Guitar Players I’ve Known

Man, I’ve worked as a steel guitar player with a passel of guitar players. Hundreds, at least. The first one of any note was Buddy Williams, from Michigan City, IN. He was a Lloyd Green fan, and I learned a bunch of licks from him. South Bend Buddy and me in front of the Silver Dollar Saloon.

Cal Sharp and Buddy Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had the good fortune to work with Pete Mitchell from the late 70’s up until Oct 29, 2006 on gigs ranging from Ernest Tubb to Broadway to skull orchards on Dickerson Pike, and it was always a pleasure. Pete was the tastiest player in the world, and had more empathy and reciprocity with a steel guitar player than anybody. He knew how to comp, play tic-tac or just lay out when it was my turn to play.


He moved to Texas a few years ago and got kidnapped by Herb Steiner and I never saw him again. Then he died. He was the best.
Pete Mitchell – Texas Troubadour Passes

Other fine guitar players I’ve worked with were Roy Melton, Marc Rogers, Richard Bass, Dan Drilling, Redd Voelkaert, Cliff Parker, and more recently Lyndell East, Bebo Whitehead, Clyde Sutton and Bill Hullett. But most of the others made me wish I’d stayed home and watched “Saturday Night Live”, at least up until the 90’s. But, hell, it was work and a little money, like digging a ditch or unloading trucks, and I had to get my roast out of layaway at Kroger.

I worked a few gigs with Pete Wade, clubs and sessions, and he’d holler at me to play what Lloyd played on some song they were on, which had me scratching my temporal lobe trying to play a cheap Japanese knockoff of what I could remember. I worked a gig with Lenny Breau when I was too green to do much, but it was fun anyway, listening to him. I played  a little with Leon Rhodes when he was working a gig at a hotel by the new Opry with Little Roy Wiggins. I dragged my stuff in and sat in on a few songs. It didn’t go real well, but I wasn’t afraid of nuthin’ back then.

A lot of guitar players have hot licks up the ass, and the attendant volume, but can’t play two notes in a row that sound pretty. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to Grady Martin  or Jimmy Capps.

Grady Martin and Jimmy Capps

 

 

 

 

I worked with a drummer once who didn’t know the difference between a pair of brushes and his ass, and I put a picture of Buddy Harman on his snare before the gig one time and he walked around all night asking who it was.

It’s all cool to play 40 notes a bar on “Rocky Top” or “The Fireman”, but when the singer calls “Make the World Go Away” I wish the guitar player would go away if he can’t or won’t change his attitude.

It’s not that fucking hard to play 3 or 4 notes, ala Grady or Jimmy, instead of 162 notes, which fills a much needed gap. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the other “Big E”, E=mc2 – (where E = ego, M = music, and C = chops.) It doesn’t take a lot of dexterity, just taste, and the ability to subjugate yourself to the song and the singer. Geez, unless you’re the featured instrumentalist your job is to make the song and the singer sound good, right? Or did nobody ever tell you that? What, are you afraid someone might think you’re not a hot Nashville Cat if you only play 3 notes in one bar, or if the steel player gets more notes out than you do?

Shuffles Rule

Some songs I’ve never ever got to play, despite 45 years of playing steel guitar gigs

I’m so fucking tired of playing “Margaritaville” and “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Elvira” I could step on my picks. I practiced for years to play this shit? I coulda played it after 6 months.  They were big hits and made money and all that, but it’s not what I bought a steel guitar for.
So, these days I’m just trying to keep up my interest – and my chop -and maybe work on “A Way To Survive” or “Whiskey River” some more.

Some songs I’ve never ever got to play, despite 45 years of playing steel guitar gigs:

The One I Can’t Live Without (With Vince Gill)

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – “But I Do”

I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leavin’)

And some songs I haven’t played nearly enough:

Tommy Hooker – Invitation To The Blues

Jeannie Seely Sings “Mr. Record Man”

If you’ve got an actual country gig I hope you appreciate it, I would. Adios.

The worst guy with a guitar I ever worked with

Wichita didn’t know any intros, solos or standard country licks, despite owning a guitar and playing in bars for maybe 40 years.

The bass player, who was just subbing and didn’t know what to expect, called “Mama Tried” and waited for the intro. The guy with the guitar just looked him like a cow looking at a new gate. “I don’t know it,” he said, and the bass player began to suspect that he was in for a long night.

We’ll call the guy with the guitar Wichita, as in Lester Roadhog Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys. We used to do a version of “Lil’ Liza Jane” by the Cadillac Cowboys, playing all out of tune and out of time like they did, and the funny thing was, the guy with the guitar sounded pretty much like he always did.

Wichita played on top of me all the time. And on top of the vocals, and the piano, and anyone else who happened to be playing with us. If there was a way to play on top of the bass and drums he would do that, too. He just didn’t grasp the concepts of solos, fills, comping and rhythm. The most important concept to me in this kind of playing situation was laying out, and he didn’t have a clue about that, either, although he did give me a break when he was lighting a cigarette or thumbing through the huge country music bible on the music stand in front of him to select his next song. He had to read the lyrics to songs he’d been doing for 30 years.

