Resolution: Rob Ickes Tears Down Walls, Builds Bridges, and Resonates Across Genres

OUT OF THE HOTBED OF BLUEGRASS talent that is San Mateo, California, one Robert Ickes emerged, picking up the resonator guitar (actually laying it across his lap) more than 30 years ago.
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OUT OF THE HOTBED OF BLUEGRASS talent that is San Mateo, California, one Robert Ickes emerged, picking up the resonator guitar (actually laying it across his lap) more than 30 years ago. “My first guitar was my mom’s old Kay,” recalls Ickes. “My brother stuck a pen under the strings to raise them up. My parents said they’d buy me a real Dobro if I saved up for half of it. I saved the money, called their bluff, and we went to the store and bought a 1979 Dobro model 60D.” From there it was off to the races, and it didn’t take long for Ickes’ prodigious talent to outgrow his NorCal confines. “I was always frustrated in the Bay Area,” he explains, “not because there weren’t great players out there, but nobody could commit. I was always wanting to do it really seriously and I just couldn’t hook up with the right guys.” Ickes made the logical move to Nashville and his chops and attitude got him work right away. “I was fortunate. When I moved out here, I ended up getting into this great bluegrass band after I had been here just a year or two, and that really got things going for me.” The band was Blue Highway and the “things” that got going for Ickes included sessions with the likes of David Grisman, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Steve Wariner, the Oak Ridge Boys, Earl Scruggs, Reba McEntire, Jorma Kaukonen, Toby Keith, Merle Haggard, and tons more.

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Blue Highway (left to right)—Jason Burleson, Rob Ickes, Shawn Lane, Tim Stafford, and Wayne Taylor.

Most of these sessions dealt with Ickes’ ability to play classic resonator lines on classic-sounding country and bluegrass tunes. Along the way, however, he also put out solo albums that showed the breadth and depth of his musicianship. Ickes’ hallmarks of tone, taste, and impeccable time and intonation were still there, but they now shared space with his love for jazz melodies and changes and his ever-deepening sense of swing. With the release of 2002’s What It Is, he cast the resonator in a whole new light, navigating jazz arrangements with stunning fluidity and trading lines with sax and piano like nobody’s business. The even jazzier Road Song, released a few years later, featured Ickes in a piano/Dobro duo setting with gorgeous, dynamic results, destroying any notions about what a resonator guitar can do and what constitutes “real jazz.”

It would be easy to say that all this talent is going somewhat unnoticed outside the admittedly niche-y bluegrass world, but that’s not really true. To go along with his recordsetting string of IBMA awards, Ickes has recently been rewarded for his work with a grant and fellowship from United States Artists, an endowment that seeks to recognize and “invest in America’s fi nest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society.” “I didn’t think Dobro players were even eligible for this sort of stuff,” he jokes. Like the days or yore when the Medici in Italy would act as well-heeled patrons of the arts, lending their largesse to artists in the belief that those artists benefit society as a whole, the fellowship gives Ickes a leg up in a rough business so that he might be free to focus on work that will possibly stand the test of time and give future generations something to study and appreciate.

For a guy who is so wildly adventurous in so many areas, Ickes remains oddly if charmingly conservative in others. Although particular about his tone, it is, more or less, a traditional resonator tone. He has sought out instruments that give him tradition, only more: more low end, more warmth, more speed and dexterity. For all his stylistic and harmonic inventiveness, Ickes hasn’t felt the need to stray far from his familiar sound or guitar, with just a few instances of him transferring his awesome chops to lap-steel, and no pedal-steel or “regular guitar” to be found in his catalog. There’s something endearing about it as well as something intriguing and even a little frightening. If and when this guy decides to plug in, turn up, and plaster effects on his music, it could be game over for many electric slide players and texturalists alike.

