Spinning Steel into Gold
April 25, 2014 4:18 AM   Subscribe

Steel guitar is one of those unique sounds that make me instantly smile. It's hard for me to not like any song that has a steel guitar in it.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:09 AM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

My twin maintains a series of pages devoted to steel guitar: Brad's Page of Steel. Lots of pointers to history, players, tunings, etc.
posted by blob at 5:20 AM on April 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

One of my younger kids fell in love with the uke and then the guitar this winter, and his teacher says he is pretty good. I love the sounds of him playing anything, just because it's him playing…but I sure would be in pure heaven if I could listen to my son play a National guitar while I swing in my hammock with my eyes closed. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 5:26 AM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love the sound of pedal steel; the dreamy whine is really special. I hate that I'll never have room for one or the time to really learn to play. I did play some lap steel on a few recent tracks, which was fun, but not quite the same.

Those Wavelore samples sure do sound great, though. Good enough that I'm tempted to pick them up.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:38 AM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

At the time, I was studying Rossini and had been working for several months on developing improvised coloratura for the conclusion of an aria. In opera, coloratura describes runs, trills, or other ornamentation used to elaborate a melodic line. The technique is quite demanding physically and requires an inordinate amount of focus, breath control, and melodic precision on the part of the singer. Quite unexpectedly, I was struck by how the pedal steel solo mimicked sung coloratura, that Paul Franklin’s fingers turned his instrument into operatic soprano, flashy, fleet, and confident.

Beautiful. Thanks!
posted by petebest at 6:06 AM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love it when you go to see a band and you didn't expect them to have a pedal steel. Also, it's a soul band and the lap steel player kills it.
posted by GrapeApiary at 6:08 AM on April 25, 2014

Duet for Theremin and Lap Steel is a pretty great thing.
posted by Foosnark at 6:11 AM on April 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Very nice, Wolof and Blob. Thanks.

My grandfather (b. 1899) got caught up in the Hawaiian craze of the early 20th century. He played "hawaiian guitar" as well as straight guitar and harmonica.

Here's a little FPP I did a while back on Alvino Rey, a pretty influential guitarist and inventor in the middle of the last century, now largely forgotten. He played the heck out of the pedal steel, straight guitar, and banjo, invented the first talking/singing guitar, and helped Gibson.develop the ES-150 (made famous by Charlie Christian) and the earlier EH-xxx line of lap steel models (EH = 'electric hawaiian').
posted by Herodios at 7:04 AM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's a beautiful sounding instrument, and it's a shame that I don't especially enjoy the genre of music it's mostly used in. However, there is the venerable B.J. Cole: as session musician and solo performer he's played all types of music, including electronica and classical.
posted by Grangousier at 7:07 AM on April 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Cool article.

Lap/pedal steel guitars are remarkable instruments, born of a different era, occasionally repurposed for other genres, but I think an still often sadly neglected voice in popular music. However, they're still viable niche instruments to the extent that lap steels are still manufactured and can be found inexpensively brand new, often just as good, or better than vintage. Pedal steels, on the other hand, are much more specialized. They're kind of a completely different breed, IMO.

Reminds me, I have to put some new tuning pegs on my 50s era Magnatone lap steel. The celluloid buttons have been deformed and dodgy since I bought it in the 80s, and one finally crumbled to dust a couple months back. The rest are fixin' to do the same. Really neat instrument to play.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:27 AM on April 25, 2014

I'm just starting with lap steel, oddly enough. There's a lot of different tunings but at least the hardware is fairly standard. Oh, hey blob your brother's site is my source for tunings. Cool.
posted by tommasz at 7:57 AM on April 25, 2014

Travis, lead singer of Chicago band ONO, said the best advice he ever received when becoming a musician was to buy a lap steel guitar and not take any lessons.
posted by goatdog at 9:05 AM on April 25, 2014

I'm pretty sure testing to see if you like the a steel guitar is part of the Voight-Kampff test.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:20 AM on April 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the article - the story about how traveling salesman and the establishment of music schools drove the popularity of the instrument, and then how once established the instrument diverged from its genre origins - totally fascinating. I also wasn't aware of how customized pedal steels are - and the ways in which part of playing the instrument is shaping it physically to meet your needs.

Looking for citation information on that site, I also ran into this William Gibson article in which he talks about the 78 project. The 78 project made a series of audio recordings using a lathe-cutter, presumably one of the earliest forms of commercial recording. It seems to be a meta-documentary, a project in which the actions being documented (making the audio recordings) were undertaken in order to be documented and turned into the actual output of the project, the documentary film itself. Curious age we live in. . .
posted by ianhattwick at 10:27 AM on April 25, 2014

It's the sound of country angels crying.
posted by scruss at 11:35 AM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you like pedal steel and gospel music, you should check out Sacred Steel. I have a copy of Sacred Steel Live and it's a great album.
posted by jgaiser at 11:52 AM on April 25, 2014

There's also the great Debashish Bhattacharya, here on his slide ukulele, the anandi (previously)
posted by iotic at 12:40 PM on April 25, 2014

I tried pedal steel for a few months once…. *shakes head*

Both hands, both knees and both feet. And no-one else around in my part of the UK who knew which way up it ought to go, never mind what it ought to sound like.

But a couple of years back i found a Rickenbacher (with an ‘h’) B6 on Ebay, very much like this one here. I don’t feel the need of pedals any more ;-)
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 2:40 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

The pedal steel has the distinction of being one of the few instruments that can play a wide range of pure just intonation chords, all the time - and with glissando. That's a lot of what makes it sound so sweet.

This is true of any open tuned slide guitar, but the pedal steel especially so.
posted by iotic at 3:42 PM on April 25, 2014

Like some people, I'm reminded of Dave Gilmour or Jimmy Page dabbling with steel guitar sounds in the early 1970's, like in 'Great Gig in The Sky' and 'That's The Way'.

I'd like to hear more recommendations for some classic country tracks.
posted by ovvl at 3:47 PM on April 25, 2014

Early Bright Eyes records were thick with Mike Mogis's pedal steal bits. No one else of that age and inclination was doing anything at all like that. The difference in the shades is a good example. Really rounded out that crunchy basement sound with a touch of grace.
posted by es_de_bah at 4:35 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

The trailer for the Sacred Steel disk mentioned above is pretty great.

There are lots of interesting corners in the steel world... I don't know if it's him or the dobro, but I've always loved Jerry Douglas' stuff - he's someone with a seemingly endless imagination and the ability to play any kind of music.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is another player I've really enjoyed over the years.

And David Lindley. "Very greasy." Or, more traditionally.

Harry Manx.
posted by sneebler at 4:51 PM on April 25, 2014

I'd like to hear more recommendations for some classic country tracks.

The first thing that came to my mind was George Jones' classic "The Grand Tour."

It's hard to go wrong with any of the classics by Jones or Tammy Wynette, though as the '70s go on country production increasingly resorts to syrupy synthetic strings in lieu of or on top of the steel guitars.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:32 PM on April 25, 2014

I have the Wavelore samples and they are remarkably good for something I didn’t think could be recreated.
posted by bongo_x at 11:53 AM on April 26, 2014

And David Lindley.

Oh yes indeed. I saw him with Jackson Browne in London a while back. and the couple of duets they did were magical. The album version of “One of these days” by the two of them is one of my favourite tracks ever.

And speaking of pedal steel, I found myself listening to “Hey Baby” by JJ Cale yesterday.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 12:42 AM on April 27, 2014

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