“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.