I just bought an EHX 95000 multitrack looper a few weeks ago, and while I don’t utilize a lot of its functions, I just love that it’s like a multitrack recorder that is always on if I come up with a good idea or want to practice over certain changes or grooves. I typically play bass lines with the side of my pinky, so that’s where this came from. It’s got a nice growl to it. Tone is in the pinky indeed!
If you play C6 tuning with an E first string, you know how difficult it can be to play harmony in 3rds on strings 1 and 2 (E and C). This is especially true if you play a longer scale neck, like I do.
The reverse slants required to achieve a minor third interval can be daunting, cumbersome, not easily pitched, and have a distinct whine or ‘meow’, which is in essence almost like a sitar effect where a longer than necessary part of the bar is making contact with a string.
In the short video, you can hear the effectiveness of subtle string pulling to make a more seamless transition than with reverse slants on the adjacent strings 1 and 2 (E and C). This is a trick I use to get a pedal steel-esque sound sometimes when I need to. A volume pedal comes in really handy, too.
This type of exercise needs to be learned in every key using every scale. That seems like a big demand, but it really isn’t if you dedicate a few minutes per day to doing it. It becomes second nature in time.
I don’t want to get too deep into explaining the process, but do your best to make every pull sound in tune and learn to feel the difference in string tension as you move further up the neck.
This tab for the top 2 strings in C6 tuning for an F Major scale, which is what I used in the video. The ‘p’ next to a number indicates a 1/2 step pull.
In this exercise we are appoaching scale tones from above and below, using a scale tone from above and a chromatic note a half step below. In the example below, we are in the key of E Major. You can use this over a tonic E chord, or a B7 chord and any number of chords built in the key of E.
It’s important to learn these types of scale exercises in every key and to develop a frame of reference as to where to find it on the neck. My frame of reference is that the 7th and 3rd degrees of the scale are surrounded by half steps. All other scale degrees are surrounded by a whole step above and half step below.
By the way, this exercise can be played on any two adjacent strings a minor 3rd apart, in any tuning. Get to work!
Note: the first actual note of the scale here is the D#, which is being preceded by the scale tone above, E.
This is a very common pattern utilized by countless improvisers, very notably Django Reinhardt.
Originally Posted on April 15, 2011 by Mike Neer
C6 is the perfect tuning for breadboarding, no doubt about it. For those of you who don’t know the term “breadboarding,” it has to do with electronic circuits and how experimenters will use a breadboard as a construction base to create prototypes of circuits. Simply moving wires and jumpers around with solderless connections makes the experimentation much easier. In a past life I spent a lot of time with electronics….
For purposes of this discussion, I will be referring to this version of C6, from low to hi: G A C E G A C E. If you are looking to step outside of the box a bit and play some things that are a bit out of the ordinary for steel guitar, tweaking the C6 can play an important role in helping you achieve the chord qualities you are looking for. The most obvious tweak would be tuning the lowest C (in my tuning, string 6) to C#. This gives you the C6/A7 tuning which, in my opinion is necessary for playing Jazz and even any kind of chord solo work. The importance of the dominant chord in that tuning can’t be stressed enough. Also, contained within the span of strings 4, 5 and 6 is a diminished triad. Crucial.
Another common tweak is to tune string 7 (A) up to Bb for a C13. This eliminates the root for our minor chords, which I feel is pretty important note to have for playing Jazz standards and even some Rock tunes. There are some arrangements I play, though, that are based around this tuning, particularly Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and Yellow Roses.
What if we tweak both the C string and the A string up a half step? I got this little tuning from Billy Hew Len (although he did it with the A6 tuning) and I quickly recognized it as a tuning used by the great Joaquin Murphey. Joaquin used a C6 tuning with a high G string later on, and he would also raise his C and A strings 1/2 step. A good example of this sound can be found on Spade Cooley‘s Dance-A-Rama record. You can hear an example of this tuning (my version with a high E) on this recording of Coconut Grove. It makes use of a lot of altered dominant chords.
There are other places we can tweak the tuning, too: my favorite is to re-tune string 8. I have several variations on it and all of them give me different results. The most common for me is to tune string 8 to F, especially for playing chord melodies. I approach it a little like John Scofield does when he is playing solo–he stabs at individual chord tones just to establish the harmony in the listener’s ears while he plays a melody or improvises on top of it. Sometimes that chord tone will only last for an eighth note. String 8 also serves me well for playing more modern Jazz, such as Herbie Hancock and Eddie Harris, by tuning it down to D. There I have what we call slash chords (a triad over a different bass note), particularly the 11th chord flavor, ie. C/D (C triad over D bass note). A great, nebulous sound.
There are other very useful ways of changing the value of a C6 tuning by changing 1 or 2 strings. For those of you familiar with Speedy West, he occasionally used a tuning (although on a pedal steel) which was called F#9. Essentially what it is is an E6 tuning (low to hi B C# E G# B C# E G#), with the B strings tuned down to A#. If you look at the C6 tuning that I use (with the E string on top), it is the same structure as the E6 tuning down a major third. So, in this case we simply lower our G to F# and voila!: we have D9 tuning.
I am currently beginning another book–this time on creating block chord arrangements or chord melodies. I will be using my C6 tuning for the basis of the entire book, but I will also be sharing some of my secret tweaks. I am really looking forward to the challenge of teaching this!
In the meantime, I hope you continue to explore and have fun and always remember that lurking somewhere inside of you is you! Let’s give him every opportunity to find his voice on the steel guitar. Always play with the curiosity of a child.
All for now.
It has been quite some time since I’ve posted any new ideas or content on this blog. I have been meaning to do more, but music has been the sole outlet of my creativity and spare time in the last year or more, which is a good thing! But I’ve got so many things on my mind I want to write about. First of all, thank you for making Steelonious such a success! If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. The CD has been so well received and there is a lot of steel guitar on it.
With this posting, I wanted to share a little something from Steelonious, which I released in 2016. In case you’re not familiar with it, it was a program of Thelonious Monk melodies arranged as Instrumental/Pop/Jazz tunes in varying contexts, all reflecting the steel guitar–its history and its possibilities. Basically, I connected the dots of things I love. In this particular arrangement, I used techniques I learned from studying the playing of Sol Hoopii and also a lot of 60s pedal steel guitar. The choice of groove reflects my passion for New Orleans music, and I borrowed some chord changes from a Bruce Hornsby/Christian McBride/Jack DeJohnette version of this tune that kills me. The original song form is a 12 Bar Blues, which on occasion is how we perform it. But what I really wanted was to get some of that funky country type picking in this tune, especially the solo. I’ve always been a fan of the music of Little Feat and maybe that is reflected here.
One of the things I discovered about Sol Hoopii’s playing years ago was his use of open strings as passing tones. Sometimes they are chromatic, sometimes just scale tones, but they lend a rhythmic articulation in times when the line really begs for it. Dobro players are no doubt aware of this technique. But I’ve found that one the most difficult aspects of playing steel guitar is to play chromatic lines that are more than just two or three notes–the articulation really tends to be a crap shoot and sometimes you need it to be clean and popping. So, I’ve adapted this technique into my playing and this arrangement of Straight, No Chaser is one of my most successful uses of it.
I changed the key of the tune from Bb to A to accommodate the idea, then I just worked on it and worked on it until it developed into something cohesive and right. It is really not difficult to play, but takes a lot of practice to play it consistently. There is a lot of pick blocking going on, which I just tend to do unconsciously now. The tuning here is C6 and 6 string C6 will work just fine, as you really only use strings 2 through 5 (C-E).
Here is a little video which demonstrates how I believe Sol Hoopii played this tune, specifically on his earlier acoustic recordings in the A Major tuning.
One of the devices that Sol used most frequently is open strings–in this case, in bars 3 and 4 of the head, Sol utilizes a slide to G# on string 4, followed by open string 3 (A), for a nice bluesy lick. Have a look for yourself.
It is often a topic of conversation among newer players of the difficulties in getting used to wearing fingerpicks. For some players, it is nearly impossible to get comfortable with these new appendages. For me, it was a little different.
When I started becoming serious about playing, I was playing a National tricone. It was a matter of necessity for me to use picks, and because I was playing in an acoustic group with the instruments mic’d, I preferred a stiffer pick (.025 mm). When I switched over to playing electric steel, I no longer felt comfortable with that heavy gauge pick, and experimented with the lighter .013, .015 and .018 gauges. The .013 appealed to me, so I shaped the picks to follow the natural shape of my finger tips. This resulted in some very nice tone–very rich. The problem, I discovered much later, was that in order for me to pick the strings, I needed to get my fingers down deeper to the strings. This hindered my ability to play fast, clean lines, and my fingers would mistakenly hit the wrong strings often. I couldn’t live with this, because regardless of how hard I worked at it, I couldn’t overcome the sloppiness.
Recently, in continuing my lifelong quest of improving my picking hand, I have discovered some things that have proven significant towards this end. I have begun using slightly heavier picks (.018) and I have shaped them so that they extend approximately 1/4″ from the tips of my fingers, and this extension is decidedly straighter than the previous “curled with the finger” shape.
What this has allowed me to do is to execute rolls and other intricate picking patterns with greater ease, and to allow me to use a technique of locking my hands in a way that everything above the metacarpal bones is firmly locked in place, allowing greater control of the fingers. This is something that I have experimented with and concluded that it really does work.
There is no one way to wear picks, but it is advisable to always consider where you are in your playing path and how simple changes in things like picks can have a significant impact on your playing and sound. I will admit, I thought my tone suffered a bit when I made the change, but I have learned to compensate by using thicker gauge picks and by picking with a little more velocity.
There are some things about playing steel guitar that, unless you have the privilege of being near seasoned players and getting their insights, you are on your own to discover. For me, it always seemed as if achieving great right hand technique was an uphill battle. The inconsistency is frustrating and, while continual practice will yield positive results, I always seemed to hit a wall. In trying to create longer lines, I realized that I would need to refine my technique and, surprisingly, one of the greatest sources for inspiration appeared in a piano book. I will make no bones about saying that I think of my steel as a “lap piano” at times–this term is attributed to George Van Eps–and I want my passages to have the same clarity, lightness and dexterity as a pianist. George Kochevitsky’s book, The Art of Piano Playing, just really opened my mind to taking control of the situation. As he illustrates, for a century or more after the arrival of the piano forte, players still did not have the technique necessary to get the most from it–they were still relying on the finger technique from the days of harpsichord.
I have to say, I do enjoy playing without picks, but I can’t execute much of what I play without them. I will also add that I have ordered a set of Alaska Piks and I’m looking forward to giving those a try. Will report back on that….
While cleaning out my studio/library, I came across these cool chord charts that were published back in the 1940s. A friend of mine had given me these photocopies years ago, and I thought I would share them with the world before they are lost forever.
These charts can be very useful for each of these tunings, which are F#9, C# Minor, E7 and B11. The charts cover chords created with a straight bar, as well as with slants and in combination with open strings. Very good tools to get you inside the tunings. Once you are in, you will discover you own chords.
The first chord folio is for F#9 tuning (used by Dick McIntire and Bernie Kaai, who lent his name and image to this booklet). F#9 tuning is essentially C# Minor tuning, but with strings 5 and 6 tuned differently (E C# G# E A# F#, from treble to bass).
(Click on each image to enlarge).
The next set of chord charts comes from an unknown source, but note that each page has the Fator’s name on it–Fator is a name affiliated with Dickerson steel guitars, as the owner of the company was Gaston Fator.
Note that the C# Minor tuning actually resembles E13–essentially, the E7 tuning with the second string raised to C#. The C# Minor tuning (Sol Hoopii) is spelled: E C# G# E B E
I hope you find these charts useful.
Spending time lately investigating and memorizing the myriad slants available in C6-based tunings, especially C13, and I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of musical geometry.
There are many other hidden secrets in this tuning and I aim to find and use all of them!
Back in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to have a guitar lesson with Mike Stern. I would also see him play fairly regularly and have a talk over a cup of coffee (Sheridan Square Diner (r.i.p.) ). Mike recommended a book to me by a guitarist whose name I had only seen in Guitar Player magazine, but had never heard. The book was called the George Van Eps Method for Guitar and it was published way back in the 1930s. I bought the book and did the first few pages of exercises. In reading George’s words in the forward, I understood that the book was not only a way of learning triad shapes in all inversions on all string sets, but also as a way of developing an independence in the digits to enable single note playing over sustained chords. This was a hallmark of George’s style, which was developed as a young tenor banjo player (his father, Fred, was one of the instrument’s great virtuosos).
I revisited the Van Eps method pretty heavily around 2000, as I was playing a lot of acoustic archtop guitar. Now I had heard George and was profoundly inspired by his playing. I can hear where Mike Stern utilizes some of the concepts he learned from the book, particularly when he is playing a pedal note and moving the chords around underneath. Anyway, years later it occurred to me that working through inversions of the triads in a Van Eps-ian manner might be a fruitful exercise. I continue to utilize it daily.
If you have a lap steel tuned to C6, you can find the triads within. This would also work for any other tuning, as well. You will have to make your own adjustments to the tab that I’ve laid out. I highly recommend mastering exercises #1 and 2 in every key before moving on to the triad inversions. There are other techniques involved in the inversions that will need to be addressed.
This page of exercises was written quickly by hand while the idea was fresh. Please pardon the sloppiness of it.
Here is a quick video demonstration of the concept. Note that I do not lift the bar off the strings, but simply block, using either method (palm or pick). Pick blocking is particularly useful in arpeggiating the triads. Practice these slowly and cleanly.
I’ve also created a little clip showing how to utilized the triads on strings 1-3 in A6 tuning. This works so well that I’m almost tempted to switch to A6!
