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Paul Franklin E-mail

Paul Franklin

By Cal Sharp
Guitar Player Magazine October, 1980

PAUL FRANKLIN is one of the newer breed of steel guitarists who is changing the whole concept of the instrument.

Noted for his supple single-string picking style and use of numerous effects - including a Korg X-911 guitar synthesizer - he elevates the steel guitar beyond its traditional role, infusing it with a meaning of its own apart from country and Hawaiian music. When Paul's not on the road as a member of country singer Mel Tillis' band, he jams around Nashville, does recording sessions with the likes of Linda Hargrove and Jerry Reed, answers calls for commercial jingles for RC Cola, Chevrolet, and others, cuts his own LPs, tapes steel guitar instructional material, and helps his father build Franklin steel guitars

Paul Franklin was born on May 31, 1954, in Detroit, and there was always a great deal of country music around the house since his father, Paul Sr., loved the steel guitar. When the younger Franklin was eight, his father asked him if he would like to play an instrument, and the son replied a steel was what he desired. So Paul Sr., an inveterate tinkerer, converted an old Vega guitar into a dobro-like instrument. Paul plucked on this for about six months, after which he got his first pedal steel, a Fender 400.

Except for a Hawaiian steel guitar teacher who knew nothing about pedals, but who was able to show Paul the rudiments of picking and bar control, there were virtually no professional steel players or instructors around Detroit. So Franklin learned licks as best he could by listening to records by steelers such as Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Day, Hal Rugg, Pete Drake, and Curley Chalker. His dad helped him a lot in these formative years, never demanding but always encouraging him to learn solos exactly as they were played on the records. Paul Sr. would also take his son to clubs, jamborees, and shows where he could hear - and sometimes play - exposing him to hot road musicians such as Buddy Charleton, Sonny Garrish, and Jimmy Crawford.

By the time Paul was 11, he decided that all he wanted to do was to play steel guitar. He worked clubs and sessions around Detroit (he played on the Gallery LP, It's So Nice To Be With You [out of print], when he was 16), and by the time Paul was 17 he grew tired of his hometown scene and moved to Nashville.

Country music players, disc jockeys, and fans have a big celebration every year in Nashville called the DJ Convention where jam sessions are an important part of the proceedings, and Paul's father had been taking him to them since his early teens. Everyone was amazed to see this youngster holding his own in jams with seasoned pros, and the reputation Franklin built there led to his first Nashville road gig at 17 with Barbara Mandrell. Since then he's performed with Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo, Jerry Reed, and, most recently, Mel Tillis.

Franklin has also spent a great deal of time in the Nashville studios, recording with Linda Hargrove (Love, You're The Teacher, (Capitol, ST 11463) andImpressions, [Capitol, ST 11685], Brewer & Shipley (One Toke Over Tire Line,[out of print], Jerry Reed (Half And Half, [RCA, AHL I-3359]), and Mel Tillis (Mr.Entertainer, [MCA, 3167] and Your Body Is An Outlaw, [Elektra, 6E271]), to name a few. Franklin has also recorded two solo LPs: Just Pickin ; a mixture o fE9th country and C6th bebop, and Play By Play, a jazz-rock collection (both are available from Scotty's Music, 9535 Midland, Overland, MO 63114).

Concerning studio work, Paul has mixed feelings. He enjoys the challenge, especially when it gets him into more reading and opportunities for creative playing. But too many times, he feels, a producer will hire musicians because they're hot at the moment, rather than because their playing style best suits the material to be recorded. While Paul says that the steel guitar is becoming more accepted by non-country players and listeners, he admits that it still has a long way to go.

"So many people have already stereotyped the steel guitar," he says. "'I have a set way of thinking how it should sound and the way it can lit into a song. While I'm not against the way anybody's approaching the instrument, some producers seem to want you to come in and play like someone else. If you rebel against this and say, 'Hey, l want to try something different,' they often try to place you in a position where you feel you're putting down the other guys. `What? Isn't this good enough for you?' they ask. And some of the older steel guitarists will even say, `Why don't you play this?"They're resisting change, I guess, and this attitude has sometimes been a problem for me. But now that I've been accepted in Nashville after eight years of working in the studio there, I can pretty well go in and play myself. But it was a battle for a long time, and it's still a problem on occasion. That, however, is part of the thrill and challenge of playing: trying to convince people that something can be done differently."

