With origins dating back to the 19thCentury, the steel guitar found its way to Hawaii by courtesy of Mexican settlers. Originally played on the lap, the instrument was a modification to the Spanish guitar, whereby the strings were raised by a half inch, creating what was at that time a quite distinctive sound. Joseph Kekuku is given credit for the invention and his relocation to America at the turn of the 20thCentury introduced and taught the instrument to a host of enthusiastic guitarists. Tours of Europe followed, where Kekuku brought the instrument to the attention of large audiences in both London and Paris.
Over the next two decades the instrument became a feature in both Western Swing and Country music. Still played on the lap at that time, it eventually evolved into a console unit. As Country music merged into Rockabilly and Rock’n’Roll, the pedal steel guitar continued to play a pivotal part. A statement of the versatility of the instrument has been its capacity to crossover into a host of genres outside its traditional home. Jazz, pop, rock, gospel, Indian, folk, Americana and African music have all been graced by its characteristic sound.
Requiring the co-ordination of two hands, knees and feet, it’s considered to be one of the most difficult musical instruments to master. Committed students of the instrument in America enjoy the luxury of available tuition from the many accomplished players and teachers. Not so fortunate in U.K. and Ireland, where keen to develop playing skills, pupils were often restricted to manuals to self-teach the instrument.
Most encouraging are the new generation of players close to home who have championed the instrument, despite the somewhat limited market in Europe. Our own David Murphy and U. K’s Joe Harvey Whyte are two examples of players whose determination to master the pedal steel has gained them both reputations are two of the finest players in Europe. Despite their expertise, they both still consider themselves as students of the instrument as they recently explained to Lonesome Highway.
Pedal steel is not generally the first instrument to be picked up by young budding musicians. Did you start your musical journey on another instrument?
JHW:I think the pedal steel would be an incredibly difficult instrument to start out on. I definitely benefited from having played guitar since age 10 and from messing around on lap steels for a few years before picking up the pedal steel.
DM:I had a deep love of music from a very young age – my parents had a pub/dancehall when I was very little and so I couldn’t even avoid music if I’d wanted to. When I started school, I learned piano as well as joining the local brass band. I got into playing guitar when I started secondary school and that was it, I was gone on a lifelong quest! Blues, rock, folk, country, bluegrass – all the great recorded folk music of the last 100 years - consumed me. I played a lot of fingerstyle acoustic – John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Bert Jansch - and from here experimented with open tunings and eventually I started to get more curious about slide guitar in particular. This was the gateway to lap steel guitar and dobro and very soon pedal steel guitar specifically.
Your first memory of hearing the pedal steel and was it love at first sight?
JHW: You know what, I think it was hearing David Lindley’s lap steel solo on “These Days” by Jackson Browne that really turned me on to the sound and emotional power of slide instruments. The way he makes that instrument scream and cry at the same time just did something to me. The first track I remember hearing pedal steel on though was probably Linda Ronstadt’s version of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. I think the steel player was Sneaky Pete Kleinow. That sound he makes just pulls at your heartstrings. A friend once described it as chrome tears.
DM: Growing up in 1980’s north county Cork, there was a lot of country music around; I’m sure subconsciously I was hearing the instrument all the time, without knowing what it was. I can remember seeing it on TV and it was intriguing and somewhat mysterious; that crying, swelling sound was instantly emotive and stood out. When I discovered it properly as I was diverging and exploring as a guitarist, it certainly became a deep fascination of which I just had to explore more.
Were you influenced initially by country music or particularly by the instrument itself?
JHW:By the sounds of my answer to the last question, yes. But it wasn’t specifically the genre that grabbed me, it was the sound of the instrument itself. My obsession with pedal steel has taken me on some really interesting listening adventures. From Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories record to a hip-hop collaboration between Aphex Twin’s Luke Vibert and BJ Cole. Over the years though, I’ve ended up listening to and being involved in creating a lot of country music. Though that is mainly because the genre is often when you find the most pedal steel. Deep down I’d like to follow in the footsteps of players like BJ Cole, Geir Sundstøl, Johan Lindström and Greg Leisz who take the instrument into new areas, opening up the possibilities for pedal steel.
