A Sacred Steel Primer

The first electric guitar, the National lap steel guitar known as the “Frying Pan,” debuted in 1932. Right at that time, a revolution was taking place in the Pentecostal sect known as the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. The church divided after the death of its founder, and two splinter dominions, the Keith and the Jewell, adopted the new instrument as a cheaper, more practical alternative to the traditional church organ. And thus the sacred steel tradition was born.

“Luther might actually know more gospel numbers than me. I learn new tunes from him all the time.” —Robert Randolph

Early proponents included J.R. Lockley and brothers Troman and Willie Eason. The tradition continues to this day, upheld by a line that includes the Rev. Aubrey Ghent (who conducts services in Nashville, home of the annual Southern Sacred Steel Conference), the Campbell Brothers, Calvin Cooke, Sonny Treadway, the Lee Boys, and, of course, Robert Randolph. All these artists have multiple albums, but the primer that introduced the style to the secular world (and inspired the Word) is the 1997 Arhoolie Records compilation Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida, which includes music from both the Keith and Jewell dominions.

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Sometimes the Word’s approach is like bebop, with a head played by the ensemble and hot potato solos tossed around. This tune, “Chocolate Cowboy” from Soul Food, gives John Medeski, Luther Dickinson, and Robert Randolph turns at the wheel. Dickinson splits the difference between jazz and country when his solo enters at the three-minute mark, and then Randolph drives it home starting at 3:57, pushing for melody and speed.