A Visit With Frank Kuebelbeck

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This visit has been a long time coming. In the past I’ve talked with Frankie a little at local steel jams here in Kansas City. And we’ve planned for a while to get together and sit down and have him talk, show me his secrets, and tell me stories.

Why? Because Frankie comes right out of the western swing and jazz traditions of the midwest where he’s spent most of his life (outside of his stint in Nashville and touring with Cowboy Copas.) For a fantastic bio on Frank see Mike Neer’s article about him on his blog.

And notably he’s one of the few who stuck to his guns with fixed tunings despite the fact he witnessed the evolution and rise in popularity of the pedal steel. (Though he has tried pedals – in fact he was selling his pedal steel at the time we visited.)

So, I was stoked and showed up to his place with my single-8 C6/A7 low F axe. This tuning is the one I know best for lap steel and in my mind the best tuning there is. And so I’m ready to learn some lap steel tricks and stories. That’s basically how I thought this visit would go.

But, here’s what I learned in one sentence: Go get more familiar with Leon McAuliffe’s  E13 tuning because it’s jazzy as it gets. Frankie has used this tuning almost exclusively for decades. And does so because of his association with Leon McAuliffe. He knew him personally and Frankie’s band would fill in for Leon McAuliffe and His Cimarron Boys at the Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa.

So, I left that day understanding I need to investigate Leon’s E13 tuning and come back.

And yeah, Frankie did tell me stories that made my head spin around like a top!

Edit: One more thing. I’m not the first guy to seek out Frankie because of his valuable connection to the past. Steel players with huge reputations for other tunings and approaches like Bill Dye, Russ Wever, (both of which are Kansas City guys), Lee Jeffries and Mike Neer have known this guy for a long time.

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Moveable Chord Grips for 8 Strings (C6/A7 Low F)

I’ve been playing around with two three-note chord grips or shapes for the C6/A7 low F tuning recently that have a really nice dark and smooth feeling to them. To me they sound a little more complex than a typical swing sixth “bar position” chord and are really easy to implement quickly. These help break me out of the same old first position playing or bar playing (i.e. Bb over the 10th fret.) I can’t use them with every song but if a song’s harmonic structure allows it, then it really sounds deep. I use my ear as the best judge. Great for a lot of western swing, jazz and blues.

Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk seems to be a great piece to illustrate how this works. It’s chord structure is basically a 12-bar blues. I’ve recorded and tabbed out the head for both melody and rhythm tracks. I outline three grips overall. (No slanting!)

The Grips in the Melody:
The first one using strings 8, 5 and 3 (low to high) over the 5th fret in a Bb chord (or 1 chord). It uses chord tones: root, M7 and M3 (Bb, A and D.)

The second  one using strings 7, 4 and 2 (low to high) over the 5th fret still over a Bb chord. It uses chord tones: M3, m7 and perfect 5 (D, C and F.)

I use one or sometimes both grips in measures one and two and measures five and six and the first grip each time at the end of the signature motive.

Rhythm Grips:
A third grip is used in the rhythm part and is easily applied to a thousand other blues or jazz pieces and another demonstration for the versatility of this tuning. And all three chords can be played just one or two frets from each other. The first chord: Bb7 (or I chord) uses strings  7, 6 and 4, (low to high) over the seventh fret. So that’s chord tones: 5b, 7 and M3 (E, G# and D).

Then moving to Eb7 (or IV chord) I move one fret down to the sixth fret. I stay on the same strings but the chord tones change. Now it’s 1, 3 and 7 (Eb, G and Db).

Eventually the F7 (or V chord) comes around and that’s one fret up from the Bb to the eight fret. Again, the same strings and again it’s chord tones 1, 3, 7 (F, A and Eb) .

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Download my PDF here.

Download my Tabledit file here.

What’s Tabledit and where can I download the free player?

Note that Mike Neer does a related tab for Blue Monk with a fantastic lesson on tenths.

Did I get something wrong? Please let me know and I’ll fix it and learn!

The Secret of New Material

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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.

Three Chords and the Truth About Difficult Chord Harmonies

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Not many songs have haunted me like John Coltrane’s iconic Blue Train from his Blue Note album of the same name. It’s minimal melody and austere harmony set up an emotive head.

That said the piano chord harmonies are pretty complex for this country boy so I almost didn’t notice it’s a 12-bar blues – three chords. (But apparently Coltrane was really rooted in the blues.) A big thanks to Mike Neer’s responses on the Steel Guitar Forum for the support and advice to getting the chords right (or at least very close.) I had originally posted my audio with chords that were inaccurate and I was happy to be corrected. (Cm7 is not the same as an Eb7#9.) So hopefully I’m a lot closer now.

So, below represents me sticking my toe into the mid-century jazz ocean. No blowing here. Just harmony/chord studying. By far my fav (and prolly everyone else’s) Coltrane piece. Eventually I’d like to expand this recording into a solo section.

Eb like the original:

Note there are three parts to this arrangement (lead, harmony and rhythm) and that I tabbed all three parts into a single line of notation below for simplicity. In no way does my arrangement suggest bar slants starting on measure 13 – it’s just the two lines in harmony. The rhythm chords are intended to emulate the piano in the original arraignment’s head.

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“After all the investigation, all of the technique-doesn’t matter! Only if the feeling is right.”
― John Coltrane

This post was originally published at All Aboard the Blue Train. Bad I know, but I was exited to post. And as always please let me know if there’s something I’ve gotten wrong. My purpose here is to learn.

Download my PDF tab here

Download my TablEdit MIDI file here

I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande (C6/A7 8-String)

Here’s a quick sketch track and tabbed PDF (with related MIDI) for a recent favorite of mine. I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande is a Johnny Mercer song I love because it’s fairly easy but still different from typical steel guitar standards like Steel Guitar Rag, Panhandle Rag, etc. And though it’s popularity is up there with other big western swingers, I’d argue it’s not as obvious as Roly Poly and Rose of San Antone. But since it originated as a jazz pop tune back in the early 20th century, it’s both a western tune and a jazz pop standard. Killer.

And no wonder it’s so famous. What really catches me is how smooth and jazzy it sounds. And what I loved finding for myself was in terms of C6 lap steel approach the opening chord’s bar position feels like you are playing a 4 (G) chord over the seventh fret but you’re really playing a 2 (Em7) chord over the seventh fret. (Measure 2 in the tablature below.) To me, that is so cool and refreshing from standard 1, 4, 5 chord changes.

There’s lots of great versions of this song by western swing bands online but while I was doing my Spotify research I did come across the Sonny Rollins Way Out West album which this song is a part of and has really interested me ever since. It seems to me almost old hat for western/country musicians to take on jazz as inspiration but for a jazz musician to take on western/country as inspiration is really interesting to hear. I’ve taken some inspiration from Sonny’s head for my playing here but I aspire to play anything remotely similar to the solo section.

Low F Tuning for C6/A7
The C6 tuning version here has a low F (see tab) which enables us to land on different chord voicings in the melody than we’re used to normally playing with straight C6 chord positions. For example in measure 8 of the tab, instead of resolving on the predictable second fret 1 (D) chord, we are now landing on the 9 fret (D) chord (really it’s a Dmaj7 since its scale tones are bottom to top 1, maj7, and 5.) It still sounds “correct” and resolved but it also has a very dark-flavored voicing. All enabled by the low F.

Low F tuning is used in both the melody and the rhythm tab tracks.

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Download my TEF (MIDI) file here.

Download my PDF file here.

Note that: I’ve not been able to find a free reliable source to check my chord work against here so if any part of this is wrong I’d hope someone would let me know.