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The Pedal Steel Guitar Slides Into Jazz

A look at a unique instrument and the artists with a desire to push it forward

Greg Leisz
Greg Leisz (photo: Alan Koslowski)

Back to the Roots

The steel guitar was invented by Hawaii’s Joseph Kekuku at the end of the 19th century, when he flipped a Spanish guitar over to lie horizontally in his lap and used a metal bar to slide across the strings. Eventually the strings were raised so the tones wouldn’t be limited by the frets. America experienced a Hawaiian-guitar craze in the early 1900s, and when the fad waned, all these instruments were left lying around, waiting to be put to other uses in blues, gospel, and jazz—but mostly in country.

First, metal discs were added to the body to improve resonance. That was the dobro or resophonic guitar; the National steel introduced all-metal bodies. An electric pickup was added, and soon the superfluous guitar body was eliminated. Legs were added to create the table steel. Strings were added, so a neck might have eight, 10, or more rather than the standard six. Necks were added, so a guitarist could shift quickly from one tuning to another. Finally, foot and knee pedals were added to allow players to change the pitch of a whole neck or individual notes. The pedal steel guitar became the most versatile and challenging instrument of the family.

When Frisell first started playing with Leisz in the mid-’90s, he was fascinated by the pedal steel. “It sort of looks like a guitar,” Frisell says today, “but it couldn’t be further from a guitar. When I watch Greg play, I have no idea what’s going on. I spent my whole life with the guitar tuned in a certain way, and learning where everything is on that, and that’s an endless struggle, but with the pedal steel, you press a pedal and everything changes. It’s like the harp; you can change the key center with one little pedal. The pedal steel has such an incredible sustain and resonance.”

Leisz personally traced the decades-long evolution of the steel guitar in just a few years during the 1960s, going from conventional guitar to lap steel to dobro to pedal steel. When he bought the latter instrument, he learned how the foot pedals and knee pedals provided a much broader palette of sound than the earlier types of steel guitars.

“It’s a difficult instrument to learn,” he points out. “At first, it’s mechanical things like how you play a chord. Then it’s difficult to keep in tune. Some people will use it just as a sonic background, because it has that sustaining sound. But when you get to the point where you can improvise, that’s what I like: to be discovering things while you’re playing, whether it’s on stage, at home, or in the studio.”

Leisz was soon recording and touring with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris to Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen, from Alison Krauss to Eric Clapton. The first time Leisz and Frisell met with their instruments was in the studio to record 1999’s Good Dog, Happy Man, the first of seven Frisell albums Leisz has played on. As he waded into the jazz world, he had to learn repertoire and chord extensions he hadn’t encountered before, but he didn’t really have to change his playing.

“I had never learned every Thelonious Monk song the way Bill had,” Leisz explains. “Whenever you want to do something on the instrument that you don’t know how to do, you have to sit down and learn how to do it. Sometimes it’s technical; sometimes it’s musical. But playing with Bill was something that always came naturally. I didn’t really change anything about the way I was playing. I was already improvising that way; he just gave me the freedom to play more that way. My preexisting tendencies were given more room to flourish.”

When Frisell started playing with Lloyd in 2013, the saxophonist asked the guitarist if the latter knew any steel guitarists like the fondly remembered Vescovo. Frisell quickly recommended Leisz, adding, “He’s like my brother.” So on November 15 that year, Leisz showed up with his lap steel at UCLA’s Royce Hall, expecting to sit in on a number or two. He played the whole night, and Lloyd was so happy that he soon took the group into the studio and recorded some tracks for the first Marvels album. It helped that Leisz, Frisell, and Lloyd all approach jazz with an emphasis on melody—and on the emotion that melody inspires.

“A lot of players use the pedal steel for atmosphere,” Leisz says, “but I like to hear the instrument used like a vocal: to translate a feeling with a melodic sense. I miss that when the pedal steel’s used in that atmospheric way. It has the vocal vibrato, a very personal sound. I prefer to hear it featured like any other instrument playing the melody; I like it when it’s really prominent. It sounds like a guitar doing things you can’t do on a guitar.”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.