nice day for a drive with your dobro

if i’ve gotta get up at the ass-crack of dawn, then it better be for a good cause.

today, it was for a good reason.

for a long time, i’ve been bitching, moaning, and complaining about the problems that i’ve encountered when trying to amplify resonator guitars (dobros).  i’ve consulted with some great players, and up until recently, the consensus has been that there are demons that live beneath the coverplate that are damn near untameable…and that the best we can do is to apply generous amounts of EQ and keep it out of your wedges as much as possible, since they’re the primary culprit when it comes to that hounds-of-hell howling noise that comes about when you pump it up the slightest bit.

playing as many instruments as i play, i’ve built a pretty elaborate rig to try to make my life as easy as possible, and to give myself a wide degree of flexibility as well…i have a single cable that goes into a voodoo labs splitter that sends the signal into a mixer that has EQ on each channel, plus an effects loop that allows me to send the dobro signal to a rane 31 band EQ…everything goes into the mixer, and i’m able to send the house soundman a single XLR out that has everything in it.

where the house sound often bites me in the ass is regarding my use of the volume pedal.

i try to control my dynamics from the stage, and keep myself out of the artists’ way when i’m not doing anything other than supporting the song, and then give myself a bit of a boost when i’m doing something that’s a little more “me”-centric.  and i always make a point, when using this rig, to let the soundman know that, hey – just because i might disappear for a bit doesn’t mean i’ve gone away, and please, please, PLEASE don’t pump my volume up through the house when i pull it back with the pedal…because what that means is that when i floor it to take a solo, it really is gonna sound like hendrix…because it’ll be feeding back, howling, and doing all kinds of things it wasn’t designed for.

i finally got so disgusted a while back that i sold my main gigging dobro to my buddy andy keenan…i just figured that, at some point, i’ll have to start over and figure this out somewhere down the road.  i wasn’t using it with dan at all, was only using it on one song in robert hazards’ shows, and i knew i’d have time before the next idlewheel tour to get some sort of solution together, so i cased it up, handed it over to andy, and said goodbye to it for a while.

not long afterward, i started talking with howard at beard guitars (at the recommendation of papa mowry from beaucoup blue) about pickup installations and the like, and he told me that there was a new fishman pickup that they had worked on in collaboration with jerry douglas, paul himself, and larry fishman that was going to change everything, and that this new pickup was what i wanted, along with the new fishman aura pedal that they’d worked on with jerry…and as soon as they came in, he’d put me on the list to get one installed.

i took him at his word, and started looking for instruments again…my plan was to have them upgrade a roadworthy instrument (a higher end regal – actually, a pair of them – was what i ended up settling on) with tusq nuts and upgraded beard cones, along with the new pickups.  i bought an identical pair of regal RD40VS dobros (one for the standard G tuning, and one for the open D tuning that has the same string relationship as the open E tuning that i use for lap steel) and made up my mind that i was taking a day and going to the shop to have them set up as soon as the pickups came in.

in the meantime, i mention all this to my buddy john lilley (john, some of you may know, is the guitarist for the legendary philadelphia band the hooters), and john is intrigued – he has a beard model gold tone dobro that he’s been using that needs some setup work, and we decide that we’ll head to the shop on the same day and get all three of them done in one fell swoop.

so, when i finally get the word from howard that the pickups and aura pedals are in, we set up a date when john and i can bring our guitars in to have the three of them set up and have the pickups installed…the whole nine yards.  as fate would have it, it was on a day when i had a sellersville theatre show the same night (with blake allen, opening for hal ketchum).  howard said that they usually got into the shop around 9am or so…and, when i factored out the travel time to get me there around 9:30 or so, it meant i needed to leave the house by 7 am.

yeah, that’s right…7:00 in the morning.  which, of course, meant that i had to get up at 6:30 at the latest to get myself together and get out the door….whew.

john and i originally talked about meeting up and driving out together, but with the pressure of the show that night, combined with what time john would have to get out of bed, john decided (sensibly, i might add) that since they’d be working on both of my instruments first, there was no point in him getting there quite so early, and he drove out himself a little later.

the folks at beard seem to treasure their anonymity – if you drove by their shop, you’d never know it.  in fact, you’d probably wonder if anyone was using the building for anything other than storage…which probably suits them just fine.

once you step inside, though, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on there…everyone who works there is passionate about resonator guitars, and it shows in their work.  howard is one of the sweetest guys you’ll ever meet, and paul (who got there around lunchtime) treats every player who ends up at his shop with equal respect – whether you’re jerry douglas or mike auldridge or a slacker like me, you won’t know the difference based on the way paul treats you.

