Ok – so I’m not going from an absolute standing start with this whole thing. I have made a little progress already. Chiefly this: for the last eighteen months or so, I have had in my possession a six-string lap steel made by a British company called Bennett. A lap steel is the origin of the pedal steel – often called a Hawaiian guitar. It’s still played with a metal tone bar in the left hand and plucked with the right, but without the ability to shift the pitch of individual strings using pedals and levers. It’s an inexpensive, keep-your-shoes-and-socks-on way to see if you like it. Here she be!
Ain’t she a beaut? And I should think so too. She almost cost me my life/career. Here’s how: we were in Cardiff with the country’s leading motorcycle-themed consumer investigative programme Rogue Traders to stage a heated confrontation with a car dealer who was selling people’s cars for them and then, well, just holding on to the money. We had planned a hilarious set up with a gorilla costume, and a seller/buyer both converging on the chap at the same time to ask some difficult questions. All good fun, but at the same time, in the back of my mind, I knew from Gumtree, the home of temptation, that there was also a man in Swansea with a Bennett lap steel for sale. This was as close as I was going to get to him, and I mean, how big can Wales be anyway? It was clear that a golden opportunity presented itself.
So the night before, while the rest of the team were in the hotel having their club sandwiches and Caesar salads, I jumped in the car to the make the short journey from Cardiff to Swansea. by my reckoning I could be there and back in a couple of hours with a new stringed friend for just £200 with no harm done. But as soon as I got out of Cardiff, I found that the M4 was shut, taking me instead, winding through the fog-bound mountains and valleys of South Wales in late Autumn. Then my car broke down.
Stuck in the middle of nowhere, possibly Llantrisant, (home to someone, I know) I was now thinking that I wouldn’t get back for a ridiculously early start to catch our man the next morning, with a barely credible reason which, lets face it, makes me look at best unprofessional, and more likely, quite strange.
Matt: Sorry, everyone. Had to make a dash across South Wales for a lap steel guitar.
Team Member in Gorilla Suit: What’s that?
Matt: Like a pedal steel, but without the pedals.
Gorilla Guy: What’s a pedal steel?
Matt :Well, like a lap steel, but with pedals. And knee levers.
Gorilla: Fine. So you know we missed the guy. The guy we were trying to get? He’s gone.
Matt: Yes, and I understand that you might all be a bit upset with me.But look at the bright side: Now, for an outlay of just £200 I have gained the ability to play along to half the soundtrack of Lilo and Stitch.
Harambe : Shoot me.
This conversation was avoided because, with articulated lorries right up my Eisteddfod, the hire car started again, and after an hour-long journey which took two and a half hours, I made it to an overheated terrace in a suburb of Swansea, where a lovely old chap called Colin presented me with a choice of not one, but TWO lap steels. The Bennett, as advertised, and a vintage Selmer. I tried the Selmer, but he wanted more for it, and it had that look about it that said ‘as soon as you get me home and I’ll go ping and break.’ The Bennett was a much more solid proposition, all shiny modernity and stained ash. I pressed the £200 into his hand, and made a run for it, pointing out to avoid the M4 to Cardiff at all costs. Colin told me he wasn’t bothered. He rarely went East of Neath anyway, as he didn’t see the attraction.
Gorilla confrontation completed, I got the Bennett home the next day, and quickly did a couple of important things. Firstly, change the strings for a different gauge so they could take a C6 tuning, of which more later, and secondly, find out a bit more about what exactly I’d just bought in my Bennett. Very interesting indeed. It turns out that Bennett is not really a firm as such, but no lesser a person than Ronnie Bennet, Wirral-based steel maker and PSG player extraordinare. From 1967 to 1979 Ronnie was pedal steel player in Scouse country legends The Hillsiders. Who look AWESOME.
HEY YOU WITH THE TWELVE STRING GUITAR! LOOK OVER HERE! AT THE CAMERA!
There’s 1960’s Ronnie, front and centre, looking uncannily like my big brother. He’s where the pedal steel player should be – at the very centre of things, and being worshipped by his awe-struck bandmates as a genius. I’m fairly sure he made my guitar. At least his name is on it. How cool is that? Shall we have a little bit of Hillsiders? Wow! They stuck around, you know? in the 1970s they even had their own show on BBC2!
Hmmm not enough Ronnie Time there for me. In fact, it’s difficult from that shimmering VHS copy to know if he’s still part of the band. I’m going to stick my neck out and say it’s him we see because he left the band in 1979, and the width of the Hillsiders bulk-bought flared trousers is such that I’d say we’re looking at around 1976, ’77 at the latest. Hold on – there we go – at the end, MCMLXXVIII – 1978. Yep – that’s definitely Ronnie. But get this – the Hillsiders were the very first British act to play at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ol’ Opry. It’s the high church of country music, and if you haven’t made it there, you haven’t really made it.
So I have a lap steel that, unless I’m very much mistaken, was made by a proper British Pedal Steel God. Ronnie Bennett was an early adopter. When the rest of Merseyside was going mad for Chelsea boots and mop tops, he was knee deep in country music, setting records and breaking down doors. He was also getting his head round the complexities of the world’s most difficult instrument, then going on to make them for other people. He’s a man I’d like to talk to.
Before I go, a word about tunings. I promise I’ll keep it short. I swapped the strings on my Swansea steel as soon as I got the chance, and changed the tuning. Stones Music of Glossop, distributors of Bennett lap steels, recommend tuning all six strings it to an A major chord – A-C#-E-A-C#-E. Being ornery, I wanted a C6 tuning – C-E-G-A-C-E. This tuning gives you a C major chord at the bottom and an A minor chord at the top. But – hit the two middle strings together and you’ve got a C6th chord and WOW I’M IN HAWAII!!!!
Of course you don’t always want to be in Hawaii, especially if you’re a country music person and choose to sing songs about dogs dying and it being a cold hard winter and suchlike. So first dabblings with the Bennett involved studiously avoiding hitting the middle strings at the same time to avoid that instant sunshine feeling. So, as I say, a little bit about tunings. From what I’ve learnt about Pedal Steel so far, I get the feeling there will be much, much more.
So began my first steel stumblings, with a career-threatening epic voyage. I wonder if that’s going to set a pattern.