JOHN HAMMOND, STACY PHILLIPS, DAVID HAMBURGER:  The Resonator Kings

 

 

 

John Hammond, Stacy Phillips, and David Hamburger have all traveled vastly different roads in their quest for resonator nirvana, yet they are unified in the recognition they’ve received as resophonic masters. From Hammond’s pure, passionate Delta blues to Phillips’ traditional lap style world music stylings, to Hamburger’s cerebral new blues, they all have cut unique paths in finding their own voices.

With a recording release for almost every year he has played professionally (35), and with tens of thousands of live performances under his belt, Grammy winner John Hammond still has the ability to bring a freshness to each performance. With over 10,000 live shows under his belt, John shows no signs of slowing down, breathing life into even the oldest of traditional blues tunes. His aggressive bottleneck style and resonator playing can be traced to such early blues masters as Robert Johnson and Kokomo Arnold, yet still sounds amazingly contemporary.

Stacy Phillips has written several excellent books covering Dobro songs and techniques for the beginner up to the expert, including "The Mel Bay Complete Dobro Player," which is recognized as the bible for students of the instrument. He also has done several videos for Homespun tapes. Stacy is currently playing in a duo with singer Paul Howard and has recently released a cd entitled "Stacy Phillips and Paul Howard" featuring Dobro versions of gypsy, Hawaiian, rock and roll, and blues tunes.

David Hamburger divides his time between touring solo, doing session work, and writing for several publications, including Guitar Player and Acoustic Guitar. Currently in process of completing a Dobro method book, he has also authored instructional books on Beginning Blues Guitar (1994) and Electric Slide Guitar (1996). David has been on the faculty of the National Guitar Summer Workshop since 1988, and his latest compact disk release entitled "King of the Brooklyn Delta" was met with critical acclaim.

Within a few month period, I was fortunate enough to see all three of these masters hard at work on their craft, and delve deeper into their respective careers.

Tom Guerra: Who, or what inspired you to pickup guitar initially?

John Hammond: I’d been a blues fan without playing an instrument for my teenage years, and had a collection of great blues records. So many artists inspired me, but Robert Johnson’s playing, the fact that he played incredible slide AND fingerstyle really was the key inspiration to me.

Stacey Phillips: Hearing the sound of the Dobro in the context of bluegrass music, plus the fact that there was nobody else around playing it, you know, no competition, made me want to play it. This was in the early 70’s. Growing up in New York City, I listened to a lot of music, commercial, non-commercial, various ethnic styles...

David Hamburger: I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12. Actually, I learned how to play banjo first, but switched over

TG: As far as resophonic players are concerned, who were the first you were exposed to?

JH: Guys like Blind Boy Fuller, who played mostly fingerstyle guitar, and Bukka White who I got to do some gigs with, were resonator players I was first exposed to. Bukka was phenomenal, he used a National steel guitar and was a master of the slide technique. I also got to do gigs with Son House, who was fantastic. Kokomo Arnold was another inspirational resonator player. He had a tri-cone resonator, and had an outrageous style!

SP: Definitely the bluegrass players like Uncle Josh Graves, the Dobro player with Earl Scruggs. Also a group called "The Genial Hawaiians", and a fellow named Bob Dunn who I still consider to be the best 6 string steel player I ever heard.

DH: I first heard Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge because I had a radio show in college. I didn’t learn how to play Dobro until I was 25. I had learned how to play bottleneck when I was 18, but basically, I went to see a Nancy Griffith show and she had a guy by the name of Fats Kaplan (now with Manhattan Transfer) who was playing pedal steel, Dobro, fiddle, and accordion, and I thought that he had the coolest job I had ever seen. I ended up taking some lessons from Fats, who turned me onto Josh Graves and Ralph Mooney. So about 6 months later I got a squareneck Dobro and a copy of Stacy’s book and later took Stacy’s course at the National Guitar Workshop, where I was also teaching…

SP: Yeah, he but he’s recovered nicely!

