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I grew up in the small town of Nokesville, Virginia, in a musical family. Our musical roots were in bluegrass music, and I started learning guitar and banjo in my early to mid-teens. During college, I didn't play very much music, but after college, I started to take my banjo playing more seriously and began playing in bluegrass bands around Northern Virginia and Washington, DC. I started playing pedal steel and getting more into country music around 2010, and in 2015 my wife and I moved to Austin, Texas. When not playing music, I'm an 8th-grade U.S. history teacher in the city of Austin.
I feel like many pedal steel players have a story a little like mine. It's rare that it's an instrument one seeks out to start playing. It's more like you somehow just fall into it. For most of my early music life, I played banjo with my dad and a few various bluegrass bands around Virginia and Washington, DC. I started playing acoustic guitar at around 13 years old and started playing banjo at 15. I came from a bluegrass family, so that was my main musical focus for about 15 years. I still play banjo and love bluegrass to this day, but I don't pursue playing in bluegrass bands or playing bluegrass gigs as much as I used to. Around 2010 I was playing banjo with a bluegrass band that started to go into an alt. country direction. I was having a hard time applying banjo to some of the material we were coming up with and performing. It just didn't feel like it fit. When we were talking about starting our second album, our producer suggested I learn some lap steel or pedal steel for the album. I remember laughing and stating that it seemed much easier said than done. I bought a cheap lap steel to mess around with and I started learning some blues licks and standard lap steel stuff, but it was limiting as far as country music went. My dad had a friend that had a couple pedal steels, and he let me borrow one to mess around with and try out. Luckily, I already had pretty good dexterity in my right hand from years of playing banjo, so the right-hand technique (which, in my opinion, is the hardest thing for most people to get) wasn't a very foreign concept to me. I was terrible at first, but when I started to hear it coming together, I was hooked. The band broke up before we could record that second album, but it got me started on the road to playing pedal steel, and I've been at it ever since.
I wish I had learned more about music theory early on. As most of us do, when I started playing music, I learned solos of what I liked and mostly focused on learning licks and phrases I could plug into different chords and musical situations. While that will get you quite a bit of mileage at first, it's easy to plateau when you do that. I still love learning licks, but now I'm trying to understand more about intervals and how and why different chords work together. I've had a pretty basic understanding of theory for a while, but I'm trying to start using things like diminished chords and tritone substitutions to bend the ears and not be as predictable.
Living and playing in Austin (and Texas in general) makes it easy. Texas has a heavy country music culture, and when you're able to play dance halls and venues that appreciate music and make it a priority, it's easy to be excited by it. People dance and interact with music here and live music is an active experience for both the performers and the audience. While you do still occasionally have a dead crowd or people not interested, it's not nearly as frequent. Last summer, I got a call to audition for Jesse Raub, Jr. out of Magnolia, Texas. Jesse has had some pretty big songs on Texas country radio and is good friends and has written songs with Cody Johnson. Playing bigger venues and bigger shows with him has been a really neat experience, and we have some opening shows with Cody Johnson in August. About a month before I joined the band, they got to play the Ryman Auditorium opening for Cody, and I really hope to get that opportunity. Needless to say, my excitement level for music is at an all-time high.
-Pedal steel in country music typically runs pretty clean. The most important effect for pedal steel is reverb, so I would have to have a reverb pedal as my #1. I use the reverb in my amp, but I have an Electro Harmonix Holy Grail in case something goes wrong with it.
My #2 pedal would be a delay pedal. I use a Boss DD-3 set to about 300ms with one subtle repeat. Some steel players hate delay, but if used sparingly, I think it compliments and gives a little more richness to the reverb.
My #3 pedal would probably be a distortion pedal. I don't play a lot of rock or stuff that needs it, but occasionally it's fun to turn it on to get a lap steel sound if a rock song is on the setlist. I use a Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive.
