Steel Guitar as a Solo Instrument; the Road Musicians’ Diet

Here’s a newsletter I wrote 3 years ago, but for some reason, never got around to sending it out. I think it’s worth a read. Here it is.

Marshall Rowland is a great friend of many years and like greats such as Maurice Anderson, Tom Morrell and Billy Robinson, Marshall has decided to kick the pedal steel guitar habit and just go with non-pedal. There are hundreds of styles you can play on non-pedal, not just Hawaiian, Gospel or old time country.

Joaquin Murphy, Noel Boggs, Vance Terry, Slim Idaho and Herb Remington have proven that you don’t need pedals to play incredible jazz and western swing. So here’s the email I got from Marshall Rowland.

Here’s a well deserved BRAVO to your latest newsletter. . I’ve been feeling like a step child when John Lesmaster or other great local pedal steel players are on stage BUT I HEARBY QUIT. . Jerry Byrd, Alvino Rey, Little Roy, Don Helms etc., were my idols. . to me 90% of the pedal players I hear nowadays sound alike. To heck with it, I’m gonna be the best non pedaler (at my age 80) around.

Keep up the good work, yo buddy,
Marshall Rowland

I have always been a fan of non-pedal guitar, even the Jerry Byrd Hawaiian kind of thing, but after hearing many jazz and western swing players, I have deeply again fallen in love with non-pedal steel guitar and found that I can still play some very deep chords and play them in tune.

The single note scales and many other tricks you really don’t need pedals for. I feel that any pedal player worth his salt should own and practice playing a non-pedal guitar for a few hours a month and it won’t be long before he’ll see what I’m talking about. So do it, you’ll love it.

Nobody ever thinks of steel guitar as a solo instrument. You know how boring and uninteresting other solo instruments are? Like trumpet all by itself. Saxophone or flute sound wonderful with rhythm and backup from the band, but they just don’t have that big full sound that vibrates you through your entire being like piano, vibes or a symphony size harp.

However, standard guitar is a different story. I find that great players of this instrument are as interesting to listen to as the great piano players that specialize in solo recitals. I have referred to several players in the past in my newsletters, so I won’t do it again. However, I feel steel guitar played in a gigantic, rhythmic five finger style the way Chet Atkins and Merle Travis intended it to be, can make a great, full range entertaining instrument out of the steel guitar.

It seems like the Dobro players of today like Johnny Bellar, Tut Taylor and Jerry Douglas would crash a party and nobody knew what a Dobro was, they will play it so well that everybody at the party will scream more and more and go away saying, “Wow. What was that?” Maybe even possibly saying, “Who was that masked man?” Everyone will soon know what a Dobro is.

These Dobro players have no pedals, no string stretchers and no tricks. They just play incredibly well. They set a standard that steel players need to listen to and quite possibly work to achieve.

Another funny subject here involves the western swing musicians who worked for Ray Price thirty or so years ago. I was kind of a youngster on the road when Blondie Calderone hired me to work with Ray. I thought I was an old pro but soon realized there were a few little things that I didn’t know, one of which I remembered when I walked into the Waffle House last month and couldn’t think of anything they had that I would enjoy eating.

Finally I ordered scrambled eggs with their bowl of chili with the eggs all by themselves on the plate, I dumped the chili on the eggs and it brought back many memories of working with Ray Price in the old days.

I replaced Jimmy Day and our front man was a hard living old guitar player named Charley Harris. Charley ate scrambled eggs with chili on them about every meal while we were on the road. Finally I asked him, I said, “Charley, why do you order that every time we stop?”

He exclaimed, “It’s the road musicians feast. Not very expensive, almost pure protein, no carbohydrates and it’s hard to mess up eggs and of course chili is the staple of foods in south Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Tennessee.”

I started eating this way thinking it would make me a better steel guitar player and still every time I go into a questionable restaurant and I’m never dissatisfied because it’s a very simple wholesome meal. We lost Charley Harris a few years ago. He was one of the staples of the great western swing days and Ray Price country music.

Other seldom remembered heroes from those days were Billy Gray and Leon Bollinger. Real great old pros from a wonderful era. A little more now to Tennessee, Mr. Stony Stonecipher from Knoxville just sent me an email that was very much welcomed because of Stony’s stature in the world of steel guitar. Stony is on the Hall of Fame Board in St. Louis and was the producer of the Knoxville steel guitar show on Memorial Day every year for many years.

Anyway, to the point, Stony said to me, “Bobbe, you’re mentioning an awful lot of names in your newsletter that I’m sure these new guys in the business playing steel guitar don’t know who half of them are.”

My reply to him was, “There are many of these great old star players that they need to know about.” I admitted that he was correct and that I hate to think of it, but every day I’m seeing more and more new players that barely know who Buddy Emmons is and don’t know who Curly Chalker was at all.

This is a horrifying shame because these are definitely two of the very greatest steel guitar players that every walked the face of the Earth. Many of these new players think that good players are of the Jerry Garcia caliber. I think it’s really horrible some of these players think they know steel guitar but never felt the impact and violence of the great music, chords and staccato single note lines that were put out by Curly Chalker.

And no, what you see on YouTube is nothing like what he was playing through the sixties and seventies with the Billy Gray western swing band or the Wade Ray Trio and Jimmy Heath band in Las Vegas. It’s sort of like the really great big band jazz groups of yesteryear. The jazz players of today just can’t get that feeling from a CD and two eight inch speakers.

Bands like Chick Webb at the Savoy, Count Basie anywhere and the Buddy Rich band killing them all in a Detroit jam session from the fifties and sixties, talk about hearing pure violence, it made your goose bumps have goose bumps and you just shake your head and walk away and say, “I know I just heard it, but I think it’s impossible.”

I love country music of course, but I’m sure glad I have an open mind because I sure would have missed an awful lot of great music had I not.

If you want to take your steel guitar playing to the next level, you might learn something from some of my videos like the Non-Pedal steel guitar video, or the Bobbe Seymour and Maurice Anderson video.

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