DM: Probably more by the instrument itself. I was always into cinematic and instrumental music growing up and that’s how I became interested in pedal steel firstly. In the early 2000’s I was really getting into bands and artists like Calexico, Richmond Fontaine, Neko Case, Daniel Lanois. A lot of their records featured the instrument in a very tasteful and minimal context in the arrangements yet could be very stirring and exotic. It can be evocative and a beautiful texture when used sparingly and subtly and that was how I came to like it initially. Once I was listening out for pedal steel, it emerged more clearly to me on so many classic records that I was already familiar with by artists like Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan. This then became the gateway for me to delving into a lot of the classic country and western swing from which it first emerged and was in its hey-day and that is really where you get an education on all the best players of the instrument.
What model did you first play?
JHW:My first steel was a double neck Sho Bud Pro III. The thing was a monster. I only wanted a single neck steel but in this country pedal steels are hard to come by. I found it up for sale on the British Steel Guitar Forum. At the time I knew nothing about pedal steels, they seemed so intricate with hundreds of moving parts; I was scared of buying something that had issues. Fortunately, I’d just met an experienced steel player called Matt Park. He very kindly offered to drive me up to Birmingham where the steel was located and check that it worked ok. His first words were, “she’s a bit of a beast!”. It was 35kgs. I’d never lifted anything that heavy. But it sounded amazing! I was sold. Matt and I drove it back home, he made some adjustments to make it easier for me to play and I was off! I used that steel on everything I did for the first two or three years of playing.
DM:My first pedal steel was a beginner-model Carter Starter that I bought in 2005. It was a fantastic instrument to learn on – it was reasonablyaffordable and also had the configuration and setup common to most pro models. I had that for 4 years before I bought my current guitar which was built for me by David Jackson, son of the great Harold ‘Shot’ Jackson of the Sho-Bud guitar company. Along with Buddy Emmons in the 1950’s and 60’s, they pretty much standardised the instrument and were the first to mass produce pedal steel guitars. I’ve had the same guitar since and it’s been serving me fairly well.
Tell me about your initial learning process with the instrument?
JHW: I’m lucky enough to have started playing pedal steel in the Internet age. I’ve heard stories from older steel players that in the past finding anything to do with pedal steel was like finding a needle in a haystack. I’ve been able to find so much literature on the steel, tuition videos and recordings of the instrument, I couldn’t possibly go through it all in a lifetime. Matt Park, who I mentioned earlier was a real help. He gave me a few simple exercises to do which helped me get over the initial shock of playing an instrument which requires you to play it with all 4 of your limbs! But for the most part I’ve been self-taught. There also used to be a little group of pedal steel players who’d meet at the back of a pub in south London every few months. It was organised by a steel player called Jon Shaklock. We’d sit around taking it in turns to play along to a backing track and swap notes. Those afternoons were so enjoyable and useful to me as a new player.
DM: When I bought my first pedal steel, YouTube didn’t really exist and so playing along to records and learning from books was my first foray into getting to grips with the instrument. There were no teachers around either. There is a very good online community and network of pedal steelers around the world on the Steel Guitar Forum, which is a huge resource. This proved to be invaluable to me when it came to learning about tunings, maintenance of the instrument, pickups, playing techniques or just learning new songs and discovering artists and players new and old. There was then also just the simple case of getting out there and playing as much as I could in a live setting, seeing how best to accompany singers, play alongside other musicians and start to think like a pedal steel player.
With so many variations in playing, there does not seem to be a gospel or guide to playing the pedal steel. Does this make the learning process particularly arduous?
JHW:There’s a saying amongst the pedal steel community: “There’s as many ways of playing pedal steel as there are players”. I think that’s true. I certainly have my idiosyncrasies which I always remind my students about. Jeff Newman started a steel guitar school in the USA the 80s I believe. He has some set ways of playing which I’m sure I’ll regret not learning. But for some reason I’ve always resisted the idea that there’s only one way to do something. Sometimes you figure out really interesting things by doing them ‘wrong’.
