Over the period of about a week in 2019, I started arranging Bix’s iconic composition ’In A Mist’ for steel guitar duet. I had purchased the sheet music about 15 years prior with the hopes of one day getting to it on guitar but was always so daunting. I first heard the piece on Ry Cooder’s Jazz Lp, which coincidentally also introduced me to another of my favorite pieces and artists, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘The Pearls’. I just decided to roll up my sleeves on In A Mist and see if I could turn it into a reasonable duet arrangement for steel guitar. I think I succeeded, although I never quite finished the arrangement. I’m hoping to get inspired again to continue to arrange and then record an acceptable version.
This is one of the most ambitious undertakings I’ve ever been involved in. To say it is difficult is an understatement, but somehow it works. The combination of the slightly differently tuned steels really work hand in hand, and where one tuning is not quite capable of making a part happen, the other seems to pick up the slack. Sometimes the two guitars switch parts in the most unusual places, seamlessly completing the puzzle.
I’m offering up for study the first 80 measures of what I have completed. I think that much of what is on these pages is a pretty food reflection of how I see the steel guitar, in particular the C6 tuning. There is a good deal of problem solving involved in trying to make difficult passages sound easier than they are. If I have a little time, I will try to describe some of the thinking that went into certain parts. Maybe after I have finished the entire score.
If you have an interest in playing jazzy lines in almost any context, then it is important to realize that there is going to be a lot of bar movement and the need for coordination with the picking hand. Many of the lines that you hear in jazz utilize chromatic notes and scales such as the melodic minor, harmonic minor, augmented and diminished (octatonic) scales. Approaching these types of lines and scales on a lap steel is extremely challenging. I have written two books which were meant as guides to opening up new approaches to playing these types of scales and lines, Bebop Lap Steel Guitar, which uses bebop heads to introduce new strategies for approaching these lines in C6 tuning as well as some simple but informative scale patterns, and Steelin’ Scales and Modes, which introduces a simple system of looking at scales in four note groups called tetrachords. Both books were written from my perspective and are largely the way I look at playing steel guitar in this context. I believe these books to be worthy of your attention.
There are definitely a lot of players who have no interest in this sort of thing and don’t believe the instrument was made to be played this way. To them I say, do your thing, man, I’ll do mine. Or maybe there are naysayers who have attempted to play jazz on lap steel but find that the music suffers from the challenge of playing fast lines. This is somewhat true–it is extremely challenging to do and there is a steep learning curve. While the lap steel may seem novel in a setting with jazz musicians, you are still expected to be able to hang on some level, and that means having your chops and your ideas together. Nothing is going to make that happen except for some serious, dedicated practice. I spend a lot of time these days simply playing heads and lines along with a metronome. I start off slowly, trying to look at little blocks of the line and figuring out the most sensible place to play each part of the line. I may change the way a play a little four or five note sequence several times before I arrive at the most efficient and effective way to play it. A lot of it has to do with what follows or comes before–the whole line has to be able to flow together, and the fingers and bar need to find their positions smoothly. Any inability to do that smoothly results in either dodgy pitch, fumbling fingers, and a loss of rhythmic continuity.
I have recently been undertaking some of the most challenging music I’ve ever played, and that is the music of Lennie Tristano and the musicians who are strongly associated with him (Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, Sal Mosca, Jimmy Halperin, Connie Crothers, Ted Brown). The music is not really new for me, but actually delving into playing this challenging music on lap steel is. Lennie and company often wrote new melodies or lines over the chord changes and forms of standards. This was something Lennie did with his students and some of those tunes have become very popular among musicians. Perhaps the most challenging piece I’ve arranged for steel guitar as of this time is the tune “Wow” written by Lennie over his reharmonized changes for the tune You Can Depend On Me. The melody is progressive, not quite bebop, but not exactly not bop, and the lines are long. However, the bridge is where the title Wow came from. It is all doubled up into sixteenth notes and in harmony among the tenor and alto, and the line flows effortlessly over the bar line. My first reaction about playing this tune was that it was impossible, but I wanted to give it a crack anyway. I worked hard at getting through the A and B section of the tunes, and could just about play them in tempo with the recording, which I think is somewhere around 160-170 bpm. Then came the bridge–wow, indeed. I struggle to play the bridge beyond 100-110 bpm, though the first few bars of it come a little easier for me.
