Interview with pedal steel guru Jon Graboff
Jon Graboff has been very busy over the years, recording with artists across genres and across the planet. Possibly best known for his work with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, he has also recorded and/or toured with the likes of: Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, David Byrne, Carrie Underwood, Joan Osborn, Yo La Tengo, Ben E. King, Harper Simon, Phil Lesh and others. Recently we had a chance to chat with Jon and talk pedal steel, effects pedals, his musical experiences, and all sorts of other fun.
Can you tell us a bit about your formative musical experiences?
Well… when you’re from New York City, and there’s everything around you from jazz to hardcore, from afro-Cuban to Bollywood… it all gets inside you one way or another and informs your musical outlook. My mother was a very talented classical violinist and my dad was an artist and illustrator who played a pretty wicked clarinet. There was music of all kinds going on around me pretty much all my life.
What drew you to pedal steel guitar?
I’m not sure what attracted me to the pedal steel guitar but I remember the first time I heard one… even though I had no idea what it was at the time. I heard the first few notes on the Byrd’s album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and I clearly recall being captivated by the sound of it. A few months later, I was in a roadside diner with my family. We were going somewhere and someone played “If Teardrops Were Pennies and Heartaches Were Gold” by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner on the jukebox. There is a pedal steel intro on that too and I thought, hey, that’s the same instrument! Interestingly, they were both played by steel guitar great Lloyd Green.
Do you still own and play your first pedal steel guitar?
I’ve gone through a couple of pedal steels along the way. I bought one in a music shop in Albuquerque when I was on the road at 16 playing mandolin in a bluegrass band. I got really taken for a ride on that one! I didn’t know anything about them and what to look for when buying one. Later on I realized that it was a homemade guitar but the guy in the store passed it off as a pro instrument. It sounded really bad and would never stay in tune and I got discouraged pretty fast. I put it in the closet and that’s where it stayed.
Then a few years later, I took another stab at it after finding a decent instrument. I had been buying old vinyl pedal steel records for quite a while and I knew what good playing was and I realized quickly that it was going take a lot more work than I was willing to put into it. So I gave up on it again. It’s a really hard instrument to play and if you want to get past the most rudimentary level, it really takes almost total commitment. I finally took the plunge and completely immersed myself in it. A friend told me he once asked the late Danny Gatton why he didn’t play the pedal steel as well as regular guitar because it seemed like something he’d do. He said that Gatton got all serious looking, paused, and said, “man it’s one or the other!” I tell people who express serious interest in learning the pedal steel to not plan on doing much else.
What pedal steel players have been and are inspirational to you?
Because of my first encounter with the pedal steel, I’d have to say that Lloyd Green is at the top of my list. But there are so many great players that have inspired me and continue to do so. Buddy Emmons, Hal Rugg, Jay Dee Maness, Ralph Mooney, Sneaky Pete, Weldon Myrick, John Hughey, Tom Brumley, Pete Drake, Jimmy Day and Jimmie Crawford. This list really could go on and on. You may notice that all these guys are among the first generation of pedal steel players and I’d like to tell you why.
All these guys came up at a time when there was no YouTube and basically no instructional materials. Pedals and knee levers were being newly added to the steel guitar… so it was a major time of transition. These guys were all from different parts of the country and had little in the way of contact with other players. They were hearing moments of it on the radio or on a scratchy record and had to make it up as they went along… trying to figure out how someone played this or that bit. As a consequence, they all had their own styles and often, their own tunings. A knowledgeable ear can instantly pick out one guy from another. Real individual styles… and I miss that today. I guess that’s the price of easy access and mass media.
Do you feel that pedal steel is pigeonholed into certain types of music?
Of course most instruments tend to be thought of as appropriate for certain kinds of music and the pedal steel is no exception. When was the last time you heard bagpipes playing a Bach concerto? That may be a rather extreme example but the point is that music is a language and using the right inflection or tone of voice can often impart more meaning than the words you choose.
It’s important to remember that the instrument you play, may not be the right voice for everything. There are plenty of country songs that don’t have a steel guitar on them. But it’s nice to see that the pedal steel is finding its way into all sorts of music these days. You have to find a way to use any instrument to enhance the music. Often, I’ll think about the pedal steel as a kind of sustaining keyboard. It can occupy the same sonic space and can be quite emotive and effective… but in a different and unique way.
