Testing the Mettle of a Pedal Steeler

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The pure products of America go crazy.—William Carlos Williams

ALTHOUGH IT MAY BE HARD TO REMEMBER in this age of mass-marketed commodity entertainment, the history of American music is constellated with real characters, do-it-yourselfers who couldn't stop asking "What if..." and who had the drive — and thick enough skins — to follow through on their hunches. From the basements and garages of the heartland came the electric guitar, the electric bass, the five-string banjo, the multitrack tape recorder and the pedal steel guitar. Perhaps it's our penchant for excess that leads us to make it louder, faster, different — especially different — and not everyone may see the results as signs of progress. But these brash creations are as accurate road maps of the American soul as can be found in any history book, and immeasurably more fun.

And so it is that a brisk November morning finds me checking in to the Doubletree Club hotel in Norwalk, Connecticut. Norwalk is not what the average swinging guy would consider a sexy weekend getaway, especially if one is alone, far from the comforts of home and all of one's stuff. Being surrounded by my stuff is very important to me, especially on Saturday morning, when a good amount of it is strewn about the house awaiting the weekly muster, and missing this opportunity to prepare my things for redeployment presents an unwelcome wrinkle in my routine. But here I am, preparing to spend the weekend in this resolutely characterless establishment, and wondering what the heck I'm doing here.

The reason is a longstanding infatuation that has recently overtaken my waking hours. Just as Orpheus' lyre drew the beasts and the rocks to him, so have the plangent cries of the pedal steel guitar attracted a hundred-odd aficionados of the instrument to this the 27th annual convention of the Pedal Steel Guitar Association. There will be performances by steelers from all over the country and Canada, a seminar (my main reason for coming) and a jam session featuring three of the leading exponents of the instrument. There will also be hardware, strings, instructional materials, hard-to-find CDs and other merchandise for sale, as well as a few pedal steels, and far-flung members of online discussion groups will have a chance to meet in person.

The personality traits that determine an affinity for computers seem perfectly aligned with the slightly compulsive nature of pedal steel players. This could be some offshoot of the pocket-protector tree, musical nerds who found experimenting with different pedal setups even more fun than building Estes rockets, and I find myself wondering if my lifelong disaffinity with even the simplest math separates me from my fellow travelers. Like all cults, pedal steel has its own subgenus, and in the field this particular cladistic branch appears to consist mostly of middle-aged working-class white men in warmup jackets and Nikes. A few conventiongoers are accompanied by wives or girlfriends, but there are no virtually no females participating in the event, and I hear of only one woman in attendance who actually plays the instrument. But it's pleasantly jarring to overhear a couple of old guys at the bar discussing the advantages of analog versus digital reverb, and I even hear a pedal steel joke: Why should you always carry your tone bar with you? Because if you were killed in an accident and they only found fingerpicks on you, they might mistake you for a banjo player.

SO WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT, ALVINO, you ask? Well, it's about a sound that can by turns be as lush and languid as a full string section or as bright and bouncy as a banjo, that can be applied to the most complex jazz progressions as well as the rawest foot-stomping moonshine music. It's deeply sophisticated and wholly honky-tonk at the same time, and it's the ultimate American instrument.

The pedal steel guitar is the descendant of the lap steel, which came into vogue around 1915 with the Hawaiian music craze and gradually worked its way into the American mainstream via the music of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Alvino Rey and Santo & Johnny ("Sleepwalk"). American manufacturers like Rickenbacker and Gibson began making instruments to suit this new style of music, essentially flat slabs of wood, metal or Bakelite outfitted with a pickup and six or eight strings set about an inch above a painted-on fretboard. A guitar in name only, the steel guitar is played seated, on one's lap or on detachable legs, with the hands resting on top. The right hand picks the strings, while the left holds a stainless steel bar that you slide up and down the neck to change the pitch. But the lap steel was limited; since the instrument is fretted with a straight bar, it lacks the flexibility that fingers provide on the neck of a normal guitar. In order to be able to play comfortably in a wide range of keys, it was necessary to add more necks with different tunings, which had its limits as well. The first pedals were an attempt to eliminate the need for multiple necks by changing the pitch of all the strings to a different chord, a solution that was undermined by the unreliability of the mechanisms.

