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)