Robert Randolph: "Pedal steel has got so many characters; I don’t know what I saw in it but I just wanted to play it"

Robert Randolph
(Image credit: Jim Arbogast)

Robert Randolph is wearing heart-shaped, gold-mirror sunglasses and splayed out on a sofa in Mascot Label Group’s London office.

“Hey, can you hand me that ball?” he asks. “Oh, yes!” There’s a rubber stress ball, the size and colour of a tangerine sitting on the table. A little self-care follows. He puts the ball somewhere between his shoulders, sinks further into the sofa, and starts wriggling around like he’s got an itch.

This is the first piece of wisdom he dispenses: a pro-tip for travelling, getting the knots out the back after a long haul. A little more wriggling, a double espresso and now he’s ready to talk.

Randolph is in town to promote Brighter Days, the new album from Robert Randolph & The Family Band, which will be in stores via Provogue/Mascot Label Group on 23 August. It’s a record that covers a lot of ground; there’s blues, all kinds of blues, soul, gospel, funk, rock, but throughout there’s the protean sound of his pedal steel gelling it all together.

One minute Randolph’s steel will be holding it down in the pocket with some skronky classic rock strut, the next it’ll be sitting alongside the vocals, or taking a glissando trip into the psychedelic. Whatever fits the song, Randolph’s steel guitars are the glue.

Randolph got his start playing sacred steel in church, took it to the blues clubs, and brought the secular pleasures of Steve Ray Vaughan, Hendrix et al into the equation.

I wanted to bring positivity and joy to people without making boring music. I wanted to keep it exciting

Here, he talks about recording Brighter Days in the company of producer Dave Cobb, takes some time out to show us some videos of the great sacred steel players - among them the legendary Henry Nelson, whose steel would occupy similar frequencies to the alto in the choir - from the 1970s, and works through his relationship with gear and how he wants his pedal steel to sound.

And when it comes to the steel, there are few better, if any, but none more unorthodox and vital.

This album opens on a real note of positivity with Baptise Me. It sets the tone.

“Yeah. I wanted to bring positivity and joy to people without making boring music. I wanted to keep it exciting. It sounded big and in-your-face, and clear and crisp with this dirty guitar.

“I wanted to put it all together, ‘cos the time that we are in, everybody’s down. A lot of people let social media and what’s on TV get to them. Hopefully this record can bring light and joy to people.

“Music is the driver that brings everybody together. Music is the ultimate healer. It brings people together. I wanted to bring people together.”

What is your writing process like?

There are some people who are technical players and they don’t know how to f**king improvise to save their lives! Some people just improvise too much. And I probably fit in one of these categories

“It depends on the song. Baptise Me, we were able to write just sitting in a little room. But it’s just so acoustic, me with an acoustic guitar, sitting and writing it, but in terms of the overall sound, you don’t really know until everybody plays [it].

“Look, some people can make very great, polished, orchestra-sounding parts, y’know, but sometimes you’ve got the song; you just go in and play it.”

Keep it raw. Keep it alive?

“Yeah, you keep it rocking. You keep it feeling alive, man. Like, if you listen to old Zeppelin, you could tell which songs were where these guys just went in and played this freakin’ song. And then the other songs, you knew they had to work out certain parts, and have it be - like Stairway To Heaven, right? - a little bit more composed.”

How important is improvisation?

“Improvisation is great because it is what makes the song feel a certain way. For me it is always a trick of having it being produced but not over-produced, so it sounds put together, sounds worked out, but it also sounds free. If that makes sense.

“When you start listening to The Band, Levon Helm and all those cats, you know those dudes were just playing. Even though they worked out the songs and they worked out the parts, when they chose which take they were going to use, it was all just The Band playing together.”

Maybe the best thing about improvisation is that it teaches you to listen to your bandmates.

“There are some people who are technical players and they don’t know how to fucking improvise to save their lives! [Laughs] Some people just improvise too much. And I probably fit in one of these categories. I don’t know.

