Who could have imagined that a few serendipitous events on a remote Pacific island in the 19th century would fundamentally change American music. In 1832 Hawaii's king brought Mexican cowboys to the Big Island to teach native Hawaiians how gain control of their rapidly increasing cattle population. As luck would have it, some of these cowboys brought along their Spanish guitars. Around 1880 Portuguese sailors and workers from Madeira introduced the steel string guitar to the islands.
Gradually the Hawaiians adapted the guitar to fit their sensibilities, for example, nonstandard tuningsfor a time these unique tunings were treated as closely guarded family secrets. Hawaiians are credited with developing slack-key (open) tuning, often using a G or a maj 7th chord. Their most consequential development was the Hawaiian guitar, aka the steel guitar. It seems a few players may have come up with the idea independently, but Joseph Kekuku is often credited as the inventor of the steel guitar. In 1890, the then fifteen year old Joseph was walking along a road on the island of Oahu carrying his guitar when he spotted a steel bolt on the ground. He picked it up and began experimenting with it on his guitar and liked the sound. Later he tried his steel comb, the back of a pocket knife, and eventually a polished steel bar. Over time it evolved into the lap steel guitar.
The lap steel guitar has a vocal quality, with fluid and sustained notes that were ideally suited to the enchanting swaying rhythms, vowel-rich Hawaiian vocals, and evocative dreamlike melodies of Hawaiian music. In 1915 a hit Broadway show introduced Hawaiian music to America, and a year later it was the best selling music genre in America. The Hawaiian music craze lasted until the mid 20th Century.
A native Hawaiian guitar virtuoso named Sol Ho'opi'i moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s. There he formed a trio, sold millions of records, and was also successful in the film industry. His playing influenced mainland musicians, notably the jazz trombonist Bob Dunn who became a pioneer of western swing steel guitar. As a result steel guitar quickly became a staple in country & western, and was front and center when honky tonk became the rage in the late 1940snowadays it's hard to imagine country music without a steel guitar.
A number of specialized instruments were developed along the way. Before electric guitars the resonator guitar was developed to provide more volume. Today it's generally known by the brand name Dobro, and there are two distinctly different versions. There are electric lap steel guitars, electric console steel guitars, and electric pedal steel guitarsfascinating stories, but beyond the scope of this list. The point is that these horizontally played guitars revolutionized the sound, playing techniques, and possibilities of guitar. Bright and happy, raw and wild, haunting and subtle, these are but a few of the possibilities.
I'm a fan, but certainly not an aficionado, so this list isn't authoritative or intended as a ranking. Rather this is simply a list of some of the players who have caught my attention over the years. It was agonizing to narrow this list to just ten, when there are so many other players worthy of inclusion: The Lee Boys, Buddy Cage, Red Rhodes, Lloyd Maines, Jeff Baxter, and then there's Jeff Healey who played a conventional guitar on his lap. So please feel free to share your favorites in the comments.
1. The brothers Farina, Santo & Johnny
Initially I wanted to present this list in chronological order, but Santo & Johnny's timeless hit perfectly demonstrates the unique emotive potential of the steel guitar, so this seemed like the obvious choice. Equally important, "Sleep Walk" put steel guitar on the map in terms of rock & roll.
"Sleep Walk" came out in 1959, a year after the song "Tequila" from my previous post. They have a lot in common, both were instrumentals, and huge international number 1 hits by unknown artists. Both songs are indelibly etched in the fabric of American culture, and their iconic melodies capture the spirit of their time. "Sleep Walk" with its haunting melody has been covered by the likes of Jeff Beck, Brian Seltzer, Derek Trucks, and Larken Poe.
The brothers grew up in an Italian/American neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, definitely not a hotbed of country or Hawaiian music. During WWII their father was stationed for a time in Oklahoma and after hearing steel guitar on the radio, he decided his sons should learn to play the instrument. When he returned home after the war he arranged for them to take lessons. Santos initially had a music store adapt an acoustic guitar to be played as a steel guitar. Eventually as a teenager he bought a Fender Steel guitar and took lessons from a teacher who had studied in Hawaii.
2. Speedy West
Speedy was actually Wesley Webb West, way ahead of his time with the initials WWW. He was a farm boy from Springfield, Missouri with a natural affinity for guitar. He sought fame in Los Angeles, working six days a week in a dry cleaning plant, and playing 7 nights a week in Skid Row bars.
After nearly working himself to death he landed a job in a 23 piece orchestra and quit his day job. They did a Saturday night radio & television broadcast called Hometown Jamboree, and through that gig he became a popular studio musician for Capitol Records (over 6,000 recordings with 177 different vocalists.) When a vacancy came up for a guitarist for the orchestra, Speedy got his friend Jimmy Bryant the job.
Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant were friends from the Skid Row bar gigs, and West considered Bryant the best guitarist he had ever known. After playing on a huge hit record, West was offered his own recording contract by Capitol. He convinced them to also sign Jimmy Bryant. They were single artists but essentially worked as a duo, guesting on each others records. West also continued doing studio work for major country stars.
