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 Henry Bogdan, Part 1

Henry Bogdan is one of the few players of the modern era who has embraced the National Tricone resonator as his main instrument. His playing with The Moonlighters was particularly influential (especially to myself) in the resurgence of traditional string bands featuring ukulele and steel guitar, and with the Moonlighters he recorded several CDs. He also performed and recorded with Hazmat Modine, a unique NYC band led by the eclectic and multi-talented Wade Schuman. However, Henry is best known for his career as bassist for the band Helmet, an influential alternative metal band, all through the 1990s. These days, Henry resides in the Portland area, where he has been involved with a band called The Midnight Serenaders, continuing the marriage of his Hawaiian stylings with their Jazz Age swing.

Henry told me that after all these years of playing his Tricone, he was putting it away to pursue his latest passion, the Puerto Rican Tres, which is a stringed instrument with 9 strings in 3 courses. So, if you are in the Portland area, don’t miss the opportunity to see Henry perform with his Tricone while you can.

The Moonlighters – It Isn’t Goodnight Yet

Mike: I’ve noticed the phenomenon of musicians who’d previously played Rock music and Punk gravitating toward Roots music.

Henry: Yeah, it’s really true. I kind of saw it as somewhat of a synchronicity to the end of…for me it was the end of Punk. It was the end of the road. I didn’t see that there was any other direction to go.

M: I figured that people who are playing “cutting edge” stuff already, they’re really at the precipice and you have to wonder “where do you go from there?” It must be exhausting to be at that point and constantly be trying to move forward all the time. At some point, it almost seems inevitable that people are going to begin to look backward….

H: Yeah, to get more substance. It just gets sort of totally diluted and you’re not doing anything if you’re trying to be modern and unique and not sound or play like anyone else before you. I always felt the idea was to be unique and not do anything traditional. For Helmet, it just seemed like it was the end of the road and it was up to the next generation to combine their influences and do something new.

Most of my friends continued on with Rock, but I did know a lot of people who were just putting down their instruments and not playing at all. That’s when I met Bliss (Blood) with the Moonlighters and I knew what I wanted to do was create kind of a traditional Hawaiian-sounding band. I didn’t see myself as a “jazzer” and she was coming from a Rock state of mind and not from going to Jazz school or that sort of thing.

M: So, what was your introduction to Hawaiian music?

H: I would say first off that I’ve always been interested in steel guitar, from my mid-teens hearing it in Rock bands like Neil Young, the Eagles—a lot of stuff like that was popular here in Portland and on the west coast. The first time I got to see one up close was actually when this Gospel/Southern-Rock band played at my high school. There was a guy playing a Sho-Bud and I just totally flipped and I went up and I talked to him for a while after the gig. It just seemed like such a cool instrument—very magical looking.

M: Did he show you how it worked or explain it to you?

H: I can’t remember, but he probably said that there’s pedals and knee levers and all these kinds of gadgets. It was pedal steel that I heard first. Then a few years later I got pretty devoted to Punk and Underground music and I thought steel would be a good instrument to mess around with in that format. So, first I bought a lap steel at a pawn shop—Dickerson, pearloid model that I wish I still had—but I couldn’t get anything out of it because I didn’t know any tunings. It just sounded like Blues guitar kind of stuff.

M: I think we all kind of go through that same experience. You were a bass player at the time?

H: No, I didn’t even touch the bass until a good 10 years later, but I’d always played guitar. From age 10 I took guitar lessons—I took 5 years of Classical guitar lessons all through high school. I pretty much knew I wanted to play music, ideally, in a professional setting.

So, I couldn’t get anything out of my lap steel, and then I bought a single neck pedal steel. Still I didn’t know the tunings—it was probably an E9 guitar. I borrowed a Sneaky Pete Kleinow book from the library here that had some tunings and basic technique, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure it out, but I played it in a band on a couple of songs, just getting sound effects, like picking behind the bar. I wasn’t really interested in any hardcore Country music until a few years later.

Anyway, so I put the pedal steel in storage and moved to New York. Subsequently the steel was stolen. I ended up not doing anything in New York for about 5 years, just trying to break into the Underground scene until I answered an ad in the Village Voice for this band that needed a bass player (Helmet). I happened to have a bass, so I thought, “What the hell? Everyone played guitar—I might as well try to break in as a bassist.” I really enjoyed the bass, certainly in that context.

It was right around the middle of the Helmet career, probably early ‘90s, that I got more interested in traditional Country and Western Swing music. I’ve always had one foot in the Country door, in some sense, but I was getting into more traditional stuff like Buck Owens, George Jones, Ernest Tubb…basically as a diversion to what I was doing in Rock—you know, super-macho, tough guy, tattoos. It was kind of stupid at a certain point and what I liked about Country music was that it wasn’t so concerned with being modern or cutting edge. It just had a certain relaxed soul to it and it was good-natured.

M: Yeah, and it’s also a humble—even if it’s not completely sincere in its humility it still has that humbleness to it.

H: I agree and I certainly appreciated that coming from a super Agro world of Rock which I didn’t always identify with. It was fun playing the music, because it was very physical, kind of like sports.
I saw Junior Brown’s first gig in New York at the Lone Star and he totally blew me away.

M: I think I was at that show, too.

H: It was just phenomenal. He was the first guy I’d ever seen play lap steel and he had “that sound” which turned out to be the 6th chord. So, I pulled the lap steel from under my bed and looked in the Village Voice the next day and found this guy David Hamburger. Have you had any contact with him?

M: No, although I’d certainly heard his name and I had some friends who played in a band with him, but I heard he moved down to Austin.

