Steel Guitar in All Kinds Of Music

October 25, 2012

This is Bob Hempker, let me explain how I approach my relationship with music. I am first and foremost a steel guitar fan and secondly a country music fan. I like any kind of music as long as its performed and executed well. If its performed and executed poorly I don’t particularly like it.

I also think that a steel guitar, in the right hands, can be used on any kind of music. There are absolutely no limitations to our wonderful instrument’s capabilities. The limitations lie within ourselves. Part of the challenge of learning any instrument is opening up our minds to any and all ideas.

It may have been Henry Ford who said, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Either way you’re right.” Remember that as you’re exploring and practicing your instrument.

There is such a wide spectrum of different styles of players ranging from traditional Hawaiian players, to hard core country players, jazz players, blues players, even classical players. In my opinion we need to seriously listen to and peruse as many of these styles as we possibly can.

There is someone on YouTube who plays great classical music on a steel guitar. You can find many examples of people who have stretched the traditional role of steel guitar and are doing it well. It is a travesty that the instrument has gotten so stereotyped and pigeon-holed into Hawaiian and country music when it is capable of so much more.

That could be because there are more copiers than innovators. I’m as guilty of it as anybody. When you’re playing a gig and the band plays a certain song, it’s expected of you to play that song somewhat like it was originally recorded.

Something to experiment would be to take any standard song, play it the way it was originally played, then try to play it in different styles. It can become very intriguing. Also play it in different timings. For example, play a song that was originally done as a four-four swing and try to play it in three quarter waltz time.

Things like this can keep you aroused in practice and keep you from getting in a rut of your own creation. When you practice at home, approach the instrument as an innovator. You’ll see your playing ability expand much more quickly.

One time back in the early seventies during the time I worked for Loretta, we were out on tour with the Osborne Brothers and I went on their bus one night and Sonny, the banjo player, was sitting on the bus listening attentively to a Pete Fountain album. That really opened up my way of thinking and I decided then and there that I wouldn’t narrow my scope to one or two styles of music.

A song doesn’t have to have a steel guitar in it for us to hear one in it. Let me encourage you listen to all kinds of music with an ear to hearing how steel guitar would fit in it. You need to know the melody, the chord changes and how the original arrangement of the song goes before you start experimenting with changing it.

I’ll give you an example. If you’re going to learn to play White Christmas, learn the arrangement first off Bing Crosby’s original recording. After you’ve done that, you can experiment and expand and arrange it in as many different ways as you can in different styles of music. This can bring new life to the song and also get your creative juices flowing. Can you imagine how stale and boring music would be if we all played the same way?

It’s fun to take a common country music standard such as a Crazy Arms and imagine how Robert Randolph would play it, then proceed with playing it in that fashion. By the same token, take a hard core blues solo of Robert’s and try to imagine how Buddy Emmons or Jerry Byrd would approach it.

I just finished listening to a CD that Mike Daly has released. It consists mainly of seventies rock tunes played on steel guitar and it’s called “Rock of Ages”. It’s very refreshing to examine his approach to performing these types of songs. “Jazz by Jernigan” is another example of what I’m talking about and Doug has a tab book that goes along with the CD.

Bobbe’s “As Time Goes By” CD is a wonderful collection of pop standards and his “Cure For The Blues” CD showcases Bobbe doing what he does best. If these CDs don’t open your mind to new possibilities, I doubt anything will.

Blatant plug: We have all of these in stock at www.steelguitar.net/cds.html

Listening to various categories and types of music can even help us with our day to day country or whatever style of music we normally play because notes are notes no matter what type of music they’re being played in. A “C” note is a “C” note. Period. Now, studying the different scales and such that are common to each genre of music can be beneficial to us in incorporating certain lines, licks, intros etc to our common everyday gig playing.

Do not limit your mind in what you listen to and like. When you do that, you’re taking the soul out of your playing.

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