The Original Cablehead

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The source of my original grandiosity about the role a pedal steel guitar might obtain in my life tracks back to the Dynamo Man dropping the needle of The Flying Burrito Brother’s debut record The Guilded Palace of Sin. This was right at the beginning of his provision of a crash course in country rock, beginning in the September of 1970. This happened at the very beginning of mentorship of my–at the time–“slim” musical world. I did own a country record by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and, I was enamored of the virtuosity of Flatt and Scruggs, yet the touchstone at the time was the classic slab of psychedelic folk and proto-country rock found in the grooves of Moby Grape‘s self-titled debut.

Evidently, this was enough for him to work with. I knew what a pedal steel guitar was in a most basic way. Then came Christine’s Tune, the kick off track from Palace. The spiraling waves and descent into fuzz of Mr. Kleinow’s steel on this desert island disc had an immediate, life altering effect.. Well, it was one of the things he was trying to highlight as he sought to quickly bring me up to speed on the genealogy of the family universe of all things Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. He may have pointed out I was tasting steel flavors quite different, fantastically different, than those of Lloyd Green and Jaydee Maness, the players on The Byrd’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Sneaky Pete Kleinow passed away January 6, 2007 at 72. In the realm of popular music he was an irreplaceable musical talent. Incredibly, although there are literally tens of steel players who can be counted to be in the stylistic lineage of the masters, of Emmons, Green, Franklin, Myrick, (etc.,) there are today all of zero known players who have etched their own prominent style in the Sneaky lineage.

The inspiration for remembering the first Sneaky moment is twofold, First, at the end of May this year, a senior member of the Fender Steel Forum, posted an amazing series of pictures of Sneaky’s tricked out Fender 400. (The pictures were from Anita Kleinow, one of Sneaky’s five kids.) Second, I came across a rare track featuring Sneaky, from 1978 and found on a dance pop record by Sharon Redd, Ula Hedwig & Charlotte Crossley. I’ve posted it below along with Sneaky’s ‘Frank Zappa’ moment.

In a career spanning six decades, once he became the first ever rock-and-roll lead pedal steel guitarist, he was guaranteed a ton of session work. He made the most of it. His collection of innovative stylistic approaches were unfurled in over 200 guest sessions. Many of the sessions Sneaky made were a long way from the field of country and country-rock. Sneaky basically owned this far afield niche for 35 years.

Sneaky found his own musical approach and then saturated it in findings gained from his relentless experiments in Fender pedal steel tone. On the musical side, he worked with a B6 tuning on an 8 string guitar, with 9 foot pedals and 2 knee pedals. The stock model of a Fender 400 had 4 pedals and was a single raise and lower guitar, meaning a single pedal could actuate only a pair of raises and/or lowers. This wouldn’t do, so Sneaky modded his Fender to give him lots of choices at every string. Here’s the tuning he used.

He didn’t usually offer up classicisms, hidden in his B6, on the country sessions. Rather, the Sneaky style was much more jazzy. He loved to play curvy single note lines sprinkled with chromatics which deviate from, and resolve a song’s melody, but in short strings of phrases. In this, his style was vocal and somewhat akin to Jerry Garcia’s lead work. Except Sneaky didn’t play a lot of notes, and, his way of circling around the melody is deliciously curvilinear rather than angular. One of the attractive aspects of his note choices was that he wasn’t a busy player so sometimes his solos would seem to slow down mid-tempo songs with their graceful and leisurely unfolding. He swung in his own, distinctive way: sort of pulsing off-and-on a smidgeon behind the beat while building, at times, dramatic solo gems.

On the tone side, Sneaky was one of the great alchemists of psychedelic guitar sound.

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The outmoded, archaic–even at the time of Guilded Palace–cable driven Fender 400 must have seemed like the ideal test bed for all sorts of out-of-the-box experiments that quickly left the Bakersfield sound associated with it, in the dust. By 1968, when the first great iconic slab of Sneaky hit the discerning listener’s ears, both his musical and tonal approach was fully formed.

You can see from in the above picture, Sneaky has a row of tone controls on the front apron of his ax. Over the years his command center for tone was a work in progress. (If this interests you, by all means join the Fender Steel Forum and take a close look at the detailed photos posted there.) He was a DIY and technical genius. He built his own effects too.

The Sneaky tone isn’t one tone. This is the most fundamental fact about his sound. It would be a mistake to assume anyone could cobble together chains of guitar pedals or effects, futz with the settings and at once be delivered into the territory of even one of his principal sound choices.

It’s not as if his sounds can’t be described. For example, his tone rings in a very special way. Some very keen sound doctors have taken Sneaky’s sound apart. What they tell of is: a mellow ringing sound, highs scooped a bit, a flavor of chorus detuning, a gentle phasing, and, no reverb but with echo set to some magical conjunction of variables. He liked echoplex and didn’t often use the volume pedal; the latter being the artificial way to sustain dying tone.

What it must have sounded like in person! The sustain we associate with a pedal steel is rolled off in the family of tone most associated with his solo playing. The other remarkable choice he made was to fit his playing right underneath the mid-to-high end of the mix. The B6 is a mid-to-low tuning. In his hands, and even when his runs ascend to higher reaches, because he doesn’t lean on the volume, his lines don’t call attention to this ascent at all. His sense of his sound-in-context was that it be even. He was a terrific background player too, laying his sound as if set in a furrow in the mix.

His sound jumped out of the mix when he shifts into his fuzz tone. I will offer my opinion: his burry fuzz tone was second-to-none. I can’t think of any guitarist who manages his fuzz tone like Sneaky did. Fuzz may be the hardest effect to get, again, ‘even.’ Somehow Sneaky’s fuzz was a very sturdy, predictable, self-consistent, buzz.

He wasn’t a showy player even when his solos leap forward. Yet, between how brilliantly he picked his spots, how he fit his solos and tone in the mix, and how integrated his various unique tones were with his almost elliptical and curvy soloing, the result was that his virtuosity was most clear in this way: “How the heck did he just do that?”

Not for nothing was Sneaky Pete Kleinow the original cablehead. He was also a first call, world class stop-action animator in Hollywood. This isn’t surprising because obviously Sneaky was brilliant and resourceful and disciplined. This second career allows me to grasp somewhat of the appeal of his unique artistry.

For me, the pedal steel of Sneaky Pete is the most animated steel guitar sound of all, and, ever.

[audio:http://nogutsnoglorystudios.squareone-learning.com/music/2withSneakyPete.mp3|titles=2 by Sneaky]

Ebb’s posting of close-up photos of Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s Fender 400 via Anita Kleinow | registration required

Pete Kleinow | Wikipedia

Pete Kleinow | Allmusic

Lots of info on Sneaky Pete in various topics on The Pedal Steel Guitar Forum.

extra special tip of the hats to Jim Sliff, owner of the Fender Steel Forum; and coiner of cablehead, and not only the expert on all things Sneaky Pete, but someone whose devotion to Sneaky Pete’s legacy is paying dividends out to fans and players old and new.


I’ve sketched the tale ( 1 | 2 ) of the recent restoration of my grandiosity, and affair with Fender pedal steels elsewhere.

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