So, after an epic journey, I now have a lap steel guitar tuned to C6, which, as we should have established by now, is to the pedal steel guitar as one of those wooden toddler starter push-bikes is to a MotoGP race motorcycle. I’ve also, after some lengthy research, bought myself the self same steel which forms part of the name of this blog. Yes. A steel. It is a separate thing, and not actually the guitar.
Confused? Some explanation is necessary.
Steel guitars are not, in most part, made of steel. That’s not where the name comes from, anyway. They tend to be made from wood. They’re called steel guitars, I believe, because on the whole, they are played with a steel, or tonebar in the left hand. The steel does the job of the frets on a traditional guitar, but of course it’s infinitely moveable. When it makes contact with the string, it dictates the vibrating length and with it, the pitch of the note plucked. Move to the left, note swoops down. Move to the right, upwards it squeals with joy. The steel is usually a very heavy piece of metal, as its density translates into sustain. Like an immovable rock, it allows the string to oscillate like a good’un without selfishly absorbing any of those vibrations. This equals sustain. Sustain is a good thing because it means you emulate the long, lonesome cry of a coyote, rather than the comically brief quack of a duck.
Have a look at the header picture on my first blog posting, and you’ll get an idea of the huge variety of tone bars available. All different shapes, sizes and materials. They’re like jewels made of heavy metal, glass and clay, and there are so many because they’re individual – the crucial point of interface between the human and the machine, like the stylus of a record player, dictating the very humanity of the music created. Feel is everything. Correct fit is essential. The choice of steel, therefore is absolutely critical.
I went for the one everyone else seems to go for.
This, my friends, is the Shubb SP-2.
Look at her go. Backwards and forwards like a seesaw. The Sp-2 is what’s commonly known as an ergonomic bar. It fits under the index finger of the left hand and is held in place with thumb and middle finger thus…
Fingers four and five sit on the strings behind the bar and damp the strings. Failure to do this results in the string vibrating on the wrong side of the bar, giving an additional 1/5 volume note which clashes with what you’re playing and goes up when you go down etc. It generally sounds awful. The Shubb is cold and heavy and shiny and magnificent. It’s almost worth buying one just so you can have it in your pocket and ask friends what they think it is. Quiz Time! But don’t take it through airport security unless you have time to spare and want to make new friends in uniforms and rubber gloves. Quiz Time!
So I have my steel, and I can’t put off playing something any longer.
One of the first things I play in C6 is a simple combination of 4 major and minor chords which you may recognise.
Yes, you at the back, it IS Lay Lady Lay from Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. Well done. Take two points for your house and see me afterwards. And YES my study is a complete tip isn’t it? At this stage i’m experimenting with effects pedals and amps to get a nice sound, and I’m not in a tidy-up-as-you-go kinda mood.
But you can see that even at this early stage somethings about the C6 tuning are self-evident. There is a lot of jetting about the fret board for a relatively simple set of chords, up and down like a trainee fireman on a false errand. All the notes are where they are and I have to find them – major chords at the bottom and minor at the top. Although there are similarities with the pedal steel which, after all, done sprung from its simple, plank-like loins, there are some crucial elements missing. And they are the bits I like best: the movement of individual string pitch within a chord, and the gentle, slow attack of the note – violining into earshot like an approaching train or the far-off cry of a peregrine falcon. In fact, I am going through the same evolutionary curve that the steel guitar itself went through, but accelerated quite a bit.
The craze for Hawaiian guitar really kicked in in the mid 30s, driven by players like The great Sol Hoopii, whose set up is really quite similar to what I’m mucking about with. His story is quite marvellous, stowing away with a couple of mates on a liner bound for San Francisco, they were discovered and survived a quick return trip by playing their Hawaiian blues to the delight of passengers and crew. Put yourself in the place of the average music fan back then and it must have been an incredible new sound to get your ears round – as revolutionary as Hendrix in his time. Forgive the curious intro. There isn’t much footage of Sol and this shows clearly what he’s up to.
I adopted C6 first because it’s a bit of a Swiss Army tuning. You can do a lot with it quite quickly. Major and minor chords, the building blocks of any songs, are relatively easy to find and build into a tune. Over about 9 months I do a couple of Walnuts gigs with the thing, play a bit on the radio with the lovely and generous Jive Aces, and record some stuff with Scott and on my own. It’s fine and no-one says they hate it or unplugs me mid-song. But I have a rankling feeling that it’s not what I’m really after. My grime-loving son keeps saying how much I sound like the music from Spongebob Squarepants, and I can’t deny he has a point. I don’t want to sound Hawaiian and I don’t want to play Western Swing or Jazz, although these are all fine things. Have a listen to Asleep At The Wheel or Bob Wills to find out how good the C6 can sound. Or this amazing version of Steel Guitar Rag by Barbra Mandrell. Introduced by…well.
How amazing is that? But it’s not for me.
I want to sit alongside Neil Young and Gram Parsons. As the Scorpions once whistled, there is a wind of change coming, and it’s also coming from Germany. Its name is Luke Cyrus Goetze.
I’m not sure he’d like to be called a wind.