the tech who did the installations on my dobros was on top of his game…he had them both done by shortly after lunchtime, and while he worked on the second one, we took the first one out into the office where there was an amp set up and put the new pickup and the aura pedal through its paces.

i’ve been making a lot of assumptions thus far, with regard to what anyone reading this might or might not know about dobros or resonator guitars…here’s the scoop.

whereas a traditional acoustic guitar creates its sound via the strings driving the top of the guitar (the soundboard) and creating amplified vibrations, a resonator guitar creates sound by using the strings to drive an internal cone that resonates (much like a traditional speaker cone) to create the sound of the instrument.  with an acoustic guitar, the strings are actually directly driving the entire top of the instrument, which is (obviously) made of wood, and is somewhat dense…with a dobro, the vibrations are transferred via the bridge to the cone, which is much thinner…and, as i mentioned before, acts in a manner very similar to a speaker cone.

i think the density of the cone and the manner in which it vibrates are big factors in why the instrument is so prone to feedback at stage volumes when amplified internally.  when you stand on stage in front of a monitor wedge with a dobro strapped ’round your shoulders, you’re essentially pointing a moving speaker coil at a huge microphone diaphragm – it’d be more amazing if you didn’t get any feedback under those circumstances.

the old fishman resonator pickups got their signal from the cone itself (they were tiny, round eyelet-style pickups that interfaced with the cone at the point where the screw from the spider attached to the cone itself, as i recall).  they sounded great at low volumes, and got a very realistic sound from the instrument…but, they brought with them all the feedback issues that come from the cone itself.

the new fishman pickup is a different design – it replaces the saddle, as do many of the traditional acoustic guitar pickups.  this is a great idea if you want to amplify the fundamental sound of the vibrating string, which the new pickup does a great job of.  however, with an instrument like the dobro, the sound that you identify with the instrument has more to do with the cone than it does with the string…so if you’re listening to the sound of the pickup by itself, it almost sounds more like an old squareneck acoustic hawaiian guitar (like martin and regal made in the 20’s and 30’s) or a weissenborn hawaiian guitar…something more akin to that sound than the sound of a dobro – again, because you’re hearing the amplified sound of the fundamental vibrations of the string.

however, when you plug in the aura, it’s a whole new ballgame.

the aura series of pedals from fishman (if you haven’t seen or heard of them yet) are designed to take the fundamental signal of an acoustic instrument that passes through them and apply digitally stored models of instruments from a particular family as they sound through specific microphones.  for acoustic guitar alone, there are pedals specific to concert size, dreadnought, classical and 12 string models.  the new aura pedal for dobro is specific to traditional bluegrass-style playing on a wood-bodied instrument (whether or not there’ll be a metal-bodied, national-style aura pedal down the road is anyones’ guess).

i won’t even begin to try to explain the technology behind how something like this would work, because i don’t understand it.  the best i can fathom is that perhaps they store data about how a particular microphone (say, an SM81 or a neumann U-47) colors a sound source, and they use whatever technology they’re using to impart that same frequency curve on the signal that passes through the pedal.  that’s the only way i can figure that something like this would work.  i suppose that, if i become even a little curious at some point, i could look into it…but right now, all i know is that this pedal, in five square inches of floor space, accomplishes what my rack mixer and 31-band EQ could not – i can take my dobros on stage with nothing but a pair of cables and this box and they sound better than they ever could have without the new setup.

that night, i had a show at sellersville with blake (as i mentioned earlier), and i couldn’t wait to get there to plug this thing into a serious house and see how it reacted.  blakes’ head spun around when he heard it…i couldn’t stop giggling through soundcheck.  to call this a quantum leap forward from what i was accustomed to when trying to play my dobros in a live setting is still something of an understatement.

i almost want to go buy one of those $150 dobros on eBay and plug it into this thing and see what it does…it would be a curiosity move, because i’ve always believed (in the traditional world of acoustic amplification, anyway) that in order to have a great amplified sound, you have to start with a great acoustic sound.  i don’t personally believe that there’s a pickup or preamp system out there that’ll turn a $70 galveston into a prewar martin through the PA.  if there is, i haven’t heard it.

i’m curious, now, though…what would happen if you plugged a craptastic instrument into this thing?  if it works the way i think it does, it would sound like a $6,000 microphone being used to record the aforementioned craptastic instrument, as opposed to sounding like the fingers on the crappy instrument being transferred to an amazing sounding guitar – but that’s a question i’ll save for some point in the future when the novelty and amazement have worn off.

