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Steelgrimage

One Man's Quest for Steel Guitarvana

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 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.

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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!

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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.

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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:

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….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.

 

 

 

 

4.Call Me C6 Steve

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.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=gb0A2RLE32U
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.

youtube.com/watch?v=x2M_J16z9sk

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.

3.Meet The Walnuts

This next bit is not strictly about steel guitars. It’s more about the people I make music with right now. You can skip it if you like, but if these names come up later on, don’t come all ‘but who the hell is HE?’ with me.

Music is for sharing. There are certain individuals, no doubt, who are happy and talented enough to generate every note and beat themselves. I am not among them. For my playing to have any meaning, it’s really important to have someone to play with, and listen to. The traditional format for this is a band. I’ve been in lots of bands and I really like them. You get all the upside of being in a fully-fledged street gang, with a marginally reduced risk to life and limb. Here is a list of the name of every band I can ever remember being in, in order, from the age of 13.
Walking Pace – Moon Rocks in the Sea of Tranquility – The Sulphur Petals – In The Machine – The Chickens of Chan – The Suspect Upstairs – Sometime Sartre – The Greenstreets – Jesus and Jane – Surf ‘n’Turf – The Choppers – The Swerves – Ten Tall Chimneys – The Walnuts (n.o.)

I am limiting myself here to named bands which have actually performed on a stage. If I were to include every cul-de-sac rehearsal, drunken ‘lets-do-it’ and rough book scribble, then I reckon you could triple the length. A few things strike me looking at that list:

A. It’s not as long as I thought it would be.

B. Most band names start with ‘The’. Because that’s the best way to start a band name.

C. There are some absolute stinkers.

Walking Pace I think I am excused, because I was just 13 at the time, although even at that age I should have seen that it sends out a truly terrible message: nothing in the music you’re about to hear will either stop you in your tracks or encourage you to dance. It was indeed, a plodding nonsense, including in our repertoire my first ever songwriting effort, the dirgelike ‘Westminster’ for which the only lyric was the monotone word ‘Westminster’. I must also say that I didn’t come up with all the names, and some of the bands I joined already had their names when I joined them. It’s not great band politics to demand that a name is changed at your first rehearsal.

As you can see, the last name on the list, and still bearing a ‘not out’ legend, is that of the Walnuts. It is, I feel, one of my most successful band names, because it achieves the highly desirable effect of keeping audience expectation very low indeed. It also hints at the idea that the instruments that we use will be made of wood, therefore acoustic, which is largely correct. There are three Walnuts, and they are currently Davie, who came up with the name, Donald and myself. We go to places and play other people’s songs.

Here are the other Walnuts.

Davie

davie1

As you can see, Davie has a guitar and an impressively full beard. I met Davie a couple of years back when he came on my radio show and we played and sang The Allman Brothers’ Come and Go Blues with absolutely no rehearsal whatsoever, a tradition we keep alive to this day. It was an instant hit with our listeners as the radio station’s switchboard registered no outright complaints. I vowed on that day never to let him wander too far. Davie plays intricate finger style guitar and sings with the high and lonesome tone of a cowpoke cut adrift in foul weather.

Davie’s True Grit comes in another form though. After looking after his in-laws through the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, he decided that he had to do something to help sons and daughters cut adrift in a similar fashion. He founded sevensongs.org, which works on a simple principle. He will come into your house or party and sing seven songs for you, free of charge. If you like what you hear, you might want to put something into his Dundee cake tin at the end. He’s played over seventy of these micro-gigs and so far raised over £20,000. I’ve played a couple with him and they are always unique events. It’s amazing how simply giving musical entertainment and asking nothing in return changes the tone of a party into something bigger and more inclusive and mutual. Seven Songs is a simple, genius idea, and I love being a small and occasional part of it.

Donald

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Donald almost didn’t make it into the Walnuts. Davie and I have very strict standards of professionalism which he just doesn’t seem to think apply to him, namely:

1.At least one song in the set must be started, or even completed whilst abiding by the one-unique-key signature-per-member rule.

2.Nothing is to be played/sung without lyric sheets.

3. Pre-arranged orchestrations are agreed as a guideline only, otherwise where’s the wee-making unpredictable thrill of performance?

Donald doesn’t abide by rules 1, 2 or 3, because quite frankly, he is a blisteringly good fiddle player. He learnt his chops as a kid playing ceilidh fiddle in pubs and at festivals in Scotland and beyond, and the music is in him like the grain in wood. He’s also a country fiddler par excellence. In short, you could drop Donald into any group of musicians in any setting, and he’d be awesome, even in E flat. They’d get him on the Mongolian Steppe, and no doubt, on Mars. What on earth is he doing with us? I think it’s simple. He just loves to play, we asked him to play, and he currently doesn’t have much else on.

It’s worth mentioning that both Davie and Donald are Scottish, and are, sooner or later are likely to vote to devolve from me by a convincing two-thirds majority.

So, them’s The Walnuts. Then there’s Scott Balcony.

Scott runs Balcony Shirts in Uxbridge.

balconyshirts.co.uk

He’ll run you up a batch of t-shirts or embroidered trucker caps at a very reasonable price and then ship them out to you. They also have their own line of excellently funny t-shirts, designed by Scott and the team which claim to put a bit of spunk into your wardrobe. Things like this, modelled by Scott himself, looking insouciant.