DM:It is quite daunting starting off, for these very reasons. It is a bit of a minefield. As well as being a rare instrument to come across, it can be awkward to move around and setup. Given that the string tension is being manipulated, raised and lowered with every move, tuning it can be very challenging. Mechanically, the whole instrument is a series of compromises essentially. It’s then a complex instrument to get to grips with operating: it literally involves both hands, both knees and both feet. It’s very sensitive and nuanced physically to play. You need to have your wits about you – it’s not the best for playing with a few pints of stout on board! As well as all this, there are not that many players in Ireland – certainly not outside the showband scene or south of the border – and so it took me a while before I discovered any other players in these islands who I could get to know. Even then, it’s not unusual to find that some players play slightly different variants or configurations of the instrument and so will have different styles. This makes it all the more interesting though, I think.
Do you still consider yourself a student of the instrument?
JHW:Definitely. I don’t think you ever stop learning. The instrument is always teaching you something. The different tunings and pedal/lever combinations allow for multiple ways of approaching the same notes or scales. I knew virtually nothing about music theory before I started playing pedal steel. Following the internal logic of the instrument was like taking a crash course in chordal theory and harmony. I’ve been playing about 5 years now and when I sit down at the steel, as long as I’m open to it, new things emerge.
DM:Absolutely – there is no end to learning. I’m always listening to players new and old and seeing what I can learn or pick up. It’s a challenging instrument. I had formal lessons for the first time last year and it proved to me that really the pedal steel offers up new things that are always waiting to be discovered. I also play the earlier incarnations of the instrument – the acoustic dobro which is a 6-string square-neck resonator guitar used in a more bluegrass setting as well as 8-string lap steel for more traditional Hawaiian and western swing music. They all use different tunings and approaches but come from the same family essentially. Playing different styles of music and accompanying within different ensembles ensures that I’m kept on my toes!
What period do you reckon to be the golden era for the instrument?
JHW:That’s a hard question. If we’re talking about a golden era of people listening to and appreciating pedal steel, I think that’s got to be a period stretching from the late 50s to the early 70s. The instrument had been born in the early 50s with players like Alvino Rey and Bud Issacs who added pedals to regular (straight) steel guitars. And by the 60s it was really starting to take hold. Back then if you were in a country band and didn’t have a pedal steel it wasn’t really country. Then the rise of great players like Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, Red Rhodes, Curly Chalker and so many others helped to put pedal steel on the map. But…. if we’re talking about a golden age of pedal steel being used in new and inventive ways. I think that’s happening right now. There are players like Susan Alcon using pedal steel in Avant Garde Jazz and like I mentioned earlier, BJ Cole and others have paved the way for other genres to consider pedal steel as an expressive tool beyond country music.
DM:I suppose the 1950’s and 60’s were transformative and really set the bar high in terms of the invention and creativity of the players of those times. They were absolute pioneers and trailblazers in the evolution of the instrument. What was most impressive was how the mechanics developed often in isolation – for example, a guy in Texas could be adding a pedal to his steel guitar whilst another in California was adding a lever of some sort – with neither of them aware of the other’s work. It’s fascinating to think about! It was a time of amazing singers and songwriters and the standard of players needed to match that. By the turn of the 1970’s, it’s nice to see that the instrument didn’t just die off as being out of fashion but that it found its way into country rock with the Bakersfield sound… appearing on plenty classic coming out of Laurel Canyon... Jimmy Page using it on the early Led Zeppelin records to nice effect and so it lived on. Whilst it probably won’t have quite the same impact culturally ever again, it is here to stay and will always have its place, I think.
Are your favourite players current performers or from bygone times?
JHW: I have favourites from the past and from now. Buddy Emmons always blows me away. His command over the instrument is unrivalled by any other player past or present, in my opinion. He can play jazz on that thing like it’s a sax. Curly Chalker was pretty damn good at that too. He put the steel through a Leslie which I love the sound off. Speedy West also! As for living players. Greg Leisz has been a favourite of mine for a long time. He has such a subtle touch. He always serves the song. There’s a live version of Hickory Wind by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Leisz doesn’t make the steel sound country, he just makes it drift in and out like waves. BJ Cole too. He always comes at things from an angle you didn’t even know existed.
