Conversation with Jeremy Wakefield

“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.

Stay Out Late – The Lucky Stars

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.

On Improvising

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.

Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys – San Antonio Rose

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.

Mudslide clip (head only)

Conversation with Lee Jeffriess, Part 4

M: I had once heard a story about how your Bigsby was stolen. Can you tell me about it?

L: What happened was we went to a Western Swing meeting up in Sacramento at the Sky Lanes, which was a bowling alley. We saw a great show and our gear got ripped off that afternoon in the van out in the parking lot, broad daylight—it was a funky neighborhood, a lot of tweakers and crazy people hanging out. We went and literally bought instruments in San Francisco because we were playing a big show the next night and I got a Gibson Consolette D-8, you know the korina wood one, actually a nice guitar. By the time we got back everyone knew that we had our stuff ripped off and this was before the internet and I was good friends with Roseanne Lindley, Dave’s daughter, but I didn’t know who Dave Lindley was and she didn’t really make a big deal about her dad. So, she came to a show at the Doll Hut in Anaheim and she was like, “Hey, my dad heard about you getting your guitar ripped off—he wants to give you a guitar.” I said, “Really, what does he want to give me?” and she said he had this Rickenbacher triple neck he wanted to give me. She said, “I don’t think he should give it to you, though, I think you should pay for it.” I said, “Well, yeah, of course I’ll pay for it.” So we get over there—Big Sandy drove me over and he said “You know her dad’s Dave Lindley?” I’m like, “No.” “You never heard of Dave Lindley? He’s a famous guy, man, plays weird slide guitar, stuff like that.”

So, we go over there and there’s Dave Lindley and he goes, “Hey, sorry to hear about your guitar. That sucks. You lost a Bigsby, that’s horrible!” He was genuinely bummed out. He was a really cool dude. we hung out over there and he pulled out all these crazy instruments, there was just amps and junk everywhere—it was like a pawn shop/music store/house—he said, “This is nothing, I’ve got a 3 car garage full of crap.” And he said, “I bought this guitar at a church in San Bernadino in 1971 and they had their own recording studio and were fully equipped with Rickenbacker equipment. Basses, guitars, steels, amps—everything.” He said, “I paid $100 for this guitar in 1971 and to be honest with you I wanted to give this to you, but Roseanne seems to think you have to pay for it.” “OK, I’m willing to pay for it.” “I’ll tell you what—I want $100 for it—I want my $100 back.”

M: Was it one of those big old wooden rectangular jobs? I had one of those, too….

L: Yep, the “trailer park model”–the 507. It sure sounded good. He actually gave me a good tip and told me to take the bottom off and fill it with foam. He said, “Back in the day, they didn’t get that loud, and it wasn’t an issue, but if you’re playing louder than they played in the ’50s take the bottom off and fill it with foam and that’ll cancel any of that feedback stuff—you’ll be able to play as loud as you want.” He was right.

He was like, “When I was 12 years old we’d sneak into KXLA and we’d look into the studio and watch Speedy and Jimmy playing radio shows.” And he was totally hip to Murphey and all that stuff, too. He was like, “Oh, man, Joaquin–me and Freddie Roulette used to sit around and listen to that stuff.” Freddie loved Joaquin.

M: And it was happening right in his backyard….

L: Yeah, he was just into music, way more open than I’d ever be. He was just super open and just a generally nice person with a good karma about him.

It was funny about 2 or 3 years later, my wife woke me up and I had a had a raging hangover, and she said, “Just get the phone, I’m sick of this guy calling.” So, I answer the phone like “Yeah?” And he goes “This is Ry Cooder, I want to ask you a few questions.” I was like, this is Alan getting back with a crank call, he’s got someone from Rhino to crank call me. “Did Alan put you up to this?” He said, “No, this is Ry Cooder, I got your number from Roseanne Lindley.” He wanted to just ask me about Bigsby steels, he was thinking of buying one from Paul Warnik, a PA reissue—he said, “I can’t stop listening to Vance Terry, I want to do that.” [laughs]

M: What kind of rig are you using these days?

L: My latest steel guitar rig that I’ve been using for almost a year now is an amp that was built by a guy named Skip Simmons. Skip lives out in Dixon, CA, south of Sacramento, and Skip is a guy who takes old 40s and 50s tube PA heads and converts them into really nice sounding guitar or harp amplifiers. I asked him if he ever made anything for steel guitar, because I knew he had this clout with a lot of the Blues community: Rick Holmstrom, Little Charlie, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson—pretty heavy hitters in that scene. But he was a steel guitar nut, which was cool—he was into Bob Dunn, Leon McAuliffe and early electric players. And I was saying, “Can you build a steel guitar amp? I want it to sound like this, this and this.” And he made me an amp and it was pretty good. It didn’t have the headroom I needed. I said, “I’ve only got this one sound, Skip, I need more variety than this. I like what it does in the top end but I want the bass to be louder and snappier. I want this to sound like a 25L15 and whatever Boggs was using. When I crash the bar, I want it to snap, like on an old Noel Boggs record.”

