Country picking was one of Joamets’ early passions, but his skills within the style were solidified by moving to Nashville and touring with Sturgill Simpson’s band, shown onstage here at Music City’s famed Ryman Auditorium in October 2015. Photo by Perry Bean

That’s wild! How did you go about learning one of the most difficult-looking instruments on the planet in a few months?
The best motivation for any musician is having your boss buy you a new instrument and say you have three months until a late-night television performance. He put me in a situation in which I truly had to move my ass! The other thing about it is if you start learning a new thing and make an effort and really put your mind to doing it—truly throw yourself into it—you start seeing progress, and progress is a really cool driving force. Picking up something new and difficult and seeing that it’s not completely impossible through your progress—that in itself is a driving motivation to get better.

Did you take lessons?
No. I just watched a lot of YouTube tutorials and I got a book from Rowdy Cope from Jamey Johnson’s band, which helped a lot. But I basically just used YouTube and practiced the stuff from the record a lot, and I tried to learn a lot of it by ear.

A lot of pedal-steel players have likened playing the instrument to flying a helicopter.
It’s funny you should mention that! I have a joke about why playing pedal-steel guitar is harder to do than flying a helicopter. If you fuck up while flying a helicopter, you’re dead. But if you fuck up while playing a pedal steel, you’re alive—and have to finish the song and deal with criticism!

Honestly, I had a lot of fear and anxiety about playing the steel when Sturgill hit me up about doing it. The instrument can look really mathematical and the only way I could approach it, personally, has been through patience and persistence: learning and repeating the movements with the knees and feet over and over again for hours and hours.

“When you’re driving in Nashville and put on AM radio and get a Merle Haggard song ... You can’t have that experience in a post-Soviet Union Slavic country like Estonia.”

Maybe there are guys out there that are cerebral players that can just think about it and do it, but it’s the same way I learned to play the guitar: repetition until you master the thing. It’s not impossible, though! That’s what I learned. It’s hard to sound good, but you can make it happen!

What kind of steel guitar are you using on the road?
It’s a ZumSteel Stage One model, which is actually their student model. From what I’ve read on the steel guitar forums, it’s got all of the options that pro units generally come with. It’s what’s known as the Buddy Emmons setup, which has four knee levers and three pedals. One thing I really like about it is that it’s really light. With its case, it’s only 50 pounds, which makes it easy to fly with. I’ve talked to a lot of professional steel players and guys on forums and they’ve all told me it’s a really decent guitar. It’s actually pretty cheap for a decent steel guitar—so anybody that wants to pick the instrument up, I would say they should go for the ZumSteel.

Let’s talk about the pedals you’re using with the steel guitar a bit. Any standouts?
One piece of gear that I’m really enjoying with the steel is a phaser pedal made by Mad Professor. It has a blend knob that lets you blend the phase effect in with your dry signal, which sounds a lot more organic and natural. A lot of phaser pedals can be overwhelming and I like that this one lets you fine-tune it without dialing out all of your dry signal. I’ve been using a Mad Professor Simble pre-driver pedal when I need to drive the amplifier a little more. I think it’s a brilliant, simple pedal. It’s just got two options—loud and louder—and a footswitch.

Laur Joamets’ Gear

Guitars
Gretsch Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbird, tuned to open E
Fano Alt de Facto PX6 with Lollar Jazzmaster overwound pickups
1974 Fender Telecaster with Fender ’52 RI bridge pickup and Lundgren neck pickup
Fender Telecaster Elite with Lollar Vintage T Series pickups
ZumSteel Stage One pedal steel

Amps
’70s Silverface Fender Musicmaster bass amp with a Tone Tubby DD 12” speaker
Urmas Anderson Charmer loaded with a Jensen Jet 12” speaker
Modded silverface Fender Champ

Effects
RMC custom wah
TC Electronic PolyTune Mini
Greer Amps Arbuckle Trem
Roger Mayer Octavia
Mad Professor Simble Predriver
Mad Professor Ruby Red Booster
Mad Professor Silver Spring Reverb
T-Rex Replica delay
Goodrich low action passive volume pedal
Greer Amps Black Tiger Delay Device
Mad Professor Tiny Orange Phaser
JHS Pedals Crayon overdrive
TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb
Peterson StroboStomp 2
AmpRx Brownie voltage regulator

Strings and Picks
Elixir Nanoweb Light (.010–.046)
D’Addario or DR flatwounds (.013–.048, for Gretsch Billy-Bo)
D’Addario Pro Steels or DR (.013–.038)
Songhurst’s the Rock Slide
Dunlop stainless steel tonebar
Dunlop Tortex Wedge .88 mm
Dunlop medium thumbpicks
Dunlop .018 fingerpicks
Planet Waves, Asterope, and Vovox cables

I’ve also been really enjoying this Black Tiger Delay by Greer, which is a really strong delay that has a function that lets you keep your delay trails when you turn the pedal on and off, so when I need to do really psychedelic, longer-note or atmospheric stuff, I use that feature. It allows me to play interesting things with a dry signal under the delay trails.

What kind of amp rig are you using with the steel guitar?
I’ve only had three gigs so far playing steel in this band, and they’ve all been fly dates, so we’ve been using rented Peavey Nashville 400s, which are great amplifiers, but I think I’m going to end up playing it through a regular guitar amp—either my Musicmaster bass amp or the Charmer, which my father and his friend Urmas Anderson built for me many years ago. That said, every gig serves as a testing ground for me right now. We use in-ear monitors and they defeat the need for classic pedal-steel amps, which have tons of clean headroom and output that allowed a steel player to be heard over the band so they could play in tune. It’s not an easy job, this instrument, and I now understand how necessary it is to hear what you’re doing when playing pedal steel because of how tricky playing in tune on it is. But with in-ears, you can use any amp you want because you’ll obviously be able to hear yourself fine.

I also love Daniel Lanois’ style and tone. He doesn’t do that much physically with the instrument, but his tone and the sounds he gets out of it sound so raw and rock ’n’ roll to me because he uses an overdriven tube amp. I plan to find the middle ground between that sort of dirtier tone Lanois uses and a more traditional, clean steel tone. Again, it’s all a work in progress.

Regarding your 6-string playing, “Call to Arms” is a real standout on the album, and the tone on it is killer! What did you use to track that one?
I was playing my ’74 Telecaster, which I’ve had well over 10 years now. If I lost that guitar, I would be helpless. I played it through a silverface Fender Champ, which is Sturgill’s amp that he had some Nashville amp wizard hot rod with a larger speaker and some magic soldering. Those silverface Champs are really fantastic recording amplifiers, and can sound huge in the studio. I also used the Charmer, which is essentially a heavily modified version of a Fender tweed Deluxe. That amp is my main amp. So, the sound on that track is the combination of those two amps. I might have had a TC Electronic Hall of Fame for a little reverb, but that track is basically just those two amps and that Telecaster.