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.

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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!

 

Freddy Holm

originally published at www.robanderlik.com in 2010

m

SJ: Even though we’ve never met in person I feel as though I know you through your music. Tell me a little bit about your background, musical or otherwise: where did you grow up, what is your musical chronology, how/when did the dobro enter the scene?

Fredriksten_fortress_Norway_seen_from_Halden_harbor
FH: I grew up in a small town in Norway called Halden. I live there still:-) A beautiful place on the border to Sweden, way down south. Population is approx 30000 and there’s a big fortress on top of a hill, looking over the town. I started to play a little bit organ when I was 6 years old, but I didn’t start playing for real until I picked up the guitar at the age of 16. I started playing professionally when I was 18 and it’s been my occupation ever since. I’m mainly selftaught, but I went to Musicians Institute of Technology in Los Angeles for 12 months, to learn theory. I sang and played guitars in various bands up to 2006 when I picked up the dobro. I also started playing banjo, mandolin at that time, but my heart was with the dobro.

SJ: What led to your interest in the dobro in the first place? It’s still a relatively obscure instrument here in the states and I am willing to bet it’s even rarer to find someone playing the dobro in Norway. Listening to your music and your videos I get the impression that you came to the instrument with a highly develop ear and learned to play by expressing what you hear inside your head vs. copping licks off of records or watching others.

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FH: It’s the most expressive instrument I know of. ( after the human voice, of course )
I’m selftaught on the dobro too, but I went to Resosummit in ’08 to learn a few tricks from the masters. I never played or almost even heard bluegrass until ’06. Bluegrass isn’t that well known in Norway. So my approach to the dobro is to play music I’ve listened to and grew up to, and that’s pop/rock. For an example, I have arranged several Beatles tunes on the dobro.

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SJ: Watching the video clip above just reinforces for me the value of being able to play what’s in your head and the discipline and patience required to translate that onto your instrument. It seems as though non-musicians sometimes assume great musicians are born with this innate talent and don’t have to do much work to get their chops together.

FH: Being a singer also, helps you to play any instrument I think. You have to learn melodies in your head, not just your fingers.

SJ: Where do you draw your inspiration from when writing new tunes or arranging other’s music? Who or what is your muse?

FH: My inspiration is just playing and getting better. I believe in hard work and practice. I’m not that kinda guy who sits around and waits for inspiration. I think writing music is like a muscle. You need to do it all the time to keep it in shape. Of course, some days are thougher than others, but I do get a kick of playing everyday. And I get really cranky if I don’t play.. Maybe it’s an addiction! I just recently picked up the fiddle, which is a really tough instrument to master. I’m fully aware that I will not ever master it, or any instrument, but it’s a good thing to learn different instruments. Because you can incorporate different techniques into your own style at a given instrument.

SJ: The quality of your recordings is awesome! Please tell us about your recording gear but also about the process that you’ve gone through in learning how to get good results in the studio.

FH: Thanks! My interest for recording began when I started playing and I believe it’s been a really important part of my musical development. I bought my first Fostex 4 track cassette-recorder when I was 17 and went on from there. I’m now using Cubase 6 recording software and have collected microphones for a while. On the dobro I love to use the Neumann KM 184, AKG 414 and Audio Technica 4033. I’ve also discovered that good preamps are a must. I have a Vintage Design DMP ( Neve clone ) and a Chandler Germanium that I like to use on the dobro. But the two most important things you need is a good musician and a good instrument.

SJ: Perfect segway! Please tell us about your instruments: what process did you go through in choosing your instruments and what advice do you have for someone who is either just getting started with the dobro or ready to upgrade from a starter instrument to a pro-quality instrument.
What does your live rig consist of? Can you share any advice for getting good sound for live performances?

guitar

FH: I have one Beard Maple E, and one Beard Vintage R model. My first dobro was a crappy Bean Blossom, and I tried the Beard Vintage R model in a shop, and was sold on it right away. Then when I visited Nashville first time in ’07, I tried the E model at Gruhns. Of course I had to have that one too. hehe I feel that I have two very good dobros that represent two different sounds. E Model is more “modern”, and the Vintage R sounds more old school. I found out fast that a good instrument makes you want to play and practice more..

