One of my recent gigs was playing pedal steel with country artist Brooke Eden on live TV in front of millions of eyeballs. Here’s how it went.
Yesterday, I played The Today Show with country artist Brooke Eden. I’ve played Today and/or Good Morning America seven or eight times over the past 28 years: a few times on guitar, four or five on steel, and once on banjo (I’m terrible at banjo but can play a simple part under pressure). Here’s an inside look at the gig while the memory is still fresh.
Last week, Brooke Eden’s musical director, Miles Aubrey, texted to ask if I was available. I jumped on it. The band was Miles on guitar, Megan Jane on drums, Carl Fields on bass, and me on pedal steel with Brooke singing. The steel part was prominent yet somewhat simple, but the song had some keypads and a second guitar part that I tried to cover with a dotted delay trick to fill out the sound. We had one quick rehearsal at Brooke’s home, and although the five of us had never played together, it sounded great on the first run-through. We played it once more then planned to meet in New York on Sunday night.
The next day, Miles texted everyone that he was sick and should bow out. Our drummer Megan brought in guitarist Gabe Burdulis, who she was touring with, to fill in for Miles.
I tried to re-find that sweet spot between deafening and inaudible, but erred on the side of volume, as my personal motto is “better too loud than too quiet.”
Today has a 4:30 a.m. call time, allowing bands to soundcheck before the guests and hosts arrive, which means you fly in the night before. I checked my steel (a Show Pro single-neck E9 10-string), a duffle bag with show clothes, a volume pedal, some cables, and a small steel-specific pedalboard with a Peterson tuner, Keeley Compressor Mini, Keeley Red Dirt Mini Overdrive, Ibanez Echo Shifter for weird analog delay, and an Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 for a second digital delay or ’verb, tremolo, etc. Both delays have a tap tempo: I used a dotted delay on the Oceans 11 running into a trippy quarter-note delay on the Ibanez to cover a lot of space.
I checked into the hotel by 5 p.m. and then spent Sunday night walking around Times Square people watching, eating, and dreading my 4:15 a.m. lobby call. Today requested that Brooke play a second song as a teaser, so I listened to the new song and the single“Left You for Me” on a loop on my phone as I walked around, hoping to solidify my parts. We hadn’t ever played the second song together, so I was a bit nervous about remembering it under the pressure of TV.
I was so deliriously tired when we arrived at 30 Rock that I literally had trouble putting my steel together. (I miss having a tech.) Because Today’s studio is fairly small, I requested a Fender Deluxe but instead they had a massive ’90s-era, 100-watt Fender Tone-Master with a matching 4x12 cabinet. With the volume on 1, I could hear nothing but the hum of electronics. At 1.5 it was so loud it was peeling paint off the stage. I found a sweet spot just one hair over 1 that worked.
Today’ssound team are total pros—they dialed in a high-fidelity mix very quickly. We ran the song twice, then were released to wait in the green room until our performance. Brooke’s team wanted to go with a summery wardrobe of light blues, gray, and white. Gabe, who left straight from tour, didn’t have time to grab extra clothes and had only black jeans. Megan, our drummer, had some white jeans. When Brooke’s manager noticed that Gabe and Megan were roughly the same size, he suggested that Gabe wear Megan’s pants, so Gabe would be in white out front while the black jeans would be hidden behind Megan’s drum kit. They did the switch and, although not a perfect fit, those tighty-whitey pants looked hip on Gabe, who is handsome enough that it would be impossible for him to look bad.
The talent wrangler brought us on deck at 9:30 a.m. The volume had been turned down on my amp, so I tried to re-find that sweet spot between deafening and inaudible, but erred on the side of volume, as my personal motto is “better too loud than too quiet."
We ran the teaser song twice. I was thinking this was another soundcheck/rehearsal, but they filmed it and used it as a teaser. It was literally the first time these five people had played that song together, but it sounded great. After the teaser, Today host Craig Melvin walked over to me and said, “I love pedal steel. I’m a big Robert Randolph fan.”
They called quiet on the set, and we went live. The hosts did an interview with Brooke and then we played “Left You for Me” live. I thought I was a bit flat on the first bend in my turnaround solo, but other than that, it felt good going down. Brooke’s vocal performance was killer, and the band served the song well. What more could you want?
When you think about playing in front of 3 to 5 million people live, that can get in your head. The trick is to just play, don’t think. In fact, that may be the secret to life.
