Resonator for the Rest of Us: Rob Ickes Demystifies the Dobro

October 27, 2009

IF JERRY DOUGLAS IS THE MUHAMMAD ALI of the Dobro, then Rob Ickes is like the instrument’s Michael Jordan. Through his work on four solo releases, with his bands Blue Highway and Three Ring Circle, and sessions with a Who’s Who of country and bluegrass greats, Ickes has won the IBMA Dobro Player of the Year Award an unprecedented nine times. His playing is characterized by dazzling chops, sweet vibrato, and stellar intonation, all the while making it look so damn easy that most 6-stringers just shake their heads and say, “I could never do that.”

Bad news alert: You probably never could do that. But here’s the good news—there’s a lot of great Dobro music to be made on a sub-Ickes level, and this lesson will show you how. From slick chord comping to blues licks to bluegrass 101, Ickes helps you get your feet wet without letting you drown.

First, you need an instrument. We all have some old acoustic with high action that we never play anymore. Grab that, put some heavy strings on it, and tune it to Dobro G (G, B, D, G, B, D, low to high). This will raise the action even higher and make it more tone bar friendly—not as good as a real resonator, but it’ll get the job done long enough for you to get totally addicted to the great sounds ahead of us.

Starting out simply, Ickes gives us the chords to a standard-issue I-IV-V blues in G in Ex. 1. Make sure you have your bar right over the fret for proper intonation and then just start sliding into the chords. Play along with a backing track or accompanist over and over to get comfortable with playing them in tune. “Listening carefully is the most important thing to having good pitch,” says Ickes. Just because this is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy, but dig into it fearlessly. This is an amazing sound. Try it. You’ll like it.

Ickes expands on these chord positions in Ex. 2, demonstrating the value of grabbing nonadjacent strings (i.e. second and fourth, third and fifth), for sweet-sounding intervals. “These harmonies work really well,” he says, “and they’re a great place to start if you’re just beginning on the Dobro.” Pinch the strings with your picking hand’s thumb and forefinger and go for it. Keep the notes as clean as you can but don’t stress—one of the good things about an open tuning is that if you hit a stray string, it’ll probably still sound good.

To take us out of the bluegrass realm and more into a Duane Allman-style blues, Ickes gives us the pentatonic licks in Ex. 3. Although the notes don’t vary much, the three different positions he nails them in will give you a great sense of how to riff all over the neck. Play these licks over the I-IV-Vin Ga million times to get your attack, pitch, and vibrato happening. Attitude is just as important as intonation here, but still make sure your intonation is spot on!

The final stage in our resonator boot camp is a chording lesson of Ex. 4, once again with two-note chord fragments. (“Don’t worry about the root,” says Ickes. “Somebody else will play that.”) This progression involves bar slants to get different intervals. After hitting the notes at the 5th fret, go up three frets and do what’s called a forward slant, where you angle the bar so that it’s resting over the 8th fret of the fifth string and the 9th fret of the third string. I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be afraid. It’s easier than it sounds, but make sure you mute the fourth string in between them. As you walk through this progression, the movement between a straight bar and a slant will start to feel much more natural.

This is admittedly barely scratching the surface of what real resonator cats can do, but that’s okay. We can’t all devote ourselves fulltime to the Dobro. For those who want to fine-tune their ears, learn some new tricks, or add gorgeous new colors to recorded tracks, however, this is the perfect way to do it.


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