Interviews

Rob Ickes: Blue Highway’s Inventive Dobro Instrumentalist


photo by Doug Mathewson

Rob has been the dobro player for Blue Highway since 1992. He started at the age of 13 after listening to Mike Auldridge. He is a multi-winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Dobro Player Of The Year award—11 times since 2001! The most awarded instrumentalist in IBMA history!! He is one of the most requested session

 and collaborator musicians. He has played with a Who’s Who of country and bluegrass artists.He founded ResoSummit in 2007 where students of the dobro can learn from top players and luthiers.

He just returned from a west coast tour with guitarist Jim Hurst.

Doug: How was your west coast tour with Jim Hurst?
Rob: It went great! We had a really great time. Had really good turnouts at all shows. Yes, a great experience. Jim’s one of my favorite cats out there so it’s been fun to work with him. Just a duo. He does that finger style really good—Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Merle Travis. We did some bluegrass stuff and some jazz things. And he’s a great singer, so some vocals from him. It was a nice mix of material.

Doug: Whenever I think of a dobro player I think of their signature tune. And it’s got to be “Monrobro” for you.
Rob: I’d say that’s right. Yeah.


Rob hums "Monrobro"

Doug: Could you tell us something about how that came about?
Rob: You bet. Let’s see...I wrote that on an old guitar that was my grandpa’s guitar. He bought it from a Montgomery Ward catalogue. Like in ’27. And it’s a real neat, kind of a cowboy guitar. It’s got an etching on the top. It says, “Diamond Head Beach Honolulu” and it’s got cowboys on it. But I set it up for slide awhile back and it makes a really good slide guitar. It’s got a great tone and I put it in a lower tuning. I was just sitting on the back porch one day and the first part of that song came to me. I really was thinking of Bill Monroe. It had kind of a Bill Monroe melody. I got together with Aubrey Haney soon after that and I said, “Man I’ve got a piece of a tune and it needs another part what do you think?” and he came up with the “B” part. Kind of tipping my hat to Bill Monroe and kind of making fun of him because I knew he didn’t like dobros. So I thought I’d name the tune after him. So I called it “Monrobro.”


Rob in F Tuning

Doug: What tuning was the guitar in?
Rob: Actually written in “D” tuning but when Blue Highway recorded it, we kicked it up to “A.”  It just sounded better.  I think it worked out better on the mandolin in the key of A. It just had more energy. You know when I wrote it, it was pretty slow, like a blues. It just seemed like when we worked it up as a band it was better up-tempo.

Doug: What dobros have you collected?
Rob: Well I’m not a big collector. It seems like in dobro…you know in guitars and mandolins the vintage thing is great because those old instruments sweeten up with time and they do have a certain soul to them, like my grandpa's guitar has that. It just has this air about it--that it is like alive, like a living thing. But with dobros and the modern builders, the instrument has evolved quite a bit in the last twenty years. I don’t come up upon old dobros that really knock me out. So I’ve never been a big eBay guy or vintage collector or anything. But I do have a lot of Scheerhorns. I heard about Tim Scheerhorn when he first started about ’89 or ’90. I was really impressed with his work. I have number 8. I’ve got a bunch more. He’s built me a lap steel. I actually just bought an old lap steel with what you’d call an electric table, a three leg stand, a Roy Smack model, I think Harmony made it. It’s from the ‘60s. I like that straight steel sound so I’ve got several lap steels. I’ve also got a Rayco, their Weisenborn model.

Doug: I don’t think I’ve ever heard you play a lap steel.
Rob: I played lap steel on the new Blue Highway record, Sounds Of Home, and the song is “My Heart Was Made To Love You.”

Doug: Are your lap steels 6 or 8 strings?
Rob: Six strings. The one I played on the record was made by a guy who comes from Israel that I met at ResoSummit. His name is Ori Beanstock. Ori is a great musician. He plays everything; bouzouki, electric guitar. He’s a really talented guy. He got into dobro and lap steel a few years ago and started coming to ResoSummit. When that Road Song record came out we were invited to play at the Red Sea Jazz Festival. Ori came to the festival because he lives over there, and he brought me a lap steel as a gift. I’ve played other lap steels on a Toby Keith album and some different sessions - usually a more distorted sound. But this guitar (Ori’s) sounded really good clean. Sounded like a pedal steel - it had this fat tone. I started fooling around with it. When the Blue Highway record was going to come out, Wayne had a song on there that was just old time country style—‘50s traditional country. I thought I’d bring in my lap steel and see if it works with this and everybody really dug it so we put it on there. I’m really happy with how it came out.

