How I learned to play the dobro:

i am not sure of when i first heard a dobro, or became aware of the instrument. i'm sure i heard it on creedence records in the seventies, when i was a 'teen', but i didn't really know what was making that sound until much later, probably around 1989 when i saw jerry douglas playing with doc watson. i don't remember much about that, other than that i was really REALLY uncomfortable watching jerry STAND there with that awful looking strap thing around his arm. i couldn't watch it. i dont' know what it was, but it just looked so uncomfortable. i really couldn't watch it. besides, i was pretty blown away by doc watson, and so i didnt' really look at much except for him. sometime around there, i went to puget sound guitar workshop, out near seattle. i learned a lot there, about guitar, life, aging hippies and lots of other was a great experience for me, and really motivated me to learn to play the guitar better........ but it was also where i encountered mr. stacy phillips for the first time. my main memory of stacy was that he was sitting underneath a pine tree, on the ground, with his dobro in his lap, and a perplexed look of odd intensity on his face, making some pretty unusual noises. i remember walking by, and it seemed like he was in that same spot for several hours, if not several days. i got the feeling that he was not aware of the world around him, and being the kind of person i am, that impressed me. that doesn't happen much. i also got the feeling that he had a real work ethic, because he seemed to be practicing a lot. that too impressed me. last but not least, because of the kind of place puget sound is, there was a lot of 'touchy feely hug your neighbor' kind of stuff going on, and being from the streets of brockton, that freaked me out quite a bit. i remember that stacy had that new york city 'edge' to him, and that he clearly wanted no part of the hugs. i also remember on the last day, he stood up at lunch and told people all of these good vibes were making him uneasy. he had to go back to the east coast that night and he wanted to make sure he was ready for the environment there, so he asked people to hurl epithets at him. i'm not positive, but i do believe i threw a fork at him. in a gentle loving way, of course, but still......a lot of people probably wouldnt have done that, but for me, if just felt like the right thing to do. more about that, i returned home, to boston, and got really in to the acoustic guitar, or the 'armpit guitar' as we like to call it now. i would get up early before going to work and practice scales and stuff. arpeggios. modes even. that went on for a few years. somewhere along the line, in the mid nineties, it sor t of became apparent to me that even though i could make some ok sounds come out of a guitar, that there were jillions of great guitar players, and it seemed that they were everywhere. in a city like boston, home of berklee school of music, it seems like you can't even swing a dead cat without hitting SOMEONE who's got a guitar with them. it was probably that realization, coupled with the fact that i'd dropped out of three different art schools that made me start to fiddle around with 'unusual' instruments, like the musical saw and the theremin. in time, these worked their way in to the music i was making with the band NOBODY......and all that eventually led up to us recording what became the BLACKGRASS TAPE, which was and is, a tape of ten ozzy osbourne songs, arranged and played in a sort of old-timey/bluegrass style. lest anyone thinks we were attempting to 'cash in' on the current and very surreal popularity of the osbourne's, the ideas and arrangements for these songs actually began in the eighties. so. as we were working on the BLACKGRASS sessions, either george cooke or marion walsh suggested that some of the songs might sound good with dobro on them, and thus, i started to attempt to play the dobro. the recordings were completed in the summer of 1998. i didn't really feel like i was playing the thing very well.....but marion and george were very kind to me, and very supportive.
then i turned 38.
it was right around that time, that i started to really FEEL like i could play the dobro. it's hard to put in to words, but i just kept hearing the sound in my head, everywhere i went. specifically, i would hear and FEEL the sound of the 2nd string, sliding a note from just below the 12th fret up to the 12th fret. just that little sound. it stayed in my head all the time. for a LONG time. i would feel it, and hear it. and it really made me want to play the dobro ALL THE TIME. so. i did a little research. i found out that stacy phillips had kind of 'written the book' so to speak, on dobro, so i bought "the dobro book". the green book. the first one. i'm that kind of person. start at the beginning. so, i bought it, and started on page one. i learned some things. i practiced my scales. i tried to get better. as i said before, i kind of have a big work ethic thing, so i really got in to the practicing, trying to get in as much time as i could.
it seems like a lot of people who play dobro have trouble with bar slants. for some reason, they didn't seem so bad to me. i heard the sound in my head and felt pretty comfortable with them. i also practiced 'golden wedding days', which is on pages 24 and 25 in the aforementioned green dobro book. stacy's arrangement is based on the playing of shot jackson. i read in the book that stacy said he used this as a warmup excercise. so, i figured if it was good enough for him, it might help me some.......once i learned the arrangement, i began to practice it. for the most part, i still play it pretty much every day when i pick up my instrument, and this has helped me a lot.
