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

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!

 

Breaking Bad (habits) – a conversation with Jimmy Heffernan

 

JimmyHeffernan

Jimmy Heffernan

 

SJ: I recently read a book called the Power of Habit which claims that 40% of what we do on a daily basis are the results of habits. What’s your perspective on the role of habits as it applies to playing the dobro? Can you share any specific examples?

JH: Habits are everything! What we endeavor to do when learning is to create habits through repetition and by building muscle memory. From there our hands and thoughts come together and create the music. Virtually nothing you’ve ever heard has been the result of a lightning bolt or a result of “on the spot” brilliance. So we need habits or muscle memory to channel our creativity in music. The problem arises from bad habits. The dobro is unique among bluegrass instruments in that you can pick it up and with virtually no technique at all you can make pretty pleasing sounds by just moving the bar along with the chords. Now you can do this with your pick on backwards on your pinky or your thumbpick on your pinky and your metal pick on your thumb. The point is you can do everything wrong on the dobro and still make it work to a certain level. To my knowledge you can’t play a fiddle, banjo, guitar or mandolin unless you tackle the rudimentary techniques. To my experience with many many students this is the main “bad Habit”. Players pick up the Dobro and with no one to guide them or emulate locally and begin to play. They then “Burn In” habits that create a ceiling which is virtually impossible to break through once they try to start emulating what they hear a records.

There are always several ways around the barn and one player to the next will have slight variations on how they accomplish what they set out to play. What is common to all good players is economy of motion and excellent left hand technique. Those would be the habits to “burn in”. I’m constantly looking for new pathways for my hands to travel, create a new “habits”. For me the “habits” that I carry with me as I explore are economy of motion and left hand technique. Anything explorable on the Dobro will flow from that.

SJ: Are there certain habits which are more important than others for someone who is just getting started on the instrument – perhaps right hand position, balancing out the use of the thumb and fingers, damping behind the bar, etc?

JH: They are all important for somebody that’s just getting started. For example, it’s pretty easy to learn to reposition your right hand away from the bridge. That’s not a very difficult change to make but it pays big dividends. For example, you could have the best technique and red hot licks but if you’re picking to close the bridge it’s all for nothing. Next would be learning to base your right hand picking around the thumb. I have seen hundreds and hundreds of students who have taught themselves and not learned to balance out their right hand by basing it around the thumb. The thumb is the strongest finger and if used in conjunction with the index and middle balances for a nice even distribution of the workload. If you think about it like a flatpicker uses a pick on the guitar most of the time the pick is going down and up. There are exceptions to this where after a long note flatpicker will use two down strokes. Well it’s the same on the dobro. The thumb would equate to a downstroke and either the index or the middle would equate to an upstroke. Dividing the workload of the right-hand in this way has a certain balance to it, just like the flow of the right-hand of Tony Rice, Sam Bush etc.. You could even see it in the bowing of a good fiddle player or the driver a locomotive wheel.

If you’re starting out or even been at it a while and can get a grip on those two things you will find yourself way ahead. Everything else of course going to need attention eventually and with practice most will get there. Welding these two techniques into your playing will go a long way, helping to smooth out your playing.

SJ: How do you help someone “unlearn” a bad habit?

JH: Basic answer is just to stop doing it. But I think the real answer is a little deeper. First thing in my mind is to demonstrate and have student totally understand how detrimental somebody’s habits can be to their playing. To undo anything as ingrained as a bad habit or any habit for that matter requires a lot of discipline. You need to totally remove it from your muscle memory and default way of going about things. That takes a lot of practice undoing. When we play music or improvise you’re traveling down well-worn pathways with our hands and heads. It took a lot of work to get those habits into our playing. Rooting out bad habits may be even more work so I am a big believer in dramatically demonstrating the upside to correcting a bad habit.

A bad habit will definitely show up in your playing and usually can be heard very easily. I’m very big on recommending my students record themselves and critically listen back. Hard to do but necessary, you want to be able to hear what other people are listening to when they hear you. I prefer to correct that before I leave the house. That being said mistakes happen everytime you play and the sooner you get used to that the happier you will be.

SJ: What about the habit of relying on tablature vs. training yourself to play something by ear? It seems to me that requesting tabs for different songs has become the default on the Reso Forums. And while I understand the attraction to tabs there’s a tendency for those who rely on them to neglect ear training which is one of the basic building blocks in becoming a good musician.

