No one seems quite sure who first discovered the steel guitar or the sound you get that creates glissando effects by sliding a solid object up and down a taut string attached to a resonant body. Hawaiian tradition credits Joseph Kekuku (1874-1932) who discovered the technique after picking up a railroad bolt and finding that it made pleasing sounds on guitar strings. There’s the vichitra veena in India, a twentieth century instrument modeled after ancient ones that produced sounds by moving a glass ball along raised strings.
Popular records by Hawaiian guitar virtuosos David Kaili, Walter Kolomoku, Sol Ho’opi’i, and Frank Ferrera circulated their music throughout the world from 1914 through the depression years. Amplified guitars—acoustic and electric—were designed to produce more volume from Hawaiian instruments. The earliest electric guitarist on records was Coconut Joe Lopes, a featured soloist with his wife Noelani’s Hawaiian Orchestra, who recorded for Victor in 1933.
In the blues world, Louisville, Kentucky’s Sylvester Weaver used a pocket knife to make chords and create a surprise instrumental hit, “Guitar Rag,” in 1923. It was revived by Leon McAuliffe (with Bob Wills) in 1936 as “Steel Guitar Rag,” a jukebox hit that made steel guitars prominent in evolving honky-tonk styles. Though Jimmie Tarlton and Maybelle Carter made popular records with slide guitars in the 1920s, their quieter sounds couldn’t fill dance halls and dominate jukeboxes the way McAuliffe, Bob Dunn, and other young steel players did after 1935. Sylvester Weaver’s other blues records made little impact, and the next successful slide guitar records were made by Tampa Red, who played a voice-like lead on a National tri-cone guitar, with a bottleneck or bushing over the small finger on his left hand, accompanying a melody by chording the other strings. Barbecue Bob, Blind Willie Johnson, Lead Belly, and Kokomo Arnold, among others, played slide guitars on other popular records in the 1920s and ’30s.
What we call resonator (or Dobro) guitar style today probably began with Cliff Carlisle and Clell Summey (aka Cousin Jody), who routinely used resonator guitars to ornament original country songs in the 1930s. Bashful Brother Oswald (Beecher Kirby) gave Roy Acuff a trademark Dobro sound from 1939 until Roy’s death in 1992. Oswald inspired post-war era masters Speedy Krise, Shot Jackson, and “Uncle Josh” (Burkett Graves), whose work enhanced memorable records by Carl Butler, Molly O’Day & Mac Odell (Krise), the Bailes Brothers and Johnnie & Jack (Shot Jackson), Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs.
Contemporary resonator guitar masters are noted for their virtuosity and versatility in various styles of popular music, from country and bluegrass to pop and jazz, following in the steps of Tony Rice, Eddie Adcock, Missy Raines, Mark Delaney, Jim Hurst, Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Mike Munford, and other bluegrass innovators who’ve tested music boundaries throughout their careers. Modern resonator masters include Russ Hooper, Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge (1938-2012), and Rob Ickes, whose explorations blend ancient tones with sophisticated licks and novel chord positions.
Rob Ickes speculates on why the resonator guitar isn’t better known: “It’s a great versatile instrument, but many people still don’t know what it is. They’ll come up to me at shows and say they’ve never seen one, but they love it when they hear the sound of a slide on the strings. If you play guitar, you can probably play some mandolin and maybe banjo, because the left-hand requirements are similar. But there’s nothing else like holding the bar on a resonator guitar’s strings and, inevitably, some who try it go back to playing regular guitar.
“The Dobro didn’t sound like a banjo until Josh started doing Scruggs-rolls. The first thing he cut with Flatt & Scruggs was “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” I learned from Eddie Stubbs that he’d worked up a break with a lot of rolls in it and when they went to the studio, he changed his mind and played a simple bluesy chorus instead. But on “Randy Lynn Rag,” he sounds very banjo-ish. Josh could do it all—the Oswald stuff and the blues, too. In the early ’50s, when the Foggy Mountain Boys were in Lexington, Kentucky, they liked to jam with Josh when he was with Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, and the two bands appeared together.
