Playing Music and Emotional Feelings

By David J. Stewart | September 2011 | Updated September 2015

       Music involves feelings and emotions. It is difficult to play music when you are sad, worried, upset or unhappy; however, if you can learn to play your guitar anyhow during these times (or at least during some of these times), it will help you to keep going. Jerry Byrd says that performing on the steel guitar is an extension of one's personality. That is so true!

You won't find a more passionate and expressive instrument than the steel guitar. In my opinion that holds especially true for the pedal steel guitar, since you have more tools to express yourself (i.e., knee levers and floor pedals). I was thinking this week about all those poor miserable souls who never heard the awesome beauty of a pedal steel guitar for 5,900 years of human civilization. I thank God, I thank God, I thank God, that I was born during this time period.

Jerry Byrd teaches...

“Finally, don't experiment! Forget trying, or even thinking of trying, to impress anyone with how many notes you can play in two measures. Use as few notes as possible, but play every one with meaning and intent. You have arrived when every person in your audience gets the feeling that you are playing only for them. All music is, in the final analysis, is a melody with feeling. It's not what you play, but what you say. And don't play around either. Work!” —Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” by Jerry Byrd (1920-2005); © 2003, p. 114.

Wow that's great advice! Jerry is so right! Use as few notes as possible. Play every note with meaning and intent. If performing for a large crowd, focus on just one person and play diligently for them. It's not what you play, but what you say musically. Musical expression is everything.

I was listening to a pedal steel guitarist on YouTube performing this week. He was teaching a steel guitar seminar. I won't mention his name. He is a fantastic player. He can really razzle-dazzle the crowd with his hand dexterity, knowledge and speed. Yet, the tone just wasn't there. The heart-to-heart connection wasn't there. I admired his skills, but I wasn't moved by his performance at all. I have seen this lack of tone in my own playing over the years. Thus, I am committed more than ever before to improve my tone.

When I hear Lloyd Green perform on his pedal steel guitar, I am ALWAYS moved in my soul by his artistry. Lloyd plays with attitude, articulating every note, using various eyebrow raising techniques, and his tone is superb. It's not magick. I began performing pedal steel guitar in 1992. In the first 5-years I was blessed to purchase several hundred steel guitar instrumental albums. In hindsight, less than 5% of those recordings really moved me. Honestly, I never listened to 95% of those albums more than a couple times. They're nice, but the soul connection is not there. Tom Morrell's steel guitar performances move me. I can listen to his playing again and again and never get tired of hearing it. Tommy White's performances move me. Jerry Byrd's performances move me. Randy Beavers' performances move me. Jimmy Day's performances move me. Half the battle of learning to play pedal steel guitar is getting the sounds embedded into your mind. That's why I recommend listening to lots of steel guitar to get the sounds into your mind. Particularly, listen to the artist(s) that you want to emulate the most.

As fast as Lloyd Green is (and he truly boggles my mind with his accuracy and speed), he said back in 1992 at a Texas Steel Show that he wasn't as fast as he used to be. I've never liked playing fast myself, but in order to play the intro on a song like Midnight Sky (Lloyd is performing steel) by Nick 13, you've got to have impeccable timing, which most players don't. So it's a good idea to start working on some related practice picking patterns. Hey, learn Lloyd's Three Picks (which steelers love and play in Holland more than any other song) and you'll develop your timing, guaranteed. A lot of people don't realize that Lloyd Green (even to this day after 71-years of playing steel guitar, since age 7) still practices at home by doing simple picking exercises). It is very important to stay in practice and maintain your skills. Lloyd runs for exercise, eats right, doesn't smoke or drink alcohol, and it all helps him stay the best at what he does. You may not have known this, but Lloyd is also left-handed, yet he plays a right-handed pedal steel. Amazing!

Here's a brief clip of Lloyd Green performing the classic song, “Secret Love” from his beautiful 1977 “Ten Shades Of Green” album. At 20 seconds into the song you can hear Lloyd using a noticeable amount of vibrato. Most steel players, including myself, have played for years without applying these little techniques that make the difference between a nice recording verses a work of art. I am bringing this detail to your attention so that you, as well as myself, will regularly make a conscious effort to go the extra mile so-to-speak in our performances.

Also, don't fall into the trap of allowing a double-standard in your performances. It would be quite easy to put forth less effort and feeling into our performances at home, than we would in a public performance in front of a large crowd. As Jerry Byrd wisely said, When you've gotten as

“One's music should be an extension of his personality. If it isn't, then you are lying musically, because you aren't expressing what you feel about the song and the word 'playing' applies. If music is an art form - and it most certainly is - then shouldn't you, as an artist, be making your own musical statement?” —Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” © 2003, p. 109.

