Guitar Aficionado

Daniel Lanois' Obsessions: Pedal Steels, Motorcycles, and Recording Tech

The celebrated producer/guitarist regales us with tales of steels, wheels, and reels.
Author:
Publish date:

This is an excerpt from the January/February 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop, Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin and his fine vintage guitars; MLB pitcher/guitar collector/musician Jake Peavy and his efforts to help local musicians, disadvantaged youths, and military veterans… plus much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

Image placeholder title

STEELS AND WHEELS AND REELS: The obsessions of producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois include pedal-steel guitars, motorcycles, and recording technology.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Travis Shinn

Long before he became one of contemporary music’s most respected producers—a three-time Grammy Award winner who’s been behind the board for career-defining albums by U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and many others—Daniel Lanois was a slide guitarist. He started playing at age nine, thanks to the effective sales-pitch technique of a visitor to his family’s house in Ancaster, Ontario.

“One day,” Lanois remembers, “somebody knocked on my mom’s door and said, ‘Hi, I’m representing the local conservatory, and we want to know if you have any kids who like music.’ She pointed at me and said, ‘Yeah, that one over there, he likes music.’ So I passed the aptitude test and the guy said, ‘Okay, we teach accordion and slide guitar.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll take slide guitar.’ The instrument that the conservatory provided was just an acoustic six-string with high action, but that was the beginning of it.”

His choice of the slide proved to have some staying power. More than 50 years later, Lanois still pulls out a slide nearly every day, though now he generally applies it to one of his eight prized Sho-Bud pedal steels—four in his Toronto recording studio and four in his Los Angeles home. These are, of course, in addition to his collection of “normal” guitars, which includes a custom red early Sixties Gibson Firebird, a pair of butterscotch early Fifties Fender Telecasters, and a small family of Fifties gold-top Les Pauls.

“I admire the steel masters of the past, in country music and other styles,” he says, “but I don’t play like that. I slowed the thing down and found something else in the instrument. I like when it has a more gospel-type feel, like the way it’s used to accompany singers in church. You play all that fast shit in church and they’re gonna slap ya!”

On Lanois’ latest solo album, the vocal-free Goodbye to Language, the pedal steel takes center stage throughout, accompanied only by Rocco DeLuca’s lap steel (plus some occasional low tones from a Moog Taurus). “Rocco and I had been on the road in Europe for a while,” Lanois explains, “and when we got back to the shop, we decided to just play for fun. I was on my 10-string Sho-Bud Pro 1 in a custom E major tuning, and Rocco had his lap steel tuned down to D, so he was able to handle a lot of bottom for me. I called out chords and we’d improvise for five to 10 minutes. If there was enough magic in a given performance when we listened back to it, I’d give it a name.”

This being Lanois the studio maven, however, the recording of these duets was only the beginning of a long process of sonic tinkering that he calls “my dub work. Basically, I’d make samples of the steel guitars, take them out of the recording platform so they’d just float on their own, and start fucking around with them. I might change the octave, change the key, time-stretch, add some radical EQ, do 20 things until it sounds like it’s got something special. Then I run the track and stick the sample back in where I grabbed it from, so you hear the original steel going ding, ding, ding, and then you suddenly hear this awwwwww operatic voice sound, which is what that same steel became through my manipulation. Sometimes the samples are more interesting than what we played, so I’ll mute what we played for those six seconds because I’d rather the sample be celebrated instead of the average playing. That way we’re not just piling a bunch of shit on top of mediocrity.”

There were some basic ground rules underpinning Lanois’ method, the most important being an allegiance to the order of time: “I remain loyal to chronology. I don’t take the bit from the front and put it in the back. A given performance is sacred ground. Except for edits, but that’s just removing dead wood. Call it ‘interrupted chronology.’”

The final results, as can be heard on the 12 tracks that make up Goodbye to Language, are striking. Notes ring out for a time, then collide into each other; chords swell only to be abruptly cut off and replaced by others that sound like they were already in progress. Though the overall atmosphere is relaxed, the music’s dynamics keep shifting so suddenly that it’s impossible to remain comfortable for long. “I hear it as a mirror of what’s going on in our culture,” Lanois says. “We’re constantly bombarded not only by information but by our own thoughts. Things shift more quickly in our minds now. I’ve made plenty of tranquil ambient records that will take somebody on a safe journey, but I didn’t want to do that this time. I wanted to be pulling emotions out of people, and I didn’t mind sudden changes in scenery, because that’s the way life is.”


Lanois with his Erik Buell–designed Harley FXRs (left and center) and BMW HP2 Enduro (right).

Image placeholder title

Lanois goes back a long way with the Sho-Bud Pro 1 he plays on Goodbye to Language. It was his first pedal steel, given to him in the late Sixties by his teacher, Canadian steel master Bob Lucier. “When Bob got me that guitar, he said, ‘I’ll put a pickup in it that’s better than the original one,’ and I agreed to anything he said! I never knew what brand it was, but it was a humbucker that looked a little bit like a Rickenbacker pickup. About two and a half years ago, that pickup just stopped working and my heart sank. I’d never heard a better one, and I assumed that was going to be a one-off in my life.”

Without much hope, Lanois put in a call to pickup guru Seymour Duncan. “Seymour agreed to look at it, and he said that he could replicate it. Fantastic! He worked hard over a weekend and hand-wound a new pickup for me. We dropped it in the guitar, and it sounded amazing, more like a single-coil than a humbucker. So Seymour’s been providing me with these pickups that I’ve put in all my Sho-Buds now. They don’t have an official name, but I can’t say enough about them. That one pickup going faulty turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”

That’s not the full extent of Lanois’ pedal-steel customization. “Here’s a trade secret,” he says with a grin. “Sometimes I put the fingers of my right hand under the strings of the pedal steel as part of my muting technique. But I have very big hands, and Sho-Buds don’t have enough room for me to do that. So for most of my guitars, I’ve had a luthier friend shorten the part of the body that the ‘fretboard’ lays on, dropping it lower by about a quarter-inch so I can get my fat fingers under the strings.”

One other thing that Lanois loves as much as steel guitars is motorcycles. When Guitar Aficionado caught up with him, he’d just finished a 2,000-mile ride through the U.S. and Canada. Clearly, the serious accident he had on one of his bikes in California back in 2010—he suffered six broken bones, a cracked pelvis, and internal bleeding around his right lung—hasn’t kept him down. “I’m more into riding than ever,” he says. “There’s something wonderful about the position that riding occupies in one’s life, because there’s not much that has changed about the iron horse. I mean, there are some lovely modern bikes, but you’re still on two wheels going through the countryside. It’s a little bit like the steel guitar in that sense. You have to practice with it and respect it and know that nothing about it is trendy. Some things live outside of time…”

This is an excerpt from the January/February 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop, Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin and his fine vintage guitars; MLB pitcher/guitar collector/musician Jake Peavy and his efforts to help local musicians, disadvantaged youths, and military veterans… plus much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

Image placeholder title

RELATED