Jerry Douglas-The World’s Greatest Dobro Player

In the world of bluegrass Dobro guitar playing, three names stand above the rest—Josh Graves, Mike Auldridge, and Jerry Douglas. All of them were innovators; each took the acoustic steel guitar to music and places it had not been before. Jerry Douglas is the only one of the three still living, and he continues to make path breaking music. He is part of the musical generation, including Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, and Bela Fleck, which came to prominence in the 1970s and helped make bluegrass what it is today. His influence has been profound. All of the many virtuosos who have made names for themselves on the instrument since Jerry Douglas burst on the bluegrass scene as a teenager in the early 1970s are to a large extent following in his footsteps. Some evidence of Jerry’s pre-eminence is the fact that to the best of my knowledge he is the only resonator guitar player to have been the subject of a feature article in the New York Times Magazine.

A few notes about steel guitar terminology, which can be confusing: “Dobro” is a brand name currently owned by Gibson; the generic term for the instrument is “resonator guitar,” and I will refer to it that way, or simply as “reso,” in the rest of this column. The term “steel guitar” refers to any guitar, acoustic or electric, played flat with a slide or bar. A “pedal steel guitar” is an electric steel guitar that features foot pedals or knee levers (or both) that when depressed change the tuning of the strings of the guitar as it is played. The resonator guitar, which is typically a non-pedal acoustic steel guitar, is the instrument that Graves, Auldridge, and Douglas are primarily known for playing, although each also played other instruments.

At the risk of duplicating material from earlier columns, some historical background will help put Jerry’s innovations in context. The technique of playing an acoustic guitar flat in one’s lap with a slide or bar in the fretting hand originated in Hawaii in the late 19th century. For ease of playing, the strings were elevated above the fretboard and the guitar was usually tuned to an open chord; that is, strumming the open strings would produce a chord without having to fret any of the strings. Hawaiian guitar ensembles became very popular in the United States during the first few decades of the 20th century and Hawaiian guitar virtuosos such as Sol Hoopi and Bob Kai inspired early country pickers to take up the instrument. The guitars these early pickers played were ordinary six-string acoustic guitars with raised strings. These instruments had little volume, so in the 1920s, the Dopyera brothers invented a mechanically amplified Hawaiian guitar. Their “Dobro” (from “Dopyera brothers,” the term also means “good” in Slavic languages) guitar featured a (usually) wooden body with an aluminum resonator shaped like a speaker cone that rested under a large round metal cover plate in the center of the top of the guitar. Their added volume and pleasing tone made the wooden body Dobro guitars popular with country acoustic steel players of the 20s and 30s. One the best known of them was Pete Kirby, known as Bashful Brother Oswald in Roy Acuff’s band beginning in 1938. Acuff’s records were enormously popular in the 1940s, bringing Oswald’s Hawaiian-inflected resonator guitar sound to millions of country fans.

Josh Graves brought the resonator guitar to bluegrass music when he joined Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys in the mid -1950s. A few years earlier, Josh had adapted Scruggs’s lickety-split banjo technique to the reso, and he was able to keep up with the Foggy Mountain Boys’ lightning tempos. In the late 1960s, Mike Auldridge expanded reso technique with his smooth tone and flawless intonation. With Cliff Waldron and the Seldom Scene, and in his solo recordings, Auldridge expanded the reso’s reach to folk, pop, and swing music.

Jerry Douglas was inspired by both of these innovative pickers. He was born to a musical family in Ohio in 1956. His father led a local bluegrass band and Jerry took up the reso at age 10 after seeing Josh Graves with Flatt & Scruggs at a show in southern Ohio. He learned to play from records and from playing in his father’s band. He worked at it “like hell” (his phrase) and his work paid off. In 1973, while still in high school, he spent the summer on tour with the Country Gentlemen and after graduation he joined the Gentlemen full time and recorded with them. On his earliest recordings with the band, he sounds somewhat like Mike Auldridge, who had also recorded with the Country Gentlemen before and during his tenure with the Seldom Scene. But Jerry’s own personal style was quickly emerging, and by the time he recorded the famous “Rounder 0044” with J.D. Crowe and the New South (bandmates included Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs), it was plain that a distinctive new reso voice had arrived.

In 1978, Jerry released his first solo record, containing a mix of traditional and modern tunes including several that he wrote. In the liner notes to that album, mandolin virtuoso and “Dawg music” innovator David Grisman prophetically concluded, “In my book, Jerry Douglas is the cat to watch on dobro.” In his reso arrangements of bluegrass standards “Bill Cheatham,” “Randy Lynn Rag,” and “Wheel Hoss,” Jerry’s playing was innovative and astonishing. Playing the reso is like playing the guitar with one finger—one heavy metal finger. It takes a lot of dexterity to play anything quickly and clearly. Jerry incorporated right and left hand techniques from melodic banjo and guitar flatpicking as well as rapid fire hammer ons and pulloffs (basically, using the bar to pick the strings) to create a melodic style of dobro that was very fast and clear. While Graves, Auldridge, and their predecessors had played melodies on reso, nobody in bluegrass before Jerry had perfected the technique of playing fiddle tunes or other long rapid passages in which all the notes were melody notes. (Earlier lap style steel players had been working along similar lines, including Bob Kai and Bob Dunn, who were playing jazz guitar lines on steel guitar in the 1930s.)

By his early 20s, Jerry Douglas had greatly advanced the technique of the resonator guitar in bluegrass. One measure of the magnitude of his technical achievement is that today, nearly half a century after his first recordings, contemporary resonator guitarists are still using the techniques that Jerry pioneered. In other words, contemporary pickers haven’t advanced the book of reso techniques all that much since Jerry rewrote it in the 1970s and 80s.

