January 8, 2005

Pedal Steel.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jim @ 5:12 pm

As some of you know, I have spent a good deal of my adult life playing drums and singing in bands. I have spent all my life surrounded with music, something for which I can thank my father.

He was an amateur guitar player and a terrific singer, who loved country music and filled the house with it, either by playing it and singing it himself, or playing records by singers such as Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold. This was admittedly a bit unusual, given that the New York – New Jersey metropolitan area is one of the few places in the U.S. where country music is not big.

He taught me the rudiments of guitar playing, which provided a foundation for me to build upon over the years, even though I veered away from guitar playing for anything other than fun and became a drummer in various bands that played music that was popular in the New York – New Jersey metropolitan area. None of that dampened my fondness for country music. In fact, on those rare occasions when a country-type tune broke through into the pop charts, I would always be the one in the band to get the nod, as the other guys really never “got” it.

All the bands I played with included guitars and bass (either played on an electric bass or keyboard), and the bands I played with longest also included a keyboard and sax. Once I even got to do a short stint with a band that included three “horns,” a sax, trumpet, and a trombone. I loved it all.

However, the one thing I regret is that I never got a chance to play in a band with a pedal steel guitar, a mainstay of country music. There just wasn’t any call for it around here. As such, I never even heard one played live, much less get to watch someone play pedal steel or to even learn a blessed thing about the instrument. All I know is that there really isn’t anything quite like listening to a good pedal steel player lay in a “crying guitar” background in a country tune.

I decided to do a bit of reading** about pedal steel, and it turns out that pedal steel players are, compared to, say, guitar players or drummers, a small group. That surprised me a bit, given the importance of the instrument to country music, however, the limited number of people who play pedal steel may be traceable to the apparent difficulty of learning to play.

Physically, playing [pedal steel] requires the use of both hands, both feet and both knees. In addition there is no tactile sensation in your hands to tell you where you are on the neck so it uses visual markers. This is one instrument where you have to watch your hands, and you also have to listen very carefully to what you are doing to make sure your intonation is correct. In country music circles where it is commercially used, this is considered to be the instrument that separates the men from the boys.[link]

In addition to requiring two hands, two feet, two knees, a watchful eye and a great ear, playing pedal steel require that one be familiar with various ways of tuning the instrument. They are even formidable looking instruments as can be seen here.

Lest one conclude hat pedal steel is limited to country music, the instrument in the hands (feet and knees) of a good player, sounds sweet no matter where it appears, such as, for example, in this sound sample by Hal Rugg.

Based on what I have read, it is quite clear that I will never play pedal steel, but I still sure as hell would like a chance to play a bit with a band that plays the tunes my dad taught me and which includes a pedal steel player. I’d probably like to play guitar in that band so that I could watch the pedal steel player’s hands feet and knees in action.

Maybe some day.

**A good bit of pedal steel information can be found here.


  1. Music is a wonderful gift we give to ourselves and others.

    What can we expect you to be playin’ at Jeckyll?

    Comment by Christina — January 8, 2005 @ 8:49 pm

  2. If you want to see and hear some real steel guitar, you need to come to Texas, my friend. Austin is the live music capital of the world. As far as country artists fron NJ, two of my all time favorites come from there – the late Eddie Rabbit and Jerry Jeff Walker who I try to go see once a year.

    Comment by Dash — January 8, 2005 @ 10:11 pm

  3. The Twang

    Jimbo got the twang. Lord have mercy! He’s in deep with both of everything!…

    Trackback by The Brier Patch — January 8, 2005 @ 11:44 pm

  4. Christina –

    I’ll be bringing my beloved, well-travelled, Gibson dreadnaught, which sounds really great when played along with Eric’s Fender and Rob’s Martin. The drum set is a bit too bulky for the plane. 🙂

    Comment by Jim - Parkway Rest Stop — January 9, 2005 @ 4:55 am

  5. Jim,

    check out The Magnolia Electric Company CD, one of several bands put together by great midwest singer, songwriter and guitarist Jason Molina. Some of the best pedal steel work I’ve heard by a modern player.

    Comment by Gregor — January 9, 2005 @ 11:37 am

  6. A pedal steel is another instrument that kicked my ass when I tried to learn to play it. I figured that since I could play slide guitar and half-assed dobro, the pedal steel should be a piece of cake. WRONG!!!

