. I thought that’s cool, maybe I’ll go play with him. Then he started singing and I thought that’s great we’ll have some songs to play together. I listened a little more and I thought ‘wow this guy’s amazing.’ Then I got a little scared, thinking ‘what am I doing in Nashville?’ ‘What right do I have to think that I can make it here when this guy is nobody and sounds completely amazing:’ Well it turns out that my next door neighbor was Joe Diffie!

So, I actually thought ‘gee I wonder what the guy pumping gas sounds like!’ Well not everybody in Nashville is Joe Diffie and this was before he got a record deal. A year or so after Joe got a record deal and started having some big records he replaced his steel player and he called me up to try out. I went down there, beat all those guys out and got it. Then I was on the road. This led to a new era – working 300 days a year, probably 250 days are show days, at least 50 days spent all day on the bus. I spent around 13 years doing that – 7 years with Joe and then I produced for a couple of years in Nashville and then took a job with Brad Paisley. It was the same thing, constantly on the road – 52 weeks a year. We had fun out there but after 13 years I figured it was time to do something else.

I do have to say about Joe and Brad that it was a wonderful experience to play with them in front of crowds that were sometimes 30-40,000 people. It was an unbelievable experience to play with those guys. With Brad, during sound checks we’d jam on old country songs by George Jones or Vern Gosdin, he start singing them and we’d play them. Brad is very improvisational and although there was some choreography he’d change it up. Sometimes in front a crowd of 20,000 people or on T.V. he’d motion to you to solo on a song that you’d never soloed on before. That would keep you on your toes! That was the cool part about it. It never got stale or stiff.
SJ: Presumably the Dobro was not an especially popular instrument when you started playing and I doubt there was much in the way of instructional material. So how did you learn to play?

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JH: There weren’t many dobro’s around back then either. Back then there was just the dobro’s made by OMI and there were very few of those. So if you wanted to buy a dobro and you saw one for sale someplace you basically had to buy that one or you might be waiting a year or more to find another. There were some collectors around the country I guess, but few and far between. Anyway I got started playing by knocking the nut out of a cheap guitar and sticking a threaded bolt underneath, raising the strings up; got a socket wrench, some finger picks and started sliding around. I figured out that it was in G tuning. I think Mike Auldridge had a column in Guitar Player magazine at that time, so there was some information on dobro available and somehow I learned that dobro was in G tuning. So I did this right before there was a picking party next door to where I lived at the time. There were going to be some good players there and I figured they wouldn’t need another guitar player. So somehow I had the nerve to show up and start playing! All I did was run my finger across the strings in little arpeggio’s and slide the bar from chord to chord in the songs and I got such a response! Virtually every one there was going “Wow, that’s incredible! I didn’t know you could do that!” When I got home I thought to myself ‘that’s for me.’ (laughs) So that was the first experience. Then I got more serious after that. The first thing I learned was the dobro solo on a Merle Haggard song – Hobo Bill’s last ride. A great solo and I was pumped up that I could learn it. That kind of energized me to go forward and keep learning things. I got onto all the Oswald and Buck Graves stuff. Back then there was no tablature so I had to learn everything by ear. I would try and slow down a record by taking it from 33 to 16, moving the needle back and forth and try to hear what was going on. Hearing what was going on was the first step in being able to play something. The term back then was “slaving over a hot turntable.” There weren’t a lot of tapes really, cassettes weren’t as big as they became so you were stuck with a turntable.

SJ: I imagine there weren’t very many dobro players at festivals back then…

JH: No, you didn’t see very many and you didn’t see any young ones. There were people like Deacon Brumfield in the Northeast here that you would see sometimes. Roger Williams was the exception being a younger guy and he was playing wonderfully. Stacy Phillips was a big figure in the Northeast. He could do a variety of material and played with some bands in local bars and they’d play some very cool eclectic stuff. But when you sat down with Stacy he knew all the Josh Graves stuff; more mainstream material, he knew it as well as anybody. So I wound up sitting down with Stacy a couple of times and he pointed me in the right direction on several things.

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SJ: How do you trace your own heritage as a player? Who was you hero when you got started? How long was it before you developed your own style and approach?

