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Steelgrimage

One Man's Quest for Steel Guitarvana

13. Lucky For Some

I love almost all music. If you look hard enough you can usually find something redeeming about pretty much any song or tune, classical or pop, whether it comes from Leicester, Latvia or Lesotho; after all, it’s still music.

There are a few exceptions I’ll make, though, where the sacred space which music occupies in our lives seems to have been cruelly abused. Recently, a chap from hospital radio asked me to identify the single track I’d most like to place in Room 101. I could cite most of Phil Collins work, quite happily, but a sticking a whole artist in there seems petty and there’s always You Can’t Hurry Love which I still adore. He’s also a phenomenal drummer. Naturally, I then turned to The Lighthouse Family, but it’s hard to pick between Ocean Drive and Lifted, songs which both sound like they were recorded in their entirety in Kenneth William’s nasal passage.

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But if it’s a single buttock clench of a song you’re looking for, one that I’ve hated since the first moment I heard the first bar, then I’m going to have to plump for 1987 hit Live It Up by Australian cruise ship rockers Mental As Anything.

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It turns out you can even buy a FIVE ALBUM set of Mental As Anything if you have recently had a lobotomy or are a C.I.A. agent who wants to extract information from suspects without leaving visible external scarring.

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The song itself is the kind of sun-inned, jaunty late 80’s production which made sulky teenage me pray to Morrissey for acid rain, under a lyric which implies that the cure for heartbreak is simply to go home with a the first man in a bow tie that you meet in order to ‘live it up’. The fact that the object of the song is clearly already on a dance floor would suggest that whatever heartache she has endured, she’s already constructing and boarding her own survival raft of palliative good times, possibly among friends, and certainly in a safe public arena. To suggest that her best course of action would then be to leave this healing space to join the protagonist in what will probably be a bedsit (‘come up to my place’) where she would ‘live it up’ (activities unspecified) to a greater degree than on the supervised dance floor where she currently finds herself, seems like a risky roll of the dice to say the least. It’s a creepy message in the extreme. And that’s before you meet the band.

I’m sure they were only doing what their management told them to by wearing those suits and bow ties, but the one message that it doesn’t convey is that these boys are ‘Mental’. I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about Mental Illness here. I’m talking about doing what it takes to achieve the unique mindset or perspective which some musicians adopt to give their work a truly distinctive and fresh edge. David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave. All of these could probably have been said to flirt with and sometimes fully immerse themselves in mentally altered states to tell us something new and fresh about our shared journey through life. Seeing Australian men with bow ties jig about to squelchy synth pop while insisting that they are stretching perception itself by singing the most banal retread of a presumptuous song of dubious courtship you’ll ever hear….well, I think you get my drift. I’m not a fan.

Let’s turn 180 degrees and jump back another 20 years to take a look at what makes the music I really love. Place yourself in the shoes of The Byrds in 1967. If you’re not familiar with The Byrds, then check out their illustrious family tree:fullsizerender_3

As you can see, they form the spine of some the great country rock, folk and psychedelic pop acts of the sixties. They had massive hits with Bob Dylan covers alongside their own genre-moulding material, and changed their line-up like sensible people change their electricity suppliers. In 1967 they were ready for another shake up, and drafted in Country rock legend Gram Parsons from the International Submarine Band. Gram suggested their next move should be to go full country. The boys had tinkered with some country songs before on their albums, but they were a bit like Act Naturally on the Beatles’ Help album – a toe in the water rather than a proper statement of intent.

Gram, though, was all-or-nothing serious about country music. In 1967 country and pop were two different camps which didn’t mix. Squares versus Heads. Farm versus City. A whole album of country from one of the biggest pop bands of the past half decade wasn’t just a change of direction, it was a flipping manifesto. Sweetheart of the Rodeo truly was Mental As Anything, paving a new path, eschewing commercial success in search of a deeper truth, and using the tried and tested technique of genre cross-breeding to bring out a new way to make people’s hearts sing along to their tune.

Result? It worked! In its time, a massive commercial flop. The album alienated the pop fans The Byrds had built up over the last five years, and failed to win over a country audience who still had trouble with the idea of long hair on a man, despite that being a natural consequence of not cutting it, just like for ladies. The Byrds survived a whirlwind of a concert at country music’s temple, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, from which they were lucky to emerge unscathed. However, time has changed everything. The album has now been reappraised to become a classic, and a cornerstone for country fans who like their rock to have dirt on its boots, and their country to be Transcendental As Anything. For alt-country artists like Uncle Tupelo, Ryan Adams and Wilco, Sweetheart is like scripture, and they all probably make my favourite kind of music, country which doesn’t always try to answer its own questions.

Gram was instrumental in this sea-change for the Byrds. But he wasn’t as Instrumental As Anything. I’d say as much of an influence on Sweetheart of The Rodeo were the two (here we go people! We’re coming to the point!) virtuosi pedal steel guitar players who grace the album. One of these is our old friend Lloyd Green (Steelgrimages passim). He takes the lion share of the duties. He’s on the opening track and only genuine single, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowehere and then pops up on around half the other cuts. He’s as brilliant as ever.

Then there’s Jaydee Maness, (surname to almost rhyme with ‘painless’).

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He’s one of the first Pedal Steel players whose name I ever knew. He plays on You’re Still on My Mind, You Don’t Miss Your Water and 100 Years From Now. At least I think it’s him on those tracks, and there may be more. Despite the internet being able to tell me every item of clothing Kim Kardashian has worn since her birth, I can’t seem to get reliable, personnel track listings for one of the most influential albums of all time. The good news is that I won’t have to wait much longer to find out. Because Jay Dee Maness is the guest performer at the Irish Pedal Steel Guitar Festival which is taking place next month. When I found this out I sent a long, grovelly email to Jay Dee’s website begging for a meeting when he was over. He sent this short but nevertheless epic reply:

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‘Thanks for asking.’

Thanking me for asking him to make time for me.

Interviews I’ve heard with Jay Dee make it clear, as does this email, that he is a gentleman. A softly-spoken Californian, who seems to have as many friends as he does colleagues, his discography ranges from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven to legendary years of service in Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and his own staggering solo work. He’s Lloyd Green’s best friend. And now he’s said he’d be happy to meet with me and chat about his own sixty year-long steelgrimage.

I should be so lucky.

Hold on….

I’ve just thought of a song I dislike even more!

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12. Your Sweeteners Is My Weakness

Warning: I am writing about things I am still straining to understand. I am not a scientist or mathematician. The chance of inaccuracy is therefore high. If you are writing a thesis on this subject I urge you to look elsewhere. 

When it comes to tuning up, it turns out that we’ve all been doing it wrong forever. Unless, that is you’re a 14th century Persian, in which case you have my admiration.
I came to the pedal steel guitar through the guitar, a six-stringed instrument which requires the fretting hand to press on the space behind different frets with the four fingers, and occasionally, thumb of the left hand for right handers and vicey versa.

