Sunday, August 08, 2004


Pedal Steel

The first time I can recall seeing a steel guitar, it was on one of those ghastly King Family TV specials that seemed to proliferate in the 60s. Alvino Rey (who I didn't find out until recently was married to one of the King Sisters) used a gizmo that gave almost a talkbox (think "Do You Feel Like I Do") sound with the steel, although it was more distinct then Frampton's garble. I recall reading somewhere that Rey had managed to adapt the throat mikes used by WWII bomber crews to get that sound, and I thought, well it isn't the Stones, but at least it's a really cool sound. A bit later on, perhaps around the beginning of high school, I started noticing the pedal steel players while watching country artists on TV, and was wowed by the volume swells and intricate harmonies, but I was getting to be too much of a rock purist and didn't want to listen too much to anything so declasse.

Boy was I parochial back then. Pedal steel not a rock instrument? Bah. Just think of those gorgeous lines Pete Drake did on "All Things Must Pass". Not to mention the steel swells in Neil Young's "Winterlong", Sneaky Pete Kleinow with the Byrds and the Burritos, and how many Yes pieces? And recently, Robert Randolph's smoking live performances have reawakened my interested in this wildly expressive instrument (I first encountered Randolph while channel surfing, and came across him playing "Ted's Jam", and I was simply amazed at how he was making the pedal steel sing in a Hendrix-like vein complete with wah-wah. Watching Randolph play for the first time, I could only think back to 1971, when I saw the famous PBS Roy Buchanan special for the first time, and being similarly wowed).

My curiosity got the better of me and I picked up Bruce Bouton's pedal steel instructional video, and it seriously whetted my appetite to take a crack at this instrument. It's a bit of a scary thought for a regular guitarist, as you've got ten (or twelve) strings, an open tuning (the most popular tunings are E9th and C6th, but the problem is that there are variations on the tunings amongst players), and the addition not only of the pedals, but also the knee levers, which raise or lower the pitch of the strings affected (and not only that, but amongst players, there are variations in how the pedals and knee levers are set up, so that there's really no definitive standard setup). I suppose that as a standard guitar player, I can relate to the pedals and levers in the sense that they're sort of equivalent to putting fingers on the fretboard in various positions to form chords, but I've got a sneaking suspicion teaching myself the pedal steel is going to be an interesting exercise.

Actually buying a pedal steel is going to be an interesting exercise, since they aren't particularly stock items in music stores in the Northeast. The nearest dealer I could find who stocks pedal steel guitars is in Maryland, so it's a tad impractical to pop over and check one out. A pro-quality pedal steel is an expensive proposition, but the Carter Starter model goes for around $700 from various web dealers, and while it's not exactly an impulse purchase, is at least reasonable enough for something to knock around on to see if I can translate my six-string chops into something that makes some sense on the steel. There are plenty of great rock guitar players doubling on pedal steel (folks like Nils Lofgren and Ron Wood to name a couple of the biggies, and a very talented fellow named Eric Brenton who does some really neat stuff with Neal Morse), and being the sort who likes a challenge, I may just give this a shot.


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