Like his kindred spirits of the uke (Jake Shimabukuro) and banjo (Béla Fleck), Ickes is almost humble to a fault. He views his ridiculous collection of awards and accolades as him being “fortunate,” and calls his body of work and discography just him being “busy” and “blessed.” While he admits to always having had a good work ethic, he’s working harder than ever these days, constantly “picking the brains” of fiddlers, mandolinists, pianists, and country, bluegrass, jazz, and rock players of all types. He’s able to sound wide-eyed and impressionable whether he’s describing his work with childhood heroes like Merle Haggard and Tony Rice, or stylistic aliens from outer space like David Lee Roth. “Man, I just have always liked music,” he says. “I never really thought about genres or anything. I hear the same beauty in Merle Haggard’s voice as I do in Ray Charles’. I’m not an expert on Jeff Beck and I don’t know the whole John Scofield school, but I have a deep appreciation for it, and I think I can grab some of it and make it work on my instrument. I’m always grabbing little pieces here and there.”

Those little pieces are in fine form on Ickes’ latest offering, Three Ring Circle’s Brothership. In his copious spare time, Ickes formed the band with bassist Dave Pomeroy and mandolin/ fiddle player Andy Leftwich, and it’s yet another project that has no patience whatsoever for stylistic rules or boundaries. In addition to their original tunes, they’ll fearlessly tackle songs by Stevie Wonder, Bireli Lagrene, Tom Petty, and more. If Blue Highway is a racecar amongst bluegrass covered wagons, TRC is a spaceship, and Ickes and his “jamgrass acoustic power trio” are boldly going where no power trio has gone before.

How did Three Ring Circle come together?

Dave Pomeroy and I met a little over ten years ago at a benefit concert in Nashville. He’s a great guy and great player. We started working on a lot of sessions together and he’s fast, he gets it done, and he always keeps it fun. I’ve learned a lot from working with him. I met Andy around the same time. He was probably just 17 or 18. I remember meeting him backstage at a gig and he was playing fiddle and was just amazing. A few years later, he and I played at a record release concert for an album we were both on, and I have this distinct memory of him wearing out the fiddle on that gig. Halfway through the show, I heard this incredible mandolin break. I looked down there and it was Andy. I didn’t even know he played mandolin. He’s absolutely one of the best guys on the planet on mandolin. Andy called me one day from a bluegrass convention in town and asked me to come play. I said, “Yeah, let me call Dave Pomeroy because it would be fun to get the three of us together.” We started playing and the sparks were just flying. We had all this music coming out and we thought, “This is kind of special. Let’s try to keep this going.”

Was any particular band a role model or inspiration for you guys?

Not really. I don’t know if there have been any bands with this instrumentation. That’s one of the things I really love about it. I like doing things that are new because, as a player, I feel like I have to dig a little deeper. I can’t say, “I wonder how so and so would play on this,” because I have no idea. We’re doing a lot of originals, and with this instrumentation, I’ve got no path to follow. I really enjoy that because it forces the issue of creativity and it forces me to play differently than I would in any other circumstance. I feel that I’ve learned a lot about the instrument since we’ve started playing together, and I’ve been playing almost 31 years now.

Tell me about the sessions for this record. Did you all track together?

It took a little over a year to do it and we had three chunks of time. I like to record where you’re documenting something good happening, as opposed to doing it piece by piece and trying to make something happen later. My favorite records seem to capture a special moment in time. The other guys were all for that too, and most of the record was recorded with the three of us sitting in one room without headphones. We were individually miked but there was also a room mic. We were very fortunate to have Dave Sinko engineer the record. Dave’s great. We would do multiple takes and he would keep notes and say, “This one had a great solo,” or “This one had a great melody section.” We did a lot of editing from take to take. I feel like you save the energy as a player, because you’re not thinking about trying to play it perfect—you’re just having fun. You know you can play it again if you don’t nail it. That relaxes you and gets you more in that spontaneous or improvisational frame of mind.

If you’re all in the same room with no headphones, that means no click track. You could still jump from take to take?

Yeah. Dave Sinko kept laughing. He said, “I can’t believe how you guys hold your time,” because we could cut in just wherever we wanted and the tempos were holding up really nice most of the time. Once in a while we’d get something that wouldn’t work but for the most part I was impressed [laughs]. It was nice to have that flexibility.

So if you wanted to fly in a solo from a different take, he’d have to cut the whole band in for that section.

