Lots of people, myself included, love the sound of a classic country pedal steel guitar. That sheer twangy goodness defined the sound of the genre for many decades. And even now that country music has veered more into the pop/rock style, it’s still a valued and important part of the sound.
But can the sound of the pedal steel work in other genres? Nashville session ace Paul Franklin thinks it can. For instance, Franklin played pedal steel on “A Secret Place” by the thrash metal band Megadeth. Producer Dann Huff brought Franklin in to add steel guitar to the mix as a new texture, and as Franklin describes it, the band “loved it.” He’s also added out-of-the-box steel to records by Travis Tritt and Tim McDonald, and he famously toured with the band Dire Straits.
Pedal steel as raw material
The pedal steel guitar has several unique properties that lend it well to sonic manipulation. The long sustain of the steel (further enhanced by the volume pedal) allows it to take the role of an organ, a string section, or even a voice. And the purity of its tone means it can easily be manipulated using effects and studio tools. However, the pedal steel can do things that synthesizers and other instruments can’t, like moving notes smoothly within a chord. The steel also excels at full-chord glissandos that change intervals as they move. No other instrument can do that!
As an experiment, I took the theme from the TV show Stranger Things and re-recorded it using only pedal steel guitar. Everything you hear, including percussion and bass, is the steel being played and manipulated in nontraditional ways. **ADDENDUM: for an in-depth track-by-track breakdown of how the Stranger Things theme was constructed using only pedal steel, check out Episode 17 of the Pedal Steel Podcast (starts at 1:06:50).
In conclusion, the pedal steel guitar is always a welcome voice in country music, but it doesn’t end there. In other words, let your imagination run wild!
A deeper look
Check out Paul Franklin’s blog post, “The Versatile Pedal Steel,” for his take on the topic. I was also lucky enough to have Paul as a guest on my podcast, where we discussed non-traditional steel and many other topics at length. Listen to Part 1 and Part 2.
Some other steel players known for taking the steel guitar into new areas include:
- Podcast guest Susan Alcorn (improvisational and avant-garde)
- Podcast guest Mike Perlowin (classical)
- Mike Neer (jazz on lap steel)
- Will van Horn (eclectic)
- Spencer Cullum from Steelism (eclectic, instrumental)
- Robert Randolph (funk, soul, rock)
“If your imagination can go there, the instrument certainly can.” – Paul Franklin