Steel Legend Chas Smith Remembered

Publisher’s note: Steel guitar (and steel fabrication) legend Chas Smith has passed away from cancer. He was a polymath, an unsung hero of the music world – a modern-day Harry Partch – and his sonic creations graced numerous soundtracks (including the recent Hans Zimmer score for Dune: Part 2). In light of this news, we’re sharing Adam Levy’s interview with Chas from our 34th issue in its entirety. 

Metal Urges: Chas Smith draws eerie beauty from scraps and surplus (originally found in Fretboard Journal 34) 

Visiting with pedal-steel guitarist Chas Smith at his home in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, it doesn’t take long to see that Smith’s a tinkerer—in the best sense of the word. He talks about various instrument-building projects, past and present, and the fruits of his labor occupy much of the available space in his living room. It’s not surprising to find that a pedal-steel player is a tinkerer. The instrument itself requires a certain amount of tinkering. Unlike the standard electric guitar or lap steel, pedal steels have pedals and knee-lever mechanisms that each player must configure to pull the strings in ways that suit his or her individual tunings and taste. Smith, however, tinkers on a level that most guitarists—steel or otherwise—couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams.

Smith has long been machining and welding metal as a means of supporting his musical endeavors. He has built set pieces and camera riggings for movies and TV commercials. (He even received a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2002 for his engineering contributions on the innovative Bulldog Motion Control Camera Crane.) Smith has also made armatures and infrastructures for large-scale projects by visual artists such as Jonathan Borofsky and Paul McCarthy. He has a fully kitted shop in his garage, complete with a Bridgeport mill and a World War II-era Leblond Regal lathe. “I put a digital readout on that so it’s very usable,” he says. “It’s a nice lathe, but if it ever breaks, I’ll never be able to find parts for it.” There were blacksmiths in Smith’s genealogy dating all the way back to the 17th century. Smith’s father’s father was a blacksmith, and his father before him. Says Smith, “My comfort in working with metal is genetic.”

Still, Smith is a musician at his core. He studied electronic music and 20th-century composition at California Institute of the Arts (aka CalArts) in the early ’70s. Among his teachers there was Morton Subotnick—one of the first composers to embrace electronics and synthesizers. Steeped in such a heady milieu, Smith would soon fall head-over-heels in love with the pedal-steel guitar—a twist that he could’ve never seen coming.

While he was a student at CalArts, he went to a party one night. After some dedicated drinking, Smith lay down and got good and comfortable. Just then, someone put on Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, and the record player was set for automatic repeat. The LP kept playing, over and over, even after his friends went out for a bite to eat. “I couldn’t get up to shut it off,” he remembers, “so I just laid there, listening to Ralph Mooney play, listening to the sound of his guitar. In the single notes, everything seemed to have this elevated importance to it. His chord structures were somehow changing while they were moving from place to place. I’d never heard anything like that in my life.”

After that, Smith went out and bought every record he could find that had pedal steel on it. And it wasn’t long before he bought himself a pedal-steel guitar—a single-neck Emmons. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” he says. “I started hacking away. Underline hack. I was so bad that the neighbors would throw their garbage into our yard whenever I practiced.” Of course, Smith had to listen to it too and he wasn’t particularly enjoying what he heard. “It takes 10 years to learn to play one of these fuckers,” he says. “Not really. It actually takes 20.”

While he was still getting to know his Emmons, Smith happened to drop by Royal Amplifier Service, a Hollywood repair shop run by Red Rhodes—a formidable pedal-steel player himself. Rhodes had a double-neck Sho-Bud Super Pro for sale there. The instrument had originally been built for Ralph Mooney, who apparently hated it and refused it. “Red had bought it,” Smith says, “and he hated it too, ’cause it sounded so bad.” Charmed by its looks, Smith purchased the Sho-Bud.

“I would’ve bought anything black and silver in those days,” Smith says. Though he hadn’t made much progress on his Emmons yet, he could tell that it sounded much better than his Sho-Bud. He wanted to figure out why, so he took the Sho-Bud apart. “That’s my nature,” he says. Smith found that many of its key components were made of pot metal, so he machined new parts from aluminum and swapped out the cheapo stuff. (He would later replace some of the aluminum with brass parts.) He also converted the guitar to a Kline system, stabilizing the intonation and eliminating the need for tuning keys. “Everything on a steel guitar contributes to the quality of the sound,” says Smith. “Everything. The long and short of it is that I bought this Sho-Bud, I remade it, and that’s how I learned to fix guitars.”

