Pedal steel mechanisms, Don Helms

Hello fans and fellow players,

I’d like to talk a little bit about steel guitar mechanisms. The changer on steel guitars is the heart of a pedal steel guitar, no question. How they are designed controls how well they stay in tune and how temperature affects tuning, cabinet drop and many other things that we just take for granted.

The easier a unit is designed to pull, the less strain it puts on the body of the guitar, consequently the less detuning when you’re playing. The ratios are the important things, how far and easy they pull. They also need to be equal. A raise needs to pull the same distance that a lower needs to pull to do approximately the same amount of change, but in the other direction.

For instance, the Emmons LeGrande changer is designed to pull a long distance to make the same tonal change that many changers just use a short distance to accomplish the same thing. This makes it obvious that as the pull rod changes length due to temperature expansion and contraction, an Emmons guitar will be less affected than a changer like the old original two piece Sho-Bud changer would.

I have many friends that have designed changers for many different brand guitars and have had many guitars born in front of me at my store. What these designers seem to always talk about as they are designing the changer is the distance and pressures it takes to control the drop pitch in comparison to the raise pitch.

This is just something to think about until I get into it deeper in another newsletter. The Steel Guitar Hall of Famer that I would like to talk about today is the great Don Helms. I met Don in 1953 when I was but a mere inkling of a steel guitarist. As a matter of fact, even at that age, I was a monster Jerry Byrd fan and was very familiar with Don Helms because of hearing him so much on country radio stations with Hank Sr, Patsy Cline, Zigador Bedford, Vernon Oxford and many other country music stars of the time.

One of the first things I remember saying to Don backstage at thirteen was, “Why are you playing Gibson when all the other big boys play Fender?”

He said, “Because I don’t like the tone of the Fender and I don’t like the string length. All that and they’re ugly.” So I left backstage with my tail between my legs never knowing that several years later he and I would turn out to be best friends. It didn’t take long to figure out that Don had a slightly warped sense of humor that kept me on my toes for decades to come.

Some of the best days I’ve ever had in my store, Steel Guitar Nashville, was during the weekly visits that Don would come in, pull up a chair and just talk to all of us and tell us funny road stories when he was with Hank Williams in the early days.

A group of tourists came in the store one day and one of them asked, “Do you ever have any big name steel guitarists come in here?”

I laughed and replied, “I can’t keep them out!” I said, “As a matter of fact, I have one of the most famous and greatest ones in here right now. The great Don Helms from Hank Williams’ band.”

I yelled over at Don, “How long have you been on the road Don?”

He replied, “Ever since they come out with it.”

I said, “Are you still working with the Williams family?”

He said, “Yep.” He said, “With Hank Sr. then with Hank Jr. and now I’m working with Jett Williams. He said, “It’s really handy because I’ve only had to learn six songs in my whole career.”

I have so many memories of Don playing his non-pedal guitar, but when he switched to his pedal Sho-Bud it ruined all the great creativity and things that I remembered Don playing when he was young.

A few years later Don came into my store and I said, “I want to have a talk with you Don.”

He laughed and said, “You’re not gonna try to give me a pedal guitar lesson, are you?”

I said, “No. But I’m gonna do something a lot more serious than that. I want you to switch back to your non-pedal guitar and stay there.” Then I went into long stories of how I loved his original playing. Then I hit him real hard with, “Don, you’re a horrible pedal steel guitar player, but you’re a wonderful non-pedal player. Do the world a favor and don’t ever touch a pedal guitar again.”

He looked at me like I’d slapped him, then he put his right hand out to shake mine and said, “If you say so.” He stood up and hugged me and sure enough he never played pedal guitar again, but went on to continue his original non-pedal career. I put new legs on his old Gibson and that was about all that was wrong with it. I found him another one to use as a spare and off to the road he went.

Don used to come in my store once or twice a week and we’d laugh and talk about the great old days and he’d have me rolling in the floor with laughter. I miss him more than I can ever say. Don Helms February 28, 1927 – August 11, 2008.

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The friend to all bar holders,
Bobbe Seymour

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Steel Guitar Nashville
123 Mid Town Court
Hendersonville, TN. 37075
(615) 822-5555
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