Exactly. Sinko’s really good at the editing and he can line the tracks up quickly. That made the process very nice, actually. You couldn’t do it with just anybody. You’ve got to have a great engineer.

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You guys all get great tones on this record. How do you like to mic your resonator?

For this record we stereo miked it. I have a Neumann KM86 from the ’60s that I use a lot and that I really like. It was that and an Earthworks—we had QTC 40s and QTC 30s. We also had a room mic that was picking up everything. I like to mic above the cover plate—the metal part—right above my right hand—and that’s what we did on this record. Some of the country guys like to put the mic off the front edge of the instrument and I just never understood that. Sometimes they get it to sound good but I usually like to mic it from above.

Talk about your gear a bit.

My guitar was built by Tim Scheerhorn. It’s rosewood with a spruce top and a mahogany neck. It’s nicely balanced and the low end is spectacular. I’ve been playing his guitars since 1990. I have number 008. Tim’s really done a lot for the instrument. He started building around ’89 or ’90, and one of the first things I realized about his guitars is they have this incredible low end that really appealed to me. It opened up a part of the instrument that I don’t think was there before for the most part. Dobros typically had a sound well inside, like a wooden ring under the cover plate. It’s kind of like a banjo resonator. I don’t really know why it was in there, but Tim felt like it closed up the instrument. So he borrowed something from violin makers and put four soundposts that connect the top and the bottom and give it support. It helps these instruments ring forever—they have great sustain. I’ve been very happy with his guitars.

I use a Scheerhorn stainless-steel bar. I like it because it’s smaller and really comfortable. I’m using Blue Chip thumbpicks. I used to go through a thumbpick after two sets, but these last a year. I’m totally sold on them. I use Bob Perry gold-plated fi ngerpicks. My strings are D’Addario J-42s. It’s their reso set, a little thicker than a set of mediums. The only thing I do is swap out the first string. It comes with a .016 and I change that to a .017. It’s only 1/1,000th of an inch but I swear it makes a difference in the tone.

The song “You Can’t Know” has a pretty freewheeling solo section. What scales are you using there?

That’s a good question. I don’t know what’s going on there. Honestly, I’m just trying to play outside and I’m not really playing any particular scale. It’s almost geographic, as if I’m looking at the fretboard and I sort of try to get on the wrong fret and think geographically and not even sonically as far as what’s coming next. It’s just a way I think to play outside but it’s not like a weird scale or anything. I don’t get to do that that much on a country or bluegrass session, but in this trio we can get away with it. That whole song is a group improvisation. We just started playing and we had no idea where it was going.

But it doesn’t sound random or chaotic . Even though the time is kind of free, you guys are all in time together. There are parts where you and Andy sync up so well it sounds planned.

To be honest, there were other times where it fell apart, but on this take, I think we heard what you heard, and that’s why we chose it. When we first started working on the record, I thought it would be fun to start with an improv every time we recorded. We’ll do that on gigs too. Before the first number we just sort of jam on a chord to try to create a mood. It’s a nice way to loosen up when you first walk on stage. So, I wanted to do that in the studio and we taped them.

On “Anthem,” you employ a wider, slower vibrato than I’m used to hearing from you. How do you like to use your various vibratos?

That solo is probably my favorite solo on the whole record. I think when we were rehearsing it, I just kind of fell into that by accident. What you’re hearing is probably the second time I’ve ever played it. That’s definitely a wider vibrato on the lower string. It almost reminds me of a whammy bar or something—I do listen to electric guitarists a lot. I feel like I’ve been using more vibrato lately and it’s probably because I’ve been getting into slants more—where you slant the bar and get two or three strings on different frets, like a double-stop on the fiddle or the guitar. It’s challenging to get those in tune and vibrato does help with pitch—that’s the reality of it. I’ve been studying fiddle players and examining their vibrato and trying to do that on the Dobro. I’m trying to find the balance where vibrato makes it sound good and ring out, but doesn’t sound nervous or queasy. So it’s not a real wide vibrato typically. I’m still trying to find what I like and what works best.

Speaking of intonation, yours is unbelievably precise. Every time you’re asked for advice you say, “I just listen to the singer,” which is what every great slide player says, because it’s true. But can you give us something more—some trick or exercise to help all the slide players who struggle with their pitch?