for the first six months, i did not use fingerpicks! :-) i played fingerstyle guitar without them, so why would i need them for dobro?! so i probably played for about six months with bare fingers, until i went to a boston bluegrass union 'jam'.....and then i realized that if i wanted to be heard in a group context, i'd better learn to play with fingerpicks. so i bought some, and immediately went back to 'pre-beginner' stage. it was frustrating, but i hung in there and i would say about two weeks later, i was back up to speed, and felt like i could play 'normally' again. in fact, i found the picks really helped me to do a lot of things that i couldnt do with just fingers alone, and the thumbpick in particular really became a big part of my 'style', whatever that may be........for some unknown reason, i play with THREE fingerpicks and a thumbpick. i don't know why. i guess it's because when playing guitar, i used three fingers and a thumb, so i just translated it over.
from there, i continued to work my way along in the green book. i only got up to about page forty or so. i'm not really sure why, but someone told me about mike auldridge, and i started checking out his playing. in a way, i couldn't really identify with it, because, not unlike mike himself, it was so clean and smooth and tasteful, and, well.....i don't know, it just wasn't me, but i was intrigued by his instructional materials, namely the videotapes he had. i ordered the 'package deal' #1, which contains his 'basic' tape. yup. it's expensive. a hundred bucks. but, it's WORTH IT. in my opinion, it's one of THE BEST tapes there is, not just about dobro, but about MUSIC. mike does a GREAT job of really breaking down basic theory stuff and making it understandable. if you get this tape and learn the basic theory, you'll be able to apply it to almost any musical situation. it's explained clearly and logically.
the whole tape makes sense, and flows in a logical progression from beginning to end.....i think it's laid out in lesson form, and there are ten separate lessons or so......i went through that tape and it really helped me a lot, especially in terms of visualizing chord progressions and seeing where the 1, 4 and 5 chords fall on the neck and common slants within those progressions. i also remember taking notes on the tape, and writing tabs out from it, so that i could practice specific things.
somewhere in the first two years, i also picked up the 'great dobro sessions' cd and book of transcriptions by stacy phillips. the two songs i really loved on that were 'flatt lonesome' and 'little green pill', so i learned them both. those were probably the first two songs i could play all the way through.....songs other people would recognize, that sounded like music.
at this point, i was about a year in to my dobro life. i was playing in the band NOBODY , and trying to use the things i was learning there. one thing i struggled with a HUGE amount was singing and playing at THE SAME TIME. at first, it seemed IMPOSSIBLE. as a recovering guitar player, i found it hard to 'not play' at certain points. on guitar, i would always be moving, if i was playing rhythm my right hand was almost always moving, but on dobro, it was different. i had to learn to play and feel differently. it was very VERY hard for me and didn't come naturally. at times, it was very frustrating, trying to play in a band with other great musicians and feeling like a stone. but, as the months went by, i could feel some slow improvements.....
after about a year, i somehow stumbled upon doug cox. doug is a canadian fellow, and has some instructional materials which were very helpful to me, namely the"blues dobro" book and cd and the blues dobro video......i'm not sure which order i got them in, or how i even found out about them, but i know that i tore through both of them and found them extremely helpful. they are well written, easy to understand, and really break the basics of blues playing down into material you can use. i know that doug's material really helped my playing a lot and took me to another level. i think it also helped me to get a basic understanding of how to get to where i wanted to go, and some ways of getting there.
i would say that about took care of my first two years of playing. i think a lot of it was figuring out what NOT to play. i'm not sure where it came from, but i think i felt like i was getting paid by the note or something.......i felt sort of guilty if i wasn't 'doing something' i said earlier, when playing guitar, i was always playing something, and with dobro, i think it took me a couple of years to really get away from that feeling and to just leave some space, especially in a group context.....
at some point here, i mapped out a diagram of the pentatonic minor scale on the dobro. i think i started with the key of C, mapping out an A minor scale, and memorizing the positions. in time, when i had the positions and shapes down, i moved to other keys, which greatly helped my improvising. after about a year, i also began attempting to have regular private lessons with stacy phillips. this would usually involve my getting on the amtrak in boston, riding four hours to new haven, walking to his house, taking a lesson for an hour or two, and then going back on the train. there goes your tuesday. :-) last year, i finally got a car, which made that production a lot easier and less expensive.........during one of these private lessons, stacy showed me how to pull strings behind the bar. at first, this was really freaky and intimidating, and i couldn't believe anyone would actually try to do that.......but, later that night, about ten hours after i was shown it, i was trying it live on stage. sometimes i'm a little to brave for my own good. :-)
i really did enjoy that sound though, the pulled string sounded like a pedal steel to me. i thought it was really cool. so, i learned the song 'last rose of autumn', from the great dobro sessions transcriptions. it was painstaking, but it really helped my playing a lot, in i grew quite a bit from trying to learn it. this was another song that was to become a regular part of my daily routine.
stacy also turned me on to the playing of bob dunn, and the work he did in milton browne's band. i can't remember where i got those cd' was a box set. new rose? or something? it may have been at scotty's music......(i didn't go there, i mail-ordered it.= ).....that stuff blew me away. i don't know why, but i really REALLY identified with bob dunn. when i heard the stuff he played, i could just 'feel' it.......i guess it was because it felt 'dangerous' to me. like he was just about to fall down.....running really fast, through a crowded train station....or something. i don't know, but it really grabbed hold of me and i soaked up as much of it as i could. i memorized stacy's transcription of the song 'taking off', which i think is at the very end of the green dobro book.......this is yet another song that i play almost every day, as part of my warmup routine.