3. Buddy Emmons
He is perhaps the preeminent pedal steel guitars of all time, a nine time winner of the Academy of Country Music's Best Steel Guitarist Award. In addition to that, he patented innovations for the pedal steel guitar that have become industry standards, and founded the Emmons Guitar Company.
An Indiana native, at age 11 he began taking lessons at the Hawaiian Conservatory in South Bend. His father bought him a steel guitar and he began figuring out country music he heard on the radio. At age 15 Emmons was active in country bands on the local music scene, so his father bought him a proper triple-neck Fender Stringmaster steel guitar. When Little Jimmy Dickens toured the area and heard 18 year old Emmons play, he invited him to join his band and relocate to Nashville. A year later Dickens went solo and Emmons became a session player. He was in Ernest Tubbs band and later Ray Price's band, followed by a string of other formations over the years.
He toured with guitarist Danny Gatton in 1978 with a band they called the Redneck Jazz Explosion. They recorded a live album at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. on New Year's Eve. Buddy also did a one-off gig with Lenny Breau in Nashville that was recorded and released as an album Minors Aloud, Flying Fish 1978. Here are Buddy Emmon's own words from the liner note:
..." producer Mike Melford asked me if I would be interested in recording with Lenny Breau. My response was a quick yes but on the condition that Lenny would be the featured artist and I'd be listed as a guest... I learned later that Lenny hadn't been told anything about the project other than to just show up. With a few days preparation and a little polish to the arrangements, this would have been a different album. For better or worse we'll never know, but I do know the solos were spontaneous, the energy level was fantastic, and we all had a great time getting there."
The clip below is from the Steel Guitar Jazz album he recorded in 1963 for Mercury Records. When listening to it, it's good to have some background. Here is a 2002 comment about the album I found on Buddy Emmons' website in response to a fan's question:
"My discomfort was through a series of small events. I had planned to fly commercial but Ray Price was making a trip to New York City and offered to take me in his small plane. He said to travel light, so I took a Standel amp with a 12" speaker. When I set up, I couldn't find a warm sound for chords without distorting the amp, so I ended up with ear splitting highs. I made it clear to Quincy Jones up front that I knew nothing about reading music and couldn't do the album if it required it. So, I called off the list of tunes he had sent me and found the musicians weren't familiar with the changes to some of them, so we had to come up with tunes we all knew. Also, Quincy had to fly to Paris and they subbed a producer by the name of Hal Mooney. I felt that had Quincy been there, he could have supplied charts that would have gotten me through the tunes I had taken time to learn. Hal Mooney was a producer and was married to Kay Starr at some time, but that was about the only thing I respected him for. He got hot under the collar and said, 'Why in the hell don't you have charts for these tunes.' My response was, 'These tunes were picked for me. Why in the hell didn't you hire somebody that knew them.' Because of that and a few other things, including it being my first exposure to the city and its attitude, I was ready to go home the first hour. I knew when we came to the tune 'Any Time,' we had scraped the bottom of the barrel. It was after 'Any Time,' that I came up with 'Bluemmons' and put us all out of our misery. I got along well with Art Davis and Bobby Scott, and if it wasn't for Bobby's consideration, I might have eased over the edge."
4. Chuck Campbell & Darick Campbell
The roots of Sacred Steel music reach back to a group of Pentecostal churches in the 1930s, when a church headquartered in Nashville and another headquartered in Indiana replaced the traditional organ with lap steel guitars. The vocal quality of the lap steel made it a natural fit for Gospel music in general, but it was the lap steel's powerful soulful wailing that really brought the congregations in the Pentecostal churches to their feet.
The Campbell Brothers group play in this tradition, but also crossover and perform secular music. The brothers are originally from a small town in Northwestern New York State. Chuck plays pedal steel guitar and his brother Darick plays lap steel, they are backed by their brother Phillip on guitar, and his son Carlton on drums. Chuck Campbell was one of the first to introduce pedal steel into Sacred Steel. He not only makes his pedal steel sing, but his use of a wah pedal and distortion make it shout and wail like a fired-up country preacher.
The Campbell Brothers came to my attention in 2004 when they did a gig with the then up and coming Derek Trucks Band. At that time Derek Trucks had a legion of dedicated tapers who recorded all of his shows, and with his permission put them up on the web. I remember listening to that show and being blown away by the Campbell Brothers.
Above, listen to a treat from that show (Nov. 13, 2004) with Chuck Campbell sitting in on the last song of the Derek Trucks Band's set.
5. Aubrey Ghent
Fort Pierce, Florida native Aubrey Ghent is recognized as one of the premier lap steel players in the Sacred Steel tradition. His soulful emotive playing exudes authenticity, reminiscent of blues greats like Albert King and B.B. King. It's no wonder he's influenced a number of young players, including his own son.
