Vic Lawson’s Thoughts on Playing the Steel Guitar

Hello fellow players,

This is Vic Lawson subbing for Bobbe Seymour.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a professional steel player in Nashville. I’ve worked several road jobs, two years with Tracy Byrd, two years with Joe Diffie, a year with Josh Turner, a year with Kevin Denney, one and off with a family group called The Wilkinsons for about three years and Luke Bryan.

I currently work with two time world champion bull rider Justin McBride.

I also worked in Branson for a year with The Collins Family and then in 2005, I worked for Country Tonight, a country variety show. I work an average five nights a week in Nashville, mostly on Broadway.

Last night I went out and heard a prominent Nashville studio player and was thinking this morning how his approach to songs is different than mine. I would like to suggest getting out and listening to other players as a means to expanding your own skills.

After playing 5 nights a week, I don’t want to go out and listen like I should, however it helps immensely and not even necessarily listening to steel players, but guitar players are very helpful in their approach.

Here in Nashville, there are seldom rehearsals because everybody is at such a professional level that all they need is charts or if one guy knows a song, they can throw numbers to everybody else. This is part of what makes it fun.

I think a lot of steel players, when they play, they tend to think about nothing but steel guitar and they sometimes forget that steel guitar is first and foremost a musical instrument. I think the only way to take the steel to a new level is to treat it like a musical instrument instead of just steel guitar. In other words, try to make music instead of imitate your favorite player.

I’ve actually learned a lot from a guitar player friend of mine to approach solos from a guitar player mentality. That’s what keeps steel fresh here in Nashville.

I know Sonny Garrish approached steel from a piano players point of view and it made his playing far more unique and interesting. With today’s modern steel guitars there are endless amounts of changes you can make or take away to personalize your guitar.

I think it’s important to be open-minded as a steel player. If you walk in a place and it’s not traditional country and they have a steel player, I think it’s important to listen for awhile because you don’t know what you can pick up from the guy who is playing even though he may be playing rock or whatever. You might still pickup something that you’ve never thought of.

It’s important to listen to the other people in the band instead of being wrapped up in what you’re doing on your steel. Show up at a gig with big ears, meaning to listen to each instrument onstage because there’s a lot of musical lines or parts that somebody may be playing that you could unison or harmonize with that makes it even more interesting not only for the audience, but for you as a player.

Granted, you won’t get the part every time, but when I screw up, I screw up loud enough so everybody can hear. Then I just laugh along with everybody else and go on. You can’t take it personal. It’s like getting thrown off a horse, you have to climb back on.

One way to really critique yourself is to record the band every time you play a gig and study that. Boy, that will step up your playing, not only for tuning but for phrasing. Most of us are our own worst critics so you’ll definitely be inspired to improve your playing.

When you get to a point in your playing where you think you’re not learning anything new, that’s when it really helps to go out and listen to other players playing live, even though it’s sometimes a hassle, I’m always glad that I did.

Listening to CDs is not the same as seeing a live player because you don’t see what they are doing. The vibe is different because they are feeding off the other players. If all you do is listen to yourself, you don’t know if you’re getting any better or not because you have nothing to compare it to.

From the guys I’ve met over the years, a lot of locals bands tend to rehearse a lot and try to copy the record to the “T”. In fact, a lot of times you should approach a song the way you would play it and not worry about what the session players did.

Session players are often at the mercy of the producer. The producer dictates what the final outcome is so if you take the same session player and the same song, put it in a live situation, you will find that he’ll play it completely different than what was on the recording.

For example, I had been in Nashville for about a year. I was playing a 2 to 6 shift Saturday afternoon at Legend’s Corner on Broadway. John Hughey was in the band that followed us. It was our last song of the set and someone requested a Conway Twitty song.

John was already in the club so I told the singer in our band I didn’t want to play a Conway Twitty song out of respect for John. John overheard this conversation so when I was tearing my guitar down, John came up to me very frustrated and told me, “Vic. I don’t want to ever hear that again.”

I said “What?”

He said, “You don’t worry about what John Hughey played on the record. You play it the way Vic wants to play it. I’ve forgotten what I played anyway. If I recorded a song today, I’d play it different tomorrow.”

John was very adamant about it and made me realize that you should play it the way you want to play it. This is a lesson I’ve never forgotten coming from a player I greatly respect.

I realize that it’s expected that a local band should try to sound like the recording, but if you can’t change the signature lick, try to at least put your own flavor to the fills or try to create your own solo.

When I’m driving to a gig, I purposely don’t listen to country radio. I usually listen to jazz because I don’t want to get to the gig and have my head filled up with someone else’s steel guitar licks. I want to arrive with my own approach. This is something that Bobbe Seymour taught me and is probably one of the things that makes Bobbe such a unique player.

There is a time to listen to steel guitar music and a time to not. Well rounded players listen to all kinds of music. Think of yourself as a musician first and a steel guitar player second, especially when you feel you’re at a dead end on your playing.

We all run into blocks and feel we can’t do any better or learn anything new. That’s when we have to reach outside of steel guitar for inspiration.

Check out our monthly specials at and we’ll try to save you a lot of money.

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1 Response to Vic Lawson’s Thoughts on Playing the Steel Guitar

  1. Hey Vic,
    Great comments from someone who has really been there. We went through a lot while on tour in Canada and with the Shilohs and Caney River Band. Paid our dues for sure. Check out my site and keep in touch. If you are ever in Florida you have a place to stay. Give your family my love and remember you are my favorite steel player ever! Your “nearly” favorite piano player.

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