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.
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.