DM:A mix of both definitely. There is so much to be learned from the older players as they really set such a high standard. Buddy Emmons (the Hendrix of pedal steel arguably), Pete Drake (Bob Dylan/George Harrison amongst so many others), Lloyd Green, Speedy West are some of my earlier favourites. Of today’s players, I really like Paul Brainard (Richmond Fontaine, M.Ward), Paul Niehaus (Calexico, Iron and Wine), Eric Heywood (Tift Merritt, Over The Rhine), Spencer Cullum (Caitlin Rose, Steelism), Tucker Jackson (The Delines). Russ Pahl and Greg Leisz have taken the instrument to really interesting new places. Recently I’ve discovered a guy named Rich Hinman whose playing has absolutely blown my mind. He plays with kd lang and Vulfpeck amongst others but has a really interesting and beautiful approach to playing the instrument that’s very much in a contemporary manner.
One player who is overlooked enormously and was pretty much undiscovered is Vance Terry who died about 20 years ago after having lived an extraordinary life. He only made one record (as far as I know), a sort of live bootleg album called ‘Brisbane Bop’. He and a guitar player named Jimmie Rivers played amped-up western swing and country jazz – or hillbilly bop – as residents in a fairly rough nightclub in San Francisco in the early 1960’s, a time when the whole genre was pretty much past its prime. His playing is some of the most amazing I’ve ever heard. It’s somewhere between New Orleans jazz and Texas country and Chicago blues and they tackle some big-band standards too with a small ensemble. He makes the instrument sound like a whole orchestra at times – the chords and melodies and voicings he summons up are mind-blowing! I don’t think anybody before or since has played pedal steel quite like it. That record really is like something from an alternate universe! Check it out, you won’t be disappointed!
Is there one particular player whose style has predominately influenced your playing?
JHW:I think Greg Leisz and BJ have had the biggest impact on my playing. I’ve had to fill his shoes a couple of times which was daunting! He played pedal steel on a record made by a Norwegian artist called Susanne Sundfor. I ended up playing some shows as part of her band and I was so honoured to be giving my own take on Greg Leisz’s steel parts. The album is called “Songs For People in Trouble”. It’s a beautiful record and Greg Leisz playing is enchanting. I met BJ Cole just as I started learning pedal steel. I had a couple of ‘lessons’ with him. Most of the lessons consisted of us talking about the instrument, players, tunings, albums. Very little teaching (in the traditional sense) actually took place. But somehow, I always came away having learnt something new, or having had some new ideas. He introduced me to some incredible music and played me LPs is never even heard of. One of my favourites was Buddy Emmons playing pedal steel through a talk box on a Ray Price song called “Burned Fingers”. It wasn’t just Pete Drake that did that. Saying all that, I reckon the biggest influence BJ had on me was when he came to see one of gigs and fell asleep. If that doesn’t change the way you play, I don’t know what will.
DM:The LA-based session player Greg Leisz has probably had the biggest influence on my playing. His contributions to so many amazing records over the past 20 years have been, to me, a textbook example of how the pedal steel can be so effective when applied sparingly and organically, enhancing a song or recording without showboating. He plays the song as opposed to the instrument and it’s always the right notes in the right places with the right tone and feel and nothing more. His playing with Bill Frisell is on another level altogether and is a benchmark of modern pedal steel playing, I think.
Mentioning U.K. player B.J. Cole, has worked in pop, jazz, ambient and experimental music notwithstanding roots and country over the past forty years. Are there still opportunities for you outside roots and country music?
JHW: If you listen to B’Js ambient records or his work on The Apollo album by Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Icebreaker, you get a sense that there is real potential for the pedal steel outside of country music. You get that with Geir Sundstoel, Johan Lindström and some other non-traditional players too. For me the instrument has always had this ethereal, other-worldly sound to it. It’s sustained and searching notes have tended to resonate more deeply with me than the chicken picking type playing. Don’t get me wrong, I love that, it’s fun! But when you slow things down and use the instrument in an ambient context it really begins to open up new doors.