    Jim, I don’t have enough synapses in my brain to handle a pedal steel. That sumbitch ain’t near as simple as it looks.

    Comment by Acidman — January 9, 2005 @ 11:40 am

  7. Rob, hell, it takes two hands, two feet, two knees and, because of the different and tunings, and ever-changing positions, I’m amazed that anyone can play it.

    I’d sure like to sit next to a pedal steel player and just watch and, of course, listen.

    Comment by Jim - Parkway Rest Stop — January 9, 2005 @ 12:25 pm

  8. There’s an annual Steel Guitar conference/show/get-together here in St. Louis. It’s usually Labor Day weekend, and they call it the “International Steel Guitar Convention”.

    I’ve never been, but the local alternative station KDHX (blues /old-time country / soul / folk / singer-songwriter / Grateful Dead / poetry / hopelessly moonbat politics) talks them up a lot.

    Comment by lpdbw — January 9, 2005 @ 12:26 pm

  9. Lpdpw,

    I’d love to hear the music. I could, however, take a pass on the moonbat politics. I also find it curious that such a thing would be talked up on such a station, because I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of pedal steel players are not moonbats. Just a guess.

    Comment by Jim - Parkway Rest Stop — January 9, 2005 @ 12:34 pm

  10. What the hell is a moonbat?

    Comment by Shamrock — January 9, 2005 @ 1:46 pm

  11. One could write volumes on moonbats and moonbatology, but suffice it to say that moonbats are those who represent the extreme left-wing of the political spectrum. Some infamous moonbats are: Michael Moore, Barbara Streisand, Susan Sarandon, Ted Kennedy, and, of course, Hillary.

    Comment by Jim - Parkway Rest Stop — January 9, 2005 @ 3:35 pm

  12. Might I suggest you check out Nosumi Blues here.

    Comment by aelfheld — January 10, 2005 @ 12:34 am

  13. KDHX streams their programming (or used to) from their website. You can do what I do, and listen to the music, and ignore the political crap. The DJs throw in occasional inane political statements, but the music is worth it, mostly. http://www.kdhx.org if you’re interested.

    What happened for me is this: I eventually got to the point where my CD collection included the artists I like. I sample KDHX to discover new artists.

    Comment by lpdbw — January 10, 2005 @ 10:31 am

  14. On a visit to Dallas a few years ago, friends took me to a club called the Stock Exchange. The band playing had a pedal steel guitar player, and I spent most of the night watching him play. I’d been pretty snooty about the sound until I watched what the guy had to do to produce it. He earned my respect.

    Comment by buffy — January 12, 2005 @ 12:04 am

  15. Tributes To Fathers

    Two good posts out there on fathers that you should read. Jim talks here about his father’s love of music and how he shared that gift with his son (who is not a bad guitar player). Val gives a moving…

    Trackback by The Laughing Wolf — January 12, 2005 @ 7:45 am

  16. You *must* check out Speedy West, especially his recordings with Jimmy Bryant.

    Comment by mike — January 12, 2005 @ 11:55 am

  17. Have you heard Robert Randolph and the Family Band? The pedal steel meets Sly Stone or Hendrix…

    Comment by Jack Bog — January 12, 2005 @ 6:21 pm

  18. Dangit, Jack beat me to it. RRATFB has a terrific cut out called Goin’ in the Right Direction that is just supreme. As a person with eclectic tastes in music, I can assure you that this doesn’t suck. Let me know if you’d like to hear it, I just happen to have an MP 3 of that tune.

    Comment by Johnny - Oh — January 14, 2005 @ 7:39 pm

  19. Hello to who-ever, I love to read about steel guitars. I am no stranger to the music world,raised a family with a D50 GUILD hung around my neck I play them all BUT A DAMN STEEL, talking about a butt kicker, so i just tuned my lap steel to open D and strum it hahaah. HEY, I TRIED. I am 71 yr old be nice to hear from someone out there. OH BTY, THERE SHOULD BE A SPECIAL SPOT IN HEAVEN FOR STEEL PLAYERS.

    BILL CARTER wjc1034@bellsouth.net

    Comment by Wm. Carter — May 12, 2005 @ 5:11 pm

  20. Pedal steel is easy if you understand the basics of skipping strings and chord progression, E chods consists of E, A, & B. You tune in E and set the pedals to get A chord and B chords. Simple.

    Comment by Vernie E.Hole — October 10, 2005 @ 5:29 am

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