What we can learn from Arnold

One of the precepts of successful bodybuilding is to stress the muscles enough by lifting heavy weights to tear down the muscle tissue, thus inducing the body to rebuild the tissue, bigger and stronger than it was before. But the real secret is to give the body enough nutrition, time and sleep to accomplish this. You can work your ass off in the gym, but if you don’t give your body what it needs to recuperate, you’re wasting your time, and you might even lose muscle mass and strength.

There’s also the psychological element involved – if your brain gets burned out you won’t make any progress, either. It’s called overtraining.

The same thing can happen to you when you play too much. I know, because i’ve played 7 nights a week for months at a time and found myself playing worse instead of better. My technique was still intact, but my brain didn’t seem to be functioning at its usual capacity, like – well, what it was, was I seemed to have lost some of my creativity and originality. I was playing the same old things, and boring myself to death with them. The simple fix was to take a few nights off and then I came back better than ever. No big deal. So that might be something to keep in mind if you play a whole lot of gigs.

Tone, Sustain and Volume

tone, sustain and volume Here’s where you get this stuff, according to Buddy Emmons, by way of Mike Cass. The important thing here is to not confuse volume with sustain – you get sustain from your left hand, not from your right foot.
A novel concept, you may be thinking? Well, push your volume pedal all the way down, take your foot off it and just play for a while and try it out.

What monKey are we in?

monkeyfacePlaying live with unrehearsed bands and sit-ins, which I’ve done a lot for the last 39 years, can be dangerous and can make a monkey out of you if you don’t play with circumspection. It can drive you bananas.

Most of the bands I’ve worked with do the same songs – country standards and whatever’s hot at the time – and the musicians usually know what they’re doing, but arrangements and keys can vary, especially when a sit-in or a chick singer or a big ego is involved.

I don’t know how many times I’ve kicked a song off in D when it it was supposed to be in G. Well, I thought the singer said D. The drummer’s banging around on his kit, the bass player’s hollering at some girl, the piano player’s practicing “Last Date”. It’s noisy on the bandstand; hard to hear. If anyone knew the sharps and flats they could just flash one finger up when they want to perform in G. Hell, most Nashville musicians don’t even know this, let alone singers.

“Big City” can be an adventure sometimes. The turnaround in the middle is the same as the intro on the record, but sometimes a guitar player will want to play a ride in the middle, which always confuses the bass player.

You never know if you’re going to modulate in “Look At Us”. If you do it like the record, the band probably won’t. So you’re hanging out there like a big matza ball.

The 4m in the tag on “Farewell Party” can be fraught with peril, and I usually play just the root and 5th of the 4 until I hear what kind of a 3rd everybody else is playing.

Some symphony in Nashville was doing a piece a couple years ago and someone missed a cue, and the whole thing ground to a halt and they had to regroup and start up again. And they were rehearsed, and reading their parts. Obviously not bar band musicians.

But it’s all good experience, and it makes a better musician out of you eventually, I tell myself as I contemplate the infinite monkey theorem that states something about an infinite number of moneys plucking away on a steel guitar for an infinite amount of time and coming up with something better than “Steel Guitar Rag”.

Cal Sharp and phrasing

Cal SharpI’ve never been a particularly great player, just an average Nashville road dog. I don’t mean to disparage myself, after all, you have to have some chops to even be a Nashville road dog, but I was able to work and make a living playing steel guitar for years, until I got tired of buses and airports and Canadian Customs and truck stop food. And flying – holy fuck, no way I’d do that these days. Anyhoo, I looked OK on stage, had a sense of humor, was somewhat tolerant of self-centered stars, had a great tone (not my doing, I played an Emmons) and could remember arrangements. But the key to my questionable success in the entertainment field seemed to be my phrasing and my ability to complement the song and the singer without trying to be Buddy Emmons 2.0 and dazzle everybody with my fancy licks. (Shit, what did I do with those fancy licks I used to have? Must have left them at a jam session somewhere on Broadway. And I wonder who got ’em?) The secret is to not play over the lyrics. Play in the holes. Sounds simple, don’t it? Yet a lot of players have a problem with that concept. Well, hell, it makes more work for the guys who do get it. Here’s a vid of me not playing over the lyrics with some guy I used to drink and travel and fight with.

Buddy Charleton and phrasing

Many years ago while listening attentively to Buddy Charleton on some of Ernest Tubb’s records I noticed that on some songs, like ballads, I could hardly ever hear him pick a string. The steel guitar sound just went on and on like a cascading flow of notes, caressing and emphasizing the lyrics. No ebow in those days, he just had impeccable control of the volume pedal and the innate taste and technique to pick behind and below a lyric, where it wouldn’t be noticed, unless it was at the end of a lyric, and then it was, oh, just perfect. Quite a technique, effective, but very subtle.

