The Interviews - Michael O’Dorn INTERVIEW - By Ace Batacan (a.k.a. Eiko)
The Collings Forum Home

August of 2005
Question and Answer session with Michael O’Dorn, the “King” of Travis picking, conducted by Ace Batacan (a.k.a. Eiko)


Ace:  At what age did you start playing guitar?

Michael: I was about 6 years old.

Ace: Who were some of your first influences?

Michael: Well Merle Travis was always being played in my Dad’s music room. My dad was my first hero, of course. I started hearing the Travis picking and it just grabbed me, grabbed my attention.

Ace: So when you first started learning the guitar, did you learn fingerstyleor with a flatpick?

Michael: The first songs I learned on the guitar were off of some Travis records. It was the first thing that caught my attention so I guess fingerstyle was the first thing I learned on guitar.

Ace: When did you first meet Merle Travis?

Michael: It was in my late teens, early twenties. The first time was at the Hollywood Palladium. Cliffie Stone did a Hometown Jamboree Reunion show. Molly Bee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Merle Travis were there. He was one of the performers.

Ace: How was it?

Michael: That was the first time I met Merle and talked to him about the guitar. It was very exciting because he was definitely already my guitar hero.

Ace: I first met you at the C.A.A.S. (Chet Atkins Appreciation Society) convention in Nashville a few years ago, even though at that time I was already playing your “Spirit of Brother Marcel” tune.

Michael: Yes, and I am honored that you play my song about Marcel Dadi.

Ace: How many years have you been active with C.A.A.S.?

Michael: Twelve years, since around 1994.

Ace: What got you started attending? Were you right away an invited performer?

Michael: Yes, I was an invited performer when I started. I met Mark Pritcher, the president of C.A.A.S., in Paris, France when we toured over there for the Atkins/Dadi Guitar Festival in Issoudun. Marcel had invited me over there to play. He took 6 American guitar players for the festival.

Ace: That must have been fun.

Michael: What happened was we all got to be friends, and we still are to this day. That trip I was with Eddie Pennington, Pat Bergeson, Jim and Morning Nichols, Joe Dalton, and Mark Pritcher.

Ace: Oh, a bunch of nobodies.

Michael: (laughter) I had no idea who Mark Pritcher was. After we came back to the States, Mark was at a Fingerstyle Guitar dinner and I was there with Marcel. Marcel was in the 7th issue of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine. Mark asked me if I could take a Merle Travis song, break it down and teach it. I said “Yes”. Well you’ll have to come to the C.A.A.S., which I had never heard of. At that time, the C.A.A.S. was already 10 years old.

Ace: So that was your first trip there?

Michael: Yes, I went there to teach a Master Class, which is a workshop. It’s about teaching techniques and the style. I think the first tune I taught there was Blue Bell.

Ace: I have missed a lot. The first one I attended was in 2001.

Michael: Well, we’re all glad to have you there participating.

Ace: When did you first play guitar with Chet Atkins?

Michael: The first time was in 1995. Marcel took me to Chet’s office in Nashville. We spent the whole day passing the guitar around. Chet – Marcel – then to me. It was un-real.

Ace: You are so lucky.

Michael: Blessed.

Ace:  What makes you such a great Travis picker?

Michael: I don’t know that I am but it’s in my spirit. It’s been deep inside of me from when I was a really young child. I have listened to everything Merle did, as well as many other players like: Les Paul, Marcel Dadi, and Chet Atkins. Merle Travis had a raw talent about him that really connected with the way I wanted to play.

So when I was very young, I think it was persistence. I’ve been playing a long time and I try and play those full 6-string chords. When he played, he played all 6 strings on all melody. His guitar sounded bigger and fuller than other players.

Ace: What do you mean?

Michael: They were huge chords. When he was up on the octave, he would have open notes. He was playing open chords up and down the neck. Most people play open chords on the first five frets. Merle played those chords anywhere on the neck and that’s what intrigued me to learn his style.

Ace: I was at you workshop when you were explaining this.

Michael: Yes, they’re very rich sounding chords.

Ace: I think that’s what makes his sound unique and makes it stand out.

Michael: That’s right.

Ace: What’s the key to good Travis picking?

Michael: Merle played songs in all keys. Hahaha! Seriously, the key is studying the master himself. Listen to everything he played acoustically, electrically, instrumentally, and even the stuff he sang. Anything you can get a hold of that Merle did is a good building block. Listen to what he really did with that guitar.

Ace: What made him different?

Michael: He was a total original with what and how he played.

Ace: Any advice for anyone wanting to learn Travis picking?

Michael: Buy my new book “Getting Into Travis Picking”, on Mel Bay (laughs).

Ace: Ah, learn from M and M? Merle and Michael?

Michael: Yes.

Ace: Tell us about a couple of guitars that you own.

Michael: I have a few guitars. One of my favorites is an R.C. Allen guitar. He really puts blood, sweat, and tears into his building his instruments. I have three of them. I have my 1952 Gibson J-45. That’s the first guitar my Dad gave me when I was 6 years old. (Note: Michael was actually playing this guitar when I showed up).

Ace: How many guitars do you own?

Michael: I have about 16, not a lot.

Ace: What kind of thumbpick do you use?

Michael: I use Fred Kelly thumbpicks, the standard one. I might file it a little bit to get a sharper sound. I make it match the acrylics I have on my other right hand fingers.

Ace: Tell us about your latest book with the companion cd.

Michael: It’s called “Getting Into Travis Picking”, published by Mel Bay. It took two years to write. It was written to teach Merle Travis’ techniques, riffs, and rolls. They’re all authentic, just like the way Merle showed them to me.  I use seven different tunes in the book to show as examples. I play a simple version of a song and then follow up with the same song while applying the techniques, riffs, and rolls. It’s the same melody but you can sound like Merle Travis by using all those elements. It has 18 lessons in the front of the book. There is a picture chord index that contains 18 authentic Merle Travis thumb-over chords.

Ace: Now that the book is out, what’s next?

Michael: I’m doing a DVD with Mel Bay Records, entitled “Michael O’Dorn in Concert”. It will be a performance DVD with commentary at the end. This will show the different styles I play: Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Marcel Dadi, and of course, my own style. Several songs on this program will be songs I’ve written myself. There will be about 20 tunes on this DVD. It will be recorded in Gallatin, Tennessee. I’m really excited about this project.

Ace: You’re also associated with the AFG (Association of FingerstyleGuitarists), right?

Michael: Yes. It’s based in L.A. and it is a great guitar club. It’s been growing and I understand it has about 300 members.

Ace: Who are some of your favorite fingerstyle players out there right now?

Michael: Oh boy. Tommy Emmanuel, Jim Nichols, Doyle Dykes, Richard Smith, Guy Van Duser, Pat Kirtley, and a lot of other great players – too many to mention. Those are just some of them.

Ace: Marcel Dadi?

Michael: Marcel was definitely an influence for me since I was in my teens. He had a solid technique of his own. We were the best of friends.

Ace: Why did you choose to play guitar?

Michael: Because you can’t take a piano to the beach.


Ace’s notes:

I would like to thank Michael O’Dorn for giving me the opportunity to conduct this interview with him in his home. My thanks also goes to his lovely wife, Linda, who was most gracious. I consider Michael one of my mentors. He has taught me a lot about everything: songs, techniques, styles, discipline, arranging, the music business, and most of all – how to play like Merle Travis. If there was a country called Travis, Michael O’Dorn would be the King of Travis. That’s all I have to say.

Michael O'Dorn's Melbay Publication>>

Learn more about Michael O'Dorn's in his Personal Website>>


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