“Then you’ve got some people who just know how to make it happen, and who can just feel the music. You’ll know that there’s times you’ll write a song, and you could say that these are the chord changes, but then it could be something totally different because each guy is disciplined enough to know - and you hear that a lot when you listen to a lot of older records like a Sly & The Family Stone, or if you listen to Hendrix, Stevie Wonder.”

Robert Randolph

(Image credit: Jim Arbogast)

Dave Cobb is very focused on the vocals. How does that work out in the studio, when you’ve got your pedal steel which occupies similar space to the vocals?

“Yeah, you always want the guitar, because the guitar, to me, is the vocal. And it’s always hard to get producers to understand that because they will be like, ‘Well, you wouldn’t play the guitar there because it’s in the way of the vocals.’ It’s like, ‘No! The guitar is the vocal!’ You don’t tell Stevie Ray Vaughan, like, ‘Hey, man - don’t play guitar here!’ Or Jimi Hendrix!”

And you keep it pretty analogue-sounding.

“That’s how it’s supposed to sound. I’ve been in the studio and I’m like, ‘No, no, no. This is what it’s supposed to sound like.’ No matter what song we’re writing, you hear how that is; that’s where it fits, y’know. You’ve got the Mississippi blues. You got the Chicago blues, St Louis blues. You get all of these different things and each style is different.”

Did you start on the lap steel?

Pedal steel is a lot more challenging; you’ve got to get the bones of it all right first and then you move onto more strings

“In our church, you learned how to play the lap steel first and then you go onto the pedal steel. That’s usually the way because lap steels are cheaper. And your parents go, ‘I’m not buying you an expensive instrument. I got to see you playing it first!’

“Pedal steel is a lot more challenging; you’ve got to get the bones of it all right first and then you move onto more strings. I get some of the kids saying, ‘Hey, Robert, can you buy me a pedal steel?’ I’m like, ‘You gotta get a lap steel. You don’t know how to play yet!’ [Laughs]”

How is your relationship with the regular electric guitar?

“I’m just a rhythm guitar player. I’ve got the right hand. I’ve got the right hand magic, like the Bo Diddley hand. See, that’s that old style, man, that’s that old Mississippi, percussive, down south Mississippi blues. We’re talkin’ about RL Burnside and all them cats.”

If you’ve got a great right hand, what else do you need?

“Just play the chords and hold it down, man!”

You are something of a mad scientist, playing pedal steel through all kinds of stompboxes.

“Yeah, I’ve got some really cool pedals I use on this recording. Source Audio make great analogue pedals. Even though you can program them digitally, the sounds are so freakin’ analogue, man. It doesn’t get any better. I forget what the distortion is called - but I used that one.

“Vertex makes a pedal called the Steel String. I started using that and it really fattens it up. It’s really a copy of a Dumble amp in a pedal, so it helps you get that same sort of vibe. I use those two for broken-up sounds.”

How important are the mids for the pedal steel? Is that something you are always chasing, always dialling in more?

A lot of pedal steels are made so differently and... there are a lot of them that suck, actually!

“Yeah. I learned that on the pedal steel, you need the mids, right. Because a lot of pedal steels are made so differently and [pauses] There are a lot of them that suck, actually! [Laughs]

“We created one. Shot Jackson, his son’s got a company called Jackson Steel Guitars - they used to make Sho-Bud then sold the name back in the ‘80s - and we created the best-sounding, sustaining pedal steels. Because lap steels sustain way better than pedal steels. So we created these pedal steels so you don’t have to concentrate too much on the mids now you’ve got a good-sounding instrument. So I used that.

“And for my lap steels, I’ve got an Asher. I’ve got my own Peavey one. The Peavey is what I used on [Strange Train]. I was playing a six-string on that one.”

Are you still putting car speakers in your speaker cabinets?

“Oh, car speakers? Yeah! I still do that. Because, if you get any of the old amps, those old matching amps that they used to match the lap steels or the guitars, there’s no fancy speaker in those amps! Right?

“It’s kind of funny because the music is kind of going back to that now. Like there was this point when everyone wanted to get louder, louder, louder! And then you get a new speaker, and the speaker has to get louder, louder, louder! [Laughs] LOUDER! When you look at all of the amps that were made in the ‘50s, there wasn’t these fancy speakers and these amps weren’t these fancy things.”

