Ernest Tubb wore a hat

Ernest TubbErnest Tubb was playing one of the Caravan clubs out west. They had this rule about hats – the rule was, no hats. Well, ET and his Troubadours always wore Western hats when they played, it’s part of the show. The manager laid down the law to Ernest about the hats. Ernest said OK, and told the boys to pack up, they were leaving. A lot of tickets had been sold, and the club didn’t want to lose its star attraction, so the manager went out to the bus to discuss it with Ernest. But Ernest wouldn’t let him on the Green Hornet – until he put a hat on.

Steel Guitar on the Radio

Back in the 60’s and 70’s before I ever owned a steel guitar there was a lot of music on the radio that made me want to buy a steel guitar and, hopefully, eventually learn how to play it. I was listening to WJJD in Chicago, Mike Hoyer in Des Moines, Bill Mack in Ft. Worth, WSM in Nashville – the Opry and the Sho~Bud showcase with Jack Bowles – WLW in Cincinnati and some station in New Orleans. I could get these stations at night in South Bend. I figured it would take a few years to get up to speed once I had a steel guitar, but it only took a few months. Inherent talent or just dumb luck, I dunno.

Dickey Overbey

I remember driving down 16th street in the early 70‘s in Indianapolis and hearing “I’ll be There” by Johnny Bush with Dickey Overbey on steel, which was a true catalyst, and I nearly ran off the road. Then I bought Lloyd’s “Hit Sounds” at 2am in some all-night store and I knew I had to get me a steel guitar.

But I gotta tell ya, what I hear on the radio these days would not inspire me to be a steel guitar player. No fucking way. It doesn’t yank my chain, the way it did back then. If I were 20 years old again I’d wanna be a guitar player or a bass player, and play jazz or blues. No way I’d want to play what passes for Country Music now.

Paul and Sonny and Bruce and all the other hot session players are world class players, and I have a lot of respect for their talent, because I’ve heard what they can can actually do in live situations, but in the studio they can only play what the producer tells them to play, and that’s not really what I want to hear, so I listen to my ginormous music collection, which I’ve been building for 40 years, and also Internet radio, to get my steel guitar fix. Hint: go to www.live365 and find Shufflemainia.

The Wilburn Brothers Show

When I was in college in the 60’s I had a pretty active social life, but I still went home at midnight most Saturdays to watch two hours of country music shows from Nashville. Ernest Tubb, the Wilburn Brothers and a couple others. Yep, a bad time slot, but I was there digging Buddy Charleton and Hal Rugg. I didn’t even have a steel guitar yet, but I played along with an old Conrad flattop, and I missed out on some serious partying. My friends, who were all into Blood Sweat and Tears, Cream, Traffic, Bob Dylan and other groups of that ilk thought I was insane. I did like that stuff, too, but steel guitar really grabbed my ass.

This was a real casual show, with few, if any, retakes. They probably had a pretty small budget. The bass player, brother Leslie, would go to the wrong changes once in a while, and Loretta would come in wrong sometimes, but that just made the show more appealing. It was like a live show (which in essence it really was) or just a bunch of pickers and singers gathered together to make music and have fun. It was what you’d see if you were in the audience, or if you were at their house at a party. Teddy and Doyle joked with each other (much of it unscripted, I’d imagine), fluffed their lines, and generally just had fun. They did have cue cards, at least for some of the song lyrics, but I wonder if they even had a real script. Everyone on the show had a personality that wasn’t repressed by over-production or “show business” considerations, and they all came across as real people that you’d like to just hang out with. I’ve played many, many gigs that were just like that. And, hey, if you can’t have fun, why do it?

This is an example of what got me addicted to steel guitar:


The Bass Player

The bass player is the most important guy in the band. He keeps time, along with the drummer, and also plays the changes, along with the rest of the band. If he misses just one note it’s usually way too noticeable, and the bottom drops out of the song. If the bass player doesn’t know the song, you’re fucked.

