Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Pedal Steel Guitar Slides Into Jazz

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

Susan Alcorn
Susan Alcorn (photo: David Lobato)

Philly to Perth via Austin

That same restless curiosity characterized Ray Benson Seifert and Reuben Gosfield, two teenage pals in Philadelphia in the mid-’60s. They were in the audience when the John Coltrane Quintet played its legendary concert at Temple University in 1966. At the same time, though, Seifert and Gosfield also loved Robert Johnson and Hank Williams. How could they combine these enthusiasms in one band? They found the answer when they discovered Bob Wills, the Texan who popularized Western swing by forming a band that played blues, jazz, and country music on hillbilly instruments such as fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar.

So the two friends formed their own Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel, and renamed themselves Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans. By 1974, with Gosfield on pedal steel, they had moved to Austin and included tunes from Louis Jordan, Count Basie, Bob Wills, and Fats Domino on their second album. By 1977, they’d grown to an 11-member band that could feature three horn players or three fiddlers, thanks to some doubling. Floyd Domino, Waylon Jennings’ future pianist, and Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan’s future bassist, anchored the crisp swing, and Gosfield’s steel provided the special sauce.

“The steel guitar is similar to a guitar or piano in a jazz situation,” Gosfield says, “as it can play both chords and single notes, but its main advantage is in the ease of expression. Glissandi, which are difficult on other instruments, are steel guitar’s natural state. And vibrato is also easily achieved. So, although it’s not as flexible as a guitar or piano chordally, it has expressive potential beyond those instruments. It’s the only instrument where notes can be raised and lowered independently of each other simultaneously.”

Gosfield moved to Perth, Australia, his wife’s hometown, in 1979 and immediately became the continent’s top steel guitarist. He was soon invited to play in all sorts of contexts: country, folk-rock, Cajun, world-music, and jazz. He played with such top Australian jazz figures as Alan Lee, Danny Moss, Tim Van Der Kuil, Ben Vanderwal, and Marcio Mendes.

“From an early age,” Gosfield recalls, “I learned that an instrumental solo could be a work of art in motion—an emotional revelation without words. But because I had very little formal musical training, I learned by copying other steel guitarists playing jazz and then the jazz players of other instruments, which I transcribed onto steel. It’s interesting that Bob Dunn, who pioneered the electric steel guitar in Western swing, doubled on trombone and played his steel like a sputtering jazz trombone in his recordings with Milton Brown.”

Sacred Links

Pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell also moved from roots music to jazz, but his background was not country but gospel. Campbell was a mentor to a young House of God prodigy, Robert Randolph, who later became a jam-band star, but the Campbell Brothers were always the dominant band within the church. As such, the group started attracting the attention of outside journalists, promoters, and musicians.

In 2001, the Campbell Brothers were invited to take part in a 13-hour Miles Davis Marathon at Symphony Space in Manhattan and gave “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Summertime” a Sacred Steel spin. They were such a sensation that Branford Marsalis invited them to reprise the numbers on his radio show. John Medeski was the keyboardist and producer on the Campbell Brothers’ best studio album, 2005’s Can You Feel It? The band was then commissioned by Lincoln Center and Duke University to develop a Sacred Steel version of A Love Supreme. The 2014 debut at Lincoln Center went over so well that they’ve been touring the piece ever since.

“The four movements in the piece are the four steps you go through in our church to be born again,” Campbell explains. “That’s when you turn from your wicked ways, as we say, and get on a path of loving your enemies. Coltrane expressed those so well musically that we were able to tap into that. McCoy [Tyner] and Elvin [Jones] grew up in the church, and you could hear it in the way they express things, and Coltrane’s grandfather was a Pentecostal minister.

“In some ways, it was like one of our services. ‘Acknowledgement,’ the first movement, is congregational, where everyone is singing along, then ‘Resolution’ is a movement of marinating on the melody. ‘Pursuance,’ the third movement, is like a jump piece, a praise piece, then ‘Psalm’ is like the closing hymn.”

When we finally emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown, we will no doubt find the steel guitar more prominent in jazz than ever. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels will be making up the live dates scrubbed by the pandemic, and the Susan Alcorn Quintet will hit the road to support their impressive album. Leisz and his wife, Mai Leisz, a Jaco Pastorius-inspired bassist from Estonia, will be releasing new recordings under the name MaiGroup. The Campbell Brothers will be assembling their Coltrane and Davis interpretations into a jazz album. And other musicians—from Heather Leigh to Elliott Sharp—will be further tightening the connection between jazz and steel.

Seven Steel Guitar Albums You Should Hear

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.