Doug: What kind of tuning did you use?
Rob: Just regular dobro tuning GBDGBD.

Doug: Do you play pedal steel?
Rob: I had one in high school and I fooled around with it and I loved it but it was so different from the dobro. When I went back to the dobro it made the dobro feel foreign. And when I went to the pedal steel that felt funny, too. The string spacing and the tuning—it wasn’t something I wanted to fool with.

Doug: You’re promoting the Wechter/Scheerhorn dobros—what do you use on stage?
Rob: I don’t play a Wechter/Scheerhorn on stage but my signature model is based on the Scheerhorn that I play all the time. It’s basically a plywood version of my guitar. I’m really happy with them. They’ve done a great job. I told them I want something that sounds great but doesn’t cost a million dollars and that’s exactly what they did. There’s some YouTube footage of me playing one right out of the box. Google ‘Rob Ickes Wechter Scheerhorn’-- it should come up. They’re all really consistent. The setup job is great. Tim is a perfectionist and Abe (Wechter) is too. They want me to be happy and I’ve been very happy with these guitars and the response has been really good. If I was gonna put my name on something I wanted it to be really good and it is a good product. Tim trained the guys that set up the guitar in Indiana. Abe is the head of the guitar division of Sweetwater, which is a big mail order company kind of like MusiciansFriend. Everybody there who assembles them have been trained to do it right.

Doug: Do you practice in different tunings?
Rob: You know I don’t use different tunings that much. I used to think—your intuition would say, well the open G tuning on the dobro is limiting—I can only play major chords. But the more I play the more I realize it’s all there—I just have to find it. Something I always mention when people ask me about that—I think about Kenny Baker and Stephane Grappelli. Obviously totally different sounds and what they get out of the fiddle with both the same tuning. So I look at that with the dobro. I can do jazz stuff or I can do blues or bluegrass, minor, major, whatever—I really feel like it’s all there—I just need to find it. So I don’t do different tunings that much. I love open D. I do a little bit of that but I’m not real comfortable with that tuning because I don’t fool with it that much. Sometimes I’ll drop the G tuning down to an open F. I like that sound. As soon as you lower the strings it gives the guitar a little more growl, a little more blues kind of a feel. I did that on the new record.  We did a version of “Ain’t Nobody's Fault But Mine” a Blind Willie Johnson song. The song is in A so I tuned down two frets and play out of a B position. B minus two is A. I like the open strings I can get in the key of B. Seemed like it gave it a little more growl, a little more blues feeling.

Doug: I noticed on the Road Song CD the dobro had a lot of reverb.
Rob: Yes. Whenever you do a record the choice of engineer is very important. They can make your life great or make your life miserable. The woman I got to do that record has done two of my other solo records. She’s fabulous. She’s from the Bay area. She does a lot of jazz. That’s what I love about her—the kind of reverb she does—she’s a master of them. She mixed the record herself. I came in after and we tweaked a couple of things but she really did it pretty much on her own. It’s a little bit “wet” (Ed.- the amount of reverb applied) but I like that. With just the two instruments (dobro and piano)—she also mics the dobro, it’s more old school, she mics it farther away and likes to get more of that room sound. I trust her judgement on stuff. I like the amount of reverb on the record. I think with just the two of us (Michael Alvey) it gives it a larger sound. We also recorded sitting right next to each other with no headphones. It just captures the spontaneity and what really happens when the two of us get together.

Doug: So there was no Aura unit or other electronic enhancements to the instrument?
Rob: Right. No pickups. She uses three microphones on the dobro and two on the piano. Just trying to get as big a sound as possible. She’s great. Her name is Cookie Marenco.

Doug: What is your practice regimen?
Rob: It’s not really a regimen. My schedule is totally whacked. So I just try to grab some practice when I can. I’m on the road a lot on weekends and then I’m in town during the week recording with other people. I’ve got a few side groups that I do. Practice time is just whenever I can get it. I’ve been trying to keep a list of things I’ve been working on so I hit the same thing each time instead of just noodling around. I might have a list of four tunes that I want to work on solos or whatever. I think it helps focus me. It’s not grandiose. Having a million things to work on is as good as having no list. Seems like the last couple of years I’ve been working on right hand stuff. Trying to get it more like a banjo player where you’re just locked in and keeping it there instead of just flailing around.