JH: When I lived in Boston I auditioned as a bass player for a band – I wasn’t really a very good bass player and I tried to fake my way through everything. Anyway I auditioned for a bluegrass band and the audition didn’t go very well; only I didn’t take the hint and didn’t have the sense the leave! (laughs). I guess they didn’t know what to do with me, so we started listening to records when one of the guys said “Hey man have you ever heard this?” and put on the Mike Auldridge dobro record? Well, when he put the needle on the record it was a life changing moment! That just shot through me like lightening! ‘This is what I want to do!’ I knew then that I had to learn to play exactly like that. Of course, you can’t be someone else. You absorb things; you get close on some things and so on; but, other things become your own – whether through lack of discipline or because your ear takes it another way and that’s a good thing, because there already is a Mike Auldridge and even if I had stayed with it and tried to be the best Mike Auldridge I could, he’s always going to be the better Mike Auldridge. And then, you factor in other things – periods of time when I got into Josh Graves, learned to play other instruments and so on to where it all combines and you sound like yourself. I might play a lick that I learned from Auldridge and someone might say “where did you learn that lick” even through they might have all of Mike’s records. Somehow, your own style evolves.
SJ: I’d like to tap into your experience as an instructor to try and get a better understanding of what you see as the necessary elements, the fundamentals needed to become a decent player. Not that I see myself as being even remotely on the same level as you, but as a local dobro teacher in Chicago, most of what I see are guitar players who are interested in dobro as a second instrument. Just about everyone under-estimates the critical importance of developing good right hand technique as perhaps the main stumbling block to developing as a decent player. I guess that’s a long-winded way of asking – what are the common hurdles that beginners face and what’s the best way to get over them?

JH: Rob, you are an incredible resource in the Chicago area. You know the right way to do so many things on the dobro that people should be flocking to your door. You’re absolutely correct about the right hand. I like to say that there are a lot of ways around the barn: there are many folks that can play things with unorthodox technique but get great results so I don’t know if there is an absolute right and wrong technique, however, if we’re talking classically – you want to sound like Rob Ickes or Jerry Douglas or Mike Graves – there are certain things that will hold you back and it’s usually in the right hand. After doing so many workshops I would ask myself why are so many people doing stuff so counterproductively with the right hand (well, some of it is in the left hand, but mostly in the right hand). I came to the conclusion that there is no natural way. So if you started playing on a desert island it would not come to your naturally to understand how the pros play. The dobro is also one of those instruments where it is relatively easy to get some basic sound out of it. Going back to my party story…you know, going to the party and playing. I could get sound pleasing sounds out of the guitar by just sliding around. You can’t do that with the mandolin or the fiddle or the guitar. You have to know the correct technique to get good sounds out of those instruments. Of course the basic up and down picking technique is central to playing guitar or mandolin. Well, that correlates to the dobro in that a lot of folks will use just one finger to play multiple notes. The other common thing is that folks will play the first string with their index finger. They’ll take their thumb and place it on the 3rd string then maybe they’ll play a note on the first string with their index finger. What this does is that it takes your middle finger totally out of action; puts it up there where there’s no string! So one of the big things I try to do is straighten out people’s right hand: bring it back into a tight ergonomic, efficient system for playing. Everybody marvels at the best players, which is all well and good, but there is a “trick” to it: it’s balancing out your right hand. It’s getting all 3 fingers in positions to be able to play notes that are all adjacent to the first note you play. To have them all there centered so that you have plenty of notes at your disposal. That’s how you get that flurry of notes. I hope that makes sense…
SJ: It makes perfect sense. It also leads my mind to the topic of flow: One of the most valuable aspects of my recent lesson with you was becoming aware of how I was over using pick blocking, in effect choking certain notes, and how that was affecting the overall flow of notes. I have had many experiences where I tried to deconstruct say a Jerry Douglas solo, for example and although I might come close to playing the right notes I would find that my sense of flow was not remotely close to what he was doing. I guess I’ve learned the hard way the simply transcribing someone solo does in itself help you to develop good flow as a musician.