Aubrey Ghent is the nephew of Willie Eason, who, along with his older brother Troman were the first to introduce lap steel guitar to the worship services of the Pentecostal church. Troman Eason took lessons in the early 1930s from a Hawaiian player he had heard on the radio. Troman played in the fluid tranquil style of Hawaiian music, but in the late 30s his teenage brother Willie (Aubrey's uncle) had other ideas. He used the lap steel to emulate what he heard at church. A natural talent with a charismatic personality, Willie saw an opening and dropped out of high school to travel the South performing where he couldstreet corners, churches, tent revivals. He would sing and his lap steel would sing back to him, so a deejay dubbed him Little Willie and His Talking Guitar, and that stuck. He was able to live from his music and cut some 78 records, and remained a driving force behind Sacred Steel music.
He eventually settled in Florida and married a Pentecostal Bishop's daughter. Aubrey Ghent's father, Henry Nelson, was Willie's very young brother-in-law. He followed in Willie's footsteps, becoming a major figure in Sacred Steel music. To learn more I highly recommend the Sacred Steel chapter by Robert L. Stone in the Florida Folklife Reader, or his book Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition.
6. Robert Randolph
His father is a minister and his mother is a deacon in the Pentacostal church. His grandmother used to watched Little Willie Eason perform, so Robert Randolph is steeped in the Sacred Steel tradition. He is by far the best known guitarist to come out of the tradition, but his focus has been on reaching blues rock, jam band, and funk audiences. His crossover has been successfulmajor record contracts, sharing the stage with rock guitar legends, and garnering four Grammy nominations.
7. Jerry Douglas
He's a fun-loving virtuoso with eclectic tastes who pushes the envelop and continually takes the dobro into uncharted territory. As an example, he guested on an album with the next musician on this list, Debashish Bhattacharya, the Indian classical music slide guitaristthat's one of over 1,500 albums on which he's appeared.
He is to dobro what Jimmy Smith was to the Hammond B3 in the 1960s. He's a fourteen time Grammy Award winner, three time winner of the CMA's Musician of the Year Award, and a ten time winner of the International Bluegrass Association's Dobro Player of the Year Award. About the only thing left would be for the State of Hawaii to award him an honorary beach house. Here's the master at work with the phenomenal Tommy Emmanuel.
8. Debashish Bhattacharya
A child prodigy, he made his musical debut on Indian radio at the age of four. By the age of twenty he won All India Radio's National Music Competition for which he received a President of India Award. He is an acknowledged master of Hindustani classical music, and has patented three guitars for Raga music.
Hawaiian music and the steel guitar came to India in the 1940s via a popular touring Hawaiian band based in Calcutta. As a result the steel guitar found it's way into popular music, but not classical Indian music. Attempts were made, but it was Debashish Bhattacharya who successfully adapted the six string guitar to fit the demands of playing Ragas. He opened a new chapter in the history of Indian classical music, but his musical approach has remained open to the world.
9. Jonathan Keeney
It's thanks to a video he made with guitarist Mike Seal that I became aware of Jonathan Keeney. "La fille aux cheveux de lin," by Debussy on pedal steel guitarthat's not something I would have imagined working. Yet my first thought after watching and listening was that Debussy would have been thrilled and excited by the potentialities. The delicacy and precision of his playing, as well as his avoidance of obvious flourishes associated with the country sound allow you to almost forget you're listening to a pedal steel. That combined with Mike Seal's remarkable playing leave the listener wanting more.
When I interviewed Mike Seal in 2016 I was eager to learn more about Jonathan Keeney. Does he also play jazz, and would they be doing something else together? Here's his answer:
Mike Seal: He does, he's a great jazz guitarist. He was playing mandolin when I met him in Knoxville, Tennessee, probably about 11 years ago. We were playing in a bluegrass band with some buddies around town. I was playing dobro at that time actually. I've had one for a long time and I really love playing it. But Jonathan went through jazz school and is a really gifted guitarist, and he played pedal steel with the Back Lillies, the band I was on the road with so long. So he found that piece and said, "Let's try this!" He printed a score, and we worked on it during sound checks on the road. So after we were both out of that group for a while, we got on the phone and decided to try something out. I think we're going to do some more in that Debussy vein.
It's been a while, but I'm still holding out hope they will work their magic again.
10. Megan Lovell
She's the youngest on this list, but a seasoned professional nonetheless. She and her two sisters were classically trained on piano and violin, and played in their local youth symphony in Northern Georgia. Their focus shifted to bluegrass and Americana, and as teenagers they formed The Lovell Sisters in 2004. The band released two albums, and toured successfully for five years, appearing on the Grand ole Opry and Prairie Home Companion. In 2009 as their oldest sister prepared to leave for college they disbanded.
In 2010 Megan and her sister Rebecca formed Larkin Poe, and focused on Southern roots music: blues, blues rock, folk, gospel, and soul. Rebecca has a tremendous voice and is a multi instrumentalist, the youngest ever winner of an instrument competition (mandolin) at MerlFest. In Larkin Poe guitar is her primary focus. Megan generally sings harmony and wows audiences with her lap steel solos, and she's also a formidable Dobro player.
They appear at major festivals and tour internationally, and have worked with some major names in the music industry. There are a wealth of videos I could have used, but as a Son House fan I decided to showcase their great take on this Delta blues classic.
Photo Credit: Original photo by Thibault Trillet, cropped with effects by A. Bryson