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Steel Guitar World Interview

[Interview of John Ely excerpted from Steel Guitar World Magazine, 1991]

September 12, 1998

Interview by ROBBIE BOSSERT

John Ely and Robbie Bossert
John and Robbie Bossert backstage at an Asleep at the Wheel concert in Pennsylvania, circa 1988.

RB: Tell me a little bit about where you come from, where you were raised, do you come from a musical family? etc...

JE: I was raised in Grand Rapids, a small resort town in Northern Minnesota. Both my parents are classical pianists, and they found me a great piano teacher who focused a lot on music theory. I pretty well burned myself out playing piano in grade school and high school, but this early exposure to harmony served me quite well later on. I attended Beloit College in Southern Wisconsin where I took several music classes and, incidentally, met fellow student Hank Seifert, brother of Ray Benson, leader of 'Asleep at the Wheel'.

RB: Who do you consider to be some of your biggest influences?

JE: Guys like Buddy Emmons, Bud Charleton, Lloyd Green, and Don Helms were big early influences. I remember holing up for two years in a practice room at Beloit, playing five, six, eight hours a day, wearing the grooves out of records like 'The Ernest Tubb Story' and all those great Hank Williams LPs. Later on, after moving to Austin, I started hearing some of the great swing players. Swing was still big in Texas in the mid 1970s, so I had a chance to hear a lot of the greats like Bobby Black and Maurice Anderson. Also, I had access to many of the classic western swing recordings of the thirties and forties, so I'd have to list Joaquin Murphey and Noel Boggs as big influences. For the last five years I've focused a lot on Hawaiian music and have been inspired by players like Dick McIntire, David Kelii, Jules Ah See, and Jerry Byrd.

RB: Were there any musicians other than a steel player that had some sort of influence on your style of playing?

JE: I've spent a fair amount of time listening to horn, guitar, and keyboard soloists to get ideas for my own improvising. They are too numerous to list, but some of my favorite solos are the really lush, chordal things by guys like Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and Wes Montgomery.

RB: When did you receive your first steel guitar? What kind was it?

JE: In the fall of 1972 I got hold of an old Gibson lap steel. It belonged to a classmate's uncle who picked it up in Honolulu during World War II. It's ironic because all I could think of at the time was how to get pedal steel sounds out of it. I never dreamed that I would eventually learn how to tune the thing and play some of the music that was originally played on it (and end up enjoying it more!). That original connection to Hawaii proved prophetic for me.

RB: Do you remember your first public performance? How did it go?

JE: My first gig was at our college coffeehouse. We had rehearsed for a whole semester, and the build-up was too much for me. I say modestly that we crashed and burned for sixty long minutes, and I have the tapes to prove it! Looking back I try to take it easy on myself, but I sure don't miss those days. To a beginning steel player with ears, there's usually a long period of time between where he's currently at and where he wants to be. I remember going through a particularly agonizing period of getting a semblance of technique under my fingers.

RB: Have you taken any formal instruction on the steel or are you a self-taught musician?

JE: I guess I'm basically self-taught on steel. To be honest, when you take licks off records and develop your ear that way, it's practically like taking lessons from the masters. I have recently taken two or three lessons from Jerry Byrd, who has an incedible way of opening up your ears to the phrasing capabilities of the instrument.

RB: Do you feel that it is necessary to be able to read music and understand theory in order to become a good steel player?

JE: I definitely feel like my music training has helped me. Reading is pretty handy in the studio for jingles and what not. I don't feel, however, that these things are essential to be a good player. I can't think of anyone who would disagree with me. Theory is a tool to assist in communicating musical ideas and organizing musical ideas in your head, but it is no substitute for hearing music which is our first and foremost task. You can list musical geniuses by the score (no pun intended) who never read a note of music and who had no idea what they were playing. I'll trade with those guys!

RB: What was the most difficult thing for you to learn about playing the steel guitar?

JE: One of the hardest thing for me was learning how to finger right hand single string runs and how to get a decent sounding vibrato with my left hand. I think a couple of lessons would have made my learning curve less steep. I've basically had to unlearn a lot of stuff I'd been doing for years. The biggest thing I've had to learn is more of a mental thing - that steel playing is not a horse race. You need time and thoughtful consideration to realize and communicate what you're feeling inside, and I believe that anything that detracts from this process is going to be destructive. It's something I've got to constantly remind myself of.

RB: What thoughts should be going through a steel player's mind while on the bandstand backing a singer?

JE: In the role of backup the steel guitar can really shine. It is a singing instrument that can complement a human voice. Because it is a true voice with many of the phrasing capabilities of a singer, it can also really detract from what is going on. It's important to play around the singer's lines as much as possible, and even avoid the singer's register at times. The main thing is to listen to the singer as if you were in the audience. Focus on the vocalist and let your playing enhance what is being sung. It's not easy to talk about and is one of the big challenges of the instrument.

RB: Did you ever make such a big mistake on stage that you just knew [or felt like] the whole audience noticed?