JH: As you know Rob I learned to play when there really wasn’t any tab out there. I had to use my ears, picking up the the needle on the record over and over. Slaving over a hot turntable.:)
So my answer about tab maybe a little bit skewed. I learned by critical listening and looking back I believe is the best way to learn. Having said that I am in the tab business. I do realize that most folks will not have the amount of time to invest as I did and do. Learning music has consumed my whole life and I wouldn’t change it for anything. For those out there that don’t have your whole life to invest there is tab and video’s. I do believe that with all the modern learning aids today a good percentage of one’s time should be invested in developing the ear. I have told many many many students that the ear is a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it gets and that is really is true in my experience. Even after 40 years of using my ears I hear and more layers to music and Dobro every day. It’s a very beautiful thing and I wouldn’t want anybody to miss out on the experience. I imagine everybody reading this is going to be a Dobro player, so folks do yourself a favor and pick something simple out and really listen to it. Do it a hundred times and email me in the morning.:)

SJ: What causes players to have difficulty improvising, even over the simplest chord changes? How does one break out of the “I can’t improvise” habit?

JH: From what I have experienced the difficulties arise from players not really knowing the scales or trying to play them in a difficult position. That brings up Catch-22 situation, if a player is not successful trying to use scales they tend not to practice them in yet tons of practice is the only way they can use them. Improvisation and creativity are acquired skills. You have to crash and burn 100 times for every successful attempt. Again in my experience for some reason players are afraid to make mistakes in music. If you think about anything you know how to do well you made a ton of mistakes learning it. Why would music or dobro playing be any different?
So I think the problem is twofold. You would need to know where the notes are on the fretboard without question, second nature. Then attempt to use them without fear, make mistakes and learn from them being prepared to accept new mistakes as you venture forward. In my workshops I always feature A lot of time on scales. I then grab a guitar and play rhythm while they play around in the scales. It never fails, they light up with a big grin as if to say ‘ I didn’t know I could do that”. And there you have it, learn the scales and put yourself out there. It only works if you do it, no shortcuts.

SJ: What causes players to get stuck in ruts when it comes to playing solos and how do you help someone break out of their comfort zone?

JH: For me breaking out of a rut involves learning small new bits. I find if I learned a very small lick or technique I’ll work it into something I already know it makes everything I know sound different. I love that . I get for tired of sounding like myself I think everybody does. A new lick, Position, rhythmic phrase or grouping of notes does the trick for me. And believe me it can be very small. I have a very small pocket of notes that I learned last night listening to Rob Ickes, I’m doing a concert tonight and I will be using it on every song. Goodbye rut!!!!!

SJ: It seems to me that a good portion on the instructional materials available approach the learning process from a “monkey see monkey do” teaching method. Yet, I know from experience that each student may learn in their own way and at their own pace. Can you share any observations from your teaching experiences about what constitutes effective learning and practice habits on the part of the student? Is there a difference between working hard and working smart when learning to play the dobro?

JH: There’s a huge difference between working hard and working smart. Just because you’re working hard on something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working hard on the right things. I always encourage students to pick out things they know they’re going to need when they play in the immediate future. That’s one example of working smart. It’s hard work and very time-consuming to learn any instrument your resolve and patience will be tested. We all have that in limited quantities of each so for me it was always a matter of achieving real progress before my resolve gives out. I think it’s very smart to reach for things to learn that you will need to know the next couple times you play with the people you play with. If you have to take a solo on “Love Please Come Home” for example look for ways to creatively state the melody and make it sound good for the Dobro.It doesn’t have to be hot or hard. Check out options for soloing over the 7 flat chord which is common to many songs and occurs in “Love Come Home”. Look for ways to play over the 5 to 1 chord change which is also in that song and every song you’ll ever play. Check out rolls again which you can use to solo on this song and….almost every song you’ll ever play at a jam. To me that’s way smarter than learning some little known instrumental that is sure to be a jam buster.

As for effective learning and practice habits, I find from my experience that critical listening again comes up. When a student plays me something I know that they are not hearing it the way I hear it. So why not? The answer is I have had years and years of developing my ear to where I can hear things on a very very deep level. One easy way to start that journey for students is to learn to listen to yourself as you are practicing. Too many players practice licks over and over again and are not listening intensely as they practice. The more you tune out the world and zone in on your playing, the more you will hear every day.
When I am practicing I will jump out of my skin if somebody walks in the room and says hi. I am not aware that anybody entered the room. I wasn’t born like that I developed the focus I need a little bit at a time by really listening.
That focus will help you hear things on records and in other dobro players playing that you never dreamed where there. You’ll find that you can learn faster and sound better at the same time. At least that’s the way it’s worked for me and I’m still working on it.

