The Dobro or resonator guitar has a unique feature that can be a great help or hindrance, depending on how you look at it: It is tuned to an open G chord. This means that if you strum all of the strings you will produce a G major chord instead of some kind of discordant noise.
The good thing about open G tuning is that it makes it quite easy to locate any major chord on the Dobro. Lay the steel straight across the neck at any fret, and you will produce a chord.
The bad thing about open G tuning is that it makes finding minor chords a little confusing at first. But not to worry! Dobro players have several options available to them.
Skip the Third
Chords are built on intervals. The intervals used in a major chord are the prime (root note), the third, and the fifth. If the root note is G, the third is B and the fifth is D. (We’re assuming you know some basic music theory here; if not, scroll down to the Helpful Resource section.)
The difference between a major and minor chord is the third. In a minor chord, a flat third is used. So a G minor chord consists of the notes G, B flat, and D. The root and the fifth do not change.
This brings us to an easy shortcut we can use when dealing with minor chords. We can place the steel as though we were going to play a major chord, and just avoid the third altogether. Thus for an E minor chord:
- Bar the ninth fret as if to play an E major chord.
- Pick the sixth, fourth, third, and first strings.
- Do not play either the fifth or the second strings—that would be a major chord.
While there is nothing about this chord that sounds distinctively minor, at least it won’t clash with the rest of the music.
Play a Two-Note Chord
Another possibility is to play only the root note and the flat third of a chord. While this does not sound as full as a three-note chord, it does have a distinctly minor sound.
The second string of a Dobro is tuned to B. The flat third in a B minor chord is D, which happens to be the sound of the open first string. Thus, you can play a two-note B minor chord just by picking the open second and first strings. In fact, you can place your steel on these two strings and find two-note minor chords all up and down the neck. Just remember that the second string provides the root and the first string provides the flat third.
Include Open Strings
Another easy method is to learn two chord shapes involving open strings.
The first shape will produce an E minor chord (E G B):
- Tilt the steel to play the fourth string, second fret (E).
- Play the open third string (G).
- Play the open second string (B).
- Do not play any of the other strings.
The second shape will produce a B minor (B D F#):
- Lay the steel across the fourth and third strings at the fourth fret (F# and B).
- Play the open second string (B).
- Play the open first string (D).
- Do not play the other two strings.
These two chords can be a big help. E minor is used in the key of G major, the preferred key of Dobro and banjo players. Likewise, B minor is used in the key of D major, a favorite with fiddle and mandolin players. If you need to play in the key of A, also commonly used by fiddlers, just put your capo at the second fret and use your E minor chord shape. This will give you an F# minor chord. (Playing in the key of A is often easier with a capo, anyway.)
As you become familiar with your fretboard, you will doubtless find other combinations of open and fretted strings that you will enjoy.
Play an Arpeggio
Instead of trying to find the chord, just play the notes that are used in the minor chord you are seeking as a roll or arpeggio. For example, let’s say you are playing a D minor chord:
- Tilt the steel to play the sixth string at the seventh fret.
- Move to the fifth string, sixth fret.
- Move back to play the fourth and third strings at the seventh fret.
- Move again to the second string, sixth fret.
- Go back to the first string, seventh fret.
This can be an unwieldy method for a fast song, but can sound pleasant on a slower piece.
Great explanation, complete with exercises for mastery.