Wichita didn’t know any intros, solos or standard country licks, despite owning a guitar and playing in bars for maybe 40 years. “Workin’ Man Blues”, “Highway 40 Blues”, “Thanks A Lot”, “Old Habits” – never mind. He did know couple generic intros, but he didn’t know how to count them off. I showed him “Old Habits” once, but he couldn’t get it. We had a girl singer who sat in with us once in a while and did “Satin Sheets”, and after 5 or 6 years he figured out a version of the intro, enough to get us into the song. He’s the only guy with a guitar I ever worked with who didn’t play the signature lick when we did an Ernest Tubb song.

Wichita could get a lot of sounds out of his guitar – bird sounds, airplane sounds, finger scrapes, submarine sounds… But no guitar sounds. No Grady Martin, no Roy Nichols, no Chet Atkins. Wich was a true original; he had his own unique sound, unequaled and unmatched to this day. Shrill and metallic with lots and lots of reverb, echo and chorus, and no bottom, and he never changed it all night long, whether we were playing “Johnny B. Goode” or “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. Sometimes when he’d be playing his version of rhythm up the neck on the high strings it sounded exactly like a tambourine.

Musical talent, of lack thereof, manifests itself in many diverse ways, and Wichita couldn’t play in tune yet he could sing perfectly on pitch. He usually tuned up once a night before the gig, but it didn’t do any good. He always sounded like an Apache raid on a Chinese laundry. Somebody in the band would check Wich’s tuning on the break once in a while, and it was usually close, and when a real guitar player sat in on his guitar it sounded fine. He was just bending the strings out of tune. He couldn’t play a guitar, but he could smite it.

I’ve tried to learn something from every guitar player I’ve ever worked with, and what I learned from Wichita was to trust my ears a little more. When I first started working with him the band always sounded out of tune, and I was checking my tuning all night until I realized we sounded fine when Wich stopped abusing his guitar to light a cigarette or take a sip of beer. I used to wonder if spending too much time on the bandstand with this guy would destroy my sense of pitch.

Wichita had a house full of cats, and the pervasive odor of their litter box clung to him and his clothes and his equipment. Apparently his bathing and laundry habits were less than exemplary. I used to sneak up behind him on stage and spray him with air freshener.

You might wonder why I even worked with ol’ Wichita. Well, it was an easy gig in town, and we played the same places all the time and I could leave my equipment set up. The guys in the band were easy to get along with and we did classic country. It wasn’t the worst gig I ever had, but it was the worst band I ever played with.

 

Some guys just shouldn’t own a guitar…

Some guys just shouldn’t own a guitar and should sell it real cheap and go home and find another hobby before someone calls the Country Music Polic

or inflict it on innocent musicians. We let a guy sit in with us one night and he did kinda OK. He wasn’t a professional level player by any means, and he played where he shouldn’t have on some songs, but he did have his own band and they played a gig every once in a while. He was a friend of ours and were just being nice, really.

Well, we got to that dreaded point in the night where we had to play “Swingin’”. The way we had it arranged, toward the middle of the song the guitar would play an 8-bar solo and then the singer would come back in on the 4 chord. Then the same deal with the piano and then me. So, by now we’ve done this little rigamarole three times and then we let our sit-in have his turn and what does he do? He plays his 8 bars and then a few more and keeps on going, stomping all over the vocals with his dazzling mediocrity. Being the experienced been-there-before pickers that we were, we covered nicely for him and avoided a train wreck, but Holy Cow, if he couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to do after hearing us do it Three Times Mister, he shoulda sold me his axe real cheap and gone home and found another hobby before someone called the Country Music Police on his ass.

Everything just goes better with a steel guitar

Most people at a live music event don’t know what a steel guitar is, and a lot of people couldn’t even identify the bass player in a lineup if he shot somebody and the police were holding them as a witness

Emmons Steel GuitarOnce upon a time there was a band that billed themselves as a country band. They played a bunch of good ol’ country songs and had a chick singer and OK vocals and a pretty good guitar player, but they didn’t have a steel guitar in the band. Or a fiddle, for that matter. Now, how ya gonna do Tammy Wynette or Ray Price like that? Well, you can’t, not really.

This band was fairly popular and had quite a following, but they sounded pretty lame to me and I didn’t enjoy listening to them. Kinda like that time when one of the speakers went out in my car stereo.

Most people at a live music event don’t know what a steel guitar is, and a lot of people couldn’t even identify the bass player in a lineup if he shot somebody and the police were holding them as a witness. Singers get most of the attention. But however musically unsophisticated an audience may be, wouldn’t you think a smattering of them could tell something was terribly wrong if there were no steel guitar in “Apartment No. 9”?