H: Yeah. I started taking some lessons with him and he set me up with G6 tuning and he was also the one—at the time I was mostly interested in Honky Tonk and Western Swing—but he said, “If you really want to devote yourself to lap steel, you should check out Hawaiian music.” Like most people, I never thought of Hawaiian music at all—I thought it was all just like Don Ho. So, I just bought some CDs and at the time I was buying everything that I could that had any kind of non-pedal steel on it. I called up Scotty’s Music and got Jerry Byrd’s “Steel Guitar Hawaiian Style” and the 2 Sol Hoopii CDs, but it was the Jerry Byrd that was the life-changer for me.

M: I was kind of like you in that I probably bought 30-40 CDs and LPs a month from the age of 18 to 30—that’s all I did, was buy music. It was like I was always searching for something that I knew was out there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I could feel when I was getting closer and closer to it, though. I probably bought most of the same CDs as you—the Sol Hoopii, etc. I had that long before I really got interested in playing.

When I finally got interested in playing, there were almost no resources, except for the occasional book, which didn’t tell the whole story. I can tell you one thing, though—I knew right away that it was some serious shit! It became apparent in the beginning that it was serious and I don’t think I had what it took at the time to devote myself to it.

H: I would agree that it is some serious shit! For me, it was like when I first was discovering Punk and Underground: there was this whole world of great players and great tunes and great singers and it was deep. It had a lot of substance. I would also have to point out that it had a lot more steel guitar than the Country stuff. Even still to this day I want to hear Joaquin Murphey playing through the entire song—I don’t want to hear just one little break. You know, that’s what kind of the drag of that music and what’s so great about the Hawaiian music. It’s there behind the vocals, there during the solo, intros and outros.

M: There is a real art to the backing in Hawaiian music and also they’re playing in a smaller group.

H: Yeah, I would love to hear Joaquin in a smaller band. I would say that from the beginning it was the electric steel, Jerry Byrd in particular, and a year later I got more interested in the acoustic stuff. I listened to that Jerry Byrd CD over and over when I was still in Helmet, and I would take my lap steel on tour and just mess with it on the bus. I got Jerry’s book (Instruction Course For Steel Guitar) and was messing with tunings just trying to play something that sounded like music.

M: Did you get through the whole book?

H: Oh my God, no. I would say I didn’t even scratch the surface. I bought all the books that there were, but I’m not a book guy. I totally just play by ear. I don’t even know what chord I’m on or necessarily what key I’m in unless it’s written next to the song title on the set list. [laughs] I’ve always thought of it as, “Where’s my I? I is on the 3rd fret, there’s my IV and V” and I have my little boxes—my riff boxes—and I have my little gimmicks, my octaves and playing thirds and whatnot. I totally play by ear and at this point it’s a huge drawback. I wish I could go back and start over from scratch by learning scales and sharps and flats….

M: Do you know any of this with regards to the guitar?

H: No, I don’t at all. I mean I had theory back in high school when I was studying Classical guitar but Classical guitar is very impractical to playing Pop music. You don’t learn how to read chord charts—it was kind of a mistake. I wish I was more interested in Jazz at the time—it would have been much more practical, even in the Rock world.

M: I have to say, I’ve enjoyed your playing on the Moonlighters recordings and I would say they inspired me. When I bought my Tricone, I said to my wife, “OK, honey, I promise I’m going to go out and find a gig” and it just so happens that I found the only gig in existence. So I want to thank you for that. [laughs]

H: No problem and thanks for saying that. It was a lot of fun working on that stuff. Bliss turned me on to more of the Jazz side of things and I was probably the Hawaiian side of things.

M: Let’s face it, how many other bands were out there playing that kind of music?

H: Well, there a band called the Do Hos…they kind of disappeared. But, yeah, there really weren’t any people doing that and that was kind of fortunate for us–certainly fortunate for me. [laughs]

M: A good thing about the band was that there was original music. I’ve always felt that Bliss is an excellent lyricist.

H: Oh, yeah, she’s a great lyric writer.

M: I always thought the band had a solid foundation in the traditional sounds and, yet, it was always reaching forward….

H: Maybe some of our other influences sometimes can’t help but come out. Bliss really was the one into doing original music and it was a good thing for the band and probably opened some doors that we probably wouldn’t have had if we were just aping the old shit, which I probably would have been fine with also.

M: You were involved with some other projects while you were in New York, too….

H: Oh yeah, when the Moonlighters started I was also playing with Howard Fishman. We started playing in the subways in Brooklyn. And I was playing weekly with Greg Garing and his Alphabet City Opry. That was actually the first situation where I was playing steel guitar—slightly pre-Moonlighters. That was a weekly gig for about a year. I quit to rehearse and work on tunes, instead of just playing tunes that I’d never heard before. It was fun playing with Greg, but he would just say, “This is in C, follow me.”

M: I have to admit, that’s what I live for. You did some stuff with Wade Schuman and Hazmat Modine, too….

H: I did some gigs with them and recorded some songs on their first CD.

Who Walks In When I Walk Out – Hazmat Modine

At this time I was planning on moving to Hawaii…I was hoping to get some lessons with Jerry Byrd. That was sort of my dream at the time but once I got to Portland I had read that Jerry was sick and had stopped playing and I ended up getting some gigs with The Yes Yes Boys in Seattle and I would take the train up to Seattle a few times a month for about 3 or 4 months. Del Rey is truly amazing–a great player. I think a few months later Jerry died. He was most of the reason I was headed to Hawaii—even though I probably wouldn’t have hooked with him, I could have taken some lessons with Alan Akaka or John Ely. I didn’t really have any work skills once I left New York and the thought of working at Hertz Rental Car for minimum wage, trying to afford a studio apartment in Honolulu….

Go to Part 2

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