Hi everyone! With all this excitement over the Joaquin Murphey solos book by John McGann and Andy Volk, which is sold here, I’ve got the itch to dive back in and do some more transcribing. I think there’s enough great Murph stuff to make another book or two, so, to test the waters, I decided to transcribe Joaquin’s solo on Yearnin’, one which I feel is up there with his finest.
I will continue to add commentary to this post as I uncover significant points with regards to the execution and thinking in this solo. The solo begins at 0:40 (don’t mind the Tae-Bo, although it is rather entertaining and a reminder of another failed American trend).
What I like right off the bat is the subtle introduction of the V7+ in the first measure–that is Joaquin’s bread and butter (V7aug).
Another thing you will want to take into consideration is to find a very comfortable and stable, consistent way of playing across strings, such as in measures 1 and 2. I have tried many different ways, but I always end up coming back to what feels right to me. I think it is important to pick rather lightly and in a very controlled manner to get that fluidness in your lines. It is the same for saxophone players–the guys who blew a bit lighter could usually play faster and cleaner, but maybe lacked the tone slightly. Until John Coltrane came along and did the opposite. Maybe Joaquin is like Coltrane in that way, but I still think he picked lightly, but firmly and very controlled. I think looking at Jeremy Wakefield picking hand might be a good place to see how this is done. There are plenty of YouTube videos of him playing.
Today, I watched a documentary on Barroness Pannonica Rothschild and I remembered that I had once worked out an arrangement for the brilliant tune Monk wrote in her honor, simply entitled “Pannonica”. I had not played it since and I had to sit down and transcribe it again. So, here I present to you in tab and notation form my arrangement of Pannonica.
It is a difficult arrangement to play and requires a lot of palm blocking, as you will no doubt find out. You will also notice that there is a behind the bar string pull in which the note is pulled up 1/2 step and held, then released when changing bar position. It is very easy with some practice and a tough ring finger.
This is what it sounds like. You may note there is a discrepancy between what is written and what I played in the 32nd bar. What is written is correct with regard to Monk’s melody. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I made the slight change (basically a half step difference), but nonetheless, I have corrected it.
Listen to Monk play it:
Toronto, Ontario is home to a vibrant and creative music scene with a very eclectic range of musical styles. Musican/composer/lap steel player Don Rooke is one of Toronto’s finest secrets. While Don is not someone who you’ll find in the clubs on any given night (in fact, his appearances are rare, indeed), his various projects, most notably The Henrys and, more recently, Three Metre Day, are wonderful examples of the thriving creative spirit coming from the north.
Don is a very interesting and down-to-earth man, and he’s the kind of musician you have to ply in order to get him to speak of his achievements, which are many. The Henrys have been featured performers in numerous festivals around the world and also appeared on the BBC several times. Don also performed with Mary Margaret O’Hara on “Night Music,” which was one of the finest music programs to appear on network TV in the US, and they have released 5 CDs, as well as 1 compilation. Don has also appeared on recordings with Mary Margaret O’Hara, Sylvia Tyson, Holy Modal Rounders, Vance Gilbert and others, as well as having released a solo recording, Atlas Travel. Don is a member of Three Metre Day, which has just released its first recording, Coasting Notes, featuring singer/songwriter/musician Michelle Willis, violinist Hugh Marsh, as well as Don’s considerable playing and writing, to very favorable reviews.
Three Metre Day is currently embarking on a mini-West Coast tour (November 1-6) in support of their new release and, for those lucky enough to live in the Bay area, Don will be conducting a seminar at Gryphon Strings in Palo Alto on Nov. 5 from 2-5pm (click for more info). You can listen to a live broadcast of Three Metre Day on November 5 at 10am (PST) on West Coast Live.
Mike Neer: I listen to your music quite a bit and I hear so many different sounds in your music—it’s almost like a musical geography lesson. It seems like you’ve managed to incorporate sounds from around the world without being too traditional about it. How much do these sounds factor into your writing?
Don Rooke: Well, there’s no conscious World music attempt, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t feel qualified to do that. For me it’s more textures and tone. As far as the writing is concerned, one of the main things that I try to achieve is to be non-idiomatic. If it goes in a direction that’s obvious, then I don’t love it. After the song has taken shape, then I try to get some textures happening. For instance, one of the effects I use—and it’s the cheapest effect in the world—is to take a piece of foam and put it under the strings. This gives it sort of a kalimba sound–or even use it with a ring modulator and it gives a texture that’s pretty hard to define. It’s kind of primitive sounding.
MN: I just get the feeling that your music is very free-spirited and nomadic—it’s very centered and grounded, but yet it wanders and paints different landscapes.
DR: One of the benefits of living where I live, where there’s really no history of slide playing, like Texas or Tennessee or California, there’s really no idiom that is natural to me as a slide player; it’s more just standing on the outside, just picking things that I like and trying to blend them to come up with a mix that’s a little bit different. I think that’s a bit of an advantage in terms of finding your own voice.
MN: Well, you may have touched on the sole advantage of growing up in New Jersey. [laughs] I think we can relate in that respect. I hear things in your music that really hit me because I’m open to them without any expectations. It almost reminds me of how I feel when I listen to Ry Cooder, who was very influential for me. I hear a tune like Maria Elena, and it just has an earthiness to it—a Latin feel, but not completely. I was wondering if you were influenced by the same things.
DR: Oh, for sure. I recorded that song on Joyous Porous (The Henrys, 2002). I did it in 3/4. It was one of those things—I based it on Don Gibson’s version, his arrangement. I had the usual palette, with the pump organ, but I did something that I kind of got into and did a few times, which is to record things and then start stripping it down. I remember Dave Piltch (bassist) getting that record and saying, “It’s the first record I played on where there’s less on the record than when I played on it!”
It’s really fun to arrange by taking things away, where suddenly there’s a duo where there was a quintet. And a solo doesn’t have to be 12 bars; somebody else takes over part of the way through. I find that to be fun and fascinating, too.
MN: Let me ask you about your composing: Are a lot of your ideas generated by playing the instrument or do you write them on guitar?
DR: I wish I had a good answer to that. Sometimes it’s chord changes and I write a melody to it. I try to avoid writing what you might call “lick driven” songs. I really want to have melodies rather than have a lick and base a song on it. That’s what works for me. So sometimes I write chords and then sing or hum a melody over it—find some way around the vocabulary of the instrument. You know, you’re doing things that you don’t naturally fall into because you’re a slide player.
MN: When you think of your instrument, do you think of it in terms of being a dobro, or a steel guitar or a slide guitar—as if it makes any difference—but you mentioned “lick driven” tunes, and I know exactly what you mean, as so much of the repertoire for each of the respective instruments is lick driven. I’m wondering how you see the instrument….
DR: Over the years, probably my main ax has been the Kona, and I see that as more of a primitive thing. I’ve got it tuned just like my dobro is tuned, but the sound of it—maybe the little less sustain or the more natural woody thing, whatever it is—I think it dictates a different style of playing which is different from dobro or steel guitar. I use them all and I love them all—metal-bodied National, all these things—and I love pulling all these things out and finding a place for them. But my centerpiece is probably the Kona, even though I decided not too long ago that it was too quiet to be a stage instrument; plus, it’s uncommon enough and rare enough that you have to be careful with things like that. So, I look at that instrument a little bit different, as a slightly more delicate thing. I probably look for melodies and chords on it more and just play more simply on it.
MN: I love playing those. I have a friend with a Kona and I find the range of tones I can get out of the instrument to be much wider than most other instruments (acoustic) that I’ve played–I think maybe it’s a bit more….
DR: Touch responsive. You know, Cooder, he said–talking about acoustic versus electric—“the acoustic has a lot more information.” The tonal qualities are so much more complex, including noises that you may not necessarily want to hear, such as scratching. Those are available on the electric, but there does seem to be a bit more info, like he said.
MN: Yeah, that’s a really good way of putting it. I tend to embrace all those extraneous sounds. I’ve never been hung up on the idea of having a bar that would eliminate the sound of sliding on a string. If I didn’t want to hear that, then maybe I shouldn’t be playing the instrument.
DR: Sometimes it’s nice to turn it on its end and scrape it down the string, too.
MN: Exactly. You like to play around with sounds and get a lot of extra texture, but I can just hear you alone sitting down and playing the songs without hearing all the other instruments…
DR: Knocking and wheezing… [laughs]
MN: But that’s what makes your compositions so strong. With all the other elements stripped away, there is still the song. I think what is unique is that no one else has written for and recorded the instrument in the way that you have. It is interesting that a lot of the younger Bluegrass musicians are starting to embrace that compositional element in their music, such as the Punch Brothers.
DR: Well, it’s not lap style, but David Tronzo is pretty ridiculous, too. I love watching that guy play. He’s been up here (Toronto) and we opened for him once. We played OK and then he came on with a trio and I felt like I’d just been in a boxing match–not that it had anything to do with me—but he had that whole New York intensity. This was before he moved to Boston to teach.
MN: I enjoy him very much, too. The one time I saw him play was with John Zorn and he had a really in-your-face style. I was really struck by what he doing.
DR: I mean, talk about a voice…between him and Derek Trucks, I could feast on 2 those styles for years.
MN: They’re tapping into a whole other range of expression.
DR: There’s also the steel being using in ambient ways, too—long note kind of stuff, with reverbs—it’s nice to have that kind of opportunity, which I don’t get very often, but every once in a while I play on a soundtrack or do that kind of thing.
MN: I don’t get many opportunities to do that, either, although that was what I did when I first started playing the instrument. I wasn’t looking to play any kind of traditional music, and I’m still not, but it’s part of the process for me. I was always into what Daniel Lanois was doing and I was trying to figure out a way to get there.
DR: He just had a concert up here yesterday, not too far from Toronto, with Emmylou and Ray LaMontagne and a few other people.
MN: I take it you didn’t go….
DR: Your correct [laughs]. Actually, there was nobody in the house yesterday and I went downstairs and turned my amp louder than I normally can and worked on my sound and played along with some drum loops and had a blast. I played for hours, which I rarely do. My practicing regimen is nonexistent.
MN: So when you do play, you’re trying to create music every time you touch your instrument?
DR: I have a few things that I practice; one of the things that I do, probably for 5 or 10 years now, I’ve practiced acoustically on a lap steel that I’ve screwed down black cardboard over the fret markers. It occurred to me—it must have been 10 years ago—that I was too visually oriented for pitch and it didn’t make any sense. So, I covered the frets and, as you can imagine, it was pretty abysmal. But I’ve done it for so many years now, and I still don’t have the guts to do it onstage, to just look away and play, but I can do it here. I think what it’s given me is the ability to correct a note without thinking about it—I’ll just go up or down without thinking about it.
But as far as practicing, lately I’ve been practicing with a metronome set really slow, because my job in Three Metre Day really is rhythm playing, which is uncommon on slide guitar, for one thing, and I’m glad that I don’t use fingerpicks because I can use the tops of my fingernails to simulate strumming. I wouldn’t call myself a great timekeeper, so I started practicing with a metronome incredibly slowly. I set it around 18 or 20. The advantage I’ve learned is that it’s up to you to fill in the gaps, whereas if you set it fast it’s kind of doing all the work and you’re just playing along with it. If you cut that into 4 or 5, then you have to try and arrive at the same time as the next beat, which seems about an hour away. I’m glad I discovered that because it seems to have made a difference.
MN: I think it’s great to get into the groove element of playing the lap steel. It’s one of the things I enjoy doing the most. I love playing backup and coming up with little rhythmic figures. I think the instrument is very capable of being expressive in that respect.
DR: Yeah and kind of funky because you can bend the notes not perfectly—you know when you’re playing an E7 chord on guitar and you hammer on with your first finger on the G string to G#. Well, if you do that by bending the steel, say you’re in C at the 8th fret and you just twist it up to simulate that—it’s kind of funkier because you get all that in-between stuff.
MN: In some ways you can really get away with a lot on steel.
DR: Yeah, and if the player’s relaxed and good then it just sounds even better. Personally, I love hearing those notes that aren’t right on.
MN: Yeah, I really enjoy those elements in your playing, as well. It’s great compositions, but also great playing and the two go hand-in-hand perfectly.
What got you into playing the hollow neck guitars?
DR: You know, what actually made me have to have a Weissenborn or a Kona was David Lindley’s solo on “To Know Him Is To Love Him” on the Trio record (Parton, Ronstadt, Harris).
MN: No kidding, that’s fantastic. You get the feeling that the instrument had never sounded better than it did on the record, such a beautiful recording.
DR: I just listened to that over and over and said, “I’ve got to get that!” Then I was talking to a friend of mine who knew a guitar dealer in upstate NY and he had something. So, I took this Martin 000-28 down there, a nice guitar from the early 80s, and I didn’t know what he had, and I was sitting there waiting and I was hoping it was a deep-bodied Kona, and it was. No strings on it, and it was all dusty. When I went home, my wife thought I was out of my mind. This was way before Weissenborns had become a thing.
MN: Which tuning are you using on the Kona?
DR: The same one that I always use, which is a dobro tuning with an A on the 6th string, one octave higher. That’s another story: that was because I was listening to Pontiac (Lyle Lovett) and there was this dobro solo and I’m thinking, “God, how does he do that?” and I’m trying all these things, slants and this and that. It was a thing going up in 2nds—alternating strings, whipping up the neck. I couldn’t do it, so I thought, “What is expendable on my instrument?” [laughs] And I said, “I play with a bass player, I can get rid of the bass string, I don’t want to mess with the configuration.” So, I just tried putting that higher A on the bottom and I got into it and it gave me another interval. It opened a lot of doors—just fretting that string, I could play a Gmin if I fretted the Bb at the 1st fret. Eventually over the years I found a ton of things.