If he does know the song and you don’t, you can fake it pretty well by lending him an ear, especially if he plays walk ups and walk downs to help you get to the next change.

Most of his notes must be equidistant apart, and the ability to do that seems to be something you’re born with; I don’t think you can learn this, no matter how much you practice. Like, that’s talent.

Technically, playing country bass isn’t very difficult, compared to playing steel guitar. I mean, it’s a whole lot easier playing bass on “Touch My Heart” than playing the intro on steel, and you don’t need to woodshed for years to get the bass part right, unless you just don’t have any talent, and in that case you should just forego the whole enterprise.

A lot of steel guitar players are good bass players. Playing good bass requires an overall understanding of the song; its structure and feel, and steel players, for whatever reason, usually seem to possess this.

Bob Parlocha

Bob ParlochaBob Parlocha is a jazz DJ, as knowledgeable about jazz as Eddy Stubbs is about country. His show is syndicated all over the country, and it’s on in Nashville on WMOT every night, all night long. He never plays any steel guitar music, though, and I inquired about that several years ago. He’s kind of a hard core jazzer, like many of us are hard core country, and he wasn’t hip to Buddy Emmons or Curly Chalker, so I sent him a couple .mp3’s but I guess he wasn’t impressed, and I still haven’t heard any steel guitar on his show. Well, he’s still got a great show.

A shitty steel guitar

I knew this guy who billed himself as a steel player but made his way through life as a con man. He’d relocate to various parts of the country, including Nashville, start up some kind of a business, music-related or not, and scam people out of money until he had to move on again.

He’d tell you about these fabulous deals he could get you on musical equipment that may or may not be real, hire you for gigs that didn’t exist, offer to fix your cassette player and then you’d never see it again… You get my drift.

By-and-by he pissed off a group of musicians so badly that one of them decided that he needed killing, but his buddies talked him out of it it and they settled on trashing his steel guitar.

He had a gorgeous white Sho~Bud D-10 set up in his van, and they grabbed it and threw it into an open cesspool. The last time they saw him he was wading waist-deep in shit and slime, dragging his guitar out.

Playing in tune with the guitar player

Guitar PlayerExperienced musicians can usually play in tune with each other pretty well. But if you’re just starting to play in live situations you might be intimidated when you play something and it sounds out of tune with the band, especially the guitar player. WTF you wonder? Everybody’s got an electronic tuner and we’re all tuned to A 440.

The sad fact is that you’re never gonna get a steel guitar in tune, with itself or with other instruments, A 440 notwithstanding. Some string/pedal combinations are gonna sound OK, but others aren’t, and when you combine this fact with a beginning player’s nascent left and right hand technique the resulting sound may be less than optimal. Maybe not even actually musical.

Anybody in the band can play out of tune, but let’s pick on the guitar player’s sorry ass here, because he’s usually the one who creates the most dissonance with a steel guitar.

Your open E string may match perfectly with the guitar player’s open E, but when you play, say, an E chord, pedals down, at the 7th fret it might not sound in tune with whatever inversion of an E chord he’s playing. Hmm, you wonder, I’d better check my tuning. Well, it’s not always your fault; guitar players play out of tune because they put too much or too little pressure on the strings as they play in various positions up and down the neck, and it’s even worse when they use light gauge strings. They unintentionally bend their strings out of tune, so you can’t necessarily trust them as a reference for the tonal center. And most of them play too many notes, anyway.

If you’re an experienced player with some street cred, sometimes you can just establish your own tonal center with the rest of the band by playing with a lot of authority and forcing the guitar player to get with you, turn down, lay out, or just sound bad.

As you go down the steel guitar road of life these tuning issues will gradually be mitigated if you practice a lot and play a lot of gigs with better musicians and your technique and your ear develop and you learn to slant the bar slightly in certain positions and to avoid other positions altogether. But it’s a long road, with lots of stop signs, potholes and construction sites.