i can tell you, that after i had the work done to these two instruments by the folks at beard, there’s nothing craptastic about either of them.  the improvement in the tonal quality, sustain, and playability is completely night and day…combine that with how they sound amplified now, and i feel like i’ve been visited by cinderella’s fairy godmother.  i’ve got two instruments that i can take to a gig and play through the house without any worries.  what a huge load off my shoulders!

john lilley and i with the beard guitars staff
john lilley and i with the beard guitars staff

john and i both left very happy, to say the least.

now if fishman will just get busy on the mandolin and banjo versions….

robert hazard: 1948-2008

i wonder how he’d feel about all the attenion he’s getting right now.

a google search turns up news articles all over the country…

tuscaloosa, AL…

minneapolis, MN…

hartford, CT…

phoenix, AZ…

and, of course, in the news sections on CNN, Yahoo,, billboard, and every local site you can imagine…even crossing onto sports sites like – the news that robert hazard passed away tuesday after surgery to treat pancreatic cancer, days short of what would have been his 60th birthday on august 21st.

if robert’s life were a movie, my part in it would probably be buried pretty deeply in the credits – just after christmas, i got a call from michael radcliffe, a fellow musician with whom i’d worked in patsy foster’s band. he mentioned that robert was looking to make some changes in his band and wanted to know if i’d be interested in being a part of it.

i said yes, of course, because that’s what i do…i nod my head to damn near anything and reserve judgement unless i know out of the gate that there’s no way in hell i’d be appropriate for the project, or i have some piece of information that tips me off beforehand that it would end badly. in this case, though, i was intrigued because i’d heard so many different stories about the guy that i just had to get close enough to form some opinions of my own. one report in particular from a musician that i’m pretty close to (the details of which are really unimportant at the moment) was still relatively fresh in my head…and, were it true, would have become immediately apparent if we tried to work together.

so robert called me, we had a great conversation on the phone, and he asked if i’d be interested in coming up to visit for the weekend and play through some songs and see if there was any chemistry, and whether or not this might work out. after a couple of false starts, i finally managed to clear a weekend that would allow for the trip, and i packed my gear and drove up through five-plus hours of some of the most beautiful countryside on the planet on my way to old forge, new york, where robert lived with his family in adirondack state park. i hauled the stuff into the house through the snow and we settled in for a bit…i had met him once before this, at a show at steel city coffeehouse where j.d. malone was opening for robert, and i was playing with j.d. – this show happened just shortly after we’d begun talking about the possibility of working together, but it was still confidential at that point, and neither of us could let on that we were discussing working together.

now, though, we were riding out a snowstorm in a cabin in the adirondacks, with nothing to do but play music. he had sent me three full albums – blue mountain, songs from the seventh lake, and my personal favorite, troubador (which was recorded and produced by karen savoca and pete heitzman). over the course of the night and the next morning, we played through damn near everything on the three records that he currently played as part of the live show, and we had a blast. his son, rex, had a sleepover that night…when he returned the next day, robert brought him downstairs to check out the array of instruments i had brought along. (he especially liked the jaguar baritone.)

we were both really excited about the possibilities – immediately after mike radcliffe had called, i went to roberts’ myspace page and listened to some of the material from his new record, and i really liked i still believe in you – and could see, just listening to that song, where i’d fit into the scheme of things. when the CD’s came in the mail, it was the first one i put in, and i still remember being in the car, driving in the dark, and listening to the one/two punch of i still believe in you, into bound…and being optimistic that i had something to contribute to this.

we did one more adirondacks rehearsal, with the remaining members of the band, and made it official not long afterward. i had misgivings about not getting to play with freddie ditomasso, because he and i were new friends, and i was looking forward to being in a band with him…so that was a bit awkward, but that had nothing to do with mike’s playing – he’s a very solid bass player, and a great guy.

we did our first gig together as a duo at rockwood music hall in NYC, in front of a table full of rykodisc employees, including ruby marchand (the head of A&R) – no pressure there. actually, it must be said, that aside from getting twisted around in traffic and showing up much later than i wanted to, the show itself went quite well – robert was visibly pleased afterward, and everyone at the ryko table seemed to be in good spirits.