The punch line of the story is that I found out it was Paul Franklin who played that solo and he played a Peda-bro. [laughs] I didn’t even know it existed, but it changed my whole approach.
Click on the image below for the tablature/notation:
MN: That’s great! And thinking about it, you can even get some of the more nebulous chords, like sus2 chords.
What kind of bar do you use?
DR: Stevens—hung in with the Stevens.
MN: It’s not a rounded tip or anything like that?
DR: No, just the old traditional Stevens, although, I like the old ones with the patent on them, the new one by Dunlop, I think 925, is kind of nice–I like it better than the new Stevens. I just like the coating on the old ones, I think it’s better.
MN: So most of your writing is done in this tuning?
DR: Yeah. I have a thin Weissenborn-style distributed by Madonna and I have that in C tuning. There’s a video of the tune VF61 with The Henrys on YouTube with that guitar.
MN: It’s funny, the G tuning is probably the most common tuning in existence for slide and yet, by retuning that one string, you’ve turned it inside out and given it a new face, even though you still have all of the other stuff available.
DR: It’s kind of flexible that way. The other thing, in retrospect, this kind of dumb epiphany I had—being a guitar player—the strings 2, 3 and 4 are the same as 2, 3 and 4 on guitar, so what it meant was that visualizing all those b5s and all those things, I could easily go to those 3 strings and know what I was doing.
MN: Did you study music?
DR: No, not at all.
MN: But you’ve been exposed to probably an immense amount of music from classical on down, I’m sure….
DR: Well, the classical was forced because, in my house, I was the youngest and the others had to take lessons—for some reason I didn’t want to and didn’t have to. But my sister played constantly and my brother played a bit, so I heard a lot. My parents put up with a fair bit—I used to put on “Live At The Fillmore” (Allman Brothers) at dinnertime pretty loud and I’d sit there and listen to Duane. [laughs]
MN: Well, the youngest can always get away with stuff like that. Did you listen to a lot of Jazz, particularly the composers, like Monk or Wayne Shorter?
DR: I wouldn’t pretend to know what was going on there. I listen to less Jazz than I used to, but like you, I like to listen to Monk and stuff like that. I actually listened to more rootsy music, generally, and growing up, slide-wise, it was Duane and Cooder and Lindley and Kottke.
MN: I can hear all of those influences in your music, but in the big picture it sounds like Don Rooke. Some players are never able to get beyond that and develop their own voice.
DR: Well, you know what that really is: it’s a testament to how I failed to be able to sound like any one of those guys.
MN: Which is the way you want it to be. I can really relate—I’ve gone my moments where as a guitar player I tried to copy people, like Allan Holdsworth. I would get one little thing, though, and just give up on the rest, and I’d be happy with that. For hungry musicians, give us a little breadcrumb and we can make a feast out of it.
DR: My attempt at that was probably Lenny Breau, who was based in Toronto and a local hero and spectacular player. There were things he did, like playing the melody with his 1st and 4th fingers (his left hand) and comping with his 2nd and 3rd.
MN: The thing about Lenny is that the more choruses he took on a tune, the deeper and deeper he got, like peeling layers off like an onion, the further away he could take the tune. He was so brilliant.
DR: One thing that I love about him is that he grew up playing Country in his parent’s band and he’s one of the few guys who I love to hear playing, for instance, Hank Williams’ songs with extended chords. They don’t sound like “Oh, here comes a jazz chord,” they sound beautiful. I have a tape of him from a TV show where he plays “Red River Valley” and there’s nothing about it that you’d think he shouldn’t be playing those chords. He’s using that extended vocabulary and it all makes perfect sense in a Country context.
MN: I admire your work ethic–you’re prolific. I know the kind of work that goes into making those records, to an extent, and you really get it done.
DR: Well, I spend my time at home composing and recording music. Definitely on Is This Tomorrow?, it was fun, but I worked too hard on that. [laughs] That was a big project that took years. And this one (Coasting Notes), the three of us worked hard for a year and a half.
MN: I was listening to Joyous Porous (The Henrys) and I could hear the level of detail that went into the production in terms of the rhythms and arrangements, but what struck me was how patient you are in your playing—you never try to say too much, but what you do say counts.
DR: I find it more difficult to do live; it’s easier in the studio. It takes a lot a confidence to do that live—sometimes you feel like you’ve got to keep the thing going, and I end up saying, “Why did I play so much?” I’ve got a friend who’s a trumpet player, he’s on Joyous Porous, he’s so comfortable with tacet it’s unbelievable. He could just stand there and play very little and be happy and I find that so difficult to do. It is an odd discipline trying to play less.
MN: Well, I think if you’re really in touch and trying to improvise melody or maybe doing a call and response type of thing it’s a different kind of thing. But I feel like I can hear you adding little colors here and there to the painting.
DR: That’s a nice notion.
MN: On the Joyous Porous record, what is that interesting sound on Walk West (‘Til Your Hat Floats)?
DR: That’s a piece foam under the strings. Depending on where I set the foam under the strings, I can get different harmonics—I think I had it somewhere around the 15th fret.
MN: Was the ring modulator added after the fact?
DR: I used to do that kind of thing with an Electro-Harmonix—no, I think I would have printed that.
MN: When you do go in to make a Henrys record, do you have an overall kind of sound or vibe in mind?
DR: The first few records we did, everyone was in the studio at once for a few days, but after that it became more like a science experiment and then I’ve tried to get away from that. Is This Tomorrow? was like that. It’s like I was constantly playing with it. The new one we did with Three Metre Day was all of us playing together, or as much as we could, depending on the track.
MN: Was the whole group involved in every aspect of the record, in the mixing?
DR: We hired an engineer outside of Toronto to mix it, but, yeah, all three of us were involved. It was nice to spread it around.
MN: Usually with a Henrys record it sort of ends up in your hands?
MN: That’s tough. I always have a difficult time removing myself from what I’m working to become objective.
DR: Oh, I know. Sometimes I put the CD on in the car in a self-deluded attempt to decide whether it’s a good record or not. “I’m just gonna check this out to see if it’s any good.” Impossible.
MN: Me, too. There’s a fine line between crap and incredible and I can never decide where I stand. [laughs]
“Jeremy Wakefield is more like Speedy West fused with Jerry Byrd. And a little bit of Noel Boggs.” Those are the words used by Wayne Hancock to describe Jeremy Wakefield’s playing, and he isn’t far from the truth. Throw in a big dash of Joaquin Murphey and Jeremy’s own unique sensibilities and you’ve got one of the world’s best non-pedal steel guitarists.
In the 20 years that Jeremy has been on the scene, he has played with and contributed to some of the finest Western Swing and Rockabilly music made this side of 1960. His credits include Wayne Hancock, Deke Dickerson, The Hot Club of Cowtown, The Horton Brothers, Biller and Wakefield, The Lucky Stars, Bonebrake Syncopators, Dave Stuckey and the Rhythm Gang, Smith’s Ranch Boys, Richard Cheese, and many others. Listen to any one of those recordings and you’ll hear that even at his earliest he had it together with a great touch beyond his years. He’s developed his playing today to a frighteningly articulate and fluid level, and he has a musicality that is natural and unpretentious.
His 1999 recording with Dave Biller, The Hot Guitars of Biller & Wakefield, gave a taste of the influence that Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West left behind to a whole new generation of listeners. Not only did the record capture their great picking on a program of all original music, but also the joy and humor that embodies Hillbilly Jazz. His 2005 instrumental recording, Steel Guitar Caviar, is a recording that every steel player should own. You get a sampling of everything that JW is about musically, from Bebop (Tiny’s Tempo) and Swing to Hawaiian (Hawaiian Creeper) to moody Surf music (Mudslide) to even some Lounge and Burlesque (The Red Garter) flavors.
Jeremy keeps busy making music with several bands in the Los Angeles area, including The Lucky Stars, The Bonebrake Syncopators, and Janet Klein’s Parlor Boys as well as contributing to the mega-hit Nickelodeon cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants, which he has won an Annie Award for. He is also an artist who has lent his talents to movies, TV, CD artwork, Disney installations, and even the Clinesmith logo!
Musically, I’ve admired Jeremy for a long time and have listened to many recordings of him. When we had the following conversations, it was the first time that I’d ever spoken with him, and I found him to be engaging, open and extremely humble with a good-natured sense of humor.
MN: Tell me a little about your steel guitar genesis….
JW: I played guitar growing up—I played in the church band and had a Ska band in high school, some cover bands playing Rock and Roll and all kinds of stuff. I grew up in the suburbs and in the 80s and 90s culture wasn’t global like it is now. It was what you could find at the record store. I feel like when I went to New York to go to school, it opened up a lot of things for me in terms of finding different music. I’d had an appreciation for Country music just because of my mom who grew up in South Dakota, where that was all that was on the radio.
I heard Hank Williams Sr. probably about the time I graduated from high school and I thought, “Wow, that is a crazy sound!” and that renewed my interest in it. I started looking for more records like that and started getting into Delta Blues–Skip James, and things like that—and Old-timey music, like Roscoe Holcomb. I remember buying a lot of records at the bargain bins at Tower Records. I found a lot of great Blues and Folk records there. But it seemed like—and it’s still true—the best discoveries are the stuff people turn you on to, where they make you a tape and say, “Check this out.”
MN: I’d spend 3 or 4 days a week just combing the record stores in that area. A lot of discoveries came from the sheer volume of stuff I bought (a lot of crap, too).
It seems like you were attracted to certain periods of music, like the older stuff appealed to you….
JW: At that time it did. And then I had this record that I found in a thrift store in Denver: “50 Great Country and Western Artists” or something like that on one of those cheapy labels. It had Crazy Arms and You Win Again, I Fall To Pieces, Your Cheatin’ Heart and man, I just wore that record out. My ear started tuning in to steel guitar, although I really didn’t know what steel guitar was. I remember listening to Hank and saying, “I know that’s a steel guitar, but exactly what that is I don’t know.” I couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone play one. It’s not like you could go on YouTube. It was such a mystery to me.
After I moved to Los Angeles in 1991, there was a cool record store there called Novotny’s Antique Store where you could listen to stuff—they had 78s and LPs. At that point, it was late ‘60s Country music that was interesting to me. Lloyd Green was all over that stuff, as I later found out.
MN: We kind of fall in the cracks not having steel guitar as part of our culture and being able to see it with our own eyes. And even in the ‘80s steel guitar wasn’t necessarily something you’d see every day anyway. I didn’t even know what a pedal steel was.
JW: No, it really wasn’t. My dad bought me a pedal steel for my birthday—a really early MSA called a Semi-Classic. It was a 10-string student model—3 pedals, 1 knee lever. That was my first foray into the steel guitar and I remember just being utterly at a loss. I had the Winnie Winston book and a Mel Bay book—the Winnie Winston book especially had a lot of helpful stuff, especially like the palm blocking and even some tab and whatnot. But I also started trying to learn these tunes that I’d been hearing. Then I went backwards and starting playing the lap steel because I was playing E9 with the pedals down to give a 6th sound and somebody said, “Maybe you should try the C6.” [laughs]
I picked up a little Fender Champ lap steel—I traded a Guild electric hollowbody bass to a friend of mine for it. So I started messing around with that. I had a 6th tuning that I had gotten from one of the instruction books, and that was when I really started learning the swing tunes, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, things like that. That was around the time I met Lee Jeffriess and he obviously turned me on to a lot of great stuff I’d never heard before. And my friend Rick Quisol–he had a band in San Francisco with Susanna van Tassel, Suzanna and her Golden West Playboys, and they invited me up to play a few shows. That was my first time playing steel guitar on an actual gig. I could barely keep ahold of the bar, I was so nervous. I’d learned all of her material, which was a wide variety of obscure Country tunes and some Western Swing tunes. Rick had made me a cassette of his favorite steel guitar tunes and it was the first time I’d heard Vance Terry and maybe the first time I’d heard Oklahoma Stomp (Joaquin with Spade Cooley).
Another record I listened to a lot was called Country & Western Bulls-Eyes–kind of bargain basement. The one tune that I’d just listen to over and over trying to wrap my head around was Ida Red with Bobby Koeffer from the Snader Transcriptions.
MN: The internet has opened up that whole world of music for many of us. It wasn’t until I got turned on to this stuff through a few internet acquaintances that I even knew the music existed. Someone even gave me a copy of a Joaquin Murphey compilation that you put together.
JW: Oh, yeah [laughs]…there is one floating around out there.
MN: That was my introduction to Joaquin.
JW: No kidding…is that the one with the Deuce Spriggens record with the skip on it? That’s how I can tell it’s the one.
MN: Yup, that’s the one. I swear, hearing those records completely changed the course of my musical direction. I was stuck with the steel guitar, but hearing those records and the Hawaiian records really gave me some direction.
JW: I ended up putting a second one together that was from some records, but I put on stuff from VHS tapes I had with soundies and movies where you hear Murphey. There’s one that I love that’s a blown take from a Merle Travis session. He plays this awesome solo on a pretty well-known Travis tune, No Vacancy, and right at the end of his solo he does this funny effect where he drags his pick across the strings in the high register so it makes this hammering chimes sound and Travis comes in to sing and just cracks up and makes a remark like, “what the hell was that?”
MN: It seems like you had a pretty firm direction as to where you were going musically.
JW: I did. I met up with this band that I saw by chance—I went with a friend to this show and saw The Lucky Stars playing. At that point it was Sage Guyton and a few of the original members. There was no steel on this gig, but he had had Leo LeBlanc in his band—they actually did a couple of recordings with Leo. I actually did get to see Leo perform at the Palomino and talked to him a few times, he was such a nice guy. I never saw him with The Lucky Stars. I’d first heard about him because I had a Red Simpson LP that he had autographed. His name was written right across the front: “Leo LeBlanc – steel guitar.”