SJ: Speaking of live performances, I heard that you joined Tim O’Brien on some gigs last year: how did that come about? I’d also be interested to hear more about the music scene in your area and what kind of gigs you do on a regular basis.

FH: Yeah I played with Tim for three gigs here in Norway.He’s such a great songwriter and musician. I first met Tim at a recording session in Nashville. And he told me that he always wanted to come to Norway and play. So when I got home I picked up the phone and called a couple of places. And we had fun for a week. I played the dobro, guitar and mandolin on those gigs.

SJ: Thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us! What kind of advice do you have for someone who is just getting started on the dobro and/or the music business? Any words of wisdom?

FH: Give it your very best and don’t quit! Be curious on different styles of music and willing to learn. Although the dobro is known as a bluegrass instrument, it doesn’t have to be limited to just that. Thanks so much for having me!

 

Wolfgang Reimer

Originally posted at www.robanderlik.com in 2011 

Wolfgang reimer

SJ: Thanks for allowing me to feature you on my website. Please tell us about yourself: where did you grow up, when did you start playing music, what instruments do you play?

Little Martha on Scheerhorn rosewood/spruce resonator guitar

 

WR: First of all I was born 1950 in Hamburg where I grew up and lived for about 20 years. When I was 14 years old I started to learn and play electric guitar. At that time the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Yardbirds and many other bands were just coming up and getting famous. And of course like so many others I tried to copy as much song material as I could get at that time. In Hamburg there was the world-famous live music STAR CLUB – and at least three times a week I went there to see countless famous bands like the Searchers, Small Faces, Kinks, Spencer Davis, Pretty Things, Taste with Rory Gallagher, Free, Procol Harum and many more. Furthermore there were two concerts halls in Hamburg where I saw The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, Chicago, Queen, ABBA and many more……. So all these bands and many others had a big influence on me but it was mainly the Rock and Blues music in which I was interested most. At 15 I had my first band and the next few years I played in several different bands, playing different kinds of music – from Rock music to Dance music wearing even a tuxedo sometimes. In 1979 I got an offer to join a so called “TOP 40” cover band which was the No. 1 band at that time in northern Germany. The next 9 years I played about 100-120 gigs per year with this band – besides my 5 day full time office job! This was a very hard time – often enough I played 3 gigs on a weekend and returned on Sunday night at 3 or 4 o’clock a.m. and had to get up at 7 o’clock next morning to go to work. And such gigs were not a one or two hour show – we normally had to play from 8:00 p.m. to 2:00 – 3.00 a.m. ! After 10 years I was really burnt out and quit the band. But after a half year break I started again to form a new cover band covering mainly “oldie music” from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I played with this band nearly 18 years – but we did’nt do more than 20 gigs per year. So, this is my experience and my musical roots ! Regarding my instruments: all the years I played mainly electric guitar and in the mid 80’s a little bit Pedal Steel guitar.

Unterricht

SJ: I have to admit that I am more or less completely ignorant about contemporary German culture and especially the music scene. So…tell us: what’s the local music scene like? Do Germans listen to/prefer local/regional musicians & singers? What kind of American musicians are popular in Germany?

Pickett’s charge mp3

WR: I think the music scene in Germany is similar to so many other European countries. I’m still living near Hamburg which is definitely a cosmopolitan city where you can find all kinds of music. Many top acts have always come to Hamburg and since we have had a new and very big concert hall, even more famous international acts stop by in Hamburg. And of course we have local/regional musicians and bands which are famous over here and are filling big concert halls. American Rock, Pop, Hip Hop etc. musicians who are famous in the US are famous in Germany and other European countries as well. But unfortunately Country and especially Bluegrass music is not so popular and widespread over here – that’s why many famous US Country or Bluegrass musicians are largely unknown in Germany. And although there is a Bluegrass scene (which is unfortunately very very small) most people have never heard about it and do not know what Bluegrass is at all.

SJ: What is the “live” music scene like where you live? What kinds of bands/music can you see at a club or concert hall? What kind of gigs are available to a performing musician?