I recommend that you get a camcorder and record your songs and upload them online for the world to see. I used to make tapes and CD's of my music to share with others (but like Jesus learned with the ten lepers, only one came back to thank Him). Whereas I used to give away music and feel bad when people didn't respond at all, I now feel good uploading my music because I KNOW some people (particularly fans of steel guitar) appreciate and listen to my music. The world is a big place and there's over a billion webpages out there! Your music will get much more exposure online by those who have an interest in steel guitar. I think it's a shame that so many wonderfully talented people never make any recordings of their music and it all dies with them. I also have been trying to explain to other players how I do certain techniques, so they can learn from me.

“If you can't do it with feeling, don't!” —Patsy Cline

Long Periods Where I Just Didn't Feel Like Making Music

God knows that I am not complaining. God is good and His blessings are bountiful every day. Albeit, since 2004 I've had permanent spinal cord damage in my neck that causes burning, tingling, a puffy sensation in my limbs, and the right half of my body feeling asleep all the time, with radiating pain in my fingers and toes. People cannot see it, other than a slight limp in my right leg which feels half asleep all the time. As of September 2015 I take 900 mg. of Gabapentin daily which helps alleviate my finger pain so I can play my guitar, and I take 100 mg. of Oxycontin daily which helps alleviate my toothache-like neck pain. It is horrible oftentimes even with the pain meds. I take 10 mg. of Ambien to sleep at night. My medications are highly sedative and drain the energy out of me, making me tired all the time. The medications only take the edge off my physical sufferings, but they are a blessing nonetheless.

I literally have to make myself get behind my steel guitars. It is work, and I am limited. I only play a few hours a week generally. My bodily afflictions compel me to stop after a while, but I love the time I do spend performing steel guitar. It is the passion of my life, next to the Lord Jesus Christ Who indwells me as a born-again Christian.

So, I rarely feel like playing steel guitar or working on new things and songs. I've been making myself play my guitar for the past couple years and it has been rewarding, but I wish I had accomplished more. Here's the videos which I have made by God's grace and blessing. Looking back at the few times that I've played my guitar when I didn't feel like it, I'm glad I did. I pray for God to bless me, according to His will, and that perhaps I can make some more nice recordings. Fortunately, I applied myself diligently when I was younger and in better health, and I have the basic working skills required to play the steel guitar. It's like riding a bike once you get the hand of it! That is, you don't forget. I've gone 6-months without touching a pedal steel, but then I can play and jump right into it again.

There are those magical moments when it all comes together, and then there are those times when I feel like I just should have left my steel guitar in the case. At times when I don't feel my best and my mind is stuck, I'll go through some tablature to learn new things, perhaps a new song. My point is, never let life and people rob you of music.

I really like the movie AUGUST RUSH. A young couple fall in love, both musicians; but are separated by fate. They both go into depression missing each other, giving up on their music for ten years, but eventually learn that you can't stop living. By getting back into their music fate reunites them. After seeing the movie I realized that many people give up on their music because of sad events, sorrow, physical pain, and miseries in life. I've done it too.

It's ok to go months without playing music if we need too reflect on life, or perhaps have suffered a painful loss, or suffer from constant physical pain or mental anguish due to hurt feelings and evil things people have done to us; but God is always there with us to lift us up in due time. It is ok to suffer as long as you need to in life.

I remember that Buddy Emmons developed Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in his right hand from playing steel guitar for decades. Buddy was wearing a hand cast and couldn't play steel for a year.

And then I remember hearing Lloyd Green saying that after 25 years in the studio, he developed an ear problem and couldn't play his steel guitar for a year in the late 1980's.

Whether it be health problems or emotional pain from life's troubles, only God knows our hearts. Sometimes things happen that require a lifetime to heal. We all have painful memories that we wish we could erase. Let go, let God. That's what I try to do. The promises in the Word of God that He will one day remove our bodily afflictions (Philippians 3:21) and emotional pain (John 16:22) is the greatest comfort that there is. Music makes the world a better place. I admit that I've gone months without playing music due to depression, but I prayed for God to lift me emotionally out of my miseries and that's all I can do. God is my strength and my faith in Him sustains me. Even in the worst of circumstances, I know God loves me for who I am, because of Who He is.

“During the years 1935 to 1940, steel guitar was king.”
—Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” by Jerry Byrd (1920-2005); © 2003, p. 117.


Take someone to the islands today with your music!

If all you have is music, you have nothing! You need Jesus Christ as your personal Savior to truly be prosperous in life. You may be the poorest man in the world materialistically, but if you have received Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God; believing on His name to forgive your sins, then you are a rich soul indeed!

John 20:31, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”