Since I could afford one, I’ve tuned my guitar using a variety of electronic tuners. Currently, like most guitarists, I use a clip-on guitar tuner on the headstock of my instrument which usually tunes the guitar to, from the lowest in pitch E-A-D-G-B-E. I often drop the bottom-pitched (geographically top) string from an E to a D. This gives the guitar a drone D-A-D chord on the bottom three strings which I love to hear.

I have never questioned all of this until I started to play the steel guitar, but I think I was always aware that some chords on my six-string guitar sounded better than others. This was so even when the guitar was demonstrably perfectly in tune according to the device I was using. I always imagined that this was as a result of the intonation of the guitar being off in some way, and needing the adjustable bridge to be professionally set up, something which, due to laziness, never ever happened.

This suck-on-a-lemon dissatisfaction with tuning manifested itself in a couple of ways: firstly, an awareness that some chords on the neck would result in a sound that was a little like a serrated knife being run slowly along the top of the ear. A tonal wobble would be hanging around between the notes and detracting from the joy of the whole thing. It’s a really subtle thing, but I’d say I was wincing and then checking tuning maybe 1 time in 20 to see what was going on.

I suspect now that what I was experiencing was the drawbacks of equal temperament. It’s a maths thing. The frequency intervals between notes should be mathematically pure, for instance, A = 440 Hz and the A an octave above it = 880 Hz. The one below is 220 Hz. Which is fine if you’re only playing As. the problem is that fretted stringed instruments are designed to play in any key that Gary Barlow fancies. So if you’re going to do that, and play more than one note at a time to make harmonies, there are new, complex intervals and mathematical frequency ratios involved which have to work together to cover every note in a chromatic scale. But they can’t. In short, the notes on a guitar neck cant be mathematically in tune with eachother in every key. They’re divided equally, which gives you roughly there or thereabouts the note you’re after, but it’s usually a multi-tasking near-as-dammit because the precise ratios you need for harmonies can’t work in every direction at the same time. 

A classic example of this is that if you add up 7 pure octaves and compare it to 12 pure fifths, you get a slightly different number. Although they should be the same, they are naturally out by a tiny fraction, referred to as a Pythagorean comma. If you’re playing a fretted instrument, somewhere, a compromise must be made. Your average scale is a size 9 foot squeezed into an 8-and-a-half shoe. 

Funnily enough, Vincenzo Galilei (father of) spotted this in 1581. He was a lutist, and worked out that despite having a genius son, he’d never play a perfect scale in equal temperament. Well, he should have got out more. The Arab world was perfecting the art of microscopically adjusted tuning (Maqamat) as early as the 14th Century. It’s an art because you can’t mathematically come to a perfectly adjusted tuning. But you can make some sound better than others for you, and for the style of music you play. Art.5475aa6d83cda_vincenzo_galilei

You see, perfection isn’t everything. The downside of guitars having straight frets is slightly wonky tuning, although the upside is that you can pick them up and play them almost straight away. It’s a small price to pay. It also gives the guitar its very own sound – although being in tune is a mathematical proposition, it’s also a matter of taste. Sinatra’s voice was all over the place when it came to tuning, but it never lost him girlfriends. The guitar, with its fatally flawed straight frets, has a sound that we all recognise and love as being a guitar, mathematically compromised warts and all. It’s got sonic baggage that we have all got used to and love. 

But of course, as even the casual observer would notice, there are no frets on a steel guitar. And that changes everything.

The relationship between the notes is, by and large, constant, thanks to the large chunk of steel in your left hand. Keep that straight and your left foot and knees still, and the intervals between the strings won’t change. They don’t need a one-size fits all approach like you do with a fretted or, for that matter, keyed instrument. Give me a key! I’ll play it! The straight bar maintains the same frequency ratio between all the strings. And even if you do use pedals and knee levers, the range of keys you’ll be playing makes it much more predictable which mathematical side of each note you’ll want to jump.

I hadn’t really appreciated this until I bought a new tuner. Say hello to my new tuner, the Peterson Strobe Plus HD, supplied by Gerry Hogan.
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Isn’t she a thing? I don’t know how the strobe bit of the Strobo Plus Hd ™ works, but just to be safe, if you have experienced seizures at any point in your life then please look away from this page periodically and take regular rests. Importantly, this machine has a FANATICAL devotion to accuracy in a way that my little clip-on Jeremy just didn’t. As you can see, the signal runs straight through its body without acoustic adulteration, then out to pedals and amps. 100% instrument, all day long. But that’s not where the exciting bit happens. The Strobo Plus HD comes equipped with sweeteners, some based on Maqamat patterns, and some based on the work and impeccable ear of pedal steel didact Jeff Newman (see blog ep. 9). Thanks to him and his ancient Persian buddies my new tuner has more sweeteners than a tea room catering specifically for those with diabetes.

A Sweetener is a set of tunings  – some dating all the way back to the 14th Century – which takes account of the notes with which the note it’s tuning is likely to be paired, and adjusts it by a tiny amount to make the ratio between them mathematically correct, or at least less of a compromise than equal tuning. The effect on the of this is staggering. It’s like being in tune for the very first time.

It’s like you’re in love for the very first time.

Being able to swoop along the neck in a mathematical justified manner is one of the things that gives the pedal steel its intergalactic feel, its dramatic effect and what makes people ask with such regularity. 

‘What is making that sound? That’s amazing.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11. Nerves of Steel and Stone

Again, another haitus. but that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening. Far from it. Band of Hope, of whom I think I might now be a member, are a functioning, going concern with gigs and recording lined up. I’m quickly drafted in for a number of dates playing lap steel. At first practice I publicly state for all to hear that I will not bring out the Sho-Bud until a year of hard, methodical practice has elapsed. Once again, this I vow. It will not be like the other times. This time will be better. And that’s unbreakable. I might print it on the side of a bus.FullSizeRender

There. That’s decided then.

First date is a Sunday get together at the beautiful Braziers Park in Oxfordshire, which is replete, dressed in the crushed velvet finery of a rock’n’roll heritage to rival most. It was and is an artistic commune, based in a crumbling mansion and outhouses which provides a base for potters, musicians, and no doubt, people who are still making their minds up about what to do next. Crucially, it was home to Marianne Faithfull and her parents for a bit, and Gave Shelter to Mick and Maz after they were busted for drugs and she walked into notoriety wearing, by all accounts a fur coat and not much else. I’ll be honest and say I haven’t researched these facts, and am not about to. I don’t want to find out it’s all nonsense which would detract from the rosy hue of a day wandering around sheds and stables off my kibbutz on two thirds of a pint of mild. Given my transcendental state it was a deeply satisfying moment when on to the barn (main) stage emerged a barefoot man with a sitar.