DM:I’d like to think so. I’m a big admirer of what BJ Cole has done over the years. I’m interested in so many different genres of music although I don’t get approached generally by artists too far from the folk and roots scenes. It’s something I’d love to change as I’m keen to forge new roads in pedal steel as both a main instrument as well as accompaniment. There have been some good European players emerging in recent years who deserve to be heard and are making new and interesting music on pedal steel that is a world-removed from its country-music origins – Maggie Bjorklund from Denmark, Geir Sundstol from Norway, Joe Harvey Whyte from the UK are some that come to mind. Pushing boundaries and exploring new terrain is important I think for the development of the instrument.
Which style do you feel most comfortable in, rock, country, electro, classical or ambient music?
JHW: I’m lucky enough to get to play with lots of different acts with different styles. One day I could be on a traditional country gig and the next, or even later that day it might be a folk / singer-songwriter gig. Then maybe the day after I’ll be playing ambient sounds as background music for a life drawing class. I love this instrument so much that I’m just happy playing it in whatever context or genre I find myself in and connecting with the music and the other musicians. But if I had to choose one… I think improvised ambient/experimental music is where I feel most at home. Playing that kind of music like dreaming whilst still being awake.
DM:I’m probably most comfortable in a traditional rock’n’roll band setting but I like to be challenged. Playing as part of a duo, for example with an acoustic guitar, ensures that you need to be on top of your game; there’s nowhere to hide. I’m pretty comfortable in that setting too. Playing in a bigger band setting allows more breathing space for definite. I’ve been recently working on my own music again after a long spell, incorporating pedal steel into modern classical and ambient compositions along with piano, synths and strings. It’s very interesting and it’s nice to be writing with pedal steel in mind. I’m curious to see where it goes and of course am cautious that it doesn’t step into dull or boring ‘fusion’ territory – it’s a fine line!
Is there sufficient demand in Europe to generate enough work for you and have you considered moving to The States to further your career?
JHW:A lot of people ask me about moving to the US. And yeah there’s probably plenty of work out there. But...I kinda like it here. I like being in Europe (and whatever happens with Brexit I will still be considering myself a European citizen) There’s definitely enough work to go around here. There’s a wealth of talent in the U.K. and also in mainland Europe, plus North American acts come over all the time and often need a steel player. On top of all of that, in the US there’s kids about 15 years old who can shred on steel better than I’ll ever be able to!
DM:I don’t play full-time for a living and so I can afford to be selective when it comes to choosing what projects or artists I get involved with. I considered moving to the US when I finished college – I applied for a green card – but it never materialised. I don’t regret it, especially considering the way things are there at the moment politically and socially. There does seem to be a more open-minded approach to pedal steel in Europe too which doesn’t exist on the same level in the US, I think. It can be pigeonholed very easily there. Separately to that, I do think Ireland produces some of the finest artists and musicians on the planet considering our small population – we always have done. Culturally, I don’t think there is a richer place than Ireland for music. So, I’m more than happy to live here and be able to work with some of these great singers and songwriters and musicians.
Have you visited Nashville to check out the talent and styles there and what did you learn from the experience?
JHW:I went to Nashville a couple of years ago and it really changed me. The level of playing there is off the chart. I almost wanted to give up. I ended up coming back to London and setting up a Honky Tonk night to try and recreate a bit of that Nashville sound. I met Lloyd Green when I was out there and that was pretty amazing. I went to his house, we had a chat about The Byrds, Jonny Paycheck and then he sat down and played his original Sho~Bud steel flawlessly. He’s over 80 now too! Along with JD Maness, Lloyd Green played on Sweet Heart of The Rodeo. He’s a seriously good country player. But when I was there he played an instrumental composition he’d just written called “Venus Moon”. Not country at all, who knew he was taking the steel to outer space too?
DM:I first visited Nashville in 2007, around the time I first got into playing steel. Having seen some amazing players in the flesh, I was motivated even more to dedicate myself to the instrument. I have since been back a number of times over the years and always make sure to check out what is going on in terms of pedal steel. Most recently, I was there last year having received an Individual Artist Bursary Award from Cork City Arts Council to develop and enhance my playing. I had one-on-one tuition with two great teachers and players, Buck Reid and Pete Finney. It was invaluable as I’d never had any formal lessons ever before and what I learned has undoubtedly improved my technique as well as the artistic approach I have to the instrument.
