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….

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