It was Sears’ own brand…

“Exactly! Right? That’s what it was! And what’s funny is that you’ll get somebody who’ll hear like an old Muddy Waters record, or one of those old rockabilly records, and then they try to implement that sound and they’re playing an amp that’s like a 200-watt Marshall; it’s like, that’s not what they played, man!

“I was watching something, I think it was It Might Get Loud, one of those things that Jack White did, and that’s what he was saying. You’ve got this cheap guitar that you’ve played for years and years and years, and you’ve got this cheap amp, and that’s how you got your character and your sound.”

Some of the best tones are crappy but great.

Look at all these old amps! Yeah, you’ve got the nerds who want to go and EQ every damn thing but - sometimes - [just] pick it up and play it!

“Yeah, like on Strange Train, like I said, I used that Peavey lap steel, right, and then I use one of those cheap old amps. That’s how I got that sound, that really broken-up and kinda dirty sound. ‘Cos we were looking at some stuff that Magic Sam was using, too.

“Like, look at all these old amps! Yeah, you’ve got the nerds who want to go and EQ every damn thing but - sometimes - [just] pick it up and play it! That’s what I did this past year. I spent a lot of time tweaking all of my gear, and kinda becoming a nerd, but just getting into all the nuances of it all.”

What did you learn?

“You find out you don’t need this, you don’t need that. Then I learned that pedal steel pickups are wound too hot. That was another problem. I was blowing amps for years, ‘cos pedal steel pickups are three times as loud as a regular guitar pickup.

“It’s the ohms. The pedal steel pickup are 20,000 ohms. This guitar here [points to a PRS SE Custom 24] is 7,000 ohms. Both pickups 7,000. So just imagine you are playing out of the same amp, after a while you’re gonna blow the speaker.”

Who winds your pickups?

“Well, I’ve got a new company now, Telonics. They make great pickups. I just have a humbucker now, but you can actually switch it to a single coil. You’ve got a switch. You’ve got the tap so you can do that. This lap steel that I’ve got here, it’s got a Jason Lollar humbucker.”

Robert Randolph

(Image credit: Jim Arbogast)

And Fender amps?

“No. I use Mesa/Boogie now. Well, I have my signature Robert Randolph Peavey amp, too, that I use, but that thing is so loud! [Laughs]”

Everyone says that. “I’ve got my own signature model, but…”

“Yeah! I’ve got my own signature amp. But. See what happened was: you do a signature amp, and I did one for Peavey, and I told them that it was too loud. The freakin’ thing was loud as hell, man, 500-watts. You know how much 500 watts is? I could literally sit, I could put that amp out there in the street and you could hear it a mile away, man.”

Is pedal steel a lost art or will it always have its place?

Somebody is always going to pick up some instrument just like Trombone Shorty started making kids like trombones and wind instruments again

“I think that pedal steel is coming back now. I’m starting to see a lot of people buy them. Because now people see the instrument, and they can take it into their own world, so a lot of people want that sound, or they want to explore that sound, and that’s what makes music live on forever.

“Somebody is always going to pick up some instrument just like Trombone Shorty started making kids like trombones and wind instruments again.”

The key is to get the instrument into the kids’ hands.

“That’s why I got my own signature lap steel that cost $399, so kids can buy them. It comes with a bag. That’s not a big deal! [Laughs] I keep pointing to that. But it comes with a bag, a slide, a pick, so you get the whole package. But it’s really to introduce it to kids. Through the years, parents would ask me all the time how their kids can get one. Now they can.

“Pedal steel has got so many characters. Bass notes. You can hide in the rhythm. You can do swirls. I don’t know what I saw in it but I just wanted to play it! Because in our church, it was like the main thing in the church. I was just like, ‘Well, okay, let me try that.’ I’d sit in my house and practise, and I’d try and play like those guys that I showed you earlier, and the next thing you know I’m in London, hanging out, making records and all that.”

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.