IMG_7930 4And he hated that thing, giving it what for while singing Seven Nation Army. The rain came down, and thank goodness for tea and cake.
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I’m not very good at setting up on stage. I tend to get very excited and nervous and start putting things in the wrong places. I then lose those things and get in a panic and wonder what I’m doing there and how I could ever have chosen music for a hobby when I’m such an idiot. I can’t imagine Van Morrison goes through the same process. It’s even worse with a new band, because the way you set up on stage can shape relationships after that point. In one of the wedding bands in which I used to play guitar, if there was a sense that a couple of centimetres of empire had been lost at the front of the stage, the other guitarist would declare war during the set, cutting up rough with the neck of his guitar, making a point of invading my personal space and machine-gunning through such aggressive material as Una Paloma Blanca and 500 Miles. Headstocks at dawn. It can easily get a bit territorial, like a musical game of Risk, and that is the last thing anyone needs.

That’s not going to happen in Band of Hope because, firstly, it’s Tom’s band. He’s the singer, and they’re his songs. Everyone in Band of Hope seems really nice and almost ego-free. Also, I don’t want to be anywhere near the front. I really don’t. Television presenters have a habit of floating to the surface like corks, buoyed up by their own collossal egos, unable to resist the temptation of feeling the sunshine on their faces, and the validation of an audience. But I don’t want this to be like that. I want to play my wonderfully anti-social instrument without anyone noticing it’s me making that sound, if at all possible, separate from the megalomaniac look-at-me of my professional life. So I find a spot at the back of the barn where the light doesn’t reach, next to Sarah, who is the new drummer. We are the new boy and girl, hidden in the darkness, and that’s just fine, thank you. Look. can you see me? No? Good.IMG_7934 3

The gig goes well, as a first gig, for which survival is the first priority. No-one looks daggers at me for being too out of sync with the rest of the band. I don’t know what sitar man made of it. I’m glad I didn’t choose sitar as my instrument though. Maximum effort carting it about, and frankly, zero chance of joining a band that doesn’t have sitar in it.

Next comes Wood Festival, back at Braziers Park a couple of weeks later. We’re now on the Main Main Stage, and here’s the beauty of a smaller festival – I’m camping in my van precisely 200 metres away from it. In fact, this is a truly beautiful small festival. Run by a pair of brothers who headline in the tent on Saturday night with their excellent band, like a Fender Telecaster guitar, Wood Festival  has everything you need and nothing you don’t. I like that. Headline your own festival. Ballsy move. But they are great.

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We are not headlining. Unless by headline you mean going on first, which is, I suppose one way to interpret it. It’s lovely though because you know that however it goes, the nerves will all be gone by 2.30 in the afternoon and then you can just have a drink and enjoy the rest of the acts knowing that your work is done. We have a little sing song in the backstage Yurt and then go on with the rain tipping down, and then stopping as we get further into the set. There are fewer nerves than last time, but only a fraction, because I’m not quite as far into the shadows as I was before. I don’t play brilliantly. My fingers feel a bit fudgy and I can’t hear myself so well. I get a bit lost in parts and pull too hard on the strings, trying to hear myself. No-one notices, or if they do, they don’t mention it.

Part of the problem though, is that I’ve been playing more and more pedal steel at home, and I’m really starting to notice the limitations of the lap, even with its extra levers. I want more strings, more sustain and more options on the neck to make things happen. I can cart the lap steel easily. But it’s not my final destination. Despite the solemn vow not to do so for a year, I need to start getting the big fella out. And then sitar man can have a really good laugh at me. He’ll be home on the train while I’m still unhooking my pull rods and trying to work out what chords I missed.

Wood Festival punches above its weight. Main stage headline were the Magic Numbers.IMG_8151 3

And special treat in the tent was Jodie Stephens from Big Star. The Big Star that I love and that Joe the Volume Pedal and I by chance both wore t-shirts for. In a little tent in a little field in Oxfordshire. BOOM.

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10. It’s Been Far Too Long

Yes I know. 

But I’ve got an excuse. I’ve been busy with lots. I have, for one thing been playing the Pedal Steel Guitar A Lot. There have been evenings where I have pulled myself off of the piano stool i’m using in a cast-iron hunchback, right hand clawed and stiff and sweaty left hand glued to the steel. What an unattractive image. But it’s what I’ve vowed to do, regardless of damage to posture and health. 

But in addition I have been working the day (and overnight) job, chasing all over the country and spending time in railway stations listening to the greatest and the latest PSG players as I ride the rails in search of rogues. Rail travel and country music go together like baked beans and brown sauce. I’ve been staring out of windows at hillsides, feeling lonely and hearing the sound of lonely hillsides squirted right back at me through headphones. No reserved seat? Fine by me. I’m listening to country. This stuff sounds even better when your sciatic bum is wedged into a bag rack. The more lonesome you make me, the better I like it because I am a pedal steel player dontchaknow, journeyman musician, gun for hire, never in a single band, the ultimate wolf in soft shoes, and this is how I hang, high and lonesome. I’d like a bottle of Doom Bar and a packet of cheese and onion and what time do we get into Wolverhampton, please?

However lonely it gets, I am very much enjoying online and in person, the fellowship of other players, who are generous and friendly to a fault. Perhaps nicheness creates niceness. My last thought, as you can read, was that it seemed that the Band of Steel Brothers was of a fairly unique vintage, to whom I appear as fresh blood at a juvenile 47 years old. Not so, it seems. Lookee here…

After one acquires a PSG one next needs a volume pedal under the right foot to make it waft in on a breeze like the cry of an eagle and hang there in the reverb-stained air. They aren’t cheap, but after a quick squint at eBay I found a good value used Goodrich L120 down in Dorset not far from where we were visiting for the weekend. I don’t like paying postage and Joe, the seller, was happy to have me come around and talk guitars for a bit. 

A volume pedal yesterday. 

I approached a nice detached house in a cul de sac, thinking ‘here we go, man of a certain age indulges country leanings’ and sure enough, was greeted by a charming couple in their golfing years. But then ‘Joe’s upstairs’ they said, and their son emerged from the loft. 
Twenty flipping four. 


I think it’s important to note two things from this picture: 

1. I think we can agree that I could easily be mistaken for Joe’s younger brother.

2. What are the chances that two men, born 23 years apart, meeting one night for a random financial transaction, would BOTH BE WEARING T SHIRTS FOR CULT 70’S POWER POP COMBO BIG STAR??

Slim, I think you’ll agree. Or verging on XL in my case. 

I’ll be honest, if arms dealers went around wearing Big Star shirts I would probably have a couple of missiles in the garage by now, so it should come as no surprise that I bought Joe’s pedal. But not before he showed me what three years of intensive study can do for you….​

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​​You’ll notice that Joe’s genuinely unassuming manner doesn’t permit him to finish a piece in full. He played three times, each time a stunning soup of swirling strings. And he possessed not one but two Mullen steel guitars, premier modern professional instruments – a d10 and an s10. Joe told me was already getting touring and recording gigs and that he was totally committed to it as a career. All I can say is 

BRAVO JOE. BRAVO. 

