By Jeff Newman
A knight in shining armor riding a black horse enters the field of battle. He sits tall in the saddle, confident that he is capable of winning at any cost. We may wonder, “Just how did he get there”? What makes a man do such things? Knights of old were not chosen because they were large or ugly. They were volunteers. Size and ability certainly must have had a part in their destiny, but it was not the deciding factor in their fate.
His appointment hinged on one talent. He had courage. We do not learn courage, it is a gift, and we are born with it. This knight is fearless in the face of opposition. One can train in the art of defense and attack, but it does little good if he runs in the face of adversity. Many knights lived to be very old, and fought many battles, yet they were not large, or perfect by any means. They were committed. They fought for a cause, not for the battle itself. The battle was a means to an end to which he believed was worthy of his efforts. It was worthy of his life if necessary.
When you listen to a great player, and you wonder what it might take to attain that ability, think of him as a knight in full armor riding his big black horse.
As you look closely you will see that the armor is dented and beaten from many battles, but none of them fatal. He has been hit, knocked down, knocked off his steed, insulted, abused, and he is not easy to look at.
He is however, still sitting tall in the saddle. He is still here, alive, and poised for battle. He has all the experience of an old warrior that just won’t die. He will not give up, and he has more tricks up his sleeve than Merlin the magician. He can smoke you to the ground in any tune, in any style of music. He is a genius. He has attained that status and he is due all the respect of a king’s first knight. He has arrived at that station due to that gift; he keeps getting up in spite of adversity.
Each time we play we enter the battle. The more we play, the more chance of being hit. We risk disaster and embarrassment, but we do not fear it.
How long should it take to learn to play a pedal steel guitar? There is no answer for that. Everything we do is a learned art, and a craft that we attain one way or another a day at a time. If we do something everyday we ultimately learn to do it without thinking, and very well.
We learn by making mistakes. If we can do a thing easily, the first time, then we don’t have to learn it do we? No one has ever sat down behind a steel guitar for one day and had wonderful sounds start emanating from it. It is a beast and untamed by nature. There are too many things about it that are not natural to human reflexes. Every move it takes to play the right strings, hit the pedals, move the bar to the right fret, and operate a volume pedal is a major undertaking even if taken one move at a time.
Well then, how do we do it? We must make an attempt no matter how hard it may seem or how badly it comes out. We find that what appears to be a simple thing is not easy at first, nor last. But wait, this is the age of credit cards is it not? We don’t have to wait for anything. We can get it today and pay for it some other time. Everyone wants to have a steel guitar today and play it today. That thought has kept more players from ever learning this instrument than for any other reason.
Anyone can play a pedal steel guitar. No one is tone deaf; they are simply inexperienced at this point. The only reason there aren’t millions of great pedal steel guitar players is that it takes time, effort, and determination, beyond reason, to learn it. Many have bought steels, but they lay under beds and in closets because they could not get what they expected from it in two weeks. It is a human trait, not a fault. We throw a rock into a pond only for one reason, to see it splash and make a wave in the water. If it did not, instantly, we would wander off in search of other instant gratification.
Think of a steel guitar as a time machine. What you do today is being projected into the future. Nothing you do today is going to be useful today, and that’s a bummer. Steel guitars gobble up information, time, effort, inspiration, aggravation, and determination and spit out nothing in return. They are like a slot machine that never pays off when you need it most. You will get something back, after you put it in, but only after it all matures in time, lots of time.
How much time? How many mistakes does it take to find out a thing will not work? That is different for every person on earth. What we play, or can play, is the result of catastrophic failure. It comes as the result of hours of failed attempts, wrong thinking, and embarrassing moments. None of these ingredients are pleasant. They put another dent in your armor.
The average person who is attracted to a pedal steel guitar has a characteristic that bites him in the ass everyday. We are perfectionists by nature. Even after playing for fifty years, we can rarely get through a song without missing something, forgetting something, or just getting completely lost. We are not gods. We are human beings trying to do one of the most difficult coordinated exercises ever created by man. We will make mistakes, forget things, and get lost. But�, we can’t stand it! We see it as failure not perfection. How we react to that is the cosmic formula for success or failure. If we cannot accept our constant and daily ineptness, then we are doomed. If we do not understand the scope, the broadness of what must be learned, we are doomed. If we don’t have a learning process, we are doomed.
A great football player was accused of tackling the whole opposing team and then tossing everybody out that did not have the ball. That sounds like a reasonable plan for getting the job done.
We must learn how to learn. For every new idea you claim and try to incorporate, it will take thousands of attempts, and failures, for them to find themselves as part of your natural thoughts and playing. You must tackle the whole team; try everything to find out how it works, and how it doesn’t.
Education is nothing more than hanging around until you catch on.
It has nothing to do with I.Q., Inborn or natural ear, or athletic ability. If we hang in there and keep trying, and no matter what it may sound like, and no matter how embarrassed we may feel every time we fail, we get one day closer to that day when we sit down and it all falls into our lap.
There is only one thing that separates the great players from the not so great, and then the non- players. It is simple, the great ones have been at it for as long as they can remember, and the thought of quitting was not an option. The urge to throw in the towel can be overwhelming. They never learned anything any easier than you can. They never learned anything more quickly than you can. They never had an angel of God visit them in the middle of the night giving them special instructions on how to play dazzling and marvelous jazz.
No other instrument is as athletically challenging as a pedal steel guitar. You cannot “think” all the moves that the hands, the feet, the knees, and head must do quickly enough. These things all come together as a reflex, long after we do the thinking to learn them. Reflex only comes from repetition. Nobody can do repetitions for you. They are frustrating and can be boring, depending upon your attitude. Repetition is the firewall against fatal disaster. Enough repetitions insure your survival in the battle when thinking is out of the question.
So, a pedal steel guitar is truly a time machine. What you get back is equal to what you put in, but at a later date, not to be determined by you. If you are lucky you don’t give up and sell your steel the day before it all comes to visit. I don’t know of many good players who have been playing less than five to ten years. If you have been playing a year, or three, you have no right to even expect to sit on the horse without it turning and biting you on the leg. The great players, the ones you would give it all to play as well as, have been playing everyday, for the last thirty to fifty years. There is a price to be paid in time, effort, and embarrassing moments. Is it too high? You cannot imagine or understand that until you have done it.
Have a cause. Is this your cause? Are you fearless, or are you ready to run each time you make mistake or find something difficult to master? Are you ready to lie down and die just because you have been trying to play for a year and you are still making fatal mistakes?
Fearlessness is not ignorant. Learn the art of attack and defense. Learn to hear chords and scales. Listen to and learn to play all sorts of music, not just country. Avail yourself to any instruction you can get your hands on and do not be afraid to ask for information. Equip yourself for the battle.
The courage you need is in you. The secret is in letting it out. You may be small, tall, weak, or bleak, but courage can make you a monster behind a pedal steel guitar. It is the key to knighthood. Each time you sit down to play or practice, put on the armor, mount the black horse, and ride the wild time machine. It is a marvelous journey.