MN: He had a very unique sound and style and sometimes it’s hard for me to tell him from the guitarist. I love those Red Simpson records.
JW: He told me that George Jones let him go—fired him, basically—because he said, “You’re always looking at me, quit looking at me.” [laughs] I don’t know, I guess he was so thrilled to be playing in that band and he just couldn’t hide it.
MN: I think it would be hard not to be looking at George, to tell you honestly.
JW: Yeah, he was always looking at him just grinning.
As soon as I hooked with The Lucky Stars we started rehearsing a lot and that’s when I really started having a direction with the C6. I started listening to a lot of Murphey and had that Columbia collection and just tried to learn every one of those solos, and then got turned on to the Plainsmen stuff and those Coast records and just poured over those trying to learn every note. It was a long time before I knew about his C#min11, so any of those chord solos, I had no idea.
MN: At this time were you playing a single neck or a double neck?
JW: I had a double neck. Right after I started playing with The Lucky Stars I got a Rickenbacker double neck that I still have, late-50s, ’58 or ’59, the solidbody with three legs—a great-sounding guitar.
MN: To me, the Rickenbackers were always the top of the food chain with regards to sound. All the steels I love are all approaching that kind of sound—the Bigsbys and even my Fender Custom with the trapezoid pickup is closer to a Rick sound than a typical Fender sound.
You get a great sound—one reason, I think, is because you use these amps with these inefficient speakers and you hear every little movement of the cone.
JW: That’s a nice way to put it, because I do like amps with inefficient speakers.
MN: You used the old Epiphone Electar amps for while, didn’t you?
JW: Yeah, my Electar is actually is in need repair right now, but I love those amps—great sound and they are loud. Billy Tonneson came to see me with The Lucky Stars once and told me that a lot of players used to use 2 of them.
I had always wanted to get my hands on one those Electars because it was what Murphey played—evidently. At least I thought so, because there’s that lobby card for The Three Stooges Rockin’ In The Rockies where he and Johnny Weis were sitting there. Anyway, I was in this music store and I saw this one and it looked really beat up, but I looked at the back of it and right there on the cabinet below the controls were these cast aluminum letters pressed into the wood, JM, and I just had to have it. Lee Jeffriess would always say, “Is that James Mason’s amp?” [laughs] JM could be anyone, but I thought, “You never know…”
MN: I’ve seen pictures of Dick McIntire and some of the Hawaiian guys playing through those. Did you start getting into Hawaiian music at all at this time?
JW: Yeah, like the Arhoolie and Rounder collections that were driving me nuts, especially Sol Hoopii. It wasn’t until later that I really started appreciating Dick McIntire—I think after meeting Joaquin and hearing him say his name so many times, that was really a big influence. McIntire’s stuff was always so hard to come by unless you found the 78s. Those Cumquat CDs are really just beyond compare—I listen to that stuff probably more now than anything. A lot like Joaquin Murphey, his playing just seemed like perfection: the beauty of the tone and the dynamics of his playing, the sound of one note and the way it’s shaped, the vibrato. It’s like a study in how to pluck a string.
MN: I agree. You’ll never hear a bad note out of Dick McIntire—every note counts. One of the fattest sounds I’ve ever heard on a steel guitar.
It’s interesting that you said Joaquin mentioned Dick so much—you can hear that in his playing, and I don’t really mean as a direct influence, but more the way he approaches playing up and down the strings like a Hawaiian player, rather than just playing across the strings.
JW: Yeah, it’s funny because Joaquin didn’t tend to talk a lot about steel players that he liked—you know, there’s that famous quote of his: “Who’s your favorite steel player?” He would answer, “George Shearing.” He was into Art Van Damme and Ernie Felice—accordion players and piano players—but he did talk about Dick McIntire. He studied with Ernie Ball’s dad, but he must have seen McIntire perform or in a music store.
I always found it interesting that Oklahoma Stomp was kind of based on a Leon McAuliffe solo—especially the earlier transcription from ’45 or ’46—listen to it next to McAuliffe’s Corinne, Corrina. It’s remarkable. He gets overlooked because he was so ubiquitous and people want to look to other sources, but everybody was listening to him and, before him, Bob Dunn.
MN: When it came to improvising what was your approach?
JW: I always felt like I was just piecing together what I’d copied from other solos. One that I felt went a long way in particular was trying to figure out Vance Terry’s playing on the Decca “San Antonio Rose” with a vocal by Lee Ross. Vance’s comping is so great behind the vocal and I remember playing that over and over and because of the progression it lent itself really well to whatever I was trying to do. Long story short, to play a solo I just felt I was trying to stitch together fragments of what I could play based on recordings that I’d heard and poured over and studied.
MN: You seem to have an unending stream of melodicism like all of the great improvisers have and you don’t do a lot of gratuitous playing—every note you play has a purpose. I was wondering how you developed that sense of melodicism and are there any things you do to build it?
JW: Well, I feel it’s still my goal to play like the way you’re talking about. You know how it is when you’re piecing together the same fragments over and over…rarely do I feel like I’m approaching that kind of level where it’s just flowing out of me. You know, I feel like after trying to learn as many different solos as I could over different changes, at some point some of those things get ingrained to a degree. I need to think about that one, Mike!
MN: I know where you’re coming from—the more that you do transcribe solos and work on them and put them to use, the more they do become a part of your vocabulary.
JW: Yeah. I think one thing that has a lot to do with it is your internal musical thought—“do you have a song in your head?”, as people say. I’m afraid that’s me all the time. I have melodies running through my head—they may be simple melodies, but they’re stuck in my head—and I’ll sort of be improvising in my head over changes sometimes. I remember one time it occurred to me: it was around Christmastime and I had the Chinatown changes in my head and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” came on the radio and I thought, “Hey, it would be something to play that over the changes!” and it almost worked except for one spot.
MN: You know what? You discovered what millions of keyboard players have known for years. They are the kings of quotes! [laughter]
JW: But, you know, I only came to that because it was cycling over and over. I feel like that has as much to do with it as practicing and learning scales and chords and learning where the notes are on your instrument. That’s a whole other aspect of it, being comfortable finding the notes once you know what the relationship is and where the notes and the chords are that you want to hear—getting to them when you want them.
MN: The melodies that you talk about…they may be simple melodies, but they are like seeds. They are planted in your head, but they grow. It’s amazing to me sometimes where an idea an idea can go or what it can lead to. Sometimes I may be listening to a tune and I’ll have to shut off the music because my mind has already run away with its own melodies.
Are you totally within yourself when you’re playing to the point that when you’re finished you’re not really sure what you’ve played? Like what you’ve played just happened and it’s gone? Does that happen to you when you’re really on?
JW: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes I rely on a structure that I’ve been using in the past. If it’s a song in the setlist, then sometimes I’m more adventurous than others. So, it really does depend on a lot of factors—what kind of mood I’m in, how it’s sounding, how my own instrument sounds. When all the elements are falling into place, suddenly you’re not thinking about anything but the song. And once, man, once you get in that spot, it seems to come much easier. And that’s when I start making a lot of mistakes, too. [laughs] It’s like trying things when you don’t really know where it’s going to lead or how it’s going to resolve, so then it’s “whoops” and then find your way back. But I like that, too.
In the age YouTube, sometimes it’s like, “Oh boy, I hope that’s not going to be broadcast on the internet forever!” There seems to be always someone there with a video camera.
MN: Well, that really is the beauty of playing live music and being with other musicians. Sometimes it’s out of your hands where the music is going to end up—you’re just one part of something bigger. That’s when music is at its best, I feel.
As far as YouTube, I realized a long time ago that once I played something, I was going to have to live with it. It’s out of my hands and I have to let it go. I try not to let it stop me from taking chances.
JW: It’s the same with recording, too, even to a greater extent. It’s etched in stone in a way and you can’t change it.
MN: I’ve read the Lee Konitz book and he talks about how—Lee is just such a pure improviser—a lot of jazz musicians didn’t purely improvise, but relied on a lot of the same bag of worked out stuff and didn’t always put it out there on the line. I guess there could be a tendency to fall back into that kind of thing if we’re afraid that somebody is recording us, or whatever–we could lose that adventurous spirit if someone is standing there with a little flip cam…
JW: Yeah, I guess at a certain point there are degrees of improvisation. And, really, it’s all the same—if your vocabulary is as big as Art Tatum’s then you have more freedom to improvise fully. Even though he’s using his vocabulary, mixing it up and changing it every note or every bar is a new experimentation with his vocabulary, maybe it’s all the same in a way. Do you understand what I mean?
MN: Yeah, I do. You’re not completely playing something that you’ve never played before….
JW: You know, Joaquin Murphey, being such a virtuoso, you do hear him repeating phrases but they work and he is improvising. And there are known phrases and you start them in where they work and where they fit the best. It’s improvisation even if it’s made up of predetermined elements.
MN: Do you have an awareness or knowledge of music theory?
JW: Only what I’ve tried to teach myself. My dad showed me how to read guitar chord tablature on sheet music when I was a kid and I took piano lessons and at one point learned how to read notes. I played tenor saxophone in elementary school and I remember at one point I was in band class and we were working on a new song and the girl next to me—I mean I was having trouble with the tune, not being good with reading—she got frustrated and looked at me and said, “Can’t you read?” [laughter] I just said, “No, I guess I really can’t!” I was waiting until I know how the song goes, waiting to hear how you’re going to play it.
MN: That’s when you said to yourself, “I must be a guitar player….” [laughter]
JW: Yeah. It did have something to do with me throwing in the towel on tenor saxophone—you know, I rue that decision now.
MN: I was talking with Ray Noren and he mentioned to me Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which has been his bag since he left music, and it’s all about communication and he talked about how individuals are visual, auditory and kinesthetic in learning. Maybe that’s the case, where you were more auditory and it’s easier to listen than to look at a sheet of paper—after all, it is music.
JW: Definitely. I’ve been playing with this group recently, Janet Klein and her Parlor Boys, and I’m sitting next to this cat, John Reynolds—I think he’s one of the greatest living guitar players. The guy is amazing. It’s a real challenge, it’s a lot of new tunes. She comes up with new material all the time, there’s a lot of stuff that you haven’t played before and may not play again, but everybody in that band is a seasoned musician who can improvise and read. I realize when I’m in the middle of one of those gigs how much it would help me to be able to look at a page of music and not just draw a total blank. If I look at it for long enough and say, “OK, Bb minor, I can find where that is,”—by then the song is over. It’s something I would like to eventually get a better grasp on, definitely.
MN: You’re using your ears to get you through the changes?
JW: Well, pretty much. You know, once I’ve heard it I’m much better on it. Also, playing on an A tuning after playing on C and E for so long—I’ve been playing it for a about 2 years—it’s hard for me, at my age, to make that leap where I know automatically where Bb is, where on a C neck or E neck it’s no problem. I do feel the older I get the more difficult it is to get accustomed to new tunings. [laughs]
MN: Oh, so you’re playing on an acoustic with a raised nut or something like that?
JW: I’m playing a resonator, a new one, a Republic square neck. I’m hoping someday soon I can own a made in the USA version. [note to Don Young and National Reso-Phonic: Get this man a tricone, yesterday!]
MN: That’s how I learned, playing that kind of stuff. To be honest with you, I couldn’t wait to get away from it. But I learned a bunch of Sol Hoopii stuff and it was a blast.
JW: Oh yeah. That and like we were talking about, that Dick McIntire stuff. There’s so much there.
MN: So, you use an E13—is that the McAuliffe E13?
JW: Well, I’ve got the McAuliffe E13 with the 5th and the 3rd on the bottom, I don’t have the low E.
MN: So it’s like Vance Terry’s E13?
JW: I guess more like the Vance Terry E13, yeah.
I use that and I use C#min11.
MN: What is the C#min11 tuning?
JW: It’s basically like Dick McIntire’s tuning, but with chromatic strings on the bottom, like Murphey used. I think I first got it from Bobby Black. I think Lee Jeffriess had it figured out from talking to Joaquin. It’s Murphey’s chord tuning that he uses on all that Spade Cooley stuff.
Remington had a similar one, Billy Tonneson had a similar one—this one is from the high strings:
D# (upper octave)
F# (upper octave)
That one is tough for me to get around with single notes much; Joaquin could do it like crazy, but you do hear him switching a lot between his 6th tuning and that one.
MN: Is your C6 tuning a straight C6 or is it C13?
JW: It’s sort of like a standard C6 with a G on top, but for string 8 I’ve got a high B, like another chromatic string on that tuning.
B (upper octave)
MN: That’s also like Joaquin thing.
JW: Yeah, but he had a C# down there instead of the C (G E C A G E C# B).
MN: I’ve gotten accustomed to the C# there, but I don’t use the high G and I like to play around with the bass string. I can’t live without it at this point. These days I play a more chordal kind of style, almost like a Shearing thing.
JW: Speedy is another guy who used a variation on that Joaquin Murphey tuning. And he’d have been the first to tell you, because that was his idol. It’s a little bit different, though. That’s what he used on that “I’ll Never Be Free” recording.
MN: I just love Speedy West. The one record he did, Guitar Spectacular is one of my favorite records in the world. For the mood, the compositions…he really came into his own as a composer.
JW: I agree with you, although I don’t I’ve ever heard anything he did that didn’t sound fresh and full of invention.
MN: Who are your favorite improvisers, on any instrument?
