Steel guitar players are often perceived as boring to watch. “Why don’t you smile? “You look bored.” “Why are you so serious?” “What is that damn thing, anyway?”
It’s hard to be entertaining when you have to keep your eyes on your hands, and when your arms and legs are locked into the “playing position”, and so you might appear somber and preoccupied.
Classical musicians often come across the same way, but, hey, they’re playing “serious” music, and patrons of the arts don’t expect them to cavort around and grin while rendering La Valse de l’Adieu. I guess “The Bottle Let Me Down” isn’t considered quite that profound, and the audience expects a little showmanship, huh?
You’ve probably noticed that nobody on the dance floor ever plays air steel, but patrons of the arts don’t play air cello, either.
One of the problems with live music is getting the correct mix. Many times somebody’s too loud or too soft. You want to be heard, right? Some drummers have an unfortunate tendency to make everyone play too loud, and it’s a pain in the ear to play at rock star volume all night. Eric Clapton’s just about deaf now, y’know. On one gig where I was the band leader I told the drummer that if he couldn’t hear the steel guitar he was too fucking loud. Not picking on drummers, just an example, anyone in the band can be the miscreant. Especially the guy who’s been doing shots with beer chasers all night, and who plays a little louder on each set.
It takes some experience to be able to play at the correct volume. “Dynamics” is a term many musicians aren’t familiar with, but don’t let that deter you from your quest to improve your ability to perform in a manner that will keep the job offers rolling it. Fills are soft, solos are loud, get it? Ask for some opinions from musically knowlegable people in the crowd (not a wife or a girl friend; they will always tell you’re not loud enough, honey), record the show, watch for people bending an ear or heading for the end of the bar when you play the break on “A Way To Survive”.
Yeah, sometimes you’re at the mercy of the sound man, if you’re all miked, but the stage volume can still be a bitch. Not much you can do about that. Some of them know what they’re doing and some don’t, so good luck with that.
Your tone and execution are more important than licks. You’ve heard guys sound a little out of tune because they’re all over the neck playing things that don’t quite come off. Your tone is going to suck if you’re a little out of tune and if your notes are running together, and hot licks don’t mean a thing then. Play things that you are capable of playing, and go for the sound instead of the lick. Once in a while, instead of a flurry of disjointed, sloppy notes, try playing just one note and let it sustain and make it sound as good as you can. Stretch out and go for the gold once in a while, if you’re having a good night, but don’t make a habit of it until you get your technical ability up to par with the stuff you’re trying to play. Knowing how to play a lick is one thing, but playing it so it sounds good in a live situation can be an Emmons of a different color.
You all know that to keep a job you have to play what the star wants. But what does he or she want? A high-profile showman? A comedian? A hot instrumentalist or just an unobtrusive musician to provide fills and pads and who blends into the background and doesn’t attract too much attention? Hang out with the band members, and with star if possible. Watch some of their videos. Do they all think Buddy Emmons is a god, or have they never even heard of him? Whip some of your hot licks on them and check the reaction. Find out what they want in a steel player. When I started with Faron Young I got a few compliments on my playing from band members and fans, but Faron seemed vaguely unimpressed. Come to find out, what he wanted me to play was the melody – not those Buddy Emmons jazz licks I’d been staying up all night practicing. So I played the melody, and kept the gig for 10 years.
I really was insane about steel guitar when I first started playing. I didn’t have a wife or kids or a real job or any responsibilities, so I sat in a room with a record player and learned everything I could. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with something running through my head and get up and sit down at my guitar and play it. It was like heroin or something. I didn’t watch much TV or develop any serious relationships with girls – no time for that shit. It only took a few months of this and I was playing full time and making a living.
I continued in this same vein for about 10 years and then calmed down a little and looked around at the world to see what else was out there.
Listeners’ ears become inured to the sound of the steel guitar, and playing fewer notes at a live gig can sometimes be more effective than playing all the way through every song. If you’re in a 3-4 piece group you may need to pad when you’re not filling or playing your solo or intro, but if you have at least a piano and a guitar you can lay out on some verses and choruses, like good fiddle players do. It makes the steel stand out more when you do play something.