Lately, I've been trying to learn more about the C6 neck. To give a little info, most pedal steel you hear on almost all famous country recordings since the late 1950s is done on the E9 tuning on the front neck. If you see a player with a single-neck guitar, that is typically the tuning they are playing. The back neck is tuned to a C6 and is used more for western swing and jazz. The E9 tuning typically uses 3-4 foot pedals and 4-5 knee levers; the C6 neck uses two knee levers and 5-foot pedals. The changes and tuning are totally different, so it takes quite a bit of study. It's almost like learning a new instrument.
Very difficult to say. I think I've stayed pretty consistent over the years. It depends on the genre. My favorite bluegrass band of all time is probably JD Crowe and the New South. JD Crowe has always been my banjo idol. All the different lineups he had in his band were stellar, and he pushed the envelope of bluegrass by using drums and pedal steel in his recordings on occasion.
As far as country artists go, I'd have to go with George Strait, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings. I know it sounds a little cliche to go with three of the most famous country artists of all time, but they are famous for a reason. As much radio play, these three have had over the years, I've never changed the station when one of their songs comes on.
Pedal steels aren't really around in music stores. I don't think I've ever seen or heard of one being at a mainstream music store. There are some brick-and-mortar steel guitar shops like Billy Cooper's in Orange, Virginia, but they are rare. If I'm noodling around on someone else's steel, I usually play the Bob Wills standard "Faded Love" to warm up and get a feel for the pedals and knee levers. If I want to do something faster, I typically play the solo to "Highway 40 Blues" by Ricky Skaggs. It can be frustrating to play someone else's instrument because pedal steel is very customizable. Some people have different pedal and knee lever setups (called a copedent), which can trip you up.
I ordered a new Mullen G2 guitar last spring, and when it arrived in the fall, I quickly fell in love with it. It is, without a doubt, the nicest instrument I've ever owned and probably one of the nicest things I've ever owned, period. The Mullen company is incredible, and I would highly recommend them to anyone looking to get a steel. They aren't cheap, but the quality never is. I think, in general, too many people try to get a cheap instrument when they start out learning to see if they'll be any good at it, only to get frustrated because the instrument doesn't sound good or stay in tune. I learned early and told people to invest in the best instrument they can afford so you'll not only be more motivated to play it, but so you won't have to upgrade nearly as quickly if you do stick with it.
Not unlike drums, pedal steel rigs are a pain to break down and set up. My ultimate goal is to have two nearly identical setups so that when I have a gig, I don't have to break everything down from my practice room/office, load it in the truck, and set it all back up on stage, only to break it all down and bring it home and set it back up in my office. I would love to buy another Mullen guitar. Probably a single neck with a pad (SD10). They're a lot lighter in weight, and I'm not using the C6 very much any way since I'm still learning it.
Gear and Route: Mullen G2 D-10 Pedal Steel Guitar - Electro Harmonix B9 Organ Effects Pedal - Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive - Hilton Low Profile Volume Pedal - Tone City Angel Wing Chorus - Boss DD-3 Delay - Electro Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb - Quilter Steelaire Rackmount Amp - Quilter TT-12 Cabinet
I route it this way because, in order to get the cleanest sound out of the organ effect when I want to use it, it has to go first in the chain. This is followed by the distortion/Sparkle Drive pedal before I go into my volume pedal. Out of the volume pedal, I go into the chorus, delay, and reverb, then into the input of the amp. Since I usually use a pretty clean signal, I don't really need to use the effects loop. 90% of the time, I just run a very subtle delay and use the reverb on my Quilter amp, so I don't use a whole lot of effects. The Holy Grail is more for a backup reverb in case I need it. My old amp had a reverb that was a little bit spotty.
Rattlesnake Cables - 3' Pedal Steel Cable with black weave, 8" Jumper Patch Cable (stubby ends), 17" Jumper Patch Cable (stubby ends), 3' Jumper Patch Cable, 10' Standard Instrument Cable with black weave, 2x Flex Patch Cables, 10' Speaker Cable. These cables have a very clean sound and a much sturdier feel than any other cables I've used. I don't have to worry about one failing, and if it does, I know you all will take care of me. I love the quality and being able to support and endorse a small American business.
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