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Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
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The AC/OD layout has three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone. That user-friendly format is perfect for quickly getting your ideal tone, and it also offers a ton of versatility. MLA’s new AC/OD absolutely nails the Angus tone from the days of “High Voltage” to "Back in Black”. You can also easily dial inMalcom with the turn of a knob. The pedal covers a broad range of sonic terrain, from boost to hot overdrive to complete tube-like saturation. The pedal is designed to leave on all the time and is very touch responsive. You can get everything from fat rhythm tones to a perfect lead tone just by using your guitar’s volume knob and your right-hand attack.
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Energy is in everything. Something came over me while playing historical instruments in the Martin Guitar Museum.
When I’m filming gear demo videos, I rarely know what I’m going to play. I just pick up whatever instrument I’m handed and try to feel where it wants to go. Sometimes I get no direction, but sometimes, gear is truly inspiring—like music or emotion falls right out. I find this true particularly with old guitars. You might feel some vibe attached to the instrument that affects what and how you play. I realize this sounds like a hippie/pseudo-spiritual platitude, but we’re living in amazing times. The Nobel Prize was just awarded to a trio of quantum physicists for their experiments with quantum entanglement, what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Mainstream science now sounds like magic, so let’s suspend our disbelief for a minute and consider that there’s more to our world than what’s on the surface.
I recently spent a day filming a factory tour of Martin Guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. After we wrapped, we discovered that Martin has this amazing museum that showcases more than 170 historic instruments. We decided to meet at the museum at 7:45 a.m. the next morning to film a few choice pieces before catching our flight in not-too-near Newark, New Jersey, that afternoon.
These were not ideal conditions for a performance. Neither my brain nor my fingers work well before 10 a.m., plus I hadn’t slept well the night before. Even so, we loaded into the museum, met the curators, set up the shoot, and began rolling by 8 a.m.
The first guitar was an 1834 gut string, perhaps the oldest Martin in existence. It was beautiful but had some tuning issues and did not project very well, so playing it felt more like work than music.
Next was a prewar D-45 worth over $500k. The strings were ancient with that rusty feel, like you’ll need a tetanus shot after playing it. I’m sure it sounded great, but I was tired and thinking more about making our flight than playing guitar. Wonderful instrument but uninspired performance on my end.
Then, I played a 1953 D-18 coined “Grandpa” by Kurt Cobain. I picked up the deeply sacred D-18, and my hands went to an A minor. This sounds like hype, but honestly, I closed my eyes and connected with a deep, beautiful sadness. The feeling was palpable as soon as you picked it up. This guitar pretty much played itself, leading me to a sad version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I don’t know if it was any good, but I know I felt something deeply. That’s why I started playing guitar in the first place. I don’t have to play well to feel moved.
I later talked to the museum director, who told me the D-18 was given to Cobain by his 1991 girlfriend Mary Lou Lord. Cobain played it on tour before and after Nirvana’s Nevermind. It was returned to her after Cobain married. Shortly after that, Mary Lou loaned the guitar to Elliott Smith, who played it until his death.
When I’m sad, I make myself play guitar to feel better, because it usually works. This 70-year-old guitar spent a lot of time literally pressed up against the hearts and chests of two artists who were so tormented by their emotions that they ended their lives. That’s heavy. You can’t explain those feelings that make the hair stand up on your arm, or when you feel like crying for no reason … but hitting that A minor made me feel it.
We had to split for the airport, so Chris Kies and Perry Bean started packing up. As they did, I saw this cute little 1880 Martin 000 that belonged to Joan Baez. In the photo next to it, Joan looks like my mom in the ’60s. I asked the curator if I could play it, and Chris grabbed his phone to do a quick Insta video. I swear there was a happy vibe coming off this tiny guitar. It felt like watching my mom dance—like a warm hug I needed after Cobain’s D-18.
In Chinese culture, there is a superstition that antiques may hold evil spirits, and chi (energy) transfer can bring this negativity into your home. Feng shui is all about objects carrying good or bad chi. Here’s how I see it: All matter is made of atoms. Atoms contain energy. Ergo, everything contains energy, or, more aptly, everything is energy. Ever walk into a room and feel powerful emotion: joy, sadness, fear, tranquility? That’s energy. We all have felt energy coming from people, places, and things. But that’s what I love about old guitars: Their atoms spent the first few hundred years as a tree in the forest connected to nature. Then, they’re turned into an instrument that makes people happy or consoles them when they are sad. That’s the kind of chi I want around me.
The Saddest Martin Ever? A 1953 D-18 Owned by Kurt Cobain & Elliott Smith
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