But Americans, as we know, are a tinkering breed, and in the early '50s a fellow named Bud Isaacs got the idea of hooking up a pedal that would pull a single string to a preset pitch while the instrument was being played, making the movement of the note part of the style. The first recording to feature this was 1953's "Slowly," by Webb Pierce, with Isaacs on steel, and the cat was out of the bag. More pedals were added, and then knee levers, which provided new ways to raise or lower the pitch of the strings. By the late '50s the pedal steel guitar — now up to 10 strings — was pretty much the way we know it today.

FAST FORWARD TO THANKSGIVING 1972. Back in New York for the holiday my freshman year in college, I go see the New Riders of the Purple Sage — sort of a rockin'-country adjunct to the Grateful Dead — at the Academy of Music. Perhaps my proximity to the mirror ball overhead clouds my judgment, but it is my distinct impression that my skull has been imploded by the virtuoso performance of Buddy Cage, the Riders' pedal steel player. Cage is the real deal, a country veteran who played on Anne Murray's first five albums; in contrast, the Dead's Jerry Garcia, the New Riders' original steel player, was a relative dilettante on the instrument who happened to play the steel break on Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Teach your Children." Garcia got by on his marvelous musicality rather than any real technique, and it's one of the enduring ironies that his performance on the CS&N smash, probably the best-known song to feature a pedal steel, is widely reviled among purists. Then again, half the people playing today probably started after they heard him, including me.

So thanks to Buddy and Jerry, the demon seed has been planted. Two years later I am asking my long-suffering parents to bail me out in my failing attempt to purchase a pedal steel on layaway, which I imprudently committed to at the beginning of the year that, by mutual consent with my father, I took off from college to ponder the relative merits of working in a piss factory and attending an Ivy League school. They oblige on a loan, and I tackle the beast. But my first dalliance is too much, too soon: The complexity of the instrument is more than I can handle, and I eventually abandon it to concentrate on the guitar, which I already play and can at least tune, and which offers more immediate applications.


The author and the object of his affections

SUDDENLY, IT'S 2000. AFTER 15 YEARS, the band I've been leading breaks up. But by a stroke of luck, a friend has recently bequeathed me an old ZB Custom pedal steel, and I figure, what better time to tackle my old nemesis. It turns out my gift guitar was abused as a young instrument, and I send it to Nashville to be worked on by veteran steel repairman Mike Cass, a classic tinkerer in the Bud Isaacs mode, who has a few extra metal rods custom-made for me for what seems like a ridiculously low price. Mike gives me detailed explanations regarding the butterfly nuts and the torque of the rods underneath, which I pretend to understand, but even a fool can see that the guitar has come back vastly improved, and I can finally address the instrument in earnest.

And quite a piece of work it is: As I sit at my pedal steel, my left foot controls three pedals that each raise different pairings of strings, making new chords out of the various open chords available. On either side of my knees are levers that either raise or lower the pitch of other strings; by picking different clusters of strings and using various combinations of pedals and levers, one can play a virtually unlimited number of chord variations. My guitar has one neck, in the E ninth tuning that is the standard for country-style playing. Some of the more advanced players use double-necked instruments with one neck tuned to E ninth and the other to C sixth, for jazz and swing; a 12-string "universal" hybrid also exists. But I'm keen on the bubbly pentatonic sounds of straight country, and another neck right now would just be a cruel joke. To cap it all off, my right foot controls a volume pedal, which gives the instrument its airy, floating quality — in my dreams, that is.

Playing this monster is a quadraphonic version of rubbing your stomach and patting your head, and that's just coordinating the movements. The real problems start when you try to find accurate intonation on the neck with a 7.5-ounce stainless steel bar while simultaneously damping the strings to avoid sounding like a pack of seasick cats.

But occasionally the muse is indulgent, and when it works, it's irresistible. Sliding the bar and working the pedals adds a quicksilver fluidity to the sound of picked notes, and the richness of the chords makes their guitar counterparts sound puny and one-dimensional. Stumbling through a transcription of "Wichita Lineman," I think I catch a fleeting glimpse of the promised land.

Luckily, the intervening years have broadened my musical knowledge considerably, and now that tuners cost $30 instead of the $300 they went for back in '75, I'm at least on an even playing field. Videocassettes and the Internet are two more tools for learning that I didn't have back then, and in no time I'm immersed in instructional tapes and transcriptions downloaded from various online sources. Difficult though it may be, the steel is totally addictive; hours go by as I tackle songs and exercises, and I am continually amazed at the power of muscle memory. The learning curve is steep and exhilarating, and when times are tough there are plenty of kindred souls to commiserate with online.

