10 pedal steel guitar players you should know

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


10 pedal steel guitar players you should know

Pedal steel guitar
Words by Christopher Hockey

The pedal steel guitar is something special, combining mechanical genius and musical prowess into one unique instrument.

Sounding like a choir of crying angels and notoriously hard to master, the pedal steel guitar is a deeply complex instrument that defines the sound of country music as we know it. 

Pedal steel guitar

Here, we list ten players that are foundational to the evolution of the instrument and are essential to forming a knowledge of its fascinating history. 

Alvino Rey

Alvino Rey was a respected jazz musician, bandleader and inventor who found fame during the swing era. As well as having designed a prototype pickup for Gibson’s first electric guitar and an early version of the ‘Talk Box’ effect, Alvino Rey is credited with the invention of the pedal steel. Rey, standing virtually alone as a proponent of the steel guitar within the big band world, worked with Gibson to create the Electraharp in the late 30s, the first steel guitar to feature a pedal mechanism. Rey was a virtuoso on his instrument of choice and paved the way for every pedal steel guitar player that came after him. 

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

Bud Isaacs

In 1954, Bud Isaacs made country music history, becoming the first person to play pedal steel guitar on a hit record. Along with fellow steel guitar players Speedy West and Noel Boggs, Bud Isaacs received one of three pedal steel guitar prototypes made by pioneer Paul Bigsby in 1948, which he famously put to work on ‘Slowly’ by Ed Pierce. ‘Slowly’ changed the Nashville sound forever, sending legions of steel guitar players into a frenzy as they tried to figure out how to emulate Isaac’s pitch shifting effect, cementing the pedal steel as a cornerstone of country music. 

Buddy Emmons

Buddy Emmons received his first lap steel guitar at the age of eleven and between 1956 and 1962, went on to revolutionise the budding pedal steel guitar design via two key innovations. Emmons split the function of the two pitch-shifting pedals, creating what is now the standard pedal arrangement in the E9 tuning and added two additional strings to the instrument’s upper register. Emmon’s innovations allowed for greater musical flexibility and tuning stability, which he first demonstrated on Ernest Tubb’s ‘Half a Mind (to Leave You)’. Emmons went on to sit in with artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, The Everly Brothers, Roger Miller and many more. 

Ralph Mooney

Trusty sideman to perhaps the greatest country star of them all, Waylon Jennings, Ralph Mooney was brilliant musician and perhaps the most quintessential pedal steel player of them all. Before his twenty year stint with Jennings, Mooney helped define the Bakersfield Sound on records such as Wynn Stewart’s ‘Wishful Thinking’, Buck Owens ‘Under Your Spell Again’ and many more. Mooney’s soulful touch, melodic sensibility and mastery of his craft continues to be renowned in the country world and his influence cannot be understated. 

Pete Drake

Pete Drake was a Nashville-based record producer and pedal steel guitar player who became one of the most in-demand session men of the 1960s. Influenced by Alvino Rey, Drake was an innovative user of the ‘Talk Box’, an effect that would go on to be made famous by guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Peter Frampron and Joe Walsh. Aside from his own ‘Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar’ record, Drake was known for playing on such records as Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ and George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’. Traversing several eras and genres, Drake’s beautiful playing remains a timeless high water mark for steel players everywhere. 

Lloyd Green

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Lloyd Green’s stint as a member of Nashville’s ‘A-Team’ crew of elite studio musicians earned him an expansive list of credits that is virtually unmatched. A child prodigy, Green began playing the lap steel at age seven and became the literal poster child for the Oahu Music Company at age ten. Upon the rise in prominence of the pedal steel, Green improvised his own instrument, famously altering his lap steel with an accelerator pedal from an automobile. Aside from playing with a myriad of other stars, Green’s crowning achievement was his brilliant, game changing performance on the highly influential masterpiece ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ by The Byrds. 

Red Rhodes

Rhodes was a legendary steel player that found success in Los Angeles in the 1960s. After a storied life as a boxer and an oil company engineer, Rhodes found his calling as a musician and played on many definitive rock, country and pop records as part of the famous ‘Wrecking Crew’. Working with artists including The Ventures, The Byrds, Mike Bloomfield, James Taylor and the Beach Boys, Rhodes quickly became known for his tasteful playing and adaptability across genres. Rhodes is best known for the ‘other-wordly’ sounds he created on his instrument for the Ventures, a definitive moment in pedal steel history. 

Sneaky Pete Kleinow

‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow was a California-based steel player who rose to prominence in the Country Rock wave of the late 60s and early 70s. As a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Sneaky Pete was intrinsic to the melding of country, rock and roll and psychedelia that influenced countless acts that followed. Famous for his unorthodox playing style and use of effects such as fuzz and delay, Sneaky Pete was a revolutionary player that helped to modernise the pedal steel and maintain its relevance in the era of classic rock.

Paul Franklin Jr

A true musician’s musician, Paul Franklin is renowned amongst pedal steel players as one of, if not the best to ever do it. The word prolific doesn’t quite encapsulate the more than 500 albums that Franklin has graced with his expert playing as a session man. Aside from playing with artists such as Dire Straits, Shania Twain and Vince Gill, Franklin is also credited with inventing the ‘Pedabro’, a hybrid between a dobro guitar and a pedal steel. Additionally, Franklin also created the first baritone steel guitar, the strings of which are tuned an octave lower than a typical pedal steel. 

Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph is a modern day virtuoso who popularised the use of pedal steel in Pentecostal Gospel music. Known as ‘sacred steel’, pedal steel is a prominent feature in many African American church bands, something that Randolph took to at a young age. Today, Randolph and his Family Band have become a staple of festivals around the world and Randolph himself has been listed by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Randolph’s modern, effects-driven sound and blindingly adept musicianship is a huge factor in the relevance of the pedal steel today, helping to transcend the instrument’s typical role within country music and introducing it to a brand new generation. 

Read more about the early days of Gibson here.