I’d like to share with you my tab for the tune Wow and if you are so inclined, you might be able to see how I approach playing some of this tricky stuff. The one goal is to always make it sound good, and not to sound like I am struggling to play it. That may come in time, or maybe not. But I do believe that with the tab you see here, I have put forth my best possible effort to make it playable and I will continue to practice it daily with a metronome until I am comfortable enough to play the arrangement of it that I hear in my head.
Have a look. I’ve excluded the chord changes on the chart and I am have only included the upper harmony part on the bridge. Also, I did not include any right hand picking designations, as this is something I am still working on, and well, you should figure it out for yourself. There are also a number of slides that I intentionally left out of the tab, but I use a fair share of them.
It has been quite some time since I’ve posted any new ideas or content on this blog. I have been meaning to do more, but music has been the sole outlet of my creativity and spare time in the last year or more, which is a good thing! But I’ve got so many things on my mind I want to write about. First of all, thank you for making Steelonious such a success! If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. The CD has been so well received and there is a lot of steel guitar on it.
With this posting, I wanted to share a little something from Steelonious, which I released in 2016. In case you’re not familiar with it, it was a program of Thelonious Monk melodies arranged as Instrumental/Pop/Jazz tunes in varying contexts, all reflecting the steel guitar–its history and its possibilities. Basically, I connected the dots of things I love. In this particular arrangement, I used techniques I learned from studying the playing of Sol Hoopii and also a lot of 60s pedal steel guitar. The choice of groove reflects my passion for New Orleans music, and I borrowed some chord changes from a Bruce Hornsby/Christian McBride/Jack DeJohnette version of this tune that kills me. The original song form is a 12 Bar Blues, which on occasion is how we perform it. But what I really wanted was to get some of that funky country type picking in this tune, especially the solo. I’ve always been a fan of the music of Little Feat and maybe that is reflected here.
One of the things I discovered about Sol Hoopii’s playing years ago was his use of open strings as passing tones. Sometimes they are chromatic, sometimes just scale tones, but they lend a rhythmic articulation in times when the line really begs for it. Dobro players are no doubt aware of this technique. But I’ve found that one the most difficult aspects of playing steel guitar is to play chromatic lines that are more than just two or three notes–the articulation really tends to be a crap shoot and sometimes you need it to be clean and popping. So, I’ve adapted this technique into my playing and this arrangement of Straight, No Chaser is one of my most successful uses of it.
I changed the key of the tune from Bb to A to accommodate the idea, then I just worked on it and worked on it until it developed into something cohesive and right. It is really not difficult to play, but takes a lot of practice to play it consistently. There is a lot of pick blocking going on, which I just tend to do unconsciously now. The tuning here is C6 and 6 string C6 will work just fine, as you really only use strings 2 through 5 (C-E).
If you haven’t heard my version from Steelonious, it is available for purchase here at Bandcamp as a single track: Bandcamp
The track is also available at Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby. CD Baby
Today, I watched a documentary on Barroness Pannonica Rothschild and I remembered that I had once worked out an arrangement for the brilliant tune Monk wrote in her honor, simply entitled “Pannonica”. I had not played it since and I had to sit down and transcribe it again. So, here I present to you in tab and notation form my arrangement of Pannonica.
It is a difficult arrangement to play and requires a lot of palm blocking, as you will no doubt find out. You will also notice that there is a behind the bar string pull in which the note is pulled up 1/2 step and held, then released when changing bar position. It is very easy with some practice and a tough ring finger.
This is what it sounds like. You may note there is a discrepancy between what is written and what I played in the 32nd bar. What is written is correct with regard to Monk’s melody. I’m not sure what I was thinking when I made the slight change (basically a half step difference), but nonetheless, I have corrected it.