Andy Bing’s Bluegrass Blog Week 5: The Dobro -The “Sixth Child”?

Bill Monroe’s great mid-1940s band set the standard for bluegrass bands in more ways than one, but perhaps the most basic was the band’s instrumental lineup. The five bluegrass instruments were the fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and bass fiddle. Bill called the banjo, the last of the five added to the Blue Grass Boys, as the “fifth child.” Bill kept this instrumental lineup throughout the rest of his career.

The Dobro (“Dobro” is a brand name; the instrument’s generic name is resonator guitar) is the one now common bluegrass instrument that was not featured in the Blue Grass Boys (although Bill did record one song each with guest dobroists Barbara Mandrell and Mike Auldridge in the 1980s). The style of playing a guitar with a slide (rather than the fingers of the left hand) while the guitar is positioned face-up in front of the player originated in Hawaii in the 19th century. These musicians often tuned the guitar to an open chord to facilitate playing with the slide. Hawaiian musical ensembles were very popular in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their style of playing slide guitar was adopted by mainland musicians.

The early slide players adapted regular guitars to the Hawaiian style of playing. These guitars tended to be very quiet, and so, in the 1920s, three Czech immigrant brothers named Dopyera invented a mechanically-amplified guitar that they called the Dobro (for Dopyera Brothers; also “dobro” means “good” in Slavic languages). The Dobro incorporated an aluminum speaker cone-shaped resonator in the top of the guitar that amplified the string vibrations and added a distinctive twang. Unfortunately for the Dobro, the advent of electric amplification in the 1920s and 30s soon made the Dobro’s mechanical amplification system technologically obsolete.

By that time, however, resonator guitars had been adopted by early country and blues musicians. The most prominent and influential of the early country Dobro players was Pete Kirby, known by his stage name “Bashful Brother Oswald.” Kirby joined the popular Roy Acuff band in the late 1930s. Acuff’s Grand Ole Opry membership meant that Kirby’s smooth Hawaiian-inspired Dobro picking was heard every Saturday night from coast to coast. Eventually, the dobro was electrified and evolved into the pedal steel guitar, a staple of country music recordings since the mid-1950s.

The dobro (in its original un-electrifed form) entered bluegrass in 1955, when Flatt and Scruggs hired dobroist Burkett Graves, who became known by the stage name they gave him: “Uncle Josh.” Scruggs had previously shown Josh some banjo licks that Josh adapted to the dobro (both instruments are tuned to an open G chord). As a result, Josh was able to keep up with Scruggs’s blazing tempos and could also sweeten slower numbers with his pretty sliding passages. His first release with the band demonstrated both styles of picking: Randy Lynn Rag, a fast banjo number with a hot Dobro solo, backed with On My Mind, a ballad.

Josh’s virtuosity set the standard for the many innovative bluegrass dobroists who followed, including Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas, both of whom freely acknowledged their stylistic debts to Josh. Mike Auldridge made his name in the 1970s with the Washington DC-area bands Emerson & Waldron and the New Shades of Grass and the Seldom Scene, as well as with a series of influential solo albums. With his flawless intonation and smooth mellow tone, Auldridge updated the Dobro sound. His style fit comfortably into a wide variety of contemporary acoustic music.

Also in the 1970s, Jerry Douglas came to prominence with the New South and the Whites (a country band). During the 1980s, Douglas took the dobro into “new acoustic music” and other styles removed from bluegrass. Douglas built further on Graves’s and Auldridge’s stylistic innovations and is the most imitated dobroist around today. His disciples are many, but none have surpassed Douglas’s technical mastery, beauty of tone, and sheer musical creativity. Most recently, he has returned to his roots, recreating the sounds of Josh Graves as the leader of “The Earls of Leicester,” a popular Flatt and Scruggs tribute band.

3 Responses

  • When I was a young boy and had learned to play rhythm guitar, I got HOOKED on Uncle Josh Graves work on the Flatt & Scruggs records. I raised the strings on my little Gibson flat top and bought a bar and finger picks, and away I went at age 10! I learned nearly all of the Uncle Josh breaks on the records we had in the early 1960s. An uncle let me borrow his Harmony “Dobro” guitar for a little while.

    However in 1964 I got to see Flatt & Scruggs live, and Earl Scruggs’ banjo and guitar playing, and his Buddha-like manner, stole me away from Dobro playing. I put away the bar and went whole HOG for the banjo. I never even got to say Hello to Uncle Josh. But I got my picture taken with Earl.

    Nice summary of the Dobro in bluegrass Andy!

  • Thanks Dick. Josh’s playing fit so perfectly into the Foggy Mountain Boys. I love his bright cutting tone and the way he swooped into the mic with the neck of his Dobro raised up high so he wouldn’t clock the other pickers on his way in! It’s a challenge to play Dobro in a single mic band, but Josh made it look easy. Always a smile and a great kickoff or break.

  • Thanks Dick. I love Josh’s bright cutting tone, his bluesy style, and the way he swooped into the single mic with the Dobro tilted to keep from clocking the other Foggy Mountain Boys! His kickoffs and solos always moved the tune right along.

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