michael tearson (a philly radio legend if there is such a thing) was at our first full band gig, and was ecstatic with what was happening…he loved some of the things that i brought to the table, including the 12 string guitar on nobody but the night and the pedal steel on roberts’ cover of bob dylan’s i need you. later in the year, when the band played the tin angel, tearson joined us onstage for out of the blue and it brought the house down.

we had some great gigs, it has to be said. my personal favorite, though, would be the co-bill at godfrey daniels in bethlehem, PA that we did with karen savoca and pete heitzman. robert was on his game that night, karen and pete sat in with us, we sat in with them…it really felt like a family reunion of sorts, and there were some great musical moments that night, too – pete and i both playing on ride to town, which robert seldom did live – midnight gal, somebody else’s dream, lucky hat – everything that we played sounded great that night.

on mandolin with robert at godfrey's
on mandolin with robert at godfrey's
pete heitzman and i (on baritone guitar) with robert hazard
pete heitzman and i (on baritone guitar) with robert hazard

we went to the bar across the street (where i’d just been some weeks before with the most recent – at that time – incarnation of craig bickhardt‘s on the road and in the round) and closed the place down, said goodbye to everyone and filed that one away in the history books…we were a little demoralized by the thin crowd, but as far as the interplay between robert and i, it was really starting to take shape.

there was no way of knowing at that point that there would only be a few more.

after our show at sellersville theatre, opening for the refugees, robert went home and found himself almost immediately in the hospital in syracuse for a couple of days. i had no idea until it was over and he was back home, but the words that weren’t said when talking to robert or susan were pretty ominous. they said that the original focus was on possible kidney trouble, but susan said that “there are a couple of options and some are definitely worse than others”…in terms of what the possible problem might have been.

robert told me that they ruled out kidney failure, because they were functioning, but they weren’t sure what was happening in the aftermath – where it was going, what was happening to it – and that he was looking at having to go back for tests and a possible biopsy.

that was one of the last conversations we had.

we had something of a non-verbal falling out shortly thereafter, over whether or not he should try to do a show he was scheduled for, and there were a couple of other issues that had been bothering me, as well…in hindsight, they were pretty silly, but in the end, it amounts to the fact that when robert died, he and i still hadn’t discussed any of it. from my perspective, i was still under the impression that this was something that he’d come out of, something that he’d beat, and when he did, i’d reach out to him and we’d clear the air about my gripes, and if there was any desire to work together again, we’d move forward from there…and if not, at least we both know where we stood. it didn’t seem like a priority at the moment – certainly, he had bigger fish to fry than haggling with me over song arrangement issues, money issues, finding fault where no fault existed issues…it was enough to get under my skin, but not enough to warrant getting into while he was dealing with being sick.

but now, i have to live with the fact that i put off making amends and explaining my position, and that my friend very likely went to his grave pissed at me.

mend your fences, people. don’t dick around.

robert sent out a notice a couple of weeks ago, that he posted on his website:

A heartfelt thank you to all my fans and friends who have been so supportive to my music and the direction I have taken over the past few years…

I have been truly blessed as a performer and a songwriter to have you with me on this wonderful journey.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances beyond my control, I have been forced to cancel the rest of my summer tour schedule. We will pick up again in the fall – in the meantime, I will be preparing for a new CD and more show dates…please stay tuned to your local venues for rescheduled dates in your area .

Until we meet again…

he was scheduled to be admitted to mass general hospital in boston for surgery – yet they still weren’t saying what the surgery was for. i can only speculate at the moment on whether or not they knew at that point that pancreatic cancer was the culprit…but outwardly, he gave the impression that he was optimistic about his return to the concert stage and was giving thought to the next record.

the next record…it would have been phenomenal, if the songs he had been writing of late were any indication. one in particular, summerland, had become my favorite. as much as it pains me that i never got the opportunity to clear the air with robert before he died, it pains me as much that we’ll never get to play that song together again…and that likely no one will get to hear it, either.

it also needs to be said – publicly – that i never saw the side of robert that so many of the stories i’d heard had painted. i’m not saying that they’re all untrue, i’m simply saying that – in his dealings with me – he was never anything but a gentle soul. we didn’t always see eye to eye, but he never lashed out at me or threw any acrimony in my direction.

i talked to my buddy michael vernacchio (robert’s longtime keyboard player) over the weekend, and michael said that he’d never seen robert as pleased with the band as he’d been of late…that’s not to say he didn’t have his complaints, but that generally speaking, in the past there was always a gripe or an issue of some sort – but that he’d moved away from that in the past year or so. i wouldn’t begin to take credit for that, but i will certainly say that the band earned any accolades that it got, from anyone who gave them…robert included.

