Mark, The class at Smitty's was pretty good. After seeing Todd Murphy tie at the show I had a bit of a head start on the basics, but still managed to learn a thing or two.
Here's the scoop on the neck hackle. The chinese and strung hackle works fine no need to use anything fancy for the first feather that is tied in upside down. Your looking for something stiffer than the rooster saddles because the main purpose of the first feather is to support the rest of the feathers yet still allow them to move side to side. I guess the wider feathers from a really good dry neck would work but it may be overkill.
BTW- Jim Casper demonstrated blending bucktail (the non counting method) Very cool.