Smith has released a handful of recordings that feature his original instrumental music. His pieces are hard to describe, but the general tendency is toward things moving slowly and changing incrementally. On first listen, some pieces seem to be just the background parts for an absent melody. Upon repeated spins, though, these elements reveal themselves as melodies on a much longer timeline. Smith mostly uses the instruments he has built himself to create these pieces, blending real-time performances with electronically manipulated samples. He uses found sounds as well. On “Endless Mardi-Gras”—a track from Smith’s 2006 album Descent—he blends F-18 jet-engine sounds into his soundscape, to powerful effect. 

When Descent came out,” says Smith, “there was a reviewer who had always been very supportive of my music. But when he got to ‘Endless Mardi-Gras’ and heard the jet planes, he wrote, ‘That’s the sound of death and destruction for millions of people around the world.’ He came after me with both barrels. I went, Holy fuck—he’s absolutely correct. I am so fucking naive sometimes. I grew up on Marilyn Monroe, Cadillacs with tailfins, hot rods. The rest of the world grew up different. I wrote him a note to at least explain my intentions. Why did I call it ‘Endless Mardi Gras’? Because, at that time I recorded it, the [economic] bubble was happening and it looked like we could party all night and never have to pay for it. There was no day of Lent, no day of atonement.”

In Smith’s letter to the reviewer, he did his best to clarify his ideas for the piece, which had nothing to do with war or firepower. “I live near the Van Nuys Airport,” he explains now. “In the fall, when the jets take off toward the mountains, and the wind is coming this way, the sound in the air—with phase cancelations and all—sounds to me like dragons twisting in the sky. I’m tattooed from my ankles to the back of my neck with dragons twisting in the sky. They’re my protectors. There’s the stem of the dragons. That’s what that was all about. I had no idea how [the music] would be received.”

There’s also a dragon decal prominently featured on the side of Smith’s Que Lastas instrument. “I got that from a very spiritual place,” he deadpans. “Pep Boys.” This metal-framed instrument is covered with automotive-style red pin-striping. “If you look at all my stuff,” Smith says, “there’s an element of West Coast hot-rod culture. Black, white, red, and chrome. The year that I made that, the car that won the Oakland Roadster Show was a chopped ’52 Mercury that was black, white, red, and chrome. So, there you have it.”

Due to a dispute with the union that had previously kept him very busy doing metal work for films and TV, Smith was blacklisted in 1987. To make matters worse, he was in the midst of a divorce. It sounds like a hellish period, but Smith found the silver lining. It was black and silver, actually. “I finally had time to learn how to play my guitar,” he says. “I’d been using the steel guitar in art music up to that point. I was allied with the West Coast minimalism and post-minimalism schools. Playing anything beyond that—playing country stuff—that’s hard. When you hear all those relatively simple licks, you should see what has to go on to make that happen, all the choreography underneath the guitar—knee levers, pedals, both feet, both knees.”

Around that time, Smith got a call to audition for the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters, an L.A. band that specialized in traditional western swing from the 1930s and ’40s. “They did not play anything newer than 1950,” he says. “It was Ocie Stockard, Spade Cooley, Western Caravan, and like that. I had to learn Joaquin Murphey’s solos. Fat chance, but I was trying. Those guys all were playing Bigsby guitars back then, but nobody wanted Bigsby guitars in the ’80s. I scored Joaquin Murphey’s double-8 [two 8-string necks] lap guitar, made by Bigsby for Joaquin in December 1948.” Smith found it at Steel Guitar Nashville. “This exquisite instrument,” he says, “was made by my hero, Paul Bigsby. It was played by my hero, Joaquin Murphey. Has that thing got mojo? Oh, yeah. I bought it.”