The pedal steel is the kind of specialized area of interest that is perfectly suited to the Internet, and the Steel Guitar Forum is a collegial environment where players from all over the world exchange information, swap stories and try to help each other decipher licks. It's an incredible resource: Someone will post a query about how to play a particular passage, and the forum's participants will descend on it like a pack of wolves, each trying to top the other with the accuracy of their transcriptions, so that often within minutes it will have been stripped bare like the carcass of some hapless buffalo. The tone is supportive and down-homey ("You have ears like a damn dog," ran one appreciative posting recently. "I bet you can hear a mouse pee on cotton"); novices' questions are patiently addressed and everybody knows your name. Make that every Buddy — it seems that the biggest guns in the business frequent the site, including the legendary Buddy Emmons, who is frequently referred to in postings simply as The Greatest Pedal Steel Player Who Ever Lived. A query about the history of the instrument gets me a personal e-mail from one of its elder statesmen, Maurice Anderson. It's the pedal steel equivalent of a guitar chat group where Jeff Beck or George Benson would weigh in occasionally.

BUT NONE OF THESE RESOURCES MAKE THE DARN THING any easier to play, hence the pilgrimage to Norwalk. My seminar is conducted by Joe Wright, one of the more cutting-edge players on the scene, who looks like a cross between Austin Powers and Joey Ramone, and who takes the group through drills emphasizing the importance of the right hand. Isolating problems on the steel is a little like trying to decide which one in a school of piranhas is hurting you more, and Wright's method provides a solid grounding that's all the more welcome in that I can actually understand most of what's going on. I have the feeling that some of these guys have been playing a lot longer than I have, but Joe doesn't seem too impressed with any of us and keeps the focus on the basics. He tells me to slow down about five times. Good thing I caught him, too — attendance at these seminars has been dwindling steadily in the four years Joe's done them, and he says he won't be back next year.

Throughout the convention, as in the online forums, one gets the sense of lore carefully being passed along. The instrument's pioneers, after all, are still with us for the most part, but judging from the convention it doesn't appear to be a magnet for youth: At 45, I'm in the younger half of my 10-man seminar, and I see maybe two people all weekend who are clearly under 30. Perhaps I'm not the only one who got put off by it the first time around.

But the rarefied ranks make the sense of tradition all the stronger: At least two performers appear on stage with their fathers, and much is made of one of them, a 19-year-old who plays old-style non-pedal steel guitar. There's something touching about this awkward youth smiling uncomfortably behind his guitar, playing 50-year-old tunes note for note while his father, playing rhythm sternly behind him, reels off a spiel that was corny in Lawrence Welk's day, but I find it vaguely creepy too. Keeping the genre fresh and alive is going to take more than an embalmer's devotion, and suddenly Jerry Garcia seems a lot more relevant than some might give him credit for. It is about music first, after all, not just the instrument.

Luckily, some of the instrument's heaviest hitters are in their prime and have come to play, and the jam session Saturday night is the weekend's highlight. Herby Wallace, Doug Jernigan and Joe Wright, accompanied by bass and drums, tear into a set that ranges from "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the bluegrass standard "Rocky Top" (featuring a scorching ride by Jernigan) to "Johnny B. Goode." As is not always the case with highly technical instrumental displays (think jazz fusion), some actual music is being played here, and very well.

The results are a little more uneven on Sunday, when about 10 steelers take turns on the bandstand, but the best among them are pretty intimidating. They're all in a different universe of skill than the one I inhabit, of course, but the levels that separate me from the lowliest of these guys are the same as those separating them from the likes of Jernigan, whose solo set I stick around for before heading home. He opens with the bebop standard "Jordu," effectively blowing away about 99 percent of the field, then satisfies the country contingent's needs with terrifying versions of "Black Mountain Rag" and "Orange Blossom Special." I smile in idiotic bliss.

As I wait for the cab to take me to the Norwalk train station, listening to the tape I made of Jernigan's performance, I think of William Carlos Williams' line, and it occurs to me that in this quixotic adventure, I'm following those same currents of refined obsession, trying to claim a small, evanescent patch of the American fantasy. The maverick creative spirit that animated Henry Ford and Les Paul and Elvis is fully manifest in this impossible instrument, which is as crazy and American as it gets.