TG: What were you playing as your main instrument when you started?

JH: One of the first good guitars I owned that I took on the road with me was a 1947 Gibson Country Western model that belonged to Josh Graves, who was an incredible Dobro player. That was my kickaround guitar (laughs).

SP: Well, I had a National metal body that I also bought from Josh Graves, and I eventually got a Hound Dog (made by Dobro) which got stolen, and then I bought a ’32 mahogany Dobro, which was my main axe until recently.

DH: For me it was a ‘30’s Regal, which I still have. It’s not all original…somebody had put a new mahogany neck on it before I got it. It has a spruce top, which sounds just fantastic, very clear, and crisp…I never take this one on the road or even record much with it anymore, because I’ve gotten into this new Dobro…

TG: What’s your main axe these days?

JH: The National Duolian I’m playing now was a gift from my wife Marla. She actually bought if for my 48th birthday and hid it under the bed for a month, and totally blew my mind when she gave it to me. It’s a 1935 maple neck National Duolian, with a 14-fret neck. It’s beautiful. I also tour with a handmade guitar that I got in England that was made by David Stubbs and Vinnie Smith, and they have made about 25 guitars to date. Its styled after a 000 Martin, and its got an incredible sound. It’s got a koawood back and sides and a cedar top. I have Bob Jones; a friend and repairman from Brooklyn set them up for me.

SP: It’s a resonator guitar hand made by Frank Harlow of Ohio. I like it, and it’s nice to give my old Dobro a rest.

DH: I have a new Dobro 27DX, which is all maple and has a factory installed pickup. It’s a big, throaty instrument with a great tone, although it is very different from the one I learned on.

TG: How do you find the vintage Nationals, Dobros and Regals compared with the new ones that are being made today?

JH: The new Nationals that have come out in the last 5 years or so are great guitars. Don Young and Bob Brozman have combined their talents and knowledge and come up with an absolute replica as far as the sound and the quality that they had in the 1930’s. Excellent and affordable!

SP: I think actually on the whole, the new ones are more reliable. They don’t have exactly the same tone, but they are more even sounding all the way up the neck. The early Dobros weren’t the best-made instruments, although they were very solid…

DH: When I first picked up my new Dobro, I didn’t dig it as much, but I noticed the more I played it, the more it began to open up and have a better sound. But if you can find an old Dobro, they usually sound just great! But, as far as buying old instruments, I’m sort of coming from a more pragmatic point of view…I have to travel around a lot, and I have to be able to afford it, and I don’t have the resources to have a bunch of amazing old instruments, so I tend to go with the "player" guitars, that may not be as collectible because they aren’t perfect.

TG: What do you use to amplify the sound of your resonator? How about to record?

JH: I ALWAYS have used microphones, no electronics at all. Live, I generally use a Shure SM-57 at the clubs and venues I play, and it’s a hot mic. I don’t have a dial for volume; I keep the mic the same distance from the guitar, and create my own dynamics with my own technique. In the studio, I’ll also mic it with something a little more expensive…

SP: On record, I use a whole host of good microphones like Neumann’s. Live, I have an Audio Technica condenser mic that I clamp on to the cover plate. I have it setup on the instrument so I can move around a bit. I run it through a pre-amp with a volume switch for leads.

DH: If I play traditional acoustic music, I’ll use a mic if I can, but if I have to play with a band or if there is drums, a microphone is not going to work live. With my Regal I use a Fishman blender system, a Crown mini-mic and Rick Turner pickup. My Dobro has a MacIntyre with one jack that I can plug in to a direct box, onstage, and if given the option, I’ll also use it in conjunction with a stage mic. In the studio, I just use mics…and in every which way. Its hard to mic a Dobro badly.

TG: What tunings do you primarily use?

JH: I always use tune the National to an open E chord, or an open A chord. I use these tunings because they go well with my voice. A lot of guys tune down to a G or D tuning, but it’s the same progression of strings.

