Conversation with Frankie Kay: Kansas City Steel Man

Frankie head shot

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!”

Jimmy Keith, front row, 1st on left

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….

MN: Sure….

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.

Frankie Kay playing Blue Monk [For a related article, click here]

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.

From l to r: A friend, Frankie, Russ Wever, Bill Dye (standing), Lee Jeffriess

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.

Curly Chalker, left, on bass, Frankie, center on non-pedal steel, Phil Spurbeck, right, pedal steel.

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.

Talking Steel Guitar with Joel Paterson, Part 1

Joel Paterson and his Emmons

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.

Listen: Walkin’ Ten Strings – Joel Paterson

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.

Joel Paterson and friends

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.

Go to Part 2

Conversation with Lee Jeffriess, Part 2

M: Do you think you picked up a good sound approach from the beginning or did you have to go back and correct a lot of bad habits?

L: I’m sure I’ve got a ton of bad habits and stuff. The only thing I would say is, I think the key is you’ve got to get the information but you can’t let it take you over. Do you know what I mean? It’s like you’ve got to take it in, try and understand it and then forget it and make your own language from it or something. I wish that I’d been more studious, to be honest, but the other side of the coin is you throw yourself in there and you make it happen—you pull it out of the air. You don’t sit down and transcribe and study, you just keep playing and get all over the guitar and play it and listen to a lot of people. I remember when I sat down to listen to Speedy and Jimmy, I really wasn’t interested in what notes Speedy was playing—I was trying to suck up the energy of it.

M: That’s the one thing I get when I listen to you—I hear that energy and I hear the overall sound. It’s like you’re a conduit of that kind of energy.

L: Well, I appreciate that! I think it’s his mantra of just dig yourself in a hole and then dig yourself out, just throw yourself out there. I think that’s where the energy comes from, just this crazy nervous stuff that he manifests, and Vance had it, too. That’s the danger, man. Speedy had this one path, like a Shaolin monk, his thing was just throw it out there. And it makes for exciting guitar playing. I mean, you are going to fall on your ass, too, you know? That’s the other side of it. I mean, I might have these skeletal themes but in a live setting I just try to play it completely off the top of my head as much as I can. And sometimes there isn’t anything in my head, and other times, bingo! Everything you try comes off….

M: I don’t think I could play music unless I played it like that.

L: It ain’t there all the time, sometimes your receiver’s not tuned in, is it?

M: No, but I’ve learned how to live with denial, like that never happened! Once those notes are gone, they’re real gone.

L: There’s nothing like a night when you’re on and the band’s cooking and there’s feedback from the audience. That excitement’s contagious, people are dancing…I’m really adamant about if I’m going to go out and play music with people, there’s got to be people dancing. I’m not interested…you know, we’ll do stuff that’s introspective like On The Alamo or something like that which is nice and breaks up the pace, but most of the time I want people to dance.

M: And yet, you write such pretty, introspective songs…

L: [laughs] Well, I’ve been constantly rewriting Moonlight Serenade. [laughs] I’ll tell you what—it’s a piece of music I’ve been obsessed with since I’ve been about 8 or 9 years old. I think it’s my earliest recollection of hearing music, there’s something about it. It’s haunted me all of my life.

You know, I wish that more people were in tune with just flat out beautiful, pretty music. I look around and see these people and all they listen to is this bizarre negative, atonal crap. I’m sorry, that’s what it is to my ears. Or you know, borderline satanic rock music and it’s just like heartbreaking. They can’t sit down and appreciate something like Claire de Lune or Parker With Strings—some of the most beautiful music ever made. I feel sorry for them that they don’t have that in their lives.

M: That’s why when someone does come along and shows an interest in music we’re so quick to want to help them out and bring them along, because it’s rare. It’s rare when someone is that hungry for it and if you can bring beauty to them, that’s doing a good thing.

L: Yea, people have done it for me—I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of cool people and they’ve helped me along the way. I’ve asked a lot of questions—I’ve talked to a lot of old-timers and I picked their brains and some of them probably thought I was a pain in the ass, but I just had a thirst to know.