JW: Coleman Hawkins. If I could play steel guitar like Coleman Hawkins, I’d die happy. Man, I think that guy, from his very earliest stuff on up until he died, he was doing the same thing. You listen to some of those Fletcher Henderson records and his playing pops out so much—tonally, for one thing. His tone jumps off the record. You can just about hear his horn in the ensemble because his tone is so distinctive. And his style, it just seems like, “What!?” Some crazy stuff. He seems to really be stretching and testing the limits melodically. It’s the perfect blend of flowing melody and rhythmic punch—everything is there.
MN: His recording of “Body and Soul” is amazing.
JW: Yeah, I’ve never learned how to play that. I’ve got that in my mind as a goal some day.
Django Reinhardt is one and Charlie Parker I spent a lot of time trying to figure out his stuff but it’s impossible. I have learned a lot trying to figure that stuff out.
MN: I think the thing with those names you mentioned is that they all have such strong voices and personality. Especially Django, he had such an adventurous spirit in his playing.
The following transcription is of the song, Mudslide, composed by Jeremy Wakefield and appearing on his Steel Guitar Caviar CD.
Frank Kuebelbeck was born before the first electric guitar was ever made, in 1930. By the time he was in high school, Frankie Kay (as he would become known) was already a bandleader in his native Kansas City, Kansas, playing steel guitar. In 1951, he was a studio musician at KCMO radio, playing morning shows and then playing 6 nights a week in the clubs, when he was offered the opportunity to join Cowboy Copas’ band in Nashville.
When Frank got to Nashville, Dale Potter (fiddle player) suggested he take up residence in a rooming house for Opry pickers. His roommate was none other than Thumbs Carlisle. “One of the funniest things I remember about Thumbs—he played a Bigsby solid guitar—he’d wake me up in the middle of the night sitting in the room in his BVDs just playing up a storm for 2 or 3 hours.” Thumbs and Frankie became close friends and when Thumbs grew tired of the road work (he was with Little Jimmy Dickens at the time), he called Frankie and was offered a job in Kansas City playing in Frankie’s band. “We had a 5 piece group at this Western Swing club and we had all kinds of fun.”
“I’ll tell you one little story about Thumbs—when he first started, he started on the steel guitar. He played the open E tuning and he said the bar drove him nuts. So he pulled the nut off the end of the guitar and he used his thumb. So, anyway, I said, “Can you still play the steel guitar?” he said, “Oh, hell yes!” My steel guitar friends would stop in to see us and I kept one of my necks tuned to E for Thumbs, and he just played the living hell out of it. He’d play stuff like Steel Guitar Rag and he played it just as well as he did on guitar. It would amaze my steel guitar friends.”
Frankie worked in package shows while working with Cowboy Copas in Nashville with artists like George Morgan, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe and Jerry Byrd. “Jerry Byrd, I admired that man so much but he wouldn’t give me the time of day. He was working with Owen Bradley as studio band man up in WSM. We were road people and they all worked for WSM (as we did) but didn’t hobnob with the road people. I was fortunate to know Hank Williams, Sr. and talk to him. I knew enough about horses to talk breed lines with him. He was kind of reclusive and just sat over by himself in the corner, but he was very nice and I’d go over and talk horses with him and he’d talk with me as long as I wanted to talk. And his boys, Don Helms, Cedric Rainwater, Jerry Rivers and Sammy Pruett, lead guitar player, were all friends of mine and were super nice. But I had to get back to Kansas City and make some bucks.”
Frankie went to Riverside, Missouri where a club called the Riverside Rancho was opened and he became the house band. “My brother-in-law ran the place and they allowed me to name the place. When I was with Copas, we went out to the west coast and we just had to see Riverside Rancho, the big place where Noel Boggs, Joaquin Murphey, Tex Williams and all the big boys played. We booked in big bands—we booked Leon McAuliffe and his Cimarron Boys, Bob Wills. I had befriended Leon when I was at KCMO. Leon was coming up to Carthage, Missouri and an engineer friend of mine said, “Do you want to go and see Leon?” I said, “I really do!” We went down there and I met Leon and I got to know the band personally by name and, you’ll never believe this…Leon asked me to sit in! Well, all steel guitar players carry their bar and picks in their pocket if they’re worth a hoot. I sat in and played a blues and I was out of place as a you-know-what! But they tolerated me.”
Curly Chalker is another musician Frank befriended and hired when he was in need of work. Curly was once asked if he knew Frankie and Curly’s reply was, “Frankie Kay is one of the best steel players in the world.” Of course, Frankie says it’s not true. “I became friends with Curly just out of pure guts. I knew that guy had some talent that I’d never ever seen. So I went up and introduced myself and he tolerated me. Next thing you’d know, he’d play himself out of a job and he’d call me up and I’d help him try to find another job.” Phil Sperbeck, pedal steel player, was a protégé of Frankie’s. Phil went on to play with Bob Wills.
“Anyway, Curly was out of a job again, I believe 1954, I said come on out. I’m short one horn man this week. You can work the opposite end of the stage. He said, “What are we gonna do? Two steel guitars?” I said, “That’s been going on a long time with the Western Swing bands. I’ll play it straight, and you just go play anything you want. And he did. At this period of his career, he was HOT! He was a musical athlete when it came to single notes—he would just rip them off—brrrrrrt! I was in steel guitar heaven.”
“I’m really a chord man when it comes down to it. I love good chords—I can’t stand it when somebody plays a wrong one. I don’t mind alternate chords, but I don’t like wrong ones. When I started my Western Swing bands, the Country drummers and piano players were too damn dull for me. They didn’t swing—neither did the bass man. So I hired a jazz piano player, a jazz bass player and a jazz drummer and we took off. The rhythm section was just a swingin’ son-of-a-gun!”
Frank, you are man after my own heart! From one chord man to another, I hope I’m still swingin’ at 81 years old like you are!
Mike: You hail from the home of so many wonderful Jazz musicians through its history, such as Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Count Basie–just so many wonderful musicians….
Frankie: Yardbird! He was a Kansas City, Kansas guy!
MN: Who was the one who really caught your ear the most when you first got hip to Jazz? Was it Charlie Parker?
FK: I would say it was a local jazz horn man by the name of Jimmy Keith (note: a member of one of Kansas City’s superb big bands). He was a helluva good tenor sax man. He and I got to be real good friends—he’d be playing in a black club and I’d be playing in a white club and we’d meet after hours and have a drink or go downtown and have a little sandwich of some sort. He and I just hit it off real good and he steered me toward a lot of happenings and recordings and everything like that. Even before that, I had a disc jockey friend of mine that turned me on to a lot of jazz and I really hadn’t heard much of the different guys, but he started me out on Red Rodney, the trumpet player. I thought, “Oh hell, there’s a lot more out there that I’m hearing than I know of!”
MN: When you first heard it you must have been like the rest of us who just can’t help but wonder, “What the heck are they doing?” Harmonically, it’s just so different, a whole other language—it’s a mystery.
FK: I know it—I did. I would just grasp bits and pieces of it. Another thing, Mike, I was lucky that I always had a good jazz piano man in my Western Swing band. I stood right next to the piano and I really gleaned a lot of the chord formations from him, especially if he was on top of things. We had a lot of good jazz men that just weren’t doing anything in my early days in Kansas City and I, being a leader, I was fortunate that I could hire who I wanted. Even though I might have a Western Swing band or a Country type, if I had piano player who was a jazz player, he could play anything.
MN: I guess that’s the way that the jazz language crept its way into Western Swing—because they would hire players with that harmonic knowledge and they would bring that kind of stuff to the Western Swing.
FK: Absolutely. Like Tommy Morrell and all of the players he played with—they’re all jazz players with cowboy suits on.
MN: Right. But I mean you can even hear it in the earliest recordings—little elements of jazz finding their way into the music little by little.
FK: Oh yeah, Bob Wills and Spade Cooley and all those guys had musicians that were capable of playing whatever in the hell they wanted to play. [laughs]
MN: When you looked at the piano player, you could actually look at his hands and see what he played? Do you play a little bit of piano?
FK: No, I’m not a piano player—I wish I were. In those days, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we only had one microphone on the bandstand. It was really primitive. I would just be close enough where I’d hear all those nice chords that he was playing. I couldn’t play them, but I could substitute maybe 2 notes out of the chord, or 3 if I was lucky.
MN: I remember Lee Jeffriess telling me that you had a piano player who studied with Dodo Marmaroso and he was helping you out with some of the voicings and things like that?
FK: Yeah, he was very patient with me and he showed me voicings and substitutions and he told me, “You don’t have to have 3, 4 or 5 notes to make a chord. As long as you get the voicings right in your lower register…” I play a lot of 2 string things. I love the last 5 strings on my E13 tuning. I’m not one of those steel players who play with the first 4 strings and never utilize the bass strings.
MN: I think we have a lot in common! I’m really into playing chords and rhythm stuff on the steel guitar and focusing on the lower register.
FK: Yeah, I focused on playing in the lower register. My tuning is actually E13 tuning, but there are at least 4 different E13 set ups.
MN: What are the notes in yours?
FK: The first string is E, C#, B, G#, F#, D, G# and E.
MN: So you don’t use the B in the lower register…
FK: No, and by doing that a lot of times I can start off…I’m hooked up and I’m sitting by my steel—would there be any problem of me showing you what it sounds like?
MN: Oh, it would be fantastic!
FK: OK, I’m gonna be in the key of G and I’ll just walk a G with 2 notes, an Ami7 with 3 notes and Bmi7 with 3 notes and then I’ll go back down. [Frankie plays a walk up through the cycle back to I–tab to follow]
Could you hear that?
MN: Yes, I did. It sounds similar to the way I like to approach it—you have the 10th interval between the low G and the B and then you played Ami7, Bmi7, Cmi7, Bmi7, Bbdim, Ami7, Ab7. Excellent.
Rhythmically do you like a Red Garland comping rhythm or anything like that?
FK: Yes I do. The way I got to comping was I had a piano, guitar, bass, drums and me. When I didn’t have the piano player, I started playing the piano part behind the lead guitar player. I’ll play you a few bars of that if you’d like….
FK: I stay in the same key—I like the lower keys and I’m not one to play up above the 17th fret. It hurts my ears [laughs]. It’s a matter of personal taste….
MN: And it’s a little hard to navigate up there, too.
FK: Yes, it is. [Frankie plays a 12 bar blues using rhythms similar to a pianist’s left hand][tab to follow]
MN: That’s really wonderful. I talk about this stuff so much because of all the things I hear players talking about, I don’t hear people talk that much about play rhythm steel guitar. I don’t mean backup steel where we play high stuff behind a singer, I’m talking about becoming part of the rhythm section. I’ve written some articles about it on my blog. [For a related article, click here]
FK: No kidding! I’m happy to hear that there’s somebody else out there that feels the way I do about it. That’s great.
MN: A lot of guys don’t realize how simple it is to change just one note, for instance, in the C6 tuning making the lower C a C#–sure, you lose the root down below, but you gain so much. In thinking chordally, it’s a no-brainer.
FK: The reason I’ve stuck with this E13 the way I have it, I can get a straight chord: a 6th, a 7th, a 9th, a 3 string diminished and I can get a 3 string augmented with a reverse slant. Then, when I need it I can throw in a 2 note b5 (tritone). It’s what you get used to.
MN: You play a double-neck Stringmaster, right? What other tuning do you use?
FK: Yeah, I have a double-neck, but I’ve had 4 necks, 3 necks and then I came down to a double. At one time I had a combo with a guitar player who had a double neck with bass on one and lead guitar. And so on my triple neck I had 3 tunings: the E13, probably an A6 or C6 and then I had bass strings that I bought and I doubled on bass when he was playing lead guitar.
A year ago I went to Joaquin Murphey’s tuning on my second neck and it was C6 with an A9 on the last 4 strings.
MN: So you had the B two octaves higher for string 8?
FK: Yeah, that’s it, but it didn’t please me; it was too shrill. So I dropped it down to a Bb6 with a G9 on the last 4 strings. It sounds good, but I’m really not at home on it. I’ve had it on for a year and I’m still learning. It’s an experimental neck and I just play with it for fun.
MN: Where did you hear about that tuning?
FK: I think I heard about it from Bill Dye, a friend of Lee Jeffriess who lives in Kansas City. He’s an experimenting son-of-a-gun. He’s a very fine jazz guitar player/blues guitar player; he’d love to play steel for a living, but he has to play with blues and jazz bands on lead guitar to make any bread. But I got that tuning from him, ‘cause he’s wilder than anything. [laughs]
MN: That’s what they say was Joaquin’s tuning. I can hear a few different tunings that he used in different periods. One of my favorites is the one he used on Spade Cooley’s “Dance-A-Rama”. It was a 10” record with maybe 6 or 8 songs on it. His playing is out of this world on that one—he started to play more chords. He really ripped up the single note stuff, too, but he played more chords and added some more altered sounds. He played with a C6 (high G), but he raised the low C to C# and the low A to A#. That recording signifies a big change in his playing.
FK: Yeah, he was growing up, musically. Oh boy, I knew there was a lot more to steel when I heard him playing. [laughs] As a teenager, I heard him playing on the west coast.
MN: Well, one of the common threads between most of the great players is that they got hip to jazz. I think once those colors are available to you as a painter, you can’t paint a painting without them. As soon as you hear those chord qualities, you become drawn to it. Curly Chalker had those sensibilities, too.
FK: He was astounding. I heard him so much growing up and then he worked with me a time or two, although I had to use him on bass because I was playing steel. He didn’t give a damn! He wanted to work, he was hungry.
He was a nice guy. You had to take Curly like he was—he was a genius, but he wasn’t too loving. Tommy Morrell’s lead guitar player said, “He’s a wonderful musician and all that, but you wouldn’t want him for a house pet.” [laughs]
MN: Yes, I’ve heard similar things about both those guys. Neither one of them suffered any fools gladly. But like you said, there was a lot going on upstairs.
