People are strange when you’re a stranger

Around this time I began watching “The Wilburn Brothers Show” on TV and became fascinated with what Hal Rugg was doing on that steel guitar. I’d never seen a steel guitar in person, and didn’t know anyone who played. I didn’t even know anyone who liked country music, except just one guy in high school. I started listening to the country radio station in Chicago, WJJD, and buying Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb records.

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

— the Doors

I grew up in South Bend in a house full of music. My Dad played the trumpet and the organ, and he had a high tech stereo system with a pretty extensive record collection, stuff like Al Hirt, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Pete Fountain and some Dixieland stuff. Kinda square, really. He wasn’t into Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie, despite being a trumpet player who’d worked his way through college playing in night clubs. I started piano lessons in the second grade, studying mainly classical music, and then started trumpet a few years later, and my Dad and I used to play stuff together, reading sheet music.

Somewhere along the way I started listening to rock and got all into Elvis and Top 40 music from WLS in Chicago, and continued on to the Beatles and the Stones, and started playing guitar in a rock band.

Around this time I began watching “The Wilburn Brothers Show” on TV and became fascinated with what Hal Rugg was doing on that steel guitar. I’d never seen a steel guitar in person, and didn’t know anyone who played. I didn’t even know anyone who liked country music, except just one guy in high school. I started listening to the country radio station in Chicago, WJJD, and buying Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb records.

In college (art school) I met a bunch of hippy/artistic types and began listening to underground stuff like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Cream, Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, the Blues Project and a lot of blues. Nobody I knew at school listened to country music, except the guy who drove the snack truck that stopped by at lunch time.

When I got old enough to get into bars without a fake ID I searched out all the bars in Indianapolis that had live country music with a steel guitar, which could be a dangerous enterprise, given my long hair (think Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider”) and the fact that none of my friends from school were interested in tagging along. Joe Tippie was the first live steel guitarist I ever saw, and “The Other Woman” was the first song I heard that night, and I made a whole new set of friends as I continued to hang out in these bars.

When I graduated I went back to South Bend and decided I had to have a steel guitar, so I borrowed $1,000 from the owner of the tree service where I was working while I was trying to find a day job commensurate with my new Bachelor’s degree, and drove down to Nashville a bought a new D-10 Sho~Bud Professional from the store on Broadway. I never did find a day job, but after practicing like mad for about 6 months I started hanging out and sitting in in the country bars and found steady work almost immediately, and again developed a whole new network of friends, apart from the friends I’d had while growing up. I quit looking for a day job and considered myself a real musician. I’d never had any lessons or encouragement from anyone in my endeavor, just some instructional stuff from Sho~Bud and lots of records to learn from.

I have my Dad to thank for my early grounding in music, which was, of course, an enormous help in eventually learning steel guitar, but after that I was on my own, and I did it pretty much all by myself. I’m not in any way special or exemplary, just a loner who was able to fixate on something and pursue it as far as possible.

When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name
When you’re strange
When you’re strange
When you’re strange

Can anybody sing?

I was the bandleader at Gabe’s in Nashville and a guy who wanted to sit in with us came up and asked me, “Can anybody sing?”

I was the bandleader at Gabe’s in Nashville and a guy who wanted to sit in with us came up and asked me, “Can anybody sing?”
I said, “Well, I can’t.”

Old Habits

But you can pick up some bad habits as you traverse the rocky, twisted road to steel guitar mastery

You’ve heard the Hank Jr. song, right? If you’ve been playing for a while and get regular gigs you’ve probably been doing some of the right things as you learn the instrument. But you can pick up some bad habits as you traverse the rocky, twisted road to steel guitar mastery – just as you can in life, where you smoke, snort coke, pick bad girlfriends, buy a Kin – and sometimes you don’t even realize it. And they can be hard to break, the longer you play that way.

Maybe all your gigs are with so-so musicians at a VFW, maybe you don’t get very many compliments, maybe the hot players don’t call you for gigs. Maybe you have a dark, sneaking suspicion that your playing is not really what it should be. So you practice more, get some more instructional stuff, listen to the true steel guitar masters incessantly.

But maybe you should be listening to yourself. If you don’t record very often, or not at all, you might be surprised, or even horrified, to hear what you really sound like. What you hear on the bandstand can sound a whole lot different when you hear it played back in a studio. Or even on an iPhone.

Here’s a few things to watch out for:

  • Pumping the volume pedal like you would the gas pedal when you’re racing that smart-ass in his new Mustang down Mullholland Drive.
  • Ending too many licks with a sharp staccato cut off.
  • Playing your new lick in every song.
  • Playing on top of other guys in the band.
  • Playing too loud on ballads and too soft on fast songs.
  • Mashing the pedals too slowly – I know, you’re trying to play with feeling – where you sound out of tune until you actually reach the note.
  • Wimpy playing. Play with authority, especially on intros.

Just a few things to listen for. Once you hear yourself you might come up with more.

All gigs aren’t created equal

Generally, you want to approach gigs with a professional attitude, reasonably sober, suitably attired, equipment in good working order, guitar in tune, and play the material as rehearsed, tastefully and at the correct volume with a pleasant, enthusiastic expression on your face

Generally, you want to approach gigs with a professional attitude, reasonably sober, suitably attired, equipment in good working order, guitar in tune, and play the material as rehearsed, tastefully and at the correct volume with a pleasant, enthusiastic expression on your face. Like if you’re playing the Opry or a show in front of 10,000 people with a major artist.

However, all gigs aren’t quite so critical, and there are times when not all of the above may apply.

“Gigs from Hell”, for instance, where you find yourself in a sip-n-shoot bar in the midst of a bunch of drunken, egotistical over-playing morons who make it evident that they don’t have an iota of respect for your years of experience and your ability to make a significant contribution to the performance of their repertoire. You don’t want to play with these guys again, so feel free to provoke them, by your volume and your attitude, to a point just short of on-stage fisticuffs. Alternatively, you could pack up your shit and leave early and stick them with your bar tab.

And then maybe you’re playing a club with a bunch of guys you’ve been playing with for years. You’re all buddies and you have as much fun making music together as you have hanging out on the breaks, and you’re all friends with most of the people in the audience. You show up in a tank top and baseball cap and you make up new arrangements on the fly to songs you’ve played a hundred times, and you throw in odd chord substitutions or modulations or quotes from another song or sound effects – a train whistle or a race car – once in a while. Everybody has a good time, and it’s more about the fun than the money.

Gigs come in all shapes and sizes, and they require more or less of a professional approach, and it’s a comment on your professionalism and good-ol’-boy-ism to make distinctions and conduct yourself accordingly.