M: Well, I’m so glad you did, because you got a lot stuff from them that would be gone now.

L: I’ve got to mention this guy because barely anyone knows who this guy is. I’ve sat down with Joaquin Murphey and watched him play, right, and seriously that’s a pretty major thing to have happened in my life. I met Speedy and Bobby Koeffer and Herb Remington and Billy Tonneson, you know, I feel blessed. But there’s one guy I met and I’ve seen him play a couple of times and just will never get the recognition those guys had and he was just as much monster. He had a completely unique style—the closest thing you could think of would be Koeffer, but with way more dissonance and altered harmony. His name is Frank Kay and he’s still alive and he lives in Kansas City. Frank led a really big Western Swing band in KC right through the ’50s—in the early ’50s he toured with Cowboy Copas. He was good friends with Koeffer, Hank Garland, anyone who came from Kansas City knew Frank Kay and/or played with him. At one time he played twin steels with Curly Chalker and Thumbs Carlyle was the guitar player, he really did play with some heavyweight guys and he had all their respect as well, he was of their caliber, too.

I was introduced to Frank about 12-15 years ago and I went to his home several times and watched him play and he primarily played McAuliffe E13 and he sounded like a jazz pianist. He was that sophisticated. He played stuff that I have no idea how the hell he got to it. I’d stop him and say “what were you doing?” and he’d play me the chord back and I’d ask “that was the chord you just did?” and he’d say “yeah, but you know it’s the chord that came before and the chord that came after it, your mind fills in the blanks.”

I was really interested in how he got to that point and he said “Look, in the mid 50s there were guys that came from Herman’s band and some that played with Basie and I could hire them. They’d put on a western shirt and come play with me. At one point I had this kid–I called him a kid but he was only 2 years younger than me—and he studied with Dodo Marmarosa.” And he goes “I had a helluva time trying to find these guitar players that play that really good comp, those Eldon Shamblin type passing chords. I sat down with that piano player and I said there’s got to be a way I can fake this on the steel, can you help me figure it out? And the piano player said, “Sure, write out how that thing’s tuned” and the guy studied on it and they got together and he said “Here you go Frank, I’ve kind of laid out some substitutions you can play” and I just wrote it out in tab….” I’m probably not telling this in the most accurate way, but basically that was the premise. And Frank just ran with the ball. It was like the beginning of his rebirth of his style. Even Chalker recognized it, too. I know someone else who independently met Chalker and said, “hey, do you know Frank Kay?” and Chalker just turned around and said, “Frank Kay’s probably one of the best steel players I’ve ever seen!” And you know you never heard Chalker compliment anyone. [laughs] That was pretty enlightening. I remember walking away from the first time I’d seen him play going, “Man, you really don’t need a pedal steel when you can do what he can do.”

M: He got the information from the best possible source, you know piano players.

L: Interesting, I think some of the hipper steel players were hip to piano, like Joaquin was hardcore into Shearing and Peterson.

M: I think it’s right around the time of Spade Cooley’s Dance-O-Rama record that I really noticed the extended harmonies in Joaquin’s playing.

L: Absolutely, He’s thinking more chordally at that point isn’t he?

Hawaii hana Hou – Joaquin Murphey

M: And that Hawaii Forever tape might be some of my favorite of all his playing—that’s a side of his playing that I really love.

L: It’s beautiful, man. There’s some really beautiful outros things on there that are very Shearing-like the way he starts stacking chords up. Back to Debussy, I guess—there’s a lot of Debussy in Shearing.

There’s a few people that didn’t get it—it was too understated for them. I was like, “You kind of got to give it a chance.” It’s very mellow and they couldn’t understand this other facet of his playing, they were so used to Joaquin’s crazy flights; that’s there in there, too, I mean he plays some beautiful single note things in there, but by this point he really knows what he’s doing with that tuning and he’s added pedals to it and he’s getting some beautiful chords.

Go to Part 3