Curly, as most people know, didn’t have too many kind words for other players, but apparently he did for you….
FK: I can’t believe that he ever said that, because I knew him pretty well. I liked him, but he never had a kind word for me. [laughs]
MN: I’m sure that your kindness went a long way with him.
FK: First time I met Curly I was 19 and he was playing the straight steel then. He developed into a pedal steel player in his 20s, late 20s.
MN: Did he have all that harmonic sense together back then?
FK: Oh yeah, he was a helluva straight steeler. Tommy Morrell said that he was the best non-pedal steel player in the world.
MN: You told me Tommy Morrell was your idol….
FK: He’s my idol, 100%.
MN: When you listen to Tommy, at times it feels like he’s opening up so many other layers of his playing—he was a deep player….
FK: One of the things I really like about Tommy Morrell is that he didn’t play a thousand notes per second; he played what I could hear and understand. Some of these guys that are rally hot Nahsville players, they just play [emulates machine gun sound]. I can’t get anything out of it.
MN: I can go either way with that, as long as I feel that, whatever the person is playing, it’s part of what they are trying to say and not just gratuitous.
FK: I admire them and wish I could do that, but my mind won’t pick up on a lot of what they’re trying to throw out at me. [laughs]
MN: Did you start playing guitar first?
FK: I started playing steel, but I wish I would have started on guitar, to tell you the truth. If I started on guitar, though, I may have never gone to steel—that’s a possibility.
I had a guitar studio for 40 years and I taught regular guitar. Anyway, I played a job one night with a jazz snob over in Kansas City, MO and he was a saxophone player. He said, “Which guitar you gonna play tonight: the steel or the real?” [laughs] That pissed me off—I never hired him again.
I started playing steel when I was 10 years of age. 60 steel guitar lessons, you get a free wooden guitar. I was the dunce of the class—really, I didn’t take to it too readily. But my Dad was persistent and he enrolled me in private lessons. When I was about 13, I started my own group and I had old guys playing with me.
MN: This is right around WWII. Were you playing any Hawaiian music?
FK: Yeah, I played some Hawaiian stuff, some Cowboy stuff. I was lucky—one of my teachers taught all of those good swing tunes, Sweet Sue, All Of Me—the good old tunes.
MN: Were able to tune a lot of that Hawaiian stuff in on the radio?
FK: Oh yeah, and Alvino Rey, I liked him. He was playing the homemade pedal steel and I loved it. Boy, he was a chord artist. And he had a helluva big band. I liked him and then I gravitated into the west coast players and all that.
MN: How old were you when you moved to Nashville?
FK: Let’s see, I was about 19 when I started playing 6 nights a week. I was working at an insurance agency when I got out of high school. I didn’t want to get a job, but my Mom took me around for interviews and all that. I was an office boy at the insurance agency and I was also playing 6 nights a week making $90/wk as the leader of a 4 piece band in a nightclub. I had to have a special permit because of my age.
After that I got a job on the radio as a staff musician. So, when I was about 20, the disc jockey and program director—Cowboy Copas’ booking agent was his cousin. He wrote a letter and recommended me—I wanted to go to Nashville. I got there and I spent about 9 months and went to the poor house by way of Nashville, because they didn’t pay the guys anything and I was making a couple hundred bucks a week in Kansas City working 3 jobs. We didn’t make any money–$75/wk down there. I gave Copas a month’s notice because he was really a nice man and a wonderful boss. I said, “I’ve got to get back to Kansas City and make some money!” He said “I understand.” He worked me the whole month! [laughs]
One of my good buddies in Nashville was Hank Garland. He kind of moved toward the jazz direction, too. He used to be lead guitar player for Cowboy Copas before I got there. Copas always had a good, hot band.
MN: Who was your favorite steel player then?
FK: Leon McAuliffe was my idol at that time. Besides Leon’s steel playing, he had a helluva good band, the Cimarron Boys. I loved his orchestrations and everything. He was a really early steel guitar player playing hot stuff.
MN: He was a very exciting player, doing it before Speedy and those guys came along. I think he gets overlooked a little bit in that regard.
FK: I think he did, too. Boy, those people in Tulsa, OK—when Leon would go on the road, I had a Western Swing band at the Riverside Rancho in Riverside, which is a suburb of Kansas City, and he would call me before his road date and I’d go to Tulsa and play for him while he was on the road. If you had a steel guitar in the band in Tulsa, you were set. And I played all of Leon’s stuff, I aped him and loved all of his songs. He had a wonderful place called the Cimarron Ballroom. It was an old opera theater and they transformed it into a Western swing ballroom. Those people in Oklahoma and Texas really know how to dance.
MN: It seems you really have taken good care of yourself—you have a great memory….
FK: No, I didn’t, I was just like all the other wild asses around. I’ve got good genes apparently. I’m 81 and I’ve been married to the same wife for 59 years.
MN: You don’t hear about 60th anniversaries too often….
FK: Not very much, especially when one member is a full-time musician. [laughs]
MN: She must have an element of saintliness in her.
FK: Well, that and she is powerful, let’s put it that way! She knew I was in the music business when I met her and she tolerated it.
MN: Do you like to improvise when you play?
FK: I’m an improvising son-of-a-gun, but when you get away from the melody, you might as well pack up and go home. I like to start off with the melody, like Morrell did, but I’m not satisfied, I like to improvise all the time.
MN: Do you have a certain approach to improvising?
FK: I think I play off of the chord changes more than I do the melody. I really don’t like to play the same ad lib every time; I like to expound and play beyond. I like to play something different.
MN: Well, Jazz is music of the moment, you know—it’s spontaneous composition. Do you find it hard to find other players coming from the same place?
FK: It cramps my style when I’m playing a 3 chord blues and I start to wander off and throw the other guys. That’s pretty bad. My favorite player on earth is the bass man. If I’ve got a good bass man, I don’t need anybody else. How about you?
MN: Yeah, I’d have to agree. I think you can have a steel guitar trio—bass, drums and steel—and it would work great. One of my personal dream situations would be to play steel in an organ trio, just steel, drums and organ player—someone who played the bass pedals.
FK: Oh, yeah, that would be great. B3 organ? I never even thought about that.
MN: Frank, I really appreciate every moment that you spent talking with me. It’s quite an honor.
FK: Well, I’ve enjoyed talking to you—you talk the lingo I understand, as the song goes.
Special thanks to Lee Jeffriess, Russ Wever and Nancy Kuebelbeck.
M: There is a pretty good scene in Portland, right?
H: Yeah, there’s a big acoustic scene here—it’s more old-time Country music, Bluegrass is really big. There are a lot of young people interested in playing traditional music. I met this guy, Doug Sammons, who was a Bluegrass player and he wanted to bridge the gap between old-time Country and Jazz, like Jimmie Rodgers did. So we started working on that and about 6 years later we’ve got 3 CDs (The Midnight Serenaders). Now it’s time for me to move on.
M: You mentioned to me that you are now interested in learning to play the tres….
H: I’ve always wanted to know something about Latin music but all the stuff I heard I was put off by, which I think was more of the later music, like Salsa—once there’s a bunch of horns in it and timbales and congas and percussion, it just doesn’t do much for me. Matt Munisteri sent me some CDs of Puerto Rican string bands, so hearing the Cuban and Puerto Rican string bands of the ‘20s and ‘30s is the most interesting thing I’ve heard in the last couple of years.
M: I’ve always had a deep connection to Latin music. I’m 1/4 Spanish and I can remember as a kid seeing my grandmother and her sister listening to Mariachi music and other Spanish music all the time. They lived in the same house, and they had the velvet paintings of the matadors. [laughs] I feel close to that music when I hear it.
H: It’s totally amazing—I wish I’d heard it sooner. All that Cuban Son and even Changüi—that is some of the weirdest music I’ve ever heard, the rhythms. Once I started hearing the tres and how it fits in a band…I love the fact that you can just do whatever you want to do. They’re just soloing over the entire tune.
I wish I was interested in this music back when I was living in New York. Mario Hernandez is kind of the guy I freak out over and he was in New York that whole time.
M: Obviously, your desire to stretch and learn these different styles of roots music extends a bit beyond what the typical musician who transitions into roots music does. The stuff you’ve gotten into is a bit more sophisticated and even exotic….
H: Well, I’ve always just kind of followed my heart. And that’s always led me to good places. It doesn’t always seem to make sense. I mean, I quit a band that was touring the world and I was making a decent living and I didn’t have to wake up at 7 in the morning and trudge off to work in the rain. But what I really wanted to do was putz with the steel guitar and see where that led me. It was a tough decision, but it was definitely from my heart. The same with the Cuban stuff; it just the music that’s moving me and what I’m listening to and I pick up the tres 100% more than I pick up my steel guitar.
A lot of people who are making a living playing a certain style of music don’t have the freedom to just go off and do something completely different. I’ve never relied on music to pay the rent. Playing music like this, it’s hard to make a living unless you hustle and that’s not me. It’s hard for me to play with pick-up bands and read charts—most of my solos that sound good are worked out in advance.
M: There’s nothing wrong with that, they’re still your ideas….
H: I would say they are musical ideas but I would say that it’s been a big frustration for the last 7 -8 years by not knowing the notes and the math of music. It’s really held me back in terms of playing better and playing an actual solo that sounds like you’ve got some ideas in it instead of just treading water.
M: I’ve always advocated for learning all that stuff, but it’s not for everyone and obviously there’s a lot more to making music than just that. There are some people who really ‘get it’ in other ways.
H: For a long time it didn’t really bother me, but the second half of my steel guitar career, it’s definitely held me back and I’ve got a lot more respect for people who do that. I didn’t rebel against that stuff; I wanted to know it. But it seemed like it would go in one ear and out the other. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours thinking about it, wondering “How could some guys get really good and some guys don’t?” Being lazy also is a big part of that. [laughs]
M: I sat in my classes in school writing out all my scales and chords instead of paying attention to the teacher….
H: I’m sure I would be a much happier musician if I had more of that kind of stuff….
M: Well, I kind of wish I would have spent more time paying attention to the English and Math—I’d probably have a good job. [laughter]
When David Hamburger suggested that you check out some Hawaiian music, you didn’t have anyone to say, “Here, check this stuff out!” You had to go out and hunt for it yourself?
H: Absolutely, I didn’t know anyone who was interested in any kind of steel guitar. I didn’t even know that the steel guitar came from Hawaii. Being kind of a guitar geek all my life, I always thought that it was amazing that nobody knows that the steel guitar came from Hawaii. How could that slip through everyone’s consciousness?
M: So true.
H: I guess I should mention I got to sit down with Jerry Byrd for an hour. When I was still in Helmet, we played in Hawaii and I somehow finagled his phone number from this guy at Harry’s Music. So I called him up a month before I was going to be there and said, “I’m on tour and I’d love to meet you,” and I talked him into an hour lesson. Probably the biggest thrill of my life–because I was still at the peak of my Jerry Byrd fan worship.
I walked in there and he was leaning against this glass counter, with a big Panama hat, tacky Hawaiian shirt. He goes “Follow me,” and led me down to this tiny little space–an ancient Ampeg amp–we both plug in and he says, “OK, Henry, why are you here?” It was a total thrill. I could barely play at the time.
I will say this about the lesson: I had this little tune–I could kind of get through it, but he wouldn’t even let me get past the third bar. He was just like, “No, no!” I’d play a note or two and he’d say, “Nope, nope, nope. Not like that.” He was so into the music that all those little minor things, all the great stuff happens between the notes–how you go into the next note, how you slide up to it, how you dampen it. He wouldn’t even let me play the tune and I thought that was so amazing. His skill level was so intense, he saw all the little minor things that even great players don’t pay attention to.
And he did help me with my slanting–I like to say Jerry Byrd taught me how to slant, which he really did. I was having a hard time with it. He said, “Think of it as a car turning around the corner. You don’t want to cut too close to the curb–you want to go out and then make your slant.” He also showed me how to keep my index finger off the bar, to arch my index finger and not have it flat on the bar. You want to keep just the tip of your index finger on the tip of your bar and push with your thumb against the rear of the bar.
Jerry was very good with writing letters. I would write him and ask what tunings he used on certain tunes and he would always write back. He told me to use E13 tuning–he didn’t like C#m7 tuning–he said it wasn’t very playable.
M: How did you get into C#m7?
H: It was all Sol.
M: Did you get it from the liner notes of that CD?
H: Definitely. The 9th slant on the top 3 strings–that’s the shit. I can’t play without that. When I moved to Portland, I changed my tuning. I lowered it a whole step and changed some of the bass strings around which I wish I would have done earlier. My tuning is: D B F# D B A (hi to low). It made it a lot warmer. And much more playable.
One of the big drags about the instrument is that there weren’t a lot of people to talk to or take lessons from. If you play guitar or saxophone you can always walk down the corner and just watch somebody. You couldn’t just walk down the street and watch somebody play steel. It was a big drag to not to have a steel guitar buddy.
M: Do you think it’s ever going to take off again?
H: My gut feeling is that there seems to be sort of a peak right now. I don’t know why I feel that way. I think there’s definitely room for people playing and getting better…and even playing it in some sort of a modern context, in avant garde.
There are always guys that can play, but I don’t always hear people that pay attention to the feeling. That’s why I dug guys like Jerry Byrd so much. He really knew how to hang on to a note, which is what’s so great. Making all the music between the notes–that’s what this instrument does so well!