SP: I use G pretty much exclusively, unless I play totally solo, when I sometimes will use drop D tuning. Seldom I’ll tune up the second string for minor tunes, or drop the third string down half a step for that original Hawaiian, Sol Hoopi tuning…

DH: I’m a pretty heavy devotee of the high G bluegrass tuning, too, you can get a lot out of it. You can play in the keys of E, A, C, and F and get open string licks using the G tuning. I’ll use other tunings too, when I play guitar I’ll use standard D tuning and low G tuning that most bottleneck guitar players use, and E6 tunings when I play lap steel.

TG: What do you use for accessories like slides or steels?

JH: I use a Sears Craftsman Deep Well socket 11/16, guaranteed for life and costs about three bucks. Lowell George, David Bromberg and lots of other guys got that from me (laughs).

SP: I have something that’s shaped like a Stevens bar but its a little weightier, made by Ron Tipton, who I think makes the best steels in the world. A lot of the new bars have inclines, which I don’t care for. I also use all plastic picks.

DH: For Dobro I use the Shubb #2, which is a little more rounded, kind of a combination of the Stevens bar and the Scheerhorn steel, both of which I’ve also used. For guitar, I use Moonshine ceramic slides.

TG: What are some of your rarer vintage guitars that are considered collectible these days?

JH: My backup acoustic guitar is a Martin M-18, that I played for about 10 years before I got the one I have now. That is an excellent guitar with a big bottom end. I have another National Duolian, a 1936, and I have a Guild F212 guitar, a 12 string that I record with from time to time. I love Willie McTell, and I’ll play that stuff on it. He actually played slide on it. I also have the ’47 Gibson Country and Western.

SP: I have 3 guitars, the old mahogany 1932 Dobro that I think they only made for one year, the new Harlow, and an early thirties Tricone.

DH: I have a ’39 Gibson Lap steel that’s a EH-150, that’s sunburst, and it was made right before they switched to the Charlie Christian pickup. It’s got a big oval pickup and you can see that it’s got a zillion windings, and it’s really loud. For acoustic bottleneck, I have a ‘56 Martin 00, that’s a really special instrument.

TG: What do you think makes the sound of the resonator so appealing and emotive?

JH: Before the electric guitar came around, it was the loudest guitar on the market. If you played in a band, it could be heard above the horns; it was also great for street players because it could cut through the din of traffic. It was played by country stars, jazz musicians, and blues artists – the whole gamut. I am very privileged to have met John Dopyera in the late 60’s, when he was still making guitars for Dobro. And as you know, he was "the Guy"…

SP: Well, its very emotive to the people that are moved by it, to other people, it doesn’t do anything at all. I was attracted to the slide-iness of it, which gives it a vocal quality. And the way the music incorporates a syncopated bluesy style.

DH: That’s a good question. Part of it is you’re playing with a slide, and there’s something really evocative about that…it’s kind of like a voice or a violin where you can move to notes without hearing chromatic steps. Some of it is associative… People relate it to the Delta.

TG: Who are your some of your favorite players and what do you enjoy about them?

JH: Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Son House, Tampa Red…there’s a bunch. Tampa Red came to Chicago in the mid- 30’s and I think he influenced Elmore James to a great degree. Tampa Red had an incredible style. Kokomo Arnold’s recordings in the late twenties and early thirties are amazing…Bob Brozman is a wizard. Bonnie Raitt, who I was out on the road with this year, actually learned from Fred McDowell and Son House…she is really a great player!

SP: My favorite resonator players are Bob Dunn, Buck Graves, and the guy Bob from Jim and Bob (the Genial Hawaiians), but I listen to and pick stuff up from just about everybody, not just professionals. Guys like Jerry Douglas are great, and there are Hawaiian players like Sol Hoopi I really like. For bottleneck style, I like John Hammond for his visceral blues approach.