I will give you something, but first off I would say that you’re only as in tune as the folks you’re playing with. If I play with a guitar player, my instrument is no longer a 6-string instrument—it’s a 12-string instrument. If his G string is sharp, guess what? It’s going to sound like mine is fl at, and it’s not going to sound good. In other words, you could take somebody with the best pitch in the world, throw them in with an out-of-tune guitar player or singer, and everybody’s going to sound out of tune. In a bluegrass band it’s pretty tough because you don’t have just six strings, you’ve got 30 or something. Then there are issues that come up because we all temper our strings a little bit. On the Dobro, I flatten my B strings because it sounds sweeter with the open G chord to flatten that third note— the B. The guitar player might temper his a little bit but not as much as I do, so if we both play those open B strings at the same time, it might not sound good. The banjo is somewhere in between us. It can get interesting pretty quick. It’s a factor every time you play a fretless instrument—and that’s the fun and the frustration—but it can be a challenge. I listen to a lot of jazz, and it’s cool because you’ve got the saxophone way up here and the bass way down here and the piano kind of in the middle. In some ways I feel that with our trio, because the mandolin’s up high, the Dobro’s in the middle, and the bass is way down low. There’s this nice separation where we stay out of each other’s way, sonically and maybe pitchwise too. But when Andy’s playing fiddle, we have three totally fretless instruments going at once, yet I never feel like pitch is an issue with these guys. They’re right on the money.

So how about a trick or exercise?

Okay. I definitely worked a lot on scales and I think that helps—even just a simple major scale is actually not that simple on the Dobro. It requires a lot of really subtle left-hand technique to just play “do-re-mi” though a C major scale. I did go through a period where I was interested in scales and playing in different keys, and I feel like that definitely helped my pitch.

When you ran scales, would you play along to backing tracks or reference open strings to stay on pitch?

No. I probably should. I’ve talked to fiddle players about this and there are some exercises they’ll use where they incorporate an open string just to sort of give them a guide. That’s something I worked on a little bit on the Dobro. I know some other fiddle players that have tracks of a tone or a fifth interval— like a C and a G, played on an organ or something. Then they’ll practice their double- stops with that constant tone. I’ve done that a little bit, but not much. I’d say using an open string would probably be a good way to keep you honest. But the best thing is to play with good musicians, because that sharpens your blade the quickest. Playing with good players is always the best thing.

You’ve talked about some tricks for creating chords in a Dobro G tuning (G, B, D, G, B, D, low to high), like if you want a minor chord, just slide up three frets and you’ll get a great minor 7th voicing. What are some other cool shortcuts?

I’m always thinking “What’s an open string I can use to make this sound fuller?” B minor is a good example because you can use the top two strings open or maybe the fifth and fourth strings open. I have a cool way to play diminished chords. Some guys get so complicated with the slants and everything, but you can get a diminished chord with a straight bar, you just don’t play the third or the sixth string. With the Dobro, what you leave out is just as important as what you play. So, if I wanted to play a C# diminished chord, I would go to the 2nd fret and play the fifth string, second string, and first string, and that’s going to give me a C#, a C#, and an E. By itself, it might not sound like much, but if I move it up three frets, I get the next inversion of the chord, and then three more frets, and so on. Then if you have a guitar player behind you or some other instrument, he’s going to play a bigger chord and what you play is going to be perfect. That’s another example of a straight bar technique where I can get what sounds like a complex chord, but I’m really just playing a couple of notes.

You can do the same thing for minor chords in this tuning. If I wanted to play a Dm chord straight bar, I would use the fifth string as the bass and I would go to the third fret. I would play the fifth string, fourth string, and second string. That would give me a D, F, and a D.

Sus chords are great on a Dobro. If I want to play a Gsus, I’ll just quickly lay the whole bar down on the fifth fret and play a C chord and then go back to the G chord.

Are you assuming that someone else is playing the G root to make it sound like a sus chord?

