“THAT’S JERRY DOUGLAS—THE MUHAMMAD Ali of Dobro,”
announced James Taylor from the Cotton Bowl stage at Eric Clapton’s
Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004. It was a fitting analogy, because
Douglas posesses an Ali-like combination of knockout chops and a
freewheeling attitude that makes him the champ. His rapid rolls flow
like liquid, his sweet tone absolutely sings, and he always sounds like
he’s having a grand ol’ time. Being everybody’s first call has
connected Douglas with such legends as Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Béla
Fleck, Ricky Skaggs, and Brad Paisley. All counted, “Flux” Douglas has
a whopping 2,000 sessions to his credit. For the past decade, Douglas
has collected Grammys like postage stamps as the featured player in
Alison Krauss & Union Station.
On his 12th solo effort, Glide [Koch], Douglas plays his new Beard Jerry Douglas Signature Resonator Guitar, which is fitted with Fishman’s new resophonic pickup. The music drifts from the blazing bluegrass of “Bounce” to the New Orleans-inspired “Sway” to the breezy Euro-country flavor of “Two Small Cars in Rome.” Featured guests include banjo guru Earl Scruggs, legendary flatpicker Tony Rice, and renowned pedal-steel man Lloyd Green. At press time, Douglas was preparing to headline the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Artist-In-Residence series where he would be using his new signature model Fishman Aura Imaging pedal.
How did you start down the resonator road?
Mandolin was my first instrument, and guitar was second. I started playing Dobro because of Josh Graves from Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Seeing Graves play was a real Dobro revelation for me. They’re such cool-looking guitars from the Art Deco period, and the resonator sound hit me in the chest really hard. I loved the way you could change notes just by sliding around. It felt more like singing than playing the guitar, and I knew my way around a guitar pretty well by the time I started playing Dobro at about age ten.
How much of your guitar technique transferred to Dobro?
Sometimes I’ll tune to open D (D, A, D, F#, A, D, low to high) for a bluesy song, but I use mostly use open G (G, B, D, G, B, D, low to high). The second, third, and fourth strings are the same as a guitar in standard tuning. That helped, but otherwise it was completely different. Having a slide bar in your left hand changes everything.
How did you develop such speed with a slide bar?
Early on, I made a conscious effort to learn traditional fiddle tunes such as “Sally Goodin” on Dobro. That requires fast plucking, and a lot of pulling off and hammering on with the fretting hand. The fiddle player in my father’s bluegrass band helped me break down passages so I could figure out how to conserve movement. I worked very hard on slide accuracy—hitting exactly over the fret to get the note.
What’s the secret to sweet, singing vibrato?
You’ll lose your sustain if you move too far either way, but you will get good tone and sustain if you keep equal pressure on the string, and rock the bar back and forth on the face. That also relieves tension from your hand and elbow for an easy, fluid motion. It’s almost like a deep breathing exercise.
Can you detail your basic plucking motion?
I used a flatpick when I started out playing guitar and mandolin, but for Dobro I use a thumbpick and fingerpicks on my first and second fingers. Sometimes I’ll use the third finger for texture. The basic motion moves around. My thumb generally handles the low end, but it’s really a free agent because I play most of my leading notes by striking down with it. The other fingers follow. I incorporate a lot of Josh Graves’ Dobro rolls that he adopted from Scruggs’ banjo rolls.
What Dobro techniques might guitar players want to try, and what can you only do on Dobro?
Try using the palm of your plucking hand to mute the strings for really even volume and sustain as you climb through a scale. And here’s a fun trick: If you hit a harmonic at, say, the seventh fret, and then put a slide down exactly on that fret, you can then move the harmonic note either way to get several more notes during the sustain. I can get five or six because the sustain from a solid Dobro bar allows you to do things that you can’t even do with a whammy bar. If you pluck the string hard enough you can move 12 frets without interruption.
What’s the story behind your recent gear renaissance?