Franklin is on the road quite a bit as a member of the Statesiders, Mel Tillis' band. Mel carries guitar, steel, piano, bass, drums, and three fiddles, and there are approximately 13 people who tour with him, some using a bus while others travel on a six-scat airplane. While the band plays big showrooms almost exclusively, renting PA equipment as they go, they've also done quite a few TV shows lately. Paul plays mostly straight 0th country licks with Mel, but the Statesiders do get a chance to turn loose every once in a while, and it's then that Paul flexes his C6th chops.

When Franklin first moved to Nashville he roomed with a bassist named Randy Hillman. Randy was heavily into jazz, and when Paul began listening to his record collection, it opened up many new musical vistas. Franklin never had much formal musical training, but his Hawaiian teacher in Detroit had taught him to read, and he put this knowledge to work as he began to explore scales, modes, and other elements of music theory. Until recently Paul wasn't fanatical about practicing; an hour or so a day seemed sufficient to enable him to keep up with what was being played on most hit country records. But as he became more interested in jazz and pop music he began to spend more time woodshedding to build his chops.

Often Paul will listen to records at home and imagine his steel is a sax, or even a synthesizer, playing lines that he thinks those particular instruments might do. He finds synthesizer lines to be especially adaptable to the steel guitar due to the steel's virtually unlimited capacity for bends and glisses.

Study aids Franklin finds particularly useful for musicians are those published by Jamey Aebersold, and he is currently studying George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept. Another part of the learning process is listening, and Paul absorbs a lot of music, trying to understand the basic concept behind each style. "Actually, I don't listen to steel guitarists at all now," he says. "My earlier influences were Buddy Emmons, Doug Jernigan, people like that, but presently I'm trying to approach the instrument from a jazz and fusion context, so I'm getting into a lot of [keyboardists] Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. My goal on the instrument is to take it into a place where it hasn't been accepted yet. Like, I would love to play with Steely Dan if they were ever to want a steel guitarist. And to be prepared for that, you have to study from where those musicians are drawing their music. I don't think Steely Dan's listening to Buddy Emmons or other steelers: They're into Cannonball Adderly and whatever, and then applying it to their music. That's what I'm doing with my pedal steel, too.

"Something that has held the steel guitar back is the fact that people have a set tone they listen for. If it doesn't sound like what has been traditionally done, then they say, `Well, that's bad tone.' But I'm trying to be more open-minded; I don't want to have merely a straight E9th country sound. I think every steel player should learn how to get that tone, but I don't put as much importance on it as I do on the way the guy's thinking and improvising. For instance, a lot of traditionalists would probably say Sneaky Pete Kleinow's tone on Stevie Wonder's albums was bad, but to me that's great tone because it didn't sound like a steel. I think that what makes the instrument different, instead of its tone, is the way it's played."

Franklin's picking style emphasizes single-string runs based on scales and modes, rather than employing numerous chord fills. "I know all the chords you can make on a steel because I went through that," he says. "But I play the guitar like a saxophonist or a keyboardist would their respective instruments. When it comes time for soloing, I stress the single-note improvisation instead of the old-school approach where you play chords like a whole horn-section ride. Since you don't
have every inversion of all the chords on a steel, it's really a limited instrument when you approach it that way. But single-note-wise, if you set your pedals up for all the scales, you can do anything that you could on a keyboard, basically. You have to get the knowledge yourself, but it's all there in the tuning."

With the unusual fingering technique which he employs, Franklin has broadened many steel guitarists' conceptions of what the instrument is capable of achieving. Instead of blocking with the back of his hand as most players do, he rests his hand on the strings with his picks dug into them, ready for action. With an upward motion of the fingers he contacts the strings and then puts his fingers back down on them to block. With more conventional techniques, the hand is held above the strings. When one is to be picked, the finger moves down, strikes the string, moves back up, and then either the back of the hand or the pick itself blocks.