But there is more to Jerry’s style than just technical brilliance. He draws from a deep well of musical creativity to produce music of great beauty and originality. And this happened not only on his own recordings but on the many Nashville studio sessions that he played during the 1980s. Although I have not seen any statistics on the matter, Jerry Douglas has to be the most recorded reso player of all time. For a time in the 1980s it seemed that every country record from Nashville featured Jerry’s playing on at least one track. He didn’t sound like anyone else back then, so his playing was instantly identifiable. He could recompose the melody of a song in a way that complemented the singer and added something beautiful and new.

In the second half of the 1970s he and Ricky Skaggs played together in Boone Creek, and in the late 1970s he joined forces with Buck White and Buck’s daughters Cheryl and Sharon, formerly the Down Home Folks, to form the Whites. That band had a number of country hits during the New Traditionalist period in the first half of the 1980s. Jerry’s playing on these recordings illustrates how his playing made the songs stand out. One Nashville record producer explained that Jerry was his first call on resonator guitar because Jerry’s breaks filled the space you needed them to fill better than anyone else’s.

Jerry left the Whites in the mid-1980s to pursue his own work full time. More solo albums followed during this time, and as he matured Jerry’s music took a “New Acoustic” direction, emphasizing melody and beautiful tone as much as his phenomenal technique (although the technique was always there). In addition to his own work, Jerry performed on a number of special projects over many years, including 1983’s “Snakes Alive” recording by a studio band that also included banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck, and the Bluegrass Album Band recordings (starting with the third). He also organized “The Great Dobro Sessions” during the 1990s, a collection of the finest reso players then performing, including Auldridge, Graves, Oswald, and Rob Ickes. That recording won a Grammy. In 1993 he recorded “Skip, Hop & Wobble” with guitarist Russ Barenberg and bassist Edgar Meyer, another extremely influential project that introduced a lot of us to the traditional fiddle tune “Big Sciota.” Jerry toured and recorded with Alison Krauss and Union Station for many years beginning in the 1990s, and his stature was such that he received name billing with Alison. More recently he has recorded with Mumford and Sons and Eric Clapton.

Also recently, Jerry Douglas has been recording and touring with “The Earls of Leicester,” a (Lester) Flatt and (Earl) Scruggs tribute band. The Earls’ recreations of classic Flatt and Scruggs material capture much of the excitement of the original recordings while updating them slightly for modern audiences. Jerry recreates Josh’s playing but adds a dollop of Jerry for good measure. The Earls include banjo ace Charlie Cushman, singer and guitarist (and topnotch songwriter) Shawn Camp, and fiddler Johnny Warren, who is the son of long time Flatt and Scruggs fiddler Paul Warren. Jerry continues to make cutting edge modern music with the Jerry Douglas Band and others, including blues singer Shemekia Copeland. But he has not lost his love for the bluegrass music that first inspired him to take up the resonator guitar. His music continues to enrich our lives.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

6 Responses

  • Wonderful article Andy. I especially appreciate the first two links you posted for a Hawaiian version of Home on the Range, and Brother Oswald playing an honest to God Hawaiian number The End of the World. That sound was WILDLY popular in the first half of the 20th century. Although Os was from as far up in the Tennessee hills as one can go, he never played steel guitar until he was working in Detroit in the auto plants and encountered an honest to God Hawaiian who was playing clubs there, and young Os pestered him unmercifully until he showed him how to play Hawaiian music. Os didn’t apply his Hawaiian skills to hillbilly music at first. And his famous Steel Guitar Chimes was actually an original Hawaiian number titled Maui Blues!!

    Many years ago I bought a DVD of Jerry Douglas teaching his Dobro techniques. Steel players famously “slant” their bar to achieve what a fiddler might call “double stops” or even certain chords, but Jerry said he sort of disdained bar slants as “old fashioned”. He put his energy into RAPID individual notes with the bar as you described. It’s so gratifying to see him play with the Earls of Leicester and put Uncle Joshes’ bar slants right in there!

    I remember when young Jerry first played with the Country Gentlemen, and he would play those “flurries” of single notes in a fast number, and Charlie Waller’s mouth would just hang open in astonishment!

    While I’m not a fan of some of Jerry’s non-bluegrass work, I absolutely love it when he plays the old stuff and even Josh breaks from 1960s Flatt & Scruggs records. Apparently he and I were listening to the same records at the same time. His playing with the Earls on A Faded Red Ribbon almost makes me cry every time when he plays those Josh licks that impressed me so much back in the mid-1960s.

    And by all accounts, Jerry is a great guy too!

    Thanks for your article.

  • Andy perhaps you could write some more about Jerry’s influence on the design of the reso guitar, how he worked with builders to really hot-rod what Lester Flatt called The Old Hound Dog Guitar.

  • What an excellent article! Thank you, Andy. Years ago, when I saw a video of Jerry playing dobro with Alison Krauss, I knew what I instrument I wanted to learn when I retired. I enjoy all of Jerry’s musical endeavors, not just his bluegrass work. The Transatlantic Session, his collaborations with David Bromberg or John Hiatt stand out for me. In addition to his incredible talent with the dobro, he’s a friendly and funny guy. The few times I saw him at small venues, like The Turning Point in Piermont, he hung around after his sets and chatted with everyone who stayed. Throughout the pandemic, he went on Facebook Live from his “squirrel’s nest,” playing music and raising money for various groups that support out-of-work musicians.

  • You just might need to rethink the best dobro players. Jake Clayton is a master of the fiddle, but his dobro playing is just as good.

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