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Getting my Twang On

Posted by Michael Hughes on Sunday, December 4, 2011

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I had my first lesson with David Ellis yesterday. Lessons are kind of like baths, they are things you should take periodically even if you don't think you need them. I'll let you fill out that metaphor on your own. (But something along the line that others will know you stink before you do.)

Like the instructors I've had before, David started by asking me to play something I felt pretty comfortable with. Then, like the instructors I've had before he asked me to play it again only slower. That must be page one in the "How to teach Dobro" manual. I'm just going to get a poster printed and put it in my music room that says "Slow down, dammit."

David picked up on some mechanical problems with how my picks were striking the strings and within five minutes I could hear a big improvement in my playing. I just want to reflect in this blog on what I learned and hopefully share it with others who might be having the same problems.

First, my thumb pick was not at the correct angle. So instead of plucking the string cleanly, it was sliding over the string, like holding a flat pick too loosely. So we adjusted that until the plectrum part of the pick was parallel with the plane of my thumbnail. (Before, it was at an angle coming back towards me.) This immediately kicked the volume up and it improved the tone of the notes.

Next, my index and middle fingers were extended too much, causing them to brush across the strings at an angle. This was causing the same problem that the angled thumb pick was causing, it was robbing my stroke of energy. David had me concentrate on curling my fingers and shifted the angle of my picking hand so that the thumb now extended further up the neck than my fingers. This had my index and middle fingers "pulling" the strings and snapping them loose, rather than brushing them.

Once again, volume went up and tone improved. Bear in mind, I play a Beard MA-6 so volume is not an issue, but this was like I had plugged it into an amplifier. Very noticeable!

Riding home after my lesson I reflected on the physics of what David had taught me. It's a lot like an archer shooting a bow. He pulls the string back straight and as far as possible in order  to put as much energy into it as possible, and then he suddenly releases it and all of that energy goes into the arrow causing it to fly faster and farther than if he had pulled the string back partially or let it slip gradually out of his fingers. That's why a well shot bow makes that distinct "twang" sound.  What better example, then, for the epitome of twang, the resophonic!

So I'm now concentrating on putting more energy into my pluck by pulling the string and letting it snap. And according to David's coaching, I am paying attention to each pluck. That means slowing down and focusing on each note, because as David said, "If the note wasn't important you wouldn't have put it in there in the first place."

By the way, for you pickers in the Atlanta area, you probably know David from his association with Cedar Hill of Atlanta and 3-Way Street. Then you know what a great musician he is on Dobro, guitar, mandolin, violin, and banjo. He is a delightful instructor as well.



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