It's hard to say quite where the Zephyr began, because it had its beginnings in so many places. Don Young, MacGregor Gaines and I created it. I guess what made it such a great instrument was that we have a lot in common. You see, all three of us have an attraction to the sound of the dobro. We love to hear someone playing one. We all share a certain awe for the style of its design and its history. Probably what made it such a success is that we have a reverence for excellent craftsmanship. In fact, we downright celebrate it.
The Zephyr was created as the prototype for the top of the line for the Dobro company. It has 10 strings; maple neck, top, back and sides; ebony fretboard and peghead overlay; and a solid brass tailpiece. But first a little about what I've experienced with 10-string dobros, and dobros in general.
Now, I got my first 10-string dobro in 1976, which is the same year that model, the Model 10, came out. I got it a week or two before I joined Hoyt Axton's band as a pedal steel player and went out on the road. As a matter of fact, my first time playing the 10-string in public was on WSM radio with Hoyt and Doyle Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers. Yes, live for millions of listeners, while I was still getting used to the unique tuning (see first Zephyr page).
It was great as a road pedal steel. I could practise on the tour bus, and participate in some jam sessions that I might ordinarily be logistically excluded from. You see, the pedal steel, which looks like a cross between a table with strings and a bicycle rack, takes two people to carry it and all its peripheral equipment, and requires electricity of the household nature.
Now, there was a drawback to my first 10-string. It was quiet. It was great in the studio. I used it on that trip to Nashville on Guy Clark's Texas Cookin' album. It recorded well, but it was just quiet. Play with one loud acoustic guitar or two soft ones, and the sound gets lost. I got to play it in Mimi Fariña's first Bread & Roses Acoustic Music Festival in Berkeley. I had a great time backing up Hoyt, Tim Hardin, Tom Paxton, Ramblin' Jack Eliot with Stephen Stills, Joan Baez and Mimi Fariña. But it was quiet.
So I visited Ron Lazar at the factory of Original Musical Instruments, and showed him my 10 string. He agreed. It was quiet. This is when I found, to my amazement, that no-one at the factory had ever heard a 10-string played, or had any concept of how it was or could be tuned, except for the Eb diatonic tuning that steel player Red Rhodes used on his. I think Red's was the first Model 10 off the line.
After hearing me play, Ron suggested he build me a metal bodied 10-string. They had only built one before, and he said it would suit my style. I gave him the go-ahead, and he was right. It sounded significantly better, and became my studio 10-string. And, for the next Bread & Roses Festival (that was the real reason I had it built!), I was there with my metal bodied guitar. The festival was great, and I could be heard better than before, but the new instrument still wasn't as loud as a regular dobro, nor did it quite have the tone.
About that same time, I quit the road. I had been missing important studio work by being gone. I started playing a lot more 6-string lap style "slide" guitar. It was time to take my fascination with David Lindley;'s style and develop a similar approach and technique. This is when I tuned my dobro to "high G" tuning, which is harmonically identical to "open E" tuning. But always, in the back of my mind was the idea that, somehow, a really great 10-string could be built.
Now who is Don Young, and where does he enter into things? Well, Don is a capable and personable dobro craftsman and historian. His knowledge of how the dobro works makes him successful in the area of construction, repair, and troubleshooting. He worked at O.M.I. a number of times beginning in 1972. They were always glad to have him back, and, during his last stint from 1984 to 1988, made him shop foreman and vice president.
Don and I met at either a music trade show, or the factory, and immediately found that we had lots in common. I had the pleasure of being the first person that Don had ever heard playing the 10-string dobro. All of a sudden, he could see the potential of the instrument. And, of course, he perceived right off that the ones I had were--you guessed it--quiet.
Don and I began to have many discussions on what makes a dobro sound great, and we'd invent and critique various designs. I was fascinated by how much he'd researched and really thought through ideas. He'd also built a number of instruments at home on his own time, just to try out some ideas.
At this point, I didn't really know Mac, although he was there at the factory in 1986. I just felt if Don has a heading, that he should have one too. You'll see later that he's truly a Wizard of Wood.
