Originally published at http://www.robanderlik.com in 2008
DB: I started on Dobro back in about 1980. I had gotten into acoustic music around that time (I was a long-haired rock-n-roller before that). I had a copy of the first “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album. I was playing guitar then and was enamored with Doc Watson and Norman Blake. I kept hearing this sound on that record. When Roy Acuff would sing this instrument was just wailing away in the background. The more I listened, the more it appealed to me. I had to find out more about it. Somehow I discovered it was this thing called a “Dobro” being played by a guy named Bashful Brother Oswald. I kept searching and found out you played it with a bar lying on your lap. I had an old junk Harmony guitar and started trying to play it with a butane lighter for a steel. As time went on I got a real Dobro (and a real bar) and started looking for every recording I could find that had a Dobro on it. It’s been downhill ever since.
SJ: I’ve heard the Ohio has one of the largest and most active bluegrass communities in the United States. Tell us about the music scene in your neck of the woods: what kinds of gigs are available; are there a lot of jam sessions, etc?
DB: There have been a lot of bands and pickers come out of here. I hate to try to name them because I know I’ll leave out some great ones. Suffice to say I’ve never had any trouble finding people to pick with or listen to. One example of that is The Herd. In our original lineup, the farthest guy only lived 35 miles away. That was quite a luxury. I’ve also never had to search too hard for live music. There are a bazillion festivals, both large and small. We have the MACC Festival (formerly Frontier Ranch) near Columbus. It’s one of the largest in the midwest. Many of the colleges in the state have opened up to Bluegrass in the last few years as well. I’m not real familiar with the jam sessions, although I do hear ads for them on our Bluegrass show on WOUB-FM here in town. That show by the way…”D-28 plus 5″…has been running since 1977. They have bands in to perform live on the first Sunday of every month.
SJ: How/when did the Rarely Herd get started? How would you describe the band, the music and your role as Dobro player in the band?
DB: We started in 1989. Myself, my brother-in-law Jeff Weaver on bass, and fiddle player Alan Stack had picked together a good bit just for fun. The vocal blend seemed to work well and after a while we started seeking out a guitarist and a banjo player. After some hit and miss we found Calvin Leport on banjo and Alan’s brother Jim came in on guitar. One thing I’ll go into here is the band name. Down through the years we’ve caught a LOT of flak about it. We never intended or expected to play anywhere but right around home. We were all big Seldom Scene fans and we took the name as a (VERY respectful) play on their name. After a little while we got lucky and were picked up by Pinecastle Records. And then a cut or two from our first CD got on the National Bluegrass Chart, which we never saw coming. By the time our name got out to the world it was too late to change it. So we’ve just dealt with the band name BS and continued entertaining the fans (who, by the way, have never been the ones giving us the lip over the name).
I feel our music is a modern take on the traditional sound. We have a different sound that I credit to several factors. We all come from very different musical backgrounds. As I mentioned I was a rocker and became mezmerized with bluegrass, blues and other acoustic music. Jeff Weaver was in country-rock bands for about 10 years. Jim has been playing bluegrass and country since he was in his early teens. Calvin has always been into Bluegrass, but he’s also about 12 years younger than the rest of us so he has a different take on things. And our fiddle player, Jeff Hardin, had former Foggy Mountain Boy Paul Warren as a mentor for several years. (Jeff traveled with Lester Flatt and The Nashville Grass in the mid-70’s.) Our vocal trio is unique due to the varied musical experience of each member. And we’ve always tried to either write our own songs or find obscure songs from other writers and steer clear of the standards. We’ve also brought a lot of songs in from outside bluegrass. I think all these things add up to give us our own sound.
I’ve always thought my job was to embellish the vocals. Consequently, I never spent a whole lot of time working on instrumentals. I play my share of them but, for me, wringing the emotion out of a song with some good backup is what it’s really all about. I’ve always thought a Bluegrass band without a Dobro was just…a Bluegrass band. When you add the reso in there it opens up lots of musical and vocal possibilities and also lends a more modern sound. My ideal jam sessions are when somebody comes in with some songs they wrote and puts them out there. Then you’d better be on your toes and ready to improvise.
SJ: How would you describe your style as a Dobro player? Can you give us any insight into your tool box of techniques – slants, pulls, right-hand, etc, etc?