WR: There is definitely a lot of live music in Hamburg with lots of different kinds of music but Country or Bluegrass music unfortunately plays only a small or hardly any part here. There is a small “Live Club” where a so called “Blugrass Session” (open stage) is held once a month. But you’ll mainly find musicians coming to this session and only very few interested visitors. And for Bluegrass music you can rarely find gigs and opportunities to perform. This is also the reason why there are hardly any Bluegrass bands over here.

SJ: What was your first exposure to the dobro? Where/when did you first hear the dobro; what made you decide to take it up? What’s it like to be a “dobro guy” in Germany and/or Europe? What kind of gigs do you get and what kinds of instruments/musicians do you play with?

wolfgang reimer

WR: I was a fan of Country music for many many years and in the 90’s I heard and saw Alison Krauss on German TV – but at that time not yet having a Dobro in the band. But I liked her music very much and bought some of her records. Then later on there was this double AKUS live CD. Suddenly I came to appreciate this fantastic sounding instrument called Dobro especially on the solo pieces “Tribute to Peador O’Donnell/Monkey let the hogs go out”. This definitely bowled me over – I listened to it over and over and couldn’t believe the sound and really wondered how it was possible to play an instrument in that way. This was definitely the starting point for me to delve into this instrument. As I said, gigs in general are rare over here. I’m playing with a guitar player, banjo/mando player, fiddle and bass player. It is really hard to find musicians over here, at least for Bluegrass music who are on the same or similar playing level and at the same time interested in playing in an “organized” band, willing to practice regularly, experienced enough to perform on stage, etc. etc.. You can really count yourself lucky if you can find any musicians over here who are interested in Bluegrass at all and at the same time play an acoustic instrument. That’s the position over here. Fortunately I’ve found such musicians in my area and we are actually practicing hard and already did some nice gigs here and there.

SJ: I have had many non-musician friends comment to me that it is necessary to have a “talent” (as in “innate” talent or aptitude) in order to become a good musician. Do you agree with this kind of thinking? How did you get so good, so fast? Do you have “talent” or was it dedication to a practice routine, hard work, long hours, etc?

WR: In general I think nearly everybody is able to play an instrument – with or without talent. But of course it is easier for people to learn an instrument more quickly and better if they have an innate musical talent or aptitude. I think it’s like in school, in your job or anywhere else. For some people a certain lesson, exercise or job comes easy – other people have to work long and hard on the same thing. I think I’m somewhere in the middle – I’m not sure how much natural talent I have but I’m a real hard and very ambitious worker – at least in terms of playing and learning an instrument ;-). And I think my advantage is my years of experience in music. I’ve played in cover bands for more than 40 years and always had to copy the electric guitar parts of countless songs. And especially the first 20-30 years there was no supporting material like tabs (I’ve never learnt to read music) so I had to learn all those songs and guitar parts just by listening. This of course trained my ear over the years and now I’m even able to figure out and learn the Dobro parts of a song just by listening and without writing down notes or tabs.

Shebeg and Sheemore mp3 on Deneve 8 string resonator guitar

You asked “How did you get so good, so fast ?” I think one reason is that about 25 years ago I played Pedal Steel guitar for a few years. I didn’t play this instrument very well and gave it up later on. But some of the technique I could definitely adapt when I took up the Dobro 3 years ago. Especially the left hand technique of how to hold the steel bar plus string damping I was able to adapt very quickly. Meanwhile I have started teaching some students who are learning to play the Dobro from scratch. They’ve never held a steel bar in their hands before and do not know anything about string damping. Consequently they first have to learn all these techniques, which takes weeks, months or even longer. So I think this was a big advantage I had when starting up with the Dobro. Another reason of course is regular and concentrated practising ! Although I have a 5 day week office job, I’m spending a lot of time practising and playing the Dobro. There hasn’t been a single day in nearly 3 years now that I haven’t played at least one or two hours per day – on weekends sometimes 6 – 8 hours. Fortunately I have a very understanding and tolerant wife – it seems I made the right choice 35 years ago ;-).

SJ: I am assuming you are self-taught, correct? What learning tools or practice techniques gave you the best results when you were getting started? Did you learn from DVD/Videos, cop licks off of c.d.’s, etc?

