Chop Chop

I’ve seen guys clawing and plucking at the strings with their right hand, even on a ballad, like they’re trying to pick a hair out of a bowl of hot chili. When you do this you usually get a choppy, uneven, disjointed sound. Better to hover your hand just over the strings and excite them gracefully, delicately, like you’re stroking a great pair of tits. Then you’ll get the smooth, flowing sound that I know you want.

Are we special?

Do you feel somehow special, being a steel guitar player? I kinda thought I was special, after honing my musicianship to a razor sharp level that enabled me to play the Opry and do sessions and work with major artists. Hell, I always thought Hal Rugg and Buddy Emmons were somehow special people, and I mean special in the broadest terms, in that they occupied a prestigious, esteemed sector of the world at large.

But, as it turns out, Hal and Buddy and I are just like everyone else when we’re at Kroger or the Post Office or getting pulled over for speeding. Nobody cares that we play steel guitar. Just being in a band will sometimes engender free drinks or invites to a party, but that’s not because you’re a steel player, it’s just because you’re in the band.

Most artists aren’t especially impressed by you, if you can play something close to what was on their records, and most other musicians are more concerned about what they’re playing than what you’re playing.

But on the upside, steel guitar show attendees (some miniscule percentage of the population) think we all have something going for us that the rest of the world doesn’t. And I did meet a steel guitar groupie once.

Overbearing guitar players

Some guitar players don’t know the difference between a fill, a pad, a solo, a ride, and rhythm. They play on top of the vocals, the steel guitar, and whatever else they have available to ruin. They wang away with out of tune open chords and walk-ups and walk-downs, oblivious to what’s going on in the song and what they can and should do to make it and the singer sound better. A steel player can’t get a good tone or play up to his potential working with a guy like this, but it’s a challenge.

Local steel players

When you’re out on the road with an artist you meet a bunch of local musicians. Most are just regular guys. Some of them are good, or even great, players; some aren’t. Sometimes they bring a bottle or a 12-pack to share or take you to a club or a party after the gig or to Wrigley Field to see a Cubs game.

I once saw a guy who had achieved a low level of mediocrity, but who was wearing a derby anyway.

They can be sickenly fawning, or defensive, like they have to defend their turf, or trying to act a little too cool with their hot licks and equipment overkill. Some of them are pests. They wanna meet the star, they wanna see the inside of the bus, they want pictures and the 3rd string that you broke during the show, they want you to pass their CD around to all the record producers in Nashville, they want your phone number so you can show them around when they visit Nashville, they give you their number so you can recommend them when a big artist gig comes open.

All in all, pro’s vs amateurs, amateurs vs pro’s, it’s just people vs people.

When you’re just a sideman

You play pretty good and you’ve got good equipment and a nice tone, but you still can’t get a gig. WTF? Lots of reasons; here’s a few.

Attitude means a lot. If you’re not the star of the show, then you’re just a sideman, and your job is to make the singer and the song sound good. Don’t play over the vocals and don’t get in the way when someone else is filling or soloing. Don’t play too loud and don’t complain when you have to play “Swingin'” again, and again, and again…

Don’t fuck around with somebody’s girl friend or wife, and relationships with chick singers can be a particularly slippery slope.

If someone in the band can’t play it’s probably not in your job description to make derogatory remarks about him. Let the band leader take care of that. Unless he’s the one who sucks, then you just have to live with it or move on.

If the guys like to drink or smoke a doobie once in a while feel free to bond with them by joining in sometimes. If you’re a cigarette smoker exercise a little courtesy when lighting up, and if you don’t smoke don’t bitch incessantly about others who do.

Hey, you fat guys!

I’ve been playing Saturday nights at the same place for the last five years. Our fan base is mostly in their 50’s and 60’s and beyond and I was just thinking last weekend as I was watching them dance that they’re all getting fat and bald, mostly fat. (Damn, I hope they weren’t thinking the same thing about me). Yep, they’re victims of that popular national epidemic, obesity.

There’s always a lot of bleating and prayer requests at churches and on the Steel Guitar Forum because someone has health problems, and these usually seem to involve obesity.

If you’re middle aged and overweight you really should do something about it. Imagine yourself a year or two down the road, asking for prayers and good thoughts because you’re going in for bypass surgery tomorrow. You might avoid this distressing scenario by losing that weight now. Cut back on the fast food and the booze and get your fat ass off the couch and walk or lift weights or swim a few days a week. You may not see results for a while, but don’t give up, and if you really don’t make any progress you can just tell yourself that’s the way God made you and we’ll see you in the OR.

I went from 8 pounds to 220 in 55 years and then down to 180 in 6 months without that much effort, and you can do it, too. The only hard part about it is to actually decide to do it, and then it’s a piece of cake (whoops, bad metaphor).

Moving to Nashville

A lot of steel players think about coming to Nashville to try to “make it”. If you’re young, can play pretty good, aren’t “married with children” and have enough money to get by for a while I say go for it. If you don’t give it a shot you might regret it. You can always go back home, and at least you’ll experience it first hand, rather than just listening to stories from other guys who actually did it. And then you can tell your friends what it’s “really like”.

Competition? Of course, but if you’re a welder or a graphic designer or a construction worker there’ll be competition too, especially in these bad economic times.