Scott and I met on twitter, through broadcaster Iain Lee. It quickly became apparent that we have, if not completely overlapping musical taste, then it represents an almost total eclipse of the art, with a bit of exposed Level 42 on my side and some of the more obscure psych-rock flopping out on his. Crucially, Scott spends the time between t-shirts writing and recording his own pithy country and folk songs, generally about things he can see around him. Early on, he decided to sing these in his own Uxbridge accent, avoiding the usual mid-Atlantic mix-up, which brings the whole enterprise a level of authenticity to which Steve Earle would silently nod his approval. That, my friends, is country. Have a taste.

For a little while now, Scott and I have bounced recorded tracks back and forward to add vocals, keyboards and, yes, lap steel to. It’s nothing short of a joy to add a bit, send it, and then hear it come back miles better. He’s happy to let me have a go with his prize possessions, and crucially, is straight with me when it just hasn’t worked.

For me, this is what music is. Taking a risk, and showing a bit of who you are with people with whom you might share a bit of a connection. These connections have come and go over the years. Some have lasted decades, some just minutes. Some don’t click despite all the signs being positive, some seem to work because of the differences, rather than in spite of them. That’s all part of the magic. What does anyone else thinks of it?  Well that’s really their concern. It’s nice to have an appreciative audience, but bitter experience taught me long ago to learn to live without one.

 

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2.The First Lap

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!img_4461

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.

Er hem.

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.

Image result for The Hillsiders

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.

 

 

1.Opening Bars

Hello, friends. I’m Matt Allwright.

I work on television and radio as a reporter and presenter, but for many years I’ve been hiding a terrible, terrible secret. Deep in my heart I have, since I was a child, harboured a profound and abiding love for country music.

I’ve played the guitar badly in bands since I was 13 years old. I’ve played punk, funk, indie, rock and metal. I’ve played at weddings, festivals, pubs, clubs, tea parties and school fetes. I don’t really care where or with whom I play, as long as I can play. I’m not even sure I’ve ever got any better during the intervening 33 years, but then, there’s always going to be someone else who’s better than you, so maybe that isn’t the point. All that time I really wanted to play country. I like the way it gets into your guts. I like the way the sounds can be in the room with you. I like the way it doesn’t have to dress itself up, but sounds torn and frayed when it’s at its very best.  I don’t always like the way people react to country, often citing the well-worn ‘both kinds of music’ joke, without realising that Country and Western really are two distinct and different genres (I’ve learnt to stop pointing that out, too) , but then that’s really their lookout. I now wear my obsession like a badge.  Sooner or later, everyone’s country time comes. I just got lucky.

During all this time there has been one sound in my head that won’t go away. It’s the sound of the steel guitar. Specifically, I can’t get rid of the sound of the pedal steel guitar, which if you’ve never seen one, is a bit like a musical Zimmer frame with brake, clutch and accelerator.  I’ve loved it since I first heard it and wondered how on earth you could make the notes go in different directions at the same time. Without every having seen one, I at first assumed that it was a number of guitars, carefully recorded over each other. The notes slip and slide alongside each other in a logic-defying way that you can’t achieve on any other single instrument, no matter how hard you try. There is no substitute. They merge and emerge and die and surge like a choir with perfectly tubular voices. Well played, it’s a thing of transcendent joy. Here’s British Steel Legend BJ Cole explaining it much better than I ever will, and then showing how it’s done in the most staggeringly beautiful way.

 

Lovely innit? What you can’t see is how hard BJ is working under the surface. Like the proverbial swan, his feet and knees are going like the clappers to activate the pedals and levers required to achieve the magic. There may somewhere be another instrument that requires all four limbs and both knees to work it, but I can’t think of one. Of course, I’d like to play the pedal steel guitar, but as you may have guessed by now, IT IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT and I’ve left it quite late. I also don’t have one in my possession. I have a wall full of guitars which I’m playing with decreasing frequency as I’m not currently in a band, being a bit fed up with the godawful racket and difficulties organising a herd of cats, and the regular occurance of drunk people stealing my harmonicas.

I’m not the most obvious steel player. The great names everyone associates with innovating the instrument tend to come from the southern states of the USA in the 30’s and 40s, steeped in the sounds of freight trains and freeways that they were trying to emulate on their brand new and developing instrument. I grew up in Reading in the 1970s and 1980s, buying scratchy unloved Boxcar Willie and Slim Whitman albums from boot sales, while my friends were into Ultravox and The Cure. I was an indie kid too, loving The Smiths and The Woodentops, but the country obsession sat behind it all, well hidden in case it earned me yet another wedgie and another ‘Yeehaw’. Bizarrely, though, the first time I can really remember hearing pedal steel and identifying it as a separate instrument was on an indie track. It comes in about half way through this diminutive album-ender by Felt. The first time I heard it,  my mind was blown.

 

A perfect coming together. My country sound popping up on one of my favourite indie band’s albums. My mind has been blowing ever since. There’s no artist listing, so I don’t know who was playing that beautiful outburst. I’d love to know. Then I could thank them for opening my eyes and ears.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that I now search for Pedal Steel tracks wherever I can find them. I have been fantasising about playing the thing, at any level at all, for all this time, and I have decided that I don’t want to fantasise any more.

I want to do this thing. I think my pedal steel time might be coming. I feel it. Please join me.

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