Henry Bogdan is one of the few players of the modern era who has embraced the National Tricone resonator as his main instrument. His playing with The Moonlighters was particularly influential (especially to myself) in the resurgence of traditional string bands featuring ukulele and steel guitar, and with the Moonlighters he recorded several CDs. He also performed and recorded with Hazmat Modine, a unique NYC band led by the eclectic and multi-talented Wade Schuman. However, Henry is best known for his career as bassist for the band Helmet, an influential alternative metal band, all through the 1990s. These days, Henry resides in the Portland area, where he has been involved with a band called The Midnight Serenaders, continuing the marriage of his Hawaiian stylings with their Jazz Age swing.
Henry told me that after all these years of playing his Tricone, he was putting it away to pursue his latest passion, the Puerto Rican Tres, which is a stringed instrument with 9 strings in 3 courses. So, if you are in the Portland area, don’t miss the opportunity to see Henry perform with his Tricone while you can.
Mike: I’ve noticed the phenomenon of musicians who’d previously played Rock music and Punk gravitating toward Roots music.
Henry: Yeah, it’s really true. I kind of saw it as somewhat of a synchronicity to the end of…for me it was the end of Punk. It was the end of the road. I didn’t see that there was any other direction to go.
M: I figured that people who are playing “cutting edge” stuff already, they’re really at the precipice and you have to wonder “where do you go from there?” It must be exhausting to be at that point and constantly be trying to move forward all the time. At some point, it almost seems inevitable that people are going to begin to look backward….
H: Yeah, to get more substance. It just gets sort of totally diluted and you’re not doing anything if you’re trying to be modern and unique and not sound or play like anyone else before you. I always felt the idea was to be unique and not do anything traditional. For Helmet, it just seemed like it was the end of the road and it was up to the next generation to combine their influences and do something new.
Most of my friends continued on with Rock, but I did know a lot of people who were just putting down their instruments and not playing at all. That’s when I met Bliss (Blood) with the Moonlighters and I knew what I wanted to do was create kind of a traditional Hawaiian-sounding band. I didn’t see myself as a “jazzer” and she was coming from a Rock state of mind and not from going to Jazz school or that sort of thing.
M: So, what was your introduction to Hawaiian music?
H: I would say first off that I’ve always been interested in steel guitar, from my mid-teens hearing it in Rock bands like Neil Young, the Eagles—a lot of stuff like that was popular here in Portland and on the west coast. The first time I got to see one up close was actually when this Gospel/Southern-Rock band played at my high school. There was a guy playing a Sho-Bud and I just totally flipped and I went up and I talked to him for a while after the gig. It just seemed like such a cool instrument—very magical looking.
M: Did he show you how it worked or explain it to you?
H: I can’t remember, but he probably said that there’s pedals and knee levers and all these kinds of gadgets. It was pedal steel that I heard first. Then a few years later I got pretty devoted to Punk and Underground music and I thought steel would be a good instrument to mess around with in that format. So, first I bought a lap steel at a pawn shop—Dickerson, pearloid model that I wish I still had—but I couldn’t get anything out of it because I didn’t know any tunings. It just sounded like Blues guitar kind of stuff.
M: I think we all kind of go through that same experience. You were a bass player at the time?
H: No, I didn’t even touch the bass until a good 10 years later, but I’d always played guitar. From age 10 I took guitar lessons—I took 5 years of Classical guitar lessons all through high school. I pretty much knew I wanted to play music, ideally, in a professional setting.
So, I couldn’t get anything out of my lap steel, and then I bought a single neck pedal steel. Still I didn’t know the tunings—it was probably an E9 guitar. I borrowed a Sneaky Pete Kleinow book from the library here that had some tunings and basic technique, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure it out, but I played it in a band on a couple of songs, just getting sound effects, like picking behind the bar. I wasn’t really interested in any hardcore Country music until a few years later.
Anyway, so I put the pedal steel in storage and moved to New York. Subsequently the steel was stolen. I ended up not doing anything in New York for about 5 years, just trying to break into the Underground scene until I answered an ad in the Village Voice for this band that needed a bass player (Helmet). I happened to have a bass, so I thought, “What the hell? Everyone played guitar—I might as well try to break in as a bassist.” I really enjoyed the bass, certainly in that context.
It was right around the middle of the Helmet career, probably early ‘90s, that I got more interested in traditional Country and Western Swing music. I’ve always had one foot in the Country door, in some sense, but I was getting into more traditional stuff like Buck Owens, George Jones, Ernest Tubb…basically as a diversion to what I was doing in Rock—you know, super-macho, tough guy, tattoos. It was kind of stupid at a certain point and what I liked about Country music was that it wasn’t so concerned with being modern or cutting edge. It just had a certain relaxed soul to it and it was good-natured.
M: Yeah, and it’s also a humble—even if it’s not completely sincere in its humility it still has that humbleness to it.
H: I agree and I certainly appreciated that coming from a super Agro world of Rock which I didn’t always identify with. It was fun playing the music, because it was very physical, kind of like sports.
I saw Junior Brown’s first gig in New York at the Lone Star and he totally blew me away.
M: I think I was at that show, too.
H: It was just phenomenal. He was the first guy I’d ever seen play lap steel and he had “that sound” which turned out to be the 6th chord. So, I pulled the lap steel from under my bed and looked in the Village Voice the next day and found this guy David Hamburger. Have you had any contact with him?
M: No, although I’d certainly heard his name and I had some friends who played in a band with him, but I heard he moved down to Austin.
H: Yeah. I started taking some lessons with him and he set me up with G6 tuning and he was also the one—at the time I was mostly interested in Honky Tonk and Western Swing—but he said, “If you really want to devote yourself to lap steel, you should check out Hawaiian music.” Like most people, I never thought of Hawaiian music at all—I thought it was all just like Don Ho. So, I just bought some CDs and at the time I was buying everything that I could that had any kind of non-pedal steel on it. I called up Scotty’s Music and got Jerry Byrd’s “Steel Guitar Hawaiian Style” and the 2 Sol Hoopii CDs, but it was the Jerry Byrd that was the life-changer for me.
M: I was kind of like you in that I probably bought 30-40 CDs and LPs a month from the age of 18 to 30—that’s all I did, was buy music. It was like I was always searching for something that I knew was out there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I could feel when I was getting closer and closer to it, though. I probably bought most of the same CDs as you—the Sol Hoopii, etc. I had that long before I really got interested in playing.
When I finally got interested in playing, there were almost no resources, except for the occasional book, which didn’t tell the whole story. I can tell you one thing, though—I knew right away that it was some serious shit! It became apparent in the beginning that it was serious and I don’t think I had what it took at the time to devote myself to it.
H: I would agree that it is some serious shit! For me, it was like when I first was discovering Punk and Underground: there was this whole world of great players and great tunes and great singers and it was deep. It had a lot of substance. I would also have to point out that it had a lot more steel guitar than the Country stuff. Even still to this day I want to hear Joaquin Murphey playing through the entire song—I don’t want to hear just one little break. You know, that’s what kind of the drag of that music and what’s so great about the Hawaiian music. It’s there behind the vocals, there during the solo, intros and outros.
M: There is a real art to the backing in Hawaiian music and also they’re playing in a smaller group.
H: Yeah, I would love to hear Joaquin in a smaller band. I would say that from the beginning it was the electric steel, Jerry Byrd in particular, and a year later I got more interested in the acoustic stuff. I listened to that Jerry Byrd CD over and over when I was still in Helmet, and I would take my lap steel on tour and just mess with it on the bus. I got Jerry’s book (Instruction Course For Steel Guitar) and was messing with tunings just trying to play something that sounded like music.
M: Did you get through the whole book?
H: Oh my God, no. I would say I didn’t even scratch the surface. I bought all the books that there were, but I’m not a book guy. I totally just play by ear. I don’t even know what chord I’m on or necessarily what key I’m in unless it’s written next to the song title on the set list. [laughs] I’ve always thought of it as, “Where’s my I? I is on the 3rd fret, there’s my IV and V” and I have my little boxes—my riff boxes—and I have my little gimmicks, my octaves and playing thirds and whatnot. I totally play by ear and at this point it’s a huge drawback. I wish I could go back and start over from scratch by learning scales and sharps and flats….
M: Do you know any of this with regards to the guitar?
H: No, I don’t at all. I mean I had theory back in high school when I was studying Classical guitar but Classical guitar is very impractical to playing Pop music. You don’t learn how to read chord charts—it was kind of a mistake. I wish I was more interested in Jazz at the time—it would have been much more practical, even in the Rock world.
M: I have to say, I’ve enjoyed your playing on the Moonlighters recordings and I would say they inspired me. When I bought my Tricone, I said to my wife, “OK, honey, I promise I’m going to go out and find a gig” and it just so happens that I found the only gig in existence. So I want to thank you for that. [laughs]
H: No problem and thanks for saying that. It was a lot of fun working on that stuff. Bliss turned me on to more of the Jazz side of things and I was probably the Hawaiian side of things.
M: Let’s face it, how many other bands were out there playing that kind of music?
H: Well, there a band called the Do Hos…they kind of disappeared. But, yeah, there really weren’t any people doing that and that was kind of fortunate for us–certainly fortunate for me. [laughs]
M: A good thing about the band was that there was original music. I’ve always felt that Bliss is an excellent lyricist.
H: Oh, yeah, she’s a great lyric writer.
M: I always thought the band had a solid foundation in the traditional sounds and, yet, it was always reaching forward….
H: Maybe some of our other influences sometimes can’t help but come out. Bliss really was the one into doing original music and it was a good thing for the band and probably opened some doors that we probably wouldn’t have had if we were just aping the old shit, which I probably would have been fine with also.
M: You were involved with some other projects while you were in New York, too….
H: Oh yeah, when the Moonlighters started I was also playing with Howard Fishman. We started playing in the subways in Brooklyn. And I was playing weekly with Greg Garing and his Alphabet City Opry. That was actually the first situation where I was playing steel guitar—slightly pre-Moonlighters. That was a weekly gig for about a year. I quit to rehearse and work on tunes, instead of just playing tunes that I’d never heard before. It was fun playing with Greg, but he would just say, “This is in C, follow me.”
M: I have to admit, that’s what I live for. You did some stuff with Wade Schuman and Hazmat Modine, too….
H: I did some gigs with them and recorded some songs on their first CD.
At this time I was planning on moving to Hawaii…I was hoping to get some lessons with Jerry Byrd. That was sort of my dream at the time but once I got to Portland I had read that Jerry was sick and had stopped playing and I ended up getting some gigs with The Yes Yes Boys in Seattle and I would take the train up to Seattle a few times a month for about 3 or 4 months. Del Rey is truly amazing–a great player. I think a few months later Jerry died. He was most of the reason I was headed to Hawaii—even though I probably wouldn’t have hooked with him, I could have taken some lessons with Alan Akaka or John Ely. I didn’t really have any work skills once I left New York and the thought of working at Hertz Rental Car for minimum wage, trying to afford a studio apartment in Honolulu….
M: Your record has a really good balance of hot rod steel tunes and pretty tunes mixed with just some great swampy, greasy things. It’s just super. Your Panhandle Rag really invokes Jimmy Day for me. And Boppin’ Steel Guitar has a really swampy, Sacred Steel feel to it.
J: I wanted to try and play a bluesy open string finger picking thing like I’d play on guitar. You can play a lot of open string bluesy things on C6, mixed with a little Travis-picking.
Listen to a clip: Boppin’ Steel Guitar by Joel Paterson
M: What is your thought process when you’re improvising?
J: It’s always related to the guitar–I feel like I’m always searching for some lick that I play on guitar, “Let’s see if I can pull this off on the steel….” [laughs]. I think just like I do when I play guitar…when I think about music theory when I’m improvising, I think about intervals a lot. I always want to know where the 3rd is, #5, b7…I know the sounds I want and I try to find them.
M: Are you a studied guitar player?
J: No, not really, but I’ve learned a lot of music theory over the years just from playing forever. I don’t sit down and read music very well–it takes me forever, I never had any experience with that. I know theory-wise what I’m doing, I think that’s very important, especially if you play any kind of jazz. I think all guitar players knew that stuff back then. Guitar players that people say, “Oh, he didn’t know what he was doing, he just played by ear…”–I think that’s BS. I think people like Django knew exactly what he was doing when he played a diminished scale for an altered chord…Wes Montgomery, too. Those guys knew exactly what they were doing.
M: Oh, for sure….
J: That’s how I think about it–if you’re trying to play single notes, picture the chord underneath and just find some good little moves and get around on it.
Another thing about C6 is that Buddy Emmons set this impossible standard for everybody to just play insane Bebop licks on C6 and it used to bum me out until I just realized that I love Jerry Byrd and it’s OK to just go at your own pace. Steel’s supposed to be expressive anyway, you don’t need to be a hot rod on the steel…pedal steel speed picking doesn’t really impress anybody except steel guitar players.
M: Do you have any interesting harmonic approaches to things, like when you’re playing a chord solo?
J: Well, it’s hard to explain in a nutshell–I’m pretty much following basic rules of swing harmony, stuff that’s rooted in Charlie Christian. I don’t think you need to know every scale in the world, but it’s good to know some Jazz harmony if you want to play Western Swing, you need to know how to move chords around. Nothing I’m doing is anything different than a Jazz clarinet player in 1930, just a different instrument. The key for me is to just simplify things.
M: One of the things I believe is that you can’t be timid on the instrument. I have a difficult time sometimes playing in front of convention crowds. I’ve only experienced that a few times in my life and it was only when I played these conventions–my right hand froze….
J: I did it once at the Guitar Geek convention and I was terrified. It proves that when you play steel guitar you have to be relaxed and not play too hard–play really light and not have big movements–micro-movements with your picking and the way you mute the strings and everything. You have to play easy.
M: You have to be relaxed and comfortable and yet you have to approach the instrument with a kind of confidence; otherwise you can end up sounding timid and it can mess with your sound, your vibrato….
