Larry Beem

Bluegrass resophonic guitarist
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Larry BeemLarry Beem, who grew up in a musical family in Des Moines, plays resophonic guitar (also popularly known as the steel guitar or dobro—the latter name now owned by Gibson) and acoustic guitar, and sings in the central Iowa band, Blue Grit. Surrounded by instruments, and family members who played them, at seven, he began to play steel guitar in a family band. Over the years, Larry has also played electric steel and bass guitar as well as banjo.

The resophonic guitar is a hybrid instrument that came into being in the 1920s. As the Acoustic Guitar Owner’s Manual (String Letter Publishing) explains, the Dobro or steel guitar has its strings high off the fret board (neck); the guitarist “frets” the strings with a metal slide, similar to a blues guitar bottleneck technique.

The instrument has its roots in the Hawai’ian Islands, where indigenous peoples added a slide to the Spanish guitar to create the characteristic wailing sound associated with the steel guitar. According to Charles McGovern in The Electric Guitar: A History of an American Icon (Andre Millard, ed., Smithsonian, 2004), the mainland U.S. fascination with Hawai’i and its music in the early 1900s, popularized the sounds of the ukulele and the slide guitar.

Rural African American and Anglo musicians quickly picked up the technique of using a slide on the strings and adapted the instrument to blues and country music. Not surprisingly, the blues bottleneck slide, used to bend and stretch the notes, also has antecedents in West African musical styles.

At the same time that the slide guitar was becoming popular, Czech violin make John Dopyera along with brothers Emil and Rudolph used modern machining techniques to create the National and Dobro resonator guitars, the loudest acoustic guitar around. Early jazz musicians such as Django Reinhardt (Roma) as well as Czech and German guitarists added their own ethnic influence to the music, further spreading the instrument and its features to the Great Plains and the Southwestern US and into Swing and country music. According to Irwin Stambler and Grelun Lambler (Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s Press, 1997), the instrument and its derivative, the pedal steel guitar, was further popularized by Hank Williams, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. But it was arguably the Ohio-born Jerry Douglas, son of a bluegrass band leader, who made a name for the dobro as a bluegrass instrument. Named by Frets magazine Best Dobro Player from 1979-1984, Douglas has made a major impact on the bluegrass scene.

Beem has been part of a variety of blue grass bands, including Jasper County Line, A Touch of Grass and Bluegrass Addiction. Nominated for Midwest Dobro Performer of the Year from 1998-2005, Larry finally won that honor from the Society to preserve bluegrass music of America (SPBGMA).

Larry has traveled all over the country playing with the best of the best. He has been with First Impression, an award-winning Bluegrass group from Missouri, which won the International Band Competition in Nashville in 2001. He is currently playing with Blue Grit, a central Iowa bluegrass band. When that band isn't playing, Larry continues to play shows with some of the best pickers in the business such as Clay Hess (guitarist formerly with Ricky Scaggs & Kentucky Thunder).

Contact: Larry Beem, Windsor Heights, IA, 515.559.7498, larrybeem@mchsi.com, www.bluegrit.net.