I don’t want to sound like a patronising old fart but how wonderful to see someone doing what i’m doing – following a sound they love to find out where it takes them, but working it out so  much earlier in life and diving in head first. Wow. Imagine what he will sound like in another three years time! Amazing!

How depressing. 

I have so much work to do. 

But! Opportunity knocks hard and loud for the pedal steel player. Seriously, nobody knows what this thing is and yet sometimes it seems like everyone wants it. 

When I was 17 I was briefly playing bass in a band called Sometimes Sartre, who were all a bit older than me. They were as close as Reading ever got to The Smiths, and the guitarist, Tom Crook, was as close as Reading ever got to Johnny Marr (pretty close). 

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After just a few months of my tenure, and in an unorthodox move Tom and the remaining two quarters of Sartre moved up to Newcastle to attempt to get signed by Kitchenware Records, the label/stable which nurtured late 80’s indie revelations Prefab Sprout. I had to stay behind to finish my A levels but would hear occasional stories drift back to Reading about life on the dole as a band, which seemed to involve a lot of funny adventures while living together in a flat and eating things out of tins. It sounded pretty much exactly like the Monkees TV show if The Monkees’ house was devoid of any form of domestic heating. The invite to move up there was also kindly extended to me. I think I even discussed it with my parents in one of the shortest and most explosive discussions it’s ever been my misfortune to take part in, and in that tally I’m including over 100 Rogue Traders confrontations, some with hardened, violent criminals. 


After they returned South, Tom and I would meet regularly every decade, quite by chance, outside an exhaust centre or post office, to find out what we had missed from eachothers lives in the intervening years. He is a talented, genuine and warm fellow, for whom I would make time to stop and talk if I were holding on to a narrow lead in an Olympic marathon. 

So anyway, due to the magic of social media, I’m back in touch with Tom. Over the last year or so I’ve become aware that he now has a band, Band Of Hope. They play Tom’s excellent country-leaning songs, and one day he drops me a line to let me know that a vacancy has just opened up….

…for a drummer!  

So they get Sarah. You know Sarah? Great drummer. Lovely feel.

AND A STEEL PLAYER!! 

PTCHAAAA!!!!

9. Pedals and Pedagogues

Right so now I’ve got this thing. I thought you might like to see me get it out of the box. This provides a major opportunity for me to ‘monetise’ this journey.

You see, I know that there are now people making millions by opening boxes on Youtube. Whole media careers are forged by people buying things, or, more often, receiving them for nothing, and then opening the boxes containing these things on camera. They attract huge audiences and end up with book deals, film scripts and with their pictures on the sides of buses, all for opening boxes and talking. So here comes my unboxing, and the next, highly successful stage of my media life. So long, Aldi!

 

Sponsors please form an orderly queue. It is, I’ll admit, a bit shorter than I’d hoped, but I’m not just editing this film brutally because your average youtubers tend to be younger and better lit than me. It’s also because, reviewing the footage today, I realised that I have included some glaring inaccuracies which cannot be allowed to tarnish my spotless reputation as a journalist. Firstly, I state clearly during the unboxing just after this clip, that this is a 1975 Sho-Bud LDG, which, while possible (the LDG entered production in 1973), is not the case. Cross-referencing the serial number, I’ve discovered that my Sho-Bud was in fact made in 1981 in Nashville, Tennessee. The list price at the time was $1720, which means that, like the house by the airport, old-dollars-for-new, it’s worth almost as much today as it was when it was sold. An investment!

Secondly, in my film, I do this:

 

And while I do so, I indicate that I am depressing the A and B pedals. A and B are the most used pedals in the pedal steel player’s arsenal, raising the major chord 5 semitone steps from, for instance, a G major to a C major. If you’re not into musical theory, and that makes no sense to you, the sound perhaps should. It’s clearly recognisable as the sound of a country song coming to an end. On the majority of pedal steels, that’s exactly what I would be doing. I had forgotten however, that there are two ways to lay out the pedals on a PSG, named after the players who favoured them, Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day. Buddy Emmons’ set-up orders the pedals A-B-C, left to right. My Sho-Bud is, however, the slightly rarer Day set-up, and therefore switches them to C-B-A. I am here depressing the C and B pedals, giving me a minor triad, not a major. What a spanner! I wonder if leading Youtuber Zoella makes such childish errors when she’s unboxing, I don’t know, a balalaika, Celtic Harp or a set of aeolian pipes.

My failed unboxing demonstrates that I am obviously talking out of my Harris – a signal to me that before I proceed any further, I need to get myself some tuition. It’s been made quite clear that to gain any kind of proficiency in the PSG will take years or decades, like the study of a Japanese traditional art, for instance, swordsmanship or flower arranging. This ain’t no ukulele. Simply buying the thing and sticking your hands on it will inevitably result in horrible sounds and frustration, and I have learnt from my (failure to) study other instruments that it is much easier to apply sound technical method early on than unpick horribly ingrained bad habits further on down the line, habits formed in a juvenile rush to perform and record.

If you’re looking for a Pedal Guru to shine a light for you, there are a few places you can turn. Some are recognised legends and some are the young pretenders. I’ll give you a quick run-down of the ones I’ve sampled so far and you can make your mind up which one suits you best.

1. Jeff Newman

My Newbury-based spirit guide Gerry Hogan tells me that there’s no point bothering with anyone but Jeff when I’m starting out. His video guides are meticulous, comprehensive and contain everything I will need for the next few years of practice. Gerry tells me that the short video courses that Jeff has made represent years of work if I’m going to follow them properly. You don’t argue with your spirit guide, so I acquire two Jeffran College courses – Right Hand Alpha, which is devoted to the insanely tricky but essential art of picking and damping the strings with the right hand, and Pedal Steel Guitar Techniques, which broadly covers hands, feet, tonebar control, volume control and pedal squeezing (more later). When I get the courses home a couple of things are clear: firstly, these are grainy VHS transfers to DVD. Jeff sadly died in 2004 while trying to land a light aircraft, so didn’t have the chance to upgrade the format of his course to DVD. It doesn’t make a great difference.

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In fact, the clunky 80’s graphics and frosty-edged picture quality lend the whole course a timeless quality to what he’s saying, the main message of which is unmistakable:

I got this right. Just do it like I do it.

I don’t get the feeling that Jeff would have been one of those teachers who would gently put a hand round your shoulder and shepherd you in the right direction if you weren’t quite getting it right.  He was more likely to look at you in an incredulous fashion and ask you what on earth you’d been doing with YOUR time, and why you were wasting HIS.