JH: Oh no, you can’t. The first thing that happens when you transcribe something and play it note for note is that you are trying to walk in someone’s shoes. And you are more consumed with fitting in those shoes than playing the song. Now Jerry, he’s up there like Gumby, he’s feeling the song. He’s not trying to be anybody; he’s trying to play the song. So, this methodical approach can lead to a situation where you are more consumed by trying to sound like somebody rather than trying to play the song.
SJ: Where do you come down on the topic of technique vs. repertoire? For example, I recently read a thread where someone was commenting that they wanted to learn to play some of the material from Rob Ickes latest record – Three Ring Circle; it was interesting to me because they specifically mentioned that they had no interest in bluegrass, yet it’s quite clear that Rob Ickes cut his teeth as a bluegrass dobro player. What do you see as being the fundamental techniques involved in playing dobro? Is one musical repertoire more demanding than another?

JH: Well, I guess that’s not an especially wide vision. I would tend to believe that the person that took that approach when they would get into playing would start to see the riches of different styles and players out there. As far as technique vs. repertoire: would it be fair to boil that down to should you learn songs or technique?

SJ:  Absolutely, yes… for example is it better to practice scales, hammer-ons and pull-off’s or songs

JH: Here’s the thing that I see out there: a lot of folks want to learn technique, but they are stuck on songs. So they’re stuck in learning tablature and they stick to the tablature like Moses stuck to the ark (laughs). They cling to it and even though they might be playing for 5 or 6 years they don’t play anything other than the tablature. So there’s a pitfall there. When you learn some technique and a dash of music theory it enables you to bring different tools to a given song. You might play Cripple Creek the way you learned it out of a Janet Davis book for example. But if you don’t start trying to learn different techniques which apart from songs you might play the same song that way until you die. So if you gain a few techniques – they might not be from Cripple Creek, they might be from a Rob Ickes record and then you’ll think hey I can twist this technique around a little bit and wedge that into Cripple Creek and all of a sudden you have something that sounds amazing, because it’s fresh to you, you know? So I lean more toward techniques, crucial techniques; I’d say more like 60/40: 60% toward technique, 40% toward songs. I mean you have to learn songs; you have to be able play certain tunes at jam sessions, standards, you know, – that’s all well and good. But I find that too many people spend too much time on that and not enough time learning technique. Let me just mention one example: the triplet is a very common musical technique, but not many players use it in parking lot picking. So if you just learn that one technique, it won’t take you longer than a day to learn it – and then apply it to your repertoire and you’re more interesting to listen to when you can infuse these different rhythmic ideas, say in a fiddle tune (hums straight 8th notes) and now (hums combination of 8th notes and triplets). You’re really not doing anything different, except you spent a day or so learning this musical technique and another couple of days trying to incorporate it.

SJ:  I believe you know this, but when I was just starting out one your 6 part instructional tape series and tablature was invaluable to me. Not only the left hand tab, but especially your insight into the right hand fingering… That was way before the internet, of course. The breadth and depth of your current instructional material is completely amazing…I only wish it would have existed back then! Can you give us an overview of the instructional material you have available? Also, what’s the best place to start?

JH: We’ll I’ve got a total of 4 DVD’s. The first one is “Resonator Guitar From Scratch.” which is designed for someone who is completely new to the instrument. I start out showing all the essential techniques as well as 3 or 4 songs. I have to say that I feel that the difference between my approach and some other stuff out there is that I don’t “dumb- down” my material. Not that I want to put down other material out there but some of the stuff available is overly simplistic and might take a tune like Will the Circle be Unbroken and although it teaches the melody it doesn’t play it a way you would actually play on the dobro. I’ve always felt that it takes as much time to learn a tune the right way vs. a dumbed-down arrangement so why would you want to waste your time learning that way? So I teach arrangements of tunes exactly the way I would play them on stage. I guess my interest in saying this is way back when there was an Earl Scruggs banjo book which had totally accurate transcriptions of how Earl would play his tunes. I also play the banjo and when I sat down with this book, inside of a week I could play Salty Dog the way he played it on a record, you know? So I always thought that was a great way to play, instead of a dumbed-down arrangement learn it the way it’s supposed to be played or the way you’re eventually going to want to play it. So that’s the paradigm I follow on the first DVD.

