The Value of Jamming with Others

I hate nothing more than a bad jam session. Poor taste, too many pickers or excessive volume can easily spoil something intended to be a fun learning experience. However, if you can find the right group, jamming can be gratifying and inspiring.

A good jam session gets you the experience somewhere between a live show and practice at home. Mistakes don’t hurt your ego as bad and you are still bringing every bit of your A game. Plus you’re not necessarily married to a regular band or combo so you can attend when it’s convenient or try out new material you wouldn’t necessarily play somewhere else. Seems obvious, right? Well it can be hard for me to find a good session sometimes for steel.

But that’s not the case for me with the Heartland Steel Association’s Bi-Monthly Steel Jam at the Northtown Opry in North Kansas City. The amount of knowledge, taste, and ability (both E9 and C6 tunings) with this group is staggering. Many of the players on pedal steel guitars learned on lap steels back when there were no pedal steels. (A couple guys have early stories about engineering their own pedals and pull rods on their Fender Customs or Stringmasters.) And there’s a couple guys that have only ever played lap steel. (Frankie Kay being one.) 1960s and 1970s country is a clear favorite in this circle but there’s a fair amount of old swing as well.  So I try to soak up as much expertise as I can.

Always set against a solid live bassist and drummer, every steeler gets a turn to choose the song and then a round-robin system to solo. (You better be paying attention when it’s your turn if one or two guys wave off their turn in front of you.) It’s a great way for me to learn or be introduced to new material very quickly. (I bring my note pad or my iPad.) If I don’t feel I can contribute a decent enough solo then I lay out and let the next player take a turn and I just wait for the next song. Also, it’s a great way to get experience directing a band or other players. I bring lead sheets for the songs I want to play but may be unfamiliar to others. Then I kick off and end the song. 

For the last three years I’ve only brought a C6 lap steel to this jam but for this session I set up my Zumsteel D-10. (In Kansas City four out of five pedal steels are a Zum.) There’s just so much rich E9 being played that I wanted to soak some of it up. And I got to try my C6 neck with the group – strung up with only eight strings and without pedals for now.

Seems difficult to think a jam session with 10 or more steel guitars would be worth a damn but this one really is great. Good music and great people.

The video I took was of one of the regular vocalists.


The Secret of New Material


I was looking a back at my mishmash archive of recorded practice notes and found something that reminded me of where my interest in jazz standards got started.

A few years ago I played with a county band whose lead singer loved doing an annual Christmas show. (This was a new idea for me at the time.) He’d bring well-chosen Christmas songs to our rehearsals – material I’d never heard. One of these was  Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heuse’s The Secret of Christmas – one that’s still rarely covered by anyone. And I loved it because it made me feel like we’d really stepped into playing something other than just country music.

More than just three or four chords the lead sheets he payed for online and I took home and studied the chord structure for how my pedal steel could fit in. And recored it to GarageBand (putting together all the backup parts from scratch). And even though the band preformed it as a vocal song I put together my own together study track – hitting the intro, verse, chorus and ending one time each.

And in doing my iTunes research of how it’s been arranged in the past I drew a lot from Ella Fitzgerald’s version from what I found later to be her Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas album. Especially the ending (even though now my approach makes me cringe a bit.)

It’s not perfect but looking back I can see how this was a pivotal moment in my interest and direction. It wasn’t overnight but I did pursue a lot of swing and jazz material later.

And I also began appreciating more obscure Christmas music – perhaps the best takeaway for me at the time.