DB: I’ve always thought of myself as pretty much a mimic. At first I wanted to be Oswald Jr., then Uncle Josh Jr., Mike Auldridge Jr., Jerry Douglas Jr., etc., etc. I guess over the years my playing has become an amalgam of everything I’ve heard and learned. I could never copy those guys directly but I could do something that I thought sounded like it. Now I just sound like me. Depending on the song, I may think “this sounds like Oz” or “I bet Douglas would try it this way”. When I hear my playing back on recordings I can hear the flavor of those other players but it comes out sounding like Dan Brooks. I will, though, on occasion deliberately try to copy a break or style to the note. Usually just for fun, or effect. My tricks and techniques are just things I’ve learned over the years. I do use slants pretty regularly. I’m too uncoordinated to do the string pulls behind the bar, unless I’ve got 2 or 3 measures to get ready for it. I use hammers and pulls pretty often but I try to watch because they can get really monotonous. I’ve been playing so long I don’t really think much about what I’m doing anymore. A couple of years ago a boy asked me to show him a break I did on one of our songs. I had to spend 10 minutes watching myself play it just so I could tell him what I was doing!
SJ: Can you comment about your approach to providing rhythmic support on Dobro? What techniques – chops, chucks, rolls, etc – do you use with the Rarely Herd to provide rhythmic support?
DB: On uptempo numbers I’ll usually chop on the back beat, unless there’s a mandolin. Then I’ll back way off and maybe hit some accent chords or tighten my chop up to small pops. One thing I do (probably too much, but I can’t help it…I like it) is hit a big, quick brush chord at the end of certain phrases on fast songs. Josh used to do it and I think it really kicks the song and the rhythm in the butt. I really like slower pieces because I have a lot more freedom to do different things. I may roll all through the song, or play licks that emphasize chord changes. There are just a few players that can do a pleasing rhythm chop on the Dobro. It can easily sound like somebody beating spoons on a garbage can lid.
SJ: Do you ever play in smaller ensembles and if so, does that change how you approach your role as an accompanist?
DB: Sadly, I don’t get to play a whole lot outside the band. With our schedule and my guitar business it’s hard to find the time. When I do it’s a real pleasure. What and how I play depends on what instruments are there. If there’s no guitar I’ll play more full chords and passing phrases. The same if it’s just myself and a guitar. I’ll also mix up my rhythmic techniques a lot more, just to keep things from getting zingy and monotone. If it’s, say, guitar and mandolin I may play more like a banjo. More rolls and syncopation. The Dobro’s kind of like spackle…fill the holes.
SJ: I’d like to switch gears now and find out more about Dan Brooks the luthier: how/when did you start building resonator guitars? What were your original goals in creating a design for your guitars in terms of volume/tone/projection/responsiveness, etc? What does B&B stand for?
DB: 6 or 7 years ago I had become really dissatisfied with my guitars. I’ve had several reso’s down through the years and, although some of them were pretty good, I was never completely satisfied. A good friend of mine is luthier Todd Sams of Sams Guitars. We had known each other for years and together quite a bit. I was whining to him about not being satisfied and he said “then build your own Dobro”. For some reason I had never really considered that an option. My Dad is a lifelong woodworker and he and I (with the help of Todd’s expertise and mentoring) started in trying to build me a Dobro. (B & B stands for Brooks and Brooks, my dad and myself. I thought he might stay involved but he only helped on the first one. I decided to keep the name because I wouldn’t know a bandsaw from a table saw if it wasn’t for him.) I knew there were certain things I was after. Volume had always been an issue, as had bass response. Naturally I had studied on reso’s since the beginning and I knew the soundwell lent a tone I wasn’t fond of. Tim Scheerhorn’s guitars sounded great but I also wasn’t a fan of the effect created by baffles. I settled on an open design with 1/4″ soundposts and a deeper body. When the guitar was complete and I strung it up I couldn’t believe my ears. I had stumbled upon the exact sound I’d been hearing in my head for years. I build all my guitars the same as that first one, which, by the way, I’ve played exclusively ever since. I have volume to spare, great bass and it’s held up to the road with absolutely no problems of any kind. Now there are players in the U.S. and Europe playing B & B’s. It’s really taking off and I couldn’t be happier.
SJ: I’ve seen quite a few comments on various discussion boards about certain resonator guitars being either “traditional” or “modern” sounding, where “traditional”=soundwell and “modern”=soundposts/baffle: what is your assessment of this kind of thinking? How do you describe your guitars to someone who wants to put guitars in the “trad/modern” either/or box?
DB: I figure what folks mean by the “traditional” sound is the sound Oz and Josh got from those old 30’s dobros. And the modern sound is what today’s players get on recordings. My opinion is that most of whatever “sound” people hear is about 80% the player’s style. Jerry Douglas used a 1930’s “Dobro” until the 80’s but his playing always sounded pretty modern. Those soundwell guitars usually sound like the old records because that’s what they played…the same for today’s CD’s and the new reso’s. It’s all about what sound a player wants to emulate and who’s playing what guitar. I suppose my guitars would fall into the “modern” box, but I can play Oswald songs on mine and it does just fine.