Exactly. It’s funny—I’m always thinking about what’s going on behind me. I don’t really think about it, but I guess I react to it. Since I’m not playing a piano or a guitar, I have to get really choosy and just play the couple of notes that will give the chord what it needs. John Scofield does that a lot. I was watching an instructional video of his and that’s a big part of his style—playing these double-stops that just sort of hint at the chord progression. He’d play these little pieces of the chord and they work great. That was a good lesson for me.

Your chops would obviously translate to lapsteel or pedal-steel. Do you play those instruments?

What I do translates to lap-steel, but I don’t think it translates to pedal-steel. When I played pedal-steel, what I didn’t like was the string spacing was so different and so were the pedals and the tuning. I felt like I was starting over. Then when I went back to Dobro, it felt a little bit foreign. I like lapsteel because I play a 6-string—pretty much the same tuning—and I don’t feel like I have to start over. It makes me play differently, because I have all that sustain and volume. I really do like lap-steel a lot and I’m playing it more all the time. I can do a distorted rock and roll thing like David Lindley and that’s fun, and I really like old country straight -steel players like Jerry Byrd and Don Helms.

You’ve gotten the chance to play with a lot of your heroes. What’s the scariest jam session you’ve been in?

I’d say probably Tony Rice. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been playing with Tony for the last six years—not full time, but I have an open invitation. It’s really nice because if I can make a gig, I just show up and play with his group. Tony’s stuff probably means more to me musically than anything else. To me, he’s still the pinnacle of contemporary bluegrass. I have so much respect for him that I get a little bit tense. It’s been hard for me to relax and just play because I’m thinking, “Damn, that’s Tony Rice!” [Laughs.] It’s me, it’s not Tony. He’s not intimidating. But he was such a seminal figure in my music growing up and even to this day. For everybody in my generation of bluegrass, I don’t think any of us would be doing this if it weren’t for his music. It’s like a great combination of musical precision and amazing soul and feeling. What I love about Tony’s music is that it is bluegrass, but it has this sort of elegance to it that’s really, really amazing. So I have always equated it with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and those are Tony’s two favorite musicians. When I hear certain things that Tony has done it reminds me of Kind of Blue, or that level of musicality. I think there are some stereotypes out there about bluegrass that he’s been able to eradicate. Hopefully in my own way I can do that too.

Sonny Landreth on Rob Ickes

If anyone understands what it means to do stuff with a slide that has never been done before, it’s bottleneck master Sonny Landreth. Given that Landreth was the last slide player to grace the cover of GP, it seems fitting to have him weigh in on the microtonal machinations of Rob Ickes. —MB

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“I met Rob a few years ago during the Festival International that they have every year here in Louisiana,” says Landreth. “We were at an event put on by a manufacturer. They wanted me to play one of their guitars and it wasn’t set up for my kind of bottleneck playing at all—it had light strings and low action. So I played mostly rhythm, which gave me the chance to really watch what Rob was doing, and man—he’s an amazing player. He’s got incredible chops, dead-on accuracy, he’s soulful, and he’s a down-to-earth, nice guy. At the time, he had a jazz album outcalled What It Is. I went to a gig of his and he took questions from the crowd. Someone asked him why he did a jazz album. He said, ‘It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I don’t consider myself a jazz musician because I simply don’t know the repertoire.’ That just rang my bell because for years I had the same feelings about approaching classical music with bottleneck slide. I had this sound in my head but I hadn’t done anything about it. Years later, I was approached by maestro Mariusz Smolij, a world-renowned conductor with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra. He invited me to play with them on a Bach piece, ‘Cantata 140.’ I thought, ‘What the hell. I don’t have the repertoire either, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.’ It was an opportunity to push the boundaries for me, and Rob inspired that decision.

“Rob constantly takes himself completely out of his element and makes great music. That to me is what separates an accomplished instrumentalist from a consummate musician. The people that make that jump into the unknown are the ones who make a difference. He can play anything he sets his mind to. That fearlessness is impressive, but I really love the fact that he’s so sincere about it all. He’s not trying to prove anything, and that’s a great example to set for everyone. That’s the case with my favorite musicians, and that’s why they’re extraordinary. They don’t see those boundaries. They’re beyond that.”