Mojo, yes. An instruction manual, no. Try as he might, Smith could not work out what Murphey was doing—his tunings, his technique, none of it. But then Smith happened to learn that Murphey was living less than 20 miles from him. Perhaps, he figured, he could learn from the man himself. He was able to get Murphey’s number from a mutual friend and called his hero to ask how he had played so fantastically on those classic records.

“This is the big guy,” says Smith. “In the pantheon of steel, he’s there at the top. Joaquin was Jimmy Day’s hero, he was Buddy Emmons’ hero. And there he was, living in a trailer park in Pacoima. He’d been drunk for 40 years. I called and introduced myself, and told him that I had one of his old guitars. He said, ‘I had a lot of guitars.’ I told him I was trying to learn some of his solos and asked what kind of tunings he was using back then. He said, ‘I had a lot of tunings. Listen—they wouldn’t let me play what I wanted to play, so fuck them and fuck you!’ Then he slammed the phone down. Holy shit, I thought. My hero just told me to go fuck myself.”

Smith next called a friend who also knew Murphey and told him what happened. The friend said, “That sounds like Joaquin. Talk to him about his 1948 Cadillac instead. He’ll want to talk about that.” So the story goes: Murphey would polish his car all day long, play the gig at night, then spend all the next day at that Cadillac again. “This was a guy from another planet,” says Smith. “I waited a couple of weeks and called him again. We talked about the car for a while, but then he figured out that I was a musician and it was the same thing. ‘Fuck them and fuck you!’ Click. And that was the end of that.”

Not quite. In the mid ’90s, on his doctor’s orders, Murphey sobered up. He wanted to live and he wanted to play guitar again. “He hadn’t had an instrument for 14 years,” Smith says. “Before that, he had this guitar that had been made by an engineer at Lockheed. When the engineer died, his sons went to Joaquin’s house and confiscated the guitar. I heard about this from someone in the steel-guitar network. They asked if I’d let him play his old guitar—that double-8 Bigsby. I said, ‘Yeah. But I’m gonna want an autograph.’ Then I got a call from Mike Johnstone, a great guitarist and steel player. Mike told me, ‘Joaquin doesn’t want that guitar. He wants a guitar like the one that the engineer made him.’ He described it a little bit, described Joaquin’s setup. I thought, ‘Okay, I can do that.’” About two weeks later, Smith got a call from Johnstone. “Mike said, ‘I’m with Joaquin. We’re a few blocks away from your house.’ Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Mike came in, followed by this sweet little old man. We were talking about what Joaquin wanted, then he sat down at one of my guitars. He took out his picks—they looked like rusty darts. His bar looked like he’d got it at a swap meet. He strummed my guitar a couple of times, then started playing. [Smith hums, mimicking Murphey’s fanciful style.] He was all over it. I thought, I have no hope of playing like that in this lifetime. He had the lightest touch I’ve ever seen.”

Smith says that he later came to understand the strumming thing Murphey did. “It didn’t matter what tuning the guitar was in. He had a gift. He’d strum two or three times, then he knew where every note was, up and down every string. Back in the Spade Cooley days, he would experiment with different tunings because he had nonpedal guitars. Whatever tuning the guitar was in that weekend, he’d go and play the gig in that tuning.” When Smith finished building the guitar for Murphey, he would not take any money from his hero. The agreed price was a guitar lesson. “A lesson with Joaquin,” he says, “was really just hanging out and playing guitar. I was in heaven.”

One wall in Smith’s living room features framed photos of many of his heroes. There are a couple shots of Murphey. Paul Bigsby, the über-tinkerer, is featured there, too. “Bigsby,” says Smith, “knew how to do casting, machining, all that kind of shit. He worked with Allen Crocker in the ’30s. Crocker ran a motorcycle dealership over on the West Side. They were putting overhead cams on Indian bikes for flat-track racing. An Indian 750 right out of the factory would beat a Harley racer, and they were hopping them up. No one could touch these guys.”

“Bigsby was a biker,” Smith continues, “and Merle Travis was a biker. They would hang out at the track. Travis came to Bigsby one day and said, ‘You know how to make stuff. Can you make me a guitar?’ Bigsby said, ‘I can make anything.’ Because he could.” Bigsby had already made lap steels for Murphey by this time and, sure enough, he made an electric guitar for Travis.