What was the most difficult thing about learning the instrument?
The most difficult part? Pretty much everything. Anyone who’s ever sat behind one and tried to produce a decent tone knows what I’m talking about. Right hand technique, left hand technique, how you hit the pedals and knee levers, the volume pedal… it all matters and they’re all really important in coaxing out the infinite number of nuances. Even tuning it tends to be different from player to player. If you get two pedal steel players together, the conversation will eventually get around to how they each tune it! I still feel like I’m just scratching the surface on this thing. I have so much more to learn.
Tell us about your rig (instruments, amps, and pedals).
I have 3 pedal steels. Two identical single neck 10 string guitars with 4 pedals and 5 knee levers made by Show Pro in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Jeff and Gloria have been really great to me and Jeff made my first guitar to my specifications. He did such a great job that I ordered a second one just like it! I keep one with me at home and the other one in Nashville. I also have a fantastic JCH double 10 string made for me by the late, great Jimmie Crawford. That one also stays at home.
The amp I use for recording is an original 1965 Fender Twin Reverb… but I replaced the standard 2 x 12” speakers with a single 15” JBL. On the road, I like to use two Fender ’65 Twin Reverb Custom reissues (each with single 15” speakers) and run them in stereo.
What is on your pedal steel pedal board?
I have 3… count ‘em… 3 Strymon pedals on my pedal board! The El Capistan, BlueSky and the Lex. I love them! I have a Blackstone overdrive and a custom-made fuzz pedal, power supply and a tuner. Lastly, an Eventide TimeFactor, which I only seem to use for the reverse tape effect lately. It would be nice to have something smaller that does the same thing. You guys don’t have a pedal that does that in the pipeline do you?
All the effects go through a toggle switch activated loop switcher that I built myself. My feet are otherwise occupied so the toggle switches are the only way to go. I also made a toggle switch remote box that I mount on the pedal steel that changes the “rotor” speed on the Lex.
What’s on your guitar pedal board?
I have the Strymon Brigadier dBucket delay on my regular guitar pedal board along with a tuner, a Klon overdrive clone and an older Voce Spin II rotating speaker effect pedal that I’ve had for a long time. I have two spaces that I tend to fill with different things. All the effects go through a loop switcher too.
When/where did you first hear about Strymon?
My dear friend and former Cardinals band mate Neal Casal called me one day and asked me if I knew about the Strymon El Capistan. I hadn’t heard of Strymon yet. He started raving about it and how he’s been using it extensively for overdubs on the basic tracks for his next solo record which I’d worked on. He and LA based producer Thom Monahan were flipping out over it and I had to check it out! These were a good enough recommendations for me.
On which sessions have you used Strymon pedals?
Since I got my Strymon pedals, I don’t think I’ve done a session without using them. They have become an indispensable part of the color palette I want on hand.
What is special about Strymon gear for you?
First and foremost, they sound great! I was in a situation recently when that became very apparent. I was in the studio working on the next Shooter Jennings record and the reverb tank in my Fender Twin reverb went on the blink. Usually I use the spring reverb in my amp, and for added dimension, the BlueSky on the room or plate settings. So I used the BlueSky as my only reverb source and dialed in just the right spring setting sound… no one noticed a difference! It totally saved my ass.
Furthermore, they’re super versatile and shapeable when you have the time to really dig into all the primary and secondary functions. And super simple and straightforward when you don’t have the time for a lot of tweaking… like during a live performance. No menus to navigate and no effects banks to step through.
What are some of your favorite Strymon pedal settings?
I can’t really say what my favorite setting are because they change the constantly. That’s why I built my pedal board so it stands right next to me and I can tweak on the fly… shaping the sounds within a song… even from verse to chorus. When I’m playing long legato type lines for example, I may have more verb and/or delay going on than on sections that are a little busier.
How did you get involved in session work, touring, and playing with big name artists? When did you get your first “big break”?
Well all that certainly didn’t happen at once. I started gigging professionally at 16. Then spent a long time of playing in bar bands, playing with touring bands, and making records any chance I got along the way… just putting in the time. I always had a good reputation closer to home but playing with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals for 5 years certainly upped my profile in a big way.
