Creativity, Fear and Musicianship

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Creativity – the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination

Do you consider yourself to be a creative person? If your answer is no you’re not alone.

In a study conducted by Harvard University researchers attempted to answer the question – is creativity born or developed? Part of the study involved asking preschoolers if they thought of themselves as creative.

The response: 98% YES

They also asked a cross section of graduating high school seniors the same question:

The response: 2% YES

As you might imagine, these results sent a strong message to the U.S. public school system! One of the main findings of the study is that 85% of creativity is learned behavior. The implications of this are pretty staggering. Yes, creativity is partially genetics and personality type, but 85% of creativity is learned behaviors which can be cultivated, shaped and refined.

The single biggest obstacle to creativity? Fear.

Fear of failure
Fear of ridicule
“My work is not good enough”
“I’m not good enough”

What’s your perspective on creativity as it relates to musicianship?
Do you proactively allot time for creativity in your practice routine or do you leave it to chance?
What are some examples of actions or activities you engage in to cultivate your own creativity?

Musical Friendships Matter!

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One of the most underrated aspects of developing our own talent is the quality of musicians we play with on a regular basis. When we play with good musicians it ups our game. Seriously ups our game! On the other hand no matter how good a player might be – put them in a band of second-rate musicians and it becomes impossible for them to really shine.

What’s your perspective?

How have your musician friends and collaborators influenced your own development?

What have been some of the highs and lows of playing with different musicians and bands over the years?

All musicians have strengths and weaknesses. How has playing with different musicians either amplified your strengths or exposed your weaknesses and how did you react to those experiences?

Which has had a greater impact on your development as a musician – practicing at home or playing music with others?

10 Things I learned from teaching dobro and Weissenborn guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music for over 10 years by Rob Anderlik

Rob Anderlik Web Photo

 

1. It’s true that some people are naturally gifted musicians with a strong aptitude for learning to play an instrument. It’s also true that some people fall on the opposite side of that bell curve, but the great majority of us are somewhere in the middle.
2. In the long run the most important factor in reaching our full potential is our own determination to succeed.
3. Very often it’s the case that new students, especially older students, are not aware of their own self-limiting beliefs – “I’ll never be able to play like that.” etc.
4. Managing your emotions is an important part of learning to play an instrument. Most musicians feel a deep fear in the pit of their stomach at some point in the learning process. The payoff for overcoming those fears are called breakthrough experiences.
5. The best students do not rely on a single teacher for their musical education. They are self-motivated and find ways to educate themselves beyond the classroom.
6. A student’s own exploration of the instrument is just as important as anything that a teacher can offer. There’s something to be said for attempting to express the music you hear in your head vs. focusing solely on what a teacher might present to you.
7. Tablature is a great way to present information to students, but it can also become a crutch. Students who become dependent on tablature usually don’t progress beyond playing in a classroom or at home.
8. Practice without performance really slows down the learning process. At some point you need to put the tabs/sheet music away and play in front of an audience or go to jam session and play with other musicians.
9. One of the most gratifying experiences a teacher has is when a student suddenly gets it and is able to play something effortlessly that they had been working on for months and months.
10. The vast majority of students overestimate what they can accomplish in a short period of time and underestimate what they can accomplish over the long haul.

What’s your perspective?

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

A Conversation with Jerry Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerry Douglas.  Photo by Sundel Perry

Jerry Douglas. Photo by Sundel Perry

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

http://jerrydouglas.com

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

A Conversation with Ken Emerson by Sebastian Mueller

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Ken Emerson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Emerson with Johnny Winter

with Johnny Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Emerson with Jim Dunlop

with Jim Dunlop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aloha pumehana kakou, k.e.

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

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

Practice vs Performance 

Practice is the hallway that leads to the ballroom where we perform our music for others.
We need to spend just enough time in the hallway before stepping into the ballroom, but no more. If we don’t spend enough time in the hallway we risk the temporary embarrassment of stepping into the ballroom unprepared but that is all. If we spend too much time in the hallway we risk becoming immobilized by irrational beliefs about our own perfection or the fear of not being good enough.

Music demands that we balance creativity with discipline. We can’t go from zero talent to having it in the refined form without going through this process of practicing and performing.
There comes a time to put away the instructional materials and fly by the seat of your pants. Don’t get stuck in the hallway! If you’ve never stepped out of the hallway I encourage you to look for opportunities to perform your music in front of an audience and/or jam with other musicians.

What do you think? Please share your comments about practice vs performing.

 

Rob Anderlik Web Photo

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!