it’s gonna take a long time to make peace with this.

if it didn’t hit you the first time i said it, i’ll say it again…if there’s someone that you need to make amends with, to mend fences with, to hash things out with – best to do it now. you may not get the chance later, and then you’ll have to live with the same stuff that’s flying about the inside of my head today.

goodbye, robert – i’ll see you on the other side.

susan, remy, rex – i’m sorrier for you loss than you probably know.

michaela majoun, robert hazard, me, and gene shay at WXPN
michaela majoun, robert hazard, me, and gene shay at WXPN

the enchanted fox, medway MA

so, the fact is, i knew before i left the house that this gig was going to be a bit spotty. my voice still hadn’t recovered from my weird bout with whatever it was that i’ve been wrestling with for the past couple of weeks, but it was good enough that i could get through the show, i was relatively sure.

i had played here before, several months before, with dan may – and they’d asked me to come back and do a solo acoustic show when i could, and as it turned out – this friday was when i could.

the enchanted fox is what you’d probably call a “new age” bookstore in medway, MA – and the performance space is upstairs over the store. used during store hours for yoga and other less melodic pursuits, every now and again they invite musicians to perform in the space after store hours. it’s perfect for someone like me, who isn’t really capable of drawing more than it could hold (probably 30 people would be the absolute most you could squeeze in there), and it makes for an intimate space where it’s relatively easy to hold court and sing a few songs and develop a rapport with the folks who come to hear you.

one of the folks who came felt an apparent insurmountable urge to go with the “rapport” part of the deal…he was taking calls on his cellphone, chatting away during the show, and was asked to step outside several times before he finally left. i told everyone not long afterward (when they tried to apologize for his behavior that they had no control over) a couple of stories – one being about a rider on the BARTA bus to work on one of the occasions when i had to take the bus to work when a car was in the shop who was singing at the top of his lungs with his headphones on…the driver asked him to refrain from doing so, and the unstoppably optimistic rider told the driver, “hey, man…i’m just singin’ my song, you know?”

the other was the story of the douchebag at the sellersville theatre who felt that the price of admission to a show came with carte blanche to sing along at the top of his lungs, to the dismay of the other folks who paid the same fee to get in…without being told, apparently, that there’d be some free bonuses that came with their ticket…namely Joe Karaoke sitting right behind them, bellowing like a goat.

Chatty Dude was the only real drawback to the night, though…my voice wasn’t in its usual form, but i was able to get through most of the songs i chose to play with minimal problems.

the night before, i took a trip to scranton/wilkes-barre to pick up a new addition to my guitar family – an early eighties martin shenandoah D2832. i got it from a craigslist poster who had moved from S/WB to california, and the guitar was with his mother, who was helping him sell it. it’s beautiful, and it sounds amazing. when we got back (after taking some time to drive around wilkes-barre and take some pictures after dark), i restrung it with a set of the Elixir strings that i got from my buddy jeff wall in north carolina, and it sang like a bird. the action could use some tweaking, but that’ll have to wait until i get my main shenandoah out of the shop (it’s the herringbone D28 that’s in for the moment for a bridge remove/reglue, due to some lifting in the back).

it was our buddy mikes’ birthday, and a cake was hidden from view right next to where i was playing…and we announced that we had a quick diversion to attend to and began playing “happy birthday to you”…and mike was so completely unaware of the ambush that he began singing when everyone else did. so we took a break, had some cake, and finished the show before heading out for my relatively new friend and guitar enthusiast vernon domingo’s place after the show. the next morning, i had a phone interview with a writer from the allentown morning call for the dan fogelberg memorial show we’re doing on 8/13, and then vernon and i sat down for what’s destined to become our semi-regular guitar lesson…which is a pleasure, because he’s motivated to play for all the right reasons – he goes into his office/studio, puts on the guitar, and plays for the sheer enjoyment of the act of playing the instrument.  he really is a delight.

i had delusions of actually making it back to berks county in time for my old buddy darryl’s birthday party, but there was just too much on our plates for the afternoon, and we ended up only getting on the road in earnest at around 4pm or so.  factor in a cracker barrel stop on the way out of MA, and it was easily 11pm or so by the time i was able to get out of the car for the last time.

as has been noted, i don’t do solo acoustic shows very often…but i could see this one becoming a regular thing.  the people who run the place have an infectious enthusiasm for music, and they’re a joy to deal with.  see you soon, guys!