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 2007 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.
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.
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.
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
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?