Learning to Play
When Peter Gaspar suggested that I write something about the place of the Dobro® in American culture my first reaction was, "This is going to be a short article!" Resophonic guitars are more popular than ever but their recognition factor for the general population is barely measurable. Back when I was learning to play while living in New York City, there was only one other Dobroist among my ten million neighbors. My poor mother has had to explain to untold multitudes of relatives and friends just what "my son the Dobro® player" means. (Luckily for her I have been playing more violin lately.)
This is not just a function of living in the northern part of the United States. When I told people in Virginia that I was headed to my first bluegrass festival they asked if I was with the government's Department of Agriculture! The recent popularity of commercial country music has helped a very little bit. Most pedal steel guitarists are able to play at least a bit of acoustic steel, but the acoustic is still rarely used, and then only in one type of musical situation - slow ballads. In a recent very popular appearance on the MTV television channel Eric Clapton played an old Dobro® in bottleneck style on a couple of tunes, but this is still an isolated incident. Lap style steel guitar (especially acoustic) is a virtual non-entity in pop music.
Still there are now more Dobroists than ever and the level of playing, after many years at a unchanging plateau, is on a sharp rise. Besides the few well-known (to aficionados) pickers there are many excellent players who are only appreciated in their immediate locale. I suspect that I will hear a few of these in my visit to Slovakia.
The metal-bodied tricone National, the original standard guitar marketed by the Dopyera family, was invented in the mid 1920's, and was designed to be a loud instrument so as to be heard in the popular big bands of the day (replacing the banjo). The introduction of microphones and magnetic pickups made this idea almost immediately obsolete. Since an Americanized version of Hawaiian music was popular in the '20's, the Dopyeras also built a square necked version. Its penetrating tone and sparkling stage appearance made this model the guitar of choice for the Hawaiian sound for a few years, but the electric lap steel replaced it in the mid-1930's. There is now a small renaissance of the old, acoustic Hawaiian style but the appeal of the art deco design of the tricone for non-playing collectors has priced this guitar out of the reach of ordinary mortals.
The single resonator metal-bodied National is indelibly linked with the old Delta blues bottleneck style of people like Bukka White and Son House. Due to its occasional use by commercially successful rock guitarists and the fact that Mississippi Delta blues is a direct antecedent of modern electric blues, this is the one type of resonator instrument that can be identified by a measurable percentage of the uninitiated. Whether the bottleneck style developed independently of Hawaiian guitar, or was derived from it has yet to be confirmed.
The wood-bodied Dobro® was marketed as an inexpensive alternative to the metal Nationals and eventually became connected with acoustic country music, first on occasional recordings by the first country superstar, Jimmy Rodgers in the late 1920's, eventually settling into the band of Nashville's first major star, Roy Acuff in the mid '30's. Rodgers used several resonator guitarists including Cliff Carlisle, apparently the first person to be recorded on Dobro®. Acuff featured Pete Kirby's Hawaiian-tinged leads and sweet back-up for more than forty years.
Kirby was known as Bashful Brother Oswald for his stage persona as a ridiculous country rube. He resisted the move towards electrification, becoming so disenchanted with the tone of his lap steel that he tossed it out a window in disgust. The peculiar mix of wood, metal and air that combines to create the Dobro® sound is still confounding all attempts to invent an effective electronic pickup for it. (Jerry Douglas sometimes uses a magnetic pickup - as opposed to the usual piezoelectric transducers for acoustic instruments - on his R.Q. Jones resonator guitar which, as he acknowledges gives a unique but certainly not acoustic Dobro® tone.) For many years Kirby was virtually the only Dobroist on tour and making records. For that reason alone his stature on this instrument cannot be challenged.
Buck Graves joined the Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys bluegrass band as a bass player but, at Earl Scruggs' urging switched to Dobro® in 1955. He had previously played Dobro® with Esco Hankins' band and Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper. His forceful, sometimes wildly bluesy approach, combined with a bit of banjo technique he picked up from Scruggs became the basis of the style of the vast majority of today's players. Like Kirby, Graves was also a comedian under the pseudonym of Uncle Josh. With bassist E. P. "Cousin Jake" Tullock they performed routines filled with cornball humor that were an integral part of the Flatt and Scruggs shows. This type of drollery could be an embarrassment to people who did not grow up in the rural south, but it was all part of what made bluegrass the music it originally was.