Doug: Do you move up and down from the bridge of the dobro or do you stay in one place?
Rob: When I practice or teach, I tell people you want to stay around here most of the time but the reality is—I do move around looking for different sounds and different textures. But when I practice I try to lock into one spot.

Doug: Tim Stafford (Blue Highway, guitar and vocals) told me, “He’s playing all the time.”
Rob: Well it’s funny. I think a lot of people think that. I don’t play hours a day--I wish I could. The guys in the band think I play a lot because when we’re on the road and we’ve got an hour before we play, I’ll go grab that hour but that’s one hour in the whole day. When I’m home I really don’t have that much time to play. So I do grab those moments when most people wouldn’t. If I don’t grab that moment, the hour before we go on stage, while everybody’s sitting around after dinner, I’m gonna get up and I’m gonna go get some work done. I probably do hit those times more than the rest of the guys in the band. I don’t feel like I’m a six-hour a day guy by any means. I wish I was but it‘s not possible at this point. I never have been. When I was a kid I would come home from school and hit it for an hour or two. I would do that every day. Two hours is awesome! If I could get two hours that’s great!

Doug: It’s also a warm-up for the gig.
Rob: Yeah. And some people don’t like to do that. Like Jason (Jason Burleson, banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass vocals) in our band, he doesn’t like to warm up. He feels like it makes him stale or something during the show. I don’t think that happens to me. Sometimes you can overdo it the day of the gig—you want to save some for the show, some of that excitement. If you keep learning—keep new stuff coming in that’s important. If you just keep playing the same thing every night before the show you might get burned out or boring or something. There’s a way to do it—you’re pickin’ but you’re not losing that energy.

Doug: You have two kids. Do they want to learn the dobro?
Rob: My daughter fooled with it a little bit but she’s been playing the fiddle for a few years now and she’s doing real good and my son has been playing the drums. They’re playing some music but not the dobro. Maybe they’ll see the light one day.

Doug: Do they ask your opinion about what they are doing? Or ask for suggestions?
Rob: Not too often. Janelle has a teacher, a really great teacher—she’s pretty shy about playing. But in the last few months she’s allowed me to play with her when she’s practicing. So that’s been fun because it helps me learn these fiddle tunes that she’s learning. And it’s good for her to play with some people instead of just practicing by herself. I can see more of that happening. I had that with my family where my mom played and my brother and my grandparents. We always played a lot of music when I was a kid. It’s kind of a special thing to have so l would love to have that with my kids. But if they don’t play it’s not a big deal but it’s fun.

Doug: It’s a good bonding experience.
Rob: Exactly! Yeah I feel it’s a little deeper relationship than just, “How’s it going, Dad?”

Doug: How about the bluegrass/jazz relationship? What do you see between the two that are similar?
Rob: Yeah, a lot of people don’t think that. I think there’s maybe five or six people that see the relationship (laugh)! Bebop and bluegrass got going about the same time around World War II. Similar things; the tempos got pretty extreme and the technical facility got pretty impressive. If you’re talking about saxophone or banjo, people like Charlie Parker and Earl Scruggs, they really just, wow, did amazing things. Took their instruments to places they’ve never been before. The idea of taking solos; string band music was more of a collective thing, everybody would play a unison line at the same time. All those guys were listening to big bands. They were listening to Benny Goodman. Earl Scruggs; a lot of stuff he plays comes from big band arrangements. I taught with Jim Mills, a great banjo player, this summer in West Virginia. He did this thing one day about where did Earl Scruggs get this great stuff from? He played “In The Mood” (Rob hums). That’s real similar to a banjo roll that Earl does; a backup lick. And of course, “Farewell Blues” was a jazz tune. “Bugle Call Rag” was a Bennie Goodman tune. And Earl does that “Foggy Mountain Special” which was jazz or blues influenced. I think it was more osmosis, not a, “I’m going to take jazz and adopt it to the banjo.” It was more like Earl was just listening. He’s such a great artist that through osmosis it came out beautifully on his instrument. So historically I think there’s some back and forth there.