J: Vibrato’s great with steel because there’s an infinite amount of speeds you can have. I don’t think you should find one speed and stick to that. I think you try to do them all–a nice slow Jerry Byrd vibrato, maybe even a crazy Speedy West vibrato.
M: I agree with that–it’s something you have to do consciously, you have to have control over it.
J: You have to practice it and then you have to think about it and later on when you play gigs you can’t think about everything because with steel there’s too much to think about. But it is a technical instrument and you have to be obsessively technical about everything to sound good.
M: I really like the way you use the volume pedal–you use it for dynamics and expression. You hear a lot of steel players talk about how they use it to increase sustain, but I never got that.
J: I don’t ever think of it like that for sustain. It’s not like the steel guitar doesn’t have enough sustain–it has more than the guitar does. I think of it more as a way to express myself. Also, when I play E9 and back up a singer I’ve got to be able to back off the volume–you also get this nice, real clean trebly sound and you can bring it in for effect.
When I play C6, I’m like a frustrated organ player. I don’t play keyboards at all, but I always thought in another life I’d love to be a B-3 player. So when I play C6 I’m always fantasizing that I’m Jimmy Smith on the pedal steel [laughs]. The pedal comes in handy for that.
M: I like the way organ players go from a whisper to a scream.
J: I think with steel when you start every note up full blast, especially with chimes, can be real staccato and piercing, so a volume pedal is essential. I don’t always use a volume pedal with lap steel–sometimes I’ll just curl my pinky around the volume knob.
M: You use a lot of techniques with your right hand that sort of set you apart a bit–tremolos and things like that–almost hearken back to Jerry Byrd. It really brings out the artistry in your playing.
J: There’s so many things you can do with the picking–the 3 finger banjo rolls which I probably do subconsciously, the thumb pick strums get that big fat sound–it’s kind of endless. Luckily, I had a teacher who really got me started to have my hand angled at the right way and to always be muting the strings with the side my hand. You never lift your hand far off the strings at all, they’re always about a millimeter away from the strings, so they’re always ready to mute stuff that you don’t want to ring out. And to also play single notes with mainly your thumb and second finger which, as a guitar player, you’d never think of doing that. It’s kind of unnatural at first.
M: It’s been great talking with you, Joel, and I think you put a lot of great information out there. I like to get this stuff out there for newer players to let them know that, even though they may want to try to do it their own way, there are some legit ways of doing things that they can learn and it can save them a lot of time and effort. I want to hear people playing great steel guitar music for a long time.
J: Yeah, me too! Well, that’s cool. I hope people can learn something. Obviously, I’m a traditionalist and I love the old school players, but I try to keep it fresh–I don’t want to sound like I’m just imitating those guys. That’s my goal with my band Modern Sounds: take something old, play it with taste and tradition, but try to make it fresh.
Joel plays steel guitar on Joel Paterson – Steel Is Real (Ventrella Records)
Joel Paterson is a helluva musician. He is widely recognized as a guitarist in the Rockabilly, Jazz, and Blues styles from his associations with Chicago groups like Devil In A Woodpile, Jimmy Sutton’s Four Charms, Kelly Hogan’s Wooden Leg, and his own Modern Sounds trio, as well as touring and recording with artists like Dave ‘Honey Boy’ Edwards, Wanda Jackson, and Carl ‘Sonny’ Leyland. But Joel also plays steel guitar. And he plays it really well. How did a young guitarist from Madison, WI migrate to Chicago, become one of the Windy City’s most respected guitarists, and then take on an instrument like the steel guitar? Joel shed some light on how he was able to learn how to play steel guitar despite his guitarist proclivities and he offered up some great advice on how to do the same. For what it’s worth, it’s some damn good advice….
Mike: Joel, I really like your Steel Is Real CD a lot–it really showcases your playing in a wide variety of styles and I guess that’s a testament to who you are as a musician…
Joel: Well, thanks. Part of that is because there’s not really a Country scene here in Chicago anymore —I think there used to be back in the day. I used to take pedal steel lessons from this guy named Ken Champion, who’s a great teacher, and he said back in the day you could work almost every night playing in the Country bars in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but that’s totally died out. When I started playing steel, I’d been a guitar player for years and I had my own bands, so when I started playing steel I wasn’t really influenced by a scene or a certain style. I just kind of used it to do everything I liked.
We tried to come up with some different things on that record so people would like it—not just steel guitar players. There are a lot of great steel guitar records that I love, like Curly Chalker’s “Big Hits On Big Steel”—I think it’s the greatest record ever, but you play that for the average person and they can’t stand it. We tried to make something that somebody who doesn’t know anything about steel could just put it on and enjoy it.
M: Well, the record you mentioned, as well as some of the other great steel records we could cite were recorded 40-50 years ago….
J: That’s a sound I love, but I guess a lot of people don’t….
M: When someone asks, “What are the greatest steel guitar records, you’re always going to go back to Jimmy Day, Lloyd Green….
J: Golden Steel Guitar Hits, that’s one of my favorites—yeah, Big Steel Guitar and Hit Sounds— the one with the Little Darlin’ instrumentals. I guess there hasn’t really been that much because there’s never really been a budget for steel guitar music and, especially these days, there’s zero budget. So, in that way, when I did my steel guitar record, it’s homemade, so you can call all the shots and do whatever you want.
M: What was it that made you want to play steel guitar in the first place?
J: Well, it’s kind of funny—like I said, I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 14 or so back in the ‘80s and I started off just obsessed with ‘20s and ‘30s Country Blues, Ragtime finger picking guitar and later on ‘50s Chicago Blues and that stuff, and that’s all I played. Then I slowly developed this interest in jazz through Charlie Christian, guys like that. It took me years to be a passable Jazz guitarist. It was just one of things where I’d wandered into a music store in Wisconsin and they had one of those cheap Sho-Bud/Fender beginner models from the ‘70s. I didn’t know anything about it—I just bought it for $500 from this guy and it was like, “Cool, I have a pedal steel!” I had no idea how it works and I wasn’t even into Country. I was a professional guitar player at this point, but I was totally lost on this thing.
Luckily, somebody told me about Ken Champion and I took lessons right away and I’m glad I did. I pretty much went right for lessons because I had no idea how to even set the thing up.
M: That was a pretty smart move—you probably could have done yourself more harm than good, which is what happened to someone like me….
J: That’s what I’d recommend for any steel player really. I was lucky that it was Ken Champion, who isn’t a guy who says, “Just play this…” and teaches you a bunch of hot licks that you can’t digest. He’s a very methodical teacher who started from square one and he wrote out great exercises.
So, I immediately got into Country and the first thing I liked was those Buck Owens records and Tom Brumley was probably my first steel hero. He was a little more accessible than trying to learn Buddy Emmons right away.
Another reason I’d recommend lessons right away is that, as a guitar player he told me how to mute the strings, how to angle the finger picks and how to hold the bar and this stuff that’s very unnatural for a guitar player. At first, you’re fighting every instinct. Almost everything you do right on the guitar is wrong on the steel.
M: You said you came from a Country Blues background, so you had your finger picking together….
J: Back in the day, all I wanted to be was Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller. I joined a Rockabilly and they were like, “Oh, you’re a great Rockabilly player,” I guess because it sounded like Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins. I already knew how to finger pick and knew how to do alternate thumb picking—I guess that is a benefit for playing steel that you move your 3 fingers with some independence.
M: That was one thing that I can hear you manage to bring over from the guitar—you’ve got the Travis-picking goin’ on.
J: Yeah, I heard Buddy Emmons do that on Rose City Chimes and was like, “What is that?” You have to have C6 and you kind of have to have a pedal steel with Emmons set up to do that stuff. I’m not so good at sitting there and transcribing his stuff—it would have taken me all day—so I just kind of fumbled around and took the stuff that I do on guitar and found it on the steel. It’s cool to Travis pick on C6.
M: One of things that was really difficult for me was that I was constantly trying to connect the dots between the the two instruments (guitar and steel) to get it to make some sense—I didn’t have a teacher and there was no one to turn to, because I didn’t know anyone who played steel. It took me a while before I realized that I needed to look at things in a different way. I was always trying to conjure up some special tuning that would make it easier, and I went through a ton of them, but ultimately I just felt that was a waste of time.
J: Well, I wouldn’t say that anything is a waste of time, but I know what you mean. It’s frustrating even when you do have a teacher because you want to jump ahead. I was already playing gigs and I made my living as a musician and I wanted to be able to gig with this thing right away. And technically, you’ve got to get a handle on your equipment—it’s not like you can just go down to the pedal steel store and get the perfect pedal steel.
I pretty much knew I was into Western Swing, so I knew I needed C6, so I pretty much went looking for a doubleneck—I went through a few. I’ve got a 1970 black Emmons now and I’m pretty much set for life. Aside from the technique there’s all this technical stuff. I’m not one of these tinkerers who can get under the hood and mess with the pedals. I was lucky to have a genius repair guy here in town named Dave Peterson set up my steels so I could jump right in. The other thing was pretty much right away I tried to force myself to play gigs, even though I was almost a beginner.
M: There’s nothing like being on the hot seat….
J: Steel is the kind of instrument you practice at home and come up with little arrangements at home and it all goes out the window on a gig.
M: I’ve watched a few of your YouTube videos and I’m really impressed with the way you’ve been able to compartmentalize both instruments and achieve that kind of level on both. You use a great amount of dynamics and expression in your playing.
J: Oh, thank you.
M: Did you start playing lap steel a little later on?
J: No, pretty much right away. I bought my single neck about the same time I got a lap steel. I started learning C6 on the lap steel before I got a hold of a doubleneck pedal, because I knew I wanted to play that. I think it helped, too, to learn the C6 map and some of the little chords. C6 is not like E9—when you play single note solos, you don’t have to use the pedals and you can play a lot of stuff.
M: What were you doing to learn C6?
J: Well, a lot of it was me learning to play by ear and fumbling around trying to learn licks I already knew on guitar like the back of my hand. I wanted to learn some single note, swingy stuff on C6, so I started fooling around with that. I listened to a lot of Jerry Byrd and Jimmy Day. Jerry Byrd, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” that’s a good place to start. That Jimmy Day record, Golden Steel Guitar Hits—I love that record for C6. You can play a lot of that stuff on lap, aside from some of the chord solos. A lot of the single note stuff and melodies are kind of old-fashioned Western Swing.
M: He was really slick. Some of the stuff he pulled out of the air, some of his chordal work—he was really greasy, a really funky cat.
J: I’m glad that record got me, that’s one of my 2 favorite records. It’s just a bible of licks. Steel And Strings(Jimmy Day) is a great record for learning E9 melodies. I’ve kind of mellowed out over the years–I just want to play nice melodies, nice chord stuff, single note stuff here and there–definitely more like Jimmy Day than Buddy Emmons. I’m never going to be a bebopper on the steel, though I love that stuff….
M: I get really inspired listening to Curly Chalker and he how brought the whole piano block chord thing to his steel playing. It just makes me want to hunt all those chords down on the lap steel.
J: The trick with the lap steel is having a good band–you can play 2 and 3 note version of chords, sort of hint at chords. You don’t need to contort yourself to play some gigantic chords.
You can tell that Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day had a background in playing non-pedal Western Swing, Jerry Byrd stuff. I think that directly influenced how they set up the C6 neck.
M: Did you have anyone who introduced you to music like Western Swing in depth?
J: No, not really. I learned a lot of stuff on the Steel Guitar Forum. I kind of take it for granted. I used to go on there a lot and that was a great education, hearing people talk about certain guys and thinking, “Oh, I gotta check that guy out.” I tried to piece together a collection–I mean, I was stuck in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, I still kind of am. It all kept coming back to the same people: Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Day, Lloyd Green, Jerry Byrd.
M: The forum has been pretty invaluable for me. It was the first time I was able to get any kind of information.
What kind of lap steel do you play?
J: The only one I could never bear to sell is a 1936 Gibson EH-150, 7 string. I’ve had a few Fenders but I never could get comfortable with them. I got really attached to the 7 string tuning for C6 and also the wide spacing. I use C6 with a high G (G E C A G E C). I wanted to learn that Jimmy Day record Golden Steel Hits and all those Western Swing melodies–it’s nice to have that high G on there.
What I like about the 7 string tuning is you have the high G and then you have the root on the bottom. It’s a nice symmetrical thing. I could never figure out what to do with C6 on a 6 string….
M: I think at that point is where tunings like C6/A7 come in handy.
J: Is that with an E on top?
M: Yes, and then there’s always just C6….
J: If I had a 6 string with a high G on top, then my 6th string would be a third (E)–it’s nice to have a root on the bottom. I like having 7 strings better than 8. I didn’t feel like I needed that extra string on there.
M: On your Steel Is Real recording there’s a lot of dynamics and a lot of it has to do with your right hand, but you’ve got a really in-your-face sound on the recording. What kind of amp did you use?
J: Well, that was a Twin Reverb on that for that pedal steel and Princeton Reverb for the lap steel. We recorded that record all in the same room together, in a little circle, with tons of bleed. That’s why it sounds like an old recording. I didn’t want to sound like we were in different rooms playing with headphones on. The steel, bass and drums were all recorded live and I went back later and added some guitar to compliment it. We tried to keep the volume down, my amp was 2 1/2, maybe 3 and the bass was played acoustically.
M: Are you particular about speakers?
J: Not really, I just need something that I can lift and won’t blow. My problem for years was trying to find an amp that works for steel and guitar, because sometimes I’m switching back and forth every other song. It’s a good thing to do–it kind of gets you out of your comfort zone so you’ll have to adjust on the fly.
M: Once in a while you get lucky enough and find a magic amp that sounds good at any volume. I had a Twin Reverb like that with JBL K120s.
J: It can be like a wild goose chase.