I must tell Jesus on Meredith mahogany/cedar resonator guitar

WR: Yes, I’m mainly self-taught. And at this point let me stress that I’m not a professional player – I think “semi-professional musician” might be more appropriate. When I started with the Dobro I first bought the Video “Learning Bluegrass Dobro” by Cindy Cashdollar. This helped a lot to get me into this instrument. Other material followed later on, like D. Hamburger’s “Dobro Workbook”, Stacy Phillips “Complete Dobro Player”, Rob Ickes double DVD “Essential Techniques for Dobro” and lot of other material. Not to forget that right from the beginning I started to buy and collect a lot of Bluegrass or Dobro Audio CDs. This kind of music was really new for me – let me remind you at this point that for me Bluegrass didn’t exist for more than 50 years of my life ! Listening permanently to all those CDs was and is still very important and helpful for me to get a feeling for this music and of course to learn and listen to the many different roles a Dobro plays in a song. And each time I find an interesting song, solo or back up I try to copy it as best as I can. The first two years I mainly played just for myself and learnt to play solo songs from Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, Ivan Rosenberg, Junior Barber etc.. I practised them to death until I could play them. But for some time now I have been playing in a band and therefore have to focus on different things like back up, speed licks/solos etc.. This is a new challenge of course and broadens my horizon. Anyhow I always tried to be as versatile as possible avoiding getting wound up in a certain thing for too long. Each time I come to a certain point when practising a song, solo or lick I immeditely stop for that day and continue next day or later. One good example: 6 months after starting to play the Dobro, I tried to play JD’s “New Day Medley”. I worked hard on it for several weeks but finally gave up and had to admit that is was to soon and my skills at that time where definitely too inadequate for such a complex song. Two years later my ambitionsness got the better of me and I took up this song again. Believe it or not – within two weeks I figured out how this song worked. What a sense of achievement ! Of course the reader of this interview might get the impression that I’m a pure “copy-machine”. And in a certain sense they are right. And I defintely have to admit that my own creativity on the Dobro still leaves much to be desired. But to be creative on an instrument in my opinion you first have to learn all the muscial and technical basics ! And I think it is quite understandable and useful and defintely not reprehensible to copy as much as possible – above all if you are a beginner. How do you learn a song, a lick, a solo without copying it from a CD or tab book ? I think there are only very few if any musicians out there who never copied ! But I know a few musicians in my area who never cared much for learning basics. And I know that those guys are not happy about it because it definitely limits their real and innate abilities and talents. It took me years to be creative and to find my own style on the electric guitar – but at a certain point after learning all the basics this creativity came to me and my own style automatically. And on the Dobro I still feel like a kind of beginner and I know for sure that there are so many things I still have to learn. But with continued learning I’m convinced that my creativity will improve.

 

SJ: Tell us about your right hand technique: what kind of thumbpicks and fingerpicks do you use? How do you position your right hand…do you curl your right hand fingers up (the Jerry Douglas “ping-pong ball technique”), extend your pinky, etc? Any comments about your right hand technique in general?

WR: After using and checking out different picks I finally found out that Zookies L- 20 thumbpicks and metal ProPick fingerpicks work best for me. Yes, my right hand position is similar to Jerry D’s – but this time I didn’t copy him 😉 – it came automatically. Some additional comments: what I definitely adapted especially from Jerry is my thumb technique. I’m now doing a lot with my thumb on all strings. So my thumb is not limited only to strings 4-6 – I’m also using it for the first two strings. Of course what my thumb does depends on a lick or roll but I found out that for many rolls or arpeggios my thumb makes a lot of movement especially on strings 4-6. So, instead of using thumb, index and middle finger for certain rolls I often use only my thumb ! This was definitely hard work to cultivating this playing style but I’m glad that I practised this over and over because I now have much better control and power in my overall playing style.

SJ: What kind of techniques do you commonly use to play back up for other musicians? Do you use/prefer chops, chucks, rolls, etc?

WR: Depends on the song – may be chops, chucks or rolls – and of course a fill lick here and there. For me backing up is still a challenging matter. I didn’t find much material out there teaching back up so far. So I’m listening to many different songs trying to figure out all the different back up styles and try to copy them or even create my own style. As I mentioned – it depends on the song.