Your most memorable playing experience to date?
JHW:That’s a real tough one. A few years ago, I got to play at The Royal Albert Hall opening up for Jools Holland with an amazing singer and friend, Beth Rowley. I remember seeing Jackson Browne and David Lindley there as a teenager. That’s pretty up there! Recording at Abbey Road studio 2 with my good friends The Magic Numbers was pretty wild too. That room is such an inspiring place to be in. The sounds that have bounced around those walls. I didn’t feel worthy to be on such hallowed ground. But the most memorable experience has to be performing at Union Chapel in London as part of Tony Visconti’s life in music concert. I did a solo version of a Brian Eno and David Bowie ambient song called Moss Garden. It was the first time I’d ever played a solo piece on steel and it was in front of about 1000 people. And in this beautiful old church too. It was pretty magical. Later in the set I played pedal steel with Tony Visconti, Stuart Copeland, Bob Geldof and Imelda May. The whole thing was being filmed for a Sky Arts TV programme too so I was nervous as hell!
DM:I’ve been very lucky to play with some wonderful singers, writers and musicians. A really warm reception for John Blek and The Rats’ first show at Kilkenny Roots many years ago was a highlight for me personally, being a long-time attendee and friend of the festival. Headlining with both ‘The Rats and Richmond Fontaine in the Set Theatre a few years later stands out too, given how much an influence Richmond Fontaine were during my early years learning pedal steel. I’ve had some great experiences to date with The Delines as well as with Willy Vlautin as part of his book tours. I’ve been lucky to get to tour and record with some of the finest artists Ireland has produced in recent times – John Blek, Anna Mitchell, The Lost Brothers, Malojian, The Remedy Club, Greenshine are some that spring to mind.
Are you working on any interesting projects at present?
JHW:I play regularly with a cosmic country band from London called The Hanging Stars. We’re just about to put out our third record and I’m really excited for people to hear it. I think it’s our best yet. I also run a Promotions company called Jambalaya Events. We recently put on a concert at an amazing old Victorian music hall here in London with a collection of great songwriters. It was a live tribute concert to the 70s music doc Heartworn Highways which features Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle. The Magic Numbers played, as did Zak Hobbs who’s the grandson of Richard and Linda Thompson. Some other lesser known but no less talented singer-songwriters performed too. It was a very special night and I’m hoping to do a lot more of this kind of thing with this collection of artists in the future.
DM:The most recent recording projects I have been involved in include the forthcoming album from The Remedy Club which was produced by the legendary Ray Kennedy who was behind so many great country rock and roots albums of the last 20 years. They are a superb duo with top class songs. Another recent project is a new album for The Lost Brothers, coming out next year. I probably can’t say too much about that one just yet but it features a pretty world-class cast of backing musicians and turned out really well! I also recorded some pedal steel lately for the soundtrack of the novel ‘#Zero’ by the journalist and writer Neil McCormick, which was very interesting.
The beauty about the instrument seems to be that the players appear to be as much in demand in their sixties as their twenties! Musically, where do you see yourself and the instrument a few decades down the road? More of the same or crossing into new musical genres?
JHW:Oh God. I don’t know. All I want is to still be enjoying playing the instrument. Still be enjoying recording and putting on gigs. Feeling the connection with people I play music with. Experimenting. Still discovering new things. As long as I’m doing those things, I know I’ll be happy. Anything else that comes along will be a bonus.
DM:Crossing into different genres is where I’m most interested in going. It can be challenging given that the sound of the instrument is synonymous with America and its various landscapes - conjuring up imagery of expansive deserts and dusty plains etc. It’s also not a very rhythmic instrument as such and so it will always play more of a textural and melodic role in that regard. At the same time, I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the instrument as opposed to playing music. I look towards artists like The Gloaming or The Unthanks who prove that with the right ingredients you can take ancient forms of music and traditional instruments and present them in a manner that is wholly fresh and reinvigorated. I’m keen to create new music featuring pedal steel with that kind of spirit and present it in a new light. We’ll see what happens!
Interview by Declan Culliton