Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ranger Doug (Green) Comedian Guitars - Part Three

In the early 1990’s, a local public radio station from Cincinnati, Ohio, WVXU, played host to the Rider’s Radio Theater, featuring The Riders In The Sky. Two shows would be taped for broadcast on each visit. To be there was like going back in time to the early days of radio, complete with a sound effects man and each of the Riders doing different character voices.

The group consists of Woody Paul (Dr. Paul Chrisman) on fiddle, Too-Slim (Fred Labour) on upright bass, Joey the Cow Polka King (Joey Miskulin) on accordion and Ranger Doug (Douglas B. Green) on guitar.

As we are dedicated to guitars, I’ll be talking about Douglas B. Green. Doug is not just the guitarist, but sings lead vocals and yodels. He is also arranges for the Rider’s songs. He has won awards for songwriting. He sings lead vocal and yodels with the Riders In The Sky. Ranger Doug also lays claim to be The Idol Of American Youth.

Green didn’t start out to be a musician. He got a degree from the University of Michigan and did his post-graduate work at Vanderbilt, with a degree in Literature. It was during this era that he became interested in folk music, particularly Western Cowboy songs.

Prior to Riders In The Sky, Green played in a number of Bluegrass Bands. He even was in Bill Monroe’s group for awhile. He also joined the Buck White Family group, which performed Gospel songs. Green supplemented his income by doing guitar repair work at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.

In my opinion, Ranger Doug is this generations foremost rhythm guitarist. He plays in the chunky style of Freddie Green and all of the big band era players. In 2006, he evened published an instruction book called, “Rhythm Guitar the Ranger Doug Way.”

Doug’s beloved Gibson L-5 was stolen years ago. He currently prefers vintage Stromberg guitars. Luthiers Charles and Elmer Stromberg designed these based on the Gibson L-5. However, the lower bouts on their Master 400 measured 19” across.

These guitars were cannons of sound. They had to be, to be heard above big band brass, reeds and drums. Strombergs are scarce, hence extremely valuable and collectible.

When he is not touring and recording with The Riders, Doug Green plays rhythm guitar in the well known Nashville, Western Swing band known as The Time Jumpers.

The Time Jumpers are omprised of nine of Nashville's finest studio and musicians and vocalists. The group started in 1998 with an idea from bandleader Hoot Hester to get together and play Western swing for their own enjoyment.

If you are ever in Nashville, check them out to see if they are playing.

Green has authored a couple of books. One is called Playing Guitar the Ranger Doug Way. (One of the oft quoted Riders in the Sky taglines says, “It’s not always the easy way, but it’s the Cowboy way.”) Green also authored a book on cowboy singers and guitarists, called Singing in the Saddle. The History of the Singing Cowboy. He is also an avid collector of vintage instruments. So it is not going to be easy to discuss all of his guitars. We will stick to the ones he is most seen playing.

In the Cincinnati shows, I recall that he was playing a sunburst Gibson L-5C.In an interview, Doug goes on to say, the Gibson L-5 was an offshoot of a guitar that Gibson produced in the mid 1930’s called the Super 800. This was a fancy mandola version of the Super 400 and it was Gibsons top of the line instrument of that era.

Allow me a minute to digress. Wes Tuttle is probably not a household name. Wes was in a handful of movies with singing cowboy, Stuart Hamblin. Hamblin had a hit song in 1955 called This Old House. Tuttle owned and played a left handed 1939 Gibson L-5 throughout his career.

Aside from working with Hamblin, Tuttle’s biggest claim to fame was dubbing in Dopey’s part in “The Dwarf’s Yodeling Song” in the 1937 Disney version of Snow White. Tuttle was also in the Sons of the Pioneers.

During the golden age of radio, he performed in Cincinnati on the Boone County Jamboree on 50,000-watt radio station,WLW.

Tuttle had a couple of notable hit songs. One was called Detour and the other called With Tears in my Eyes. In the 1950s he was a writer and performer on the “Town Hall Party” TV show in Los Angeles. Wes Tuttle was inducted into The Western Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

A year after Wes Tuttle passed away, his widow, Marilyn, was thoughtful and generous enough to present Tuttle’s L-5 to Doug Green. Green states, “In the course of my getting to know these people I got to know Wesley Tuttle, and he helped me with the book greatly.”

