Pedal steel guitarists operate on another level. In addition to coordinating two hands, they must operate pitch-changing pedals with one foot, a volume pedal with the other, and levers with their knees. They also might be operating over 12 strings, with octaves that are nowhere near each other. To all that, Susan Alcorn adds tunings that are unusual even for pedal steel, and a propensity, not just for music that is outside the usual country fare, but outside in general. She is one of the rare steel players who is exploring the unique potential of the instrument beyond the normal roots and pop boundaries. Her latest record, Perdernal [Relative Pitch], made my top 10 list for 2020. On it she is joined by guitarist Mary Halvorson and violinist Mark Feldman, two other players who push the limits of their instruments. We talk about Pedernal, as well as The Heart Sutra, a record of her compositions arranged by Janel Leppin, on which she doesn’t appear. Even if you don’t play pedal steel you will enjoy this conversation.
When we posted on the Antares ATG 1, some readers thought it was a crutch for players who couldn’t tune their instruments. The always amazing Bill Walker demonstrates that it is, in fact, a crutch for lap steel players who don’t want to have to learn pedal steel. Kidding aside, his beautifully musical video points out the enormous potential and great sound of this cool device.
The potential of the pedal steel guitar is criminally under utilized. If you are unfamiliar with the pedal steel, check out my short history here. This complex and gorgeous sounding instrument is too often restricted to playing country music clichés. Though country steel can be heartbreakingly beautiful and some players have explored its jazz capabilities, all too few have investigated more modern uses for this harmonically rich instrument. Susan Alcorn is one of those few. Fully versed in the country tradition she has traversed new paths with the pedal steel, applying its singular attributes (contrary motion string bending, volume swells, natural sustain) to everything from free improvisation to Astor Piazzolla.
The fine folks at Premier Guitar got in early at City Winery in Nashville to interview sonic wizard Daniel Lanois and get the producer of Emmy Lou Harris, U2, Peter Gabriel, among others to reveals some of his tone secrets. Fortunately, this master class in doing the most with the least was caught on video. Lanois begins with his unique approach to pedal steel and guitar and later discusses his new live performance mixing setup. I was lucky enough to witness this epic show, and later interview him for a piece to come in Guitar Player. I can testify that the producing legend is first and foremost a player—as geeky about gear as the rest of us. His genius is in managing to modernize the sound of guitar, while retaining its historical connection to family front porch picking parties.