Hot Rodding  The Baddest Instrument In Bluegrass

Bluegrass has always tenbrooks’ed the fast and the powerful. Racehorses, big rigs, steam drills, sleek trains and burly freights cannonball through bluegrass standards. I’m sure there must be bluegrass from the ‘50s and ‘60s that mirrored the California car culture pop of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, but I can’t think of any tunes specifically about hot rods or drag racing.

On the instrument side, we have seen many hot rod efforts to juice up bluegrass instruments. The Nechville and Vestal banjo designs. Monteleone’s Grand Artist and the Giacomel and Rigel mandolins. Bourgeois Guitars’ thin-bodied, built for the stage, Odyssey dreadnought, just to name a few.

Enter Byrl Murdock, a highly successful custom car painter forced to flee the scene after his respiratory system developed acute allergies to the toxic compounds found in popular car finishes. But he couldn’t leave the high-horsepower/high-adrenaline allure of hot rod culture behind. So he decided to tackle the bluegrass instrument that seems born of those roots, the resophonic guitar—with its chrome spider bridge cover plates, tailpiece, and sound hole screens—to create a bigger sound and more stage appeal. 

“One of my hobbies was playing the guitar. I had played it since I was a kid.  But I admired the Dobro™. The sound is what drew me to it. I was envisioning a different and better sound. My vision for a piece of art mixed with a better and unique sound took over my thoughts. With a vision in my head, I gathered together pieces of wood. Some old, some even older, some from a desk and a few new pieces. It was then that I created my first Dobro. I used my vision to see beauty and my ear for a unique sound. I wasn*t even sure it would work, but it did.  That Dobro, ※The Desk,” sits in my office to this day. It serves as a reminder that we can create something beautiful from only scraps,” he explains, echoing the rebuild/fabricate ethos of the hot rod world.

Murdock built another, which he sold for $1,200, and his path forward emerged. “Two cents an hour for all the work that I put into it. After that one, I created another. And then another. And with each one I finished, they seemed to get better in some way,” he adds. “Sometimes the art, sometimes the design, and sometimes the build. No two are ever the same. Even though some have a bit of a different sound, being custom made for each individual, each one makes extraordinary music. So as I custom design, build and play each one, it gives me great satisfaction to see one of my resonators handed over to that new owner who will make it sing.”

Given its acousti-mechanical nature, the Dobro™ has always attracted tinkerers, inventors and visionary artists, from the Dopyera Brothers who invented it to modern luthiers like Tim Scheerhorn and Paul Beard. Now Murdock, who has the vibrational energy of a new particle at CERN —maybe one yet to be discovered called the dobron—presents his Rob Ickes Signature Model to resophonic guitarists wanting even more power under the hood.

Just ask Ickes, who discovered Byrl Guitars (www.byrlguitars.com) accidentally through a customer of Murdock’s who attended a Dobro workshop Ickes was teaching. From the first moment he heard her Byrl guitar, Ickes was drawn to its sound and immense headroom. He asked to play it, and immediately said, “This is one of best Dobros I’ve ever played. The Byrl blew my mind.”

Ickes contacted Murdock directly and fabricated plans to meet up at IBMA so he could play more of these bold new guitars. Murdock had a booth at IBMA with about ten instruments, so one evening they retired to Ickes’ suite with three or four Byrls, along with about 20 other world-class instruments, for the IBMA award winner to sample. Also in the room was Josh Swift, and Dobro setup legend and history expert Bobby Wright, who is well-known and highly respected on Dobro Hangout and the Dobroholics Facebook page.

“Bobby and I stayed up until three playing these different Dobros, 12 Scheerhorns, some of the best instruments in the world. And I kept going back to that Byrl. I loved how it played and sounded and looked,” Ickes tells Bluegrass Unlimited.

“At IBMA, Byrl gave me a curly maple model that I liked, and then he built another specifically for me.  After delivering that second guitar, we started discussing a signature model,” he adds. The Byrl guitars have been his stage and studio instruments ever since.

That’s a big change for someone so associated with one maker’s instruments. “I’ve been doing this long time, played a lot of different guitars, and I’ve played Scheerhorn resonator guitars for a long time. But this was the first guitar that made me want to play anything else.”

He adds, “What I like about Sheerhorn is the responsiveness, like the sound hits my ears as soon as I play the note. And I love that in Tim’s guitars, and always will. But with the Byrl, I get even more of that. Step on the gas, and the Byrl just keeps on giving.” Sure, sounds like a hot rod, doesn’t it?

When interviewed, Murdock, who uses his guitar-building to support his Indiana Christian youth ministry, bounces along topics, deeply involved in his trains of thought. He’s clearly a high-energy guy who wants to positively impact his world and the people in it.

And that includes bluegrass resophonic guitarists, who increasingly want a potently loud instrument with a noteworthy aesthetic that captures the fuel-injected heart of great resophonic guitar tone.

On his website, Byrl explains his Hot Rod Series guitars have been “hot-rodded with a secret sound-reflecting hardwood back.” His innovative design features side-facing sound holes for more projection, as well as f-holes replacing the standard round sound holes.

These and other features, he says, give these guitars “the fullest and loudest sound we’ve made. Running with the hot rod theme, every one of these Hot Rod series guitars are torched with a custom air-brushed flame job.” These instruments start at $5,400, with many colors and options available to truly customize your personal bad boy, including powder-coated cover plates and hardware, a removable wooden palm rest to facilitate string changing, and a sleek, hot-rod-inspired SS (Super Sport) headstock that elegantly mirrors the curves in the tailpiece.

 Rob Ikes and Byrl Murdock
Rob Ikes and Byrl Murdock

Byrl Guitars models start with the Standard, available in a Dreadnought depth or a shallow-body version, for $4,000. The next step is the RB-3 model, not to be confused with the Gibson banjo model, that features gorgeous three-piece backs in alternate woods like maple and mahogany for $4,400. Befitting his ministry work, Murdock offers a Churchwood model using 200-year-old mahogany salvaged from an Indiana church built in the 1800s. Available in “distressed vintage” and “stellar vintage” finishes, these start at $4,800. The Rob Ickes Signature starts at $6,300, with multiple options to personalize the Dobro for the buyer. Standard features include a Gary Price guitar case and elegant guitar strap from leather artisan Bobby Poff.

Ask Rob Ickes what role the Byrl Guitars will play in his arsenal and is it his new go-top stage guitar, and the musician responds emphatically.  “I’ve already made the change,” he reports. “I love the Sheerhorns, but I will keep playing these Byrls. I have one with a Fishman pickup for live stage use, then I have a signature model—and it’s a beautiful guitar, love the fretboard. I don*t have a pickup in the signature model yet, I love how it sounds so I don*t want to change anything in it just yet.”

Having a major bluegrass artist like Rob Ickes endorse your work and create a signature guitar is beyond a dream for Byrl Murdock. “One thing about Rob’s (signature model), is the attention to detail. There are so many little things on his. The aesthetic is just extreme. The purfling is gorgeous, the way you have to cut the wood to get that look is very precise. It took years to learn it. Making (the guitar) unique to Rob, that*s what’s important. This is my success. I’m thrilled a that a man of this caliber, with his ear, came to me for a signature model. Building this guitar is a crowning achievement.”  

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