So, we went back and forth and eventually he built me something. We dialed it in! And he started making other stuff and he said, “Try this for me” and I’d try stuff out, road test it. I’d start giving him more and more steel music to listen to and I sort of gave him more and more information so he could listen to what I was asking, and he got it. And now Skip is making a damn good steel amp—basically taking a 50 year old PA head that’s built like a Sherman tank, with even more iron on it, which equates more headroom, fatter bass—just better, more musical. These things are like overbuilt and are of no use to anyone because no one is going to use them as a PA, but what they do make is damn good 25 or 8 watt or whatever wattage you want guitar or steel amp. This amp is gonna last longer than you—totally indestructible and really sweet.

I think there’s a ton of guys playing Hawaiian or Western Swing that would love to have one of his amps. If they owned one, they’d go, “Oh, shit, there it is!”—Fender and Gibson sounds. Skip basically will put you an amp together for $600.

M: What are you using for a speaker?

L: I use a 12 inch Altec, a 417-C. I would use a 418-B but I’m trying to downsize. My guitar is like a Rolls Royce. [laughs] I swear to God, the 418-B is probably the best steel guitar speaker ever made and the 417 is right behind it.

M: Tell me about this record with John Munnerlyn….

John Munnerlyn & Lee Jeffriess: Guitars in Perspective


L: It really wasn’t my project—he was just like, “come play on my tunes and could you write a couple of things?” I was kind of busy touring with Big Sandy, but I came up with “Blues For Earl.” And there were a few others. I wanted to come up with something in that Joaquin tuning. I never got too deep into that tuning, but I should try it again now because I think I’ve got better ears.

The funny about it is, it was done in 2 pieces the second recorded sessions was a different rhythm section and we went in the studio and played him the original stuff and said, “We want this to sound as if it was all done at once” and that was hard to do, with different guys as well. When all is said and done, people like the record. I think John did a really good job and wrote some really nice tunes.

The West Coast Ramblers – Rosetta

M: The West Coast Ramblers—did you put this project together?

L: Yeah, more or less—the project was started by a guitar player called Nick Rossi, a great Hammond B-3 player and he plays Jazz guitar, has a really cool ’50s Jazz trio that plays kind of Sal Salvador, Chuck Wayne, NY stuff. And he went to the singer and said, “Let’s get Lee to play steel and put a Western Swing band together” and as soon as we put it together, he said, “I can’t do it, I’ve got too many irons in the fire.” So we found the present guitar player…he came over and blew our minds.

M: Are you thinking about doing any recordings?

L: Yes. Very soon—we’re actually working on something right now. We’re putting out a 45.

M: I’m sure I can speak for everyone when I say I’m looking forward to hearing it.

L: I’ll tell you what: there’s a lot of hope—there’s some young guys out there in their mid to late 20s. One guy that comes to mind is a steel player in San Francisco, he’s been playing probably 3 or 4 years. His name is Mikiya Matsuda. He’s coming on really strong and playing cool stuff, listening to all the same guys we like and he’s talking to me about music. He’s into Bach, and odd experimental Jazz, and stuff like that and he got into the steel through Hawaiian music and being in Hawaii and hanging out with these Hawaiians. They actually turned him on to Western Swing guys—Bobby Ingano said, “I like Noel Boggs and Joaquin, you should listen to those guys.” [laughs]

M: Lee, I just want to thank you again for all the stuff you’ve done for me, Lee, and I consider you a real friend.

L: Well, you’re welcome.

Lee Jeffriess Selected Discography – Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Jumping From 6 To 6 (1994, HighTone Records); Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Swingin’ West (1995, HighTone records); Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Feelin’ Kinda Lucky (1997, HighTone records); Big Sandy Presents The Fly-Rite Boys (1998, HighTone Records); Big Sandy & his Fly-Rite Boys – Night Tide (2000, HighTone Records); John Munnerlyn & Lee Jeffriess – Guitars In Perspective (2009)

Conversation with Lee Jeffriess, Part 3

M: How did you end up in California?

