The Pedal Steel Guitar
The pedal steel guitar is an evolution of the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. We’ve featured plenty of examples of Hawaiian steel guitar on the Bus and its influence on American music. While the steel guitar had a tremendous impact on many styles of music including pop songs from Tin Pan Alley, old time, blues, and country, but it was in the jazzy string bands of western swing that the steel guitar began its evolution. Artists such as Leon McAuliffe were pushing the steel to its limits and needed more chords to keep up with the expanding repertoire of their jazz and swing inspired bands.
The 1930s were a time of experimentation with various ways of making the steel guitar more versatile. During this period some instrument makers added a second neck to the standard lap steel, allowing the player to have quick access to two tunings. This arrangement is often referred to as a console steel guitar. Around the same time, other makers added levers to make changing the tuning much easier and quicker. The advent of the pedal to change a string’s tone is credited to Alvino Rey in the mid-1930s. He preferred to make the tone changes with his feet, leaving his hands free to play.
While many steel players adopted pedals or levers to change the tuning of their guitar quickly between songs, it was Bud Isaacs that first used the pedals to shift the pitch of the strings as he played. The technique was a hit and was soon imitated by nearly every steel guitar player. The pedals or knee levers pulled or pushed the anchor of a string to raise or lower its tone. To add even more versatility, a second and even third neck was added to the pedal steel. The most common configuration nowadays is two ten-string necks.
Over the years many different pedal and lever arrangements were developed, mostly by the players themselves. In 1957, Buddy Emmons teamed up with Shot Jackson and began building pedal steel guitars in Jackson’s garage. The guitar that they developed was sold as the Sho-Bud and was a tremendous advance in the evolution of the pedal steel. Emmons would later, around 1963, start building his own guitars and selling them under the Emmons Guitar Company brand. These new guitars were much lighter and more compact than anything on the market. Some still consider the Emmons Legrande model to be the best sounding pedal steel guitar ever made.
The pedal steel guitar is most often associated with the honky tonk country music of the late 1950s and began to fall from use in the 1970s. It was used in the beginnings of rock and roll also. Elvis Presley often had a pedal steel player and even Bill Haley had a pedal steel guitar player in the Comets. By the 1970s the pedal steel was being replaced with orchestral strings on many commercial country music records, but its popularity with a new breed of musical artists was just beginning. Bob Dylan used pedal steel guitarist, Pete Drake, on his Nahville Skyline album. The Byrds classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo featured the steel guitar of Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness. The doors were opened and lots of pop bands began adding the sweet sound of the pedal steel. Give a listen to some of your old albums from the 1970s: the Flying Burrito Brothers (Sneaky Pete), Commander Cody, Asleep At The Wheel, Herb Pedersen, Poco (Rusty Young), the Byrds, The Carpenters, Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Dire Straits, and nearly all of the country-rock bands used pedal steel guitar on some of their recordings. Jerry Garcia even added a nice pedal steel accompaniment to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s now classic ”Teach Your Children Well”.
To my ear, the pedal steel adds a wonderful, flowing harmony to a song with an occasional flourishing run at just the right moment , similar to the role of the dobro, but with it own unique voice and character. In skilled hands (and feet and knees) the pedal steel guitar is much more than just a harmony instrument. Last week I featured the steel guitar of Leon McAuliffe. Today we’ll have a listen to two of the most important and influential masters of the pedal steel guitar.
Bud Isaacs made what can be considered one of the most immediate changes that would affect nearly every pedal steel player since. As I have described above, the pedals and levers that had been added to the console steel guitar were there to make changing quicker chord changes. In 1953, Web Pierce hired Isaacs for the remake of his earlier hit ”Slowly”. It was during that recording session that Bud Isaacs used his pedals to shift chords while sustaining a chord. The fluid shift that happened mid-chord had an immediate impact on all pedal steel players and has become the signature sound of the instrument.
Buddy Emmons was not only an influential steel guitar player, taking the pedal steel guitar into new musical territory; he was also one of the instruments most important developers. Buddy Emmons was born in Mishawaka, Indiana and received his first lap steel guitar at the age of 11. His parents enrolled him at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend (how often have I mentioned the popularity of Hawaiian music throughout the last century.) By the age of 16 he was playing professionally in Chicago. In 1956, Emmons traveled to Detroit to sit in for Walter Haynes with Little Jimmy Dickens. He was asked to join Dickens’ Country Boys and first appeared on the Grand Old Opry stage as a member of Dickens’ band. During the late 1950s, Emmons played with Ernest Tubb and in 1963 joined Ray Price and his Cherokee Cowboys. As a musician Emmons was in constant demand as a recording session player. As noted above, Buddy Emmons is also a tinkerer, his advancements made on the Sho-Bud and Emmons guitars changed every instrument built since. Buddy Emmons toured with the Everly Brothers in 1993 and continued to do session work throughout the 1990s.
Buddy Emmons has taken the pedal steel to many other genres of music as you can hear in his Top Heavy. He has played with country, jazz, pop, and orchestral groups.
Amazon.com lists 19 of Buddy Emmons' recordings. Click here for their offerings.
You can’t go wrong adding any of these fine recordings to your collection. Any of the collaborations with Ray Pennington are excellent choices as are Buddy Emmons – Steel Guitar and Amazing Steel Guitar: The Buddy Emmons Collection.
I am pleased to see that the late master of the Stratocaster, Danny Gatton’s Redneck Jazz has been re-released. Buddy Emmons adds so much to this incredibe record. I treasure my original red vinyl pressing that I bought at one of their shows in 1978.