My signature model Beard resonator guitar is a complete redesign of the basic Dobro concept. Think of it like a speaker cabinet. We put a baffle right in the middle to control how much low end goes into the screened chamber. We also changed the outside cover plate for what we think is the first time ever. We call it a “spinning palm,” and we’ve reconfigured the top holes in order to change the compression, which affects high end and loudness. The resulting sound is beautifully balanced.
I worked with Fishman on their new Nashville Series Resonator Pickup, which is the first one that truly captures the resonator sound without turning the instrument itself into a pickup at higher volumes. That has always been a problem because of its metal diaphragm. The Fishman is a twopiece piezo bridge pickup with one piece for the top three strings and another for the bottom three. The design helps translate the instrument’s balanced sound without construction interference.
We created 16 digital Aura images for my signature pedal by recording the resonator to two tracks—one from various microphones, and one from the pickup. Fishman has a program that turns the pickup signal into a mirror image of the microphone’s sound wave. Onstage, you can blend the live pickup sound with the Aura image. I tend to use all Aura, and I think of the images like EQ to control my slice of the sonic pie. For example, the beefy RCA 77 ribbon mic image works well to fill out the sound of a small combo, whereas the brighter Neumann U67 image cuts through the sound of a larger ensemble. The system captures the authentic sound of a miked-up Dobro, so I’m free to move around onstage. I’ve been trying forever to contend with an electric guitar’s volume, and now I finally can.
How did you capture the resonator tones for this studio recording?
I recorded to Pro Tools at my home studio. My engineer, Bil VornDick, used a pair of U67s placed at slightly different heights about six-to-eight inches away from the instrument right at the sweet spot between the screen and where the cover plate starts.
You play lap-steel on “Route Irish.” Can you explain how that relates to playing Dobro, and how you approached using them in the same track?
Two slide instruments together can get messy fast, so it worked well to play them both myself. I played the resonator in open- G, and the lap-steel in D tuning. It’s primarily a Dobro piece. I played a lot of sweeping chords and high notes on a Lap King Bel Aire to provide a frame and paint a background. Lap steel is difficult for me because electric instruments require a lighter touch, and lap steel is capable of so much sustain. You’re playing with power tools, comparatively, even though the basic mechanics are similar.
Tony Rice is featured on “A Long Hard Road” with Rodney Crowell, and on “Home Sweet Home” with Earl Scruggs on banjo. What makes Rice the man you call for acoustic guitar?
Tony and I have been playing together since the mid ’70s, and he’s done more than anybody to move acoustic guitar technique forward since then. He’s got such dexterity with both hands and creates a very fluid motion. He comes from the Clarence White school of power acoustic guitar. You need an old Martin D-28 to get that sound. We try to connect our thought paths and play off each other to create a mirror image. I played the guitar parts on “Trouble on Alum,” but Guthrie Trapp, from my touring band, played most of the acoustic and electric guitar parts on the CD other than the ones we’ve talked about.
What do you look for in a guitar player?
Predominantly, I need an acoustic player. I got lucky with Guthrie being able to play electric so well. He started out playing bluegrass. When he got to Nashville he started soaking up jazz and country as a Tele slinger on Broadway. Playing guitar with me is not an easy job. You have to be able to cover a lot of bases in several styles, and he certainly does that.
Can you describe Dan Tyminski’s playing, and howthe dynamic between the two of you flows in Union Station?
He comes from the Tony Rice school of putting the guitar right in your face and relentlessly driving you up the wall. He’s perfect for Alison’s gig because he’s good at supporting a ballad with arpeggios, he’s a great lead player, and he’s a top-notch bluegrass rhythm player. He ups the ante. You have to get your power chops up to play with him.
You have to be excited about celebrating the record launch at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Yeah, wow! I just got back from a meeting there, and you get the full thread of it when you take a look around. It’s imposing, but very cool. I’m honored to be involved, and I’m excited to get up there and play.