SJ: How would you describe your approach to improvisation? Do you think in terms of key sigs, scales, modes, rhythmic variations, etc?

WR: It’s a mixture of all the things you’ve mentioned. But rhythmic variations are always very important for me. Playing “static” scales I do not find so interesting and often a little bit boring. My playing style on the electric guitar is also very rhythmic and I applied this automatically to the Dobro. Rhythm is the salt in the soup.

SJ: Tell us about your gear: what resonator, lap steel and Weissenborn guitars do you own?

WR: At the moment I own 5 resonator guitars (I’m meanwhile a real Reso-geek), Beard Mike Aldridge Signature, Meredith maple, Meredith mahagony/cedar, Scheerhorn maple R-body and a Moon custom maple from Scotland. There is a very nice Wallace Weissenborn made of walnut and a very old Oahu Diana lap-steel guitar. There is also a very old Stromberg Voisinet and an old Stella – both lap steel acoustic guitars. And last but not least later this year I will get my new Scheerhorn Rosewood/Spruce top after waiting about 3 years. I’m not sure if I will want to or be able to keep all these wonderful but at the same time very expensive guitars later on. We will see. But it would definitely be hard to part with any of them.

SJ: I am convinced that many people, especially beginners, place too much emphasis on the instrument; as if all you need to become a good player is the right brand of guitar. What is your view on this sort of thing? How important is a certain instrument to getting “your” sound?

WR: That’s a very good and much discussed question. I have played and owned so many different instruments in my life that I think I can really give some informed answers to this question. On the one hand I’m not a professional musician but even for a semi-pro musician like me who did nearly 2.000 gigs so far and earned quite good money in the past, a good-sounding and working tool is a must. I always liked to play a good instrument and good instruments cost good money. I’m talking about electric guitars, guitar amps, effect devices etc.. Regarding the Dobro of course I started as a newbie from point zero. My first Reso was a cheap Regal roundneck, followed by a Epiphone Squareneck, a Gibson Dobro from the early 80’s, a Lebeda Break and a Gibson JD model. For me each of these guitars of course were a step up in terms of sound and playabilty but after a while I always got a little bit dissatisfied because my idea of a Reso sound was different, especially when comparing the sound of my guitars with all the well known sounds produced by all those famous Dobro players. Meanwhile of course I know that even a cheap Dobro can sound quite good on a recording – it depends mainly on the player and recording procedure and quality. Anyway, at that time I was still searching for a better and stronger sound. My next Reso was the Beard MAS – what a step up !! Suddenly all the song material I had been playing and practising immediately sounded much better ! Later on in February last year I took my Beard with me on my US trip where I had the opportunity to compare it with many other guitars like Scheerhorns, Clinesmith, Wechter, Rayco etc. As a result I decided later on to buy a maple Meredith. This guitar is now my first choice especially when playing with my band. This guitar really has the punch, loudness, clear and differentiated sound which comes very close to the ideal Reso sound I’ve had in mind. Of course I still like the Beard very much but in a band the Meredith is stronger and makes itself heard better.

Coming back to your question. I think the brand of a Reso is not essential to becoming a good player – it needs much more than that. From my point of view you need a little bit of talent, a lot of ambition, perseverance and above all the strong will to learn this fascinating instrument. And I’m convinced you can become a good player even playing the cheapest available Reso guitar on the market. Imagine Jerry D. or another famous player played a song on a 200 $ Reso guitar – I’m 100% sure that everybody would be amazed about his playing and the sound ! But on the other hand a good instrument defintely helps, and for me a good sounding instrument is a source of satisfaction in itself. And I’m really thankful that I can actually afford such nice albeit expensive instruments – but believe me I have worked really hard for it the last 30 years.

SJ: Please detail your “live” rig? Pickups, microphones, electronic gear, etc? Can you give an advice to our readers on getting a good tone through a P.A. system?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQeL6q4FuZY

WR: My Meredith is equipped with a Schertler BASIK pickup system. For me this is the best sounding system I have heard so far. I have tried Fishman, McIntyre and some other Pickups, but the Schertler produces the best sound for me. In some cases I use an Audio Technica Pro 35X clip mic on my coverplate or a simple Sure SM57 on a mic stand in addition. As a monitor I’m using a Roland AC-60 amp. This amp is able to handle both signals from the Schertler and mic at the same time. There might be better amps on the market but I’m quite satisfied with this versatile Roland amp. Good value for money.