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I like Jeff, even though he scares me a bit. He’s the kind of no-nonsense teacher I would have run a mile from as a kid, but to whom I respond at this time of my life. His authority is unquestionable, and it’s obvious why he is held in such high regard in the Pedal Steel community as a player and teacher. He is also immaculately dressed and groomed, and wears a horseshoe diamond-encrusted ring on the pinky of his picking hand. That is also something to which I now aspire. He warns strongly against a few things, including ‘pumping’ the volume foot pedal from zero to full on each phrase, and the avoidable chink of the metal finger picks against the strings, which he describes as ‘Chinese Music’.

2. Dewitt Scott.

I get a totally different vibe from Dewitt Scott, also recently, sadly, departed. His course is a mixture of book learnin’ and accompanying audio files to play along with. I’ve downloaded the lot onto my tablet device, which is a lot easier to manipulate than Jeff’s DVDs, but lack the visual cue that you get from seeing Jeff’s sparkling patent leather cowboy boot rock between the pedals, squeezing the country soul out of each note. Dewitt offers endless pedal steel tablature of traditional tunes that we might know, starting with Goodnight Ladies – easy to play, difficult to master. His preamble is good too, framing just how much practice will be required (years) but not demanding too much of us at each sitting. He comes across as a cuddlier, kindlier soul than Jeff, which is initially comforting, but is the kind of teacher who wouldn’t mind too much if your homework isn’t in on time, and would therefore be easy to get round. His voice is sweet and encouraging, and in pictures I find, he seems gentle, smiley and kind. In short, he is a soft touch, and the sort of teacher I would be tempted to run rings round, distracting other students, and possibly even letting off the fire extinguisher in class.

DewittScott

Together with Jeff however, he would make a terrific police interrogation duo, Dewitt promising to protect me from Jeff if I just give him the information that is required, then Jeff storming in, turning over chairs, slamming his horseshoe ringed hand down on the table and demanding ANSWERS.

3. Troy Brenningmeyer

We’re on Youtube at last! As my 16-year old son said to me when I started this blog, ‘Welcome to 2001’.

Troy is a Youtuber, offering free classes online with a view to hooking you into paying for his stuff a bit further down the line. His use of masking tape with fret numbers on is a big step forward for the beginner, and the coverage of the instrument is clear and uncomplicated. He’s an affable, laid-back chap, in a casual t-shirt and baseball cap, with what looks like a pilot’s headset on top of the whole thing. I like this – I imagine receiving a choice of light meals him as he pilots us through the clouds of musical ignorance soaring towards the clear skies of beautiful playing, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure that he and Jeff would get on. For a start, in one of his introductory lessons he admits to just starting the instrument himself. Then he says that he doesn’t want to get bogged down with how to hold the bar and how to use the pedals, he just wants to get on and make some music. Hmmm. Whereas Jeff is all about the technique, Troy is all about the good times. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like Troy and I could have some fun, go and see a few gigs, hang out, maybe end up on the beach with a couple of beers at the end of the evening putting the world to rights, before it turns cold and we go our seperate ways. But the last thing I need when I’m learning something as difficult as the pedal steel, is someone else learning it alongside me. Why would I pay for that? He has a little to offer, but I’m not going to hand over any money. Beware Troys bearing gifts.

4. Jim Lill

WHOA!!!!!

There’s this young guy on my screen now. What the flip? He’s 25 AT THE ABSOLUTE MOST. Like Troy, he’s wearing a baseball cap BUT BACKWARDS, and his mountains of curly hair are piling out of the thing. He’s operating the pedals using full-on cloud-soled cyberpasty trainers in an electric blue, and talking in an energetic fashion, jump-cutting when my tiny attention span demands that I must on no account hear his sentence all the way to the end. Every time he says something, the words appear on the screen in capitals to drive the point home. PEDAL STEEL! He says the instrument can get me a ‘silly, slippery sound’ or a ‘nice, ethereal sound’, and ‘a bunch of other cool stuff.’ OK! It is labelled as for beginners and guitar players, and is also suitable for those brought up on a televisual diet of Ben 10.

He plays well, but he’s crossing some pretty big lines as far as my other teachers are concerned. I can hear Jeff’s Newman’s voice tutting over the top, as Jim is audibly clearly chinking his picks against the strings, and dropping the volume pedal down to zero before swelling to full – ‘pumping’. WE GOT US A PUMPER, BOYS! These are cardinal sins for Jeff. But Jim’s audience is clearly different: he’s after the guitarist who wants a bit of occasional fun with the pedal steel, before he goes back to the skatepark, or for an ice cream with his Mum and Dad. Jeff and Dewitt are the product of a lifetime of study and endeavour, achieving the highest honours on the world’s toughest instrument. Jim is clearly a nice kid who loves his music, wants to have some fun with a cool new instrument, and share that with others. There’s definitely a place for that. He also does us the huge favour of showing how to assemble and disassemble a pedal steel guitar, the first of our teachers to uncover that particular mystery. His approach is simple and practical, nifty and thrifty. He is without a doubt, the pedal guru from my collection of four so far who is least likely to have voted Republican, if indeed, he is old enough to vote.

It does raise a question in my head. Is Pedal Steel just for older people? There is no doubt that there is a repository of wisdom in the older generation, from the players who developed the thing like Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day, through to great teachers like Dewitt, Jeff Newman and our own Gerry Hogan. I’m no spring chicken and it’s taken up until now to get the wherewithal and the time to attempt this thing. But is it like learning Esperanto? Have I got involved in a dying art whose time has come and gone? Is there a future for this thing? It makes no difference to me, personally, because I’m in it purely to make a sound that I love, but is there a future for the instrument at all? Let’s face it, you won’t find many kids outside Macdonalds comparing string gauges or bar sizes and arguing the advantages of Emmons vs Day set ups, will you?

Or WILL you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Once Upon a Time in the West Midlands

Harry comes from Conway. It’s a long way from here to Conway, which by anybody’s measure is almost as far North as you can get in Wales without being wet or in Ireland. I formulate a plan to drive up there in my camper van and stop the night somewhere before arriving fresh faced at his house with finger and thumb picks ready to pretend to be a discerning customer. It would be a poor pretence. I am really not in the best position to be making informed decisions about the quality and condition and therefore value-for-money offered by Harry’s Sho-Bud LDG for the following reason: so far my total experience of a real, three-dimensional pedal steel guitar has been gained by touching one, once.

I did this around 18 years ago when very, very drunk indeed on a filming trip in the home of country music, Nashville for the BBC Holiday programme. The owner of the pedal steel was a resilient-looking gentleman who made his living by playing, and he had just finished a gruelling evening of backing up a series of artists on stage at an out-of-town venue. The place was frequented by almost no-one at all except hardcore country music musicians and a team of idiots from the BBC consuming ribs. I hazily remember saying something like ‘I love tedal speel. Is that one a pedal steel, what do you do it? Why is that thing (tonebar) brown and the other shiny? Whassit do?’. Pedal steel guitar players don’t drink and play. It just doesn’t work, and to this exhausted, sober behatted bottle of testosterone, I represented nothing more than a threat to his livelihood. He told me to step away from the instrument, which thankfully I had the sense to do before also getting my first taste of a genuine Tennessee Bar Brawl. On the other few occasions when I had come into a six foot radius of a PSG I just didn’t feel the ability to have a go or even attempt such a thing, such was the esteem in which I now held it. I can only explain that it would have felt a bit like coming to the end of a long pilgrimage, only to approach the altar or shrine and embark on a quick game of cards and a slice of toast. Silly, I know, but when you want something a lot you don’t want to risk jinxing it by going in half-cocked.

