The Most Challenging & Complex Instrument To Play?

*This post was originally written during the recording of American Pop Music Experiment’s “Always Starting Again” album in 2012. It’s a Lovecraftian-esque ode to the great pedal steel player Ken Wilson.

The most challenging & complex instrument to play? Piano, of course… That’s what I’d thought for years, but after tracking pedal steel last week for the songs Thousandsteps and Other World (available upon release of full album in mid-August 2012), I had a change of heart.

10am, Thursday. F5 Soundhouse, NE Minneapolis. Pedal Steel master Kenny Wilson removes an alien looking instrument from it’s well worn road case. A undeniable sense of satisfaction permeates his being as he assembles the contraption… The thing is replete with pedals. Levers hang from it’s underside- vaguely reminiscent of tentacles; scarier yet, it had 10 strings!

I query Kenny as to what in the bloody hell all it’s extremities are for. With aplomb he explains that the left foot plays three different pedals that bend various combinations of strings; levers on the underside allow for the knees to bend other groupings while the right foot works the sustain pedal. Finally, the hands pick with a slide on what amounts to a E9 #11 tuning [W(ho)TF plays that chord anyways!?].

And your winner is for most complex instrument to play: PEDAL STEEL!

As one of the uninitiated, I’d always thought that pedal steel was an instrument for “old country tunes”. To my proliferate amazement, I found it’s capable of so much more! To call the sounds we coaxed “hauntingly beautiful” would be an understatement. Kenny lorded over the instrument, bringing a unique texture and ambience to the songs that frankly couldn’t have be realized any other way.

The integration of pedal steel further cements the “country timbre” that seems to become more manifest as this album unfolds. So here I sit confounded and stymied as to H(ow)TF I’m going to classify American Pop Music Experiment. Pop meets country? Latin? Rock?

Who f-ing knows?

Michael Raymond Reitz. www.theapme.com / www.michaelreitz.net