In contrast to this, I’ve heard some steel players playing phrases that don’t quite come off, mainly because there’s no delineation between their phrases. Seems like a dichotomy, given the preceding paragraph, eh? Well, they don’t do it like Buddy did. It’s like the space between their phrases is in the wrong place, or stands out too much, or just isn’t right, somehow. Usually, you probably should play an end to a phrase, and then start a new one, and if I don’t hear that it sounds kinda mushy and ineffective. Unless you do it like Buddy.

Buddy’s phrasing was masterful on the recordings I’m referencing. Most players aren’t there yet, and won’t ever get there.

These aren’t the best examples of what I’m going on about, but you might get the idea.



What’s the first thing you do when you get to a gig? Even before you grab a beer? You unpack or uncover your steel guitar so it’ll acclimate to the temperature of the room and stay in tune. You should also play it for a few minutes before you think about tuning. Keep you damn left hand on the bar, and leave the tuning wrench out in the car if you have to, but DON’T TUNE YET! Be patient, grasshoppers, let your guitar breathe. I’ve gone for a couple weeks without having to touch a Kluson. If you’re playing outside, though, screw it. Go get a beer.

Gig attitude

Emmons steel guitarSometime when you’re setting up your rig to do a big gig and play a jig and smoke a cig ask yourself why you’re doing it. What is your attitude, your motivation, and why are you on the bandstand, and why should you expect anyone to even listen to you? Chicks? Free beer? Money? Social interaction? Love of music? All, or none, of the above?

I knew a fiddle player for the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”, and he played the same parts every night from the sheet music. That could be boring, I suppose, but he went into every gig with the attitude that he was going to play it better than he did the night before. He made it interesting for himself.

I approach most gigs with two things in mind: play in tune and play with taste. I really don’t worry about my tone; it’s just there, and I credit my guitar for that. But sometimes, just to make it interesting, I’ll try to play like I was doing a session, or I’ll try to play some amazing shit that’ll make somebody in the band sit up and take note, or I’ll see if I can not play my favorite lick all night, or I’ll try to come up with something I’ve never played before, or I’ll use the first finger instead of the middle finger for single string stuff, or I’ll play a whole song without using the bar (you mighta/shoulda heard Julian Tharpe do that), or I’ll pretend I’m playing with Ernest Tubb instead of Ernest Hemingway. If it’s a casual bar gig I like to go for it sometimes. Wouldn’t try any of this on an artist gig at the Super Bowl.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with some amazing musicians who blew me away every night, but I’ve also worked with some slugs who play the same shit every night, and I don’t know how they stand it. I get so bored with my own playing; I’ve heard it all before, too many times, and I’m always trying to play something new, even if it means going out on a limb and playing something that’s not as good as my normal stuff. Normal is boring, right? I might fuck up (might?) sometimes, but at the end of the night – or the month, or the year, or the career – I’ll emerge a better player, or so I’m thinking. Anyway, that’s my story, and if it gets you fired don’t pay any more attention to me.

Lick redundancy

Here’s a weird thing that’s happened to me a few times. I’ll hear some steel lick live or on a record that sounds pretty cool, so the next time I sit down at a steel guitar I’ll try to play it, and I get it on the first try and then realize that it’s something that I already knew and that I’ve been playing for years. Huh. I guess when Buddy plays something it’ll sound different when I play the same notes. Kinda the same deal with classical music. Guys like Chopin and Mozart composed music that musicians play today from the sheet music and they all sound different, or so I understand, and some are considered masters and others just pretenders. So there ya go, given the requisite technical competency, it’s mostly in the heart and the head.

Picking hard

It was brought to my attention some years ago that I didn’t pick the strings very hard, so I began to analyze my right hand technique and to experiment with picking harder or softer. It seemed to me that when I was in doubt, like when I wasn’t real sure that I could accurately play what I was trying to play, or trying to play faster than I really could, I picked softer, in case I fucked up. But that’s a double-edged sword. If I did fuck up, I might have time to mute the offending note(s), back off the volume pedal or correct the clam. But, playing softer seemed to take a little bit of the edge off my technique, and actually made me play less accurately. It also seemed to have a deleterious effect on my tone, and that’s the last thing I want.

So what are ya gonna do, risk a hairy ol’ clam hanging out there like a big Matza ball or go for the gold? Hell, I’ve heard Joe Pass records where he muffed a note, but producer Norman Granz let it go by because the rest of what he’d played was so great.

After many years of experimenting I now vary my attack on the strings considerably. I wang the hell out of the strings sometimes, and barely let a pick graze them, or it, at other times. Like, I’ll play a G chord at the 10th fret and then work my way down to the 3rd fret when I’m about to go to the 4 chord and just barely pick the 9th string to get that dominant 7th in there before I go to the C chord.

If you’re fortunate enough to be playing with a good bunch of musicians who actually listen to what you’re doing, you can play with a lot of dynamics – louder and softer as the band follows you – and create something worth listening to.