"In The Mood"


"Foggy Mountain Special"

I just like it (jazz). I got into it when I was in college and there’s something really deep there. I listened to Miles Davis, Coltrane and those guys and there was a really deep experience going on there. Tony Rice picked up on that and brought it to the table in bluegrass. I know he did. I worked with him and we talked about it quite a bit.

Doug: How about covering some of those ‘Trane tunes or Davis or Monk?
Rob: I was really attracted to Miles Davis. The first album I listened to was Kinda Blue. When I first heard it I thought it was really boring but then I listened a week or two later and it just, wow, changed my life. I think I was just attracted to his solos on that record and I learned a lot of those solos. Because they seemed like they fit on the dobro because of the space and the sustain. As opposed to Coltrane; sheets of sound as they called it. Obviously his style is a lot more difficult to play. If not possible to play on the dobro. But Miles stuff spoke to me, sung to me and I could play it, some of it, not all of it. It was more about note choice and feeling as opposed to a rapid series of notes. Coltrane could do both. He had a lot of soul. Yeah and I love Monk! I’ve learned some of his tunes. There’s just something deep about it (jazz). I think if you get into music on a deeper level. You know when I first started I was a bluegrass snob and that’s all I wanted to listen to and I thought everything else was garbage. After a while I started listening to other things and thought, wow, this is pretty cool too! When you’re really into music you go deeper, and deeper. There was something about those jazz guys that still appeals to me. Especially the improvisation, it’s so deep, you can just go on and on with ideas forever. There are a few guys in our music that have that too. Stuart Duncan comes to mind. Tony Rice’s music is deep and has many levels. Those guys have it too.

Doug: I’d love to hear you do “Round Midnight.”
Rob: Yeah I love that. It’s on my list!

Doug: I was talking to a bluegrass bass player after his solo and I said, “That’s like a jazz bass you were playing there.” And he replied, “I’m not playing jazz.”
Rob: (Laughing) It’s funny you say about bass because to me the jazz bass and the bluegrass bass were very similar a long time ago. Not so much any more because people have quit walking the bass for some reason. I love to hear on those Flat and Scruggs and Bill Monroe stuff; those guys would walk like crazy during the banjo solos and then go back to one/five when the vocal would come back in. Man that was a cool sound and most people don’t do that anymore. The bass has gotten extremely minimalist is bluegrass, and that’s OK, but it’s kind of fun to walk around a little bit.

Doug: How about your company—ResoRevolution?
Rob: I did records for Rounder Records and that was great. I just got to the point where—I don’t know, it seems that labels are not increasingly crucial. There’s no record stores anymore so you don’t really need distribution. You need to get it on iTunes and CDBaby. I was just ready to do my own thing. Most of my solo albums are side projects so I don’t need a lot of distribution or advertising. Just do my own thing and keep it simple and it’s worked out real good.

Doug: What projects are you looking forward to at this time?
Rob: I’ve got several options and it’s difficult to make a choice. Blue Highway will be going into the studio again this year. The last record went really well and we got good response on radio, got a lot of airplay and the reviews have been very nice. I’m really proud of the new record. I had the Three Ring Circle record come out last year. The two records were going at the same time so it was kind of exhausting. I might take a little break. I’ve been too busy the last couple of years—I’m just trying to slow down a hair.

Doug: What’s the best suggestion you have for the aspiring dobro player?
Rob: People ask me that a lot. When I teach I talk about scales, rhythm and everything. But I just learned by imitating. I was so into Mike Auldridge. That’s all I just drank and ate. I just listened to him. I stole everything he ever played on his first few solo albums and the first Seldom Scene albums. I didn’t learn scales ‘til I was older and you don’t have to learn scales. You can play music without that knowledge. I think it helps to understand a lot about music—how things are put together. Just play everyday, practice as much as you can. A lot of guys come to it later in life. When I give workshops, it’s a few kids but mainly guys who are in middle age. I just think you learn what you want to learn. Learn what you’re excited about. ‘Cause that’s what I did! I was really excited about Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas and Josh Graves, so I studied those guys. I learned as much as I could about their solos, fills and rhythm. I know when you’re older it’s hard to find that time that you had when you were a kid. Just listen and get out and play with people. A lot of people sit home and play with Band-In-The-Box and whatever and that’s OK but you’ve got to get out and work with people. Good people, if possible--good players.

Do as much as you can and enjoy it!


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