JE: I wish I had a dollar for every time I felt like I blew it on stage. But I'd rather have a quarter for every time I hit a clinker and hardly anyone knew it. Steel players tend to have a narrow perspective on their own playing. They concentrate so much on the little details of their performance that they tend to be removed from the overall effect they create. How many times have you been blown away by someone's playing and afterwards listened to that person downgrade himself? It's sad. I think we need to give ourselves a break. Just so you don't think I'm covering up the importance of my mistakes, I'll confess that at one big show I let my bar squirt out toward the crowd during an attempted bar slant! No injuries to report...

RB: Do you have any plans to record a solo album in the near future?

JE: I'm currently working on a Hawaiian steel guitar album. It's difficult to juggle this project with my extensive touring with the Wheel. I'm excited about it, though. The band is always "full speed ahead" and I've always wanted to relax, play ballads, and try some of my own arranging ideas. At heart I consider myself a ballad player, although there will be up-tempo stuff on the album, too.

RB: What sort of projects do you and 'Asleep at the Wheel' have planned for 1992?

JE: Our NBC television movie Wild Texas Wind, featuring Dolly Parton, will be aired again in April. Also our next album will be released this spring on the Arista label. It was recorded live at Austin Aquafest last August. In May we are helping to celebrate the 66th anniversary of the classic, retired U.S. highway, Route 66. We start in Chicago on May 2nd and work our way along the old road to St. Louis, Tulsa, OK City, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, and finally end up in Los Angeles on May 16th, 17th, and 18th. In March we're going to Norway and Germany for a couple of weeks. It's a busy time for the band...not much time at home. I'm trying to hang in there.

RB: What do you consider to be some of the greatest highlights of your career to date?

JE: The biggest highlight for me was winning my first Grammy in 1988 for "String of Pars" on Asleep at the Wheel X. It was also my first songwriting credit on a record, so the occasion was doubly exciting for me. It was early in my stint with the Wheel, and I remember being real pleased with the live feel of the performance. It was a first take for everybody, I believe.

RB: What recordings have you done that you consider to be examples of your finest playing?

JE: I was pretty happy with some of the cuts on Asleep at the Wheel X and Western Standard Time. I like the way they were recorded...basically, "what you play is what you get". For our kind of music it's pretty important to get that room sound with the instruments all interacting to create a whole, ambient effect. You only get a couple of shots at it that way, though, so there is real pressure to be accurate and loose, a tall order. I've heard that our next live album has a lot of good stuff on it, but I haven't listened to it yet. I did a square dance album with Johnny Gimble that probably has my favorite pedal steel playing on it. I doubt if there are any copies around. Johnny always brings the best out of everyone. He's a real joy to play with. I definitely feel that my best playing has been on the bandstand. I imagine that this is true for a lot of players.

RB: You seem to be one of the only players left that plays a non-pedal steel guitar. Why do you prefer a non-pedal steel to a pedal steel?

JE: I love the sound of non-pedal steels, for one thing. They seem to have a more natural sound as opposed to a pure pickup sound. I feel that most pedal instruments are forced into more of a pickup tone because of all the hardware required to make accurate pedal pulls. That can tend to inhibit body vibration and the natural interaction of body and pickup. I'm making a general statement here... There are fantastic sounding pedal steels out there. I just seem to prefer the sound you get when you slap a pickup onto a piece of wood or bakelite plastic.

The other reason I gravitate toward lap steel has to do with playing style. I think without pedals you are forced to do everything with your hands, and that can tend to make your playing more individualized. There are more parameters. You have to slant the bar to get a lot of chords, and everyone is going to do that a little differently. What I found when I started playing lap steel all the time, was that I really had to pay attention to things that I had neglected on pedal steel. With pedals you can ignore your left hand and get away with it, while your right hand rips off fast runs or grabs big chord combinations. The left hand has incredible powers of expression through vibrato and the ability to connect phrases by glissing in and out of notes. Obviously all these things can be done on pedal steel, but for some reason you don't hear it being done as much. One consequence of this is that my pedal playing has really improved. I do miss getting a lot of really big chords, though, probably because of my early keyboard orientation. Fundamentally, though, it's not the instrument that counts but the player. I happen to be an instrument fanatic, but you have to keep it all in perspective.

RB: What effects are you currently using?

JE: Normally, I don't use any effects...just a Fender Stringmaster into a Fender Twin Reverb. I sometimes add an analog delay to my pedal steel sound on the bandstand for lack of a good, full "room sound" reverb unit.

RB: Do you feel that the steel guitar is gaining in popularity? Where do you think the steel guitar will be in twenty years?

JE: It seems like steel is really "in" these days on commercial country records. It's all over the radio right now...maybe not the most exciting stuff in the world, but it's good news for anyone looking for a job. I think the real danger is that commercial record producers could lock steel guitar into a conservative little niche which could hide the true beauty of the instrument from the rest of the world. Maybe in twenty years this issue will be decided. I think it's up to every steel player to try to fight this anyway possible.