“After that,” Smith says, “Paul made another steel guitar, then another. Then he made a triple-8 console steel guitar. Then he made a pedal-steel guitar for Speedy West in 1948.” According to Smith, Bigsby produced only one guitar per month—working to his own standards, at his own pace. The waiting list got longer and longer as Bigsby’s reputation grew. “Bud Isaacs was the steel guitar player on Webb Pierce’s ‘Slowly’ in 1954,” Smith says. “He was the first one to do that pedal squeeze that set off the Nashville pedal-steel sound. When Bud left the band, Webb figured he had to get another Bigsby. That was his sound. He called up Paul Bigsby and said, ‘This is Webb Pierce, from Nashville. I want another guitar just like Bud’s.’ Bigsby said, ‘Okay, I’ll put you on the list.’ Webb Piece said, ‘Mr. Bigsby, this is Webb Pierce, in Nashville, and I want that guitar now.’ Bigsby said, ‘I don’t care if you’re Jesus Christ the Lord. I’ll put you on the list and you’ll get it when you get it.’”

Smith makes instruments at his own pace too. Unlike Bigsby’s guitars, however, Smith’s creations aren’t for sale. He uses them to perform and record his own original music, and he has been hired to play them on film scores as well—including the recent Man of Steel. He has built countless instruments over the past four decades, since as far back as his CalArts days. These vary widely in size, shape and concept. On the simpler end of the spectrum is Que Lastas. (Smith made up the name. It seems to be Spanish, but has no literal translation.) It’s a couple of piano wires, strung horizontally across a metal framework, tuned very low and played with a bow. A long sheet of stainless steel is suspended from a higher beam on the frame. It hangs between the two piano wires, acting as a resonator. Smith’s helix-like Copper Box is much more complex, with three dozen bronze rods welded around the perimeter of two large steel discs. The rods may be bowed or struck. The whole shebang rests on aircraft vibration isolators.

In designing and constructing his instruments, Smith thinks about metal alloys the way luthiers think about tonewoods. Each has its own sonic personality. “I think it’s even more dramatic with metals,” he says. “Metals that have zinc in them are not as resonant—not as musically friendly—as metals that have silicon in them. In the aluminum world, 2024 alloy has zinc in it. It’s harder and stronger than 6061-T6, which is the aluminum alloy that you see almost all the time: 2024 has zinc in it to make it more machinable; 6061 has silicon in it to make it more weldable, and I think it’s more musical.”

Smith has picked up some of the materials for his instruments at Lockheed Martin surplus sales. Yes—metals originally earmarked for fighter planes or ballistic missiles may have ultimately been repurposed for Smith’s unorthodox musical instruments. “I’d be over there every Thursday,” he remembers. “I could buy titanium for 55 cents per pound. I could buy 7075 aerospace billet aluminum. That has zinc in it too. It’s as strong as steel but weighs only as much as aluminum. I made a good-sounding bass steel guitar from that.” Ever resourceful, Smith has also used leftover materials from film jobs and even some bits and pieces salvaged form junkyards to craft his instruments.

Smith can’t put an exact figure on the number of instruments he has made, partly because there have been so many (“Mucho, mucho,” he says) and partly because many of his less successful experiments have been abandoned or scrapped for parts. Smith explains, “The enemy to all sound—to all things resonating—is tension. Tension can come from welding. You wouldn’t believe the problems I’ve had from welding. I’d hit the thing and instead of going ding it went clunk. They’re all research and development for each other. The first big instrument I made out here is called Bass Tweed. Bass Tweed was the R&D for Copper Box, which is probably the best-sounding thing I’ve ever made. After that, it was like, Well, what if I did this? What if I did that? DADO was me remaking and remaking and remaking the same thing, over and over again, until I finally got something that actually worked.”

Even a guy who can make just about anything imaginable out of metal knows when it’s time to let someone else do the tinkering. For example, Smith uses a store-bought bar to play pedal steel with. “There’s no point in making something if I can buy it,” he says. “They’ve already figured out all the problems.” Smith’s retro-cool metal-framed eyeglasses weren’t machined in his shop either. They’re vintage German-made Neostyle frames. “Good enough for Elvis,” he says, “good enough for me.”