Issue 1

by Max Hannum

 

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 song.

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 group.

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.

 

 

 

String Bending 101

I've heard a lot of very good players, people who are way out of my league, say they don't bend strings because it is impossible to play in tune while bending.

Of course, many of these same players will use a variety of slant-bar techniques, which everyone will agree, are also very difficult to play in tune without a substantial amount of practice. I maintain that it's all what you get used to and feel comfortable with.

I have managed to get used to bending more than slanting. Here's a quick overview of a simple bend that I use in a lot of different ways. This very simple bend involves pulling the second string (from the highest) a half-step up.

This technique is accomplished by using the ring finger of the left hand to grab the string and pull it slightly up and toward you, making sure that the string keeps in contact with the bar. In normal G tuning, this is the 3rd of the chord, which is pulled or bent up a half-step to the 4th of the chord.

 

 

 

In this example, I am playing a D-chord on the 7th fret. I am pulling the F# note up to a G note. This creates a Dsus4 chord (D G A) on the top three strings. I use this same bar position for all the examples that follow.

You can use the same patterns anywhere on the fretboard, except maybe the 1st fret where pulls get extremely difficult.

 

 

 

Looking at this picture just now is the first time in my life that I have seen what pulling a string does to my finger. This looks painful to me, but strangely, it isn't.

I think it's probably been better that I haven't been able to see it all these years. My initial reaction was a little like seeing a picture of some contortionist, or maybe of some odd body piercing. Fascination tinged with revulsion.

Looking closely at this photo suggests that cutting off the end of your finger while attempting a string pull is theoretically possible. However, I can assure you that I have never drawn blood in almost 30 years. Well, maybe once. But alcohol may have been involved. I can't remember. I have, however, developed a small callous on this finger. I guess novice string pullers should be advised to proceed with some caution.

Here's a more conceptual look:

 

 

A Quasi-Banjo Variation. This variation requires some practice to become in-tune and smooth, however, it is conceptually very simple. It sounds a little like a banjo roll and has a little more melodic interest than just doing a banjo roll on open Dobro strings. Try the same thing with sixteenth notes instead of eighth notes (twice as fast).

 

 

 

A Simple V - I Change. This variation on the simple bend is so simple it's embarrassing. It just relies on two simple concepts.

First, it relies on the rest of the band to fill in some of the notes of the I chord. Second, it relies on the fact that a Dsus4 has the same notes as a G9 chord without the 3rd or 7th.

Huh?

For review, an ordinary D chord consists of the notes D - F# - A.

Pulling the F# up a half step changes the D chord to a Dsus4 chord, consisting of D - G - A.

A full-blown G9 chord consists of G - B - D - F - A.

Letting the rest of the band cover for us, we can safely leave out some notes. In this case, we can leave out the 3rd and the 7th notes - the B and the F. That leaves an abbreviated version of the G9 chord consisting of G - D - A.

The nice thing about this little maneuver is that it adds harmonic interest to the dobro sound. Once the rest of the band starts chunking and strumming on the G chord, the focus shifts to the dobro's single A note in the G - D - A chord. What started out as just another plain old note in the D chord suddenly becomes an interesting 9th (or 2nd) in the G chord. And that is a sound you just cannot get with a simple forward slant change from V to I.

 

 

 

Pretty simple, eh?