Anyway, the plan to drive and camp to Conway was quickly scotched when I realised that a two-day trip, exciting and pilgrimatic though it might seem, would mean I wouldn’t be available for work/home duties and would come back happy and exhausted and subsequently a bit guilty. Harry, meanwhile, emerging as a man of mild temper and great wisdom, suggested meeting somewhere near half way between us, with a view to splitting the driving time. That’s because he has clearly read the British Steelies’ handbook and knows that to be a gentleman or woman of steel, you must behave like a gentleperson. It really is that ubiquitous. Our halfway point, Harry told me, would be somewhere south of Birmingham, and he suggested the car park of the Belfry golf course in Solihull. A cheque would do just fine, he told me, again, old school levels of trust and manners.

When I arrived at the Belfry, Harry was already there. I didn’t know what the etiquette for buying a Pedal Steel Guitar was. It turns out it’s very simple. You get it out in the car park and have a look.

Now this is a rather unfortunate photo. I do realise that it looks as though the Sho-Bud has just fallen over on its head and Harry is very sad as a result, because his beautiful thing is ruined and the whole deal is off. I assure you that this is not the case, or at least, it is the case, and the guitar is upside down in that case. Er hem. But I wanted to show you how the guitar typically comes – upside down in its electric blue crushed velvet splendour, allowing you to attach legs and pedals to its bottom, therefore giving you something to hold onto. That’s exactly what Harry did, with golfers driving in and out around us in their vast 4×4 cars. I’ll admit I did feel a bit special, I mean, I was hopefully, in a few minutes, about to join a secret society of gentlefolk musicians who have committed themselves to Shaolin-like levels of discipline and practice to achieve musical nirvana. Why on earth would you want to waste time playing golf? To achieve what? Hitty-ball-sticky. We were interlopers in their world, using their carefully kept car park to complete our subversive transaction, and there wasn’t a court in the land that could do us for it. Most excellent.

The underside of the Sho-bud was a riot of birds eye maple, interlaced with junctions of steel rods, bell cranks and springs. Harry then hoisted the thing upright and revealed its true glory, shimmering whorls of varnished wood, holographically three-dimensional in the weak, milky Solihull sunshine. It was, again, not the place to lay hands on and play the thing, and to do so would prove nothing. Harry talked me slowly through the assembly and then dissembly of the machine, and above all, assured me that if there was the slightest bit of dissatisfaction on my part – even weeks later, he would gladly refund me and take the LDG back. As the wife of the man with no front teeth was heard to comment, you can’t say ‘fairer than that’. here’s Harry looking a tad happier, as we both were at this stage.

Cheque signed and dated, the Sho-bud was expertly fitted back into its case, and into the back of my van. The next time it would see sunlight would be in my home, where it would hopefully be staying for a very long time indeed.

Again. Isn’t she just? Thank you Harry.

7. Next Stop Steel Town

Heady times. I haven’t done much writing over the past few days because it’s all gone so quickly. Or, quickly, at least in pedal steel guitar terms, which is a bit like saying that it’s rush hour in Truro, so hold on to your hats.

Keeping my steely gaze on the British Steelies forum, I resolved not to let the next decent single-necked 10 string guitar I came across escape my clutches. There was always going to be a compromise. I couldn’t imagine that the perfect guitar would drop into my lap. Life couldn’t be that kind. Nevertheless I keep a tab of The For Sale thread open, refresh as often as a relatively sedate work schedule will allow and make preparations financial and familial.

By which I mean:  something has to give, something has to go. There is a horrible acronym doing the rounds which has some truth to it. Quasi-musical men of a certain age are prone to GAS, an acronym which represents Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. This horrible term describes the desire, often replacing the desire for sporting achievement or to have actual sex, to fill a space in the house with as many guitars, basses, mandolins and banjoleles as possible. This often inspires confusion from other occupants of the home, resulting in perfectly reasonable questions.

F.A.Q.

Q: Why do you need so many?

A: Because they’re all different. Like children. Don’t ask me to choose. I’m not Meryl Streep.

Q: Why do they all sound the same to me?

A: Because, as I have always suspected, you’re not really listening to me play. I would love the opportunity to fix that.

Q: How much did they cost?

A: 10-15% more than I told you at the time of purchase.

Q: But can you play more than one at a time?

A: Now you’re just being silly, but honestly, I would if I could. It’s every man’s fantasy.

Q: But WHY do you need so many?

A: May I refer you to the answer I have previously etc repeat til fade.

I understand the reason for these questions, and I know that it may appear in an amateur musician an indulgence and extravagance, to have more than, say, five guitars, but it really isn’t. It’s a necessity. In the same way that life is nothing without art, a wall without guitars is bare, empty and lifeless. They are simultaneously a work of art, a tool, a statement of identity and a reminder of your musical connection to the world. They are  trusted friends and valued collaborators, and one of them, at least, has to go.

Because look what has popped up on the forum!

image001

This doesn’t really make sense. It’s a 1981 Sho-Bud LDG SD10. SD denotes a single neck E9 guitar but with a comfy cheese-on-toast-spongy vinyl pad where the C6 neck used to be. But it gets better. The reason the SD, and the Sho-Bud LDG exist at all is because my pedal steel hero Lloyd Green decreed it should be thus. Lloyd is many people’s go-to guy when it comes to sheer technical prowess. If there were a Mount Rushmore of pedal steel players (and such a thing should exist, I suggest, somewhere in the Chilterns) he would be stony cheek-by-jowel with the great Bud Emmons, who, as it happens, is also the Bud in Sho-Bud. It’s all coming together. Legend has it that Lloyd decided, one day, back in 1971 that, his skill being so immense, he only needed one neck – tuned to E9. He asked his guy to dispense with the C6 neck entirely. Instead, he’d like a lighter machine equipped with somewhere to rest his impossible-to-insure wrists while he played, thank you very much. This modified steel, in an instrumental history that is all about modification, became the Sho-Bud LDG model in his honour, and with a few notable exceptions, came in a bright translucent emerald green over birdseye maple. Here is the man himself, in front of the very thing of which I speak, with the expression of a man whose elbow has never been more comfortable.

IMG_7664

Now the keen-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the LDG I’m rapidly imagining in my home isn’t as Green as Lloyd Green’s. Good spot. It’s common for a lot of them to have faded considerably, leaving it, for the most part, a grubby blonde. But there’s nothing wrong with it to my eye.