The preponderance of country Dobroists with weird nicknames may have to do with Kirby and Graves creating a connection between the instrument and comedy. Besides Bashful Brother Oswald and Uncle Josh there were the decidedly unfunny "Deacon" Brumfield, "Tut" Taylor, "Duck" Atkins, Speedy" Krise. "Flux" Douglas, and "Shot" Jackson.
In the 1950's bluegrass was still a marketable product, albeit on a small scale. Coincidentally, as early rock and roll (along with general acceptance of electric instruments) overwhelmed all competition in country music, folk music became popular in urban popular music circles. Flatt and Scruggs were able to change their style a bit and plug into that outlet. Ever since, bluegrass and the Dobro® guitar have been a part of the folk and acoustic music scene.
Still, in most situations, the Dobro® is last hired and first fired. The Whites country band of a few years ago has been the only recent to feature Dobro® (Jerry Douglas).Even with this bleak situation, this guitar still can turn on a lot of people. It has an amazing range of tone for an acoustic instrument and is unmatched in its vocal-like qualities. I fell in love with the sound years before I had a chance to see what one looked like. I was not even sure that it was some sort of guitar!
Most players learn Dobro® through bluegrass and country music. However Hawaiian and Western swing music featured some of the greatest six string steel performer ever. Any serious student of the Dobro® should become familiar with these genres. In the 1920's and '30's Sol Hoopii and Bob Kaii recorded some masterpieces on National tricone. Hoopii pioneered the first tuning variations and went on to play on different style of electric lap steels. Kaii (who is so obscure that the identity of his last name is uncertain) recorded a few cuts with "Jim and Bob - the Genial Hawaiians". His technique is still unsurpassed. He only recorded a handful of discs. His versions of "Song of the Plains" and "Saint Louis Blues" are virtuoso performances without peer.
Leon McAuliffe, who played with the pre-World War II Bob Wills Western swing band, credits these two players with inspiring him. McAuliffe began recording on an acoustic National before eventually switching to a multi-necked electric steel. On the early Wills records he plays some very hot six string. He always acknowledged that the greatest of the early swing players was Bob Dunn who began his career with Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. Dunn played a six string acoustic guitar with a raised nut that he electrified with one of the first commercially available pickups. (His was probably the first electric instrument ever recorded.) Unlike any of his contemporaries Dunn's playing evinced almost no Hawaiian influences. It was "pure" American jazz. His playing on "Taking Off" and "Are You Tired of Me?" still knock me out. I have yet to hear the equal of his swing, drive and inventiveness.
I think that a rediscovery and modernization of the early styles of Hawaiian and swing players is one path the future of the Dobro® can take. Mike Auldridge's efforts on eight string Dobro® (using G6 and C6+9 tunings) are very inspiring. Mike has applied some of the ideas he has learned from his pedal steel playing to the Dobro® (six and eight string) suggesting even additional adaptations.
Even further afield is the awkwardly named Peda-bro championed by one of the hottest pedal steel players, Paul Franklin. This is a pedal steel guitar with a Dobro® resonator attached - resulting in pedal steel effects with some of the Dobro® timbre. The relatively light string gauges make for a weak tone but there are great possibilities in this idea. Truthfully, though the peddles make this a completely different instrument than the six string resophonic guitar.
Another exciting development is the recent proliferation of new builders of resophonic instruments. In fact the best ones currently marketed are probably being made by individual craftsmen. Tim Scheerhorn, Ivan Guarnsey, Paul Beard, Donald Young and Bobby Wolfe are just some of this new wave of luthiers whose guitars seem destined to be the preference of next wave of Dobroists.
There are also a few lap steel players in the blues, pop and rock fields who have things to teach acoustic players. David Lindley is the most well-known name. He also plays a bit on an old Weissenborn (non-resonator) koa wood guitar which has kindled some interest in this instrument among his fans. Bob Brozman and Freddie Roulette are also worthy of mention, and there are others whose names I do not know. There are even some Indian-derived slide music these days. The gottuvadyam is a lap style sitar that demands great bar control. Even if your interests are nowhere near this type of music you can still apply their techniques to your favorite genre.
If you have questions, suggestions for improvements, or additional information, please let me know.