SJ: Your recordings have great sound quality: please detail your recording gear. Can you give our readers any advice on how to get good sound quality on home recordings? Is there anything you have learned along the way that you want to pass along to someone who is new to home recording?

WR: Frankly speaking I’ve tinkered a lot with recording over the last few years. And believe me, often enough I was dissatisfied and frustrated with the result – especially when comparing it with the punchy and powerful sounds on many recordings. Music is only a hobby. I’m not a skilled sound engineer – so my method was always based on trial and error. And recording acoustic instruments was also a new experience and challenge for me.

In short – I’m now using the following equipment/signal chain:
Neumann TLM103 mic, SPL Channel One Mic-preamp, ROLAND VS- 2400CD Harddisc-Recorder. Mastering at the very end on PC with STEINBERG WAVE LAB software using only Peak Master and for convertion from Wav-file to mp3.
In my experience the following tools and factors are important for a good recording:

  • –  good mic with large diaphragm (must not necessarily be a Neumann)
  • –  good Mic preamp (preferably with tube for a warm sound)
  • –  good signal processing tools or plug-ins

First of all it is important to get a good and clean signal onto your recording device such as a HD-Recorder or PC. In the past I often tried to compensate or push up a weak basic signal with various dynamic and effect processors afterwards. This is definitely the wrong way and will rarely lead to a good result. I’m using the built-in effects of the Roland HD-recorder – they are quite sufficient for home recording. So I’m using a compressor and equalizer plus Reverb. That’s all ! But the combination of a good compressor and EQ brings a lot of punch and power to the overall sound. Not forgetting to bring the final signal to 0 DB – I do that with the Peak Master of my WAVE LAB software.

I nearly forgot: of course it is also very very important to use a good monitoring. For a certain time I only used headphones for the mixing – because it sounds so nice ;-). This is definitely the wrong way and also rarely leads to a good result over a speaker system later on. But I don’t think you need a very expensive monitor system – two small active monitor speakers for a few 100 bucks will do the job. The market is full of such monitor speaker systems.

So I’m still experimenting with recording and I’m sure there is still enough room for improving the sound and my skills. But I think I’m on the right pass.

SJ : I’d like to close by asking for your comments on musicianship and creativity: What inspires your creativity as a musician? What are your plans for the future, what are your long-term goals as a musician?

WR: Listening to all kinds of music inspires me at all times. It can be a simple groove or melody line on the radio or TV or anywhere else. Immediately I develop my own idea in my head – but unfortunately often I forget my idea afterwards and cannot recall it later on. But even this process going on in my head is fun and is a kind of creativity and at the same time mental recreation for me. There is always music in my head even when I’m not translating each and every idea into real sound on my instruments.

My plan for the future is definitely to continue working on my playing skills as much as I can – I’m sure and hope that there is still enough room for further improvement. I hope that my band will stay together and that we will get the chance to present our music to the public more than we are doing at present. But we are on the right track – there are several gigs coming up the next months. By the way, this band had quite a new idea of combining quite well known Bluegrass songs with our own written lyrics in a quaint old regional German dialect called “Low German” which is still common in certain parts of the area where I live. Hopefully we can establish the Bluegrass music over here with this unique idea. Besides this Bluegrass project I recently joined a cover band playing all that rock stuff I’ve played so many years. So I took my electric guitar out of the closet, wiped off the dust and plugged it into my Marshall amp. It’s really great to have the opportunity to play in two completely different bands. The contrast between sweet acoustic and loud rock music is fascinating. And above all my playing style and skills defintely benefit from both kinds of music. I don’t know if the term “ cross influence” is the right word for it but defintely I feel some influence from the Dobro when I play electric guitar and vice versa. Furthermore I will now have the chance to bring in my OAHU DIANA lap steel. This guitar in combination with a 100W Marshall produces an absolute killer sound. Here we go – back to the roots !

It was an honor for me to be interviewed on your website, Rob. Thanks a lot.