The Cryin’ Pedal Steel
You’d be hard pressed to find an instrument so intrinsically linked to the sound of country music as the pedal steel guitar. Acoustic guitars and fiddles are ubiquitous instruments that cross a number of genres but for the pedal steel, country music is its undeniable home.
Developed from the lap-played Hawaiian guitar and then the steel resonator, the pedal steel really came into its own with electric amplification in the 1930s and in the 1940s, as the popularisation of amplified steel guitar in honky-tonk bands grew, the instrument was adapted to be mounted on legs and include separate necks to cater for the open tunings and alleviate constant retuning.
In 1948 Paul Bigsby invented what is now considered the template for the modern pedal steel guitar, adding pedals to raise the pitch of the strings. From there the instrument, with its added versatility and electrified sound quickly emerged as a key and immediately recognisable sound in jazz and most importantly country music. Names like Speedy West and Buddy Emmons, often considered the greatest of all pedal steel players, quickly popularised the sound and Emmons along with others such as Bud Isaacs and Zane Beck would continue to refine and improve the instrument’s design.
The beauty and uniqueness of the pedal steel arises from the unlimited sliding notes and deep vibrato, characteristics that it shares with the human voice. That sonic personality is perfect for conveying sadness, melodic playfulness and darker, more mysterious atmospherics. That range has seen artists such as Daniel Lanois, Chuck Johnson and Susan Alcorn taking the instrument into more experimental territory, while jazz trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer incorporated it beautifully on his mesmerising album Switch in 2014.
While American names like “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow (The Flying Burrito Brothers), Ben Keith (Neil Young) and Greg Liesz (k.d. lang, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams) have become synonymous with the instrument, here in Australia we’re lucky to also have some fine players. Names such as Jason Walker, Shane Reilly, Jy-Perry Banks, Ed Bates, Barry Turnbull, Ben Franz, Tomi Graso, Graham Griffith and many more.
With a new album coming later in 2019, Sydney singer-songwriter Jason Walker finds joy in the versatility of the instrument. “I got to hear a lot of pedal steel in the 1980s as a colour instrument in completely non-country contexts, like the Triffids. Graham Lee is a wonderful steel player and he would probably be the first to tell you that the dictates of Dave McComb led his playing down some really beautiful less-than-traditional avenues.”
“My playing probably veers toward the more traditional style of late honky-tonk in the stuff that I like to play at home.” says Walker. “But in the public domain, I just love nothing better than stretching out, doing weird shit with delays and fuzztones. It’s about the instrument being way more varied in its possibilities than just ‘country’. It can be used in classical music, Nigerian pop music, blues, gospel, reggae, hard country and space rock.”
Shane Reilly’s playing is a central part of the sound of Melbourne alt-country band Lost Ragas, who have a new album due in September. “Plain and simply ….the sound of it,” says Reilly, recalling his inspiration to pick up the instrument. “There is no other instrument that produces that sound.” One of his inspirations came from a 1993 Cassandra Wilson album. “She released an album called ‘ Blue Lights Til Dawn ‘ and on two tracks is a pedal steel player by the name of Gib Wharton. When I heard these tracks it changed my mind as to what pedal steel could do and where it sat as an instrument. He had a sound of his own and he was free and the equal to any other instrument.”
The mysterious crying sound of the pedal steel has been mesmerising fans of country music and beyond for more than 70 years and Reilly sums up its longevity perfectly. “I think its vocal quality and ability to ‘cry‘ make it a perfect foil for the sad and beautiful stories of country music.”