The second one I put out is One Hundred Licks, because I figured that was something everyone would want, at least I figured that was something that I’d want. That one has sold extremely well – they all have – but that one especially. I teach 100 licks but I spend very little time telling you what to do with them. For example, one lick might fit over a D to G chord change. Now if you think about bluegrass tunes how many of them include a change from a D to a G chord? It’s got to be in the 1000’s! So these are licks that you might hear Josh or Mike Auldridge or Jerry Douglas incorporate into solos. Because there are so many licks I don’t go into detail but I do give the information.

The 3rd DVD is Become a Better Dobro Player Overnight. This is a 2hour DVD of simple techniques that I feel if you put energy into it and approach learning right, meaning taking it slow, taking your time, etc. within an hour or 2 hours you can have a technique down. And then I break down the song Bury Me Beneath The Willow, playing it at first in a dumbed down arrangement, just the basic melody notes like a beginning piano book might teach you to play it. Then I show with each technique how to take that dumbed down arrangement and all of a sudden instead of (hum’s basic melody) it sounds (hum’s same melody with embellishments and triplets). See what I am saying? It’s hard to demonstrate this in writing. So I teach all these techniques which are not in themselves hard to learn and show how to incorporate them into your own arrangements of tunes. This is stuff that I don’t hear folks playing in my workshops or at jam sessions, yet when you listen to any of the records of any good dobro player you’ll hear some of these techniques in their playing. It seems to me that everyone gets overly focused on learning someone’s solo to Blackberry Blossom. So to me it’s more productive, more musical to spend some time learning Blackberry Blossom but learn some of these techniques and then squeeze them into your own repertoire; that’s what the pros do, So that’s Become a better dobro player overnight. It starts out very simple and winds up sounding like something that possibly Jerry Douglas might have played.

SJ: It sounds like a good one to get because it’s geared toward how to conceptually approach an arrangement

JH: Exactly! In the workshops lots of players that can pick out a melody, but in a very simplistic way. At times I see folks playing notes that where they play the note is usually closest to the last note, but that’s not always the best place to play the note. So sometimes they might be playing notes in a fiddle tune in the key of D around the D chord at the 7th fret for example,but those same notes might flow better out of the 2nd fret, because you have that nice big A chord that you can rake. And at the top of that chord you have that nice big melody note. So if you are doing the same thing all the time, it’s very akin to going to see a magician. If you see a magician do the same trick over and over again you are going to get bored. And then secondarily you are going to be able to predict – “oh he’s going to pull a rabbit out the hat.” You’ll be predictable. So just a handful of tricks and all of sudden you become unpredictable and unpredictable translates into becoming a better player.

SJ: You are a big advocate of Band-in-a-Box, correct? What are some of the other ways that a student of the dobro can utilize the power of the computer to speed up the learning process? Any do’s and don’ts you can share with our audience?

JH: Well, the first thing is don’t push the envelope too hard. I’m a big advocate of learning loops. Instead of trying to learn a song or arrangement from beginning to end its better to take the first piece of the arrangement that makes sense, which is usually one of two bars, etc. Anyway, take a section and stop there. Take the section and where you stop you loop it back to the beginning and do that over and over. So, that’s a loop. As far as Band in the Box, say I am learning Bill Cheatum: I’d set it to repeat the first two bars and practice that over and over again as a loop. Secondarily, and this is the beauty of the computer – I’d take the tempo and drop it down until I was able to hear and feel the power of every note I was playing. Remember every note has a place: it’s a word in a sentence. And, you have to learn how the place of each one of those notes, the power of each one of those notes and what its saying. So if you are trying to play too fast you’re not listening. You can’t. It’s hard. Your toes are all curled up; every muscle in your body is tense and so on. So when you slow everything down and you have BB backing you up you’re able to relax because the thing going to go around and around and around, you’ve got forever to sit there and focus on this small section. You can then begin to feel the power of every note. You’ve gone over this thing maybe a hundred times, and you know it, now you can begin to feel to power of each note. The next step is continue the next section of the tune, step by step until you learn the whole thing. The next step after that is to knock up the tempo, maybe two beats, almost imperceptibly, working up very slowly a little bit at a time without tensing up and so on.

