Denver Steel Guitar Show aims to prove pedal steel guitar isn't just for country music anymore
When you hear steel guitar in a song, it's usually used as supplemental instrumentation, adding texture to the tunes. You generally don't expect to see the men and women of steel in the forefront, and yet that's the entire impetus for the Denver Steel Guitar Show, the second annual edition of an event dedicated entirely to steel guitar players.
Chuck Lettes, man of steel.
"There's a real resurgence in the steel guitar," says show organizer Chuck Lettes, who's played pedal steel for the past forty years. "It's not just the Nashville sound anymore. A lot of people are using it to create kind of an ambient soundtrack for some different textures and colors. So we think this is a great way to get the word out that the steel guitar is alive and well and featured in Colorado."
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The instrument, which has a signature sound -- you've heard the pedal steel at least a million times over in country and western songs; it's the underlying guitar sound that swells and cries, adding a texture that can either be somber or boot-stomping -- is rather young, having only been invented within the past hundred years. While it seems incredibly complicated to play, especially compared to traditional guitar, Lettes says it was pretty instinctual for him.
"I started out on a guitar, and I sucked," he declares. "I wasn't very good at it at all. But then when I sat behind the steel, I found a voice. So for me, it was a real natural progression. I've been teaching this for years, and I've had the best luck teaching people who have experience on another instrument before they jump into the pedal steel.
"There is a learning curve," though, he goes on to clarify, adding, "and it's relatively new instrument. It was invented in the 1950s. So it's still evolving. They haven't come up with a standard tuning for it yet. A lot of musicians who want to learn how to play the steel really need to have good ears. I remember I got a great compliment years ago. Somebody told me I had ears like an elephant. I took it as a compliment."
The scene from last year's Denver Steel Guitar Show at Lannie's.
Lettes and his elephant-like ears will be on display at the Denver Steel Guitar Show, which is in its second year, at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret on Sunday, June 30, from 1 to 6 p.m. Lettes originally put a steel show together in the '80s, but then he bowed out, and Dick Meis put on the Rocky Mountain Steel Guitar Show throughout the latter part of that decade and shortly into the next. Two years ago, Lettes and Bob Case revived the idea with the Denver Steel Guitar Show, which drew two hundred people last year.
"It's been kind of an underground type thing," notes Lettes. "It's been going on for a while, but it's been under the radar. We're hoping to step it up a bit by taking it more mainstream. In the past it was definitely way more country-western, and we're trying to break that [emphasis] because the steel, like we've been talking, has really evolved. A lot of the players that are on the show, even though they can play country, they can also play jazz and pop and rock."
The scene from the Denver Steel Guitar Show last year at Lannie's.
This year's edition features Lettes and Case and a group of the finest local steel players and a select group of players from across the country, including Herb Steiner, Rose Sinclair, Jan Wise, Rick Schmidt, Scotty (DeWitt Scott), Mike Morrison and John Macy. All of the steel players will be accompanied by the Jim Hyatt Band. Tickets for the gig are available now for ten bucks.