Practice slowly and make sure each note has a place not just something you lump together to get to the next lick. Practice below your top range so you can put things in your muscle memory relaxed. The way you put it in your muscle memory is the way it will come out. Put it in tense and jerky it will always come out tense and jerky. Guaranteed. Listen to your tone. Record yourself OFTEN and listen to it OFTEN. Your favorite players have done exactly that.

Jimmy Heffernan is a highly respected Nashville session player, sideman, and producer. He’s also a versatile multi-instrumentalist and a truly gifted dobro teacher. Visit Jimmy on the web at JimmyHeffernan.com 

 

Freddy Holm

originally published at www.robanderlik.com in 2010

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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?

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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!

 

Explore Drop E Tuning with Greg Booth

 

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I’ve been playing with the drop E tuning for about 8 years now.
For me it started as a way to play a simple phrase for a recording but has
become my favorite tuning for a wide range of music. Before I started
playing dobro I played pedal steel in bands for 30+ yrs and I think
this may be why I’m inclined to alter the tuning if I need to. It’s
interesting how retuning just one string makes a whole new palette of
sounds possible! It all started in 2006 when I was invited to play
dobro on an album named Alaska Mando by my Alaskan friend Joe Page.
One of the songs was a bluegrassy version of the theme from the movie
Hang’em High. It opens with a call and response between the mandolin and
dobro where I needed the low E note like on an acoustic guitar. I just
tuned my low G string down to E so I could play the part. In playing around
with it I became really intrigued and wound up playing about half the
songs on the album in this tuning. Tuning the low G down to E gave me
access to full minor chords, jazzy minor 7th chords, dominant 7ths
and other cool sounds in the lower register. It was later that I
learned that Mike Auldridge had used the same tuning on his recordings
of Killing Me Softly and This Ain’t Grass in 1972 on his Blues and
Bluegrass album.

http://www.resohangout.com/myhangout/media-player/audio_player2.asp?musicid=11321&archived=

In the years since Alaska Mando I have arranged and recorded quite a
few songs using the drop E tuning: Folsom Prison Blues, Orange Blossom
Special, Wichita Lineman, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, The Christmas
Song and many more. I am often asked to explain how I think about the
tuning. Some call it G6 because of the E note being the 6th tone in a
G chord and technically that’s true, but with the E on the bottom it
doesn’t yield the sweet 6th chord sounds of Hawaiian or western swing
music. I think of it in two ways. Firstly, as G tuning with the upper
5 strings intact for most G tuning repertoire but with a low note to
use in runs and riffs where it fits; and secondly, as Em7 when using
the bottom E string as the root tone. Most of the time I’m looking at
the position markers as if I were in G tuning, but knowing I have the
root of the relative minor chord on the bottom string when I want it.

Let’s look at the notes and the chord tones they give us if you
designate the bottom string as the root. Open there’s the root E, then
B which is the 5th, D which is the 7th, G which is the minor 3rd, then
another B and D on top. Strummed altogether you will hear an Em chord
with the D notes adding the jazzier sound of Em7. If you leave out the
1st and 4th strings and play any combination of strings 2,3, and 5
with string 6 you have a complete minor triad of the root, minor 3rd
and 5th chord tones. The really cool thing about it is that it’s right
there at the same fret as the relative major chord, in this open case,
G. If you know those relative major/minor chord pairs then you will
know where to find the minor chord you are looking for. For example,
the relative minor of C is Am and both are found at the 5th fret. Now
is when some of your eyes may start to glaze over…hang in there! Or
go get out your guitar and check it out. Another easy way to locate a
minor chord in drop E tuning is to start with your major chord fret in
regular tuning, then move the bar up 3 frets and use the bottom string
as the root. For example, if you need an Am chord, start at the 2nd
fret A position, move up 3 frets and use the bottom string as the
root. Those are two ways of arriving at the same 5th fret Am. 

Drop E tuning is great for music that has minor chords, two examples I play
are The Christmas Song and Greensleeves.

Drop E is also great for playing music that doesn’t have any minor
chords. Orange Blossom Special and Folsom Prison Blues are good
examples.

