About three years ago I had a big Aha! moment. I had just decided to get serious about playing the reso I had fooled around with for 15 years and went online to learn about this box that had the cool sound and why I wasn't sounding a bit like the stuff that got me interested in the first place. I found a lesson by Ivan Rosenbeg and learned Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Well, the light went on. I had been playing the reso like it was just an open tuned guitar played with a slide. I applied what I had learned from over 40 years playing folk music. I was using my basic Travis style picking, occasionally throwing in some rolls from my banjo days. You know, laying down a substrate of notes from the chord and weaving the melody line through it.
That's not what Ivan was doing. He was throwing something into the mix
that had never occurred to me: silence. He was shaping the sound as he
played individual notes, sometimes with some picking around it, but a
lot of the time just letting the voice of the reso sing the melody. And
he'd let it stop to breathe. And sometimes he'd slide the low D up to a G
and let it drone the open G string right above it. I got it! This was a
unique instrument and not meant to be played the same way I would a
Lesson learned and apparently forgotten. As I was getting ready for my
first Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp last year, I bought Steve's four-hour
bluegrass workout book and CD and started learning some fiddle tunes.
One I learned was Saint Ann's Reel, arguably the prettiest fiddle tune
of them all. But Steve's arrangements were for flat pickers, either
guitar or mandolin. None the less, I learned them note for note and
played them on my reso. Pretty, but one problem--practice as much as I
have, I just can't get up to jamming speed.
Then the next Aha! There is no way that I was ever going to be able to
match what a flat picker with fingers and frets could do by finger
picking and playing with a slide. Please spare me your links to some
Jerry Douglas recording and your "Oh Yeah?" I didn't say Jerry couldn't
do it; I said I couldn't. So last night I'm jamming at the Red Light
Cafe in Midtown Atlanta and sure enough the mandolin player says "Let's
do Saint Ann's Reel." Well I tried to keep up but ended up playing what
felt like every other note just to stay with the others. Hmmmm, it
didn't sound real awful. So this morning I worked through it and paid
attention to the "money notes," i.e., the ones that really defined the
melody, and I ignored the flourish notes. All of a sudden what came out
was Saint Ann's Reel at jamming speed.
So I opened up my Mike Witcher book to see how he played it and, lo and
behold, I wasn't too far off of what he did. Just for grins, I counted
the number of notes in the first three bars of the B part. Steve's flat
picker arrangement had 21 notes. I was playing 15. (Mike's arrangement
for reso had 17--well, that's why he's Mike Witcher and I'm Mike
Hughes.) Just that small reduction in notes, though, was all it took to
get me up to jamming speed.
Being a tech writer by trade, my first analogy was that it was like
editing a text, taking out the non-essentials and leaving the meat. But
that wasn't quite right. In editing, we take out parts that don't add
value, but in this case Steve's extra notes all added value.
It's more like watching Gregory Hines tap dance. Fast, furious,
fantastic! But now imagine another dancer joins him on stage, Fred
Astaire. Fred dances to the same beat, but fewer movements. He glides,
lingers in space for a moment, then seemingly falls into the next step.
One's not better than the other; each is bringing his unique artistry
and talents to the stage. The reso is more like Fred Astaire. It glides,
it lingers, it uses its special tonality to add voice to the melody.
So my new mantra is "Less tap, more glide." I think there are some life lessons outside of music somewhere in that.