DH: Well, the big three are Josh (Buck) Graves, Mike Auldridge, and Jerry Douglas, they’re the ones whose records are fairly easy to get hold of…Josh Graves is the guy, the early Flatt & Scruggs records just sound so good because of him. And you couldn’t be a Dobro player in mid-80’s when I got into it, and not be a big Jerry Douglas fan. The fact you can play it on so many different types of instruments is really cool. Stacy was a big influence just because I studied with him and I listened to his records a lot. I sat down with him one time and he said "here’s the major scale and here’s the blues scale." He played for about 5 minutes and said, "that’s the whole Josh Graves thing." As a hands-on influence he really got me going. And there are other people that I’ve seen that are great like Rob Ickes and Sally Van Meter. Also, I learned from bottleneck players like Duane Allman and Ry Cooder, so when I’m playing in a closed position, I think about that a lot. Duane’s whole thing was all about getting a honking, harmonica player type of sound, and that colors the way I play Dobro.

TG: What are you doing currently and what are your future plans?

JH: I’m going to Holland and France for some solo shows and some shows with Duke Robillard. After that I’ll be back in the States, opening up some shows for The Allman Brothers. I knew Duane before he formed the band…he was a fantastic player, the best for that single note electric standard tuning style. He’d sit me down and be like "show me that again" (laughs). Then he formed the band and they actually opened some shows for me in their early days. I’ve also got an upcoming tour with B.B. King that’s pretty extensive, and another lined up after that with a young guy by the name of G. Love for a short tour. He’s a young, dynamic guy with a lot of talent and potential.

SP: I’m about 1/3 of the way done with the new album, its going to be mostly bluegrassy. I’m also a fiddle player so I’m working on an academic pressbook that I’ll start soon. I’m doing an album for Eileen Ivers (the fiddler from "Riverdance") of Irish music. Playing that Irish music real fast is a bear. As far as Dobro, I’m going to start a book of scales, chords and arpeggios for Dobro players. I’d like to put out a video of a Dobro standard repertoire for players. There are so many more Dobro players than there used to be.

DH: I just finished working on a book called "How to Play Dobro," and a lot of it is based on how to get the most out of open G and open D tuning. I’ll be out on the road a lot over the next few months doing solo gigs, and I’m also playing with a band in New York. I’ve been out on a bunch of independent records that are coming out soon, on the Red House label and a few others. I’ve got the new book coming out, and I’m continuing to write for Acoustic Guitar and Guitar Player magazines.

TG: Do you have any advice for up and coming resonator / slide guitarists?

JH: It’s intimidating to play a guitar that’s that loud. I owned a National for 2 years before I had the nerve to play it onstage. Get to a point to where you feel comfortable playing for yourself, and then go for it and be experimental. You’ll find ways to do things that only you can do, it’s your own technique and touch that’s the most important things. And there are many great players with great techniques. There are also a lot of great books out there, and Bob Brozman’s (Bottleneck Blues Book) is one of my favorites. He knows the entire history of the instrument better than just about anyone, and the book contains some great shots of great instruments.

SP: Yeah, stay away from my territory (laughs). No, I would say learn it slow first, then practice playing it fast. And learn how to play through mistakes. Also, don’t be afraid to learn some music theory, it will not hurt your playing. Try to find people to play with, especially if they are a little better than you. If someone wants to learn Dobro, there isn’t a litany of Dobro tunes like there is for banjo and fiddle, but I would say learn "PickAway" which is a standard breakdown. "Hilo March" is another one. I teach tunes that I think every student should know as standards like "Home Sweet Home," "Dust My Broom," "Steel Guitar Rag" and "Panhandle Rag." "Taking Off" by Bob Dunn is a killer tune, really hard, but I think everyone should learn it.

DH: There are concrete things like learning the melodies to tunes that are good to do. Learning fiddle tunes is a good thing. Trying to get a good sound is important. Obvious stuff like playing in time with a metronome is very important, too. You know, all the usual "eat your vegetables" kind of advice (laughs).




BACK TO TOP | GUITARIST INTERVEWS