as i began my third year of playing, i bought stacy's book 'the complete dobro player'. i picked out specific chapters and sections that i wanted to concentrate on, and went after them. i tried to learn as much as i could from the blues and rock sections of the book, as well as the chapters on slants and scales.
somewhere along the line here, i became aware of the stuff kelly joe phelps was doing, along with the playing of david lindley. as the group NOBODY was beginning to unfold, i began to look at these two guys in particular, and they helped me to start to begin to at least entertain the idea of playing dobro i said, i had already done some fingerpicking on acoustic guitar, so that was helpful to me......but i had a hell of a time learning or figuring out how to 'strum' a dobro. that's been very difficult, to get the right feel and touch.....i think it's because i tend to hit it pretty hard. :-) but i've been working on it, and that is the main thing i've been working on during my fourth year of playing: solo dobro. i should probably note here, that by solo, i'm not talking about instrumentals, i'm talking about playing and singing at the same time......and that is where i am right now.
i started out using G tuning, the usual dobro tuning, or high bass G, GBD,GBD low to high. in my third year, i start working some with open D, DADF#AD, which was sort of like learning a new instrument. now, i probably play half in G and half in D. one thing that did help with the D tuning, was that anything i played on the top three strings in G tuning, i could play on strings 4,3, 2 in D tuning. the intervals between the strings are the same, just moved 'in' a string.
these days, when i play out, i usually bring two dobros, one tuned to G, and one to D. other times, i'll bring the national squareneck i have, which has it's own unique sound. when i am on the street or in the subway, i will play an hour in G, retune to D, play another hour, and then go back to G. and so on.
still awake?
in my first year of playing, i got a couple of lap steels, which i tuned to G and used to practice on early in the morning, or when i was in situations where i couldn't make any noise, i'd use a lapsteel and a headphone amp. this has helped me to get in a lot of practice time that i definitely wouldn't get on regular old noisy dobro.
these days, my 'normal' routine is to practice in the morning, on my lunch break, and then when i get home from work. most of those sessions begin with some warmup rolls, followed by the song "golden wedding days" to work on my slants, then "last rose of autumn", followed by the solo from "taking off". those three things are kind of my preliminary practices, and i do them every day when i sit down to play. a lot of times, i even do them in the subway when i first set just helps me to feel warmed up and centered. i am currently working on some slack key hawaiian things, arranged for solo dobro, and some middle eastern modes, which i'm trying to work into my playing. i usually set aside some time each week to play along with records, to work on my timing, and accuracy, although one of the benefits of playing alone is that i dont' have to worry about keeping time with other people.....:-)
so, if you made it this far, congratulations!!! that's been my path so far. when people ask me how i learned what i learned, that is pretty much the road i took. if you are asking my advice on what YOU should do to play the dobro, i would say just listen to your heart, and do what you think is right. a lot of it depends on the style of music you want to play, but i would really recommend the mike auldridge Basic Techniques Video Course for the Dobro Guitar. .....that's a great place to start, and it will give you a good foundation. ANY of stacy phillips' books will really help you, but i would recommend starting with the 'green book' and or moving to the "complete dobro player" book. there is enough material in the complete dobro player to last anyone a lifetime.......i would also recommend joining howard parker's RESONATOR DISCUSSION LIST.....lots of players are on this list, including mike auldridge and stacy phillips. if you have a question about something, chances are, you'll find an answer's a great resource, and has helped me a lot over the past few years. last but not least, make sure you check out PAUL BEARD'S RESOPHONIC OUTFITTERS.....paul is a great guy, and has almost anything you'd ever need for a dobro. he makes beautiful instruments, and does great setups and repair work. the website is a little out of date sometimes, but call them, and they'll help you with any supplies you might need. one thing they carry, is a NUT EXTENDER, which you can use to raise the strings on your regular old acoustic guitar, to see if you like the feel of playing lap style, before you actually commit to buying a dobro......
you can return from whence you came for more GEAR INFO.......
that's pretty much it for now........if you have questions, feel free to email me, but in the mean time, just keep practicing....i know everyone's heard that, but that really IS the way to get is my opinion that you are better off practicing for SHORT periods of time, EVERY day, or as much as you can, rather than waiting for a big chunk of time that may never come. often, it seems like people think they need to have a few HOURS to set aside for practice, and then they can't find that kind of time, so they end up not practicing. i think you are much more likely to find you have twenty minutes free, and if you use that time wisely, you CAN progress. those 20 minute sessions add up over time, and i find them to be more helpful than one long marathon session every few days or once a week..........
in the end, if you really want to do it, you CAN.... you might not play like whoever your favourite player is, but you CAN become the best player YOU can be, and develop your OWN style, which is really the best thing you can do anyway.....above all, make sure you have FUN!!
GO BACK.....