Learning pedal steel in the 50’s

Hello fellow players,

I just had a question asked of me that seems like a very intelligent question. I think this question may be in several other people’s minds so I’m going to answer it here in the newsletter. I was asked how us old guys learned to play so well so fast in the beginning of pedal steel guitar.

For instance, 1951 there were none, but by 1955 there were many great steel guitar players playing unbelievably well. Did we practice all day long every day? Did we all huddle together and help each other out? Did we listen to each other every chance we could? Did we attend every jam session that we could find?

My answer was players with great tone and execution that played without pedals simply added pedals and then learned licks with the pedals. Guys like Sonny Burnett that played almost nothing, but pedals inspired him to practice continually and listen to everybody else.

Walter Haynes bought a Bigsby from Shot with one pedal on it. He recorded “We Could” with Jimmy Dickens and the entire world went nuts over that record and this is the same story for Bud Isaacs and Sonny Burnett that cut those glorious records with Webb Pierce.

It’s hard to hide a candle under a bushel basket when the light is that bright. Everyone that owned a steel guitar and everybody that didn’t own a steel guitar had gone totally nuts over that E to A pedal sound.

Then when Buddy Emmons came along with his Bigsby, everything he recorded was a steel guitar lesson to anyone that had 87 cents for a 45 rpm record. I remember seeing Buddy with Jimmy Dickens on a television show out of Louisiana and he had just split his E to A pedals and he played some beautiful things that forced me to bang my head against the wall.

From this point on, I didn’t care if I had to throw my whole entire life away, all I could hear in my mind twenty four hours a day was that steel guitar sound. So how did we get better was the question from 1951 to 1961. I believe we were all driven nuts by that incredible style and sound. Everybody was practicing, jamming, copying, working any kind of a job they could get, in Nashville or out and also it seems like everybody helped everybody at that period of time.

Anytime anyone came out with a new lick on a record and one guy could play it, he’d show everybody within earshot how to do it. What wonderful days these were. By far the greatest thing to help steel guitar and make it what it is today were the pedals on the E9th neck.

It was so haunting that even piano players were building styles playing steel guitar licks. Remember Floyd Cramer? If it wasn’t for him copying steel guitar, he’d still be totally unknown today.

Ever hear of the Scruggs tuner on a banjo? This trick was just as dastardly as the pedal on the steel guitar. I think if Danny Davis could’ve put a pedal on his trumpet, the Nashville Brass would still be cutting hit tunes today.

Back to the original question again. How did us old guys suddenly get so good so fast? It had directly to do with us all becoming so enthusiastic with that sound that when we got up in the morning, we’d sit down behind our steel guitar and play it continually until something was threatening to drive us out of the house.

You know. Something like the kitchen on fire. Or the police banging on the door telling us to turn down the volume.

The greatest thing to happen to steel guitar was Bud Isaacs coming up with the pedal and recording \223Slowly\224 with Webb Pierce. He lit the fuse on the musical dynamite that blew the world apart. He blew steel guitar into the next century literally. And then right behind him Sonny Burnett recorded the rest of many songs with Webb Pierce playing with style.

Both of these guys are still with us today, but time is nibbling hard at their heels. To know either one of these people is to know the absolute beginnings of real steel guitar the way it’s played today.

The Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons, Walter Haynes, Don Davis, Howard White, even the Paul Franklin, Tommy White styles are just these old original styles with a lot of nice little tricks thrown in. If you love steel guitar, you have to love what these guys did.

You’d think that going back and listening to them today would be hard to do because our little style of playing steel has progressed so much, but this isn’t true. I know new steel players today that are going back and listening to the beginning of this style. The great Chris Scruggs is one of these players. I’d just as soon listen to him play as about any steel player around because he takes me back where it was in the beginning.

I think this explains how we all got so good in the beginning so fast. It was just something that lit our fuses that we had to learn to play quickly because we loved it.

Remember also, we didn’t have steel guitars that you could run down to the store and buy. We had to put our own pedal on whatever guitars we owned at the time. Fender, National, Rickenbacker, Magnatone, Silvertone or anything we could find or build. It didn’t play easy, however some incredible sounds came from what we would call junk today.

Half the mystique of steel guitar was making these old non-pedal guitars get these sounds that were coming out of Nashville. As I said in a previous newsletter, Shot Jackson setup a little garage area to put pedals on any steel guitar he could find and the rest of us ended up playing them twenty four hours a day.

The real pedal guitars came out in the mid to late fifties. Bigsbys, Fender 1000 to name a couple. I think everybody in the world was waiting for them. From that point on, steel guitar has progressed more rapidly than any musical instrument ever has since the beginning of time.

Check out our monthly specials at http://www.steelguitar.net/monthlyspecials.html and we’ll try to save you a lot of money.

Your buddy,

Steel Guitar Nashville
123 Mid Town Court
Hendersonville, TN. 37075
(615) 822-5555
Open 9AM – 4PM Monday – Friday
Closed Saturday and Sunday

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