I get a compliment every once in a great while from a non-musician, and it’s always a surprise when someone seems to know what I’m up to on the stage. A nice surprise, and always unexpected, as surprises often are. Sometimes they just want to know somebody in the band and they pick on me for some reason, even if they think I’m the keyboard player, but if they buy me a beer, so much the better.

I’d like to think that most people – even though they can’t actually identify the sound or sight of a steel guitar – still recognize it somewhere in their subconscious as an integral part of, say, “Together Again” or “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” while they’re dancing and if it weren’t there they would get a nagging feeling that something was wrong and become disoriented and maybe two-step on their partner’s instep.

Everything just goes better with a steel guitar.

Dude, where’s my chops?

I got some of the best advice I’d ever gotten from some older players: “Son, you need to play 6 nights a week.”

Cal SharpWhen I was new to steel guitar, trying to learn as much and as fast as I could, I got some of the best advice I’d ever gotten, from some older players: “Son, you need to play 6 nights a week.” Yep, that’s real good for your chops, and you learn a whole lot about intros, turnarounds and faking your way through songs you don’t really know. There’s nothing better than experience. But the initial problem is that you have to reach a certain level of competence before you’re so much in demand that you can get that many gigs, and that necessitates squirreling yourself away in your room, practicing like crazy until you make some significant progress. But once you’re there, you’re there, and playing 6 nights a week will help you realize whatever potential you might possess.

So you cruise along, for years maybe, playing all the time, getting better and better – as long as you don’t start to burn out – which can happen, just ask me.

Bye and bye you might turn into such a monster player that you find yourself the darling of the producers on Music Row, on their A list, and spending your days, and half your nights, in studios. But when you’re doing a lot of sessions you spend most of your time listening to playbacks, drinking coffee, discussing your golf game and networking. You’re not actually playing very much, certainly not enough to keep your chops up, and the same thing can happen with an artist gig, where you’re playing the same old stuff every night and your chops go to shit.

I’ve seen guys like Paul Franklin, John Hughey and Hal Rugg working clubs around Nashville for peanuts, but they just wanted to get out and play, even if cartage cost more than the gig paid. Years ago you might find Buddy Emmons or Jimmy Day at some club on Broadway or in Printers Alley jamming like crazy, but it just ain’t like that anymore.

Is the current crop of hot session players just not into that anymore? And, if so, why not? Well, back in the day a lot of hit records featured some pretty outstanding steel guitar – songs like “Touch My Heart”, “Night Life”, “Together Again”, “I’ll Come Running”, and a lot more. But what have you got on the radio today? A lot steel guitar pads, mostly, and a lot of generic-sounding playing mixed way in the background underneath the guitars and other oddments that somehow make their way onto “country” sessions these days. Nothing much in the way of inspired playing that would grab you by the balls and cause you run your car off the road or make you want to run out and buy a steel guitar.

So, anyway – and I now find myself in this position because I spend more time writing HTML than I do playing hot licks – the problem is how to keep your chops up if you don’t play all the time like you did when you were young and driven and getting so good. Yeah, you can sit around at home and practice scales and finger exercises for hours at a time (like you did when you were starting out, and had the fire) but when there’s not a whole lot of inspiration left, and not very many clubs to play, and just a modicum of steel guitar on the radio it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm to really get anything accomplished. Like, if you get your chops up to where they were when you were in your prime, where you gonna use ‘em? Probably not on an artist gig or on any sessions. There don’t seem to be very many gigs left where you can play real good steel guitar stuff, and jam sessions that don’t feature an endless queu of vocalists that only let you play a turnaround are real hard to find. Well, there’s steel guitar shows, maybe the last refuge of guys that just want to play, but the structure and the cliques may be a trifle off-putting to newcomers – but, damn, real live jam sessions on Broadway in the 60’s and 70’s could be more intimidating than that anyway.

So, if you like to to play steel guitar and you find that you can’t quite play like you used to, it may not be arthritis or Old-Timer’s disease – it might actually be something that’s totally not your fault, like the fact that the world has changed a lot since Ray Price recorded “The Other Woman”.

Tracy Lawrence

Tracy used to come around Gabe’s and sit in and win Judi Martin’s talent contest sometimes.

Tracy used to come around Gabe’s and sit in and win Judi Martin’s talent contest sometimes. He was an OK singer, and a nice enough guy. He’s got a new album coming out, and in a recent interview he says “…it’s more contemporary and more in the same vein as where the industry is headed. I don’t have steel guitar, but rather more guitars and fiddle.” Doesn’t sound like something I’d want to listen to. Read the interview here at the Boot if you care.

Big amps

big amps

Why are amplifiers still so big and heavy? Everything else has gotten way small and really portable, but we musicians are still lugging around 60 pounds of amplification equipment all over hell just like we did 50 years ago. You can put your music and your videos and the tracks from your last 500 sessions in your pocket, but you still need something bigger than a Peel (the world’s smallest car) to wag your stuff to a gig. This might have been on Steve Jobs’ bucket list, I dunno.