Maiden’s Prayer lays out great in the key of A with no capo. When you
go to the 5 chord the low E note makes it really fat. Fretting just
the 3rd string with the tip of your bar at the first fret gives you a
full E7 chord to strum before going back to A.

One last thing about having the 6th string tuned to E is that you
haven’t really lost the low G note, it’s just moved three frets up the
neck. You can play a fine G chord at the 3rd fret by barring the
bottom two strings with the rest open. That changes the E to G and the
B to D, root and fifth. Cover the bottom three strings with the rest
open and you get a nice sounding G7 chord. In this tuning it’s good to
know that regardless of whether you are in a major or minor context,
you can move up three frets and have the root, fifth and 7th tones on
the bottom 3 strings.

These are the main things I have found to help navigate the drop E
tuning. Try it out sometime and I bet you’ll love the rich sounds your
dobro can make with it.

Greg Booth lives in Anchorage, where, for many years, he’s played pedal steel guitar in country groups as well as banjo (which he first learned from Bill Emerson) and, more recently, dobro. Winner of the RockyGrass dobro competition in 2006 (after playing that instrument for only one year), regular faculty and participant in ResoSummit, and star of YouTube, Greg’s 30 some dobro videos average 1800 plays daily and are approaching 2 million views lifetime. “Greg’s innovative, expressive dobro playing is even more remarkable” says guitarist Joe Karson, “when you consider that he employs no ‘licks.’” Greg plays dobro and banjo with the Kathy Kallick Band, appears on four of Kathy’s albums and is soon to finish another KKB album this year.
http://www.kathykallick.com/index.html

Chasing After Our Heroes by Rob Anderlik

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“And so Galahad decided that it would be a disgrace to set off on a quest with the other knights. Alone he would enter the dark forest where there was no path. This is the myth of the Hero’s Journey” – Joseph Campbell

Every musician has a story to tell which usually starts by being inspired by one of their musical heroes. Heroes play an incredibly important role in our own development as musicians – they inspire us to begin our journey and provide us with a treasure trove of musical DNA which leads us on our way. When we’re inspired by our heroes something gets stirred deep within our souls. We stand in awe of what we’ve experienced in their music and we see – perhaps for the first time – a glimmer of those possibilities within ourselves. Part of what inspires us about our heroes is their uniqueness. The greatest musicians are completely authentic in every detail, with their own catalog of tunes, unique tone and signature licks. And while we may appreciate the skills of musicians who can imitate others  – even with virtuosity – we are rarely inspired by them.

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are” – C.J. Jung

Dobro superstar Rob Ickes – “As far as the evolution of it when I started my goal was to sound like Mike Auldridge; that was all I wanted to do. And then I got into Jerry Douglas, Josh Graves and Brother Oswald, those are my four main influences. As I got older I listed to those guys so much, absorbed a lot of it and started to wonder, “what do I sound like?” It felt funny to play a Jerry Douglas lick. I felt like I was stealing every time I played an Auldridge lick or Josh Graves and I really got curious about “what do I sound like” or “how would I play this.” And it helped me to make that switch. A lot of people don’t do it. They might get to where they can play like Jerry and they stop right there. That’s o.k. but I was always curious about what I sounded like and it’s been a continual search.”

Imagine all of the incredible music the dobro world would be missing if Rob Ickes had played if safe. After all, he was one of the best and brightest dobro players to come along in a long time. More importantly, what happens if we decide to play it safe and never begin the search for things of our own? Dobro/guitarist David Hamburger put it this way

“I once asked Gatemouth Brown when you should start working on having your own style, and without batting an eye he said, “as soon as you’ve got the basics down.” Now, what it means to have “the basics down” is kind of open ended, and of course one really good way to learn is to figure out how the musicians you love are making the sounds you want to be able to make on the instrument. But how is only half of the equation; the other half is why. You can never own someone else’s why, you have to come up with your own. If you just learn to play like other people, you’ll always only have half the picture. What do you want to play? What do you think it should sound like? What’s your personality, and how is it going to come out on the instrument? Once you start to get a handle on that, you’ll have something all your own, and that’s the bedrock every musician ultimately needs to find.”

“Every generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one” – Tim O’Brien 

Developing basic skills, learning your musical ABC’s is an important first step in our development as musicians, but hopefully there comes a time where we step out of the well worn paths provided by our hero’s and begin to search for things of our own. You may just discover pure gold in the form of your own music and musical expression.

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