Pedal steel master Greg Leisz: “I learnt to improvise on pedal steel by playing in a live band situation with musicians who were better than me”

Greg Leisz
(Image credit: Gary Miller/Getty Images)

Off to one side of the star, somewhat anonymous to the fans – such is the role of a sideman. Some so-called sidemen are impossible to ignore, however, as their touch and style on the guitar shines out of every recording they play on. 

Greg Leisz is such a one: rightly regarded as one of the world’s finest pedal steel players, he’s just as at home tearing it up on lap steel, Dobro, Weissenborn, mandolin and regular guitar. 

When we caught up with him via Zoom at his Californian home he had recently returned from London after recording with Mark Knopfler for the latter’s next album, which has yet to be announced but which may see the light of day next year.

How did the sessions with Mark Knopfler go?

“I was honoured that Mark reached out to have me join in with his long-time band. Some of them have been playing together for nearly 30 years. They have a great chemistry, which can only come from being together that long. Those guys hadn’t seen each other for over two years because of the pandemic, so it was like a reunion for them; they were very happy and Mark’s studio is fantastic. It was a really good experience. 

“Mark wants everybody to come up with a part that they feel will suit the song. He’s a very good leader and totally involved. I played whatever instrument was right for the song. I didn’t really play any electric guitars, but I did use acoustic guitars, pedal steel, lap steel, Weissenborn, National resonator and also mandolin on a couple of songs. It’s all about being creative in the studio. 

Mark’s studio is arranged makes it very convenient to start working on something immediately: everything is set up ready to go all the time, which is really conducive to creativity and spontaneity

“Mark’s thing is having everybody playing at once. He doesn’t tell people what to play, but as you’re working on a song the direction of the track or what you play tends to change as you try to figure things out. Everybody’s basically trying to solve the same problem: ‘What’s the right thing for the song?’ 

“Sometimes it’s discussing what’s happening before you even play it and then the first time you run through the song it ends up being the take. Other times you work on a song for a long time and then decide it needs a different drum set or bass part or whatever. 

“But the way Mark’s studio is arranged makes it very convenient to start working on something immediately: everything is set up ready to go all the time, which is really conducive to creativity and spontaneity.”

You’ve played for everyone from Jackson Browne to k.d. lang – how did you work your way up to those big gigs?

“Back in the day it was about developing relationships with other people based on musical compatibility. You might play a gig in a bar and meet somebody and write your number on a piece of paper. 

“Some players went as far as making business cards, but I never did that. It took a long time, it didn’t happen overnight, but it gradually built to a point where I was almost too busy and so there really wasn’t much motivation for more self-promotion. But I do admire people who use social media because it’s time-consuming and takes a lot of work and, of course, it’s necessary nowadays.”

Playing in Jackson Browne’s band, you’re walking in the footsteps of another iconic steel guitar player, David Lindley…

“Everybody thinks of David Lindley when they think about Jackson Browne and steel guitar. Those early records had ‘that’ sound, which was inexplicably connected to Jackson. During the ’70s, David was a pretty constant member of his band from the very beginning, but it’s been almost 40 years since Lindley toured with him in his full band and yet people still say, ‘Hey where’s David Lindley?’ 

The only song where I quote what Lindley played is the beginning of the solo on Running On Empty because it’s so iconic

“For about 20 years Mark Goldenberg was Jackson’s guitarist, he played all the Lindley stuff with bottleneck slide. The only song where I quote what Lindley played is the beginning of the solo on Running On Empty because it’s so iconic. Lindley’s solos were all improvised, they weren’t composed solos. It’s more about the way you play instead of the actual notes, that’s what Jackson is looking for I think. 

“I started playing with Jackson semi-regularly in 2014, but we’ve known each other for longer than that. I worked a lot on his album Standing In The Breach and the following tour.”

Being able to offer a selection of tones and textures from different instruments is very useful, but which guitar style has been most in demand?

“That’s a really hard question to answer. I think the [pedal] steel guitar tends to be a way in because not as many people play it. I get asked to record a lot with pedal steel and lap steel and acoustic slide. Then again, on Jackson Browne’s newest record [Downhill From Everywhere] it’s mostly regular guitar I played. 

“With k.d. lang I ended up playing a lot of different instruments, but I don’t think I would’ve started working with her if she hadn’t been looking for pedal steel to add to her band. 

“I did a tour with Eric Clapton and I played mandolin on some songs and everything else was pedal steel or Dobro or lap steel, playing the famous guitar melody from Wonderful Tonight on pedal steel, which was an unexpected thing that happened when Eric was trying to figure out what I should play in his songs. I really enjoyed that time with him.

Greg Leisz and Doyle Bramhall II

Greg Leisz and Doyle Bramhall II onstage in Austin, Texas, 2013, where they were backing Eric Clapton. (Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

“I try to do some research before I start working with an artist, so I don’t take too many instruments that won’t be required. Sometimes I don’t need to take a pedal steel, but most of the time I do take one. I spend half my life changing strings! So I take advantage of tours that have guitar techs. 

“I’ll get them to change all my strings at the end of a tour, so I don’t have to for a while after that. However, my hands don’t sweat at all when I play, so I’m pretty easy on strings. They don’t need changing for every gig, unless the intonation is suffering because of the strings.”

The pedal steel is a complex instrument, with a tone bar, knee levers and foot pedals all altering pitch in different ways. How do you even find a way in, let alone master it?

“The instrument draws you into music theory. As you’re learning what the pedals do to your chord changes you start to understand why the guys who built the original instruments created them that way. These guys were trailblazers of the pedal steel and they understood chord theory.

“Open tunings, which were developed from Hawaiian music and the lap steel, influenced the design and led to the pedals being used to access different open tunings on one neck, without having to retune or pick up a different lap steel. The pedals weren’t originally put there to bend strings and create an effect, which everybody recognises these days – that was just a happy coincidence. 

“The early lap steel players would slant the bar to reach two- or three-note chord inversions that were not possible with a straight bar, so the original lap steel players were already thinking about chord construction before the pedals were invented. It’s a fascinating thing.

When I started learning pedal steel there was a very limited amount of instructional material around at that time

“When I started learning pedal steel there was a very limited amount of instructional material around at that time. It really didn’t speak to anything in particular, like how to sound like this player or that player. It was simply explaining how the instrument worked. 

“So you had to find your own way and apply the instrument to the kind of music you wanted to play. But that has now changed. There’s a huge online network of players you can ask for advice. A huge amount of resources, which provide shortcuts for learning. 

“What helped me a lot was getting in situations where you could play with other people. Not sitting in your room playing to a track – that’s no substitute for being in a band. You have to learn how to create your parts and improvise. 

“Being able to improvise on pedal steel the way you can on any other instrument, not just doing a few tricks on it, and the way I learnt to do that was playing in a live band situation and playing with musicians who were better than me.

You have to learn to play the instrument somehow and being able to overplay where it’s okay to do that is important

“Nowadays, I can’t imagine there are a lot of people wanting to get a job in a country and western band. They’re probably looking to use the pedal steel in a different framework. But you have to learn to play the instrument somehow and being able to overplay where it’s okay to do that is important. 

“And that’s one of the advantages of country music – it allows you to play more than maybe it’s appropriate to play and get all that out your system. The pedal steel doesn’t do well if it’s overplayed in the real world, people start to shut you down pretty quick because it tends to get in the way of a lot of other things.”  

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