Most people attribute the sound of the steel guitar to the golden hits of the classic country era. It has a chiming whine to its sound, often providing atmospheric embellishment in the background of a song’s mix.
Are you somebody who is learning how to play the steel guitar? Check out the following songs, all of which would not be the same without the addition of a steel guitar.
“Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Recording studios often had multiple rooms occupied by different groups, all recording their own projects. It’s been a common story in music history of unlikely collaborations taking place because of this kind of convenient coincidence.
When CSNY was recording their Deja Vu album, they felt as if the song, Teach Your Children, was missing something. Next door, the Grateful Dead happened to be recording an album of their own.
Word got around that the Dead’s Jerry Garcia was a dedicated self-taught steel guitar player. They worked out a deal with Jerry, who had really only been playing for a few months at the time.
It’s safe to say that Jerry’s pedal steel playing puts the cherry on top of an already great song. His playing gives it a distinctive country feel, without pushing the song to sound like a country song.
In some ways, Jerry’s playing is just as iconic as the song’s perfectly harmonized singing and lyricism. He employed melodic ideas that can be easily sung, which can’t always be said about steel guitar parts.
“Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny
Santo & Johnny's mammoth hit, Sleep Walk, is probably the most famous steel guitar song of all time. Hear it once, and you’ll find it’s stuck in your head, as the song’s melody is extremely memorable.
Its melody really does seem as if it is something straight from the threshold of a dream. This is carried along by the slow, rolling pace of the band’s accompaniment.
Sleep Walk was written late at night by this pair of brothers, and they immediately knew they had a hit. It has since been covered countless times, and never fails to induce a hint of dreamy nostalgia into your life.
“Father To A Sister Of Thought” by Pavement
Pavement is, at times, completely spastic, while also being melodramatic to the extreme. Mix in some obtuseness, along with some masterful wordplay, and you’ve created the most influential indie rock band ever.
When thinking of this band’s slacker-meets-punk attitude, they’re perhaps the last place you’d expect to find a steel guitar. But, that’s exactly what you’d find in the middle of their 1995 album, Wowee Zowee.
Father To A Sister Of Thought features some world-class steel guitar playing by Doug Easley, one of the album’s engineers. It provides that classic Western atmosphere and has some lead melodic lines in various sections.
Wowee Zowee was never as successful as Pavement’s first 2 albums, but it is perhaps their most daring. Their songs traverse a huge landscape of sounds, with this song providing a bit of evidence to that fact.
“Far Away Eyes” by The Rolling Stones
They took the world by storm in the 60s, but The Rolling Stones have never loosened their grip. In fact, the 1970s only catapulted The Rolling Stones to even greater heights of success.
When they released Some Girls in 1978, it was clear that The Rolling Stones were far from their peak. This album had some of their biggest hits, including, Shattered, Beast of Burden, and Miss You.
The track, Far Away Eyes, rose to high acclaim when it was released along with Miss You. This had more of a country feel, aided in part by Ron Wood’s steel guitar playing.
Yes, the song is great, but Ron Wood seriously needs to be given credit for his skills. It seems as if he was extremely accomplished and well-rounded with regard to playing musical instruments.
“Albuquerque” by Neil Young
Neil Young has had quite a prolific career and is still extremely productive for someone of his age. Despite being in his mid-70s, Neil shows no signs of slowing down one bit.
Throughout the years, his sound has ranged from folk to hard rock, with everything in between. His song, Albuquerque, from the album Tonight’s The Night, plays more on the folk side of things.
One of the things that gives Albuquerque its sound is Ben Keith’s pedal steel playing. It really only adds to the odd sense of desolation that permeates through this entire song.
“Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan
In terms of songwriting, Bob Dylan is, by far, one of the most important to have ever graced the Earth. He’s given us some of the greatest lyrical lines ever composed and helped to push the boundaries of music.
Dylan’s rise to fame was hinged on his traditional folk sound. When he started playing with amplified instruments, he created a rift in his own fanbase.
If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have songs like Lay Lady Lay. This track features some iconic Pete Drake pedal steel playing, providing a dreamy-yet-weepy sort of atmosphere.
It is Drake’s steel guitar that gives Lay Lady Lay its instant-recognition factor. Dylan’s lower-voiced singing seems perfectly complemented by this simple musical part.
“Breathe (In The Air)” by Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd were no strangers to musical experimentation. When they released The Dark Side Of The Moon, it was clear that their experimentation had become a superpower.
Innumerable words have been used to describe this album’s extremely tasteful trippiness. Songs like Breathe (In The Air), have psychedelic qualities that have become a staple feature in the psychedelic music genre.
It might not be readily apparent at first, but this track actually features Gilmour on the steel guitar. This song is a match made in heaven as the steel guitar’s slow glissando is perfectly suited for its sound.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams
That classic country sound just wouldn’t be the same without the whining of a steel guitar. One of the best to feature pedal steel is the track, Your Cheatin’ Heart, released after Hank Williams’ death.
As the story goes, Hank wrote the lyrics off of the top of his head while driving down the road. His wife wrote them down for him, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Your Cheatin’ Heart features some classic techniques by Don Helms, who is an absolute pedal steel legend. In fact, you’ll find more Hank Williams songs with Don than without.
“Together Again” by Buck Owens
Buck Owens was reigning supreme by the time Together Again was released in 1964. This track features Tom Brumley on steel guitar, providing accompaniment and a moving solo in the middle of the composition.
Many consider Brumley as one of the greatest to have ever played the steel guitar. In fact, it was this track that prompted the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia to play the pedal steel guitar.
The domino effect that exists in life is truly better than fiction sometimes. If not for this song, CSNY’s Carry On wouldn’t exist in the sublime recorded form it does today.
“Rainy Day Woman” by Waylon Jennings
Waylon Jennings might be considered country today, but he bucked the norms of the classic country of his time. Despite being an outlaw, Jennings maintained the country sound in his own way, which proved to be quite successful.
His track, Rainy Day Woman, came extremely close to topping the Billboard Country charts in 1974. It features exquisite vocal harmonies and a chiming steel guitar elevating the music.
Ralph Mooney is the featured player and has played with a number of artists including Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens. His playing on this track provides a hint of brightness rather than bringing a melodramatic whine.