RB: What kind of music do you like to listen to in you spare time?

JE: I still love listening to classical music. It's my first love and I keep going back to it. Debussy's piano music is it for me. Maybe I ought to go to an 88 string tuning! I love the big bands like Basie and Ellington, and the Miles Davis '50s and '60s stuff.

RB: Who are some of the steel players you enjoy listening to?

JE: There are so many great players I love to hear. I always seem to go back to my treasures: early Bob Wills stuff with Leon McAuliffe and Herb Remington, Spade Cooley transcriptions with Joaquin Murphey and Noel Boggs, and a host of other old western swing recordings. Maurice Anderson still blows me away. I heartily recommend his work on an out-of-print Johnny Gimble Capitol LP, "Fiddlin' Around". I love the early Hawaiian recordings by Dick McIntire, Andy Iona, and especially some transcriptions of the 'Hawaii Calls' radio show featuring my hero, David Kelii. Man, that guy could play.

RB: Who are some of the bands you have played with and how did they lead you to your current job with 'Asleep at the Wheel'?

JE: I freelanced around Austin for years, playing with lots of bands, including a stint with Ray Wylie Hubbard, some gigs with Johnny Gimble, Johnny Duncan, and others. Austin is a small enough town that everybody pretty much knows everybody. I was actually playing with a reggae band when the Wheel gig came open. I had a strange setup. I had a synth rigged up with PVC pipe so that the keyboard sat right up in front of my steel. It was a four piece band so I had to do keyboard comps with my left hand, while playing parts and rhythm on my S-12 Emmons. I used a capo on the steel and would quick grab the bar when it came time to solo. It was really fun. We starved though, so I jumped at the chance to play with Asleep. I have to admit I was pretty rusty on normal steel chops when I went out on my first tour.

RB: When you are working in the studio, do you play through you amp or plug directly into the mixing board?

JE: I always go direct on commercial sessions. My Fender 800 sounds great that way, although there are some severe drawbacks. You lose control over your sound, and you've got to have an engineer you can work with. For non-commercial stuff, including all my lap steel stuff, I definitely prefer going through an amp, usually a black face Fender Deluxe Reverb.

RB: When you're recording other artist's songs, are you free to create your own break or do the rest of the guys like you to stick to the original recording?

JE: We have a fair amount of control over what we play. Obviously, in places like the first steel chorus of "San Antonio Rose", you're going to stick to a traditional break if it's a signature to the tune. For the most part we're encouraged to really go for it on solos, and that's what makes this a great gig for steel guitar.

RB: What was the largest audience that you ever played for?

JE: Probably Farm Aid at the Hoosier Dome or halftime at a 1988 Forty-Niners game at Candlestick Park. I guess that's cheating, isn't it?

RB: Do you prefer playing in front of a large audience as opposed to a club size audience or vice versa?

JE: I think I prefer a small, concert type venue like a coffeehouse. It's a more intimate experience and you can really feel the crowd responding to what's going on. I get more psyched for those gigs where people are really listening as opposed to a dance crowd, where the band is a glorified juke box. I know I'm in the minority, here. Most of the Wheel guys love dances, since our music is pretty much geared for it.

RB: Do you prefer any one particular tuning as opposed to another?

JE: I use several tunings on lap steel. I use the standard C sixth with a high G on the top neck. An A sixth tuning would sound better, but Ray sings mostly in the key of G so it forces me to tune up. The Leon McAuliffe E13th (E C# B G# F# D G# E) is my second main tuning. Most of the Wheel stuff uses those two tunings. For Hawaiian, I use three other tunings: the C6th with a low seventh (E C A G E C Bb C), the B11th (E C# A F# D# C# A B), and the Hawaiian E13th (E C# G# F# D B G# E). The B11th is gorgeous and I've used it some with the Wheel.

RB: Do you pick block or palm block while playing a particularly fast lick?

JE: I block either with my right palm or my left hand. A lot of Hawaiian players block with the left hand by going in and out of the tilt position, catching vibrating strings as others are picked. It's a hard technique to master but very smooth sounding. As time goes on I'm letting this method slowly take over. It has a sound somewhat similar to pick blocking.

RB: Do you use three or four picks? Do you pick with your thumb and forefinger while playing a fast lick or do you try to work in all your fingers?

JE: I use four picks with Asleep and three for Hawaiian and commercial. I guess I can't fully shake my desire for big chords, and that extra pick really helps when there are a lot of skips involved. For fast single string, I usually use the thumb and first finger.

RB: What sort of advice would you give to a new steel player that might get them through the potentially frustrating times of practicing?

JE: I would tell him/her to pace himelf and allow himself to enjoy the instrument and his own progress independent of what the next guy is doing. That's a tough one. I certainly didn't follow this advice. Everybody has something to say. And there's no rush to get that message out. There's always room for another player. I guess it was my love for the instrument that got me through those early hard times. I still fall prey to intense self-evaluation, but not so often anymore. It's a syndrome that's rampant in our field, and I would discourage any young player from feeding into it.