L: I went to Austin to play a gig and we do a show with Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys and I’d already met him in the UK and I did tell him I played steel (I totally lied through my teeth), and they were like, “Come on, come back to LA with us, join the band.” I just jumped ship. I’d just bought the Bigsby steel, literally the day before I stopped off in Houston. It belonged to a guy called Dusty Stewart, who had played with Hank Thompson. They saw the Bigsby and were like, “You bought that? You’ve got to come back with us.” They didn’t know if I could play or not—everyone was just young and enthusiastic. They probably thought, “He’ll get it together” and that’s when the pressure came on, when I went into overdrive. I remember Palomino Club and places like that doing these big shows and I was pretty green.

M: California is where a lot of the history of the instrument was and you must’ve been like a kid….

L: I was obsessed with it. Let’s say you were into musicals and you’re a young actor or dancer—where you gonna go? You’re gonna go straight to New York or the West End of London and live your dream. Well, I went to my West End [laughs].

By this point I wasn’t just into to Western Swing; I was into Bop, good R&B—it was all in LA. LA was the ultimate melting pot. You’d have guys like Stuff Smith playing a bar gig in El Monte and playing with Speedy and Jimmy, and then you’d have Jimmy going to Central Ave. to play with the black guys, and it reflects in his playing—it was just hipper.

M: Were you ever interested in learning to play Bop?

L: No, because I was just so narrow-minded about the steel—Speedy, Joaquin, Noel Boggs, Vance Terry, early Chalker. Even though I was open to listening to a lot of stuff, when it came down to actually physically playing I was narrowed down to LA, 1947 to ’53—that’s what I wanted to play like.

M: Speedy and Capitol Records was right in that timeframe….

L: Absolutely, Speedy was right at the core of it for me. He really was the guy that made me go, “I want to buy a steel guitar and learn.” I remember I was at Ashley’s (Kingman) place in Southampton one night and we’d stay up ‘til 6 in the morning listening to music, and he said “I’ve got to turn you onto this, there’s some mad steel and guitar playing” and he showed me the jacket and it was “Two Guitars Country Style”. He put it on and it just ripped my brain out! Still to this day, it excites me just as much as it did then. Jimmy excited me just as much as Speedy—Speedy for his energy, Jimmy for hip.

M: Speedy’s playing, man, still is the highest standard for me. Speedy couldn’t do what some of the other players could do, and he couldn’t keep up with Jimmy on his level, but he had the energy….

L: He wasn’t with Jimmy harmonically—Jimmy’s ears were way bigger—but Speedy just came up with this stuff that’s exciting, like a shot of B12. I had heard him before—someone had played me a version of Frankie Laine “Ace In the Hole” and it sounds like a whirlwind blowing up a canyon. I like the fact that he’s breaking rules, he and Jimmy.

M: You can hear the influence that Speedy had on other players, like when I heard Vance playing Skiddle-dee-Boo….

L: You know, Mike, I don’t want to contradict you, but I remember thinking the same thing—Vance was always a very classy, civil, polite guy. Even in the end he had a diplomatic air about him. He basically…I don’t think he dug Speedy [laughs]. He didn’t want to say bad things, but you tell could tell it wasn’t there for him. I don’t think he took him that seriously. I think they both had a similar excitement in their playing, but I don’t think it had come from Speedy. Vance had it, too, you know.

Vance had a way of starting up solos that’s pretty damn exciting, and he has cool pauses that set up tension like Speedy, too. He just goes harmonically somewhere else with it, his harmony’s hipper. But I’ll tell you what–a big guy for him was Boggs. He wasn’t even that enthusiastic about Joaquin, to be honest, and I asked him numerous times. I’d say, “What about those Plainsmen things?” and he’d say, “Joaquin was really good wasn’t he?” It always came back to Boggs. It was like, “Noel’s chords, man, the drive….” That was it for him.

Comments from Lee: Here is the Billy Jack Wills band moonlighting with Paul Westmoreland, Tiny is playing twin fiddles with Cotton and I believe Rusty Draper is playing take off guitar, Vance is on fire on this one some of his best non pedal playing.

M: It’s funny, because when I think about it, if it wasn’t for the internet, I’m not sure that I’d even be playing the steel today. I mean I’ve owned a lap steel longer than I’ve owned a computer, but I know that I would have never learned how to play, because I was so isolated from it.

L: Yeah, it put you in touch with like-minded guys across the United States—‘cause we’re all isolated, there wasn’t that much around for me. I couldn’t go see anyone else doing what I wanted to do initially. I mean, there were some nice guys, great pedal steel players out in Los Angeles and they were nice people and good at what they did, but they weren’t doing what I was doing, so I really couldn’t glean that much from them. They were good musicians and I could glean that much from them, but it wasn’t until JW (Jeremy Wakefield) came along, and he’d been playing way under the radar, then all of a sudden there was another guy in town playing the same stuff as me and that was good.