Paul plays a Franklin [712 May Dr., Madison, TN 37115] double-neck steel guitar. His father, who was employed at Sho-Bud for several years doing custom work, started building his own guitars two years ago. One interesting characteristic of the Franklin steel is its ability to raise or lower a string one entire octave, thus making any kind of pedal feel-from soft to hard, or long to short - available to the player. On many other guitars, Paul found that while playing, say, thirty-second notes at certain tempos, the pedals wouldn't return quickly enough to get the next note out. This is not a problem on the Franklin guitar. "It's faster than I am;" Paul says.

Another interesting feature of the Franklin is its innovative tuning mechanism, which uses nylon compensators to keep the strings in tune after working the pedals. Paul explains: "There's been an age-old tuning problem with the steel guitar. On almost all brands, when you raise a string and then release it, it stays in tune; but when you lower that same string, it will come back sharp. My father devised these nylon tuning compensators, however, to eliminate that problem. You can fine-tune each string individually with his system." In addition, the Franklin steel has two output jacks, thus allowing the user to play in stereo. "That's one of the things I've always liked about it," he says. "Because most studio situations nowadays find the guitarist doubling himself, the Franklin lets you do it live - it sounds like two steels playing at once, especially if you have one straight signal and the other run through effects."

Paul also uses a number of effects when he performs, including a ProCo Rat Fuzz, a Roland Boss Chorus Ensemble, an ElectroHarmonix Memory Man echo unit, and a Korg X-91 I guitar synthesizer. His amplifier is a Peavey Session 400 with a 15" Black Widow speaker, and while playing he sets the presence on three, the treble on seven to eight, the reverb on six to eight, and the bass on zero. Paul's lack of any bass may seem odd at first, but because he wears his National fingerpicks jammed tightly on his fingers and-as he explains it-picks with the meat of the pick instead of the tip, it creates a fuller sound when striking the strings (in Paul's case, Bill Lawrences), making extra bass on the amp unnecessary.

Franklin prefers using a doubleneck guitar instead of trying to combine theE9th and C6th into a single-neck universal tuning. Because he works mainly from scales, he feels that it's important to utilize the same scale positions and patterns ond the top strings as on the bottom, and he likes to play any given scale or pattern all the way across the guitar, from the first string to the last.

Paul's E9th tuning is fairly standard, but his C6th neck has a few unique features (see copedent). For example, his fifth pedal makes quite a dramatic change in the tuning: By using it in conjunction with the sixth pedal and the RL (right knee moving left) lever, he can play all the modes within three frets. Chromatic notes, too, have always been difficult to play quickly and cleanly on the C6th neck; Paul's LL (left knee moving left) lever solves this problem.

At 26 years old, Paul Franklin's ultimate goal is to get beyond scales, modes, chords, and rehearsed patterns and to play with feeling more than with a conscious regard for the technicalities involved - "to let the instrument play itself," as he says. "With any instrument, if you're closed-minded about it, you're only going to play limited. That's what has happened with the pedal steel guitar. I feel that there is yet to come along someone open-minded enough to play it the way it can be played. The real innovators have been guys like Emmons, Jernigan, Sneaky Pete, and Sonny Garrish. Emmons was always sort of rebellious; he never got into the fast chord-playing thing so many others did. He just went single-note and kept with it. Recording-wise, I think Sonny Garrish is doing more for changing the way the pedal steel sounds on records out of Nashville than anyone. A lot of his stuff you don't hear because it's jingles and hooks, but he's playing it more like a keyboard than a pedal steel. And Doug Jernigan with his single-note things; he's also one of the innovators. "But you have to be open-minded to innovate. If you're what I call a rounded musician - a full-circle musician, you dig a little bit of everything: McLaughlin, Carlton, Martino, Di Meola, or whomever. Then you can play a little bit of everything, and you can adapt to any situation. I think that's being a musician. I'm striving to be a musician, not a pedal steel guitar player."


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