This month, One Note Forever honours possibly the greatest instrument ever! Well, after the electric and acoustic guitar and the piano of course. And drums I guess. Anyway, the pedal steel guitar – a staple of country rockers around the world – is a sure fire way to win my heart. Its inclusion can send a song soaring into outer-space, it can bring a great sadness and sweeping melancholy, it offers a completely unique sound that, when used effectively, can elevate a song to a more celestial plane of existence. Here’s a rundown of our personal top five pedal steel guitar players.
1. Ben Keith lived quite a life. I’ve always admired those brilliant session musicians who, despite not being part of the official band, get to tour the world with artists as diverse as Paul Simon and Jay-Z. Even though you might not know Ben Keith by name, there’s a fairly large chance that you’ve heard his contribution to music. Much more than a session musician, Keith has played pedal steel for Neil Young since 1971. I had chance to see Keith perform twice before he passed away last year, once at Hop Farm and the other at Glastonbury, and was amazed to hear that wonderful moment just before the chorus kicks in for ‘Old Man’ and Keith sends the song hurtling into the stratosphere with one sweep of his slide.
2. Paul Niehaus is the current go to man for modern indie bands who require that extra bit of country-folk authenticity in their songs. The man has worked with Lambchop, Iron And Wine, Yo La Tengo, Silver Jews, Vic Chesnutt, and many more. He has even worked with Little Ms Blue Eyes (Nancy Sinatra. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t go by that nickname, but I like it). However, it is Niehaus’ work with Calexico which stands out for me. Calexico, America’s finest country-folk-indie-mariachi band, wouldn’t be able to evoke the arid deserts of New Mexico quite so vividly without Paul on board.
3. The work of BJ Cole was only bought to my attention recently, but, with only the smallest amount of background research, it’s quite clear that the man is a living legend. Having worked with T. Rex, R.E.M, Cat Stevens, Bjork, Sting, The Stranglers, the list goes on and on and on. Cole is able to turn his hand to commercial pop music (‘Tiny Dancer’ – Elton John) as well as material which is more demanding, with his background being in progressive jazz. He worked with Bjork in her early career and managed to add to the weirdness of her music, which is no mean feat.
4. David Gilmour is probably the most famous name in this list and, as the only one who fronts the biggest rock band in the world, we must doff our caps. A fine electric guitarist, Gilmour has been heralded as one of the best musicians of our time, but it’s his work on pedal steel which most intrigues. Would the dreamy outer-space strangeness of Dark Side Of The Moon have been as prevalent or indeed impressive without those sweepingly simple slide parts? There’s no doubt in my mind, that Gilmour’s ability to play pedal steel elevated that album from brilliant to untouchable.
5. Carl Broemel may not have worked as extensively as the previous musicians have, or featured on as many classic albums or singles, nor does he really stray away from working with his principle band, My Morning Jacket, but when Carl takes a seat at his pedal steel, MMJ fans know they’re in for a treat. MMJ’s cosmic Americana country-rock has always been an fascinating blend of styles, heavy-metal and reggae/dub all feature in their extensive back catalogue of work. But, my favourite side to My Morning Jacket is when it’s caked in harmonies, reverb and slide guitar. Gorgeous!