Tradition, Self-Expression, and The Fingerstyle Five

Mar 26, 2021

Pedal steel is a notoriously challenging instrument, a weirdly-tuned ten-stringed contraption requiring all four limbs and the ability to picture an invisible fretboard of constantly shifting chords. Naturally, I had to learn how it's done, and so found myself in St. Louis one weekend thirty years ago at the International Steel Guitar Convention. Oblivious as usual, I heard some of the most legendary players ever without realizing until later just what I'd experienced. Exhibit A: standing in a semi-circle with a half a dozen fellow devotees while Lloyd Green put some new brand of steel through the paces.

The theme of the entire convention was "Steel Guitars In Concert." Because steel players work almost entirely as accompanists, and the best of them rarely leave the studio scene, the chance to just sit and watch – watch! – master after master of the instrument hold forth in plain view was, in that pre-Youtube era, what we were all there for. When Jimmy Day took the stage, I had no more idea who he was than I did the person running sound or the guy selling custom-milled unobtainium bullet bars in the exhibitors' hall, even though he was responsible, along with Buddy Emmons, for pretty much inventing the sound of honky-tonk steel in the 1950s.  But as he slid his rangy frame behind his guitar and turned his white coif to the rhythm section, you could just barely hear him say, off mic, "let's play the blues."

I learned to play guitar because I fell in love with the Beatles, and Cream, and B.B. King, but I only learned about honky-tonk and western swing because I fell in love with the steel. So while I enjoyed the heck out hearing three days' worth of "Boot Heel Drag," "Night Life," "Crazy Arms" and "Remington Ride," the thing I remember best from that weekend is the four minutes I spent completely transfixed by Jimmie Day playing a slow blues.

For whatever reason, it's never been enough to just listen to music. I have that wiring that makes me want to figure it out and do it, too, which is how I wound up in a room with a thousand other steel guitar geeks trying to solve the same four-dimensional mechano-musical puzzle instead of just sitting safely at home putting Ricky Skaggs LPs on the stereo. And if you're here reading this, it's a pretty safe bet you've got that wiring as well. 

That figuring out, that learning to play can be immensely and deeply satisfying. It's also a constant balancing act between authenticity and creativity. Blues has a sound and a feel, a repertoire and a history, and part of getting good involves apprenticing yourself to what's come before. But that repertoire, that history, is animated by the humans who made it – their creativity, their expressiveness, their personalities. I respect and admire anyone who takes the blues tradition seriously. But I also think there's a tendency to lose sight of the animating spark – to neglect your own role in the process of playing music.

In this week's lessons, I've outlined three ways to bring your own creativity and self-expression to bear on the blues tradition. Not through vague aspirations, or just playing louder, but through small, specific and repeatable steps for taking control of your groove, your vocabulary and your repertoire. I think if you're going to play the blues, it should be fun, expressive and satisfying, and to me, that means having a repertoire of cool tunes that groove and build while you improvise on them. Of course, that takes time to develop, and the most reliable way I know to make it happen is to apply tools like the horizontal 3-step and the seven-step arc to one tune and then another, and then another, building up your repertoire, your coordination and your vocabulary of licks week after week, month after month.

If you've enjoyed the week's lessons, if you're looking for a way to get better, and you like the idea of building your repertoire while bringing more of your own self-expression and creativity to your playing, I invite you to check out my monthly membership, The Fingerstyle Five. I'll be live on Youtube at 3:30 Central this afternoon to explain how it works, give a tour of the material and answer any questions you have about it:

Next Steps and Q&A