Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a long line
of Inner Dobro newsletters.
I think that when my band members suggested I write this, they
envisioned a breezy newsletter that would talk briefly about dobro
esoterica. Instead, I think it will turn into a kind of stream-of-consciousness
tract on things that have a vague relationship with music and dobros.
Somewhere in here I'll talk a little about technique, so if you
are interested in that, just skip to where the photos begin.
Of course, to be technically correct, this should be called a "Resophonic
Guitar" newsletter, since the information applies to more than
just the instruments made by the Dobro Company. At the moment, I
actually don't play a Dobro brand guitar, but rather a Rich and
Taylor. And in a year or so, I hope Tim Scheerhorn gets around to
building my "L" Body. But I can't seem to bring myself
to sell the old 50s model Dobro that I started on back in 1974.
Dobro Player's Burden. The dobro remains outside the generally
accepted mainstream, and so, sadly do its players. I always get
uncomfortable when people find out that I play in a band. Because
I always know that the next question will be, "Oh, really?
What instrument do you play?" When I tell them, I know I can
usually look forward to blank looks, polite smiles, and long pauses
while their mental computers run long enough for them to decide
that they really don't know what I just said. The ones who are truly
interested will ask, "what's that?" The rest will just
nod politely and wander off wondering about my diction.
The Shame. Strangely, the emotion I feel about this instrument
is sometimes very close to guilt or shame. I used to think I was
just weird for feeling that way. But I don't think I am the only
dobro player to experience this. I think the recent CD release from
the Seattle area, entitled Resophonics Anonymous captures
this feeling in its cover picture which features a dobro player
with a brown paper bag over his head.
The Stigma. There may be some good reasons for this unfortunate
social stigmatization, and the shame and guilt it breeds. Foremost,
the entire concept of the instrument is hopelessly flawed. The instrument,
in some sense, is more of a joke instrument than a real one. I always
think that the dobro would have provided good fodder for guys like
Peter Shickele and Victor Borgia. Shickele's Concerto for Horn
and Hardart comes to mind. I always have a mental picture of
Schroeder from the cartoon "Peanuts" and his toy piano.
Someone asks him how he plays so well when the black keys on his
piano are just painted on, and his reply is something like, "that
does tend to make it more challenging." In a very real sense,
we dobro players are the Schroeder's of the bluegrass and country
world, valiantly and earnestly (and somewhat hopelessly) trying
to coax beauty from painted-on black keys.
The Redemption. We continue to attempt to play this instrument
in part because we don't know any better. There is a certain shame
to it, yes
but there is also a Quixotic or Promethean sense
of pride in knowing that we have tilted at the windmills and struggled
with the impossible boulder, over and over, until we have built
something in our souls. We have built it out of nothing more than
the knowledge that we have repeatedly attempted the impossible in
the face of all reason.
When we are not feeling the shame associated with doing something
stupid, in our heart of hearts, we think the world is a better place
for our struggle. We are the quirky people, the ones who build quizzical,
lyrical, filigreed spires in our back yards out of old bottles and
discarded bedsprings and auto parts.
We are the dobro players.
In the Interest of Full Disclosure. I'm proud of my musical
background, but its uniqueness has had a strong impact on the way
I approach this instrument.
I started my musical training taking piano lessons as a young
boy. I never played guitar for more than a week or so, since I didn't
see the point of playing something that hurt the ends of my fingers
really bad. I used to say a very similar thing about eating Mexican
food: "Why eat something that hurts the inside of your mouth,
among other things?" Over the years, I have been converted
to Mexican food, able to see past the pain, but never guitar or
banjo or mandolin or anything else that requires pressing a string
to the fingerboard.
I also played the French Horn. I loved the soaring sustain of
the high notes, and I think I hear some of that same sustained lyrical
quality in the dobro. Unlike a lot of people, I came to the dobro
by way of music rather than by way of bluegrass. I am, at times,
more apt to listen to classical or jazz or salsa or blues than bluegrass
or country, even though I love both.
Dobro as Keyboard. I have always seen the dobro as a modified
keyboard. A keyboard player can use the thumb, middle finger and
little finger of his right hand to plunk out a major chord. As a
kid, I used to spend hours, much to the chagrin of my parents and
my piano teacher, playing Louie Louie in C using this finger pattern.
