THE MILLIONS WATCHING THE 2004 GRAMMY AWARDS shared a stereotype-shattering musical moment. As actor Samuel L. Jackson introduced Robert Randolph & the Family Band, loud, gospel-tinged funk erupted onstage. When the cameras swung over to capture the action, viewers saw a young black man attacking a bright blue pedal steel guitar with the zeal of an enraptured preacher. Most must have been dumbfounded: “Whoa, isn’t that a country instrument? Look, he’s shredding and dancing like a cross between Carlos Santana and Chuck Berry. What’s going on here?”
Of course, loyal GP readers would have recognized Randolph and his unusual ax because we profiled him in the May 2002 issue. In that interview, Randolph explained how he started playing steel in the House of God church in his native New Jersey. An African-American Pentecostal denomination, the House of God has a 60-year tradition of using steel as the lead instrument in its worship services. Randolph is simply the latest in a line of “sacred steel” virtuosos that stretches back to the 1940s, and the pioneering Willie Eason. What makes Randolph unique, however, is his fast-growing visibility. “Our church music—the sacred steel tradition—has been hidden for too long,” Randolph told GP. “I’m just trying to spread what the founders of this music have been doing all these years.”
Now 26, Randolph is poised to emerge from the jam-band scene—the first secular community to embrace his soulful sounds—and join the wider world of mainstream rock. His debut album Unclassified [Warner Bros.] garnered rave reviews and two Grammy nominations, his videos play on VH1, he recently performed on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman, and he was a featured artist at this year’s Bonnaroo and Crossroads festivals. Most importantly, he is taking the pedal steel where it has never gone before, and audiences are eating it up.
Unlike the pedal-steel giants of country music, who sit impassively behind gleaming chrome-and-Formica beasts, content to let their feet, knees, and hands do all the work, Randolph gets positively unhinged behind his 13-string Fessenden. He’ll jump up to dance around it, tip it back and forth, and even wrestle it to the ground—all the while playing lines that sound like a gospel singer whipping her congregation into an ecstatic frenzy. It’s an amazing spectacle—one that will dash any preconceptions you might have about how steel guitars sound and who plays them.
When we reconnected with Randolph for this interview, he had just returned from an extended European tour, opening for none other than Eric Clapton.
You’ve been getting a lot of attention here in the States, but when you played for Clapton fans in Europe, did they know your music or anything about sacred steel?
It was like starting all over again, because this was new to them. But it was wonderful to cross the ocean and connect with people there, and we’re grateful to Eric Clapton for introducing us to his audiences. We’re about to start touring the States with him.
Is it tough to win over crowds who have come to see Clapton play his hits?
Not really. The church is the most critical, demanding audience I’ll ever have. There’s a reason so many great musicians come out from the church: When you’re six years old, they stick you in front of 500 or 1,000 people and make you recite scriptures. Once I had to do that in front of 5,000 people. You cry the first two times, but you get used to it, and you lose any stage fright you’re going to have for the rest of your life [laughs].
What else have you learned from performing in church?
I learned it’s not about playing the most notes, it’s about squeezing that orange—you’re trying to get every bit of juice out of it. In church, you only play with feeling. If you look up and see what you’re playing isn’t connecting with people, you know to stop immediately because those are the wrong notes. See, I was taught to play by the old singers. If you play something strange while a church woman is singing, you’re messing up her song, and she’s going to tell you about it right in front of everyone: “Boy, you’d better go home and practice some more, ’cause you’re playing the wrong stuff today.”
It makes you consider what you’re doing. Why be nervous? You’ve come up here to do something, so why screw it all up? What are you afraid of? Some nights on the road, I’m backstage and I’m tired, and I think, “Aw man, I don’t feel like playing.” But once I get out there and see people’s faces, it’s like, “All right—time for me to go to work.”
What was the first secular music that inspired you?
I was 17 when I started playing steel, so, like any teenager, I wanted to become the fastest guitarist around. But then someone gave me a Stevie Ray Vaughan tape, and that completely changed my approach. It blew my mind that his style related so much to what we were learning in church: Make every note count, and play with as much soul and heart as possible. Stevie Ray was that player. To be exposed to him so early on was probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me. When I saw Live at the El Macambo [an SRV and Double Trouble club date filmed in 1983], I thought it was the most amazing footage ever captured. Here he is in a small club, just letting it all hang out. I still watch that show probably once a week, and I still flip out over his passion.
Where did you record Unclassified?
At Cello Studios [formerly part of Ocean Way Recording, an historic studio on Sunset Blvd.] in L.A., where so many great bands have made classic albums. We used a big room, because we were going for a live feel.
What was your main steel?
A custom 13-string Fessenden, which is also my stage guitar. It’s a newer model with seven pedals and five knee levers—left and right levers for each leg, plus a vertical lever for the left leg. I wanted more of a lead sound, fatter than a typical steel tone, so I had Jason Lollar wind special pickups for me.
And your tuning?
From low to high, it’s B, E, G#, B, E, E, G#, B, D, E, G#, D#, F#. Those two Es in the middle are both wound strings.
Why the doubled E strings?
