When I listen to Buddy Emmons, Robert Randolph, Lloyd Green, Tommy White, Curly Chalker, or other pedal steel guitar legends, I hear players who constantly practice and refine the so-called “beginner’s” tools. I’ve been fortunate enough to know all of them personally. I can verify that their focus throughout their careers (as it is mine) was mastering the essentials: touch, tone, the bar, blocking, controlling the length of notes, using the volume pedal expressively, chimes, etc.
I believe these essential tools should never be dismissed as “beginner stuff” or as something we think of as “already learned, so there’s no need to work on it”. All of those tools have to remain under our complete control or we will start to sound like lesser musicians.
If I feel I’m getting stuck in a rut, unhappy with my accuracy, tone or touch, I spend more time on these fundamental basics than I do on learning new things to play. These skills must be mastered and constantly refined beyond my current level of satisfaction. This means I am always working on improving those aspects of my playing.
The basics are not something to “get through” before I can get to the “good stuff”…they are the how and the why I can play the “good stuff”. Those that progress on the instrument do so because they never stop searching for perfection. If I intend to master the instrument, I am an Eternal Beginner.
PREACH WHAT YOU PRACTICE
Pro football teams have training camps where they do repetitive drills on blocking and tackling, throwing and catching…things they have been doing for years by this point. The greatest hitters in baseball go to batting practice. NBA champions shoot endless free throws.
Why? Because those are the foundational skills needed to excel in their chosen fields of competition. We can’t reach the highest levels without constantly reviewing, honing and perfecting the basics. If we are stuck on any level, focusing on these tools will get us unstuck.
METHOD vs. MADNESS
The pedal steel guitar has never had an all-in-one complete method that taught the necessary technical, theoretical and overall musicianship knowledge needed to play and improvise at a professional level. In the classical world, a beginning violinist gets taught how to finger the notes, how to apply vibrato, how to sight read music, bowing articulations, playing in an ensemble.
The goal is to have the proficiency needed to play a pre-written piece of music in a recital/performance whether solo, in a duet, trio, quartet or full orchestra. The classical method of learning gets us ready to play by drilling us on technique and practicing the emotional nuances of the instrument, then we are ready to play recitals of written music.
WHAT IS TAB?
A tablature version of a solo/arrangement is simply a short-hand record of a creative process. As such, it cannot convey the complete picture. You may get through the TAB as written, but not be any more able to recognize musical theory, repeated patterns and phrases, nor truly understand the stylistic choices that distinguish one great player from another. You end up learning “what” was played, but never quite understand the “whys” or the “hows” the player used to arrive at his or her choices.
Over time, a more creative player can acquire enough rote-memorization ideas from TABs to start applying them across other tunes and styles. That approach is a much slower, haphazard process…and ultimately may not lead you to unlock your ultimate musicality.
Make no mistake, TABs certainly have their place, but I think they need to be used not as the “final exam”, but as a worksheet of exercises. Each phrase should be broken down and analyzed as to its harmonic, melodic and rhythmic components and their relationship to each other, not just “put your bar here and strike these strings”.
TABs are a kind of “paint-by-numbers” approach…my goal is to give a palette of colors (harmonic content), a blank canvass (the song) combined with a strong foundation in brush strokes (accumulated technique) to reveal your path to individualism.
THE PAUL FRANKLIN METHOD
I started the Paul Franklin Method in an effort to change the way the pedal steel guitar is learned. I saw the value of using a Method approach in my own learning experience and saw how it could introduce the fundamental skills in technique, theory and creativity together and not as afterthoughts or piece-meal “collateral learning”.
In a Method, concepts are introduced and explained and the student makes sure they are drilled, memorized and constantly reviewed. It is up to the student to apply them in their own playing using their own individual musicality. I often show examples of the ways I and other players have applied these concepts in our careers. I am not aiming to teach anyone how to play like me…I am interested in teaching you how to learn like me, so you can play better than me.
This is the proven way to master an instrument and approach it as a musician. The pedal steel guitar can be intimidating to those who do not see its beauty and internal logic at the outset. A complete beginner has many things to think about at the same time, and they can get overwhelmed by it. It was this inherent complexity that prompted early teachers to concentrate on getting students to quickly play music they were familiar with. At the time, that was the Country music of the 60’s and 70’s.
That was certainly a Golden Age for both innovations to the guitar itself and the legendary players that came to the forefront. In hindsight, the concentration on one particular style of one particular musical genre in teaching limited the appeal of the pedal steel to mostly fans of that genre and those influenced by it, as in the pedal steel’s use in Country Rock.
The pedal steel became stereotyped in the public’s consciousness to the point that the sound of the pedal steel came to mean “Country”. Exceptions exist, of course, but in general the sound was tied to the genre that embraced it.
I see a different path for the pedal steel. I have been fortunate to play it in many styles, in many situations all over the world. I have seen the reaction to it from stadium crowds who had never even seen a pedal steel before.
CONCEPTS, APPLICATIONS AND NUANCE
Try to look at the Course as a collection of three broad themes. Some lessons give you the tools and concepts needed to play the instrument technically, theoretically and musically.
The other Lessons are examples of possible applications of those concepts. Every Intro, Lick and Solo can be broken down into fundamental exercises.
The final theme is emotional nuance…the subtleties that allow you to transfer the music in your heart through your brain to your hands and feet.
That’s how I see the world of music.