In 1985, O.M.I. was up for sale. In October, it was bought by Chester and Mary Lizak, who had done O.M.I.'s books for years. This marked only the second time that Dobro had been out of the hands of the Dopyera family since Dobro's beginning in 1928. It was the first time it was in the hands of anyone outside of the instrument manufacturing business, not to mention an accountant. There were pluses and minuses to this. A plus was that, in the past, whenever an innovation was proposed, the standard Dopyera family response was something like "We didn't do it like that in 1928, there's no reason to do it now."
The new management also left Don in the position of being the highest placed knowledgeable person. Don related to Chester his perception of the history of the Dobro, and that he and a number of other employees, and a handful of potential customers, were excited about the development of a top-of-the line kind of Dobro. The top of the line, until that time, had been merely a cosmetic upgrade. Other small manufacturers had come out with custom made Dobros, and had used different materials and designs. But O.M.I. had kept on doing it like 1928. Sort of. Somewhere during this time, Don did some precise analyses of metals and woods used in the early Dobros (which are generally regarded as the better ones, and sometimes carry a healthy price tag.). He discovered that the alloy for the cone had changed, as did the shape. In his spare time, Don set about making accurate reproductions of the original cones in his parents garage in Long Beach. One of his biggest customers was O.M.I..
Along about this time, Don and Mac and I were discussing designs quite excitedly and often.
We wanted to give it every advantage. Don and Mac had discovered that the bass response of the instrument could be improved by increasing the area of the holes where the screen or f-hole would be. We wanted it to have an extra solid tailpiece for the strings to mount on. We knew it should get solid wood for the top, back, and sides (The standard Dobro was always made with plywood, when it wasn't being made with metal.). We wanted to celebrate the Twenties, and the Art Deco style reflected in the National Tri-Plate guitar, the Chrysler Building, and the original Dobro.
When Don got the go-ahead, we were pretty much prepared. I had been working on the overall design by making lots of different drawings. I started sending my favorites to Don and Mac. We'd discuss them by phone. Meanwhile, I bought the best German maple I could find, to use on the top, back, and sides. Chester may have given the go-ahead, but he definitely didn't want to spend any extra money.
Soon, we agreed on a design, and the work began. I was only able to visit the factory once during the construction. What I saw at that time was that the things I had created in two dimensions were coming alive in three dimensions at the capable hands of MacGregor Gaines. It was really exciting to see what Mac had done to expand upon my flat two-dimensional renderings. Unfortunately, my schedule didn't permit me to visit again until the unveiling, but we did run up our phone bills.
Anticipation grew as we got closer to completion. Finally, Don called me and said, "We're about to string 'er up. Can you come out?" I said, "You bet!"
Most work stopped at the factory, as the time grew closer to the anticipated moment. I had brought along my friend, photographer Peter Figen. Peter and I had worked on a number of projects for myself and Deering Banjos, and he himself is quite a Dobro fan. He set up his lights and backdrop while Don and Mac and a couple of others did the last minute adjustments.
The things that had started to come alive were, now, fully realized. Mac had really created a magnificent-looking instrument. Even if it didn't sound very impressive, it would still look great. We had, indeed, given it every advantage to bring out the best sound, but we didn't know whether it would be great, or just real good. We had seen two Dobros come off the line made by the same person out of virtually identical materials sounding quite differen from each other. So, we just didn't know for sure.
I was laughing out loud when I put my picks to the strings. A fleeting thought of self-reproach appeared for not having practised enough on my metal bodied 10-string to have been totally masterful. I sent the thought on its way, and immersed myself in the magnificent sound of this, the only dobro of its kind. The lows were truly low and resonant, and the highs were clear and ringing without being harsh.
I consider instruments probably differently than many people. I see ownership as a custodianship. That makes me responsible for the best possible treatment of an instrument, and further responsible for it getting played and admired. In that way, I'm fulfilling the original intention of the creators of the instrument. With that said, I'm happy to say that I have that Zephyr.
Since that day at O.M.I., Don and Mac have formed their own company, National Reso-Phonic, and I've played the Zephyr all over the place: on records and tapes, at concerts, bluegrass festivals, and trade shows. I'm always glad to show off the instrument that Don Young, perhaps only in the excitement of the moment, called "the best instrument to ever come out of the Dobro company."
You know, that's actually quite a responsibility.
Don and Mac now have a web presence. Click here and you can go their site.
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