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Curtis Burch

by Randy Getz


This is by no means intended to be a biography of Curtis Burch, however, a chance meeting, and listening to him play made me decide to do some research on him and introduce him to many folks who have perhaps never had the good fortune of seeing or hearing him play. Another reason for the story is to show the modifications he has had done to his instrument, should anyone out there want to do something similar to their instrument. I first heard of Curtis when Dobro Gal (Jennifer Kennedy) mentioned on another site that he was her instructor, I also learned that he played a Wolfe hand made resonator guitar. Since Bobby and myself have become very good friends over the last 10-12 years I asked Bobby about Curtis and was amazed to hear what this man has done with a resonator guitar over the last 30 plus years.

Curtis was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1945, when he was old enough to make a decision about a particular style of music he choose bluegrass and for instruments he picked flattop and resonator guitar. He became very good friends with Tut Taylor during the 60’s, and that strong friendship continues today. He is a consummate perfectionist when it comes to instrument tone, and is always looking for ways to improve on what an instrument sounds like. Bobby had told me how in the late 60’s or early 70’s he had seen Curtis making some kind of adjustment at the nut of his Dobro. He said it appeared that Curtis had an intonation adjustment for one or more strings, which could be moved back and forward to adjust for subtle tonal qualities that only his ear may have been able to detect. After honing his skills with local bands and feeling the need to progress he became a member of the Bluegrass Alliance in the early 70’s, and then a founding member of the New Grass Revival in 1972 when several members of the Alliance band left to form the Revival group. The New Grass Revival was a very controversial band from the beginning, many of the Traditionalists looked down their noses at the group, which drove a wedge between the traditional sound and a very Progressive sound. Again Curtis was looking to push the resonator guitar into a new envelope and increase the exposure to more people; this band while perhaps controversial (due mainly to their selection of material) brought many new fans to the genre. In 1981 Curtis who had become road weary after ten plus years of traveling decided to leave the Revival band. He has performed numerous times as a backup artist on many recorded projects with many artists, and had traveled and played with Leon Russell and the late John Hartford at many of their personal appearances.

While attending the SPBGMA awards show with my friend Bobby Wolfe this past February I had the pleasure of meeting the man along with his lovely wife Ruth. Curtis had made arrangements to have Bobby take a look at his pre-war 7 string as he felt it could use some routine maintenance as well as a good tune-up. During their visit to our room at the hotel Curtis entertained us by playing several of Bobby’s new “Ported” models, which he was ask to evaluate as to tonal qualities of the different woods used in the three available instruments (mahogany, cherry and Brazilian rosewood), while he played resonator guitar Ruth played flattop backup and treated us by singing several tunes, this lady can sing a song. Curtis then pulled the 7 string out of the case, I immediately noticed some type of “contraption” where the tailpiece would normally be located, I said not a word but laid back and listened to him play this instrument. I want you all to know that I do not play, I am however able to discern something good when I hear it played, and that evening I heard sounds and tones from a resonator guitar that I had never heard before. Curtis played tunes on that instrument-using nothing but the bar to pick the strings (hammering on), he played tunes picking between the nut and the bar, and everything sounded good (the contraption was not used except when the instrument was being played in the traditional lap style). I asked a few (very few) questions about the contraption and when I got home did some detective work on the internet. The contraption is called a Palm Pedal and is used extensively on electric guitars to change the pitch of any two strings either individually or simultaneously while the instrument is being played. The instrument on which the Palm Pedal is installed started life as a pre-war (circa, 1934-1936) round neck 6 string real mahogany Dobro assembled in California with square cut peg head slots and a parallelogram holed sound well. This instrument fit Curtis’s ear very well and was used extensively by him, however his never-ending need to push the envelope further required some changes. In 1984 he had well known luthier Randy Wood make and install a custom 7 string square-neck. But it didn’t end there, he also purchased the Palm Pedal, showed Randy where he wanted it located and had Randy install the device. I thought that perhaps some other folks out there may want to experiment and try one of these devices on an instrument they own, so I contacted Bobby who had the instrument in his shop and ask him to take some photos, and to contact Curtis to make sure it was all right with him to post this short topic and the photos.

Curtis did not want the story to sound like he was the first to do something like this to a standard resonator guitar, and wanted me to point out that Shot Jackson had modified a six string Dobro to a seven string instrument back in the mid 50’s to which he additionally added a foot controlled pedal, this instrument was used initially on a record with Johnny and Jack, then later in the early 60’s he had added two foot controlled pedals, he used this instrument to record a historic LP with Famed Steel Guitar player Buddy Emmons. Hal Rugg another steel player from this time frame had 4 foot controlled pedals installed on an 8 string instrument, another experimenter during this period was Steel player Weldon Myrick who had a Palm Pedal installed on an 8 string instrument that he played, a photo of him with this guitar appears in the first Stacy Phillips teaching book titled simply “The Dobro Book”. Curtis pointed out that the pedal used by Weldon and shown in the photo is the exact same model he has on his instrument. While Curtis is very happy with the effects he is able to achieve with this modification he has only played it one time out in the public, with all his other playing of the instrument occurring in the privacy of his home. He wishes that everyone know it is not his intention to push the standard 6 string resonator guitar aside and replace it with something else, but in his never ending search to push the envelope he is always willing to try something different. He was not the least bit hesitant to give approval to posting of the story and the photos that follow. The photos will give a good idea of how and where the Palm Pedal was installed, as for tuning and string sizes you will have to talk to Curtis about that should you be so fortunate as to have him appear at a venue in or near your locality.

Curtis’s current project which again pushes the envelope for the resonator guitar is a c/d Titled “Burchland” which was done with the Bowling Green Chamber Orchestra and has received several favorable reviews. It is a live recorded performance which opens with two movements written especially for the project by Dr. Charles W. Smith professor emeritus at Western Kentucky University where he taught music theory and flute, the next ten tunes are for the most part country and bluegrass tunes using a bluegrass band with orchestral accompaniment, now is that taking the resonator guitar uptown or what. Ruth plays rhythm guitar back up and does some nice vocals on this project, which I feel is very easy to listen to.