Friday, January 20, 2006

A steel guitar sketch

Today Caroline decided that she wanted to draw Will’s steel guitar. "I draw tar" she said, grabbed pen and paper and sat down beside the guitar, drawing lines from one page to the next until I offered to help her (it was my work notebook after all). Caroline handed over the pen and pad quite officially and then stood by the guitar, posing solemnly, hand on its neck for an entire ten seconds until she considered the job done and came over to see the results.

I drew for her the guitar's shoulders, its tuning pegs and the sharp curl of string ends. I named the frets and the resonator box and after every line drawn and identified she repeated the names back to me. Then she took the scarf that I had given her at breakfast for her baby doll (a chilly morning), and wound it around the guitar’s neck. "There" she said, "now we go out." Instead, we sketched the scarf into the drawing.

It is a mighty fine looking guitar and I don’t wonder that she has taken to it more than to Will’s other instruments. It sits out for one thing, free of its case, reflecting the light from our balcony window off its steel brightness, ice cold from its spot by the door. And it is loud - even the carpet beneath it can't dull its sound.

Sometimes Caroline will slip away from a babysitter and run in here as I work, to stand by the guitar and pluck a note, then use it as her cue to sing for me until I swoop her up and carry her back out to the kitchen or to her room, kissing her for all she’s worth until it is time to go back to my work, back to solitude and concentration.

And if you ask me, would I trade the work or the time together, I'd answer - both are made sweeter by the other, like a note from a steel guitar, resonant from its metal casing, but clear, too.

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Karla said...

A splendid thought, a guitar wearing a scarf. It reminds me of pictures I drew when I was 3 or 4, which my mother was wonderful enough to save with meticulous notes as to what exactly I said they were of. (I especially like the one of the world with windows of houses rotating around it like little glowing planets.)

Is a steel guitar the same as a dobro, or slightly different?

Julia said...

That's a really good question and I asked Will the exact same thing when I was writing up the post. Basically his answer was - a dobro is a type of guitar, not all steel guitars are dobros, but a lot of them are and the differences show in f-holes (guitars) vs windows (dobros), in the resonator cone and in the way that you play them.

Cool fact of the day about dobros - the guys who popularized the dobro were Slovak Americans. They thought they had something good on their hands, and named their company 'Dobro' accordingly.

Karla said...

Hmm. But on the f-holes versus windows issue, don't a lot of (even most?) guitars have a round hole rather than f-holes? I do have a vague recollection of once wondering why some guitars had f-holes.

I didn't know about the Slovak-American dobro popularizers. This makes great sense. But then, I don't know much about dobros, though I have a few dobro albums in storage.

Jeremy said...

There's a confusing thing about steel guitar vs guitar made of metal. On albums and among musicians, a Steel Guitar (usually 'lap steel guitar' or 'pedal steel guitar') is named after the metal bar (it's called a 'steel') that's held in the left hand and used to make sliding sounds, instead of fretting. This is a typical sound in country music (for example the sliding that comes just after the words "Stand By Your Man" in the Tammy Wynette song)
Confusingly, another kind of guitar is also used for sliding, and some of these are made of metal: this is the one that most people would look at and think 'well, it's shiny and metal, that must be a 'steel guitar'. Most often it's not steel but brass, and its particular sound comes from a resonator (like a 10 inch aluminum speaker cone) that's behind a hubcap-like cover plate right on the front of the guitar. There's a shiny nickel plated brass guitar like this on the cover of Dire Straits' album "Brothers in Arms".
Some of these guitars are made of wood, but with the metal coverplate and the resonator behind it. One of these is shown on the cover of Creedence Clearwater's album called "Green River".
The two most well-known brands of resonator guitars are National (usually metal) and Dobro (usually wooden). National is what Paul Simon sings about in the song "Graceland": "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National Guitar"
National and Dobro use different resonator systems ('biscuit' vs.''spider'), which have different sounds (roughly, growly vs. twangy); the National system is used mostly for bluesy sounds, the Dobro mostly for bluegrass and country.
The Dopyera brothers (born in Slovakia, living in LA at the time) were banjo makers who invented the resonator systems in the 30's as a way of making the guitar louder (there were no electric guitars yet). Now we have amplifiers, but the resophonic guitars are still popular because of their wonderful sound.
They invented the name, I assume, from DOpyera BROthers; also, in their native language, as Julia was hinting, 'dobro' means 'good'.
Hey, don't get me started, I can't stop!

Julia said...

So, does ours qualify as a steel guitar? We do love the resonator, and like to test it to see what the best pitches and vowels are to set it humming when we sing.