In addition to the trad/modern dichotomy, another “hot” topic is wood and its effect on tone/volume/responsiveness: how do you view choice of different woods and its influence on the “voice” of your guitars? What’s the best way for someone to make an intelligent choice on wood when they don’t have the opportunity to “test drive” a guitar before buying it?
My view on wood is that it isn’t as crucial a factor in a resophonic as in a guitar or mandolin. A guitar or mando functions a little like a bellows (on a minute level). When a string in picked it transfers the vibration/motion to the top through the bridge. The top and back are braced in such a way as to allow them to vibrate up and down which, in turn, pumps air in and out of the box. The primary sound production in a reso is from the cone/spider. The wood’s main function is to reflect the sound pressure out through the screen holes and back through the cone. However, certain woods do give reso’s a particular sound. Maple tends to be brighter whereas mahogany is a bit warmer or mellower. A spruce top will also take the edge off in a Dobro. If you like the more “modern” tone, maple would be the way to go. Walnut and koa would be a close second. My bodies are a little deeper so, even with the maple, the bass response is still powerful. If you prefer less edge, a mahogany body or a rosewood with a spruce top would be the way to go. There’s a lot of talk against laminated wood (plywood) in body construction. I’ve heard some great guitars with plywood bodies. It goes back to what I said earlier, the body mainly reflects sound pressure. I personally prefer solid wood because I think it looks better and is more consistent. It’s also more of a challenge to work with and I enjoy that aspect as well.
SJ: Years ago Acoustic Guitar magazine showed a photo of an acoustic guitar that Bob Taylor (Taylor Guitars) made completely out of oak from a wood pallet that he took from of the back of his shop. If I recall correctly, there were a few holes in the guitar where the nails had been! He built the guitar to prove the point that the design of the builder (and of course, the execution/attention to detail/craftsmanship) is more important than wood. What is your view on this? How important is design and craftsmanship vs. wood in building quality instruments?
DB: I completely agree. You could have a $1000.00 set of tonewood and if the guitar is poorly fitted and constructed it’ll end up junk. I’ve built 2 dreadnoughts, a lap steel and a Dobro or two out of wood that was considered cast-off. I defy anybody to pick them out. If your building techniques are sound and consistent, you could build a guitar from a kitchen table and it would sound good. Once you have your skills down then you can take a $1000.00 set of wood and make it look and sound like $100,000.00. Good builders can even make bad spots, knots, wormholes or other anomalies into eye-catching features on an instrument.
SJ: Where do you come down on the issue of microphone vs. pickups for resonator guitars? What does your live rig consist of? What kind of recommendations do you have for getting a good tone in performance situations and playing with enough power to “cut” through the mix when playing with a band?
DB: I guess I’m pretty archaic in this field. I’ve always just played through whatever was set up at the gig. It usually works out well but I have been butchered by goofball soundmen several times down through the years. Playing with musicians that know when to step back is a HUGE plus. The Dobro is notorious for getting drowned out, but learning to jam your guitar right into that microphone helps immensely. I’m pretty illiterate on pickups. The ones I’ve heard never sounded good to me so, consequently, I never gave them much thought. Jerry Douglas’ rig sounds super but he’s also got a rack of outboard equipment you couldn’t fit in a pickup truck. I have heard some great microphones on Dobro. The Shure KSM 32 sounds great. I’ve also heard some nice Sennheisers. I’m kind of a purist I guess. Whatever makes your Dobro sound exactly like your Dobro laying on your lap (only LOUDER) is what I like.
SJ: Do you have any closing comments for our readers?
DB: First of all thanks a million for allowing me this opportunity. I hope the folks reading this can make some sense of what I’ve said and can get something from it. Also, visit my website and let me know what you think of B & B Resophonic Guitars. One more thing…after nearly 30 years of playing and being around this music I do have one piece of advice for aspiring dobro pickers. Don’t get hung up on things like what strap to use, what bar, what picks, what angle does the guitar need to hang from your body, what shoes to wear, what does the latest hot picker eat for breakfast…. PLAY YOUR DOBRO!! There is only one way to get proficient…put in the time picking. You’ll find what works as you go. And just because something works for one player absolutely does not mean it will work for you. Try things and if they work, stick with them. If they don’t…pitch ’em.
I just hope all the players out there continue to play and get better. And enjoy every second of it…I have, and continue to do so. Besides, I need players to steal licks from!