CCC, FF, GGG, FF, CCC, FF, GGG, FF, etc. for hours. Same finger
pattern, shifted to a different place for each chord change. When
I started playing the dobro, I remembered this, and although I needed
to use two hands, and slightly different fingers on the right hand,
the concept seemed the same.
Take What the Instrument Gives You. The dobro has some serious
design flaws that make it very to easy to do some difficult things,
and very difficult to do things which are easy on other instruments.
Some of neatest things I hear and play are technically undemanding
and should probably be considered "cheap tricks." For
example, if you play the dobro, you should probably slide the bar
around some on the strings. This seems obvious, but sometimes, in
our attempt to play cleanly and in-tune, we tend to forget this
is a fun, slippery, and slinky, instrument! I always thought the
Trombone was neat because you could do that "smear" thing
by pulling the slide all the way toward you while playing.
Along the same lines, it is extremely easy to play three (or more)-note
major chords, so why not do it? If done tastefully and in-tune,
they sound great, especially in situations where the guitar is taking
a lead or filling rather than playing rhythm chords. And adding
the slight (1 fret or less) slide up to the 3-note chord is about
as simple, and as tasteful as it gets, as long as you end up in
exactly the right place.
Music and Life. When I was a college student, I was first
struck with the vast similarities between music and life. Many musicians
feel that music teaches them things about life that they would not
have learned otherwise. Similarly, I feel like life has taught me
things about music that I could not have learned any other way.
Sometimes What Works is Counterintuitive. The classic example
of this that I always come back to, is "what do you do to get
people singing a cappella to stop singing flat?"
Sometimes, no amount of cajoling or attention will stop this.
The temptation is to lower the key a half step to make less vocal
strain, etc. This makes sense, but unfortunately almost never works.
Amazingly, what almost invariably works is to raise the key a half
step. Counterintuitive. There are numerous other examples in life
and in music. For example, how to make a marriage work often seems
counterintuitive to me.
Playing Within Yourself. I think, at least in performance
situations, it is important to know how to play within yourself.
By this I mean playing under control and always trying to play
things that sound good. In a sense, it means playing things that
you feel comfortable with. It means playing things that, while they
may be technically challenging, are not beyond the scope of your
ability. And, it means having a sense of a conceptual overview of
the next few notes, the next few measures, and the totality of the
I remember, as a boy, going to see my first major league baseball
game. Apart from the incredible greenness of the grass, the thing
I remember the most was the sense that the fielders had the ball
pretty much under control at all times. The ball almost never seemed
to get behind them, the grounders never seemed to eat them up, and
they always moved ahead of the ball. You could see it in their stance
in the field. Their attitude was one that commanded their area.
Their attitude seemed to make them almost physically wider in some
sense, so that they truly seemed to own large chunks of the field.
They were, to my small eyes, truly playing within themselves.
Adopting this feeling of being in command of and owning the song
you are playing is what I mean by playing within yourself.
The Living Room vs. the World. Playing by yourself in your
living room or basement or garage is very different than playing
with other people. Part of the difference is that when you are playing
with others, you are performing a musical function as part of a
The other difference is that living room playing tends to be linear,
with one note following and dependent on the prior note. Playing
with others introduces the unforgiving horizontal component of meter.
When playing with others, not stopping becomes more important than
playing each note exactly as planned.
Playing along with others is a conceptually much different method
of learning than practicing in the living room. It is bound to create
very different results.
Playing along is a much more experiential and less cerebral way
of learning. In a sense, playing along is a more blue collar approach.
Typically, blue-collar workers apprentice themselves to craftsmen
and tradesmen. They spend years learning by doing. Really, everyone
does this to some extent.
Practicing, though, is a little like going to college. Some say
disparaging things about college men and suits. These things generally
boil down to the sense of how little the college men really know
about how to really do whatever their skills are, in spite of their
book-learning. That kind of knowledge is viewed as superficial and
potentially useless until it is battle-tested. I think in music,
there is also the sense that what really matters is playing with
a group. And, what matters is what you can play now, rather than
what you practiced last night.