They give me more options for getting chord voicings. Using a pedal, I can pull one E one way, while I can pull the other E in a different direction with another pedal.
Is this your own tuning or an outgrowth of a traditional sacred steel tuning?
I developed it myself, but it’s based on a traditional tuning.
Unlike country pedal-steelers with their crystalline tone, you get a hot, ripping sound on Unclassified. What amp did you use and how did you mic it?
Actually, I played through two amps—a Crate [BV300HB Blue Voodoo half stack] and a Mesa/Boogie [F100 head and Rectifier Standard Slant 4x12 cab]. I’m so used to getting a powerful sound onstage that we took a day or two to really make sure we got my tone right in the studio. The pedal steel is a very weird instrument to mic, and it hadn’t really been captured correctly on tape—at least not the way I want to hear it. It has to be in your face, not that planky twanky guitar sound [laughs]. The secret was putting three mics around the amps. One close mic on each cabinet, and one further away to get the room tone.
Do you use a distortion pedal for your searing leads?
I get most of my distortion from the amp, using the gain and master volume knobs. I go up to 8 on the master, and set the gain at about 2 or 3. This lets me get a clean, round sound with some distortion. I use an Ernie Ball volume pedal to control my overall level.
Tell us about your tone bar and picks.
My bar is a Shubb/Pearse with grooved grips on the sides and a hook at the end [the SP-1 with a cutaway bullet tip]. It’s like a modern version of the Stevens bar, which is what Dobro players use. Nashville steel players use a long, round bar, and they slide along the strings to change position. But sacred steelers like a grooved bar because you can grip it and pick it up easily. We jump strings and positions looking for different tones. Those quick movements are a huge part of our sound. I use Dunlop picks—a plastic thumbpick, and metal picks on my index and middle fingers. I like thick metal fingerpicks—that’s part of the sound. If the picks are too thin, you lose tone. Mine are gauged .025—the heaviest they make.
You often use a wah and an EBow to emulate vocal sounds with your guitar. Is this part of the sacred steel tradition?
The wah-wah was brought into the church early on by Lorenzo Harrison, an old church preacher. His style was making the steel howl, and now wah is an accepted part of the sound. He used a real big, chrome Morley wah. Older church players also used the EBow as a way to really emulate singers. I’m trying to build on that, and use the EBow to create sounds you’ve never heard from the steel.
You play resonator guitar on the song “Smile,” from Unclassified. What model and tuning do you use?
That’s a 6-string squareneck made by Paul Beard. I use a standard open-E tuning [E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high], which is what a lot of the sacred steel guys use for lap guitar. The Beard has a pickup, but we just miked it because it sounds so good when you hear the body as well as the cone. I isolated myself in a huge room to track my part, and the mic picked up all that resonance.
Sometimes you attack a string really fast as you move your bar along it. Guitarists typically use a flatpick, and alternate upstrokes and downstrokes to get this buzzsaw effect. How do you do it on steel?
To tell you the truth, I haven’t figured out what I’m doing [laughs]. I’m just goin’. Sometimes I use my index and middle fingers, sometimes I include my thumb—whatever feels best.
What does it mean when sacred steelers talk about “framming”?
It’s an old term used to describe playing rhythm on a steel. You’re strumming back and forth from your wrist, with your thumb and middle finger hitting the strings. Like fanning, basically. In this tradition, you begin with framming—it’s the first step. It’s where I started, too.
Which steel players have influenced you the most?
Three guys: Ted Beard, Calvin Cooke, and Henry Nelson. Each of them sounds so original. Out of all of them, Calvin Cooke was really relentless. When you talk about crossing our sound over into rock and blues, Calvin made that happen.
You just finished taping an Austin City Limits show, in which you invited several sacred steelers to join you onstage.
I asked Ted Beard and Calvin Cooke to come down, and Aubrey Ghent, who is Henry Nelson’s son. I grew up listening to Aubrey, as well, because his style is so like his father’s. I wanted to have those three styles on the show with me to let people know, hey, this is where I come from.
You play some guitar on Unclassified, so you’re able to compare it to steel. Many GP readers might think, “Wow—pedal steel sounds amazing. But it has so many strings and pedals and levers, it must be impossible to learn.” What would you tell them?
It’s no different from any other instrument—you’re only going to learn what you practice. I didn’t play guitar first, so I had to learn steel from scratch, which is the hard way. But if you already play guitar, it’s going to be easier to learn steel. You’re used to picking strings, and you understand how to combine notes into chords and riffs.
What draws you to the sound of a pedal steel?
To me, the pedal steel sounds fuller and more beautiful than guitar. Sorry, but that’s what I think. If you want to play notes that sing, steel is the ultimate instrument. A lot of guitarists are buying lap steels, and liking that so much they move over to pedal steel. It’s great to see kids picking it up, too. It’s going to be huge in the next couple of years.
In the last two years, you’ve surely faced skepticism from those who doubt the world is ready for rocking pedal steel, or that your inspirational sounds will translate to a secular audience. How do you deal with this?
Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, and Bob Marley made inspirational music, and we can use a little more of that in our daily lives. To me, that’s the new wave. My whole thing? Play what you feel, and don’t let people discourage you from being the musician you want to be.