I mean, seriously. What a thing of beauty. The marquetry. The lines.

Right. Now to the challenge of trying to acquire this beautiful object. There are a number of things which need to happen, in the correct order.

  1. I need to secure it.
  2. I need to finance it
  3. I need it to be OK with everyone at home.
  4. I need to find somewhere to put it.
  5. I need to go and get it.

Straight away, I make contact with the owner. He’s a guy called Harry who lives in North Wales. I ask him why he’s getting shot of something so gorgeous. He says it’s time for him to go double neck, despite Lloyd going in the diametrically opposite direction back in ’71. Fine. Secondly, I ask about the history of the thing. He says he bought it from an occasional dealer called John about seven years ago, since when it’s sat in his house and had occasional use. Luckily, I know John from correspondence, as he was trying to find me the right guitar as part of my search, in fact, he alerted me to Harry’s sale. He confirms that Harry is a good guy and that I shouldn’t hang about as I won’t find anything as good at the price, which is just inside my bracket, adding that ‘he doesn’t have any dogs in this race’.  I take this to mean that he has no conflict of interest in offering this advice. A beautiful phrase, which I will be using myself as if I thought of it.

I then refer to my spirit guide, Gerry Hogan. Gerry has warned me in the past of buying old, sentimentally powerful instruments, on the basis that they tended to be made of matchsticks and tin foil. Modern guitars use modern materials, and won’t let you down as readily. I get the feeling that Gerry feels that he has brought me this far, and he has a responsibility to make sure I carry on my journey. He tells me to ask, at the very least, for pictures of the rolling bridge mechanism:

IMG_7802

….and the underside of the guitar, check for any glaring problems. Gerry says that, whatever happens, he won’t be able to say for sure if the LDG is any good without playing the thing. They are clanky, disjointed machines even when they work, he says, there is so much to wrong that the chances are that it has.

I enter into lengthy correspondence with Harry up in North Wales, to try to iron out these concerns. He is lovely about all of it, and patient, probably sensing that I’m desperate for the deal to work, and knowing that there are other potential buyers circling like a family of Red Kites over roadkill. In the end, we negotiate a price, and he assures me that he wants me to be happy with the guitar first and foremost, and that if there are any concerns he will help me and not disappear. So I commit. We shake hands telephonically and I sigh. I’ve disobeyed every piece of consumer advice I’ve ever given anyone, agreeing to buy something without seeing the goods first, buying at distance from someone I’ve never met. It’s all wrong and yet, I don’t worry. John knows Harry. Harry knows Gerry. Gerry knows Harry. EVERYONE knows Uncle Roy, who runs the British Steelies forum, and has helped me on my way with a nudge and a steer. This is a small community of people who love an instrument and want it to survive and flourish. I don’t think I will go too far wrong with them, and a guitar I can’t wait to meet.

With reference to 2. I stick one of my other guitars up for sale. It’s a 1981 (coincidence? Yes.) Gibson Explorer which needs to find someone who has an aching desire for the death tone. It’s a great guitar, but as Jon Graboff, pedal steel guitar player for Ryan Adam’s Cardinals says, ‘If you’re playing pedal steel, don’t bother trying to do anything else.’ This is a guitar made for classic rock, and I simply don’t wear those trousers any more. This helps a bit with 3.which to be honest, is all about a having a partner who understands and respects the importance of doing things while you have the passion and energy, so thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

A couple of hours’ work with a drill and some filler sorts out 4., as I relegate all CDs to the loft and wonder why I didn’t do it sooner. We have a guitar waiting in North Wales. We have cash. We have a space. We have a green light. WE ARE GO FOR PEDAL STEEL!

Er,

Have I made a terrible mistake?

 

 

 

6. Hunting High and Low

Recently I’ve been listening to the fantastic podcast S-Town. I’d really recommend it. It’s the story of a horologist living in Alabama. It appears at first to be a fairly sad story, for reasons I won’t go into to save the risk of spoilers, but our clockmaker, obsessed with time and the way it’s used, also does the valuable job of adding up the days which go into the life of the average industrialised Western male. It turns out that we don’t get all that many. 27,000 in total. Of these, an alarming number are spent sleeping, a horrible sum carrying out mundane tasks or commuting. In fact we are only left with around 4500 days in our lives with which we actually end up doing the things we choose to do for enjoyment or fulfilment. Just 4500.

It’s exactly this kind of arithmetic that I use to justify making a big purchase, like, for instance, a camper van, or, I don’t know, a pedal steel guitar. Life is short, and the fraction of that life we have to do the things about which we are passionate is a sliver, not a chunk. There is no time to delay, because even if our lives are not curtailed by some horrendous event or illness, they are generally filled with monotony and sleep.

Hold on. How did this get so dark? There was an upside, and it is this: our horologist felt fulfilled because he had bucked this trend: he over-filled his life with the joy of accumulating knowledge and using that knowledge to create beautiful things. Despite the awful circumstances of his existence, he loved life, and felt that because he’d done the things he’d loved, it was all worth it.

And that’s as much of an excuse as I need to make the next step in this journey: to purchase a pedal steel guitar. You can make your life feel longer by filling with joyful pursuits. So. Just find a music shop, find a guitar, and stick your money down, right? Let’s starting slowing life up a bit! No.

No, no, no.

You don’t just walk into owning a pedal steel. It’s not like a vacuum cleaner or a folding bicycle. Argos don’t do em. Money alone won’t get you what you want, and I suspect that if you go round waving your cash, you will earn the contempt of the pedal steel community and end up with a collection of wood and metal which will sound dreadful and make the difficult job of learning to play almost impossible.

For a start: music shops do not stock pedal steel guitars. They can’t even order them in, regarding them as a dangerous isotope of unobtanium. I suspect at least half of music store employees wouldn’t know what one looked like. Secondly, a lone PSG in a music shop is the LAST thing you want to buy, because the chances are it is in a shocking state of repair. The underside of a PSG looks like that diagram of the back of a human hand, skin peeled back to reveal sinews and tendons jerking backwards and forwards with the pedals and levers. It’s a delicate, almost anatomical mechanism that requires careful transport and maintenance. Normal shops don’t tend to understand the fragility of this mechanism, particularly in older machines, because players are similarly so far and few between. As a result, at most music shops, your chances of getting lemons, not Emmons, are high.

