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