Steel Guitar News October 11. 2012

Hello fellow players,

Today’s newsletter comes from Bob Hempker.

The idea of bands playing instrumentals has somewhat become a thing of the past. Club bands used to play a couple instrumentals every set. They would also have an instrumental they would play for a break song when they were getting ready to take a break. The old big band tune “Intermission Riff” comes to mind. I’ve played in several bands that used that for a break tune.

“Hold It” was another tune that got used a lot for a break tune. Even back on the road with recording artists, the band would get featured for at least one instrumental during the show. None of this seems to be the case anymore. Even club bands I’ve played in during the last several years were all vocalist oriented.

When the front person isn’t singing, the bass player, guitar player, keyboard player or whoever will be featured singing. It seems that nowadays, younger musicians concentrate on learning intros, fills, turn-arounds and endings and don’t get the benefit of being featured on instrumentals.

Strictly instrumental groups like The Ventures, The Harmonicats and Santo & Johnny don’t seem to exist anymore. I’ve wondered why this is. Some possible theories are that the media has elevated vocalists and put them on a pedestal instead of the vocalist being a featured member of the band as they used to be.

You never see groups on American Idol, The Voice or America’s Got Talent. It’s always all about the individual and the individual is a singer, not an instrumentalist. We’ll never see the next Chet Atkins or Buddy Emmons on American Idol. I just don’t see that happening.

I can remember back when I was young working on instrumentals, composing them myself or working on instrumental arrangements of vocal songs. Back then, you had an outlet of getting to play at least one or two instrumentals on your normal gig.

A guitar player and I used to work for hours at a time working out parts to use on instrumentals. Where are the bands behind recording artists in this day and age like Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Ernest Tubbs’ Texas Troubadours or Hank Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys? These bands made the artist shine.

You used to be able to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and hear the band playing in the background behind the announcer and you would know before the announcer even introduced the artist, who was coming onstage to perform because each artist’s band had it’s own signature sound.

This is missing in today’s music.

If you’re playing in a band with a steady gig, why not try incorporating some instrumentals into the mix? You may be surprised at how well that will go over. You should feature each player individually and give them 16 or 32 bars to show off what they can do, even in vocal songs.

Where would we be today without Steel Guitar Rag? The Sugarfoot Rag? Or Sleepwalk? We have strayed from our foundation. And just as we’ve strayed, we can also find our way back.

There’s something exciting about listening to a steel guitar, electric guitar, fiddles and such playing horn lines on a big band instrumental. This isn’t anything new. The Texas Playboys were doing it seventy years ago. Back then musicians were almost as famous as the singers and many people came to the shows just to hear them work their magic behind the singer and as featured soloists themselves.

One thing I’ve noticed in recent times is lead instruments not playing the melody of the song when they are featured in a vocal song. The instrumental break often sounds like a completely different song.

One of the best ways of really learning your instrument is to learn the melodies of the songs you’re going to play and play them. You can add little grace notes and little things in with it, but the listener should still be able to hear the melody of the song in what you’re playing. This has become a lost art.

Even the best jazzers of the bebop era would usually go through the simple melody of the song first before improvising solos. The solos can get as abstract and far out as possible, but hearing that basic melody first planted the basic idea of the song in the listeners mind and thus allowed him to follow the improvisation.

The improvisation, no matter how far out it got, had meaning and made sense because the listener was first introduced to the basic melody of the song.

I was telling someone in the showroom earlier that I thought the way to take the instrument forward is for players to hone their skills to the point where the audience will perk up and play attention when they play. Dynamics play an important role in this. Playing a pretty section real soft, then going into a real kicking chorus and bearing down on it shows emotional changes that can bring an audience to its feet.

Once you experience this for yourself, you’ll be inspired to raise your playing to the next level so that you can consistently do this. You can’t have the band at your disposal 24/7. So the best way to learn this is to get tracks CDs and play at home and pretend that you’re playing to a packed house at Billy Bob’s and you really want to wow them.

If you think steel guitar is limited to dance halls and honky tonks, for those of you who are too young to remember, Tom Brumley played Carnegie Hall with Buck Owens back in the sixties. I’ve personally played Madison Square Garden several times, The London Palladium, Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, I’ve played at The Kennedy Center in Washington for President Nixon, I played President Carter’s inauguration, for President George H. Bush’s birthday party, I played a concert for the Queen of England and several other black tie affairs.

So steel guitar can go anywhere. It’s not limited. Practice your scales and your arpeggios and your ear training exercises. Set down and write an instrumental once in awhile.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I still think that the best way to improve your playing is get tracks CDs and play along because sooner or later you’re going to have to play with other people and you need to at least get an idea of how to blend playing with other people.

Bobbe’s Columbus Day sale on tracks is still on and for less than the cost of a lesson, you can have endless hours of practice with tracks. I wish I could have had tracks to play along with when I was young. I was lucky to have a mechanical metronome.

Check out our monthly specials at

Steel Guitar Nashville
123 Mid Town Court
Hendersonville, TN. 37075
(615) 822-5555
Open 9AM – 4PM Monday – Friday
Closed Saturday and Sunday

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