“I grew up in California where people don’t expect you to be a bluegrass musician. So I’m a huge fan of steel guitar virtuoso Vance Terry, and I listened to Speedy West on Loretta Lynn’s first records. It’s some of the best music on the planet! I worked with Merle Haggard on a few albums. Once, when we were at his house in Redding, he said, ‘You’re from California? That’s too cool,’ because he didn’t think that’s where bluegrass players came from. I like being appreciated for my bluegrass roots, but I’m into the Bakersfield stuff, too, and I know Merle’s music inside and out. He and Buck Owens are probably my two favorite musicians.
“I started playing as a kid. My grandparents had a campground and, every summer, we all spent time there. My grandfather played the fiddle, my grandma played accordion and piano, and there was music all the time. In winters they lived in San Bruno, where they hosted picking parties every Thursday night. My grandpa gave me a fiddle when I was seven. I loved it, but I wasn’t interested in playing it. When I was 12, my brother brought home some Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin records I really liked. When I was 13, we went to a bluegrass festival in Grass Valley, where I got the itch to play something. On the way home, we listened to Mike Auldridge’s first album, Dobro, and it blew me away. When we got home, my brother took my mom’s old Kay guitar and put a pen under the first fret to raise the strings. She gave me that guitar and I started playing.
“The campground was near Garberville, an isolated small town in the middle of the California redwoods. My grandmother asked about Dobros at a music store and learned about Ron Stanley, who played one. He was gracious enough to come out to the campground, give me some lessons, and get me started on the right foot. He brought two real Dobros and let me play one of them. I still had my mom’s Kay, and I remember how cool it felt to play one with a real resonator in it. I had Stacy Phillips’ Dobro Book and a couple of others. There weren’t many books back then, so I learned by ear, too.
“We played music almost every night at the campground, so I started right in, playing what I could, gigging at church events and parties. I learned fiddle tunes from my grandfather. He was of Norwegian descent and knew ‘Dad’s Waltz’ and a few other Norwegian tunes. He played with his brothers, and one of them showed me how to play ‘Steel Guitar Rag.’ Those were wonderful summers. Us kids would swim all day, come home to play music at nights, and it was like heaven on earth. I was focused on both bluegrass and Mike Auldridge, and I learned his tunes from the records. He was the first Dobro player to put the instrument out front and make solo albums, and it made a big difference to me and Jerry Douglas. Uncle Josh gave Mike two originals for his first album, ‘Dobro Island’ and ‘Rock Bottom.’ All I listened to was his first record until the second one came out. I listened to that one, too, and the third one! Then someone told me about the great duet album by Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs [Skaggs & Rice]. There was no Dobro on it, but it blew me away, and I started listening to Tony Rice and Jerry Douglas. Tony’s music hit me right between the eyes, and it’s always been important to me.
“The Dobro stayed front and center for the first time on Mike Auldridge’s first record, and it worked because he was such a clean and beautiful player. He enjoyed jazz, pedal steel guitar, and experimental music that pushed the boundaries. ‘Killin’ Me Softly’ was great and allowed us all to play more pop tunes on the Dobro. He pushed himself. He pushed his instrument to the front and made more solo albums. Then Jerry made solo albums, and I made some, too. It’s fun to do these projects, and you have the chance to choose the music and arrange it the way you think it should sound. I have big ears, and I like other guitar players like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Jimmy Smith, Robben Ford, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Charlie Christian, and Lonnie Johnson. I listen to a lot of guitar—more than most Dobro players would. I’ve studied Josh Graves, Jerry Douglas, Brother Oswald, and I wonder what I should learn now. I can play a little guitar, but I prefer to take B.B. King licks and play them on the Dobro.
