Despite its designation as a guitar, the pedal steel is about as foreign to most 6-stringers as advanced quantum physics. And although the instrument’s tangy twangs and gooey glissandos are mainly associated with traditional country and Hawaiian music, in the hands of a virtuoso like Joe Goldmark the pedal steel is capable of traversing multiple genres. “I love the sound of the traditional steel guitar, but really enjoy putting it in non-country contexts,” Goldmark explains. “I think rock audiences who might shy away from conventional country would find a lot of things to connect with in my music.”
This seems a reasonable assumption considering Goldmark’s past albums have included his take on Beatles tunes and other ’60s pop gems, and his latest release Blue Steel [Lo-Ball Records] finds him putting the pedals to tunes by Rufus Thomas, Graham Parker, Bob Marley, and B.B. King—alongside his own blues and surf-inspired instrumentals. “I always keep my ears open for tunes that might work well with steel guitar and add them to a running list,” says Goldmark. “When I make a new album, I’ll go back over the list and see what’ll work with the music I’m writing. I look for the kinds of tunes that are under-represented in country rock and try to do unconventional things with them. This album features guest vocalists Glenn Walters and Dallis Craft and I often had them reverse genders by having Dallis sing a traditionally male song and vice versa. I have really eclectic tastes in music, and I don’t like boundaries.”
During the ’90s, Goldmark recorded three acclaimed albums as a member of Jim Campilongo’s 10 Gallon Cats, and Campilongo makes a cameo on Blue Steel, writing and playing lead guitar on “I Want to Be with You Forever.” In his co-collaborator Goldmark sees a kindred artistic spirit: “Jim combines some amazing qualities in his playing that nobody else really has. There are all these time-honored country elements and a Roy Buchanan approach, but he’s playing in rock and jazz contexts and taking it to whole new levels.”
Originally a cellist, Goldmark gravitated to bass in high school and tracked some of the bass parts on Blue Steel himself. It was after seeing Jerry Garcia with New Riders of the Purple Sage that he bought his first pedal steel and dedicated himself to it exclusively. Goldmark’s current instrument is a custom ZumSteel made by legendary builder Bruce Zumsteg, which he plugs straight into a late-’70s solid-state amp Webb amp.
For curious guitarists looking to explore the pedal-steel world, Goldmark offers a basic primer: “The main neck on a pedal steel is the one in E9 tuning (B, D, E, F#, G#, B, E, G#, D#, F# low to high). This gives you the signature I-IV switch you hear on most commercial country songs. Single-neck instruments in this tuning are a good place for beginners to start. The other neck is in C6 tuning (C, F, A, C, E, G, A, C, E, D low to high) and is capable of more bluesy swing sounds. It’s what I’m using for my solos on ‘Beautician Blues’ and ‘The Wobble.’ The tunings are just half the story, though, because there are the pedals and knee levers that bend notes analogous to the way you bend strings on a guitar.”
“Playing steel requires a different technique than playing guitar, and it’s important not to shirk the effort of learning correctly. Because it involves the right-hand thumb, index, and, middle fingers, some guitarists think they can pick with their fingers alone, but I really recommend using thumb-and fingerpicks to get the sharpest clearest tone. You’ll also need to master a technique called pick blocking, where you use the back of your palm to dampen the strings after they’re played. When done right, it creates these up and down movements with the whole hand.”
“As for the left hand, most slides and bars are almost four inches long, almost an inch in diameter, and fairly heavy since more weight means more tone and less buzz. They’re smooth and rounded and require some skill to learn how to hold effectively. Unlike slides for guitar, a pedal-steel slide moves top to bottom across the strings as well as up and down them. The left hand follows where the right hand picks and the tip of your bar-hand finger extends past the end of the bar slightly so the strings are muted beyond where the top of the bar is. Like in the guitar kingdom, there are different ways to approach vibrato. You can rock the bar on its axis for subtle tonal variation or quickly move it back and forth, for a more dramatic pitch fluctuation.”
Beyond just mastering the basic techniques Goldmark says becoming an effective pedal-steel player is also about learning to fit in with an ensemble. “It’s wise to know the give and take standard for playing with other instruments in country music,” he explains. “For example, whoever takes the intro usually lays out during the verse fills. Whoever didn’t play in the verse usually takes the solo. It’s delineated so that no two solo instruments are ever playing at the same time unless you’ve worked out a twin line in advance. It’s okay to comp behind other soloists but you don’t want to overshadow them. Spend time learning the traditions of the instrument, and once you’ve done that, you’ll be in a good position to do your own thing.”