Guys that play fast are not playing with every muscle in their body tensed up. There up there like Gumby; they’re like Jell-O, totally relaxed. And even though they’re playing lightening fast they are totally relaxed. So, how can they play so fast? It’s because they have it in their muscle memory and they didn’t push to get it there quickly. They brought it up slowly, over time.

It’s hard, because we all want to burn, you know. We all want to get it really quickly. And it’s very difficult to discipline yourself to do this. After 30 years of playing there are things that I can learn and play very quickly but when I young I really needed a tool like this. I had to play with a metronome and that was no fun. Playing with Band in the Box is fun because there are chords underneath you and you get the feeling of playing with a band. Why would you sit and practice all by yourself only to go out 2 months later to a jam session and discover 2 bars into a song and then discover that your tempo is off halfway through the tune.
SJ: All does not go as planned or as rehearsed in the living room?
JH: Exactly. So the point that I make is why labor like you’re in the dark ages? By the way, that’s the way I learned and it was sometimes painful and sometimes took me years to discover that I was playing something the wrong way. Why not discover this stuff right away? Its mind boggling to think about how much better I might have been if I had learned with this…
SJ: Tell us about your solo c.d. and the Resocasters project.

JH: I cut the solo c.d. around 1981. I think it still holds up today. The recording quality is not perhaps as good as it is today, but I had some good players on the recording and I think it holds up. Over time I guess I felt that I was under-recorded as a dobro player. I had gone on to play a lot steel in Nashville. Anyway, I had always hung out with Mike Auldridge; We’d sit in his basement and jam. At that point we were just hanging out and jamming together and as time went on we got into arranging some tunes for two dobro’s playing in harmony (where it made sense)…So, we tried to pick songs where it made sense to harmonize dobros, leaving out certain sections, etc. In the process of this we decided to make a record. During this time I thought of Hal Rugg, a dear friend of mine who recently passed on. Anyway Hal played an instrument that a lot of folks may not be familiar with called a Ped-a-Bro, which is a ten string pedal steel guitar that has dobro guts. So it’s a hybrid between a pedal steel and a dobro. Really a wonderful sound! Anyway Hal was such a wonderful versatile player; he played with the Osbournes in the 60’s. So I thought it would be a good idea to bring Hal into this, so we did it and Mike flipped out. He’s an absolute pedal steel nut and loved Hal’s playing. It was a wonderful project – great cuts and a great experience as well. It worked out very well; We were all pleased with it. Hal told me toward the end of his life that it was one of the best projects he ever did. Hal was a great friend and mentor; I can’t begin to tell you what an influence he was on me and my playing. It was extremely gratifying.

SJ: It has always seemed to me that playing with other musicians and the experience of developing friendships with other musicians is a big part of developing as a musician.

JH: That’s very true. I’ve had people who are both well known and unknown fill that role for me through all of my playing days. The friendship and association changes you. Your music and your personality are intertwined, so this is so important. Hal was that person for me for many, many years. That’s a great insight Rob.

SJ: I guess I am convinced that the principle of this applies whether you are a parking lot picker or a well-known world class musician.

JH: I see this in my workshops. For example, I know that there are a lot of dobro players in North Carolina that look up to Brad Harper. Jim Liner is someone who a lot of player in Texas look up to, Bozo Schoonover in Oklahoma (brother of reso-luthier Kent Schoonover), same thing.

SJ: What does the future hold for Jimmy Heffernan? Any closing words for our readers?

JH: Well, I am actually working on a new solo c.d. As I mentioned earlier, I cut my first solo c.d. around 1981, which is a long time ago now. I’ve learned a lot since then, and although I really enjoy teaching dobro I am better known as teacher than a player. So I think it’s time to put out a c.d. which reflects who I am as a player today. It should be released around summertime 2007. I am really excited about the project. Joe Diffie came by and sang a song on it. Jim Hurst sings and plays on it. Scott Vestal and the usual cast of characters from the ResoCasters are on it. I’ve written some songs which are on it and I think they’ll hold up. So we’ll see…

As far as closing comments – I’d trade it all for a little bit more, which is actually the title to the new record, It’s a line from the Simpson’s, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big Simpson’s fan. I’ve always played music for a living; I’m having the time on my life and I’d trade it all for a little bit more.