“I liked Tony Rice, Sam Bush, and all the notes they could get, and sometimes I felt limited on the Dobro because using the bar is like playing with one finger on your left hand. The way Jerry Douglas got around it was to hammer on and pull off, getting three notes for the price of one, and increase his speed. At an early age, I realized that people could get stuck in those root positions. Like, if you want to go to a D chord, you go to the seventh fret. It’s where we all start, and I wanted to get away from that limitation, so I started learning some new scales that opened up a whole world for me. It’s challenging to do and get it to sound good. We have the same notes that a guitar has, and we pick them out by learning the scales and studying the fretboard. People tend to lay the bar straight across the frets, but if you go to the fifth fret and hit the top three strings, you get a G, an E, and a C. But sideways you get a G, an F, and a D—a cool little blues break. The 6th and 7th frets reveal a whole different color when I’m not on the same fret for each note, and it helps me play more melodically. Dobro players sometimes shy away from the melody, because it’s a lot of work when you only have one finger on your left hand. I like to at least try to play the melody.
“Knowing other styles is an advantage. I’ll listen to a guitar or a saxophone and think, ‘How would that fit on the Dobro?’ When I figure it out, I feel more like a real musician and able to play the right thing at the right time. The old Rudy Vallée song ‘If I Had You’ doesn’t call for a straight bar anywhere. I love that melody, and there’s no other way to play it. If I’m playing on a bluegrass record, I won’t throw in the Miles Davis licks, but knowing his music just energizes my bluegrass. I used to jive my way through ‘Jerusalem Ridge’ until I decided I wanted to learn it the way Kenny Baker played it, note for note. When I teach, I tell people how important geography is in learning where the note you’re seeking with one left-hand finger (the steel bar) will sound best and accommodate the rhythm. With ‘Jerusalem Ridge,’ finding the notes in some places is okay, but in other places, it won’t work. You have to try several locations to find the right one.
“Because of Bill Monroe, some people still think the Dobro isn’t a bluegrass instrument. When I was young, all I liked was bluegrass, but as I got older, I wanted to explore and become a more complete musician. I moved to Nashville in 1992 and played with the Lynn Morris Band and Charles Whitstein until Tim Stafford called to say he was putting a band together and invited me to his house to play, and we had a blast. We became Blue Highway, did a demo tape of four or five songs, pitched it at IBMA and did an album for Rebel Records in the fall. There was a lot of talent in that band. We straddled between progressive and traditional, and I enjoyed contributing to song arrangements. Starting with our third record, we were doing about ninety percent originals and creating quality songs that inspired other bluegrass musicians to write on their own. It was a great gig that lasted for 21 years.”
During his tenure with Blue Highway, Rob Ickes won Dobro Player Of The Year from IBMA 15 times. When it was time to move on in 2015, he joined forces with Trey Hensley, a straight-ahead country baritone singer and original guitar stylist. Their ability to combine skill, wits, and music on equal terms creates rare excitement, stretching and enlarging the boundaries of country and bluegrass styles, while introducing complex rhythms and harmonies. The duo’s first CD, Before The Sun Goes Down, received a Grammy nomination, and they’ve since appeared on records with Special Consensus and Bobby Osborne. Rob says, “We have fun at our shows, playing music in different styles and genres and introducing some of our originals. Trey can sing anything, and I’ve welcomed the chance to sing more often too. Singing gives us more freedom, excitement, and opportunities to let more people hear the music we’re doing. Our new Compass album World Full Of Blues was just released in October. Taj Mahal makes a guest appearance on it, and Trey will sing and play the blues on an old metal-bodied National.”
Years ago, sociologist Marshall McLuhan humorously defined art as “anything you can get away with.” Bluegrass has always observed the principle, maintaining a balance between old and new, profiting from the tension between them, keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t. Restlessness produced bluegrass in the first place, updating it from older mountain music when Bill Monroe experimented with accordions, mandolin tunings, banjo soloists, jazz fiddling, and string basses in never-ending attempts to create fresh ensemble sounds by combining new discoveries with ancient tones. Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley like to get away with whatever they can, too, by harnessing new songs, arrangements, and melodies to old acoustic instruments, and then let the results speak for themselves.