The real not so secret secret is, you need to be seen and heard. That’s how other gigs generally happen. You may get an audition because someone dropped your name but if an artist is looking for someone and hears you play, and thinks that you’d make a good fit, you’ve already passed the audition! It can also save you the stress of sitting around at some rehearsal space, waiting your turn, and seeing someone else go in right before you who you think blows your doors off.
You’ve performed and recorded with an impressive roster of artists. What are some of your more memorable experiences?
Geez. This could get embarrassing! To list them might come off like I’m puffing myself up. I consider it a privilege and an honor to get to play with truly talented artists and to get a chance to work, shoulder to shoulder, with other musicians who I admire, and in some cases, idolize. I feel lucky to be in those situations.
A couple of weeks ago I spent 4 days in a small room in a Nashville studio with the legendary studio guitarist Reggie Young (he commented on how good the BlueSky sounded in my signal path by the way). Google him. The number of his credits on hit songs is mind blowing. I mean, damn… this guy played the intro to Dusty Springfield’s version of “Son of A Preacher Man” just to name one!
Playing, recording and traveling with The Cardinals ranks right up there. Certainly the best band I was ever in. Playing country versions of Talking Heads songs on stage with David Byrne. Or in the studio, sitting 3 feet from Willie Nelson, no one using headphones and listening to him sing into my right ear. M. Ward, Norah Jones, Joan Osborne, Ben E. King, Carrie Underwood, Freedy Johnston, Shooter Jennings, Yo La Tengo, Jon Spencer, Ronnie Spector and so many others. I’ve worked really hard but there’s some good luck there too.
What were some of the toughest experiences on the road or in the studio?
I’ll tell you about the toughest experience I ever had. I got a call to record some backing music to be used later for a live song and dance performance. I mentioned to the guy who called me that I didn’t read music. He assured me that it would be simple chord charts, which I usually feel totally comfortable with. I get to the studio and get handed the first “simple” chart and it was 7 pages long! 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th endings… each back to the beginning, etc. Well they say ‘never let them see you sweat’ but I did a lot of it that day. Somehow I got through the day and got paid for the session. I didn’t feel good about taking the dough cause I thought I sucked… but I took it anyway. Call it the fee for emotional wear and tear.
What do you look forward to most when working with other artists?
The thing I look forward to, and hope, when coming into a situation with any artist is that I do something that’s seen as a real and valuable contribution to the project. The job is to serve the song. By doing that, you’re also serving the artist who either wrote or chose the song so it’s a win, win situation. The song is not an excuse for you to show how clever you are or how awesome your chops are. Man…I can’t stress that enough. It’s all about the song! Play something good, that supports the singer and the song, and you might get called again.
What have you been working on most recently?
I’ve recently had the good fortune to do two record projects in a row with a full band playing live and recording to 2” tape. I love making records that way. Real old school and they sounded so great. One was in New York with Shooter Jennings and other one was in Nashville with a singer/songwriter named Gabriel Kelley (the one Reggie Young was on). In between those two projects, I went to LA to record some pedal steel on a song by a very famous musician who I can’t really mention just now. Sorry to be evasive but in some cases, it’s best to err to the side of discretion! By the way, the producer is also very well known and was impressed by the Strymon pedals.
What is it like to listen to records you’ve played on?
It’s awesome! All these little parts I create (I like to think of them as duets or conversations within a larger conversation) are like children to me. I don’t have any kids so these will be the little markers I’ll leave behind.
Are you working on any other solo recordings? Any other projects coming up?
A while ago, things were kinda slow so I figured I’d invent my own gig! I started this thing called the PSGWoD (Pedal Steel Guitar World of Discovery). It was a pretty simple idea. Do instrumental versions of songs on the pedal steel that are not normally associated with the pedal steel. Brian Wilson songs, Burt Bacharach… stuff like that. The idea was to expand the vocabulary of the instrument and hopefully change other people’s perceptions as well. And improvisational… almost like a jazz gig to see where we could take it. It was lots of fun and it was really gratifying that so many of the best musicians I know in New York wanted to do it with me… even though I was paying them total crap for the gig. I owe ‘em!
What advice can you give to aspiring guitarists and pedal steel players?
This is really easy to answer. Practice a lot so when a good idea comes to you, you have the chops and the dexterity to play it. That doesn’t mean you need to play something fancy or complicated. Just keep it simple, keep it melodic and stay out of the singer’s way!