So where do pedal steels come from, Daddy? Well, son, valued pedal steels of quality are passed from one owner to another, with the reverence and mutual respect that is, I would imagine, particular to brothers in a religious order, or perhaps a Masonic lodge. It was clear to me, particularly after discussions with my personal Obi Wan, Gerry Hogan, that if I was to acquire what was generally referred to as a ‘good one’ I was restricted to two main sources: two or three respected dealers nationwide, each of whom might have a stock of four guitars at most, or private sales offered by trusted contributors to the British Steelies Society online forum.

http://www.thebritishsteeliessociety.co.uk

Gerry himself does sell pedal steels, at

http://www.steelguitars.co.uk

but in stock he only had the gorgeous, double-necked emerald sparkle Emmons Lashley Lagrande, which would like me passing my driving test and buying an Aston Martin in the same afternoon. The news from the forum was also not great: very few guitars being advertised for sale, and those that were being snapped up within hours, possibly using the same bot software used to buy Ed Sheeran concert tickets.
So, I was faced with conflicting imperatives: a mid-life crisis which was counting the mortal hours available to me to conquer the world’s hardest instrument, and the patience required to wait it out , and not to end up with a very expensive musically redundant place to chuck my coat when I get in from work. Rushing to the wrong instrument could dampen my fire and waste money and valuable ticks of the clock.

Yes, there’s also the money. As I’ve said before, nothing under a grand is worth serious consideration, and as the great Mike Skinner once said, a grand don’t come for free. So I sit in front of my computer and watch the forum posts come and go, looking for something that feels right. In my dream it’s a Sho-bud. Lloyd Green plays a Sho-bud.  But what are the chances of that?

5.Stop. Luke. Listen.

A pedal steel guitar costs a lot of money. If there’s one on eBay for £1000 then don’t even bother looking at it. It’s too cheap and according to my Native American Spirit Guide, PSG maestro Gerry Hogan, it could have so many things wrong with it, costing so much to fix that you will end up using it as a surface upon which to serve meals to bedbound relatives.

That is one reason why I’ve decided to take my journey to steel guitarvana slowly, and in stages. If I spend a couple of grand on a PSG, without acquiring, for instance, a good left hand tonebar vibrato technique, then I will be like the guy at the golf club with the new clubs, bag and shoes who is constantly fishing his ball out of the lake, and eventually has to ask his golfing partner for another ball because he has actually run out of balls, and then gets so angry that he starts throwing his clubs at the ball and in the lake because it was his big birthday and now he doesn’t even want the clubs, and when you say ‘are you talking about yourself now?’ well no, but coincidentally I do actually hate golf and if anyone wants to buy some clubs I have the best part of a set in the garage. But no balls.

So, stages. To avoid being that guy, I will progress through the gears like a first time motorhome driver, stopping along the way to enjoy the view and have a cadbury’s mini roll and tea, improving my technique gradually. I was happy for a while in my C6 tuning, feeling the tropical wind gently part my hair, and simply enjoying the feeling of the strings under the bar, swooping and diving. And then, on Youtube, I met someone who showed me the way. He was somewhere in Germany, and Suddenly I was a bit in love with ein Herr with no head. Luke Cyrus Goetze.

I mean, really. How beautiful is that? He’s making it look so easy and it really isn’t. Luke has got a masterful control of that thing, using a volume pedal to violin the sound in smoothly, damping the strings he doesn’t need with spare fingers and his palm and just squeezing all the beauty you can out of wood and wire. He’s got loads more wonderful stuff on his Youtube channel. Go mad. Knock yourself out. I have.

The main thing I noticed about Luke’s stuff was that he was SO much closer to the sound I wanted to make than I had been with my Hawaiian fumblings, and most of that was due to what was going on under the palm of his right hand. He had the ability to alter the pitch of individual strings using a pair of levers attached to his bridge. And that’s where we get on to the Duesenberg Fairytale, his instrument of choice. It’s a lap steel, look, no legs, but also with massive improvements.

The Fairytale is a modern, German-made lap steel tuned to an open D major chord (goodbye C6 and dreams of  Honolulu), but with some fantastic innovations on board. It’s dead posh, with a couple of pickups and beautiful paint job, but it’s the multibender bridge which makes the difference, inching closer to that pedal steel sound by giving you the ability to alter pitches within a chord. The Fairytale is such a lovely thing, but at around £1800, way out of my bracket for something which is still half-way between whim and a lifestyle choice. So I decided that it was time for my own lap steel, the Bennett, to undergo a little bit of surgery.

The bridge alone costs around £175. It’s no small sum itself, but a lot cheaper than splunging out for the whole thing, and let’s not forget, at some point during this whole journey I expect to be buying or acquiring a pedal steel, which will be around the same as the Full Fairytale. There’s no point going mad just because of a German chap with a marvellous technique. I also had to check that the bridge would fit onto the Bennett. I wasn’t about to risk doing the work myself, because I usually need three goes to get anything practical right, and I only had one lap steel to play about with. So consultation and email with the great Mick Johnson ensued.

Every guitarist should have Mick in their life. He is at the very same time, an expert luthier, a raconteur and a friend to the middle-aged man. For many years he’s looked after the guitars of no-one less than the Shadows and many other musical legends. There isn’t anyone of note he hasn’t met, not a thing he doesn’t know or failing that, can’t find out about. Here’s an example of his greatness: while I was expounding my love for British Country guitar legend Albert Lee, he casually picked up a case from the lounge. It contained one of Albert’s signature MusicMan guitars, signed to Mick. “I was at his 70th birthday and he give it me.” I ought to let you know that Mick is a giant Geordie, which of course only adds to his mythical status. Mick’s kitchen operates week-round as a drop-in centre for guitar sadsacks like me, either dropping off or picking up repurfled or revalved items, or, for the lucky a few, a Johnson original. His prices are far too low, but if you don’t tell him I won’t.

mickjohnsonguitars.com

Check it out, but if one of yours goes in before one of mine, I’ll never forgive you.

Anyway, Mick told me it was perfectly doable to stick a multibender on the Bennett, and change the pickup for a more powerful and fatter-sounding one. In a couple of days we went from this bit of Bennett aluminium, stamped for your pleasure…

…..to this surgical steel supremacy.


WOW!!! Yes. You’ll notice that I raided my daughter’s craft box for rubber loom bands for my two levers.  The stainless steel is very slippy indeed, and now I can easily differentiate between the two levers, which work very much like the A and B pedals on an actual expensive pedal steel i.e. thusly:

Open D tuning on this guitar is, from lowest string to highest,

D – A – D – F# – A- D

Giving us a D Major chord. But – Operate magic lever 1 – and you take the F# to a G! It’s a suspended 4th! I think. I’m sure someone will correct me. Anyway, it’s that hanging-around sounding chord that’s just waiting for you to sort it out and take it somewhere else. Crowded House use it a lot.


And – Operate magic lever 2 – and you take the top A (second highest) all the way up to a B! Whoa! F#-B-D! We got ourselves a B minor chord!


But here’s the best bit, people….

OPERATE BOTH MAGIC LEVERS AT THE SAME TIME AND THE WHOLE CHORD JUMPS UP FIVE FRETS TO G MAJOR. G-B-D.

IT’S THE SOUND!!!!


THAT”S THE SOUND I’VE BEEN AFTER!!!!!!

Or, at least, it’s getting much closer.

And we have Luke, Duesenberg and, the fine people of Germany to thank for it.

 

 

 

 

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