After receiving the Gibson L-5, Green had it refretted, added a bone nut, cut for right handed playing and had a new right-handed pickguard built for the guitar.

Green admits to owning quite a collection of Gibson archtops, including a blonde L-5C, a 1941 L-5 Cutaway, and a pre-World War II J-200 (a fancy flat top model that was also a favorite of the singing cowboys). There are pictures of him playing a vintage Epiphone Regent model.

Doug Green had an affinity for guitars like Tuttle’s Gibson L-5 ever since he formed Riders in the Sky in 1977. The L-5 is an “archtop” style, a style invented and perfected by the Gibson company, featuring a top that is carved into an arched shape, like a violin.

Prior to the availability of electric guitars, guitarists in big bands found that archtop models were the only guitars that could produce enough volume to be heard above drums and horn sections.

Gibson’s L-5 was the original f-hole archtop, and it was the favorite of many performers throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. As Green says, “A lot of people think 1939 was the best year for Gibson archtops. No question, they made the most attractive guitar. They came up with the design and nobody could top it. To me, the 1939 Gibson…. you’re just not going to top that.”

Green’s style of playing is much like the “comping” of Freddie Green’s swing playing with Count Basie. Ranger Doug plays a lot of 3 note chords, many times using five or six strings, but muting all strings but three.

The chord changes occur each half measure. This makes the guitar the rhythm instrument for the Riders.

Aside from being an authority on Singing Cowboys, Green is also an authority on Stromberg guitars.

Charles and Elmer Stromberg built instruments using the Gibson L-5 as a template, however they scavenged for old wood, used their own system of bracing, and on their Master series made the lower bout 19 inches wide. This was almost a full two inches larger than Gibson or D’Angelico.

Stromberg’s top models were their colossal, nineteen-inch-wide bodies that provided the tremendous volume and projection needed for a rhythm guitarist to be heard in the large jazz orchestras of the 1940s. Charles and Elmer, father and son, worked together in Boston, beginning in the early 1930s. Both men died in 1955. I have never been fortunate enough to play a Stromberg, however I am told these are the greatest guitars for playing rhythm.

This cutaway version of the Stromberg G-3 model was made circa 1950 and has been owned and used by "Ranger Doug" Green and was offered for sale by Gruhn Guitars of Nashville.

In a handwritten letter accompanying this guitar, Ranger Doug writes, "It is with considerable regret that I part with Stromberg G-3 #602, a guitar that has traveled all over the country and been on the Grand Ole Opry many times."

As I have stated, Green is an authority on Stromberg instruments. He states there are only five G-3 cutaways known to exist. So this is indeed a rare guitar. The guitar was professionally refinished in cherry sunburst..

During one of the Cincinnati Rider’s Radio Shows that I attended, Ranger Doug took a break from his usual large-bodied F-hole guitars to play a Gibson J-200 on a couple of songs.

I suppose many of us associate that guitar with Miss Emmylou Harris, but it was the singing cowboys and other country artists that were attracted to this guitars “bling” factor and the fact that it was big and loud. Though we associate Gene Autry with Martin Guitars, he also held court with a Gibson J-200.

As a tribute to Ranger Doug’s preference for Gibson guitars, The Gibson Musical Instrument Company has presented Green with two great instruments.

In 2009, Gibson Master Luthier, Ren Ferguson, sent Ranger Doug a handmade contemporary version of the Gibson J-200, made especially for the Idol of American Youth.

In 2010, Gibson once again honored this generation’s most famous singing cowboy with a beautiful new blond, Gibson L-5C, that was also made by Ren Ferguson. This is a prototype of the Gibson Ranger Doug model.

During his long career, Doug Green counts himself fortunate to have met many of his guitar inspirations such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as well as Wes Tuttle, Jimmy Wakely, Eddie Dean, Bob Nolan, Lloyd Perryman, and Ray Whitle.

I’ve always been a fan of acoustic music and close vocal harmony arrangements. The Riders in the Sky are at the top of my list.



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