The melancholic, ethereal sound of the pedal steel guitar is associated with acoustic music predominantly in the Americana and country genres, but it is actually an electronic instrument. With a fretboard, plus knee and foot pedals that bend individual or a combination of strings, it’s no surprise that the intricate, multi-faceted pedal steel is considered to be one of the most difficult and ambitious instruments to master. As guitarist Doug Pettibone describes it: ‘It’s like trying to fly a helicopter with so many things going on – legs, knees, foot pedals and then you have to play in tune with everybody on top of that. I love pedal steel.’
Although the pedal steel has been popularised in the USA, London’s very own BJ Cole is one of the world’s preeminent pedal steel players. Cole has appeared on projects with a diverse array of artists such as Roger Waters, Cat Stevens, Iggy Pop, Elton John, The Verve, Sting, T Rex, Joan Armatrading, The Stranglers, and Groove Armada, among many others. BJ was a member of early 70s UK country-psychedelic band Cochise. With hundreds of sessions to his credit Cole has brought the pedal steel into the rock genre and beyond (jazz, electronica, classical). ‘It’s almost a new sound when used outside country,’ explains BJ. ‘I feel like I am pushing boundaries when I am playing in an unfamiliar context. It’s exciting and exotic,’ he enthuses.
Cole has been unafraid to step consistently outside of his musical comfort zone over the last 40 years. He was introduced to the magnificent sound of the pedal steel upon hearing the beloved standard ‘Sleepwalk’ by duo Santo & Johnny. ‘That was a big hit here in the early 60s and I liked that sound better than the electric guitar. I found the pedal steels unique. I also liked Hawaiian music and I got very inquisitive. Music was open to all kinds of minds and tastes back then. All the radio shows were playing everything: the Ink Spots, Bing Crosby – you name it!’
‘I’ve always been drawn to exotic-sounding instruments and when I saw them played on The Perry Como Show I found the pedal steel fascinating. I found them quite unique,’ he adds.
Acoustic met BJ at his north London home, crammed with musical instruments, music-related art and Tiki bar and robot paraphernalia.
The pedal steel is synonymous with country music, although you’ve played it on a diverse range of non-country music. What do you think the pedal steel brings to all types of music?
I was already deeply into the steel guitar before I was even aware of country music. I eventually gained an appreciation of country music through listening out for the steel guitar parts. I am in a position to be more stylistically free, generally. I love playing country, but there is so much more to be said on the instrument, and that’s what drives me. As far as what it brings to music, I’m obviously biased. The sound and dynamics of the pedal steel are unique. It can bring a heap of clichés if played inappropriately, though.
Did you start playing on a traditional electric guitar?
Yes, I was inspired by Hank Marvin of The Shadows, as were many of my generation. The school I was at spawned a Shadows-style group that inspired many of my contemporaries and I. My father made me a Stratocaster-style electric guitar out of our parlour piano, and there was no looking back. I was also inspired by guitarists like Chet Atkins, Barney Kessel, Django Reinhardt, and I still love all forms of guitar music. However, when I heard the steel guitar of Santo & Johnny I bought tons of records, and deeply embraced the music. I decided that this pedal steel sound had a wide open potential that appealed to me more than the electric.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to master this instrument?
Being left-handed, I started on regular guitar, playing left-handed. When I switched to steel guitar I made a conscious effort to play it in an orthodox fashion. At that time there weren’t too many left-handed pedal steels around, as you can imagine. The pedal steel is a very sophisticated machine. Potentially, it is a 12-string lap steel; forget that it’s on legs, except it’s got 12 strings instead of six. The pedals raise and lower the pitch of various tunings. They also stretch the strings and open up the harmonic possibilities. The pedals are set out to give you a lot of variations from one chord to another.
When I was in Cochise, in the early 70s, I did a lot of the writing which goes back to my poetry writing when I was younger. When we broke up, I still had a deal with United Artists Records and I did my own wildly experimental solo record which didn’t do much. When nothing happened with it I got very despondent. So, when the sessions flourished for me, it was great because I was being paid. I had no promotion to do or touring, and it was an easy life. In the 80s, someone suggested I try some classical pieces on the pedal steel which intrigued me. Through writing record reviews I got hold of Eno’s ambient series records and realised it suited that textural music beautifully. I made some tracks with a friend of mine Guy Jackson who I still work with now. We worked up tracks like [Debussy’s] ‘Claire de Lune’. If you have to sit down with a daunting piece of music like that then you have got to have a lot of intuitive faith as nobody had done that with the instrument. I view this instrument as a lot more limitless than many do.
It sounds like pedal steel has further to evolve…
It does, and it’s only down to people’s apathy and lack of imagination that it’s not gone further – and it’s getting worse. I’ve tried to challenge myself. I did an album with the vibes player Roger Beaujolais called Lushlife. I was really pleased with that. I was a huge fan of the jazz trio format so that was fun.
You dipped into both classical and ambient music on your last solo album, 2012’s Transparent Music 2…
That album is a follow-up to the first one I did in 1989 for Rykodisc. I was telling you about getting into classical with Guy Jackson, my friend and collaborator, but I got Joe Boyd [legendary producer] interested in the first Transparent Music (which I also did with Guy) and we’ve worked together on various albums since. I did the classical songs with a cellist, but for the new one we just jammed freeform, having a musical dialogue. I thought about the follow-up a few years ago so we just sat down and started playing together and that is the result.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t already?
Richard Thompson is a fantastic guitarist, a great guy. I’d very much like to work with him.
It’s obvious that you like the challenge of pushing yourself, and the boundaries of your instrument.
Yes, I do, and there are very few pedal steel players who are playing outside of the box. I don’t understand why other players don’t branch out, as the instrument is wildly underused. The thing is that music today is moving to the internet and to the point where musicians are spending more time selling their music on there and less time developing their art. You need people to help you. You need a record label to get your music out there. Working alone, being isolated doesn’t really work well. I do online sessions on top of everything else, but I don’t think being isolated is good.
What are your main pedal steel guitars now?
I have two main pedal steels. One is a Kline that I have been using since 1982, and a Williams pedal steel that Bill Rudolph of the Williams Guitar Company built for me recently. The Kline has a great tone and is incredibly reliable, but the Williams is a much more modern guitar that is lighter, has better intonation, and is easier to play. Both guitars are single neck, 12-string with six pedals and six knee levers, with a keyless tuning system. They are light, small, and I would defend their attributes against any other style of pedal steel.
You are now rereleasing an old album of yours – The New Hovering Dog. Why now?
That was my first solo album, and was originally released in 1973. It has never been released on CD, and has become a much sought after collector’s item. After making three albums with Cochise, I broke away from the country rock format to create a more experimental album that combines poetic lyrics with orchestrations and electronics. In retrospect it can be compared with the early work of Brian Eno.
What have been the highlights of your career?
I’ve been lucky because I have so many. A particular highlight was recording with Steve Marriott on three Humble Pie albums produced by Glyn Johns. I also feel honoured to have recorded with Jimmy Webb, Sting, Charlie Rich, Scott Walker, Elton John, and performed live with REM, Terry Reid, Terry Allen, Andy Fairweather Low, The Verve and John Cale. There have been many more, but those are the great artists that stand out in my memory.
What advice you would give an aspiring pedal steel player?
One word: persevere.