M: Were you really interested in gear at that time?

L: I’m like a poor…a gear head…but with no money. I’d hustle a cool amp together and make it happen and then I’d trade it on for something else. I’ve never really had a collection of stuff—I’ve always had a nice guitar to play and a nice amp to use. I’ve tried a lot of different things and a lot of different brands. Probably the one I’ve got now is the one I’ve been most happiest with….

M: That’s the Sierra?

L: Yeah, it’s an early Sierra, a ’64 Sierra Wright Custom.

M: It sounds beautiful.

L: It sounds very similar to the Bigsby I owned. It’s 24 ½ scale. They are Chuck Wright pickups but what I did was scrounge some Bigsby magnets from Todd Clinesmith and I upped the inductance of the pickups quite a bit. It went from sounding good to really good—smoother, more extended bass. It was more noticeable in the bass.

M: Chuck’s pickups had a really unique sound…

L: A lot of them have this really scooped out, really unique sound—you hear it on “Crazy Arms” with Jimmy Day playing that Quad. It’s that sound. I like it, but I don’t like it—it’s not for me. I like hearing Jimmy Day with it, but I wanted to get away from that. My guitar had a little of that going on, but not as much as Day’s. The magnet thing seemed to cure that. There were 2 types of pickups he made: the blade one and the pole piece one and mine is a blade which, for all intents and purposes, is identical to a Bigsby. I just put a Bigsby magnet in mine and it made the guitar more “hi-fi” and also more microphonic. When I hit pedals and stuff I can hear it. To me, it’s like riding an old 1949 Harley.

M: I really think that adds a lot to the sound. With most of the good recordings I hear, like yours and JW’s, you can hear all the dynamics coming from the amp….

L: Yeah, definitely. They’re more honest sounding guitars, I think, and they’re just so beautiful looking…a Bigsby, or a really nice Rickenbacher console, or an early Wright Custom….beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But back to Maurice Anderson, who said there’s something about when you sit down behind a pretty guitar that’s pleasing to your eye—you will play better. I sit down at my guitar and I think, “God, you’re pretty!” And I made the cabinet, so maybe it’s sort of like I’ve got a little bit of extra pride in it

Originally when I got the guitar it was made of…the top platforms were made of mahogany and the back aprons were made of plywood and everything was skinned in a cherry formica veneer. I think he was the first guy to make formica guitars. It didn’t sound bad, but I had all this wood lying around because for a long time I’d been a French polisher—I repaired antique furniture. So, I said, ‘you know what, I’m gonna take this apart and rebuild it.” I had fiddle back cherry and western quilted maple and I just used the original body parts as a pattern and remade it and finished it. I put it all back together with the original mechanism and everything. I did that because I wanted the guitar to look like a ‘50s one, beautiful maple and all.

M: How many pedals do you have on the guitar?

L: Well, the guitar originally had 9 pedals with no knee levers and I use 6–2 of the pedals work on both necks and there’s 4 pedal changes on the front neck.

M: Do you use an E13 copedent?

L: I use F13, Boggs’ tuning and I just have the split pedal change like Vance did on the Bob Wills and Billy Jack stuff and the front neck is probably considered just standard C6 changes, but it’s in Bb6. But I do have the option…the pedals that operate the back neck also come to the front neck and they lower the high 3rd and the high root ½ tone, so when I go to the IV chord, I can fake Bud Isaacs’ changes there. That lowers the 3rd to the 2nd and the root down to the maj7. It’s backwards—a lot of guys did that in the ‘50s—they got these E9 things in 6th tunings. I first picked up on it on Brisbane Bop. I remember telling a couple of old-timers about it and they were like, “Oh yeah, everyone was doing that.” [laughs]

M: I’ll admit, I’ve always had trouble digesting that stuff…I try to envision but it doesn’t make all that much sense to me.

L: Well, I don’t really have a comprehensive understanding of it, either—I try and approach it from the old way of just looking at those things as “chord changers”….

M: That’s what I’m hearing when I listen to you, I don’t hear a lot of pedal action, but every once in a while there’s this chord….

L: Right, I really believe it’s still primarily non-pedal playing, but there are these chord changers.

M: Right—I hear a lot of bar movement as opposed to staying in position….

L: Well, I’m just trying to find those notes [laughs]. I honestly really believe that the most interesting pedal steel players—guys like Chalker and Vance—they were damn good non-pedal players first. I think it makes you understand the tuning better and makes you more of an individual.

Go to Part 4