Drake’s melodic steel guitar playing made him one of Atlanta’s top young instrumentalists. He joined with future stars Jerry Reed, Doug Kershaw, Roger Miller and Joe South, in a mid-’50s band. Although this group failed to record, it provided Drake with the impetus to move to Nashville in 1959.
He recorded first for Starday before signing up to the new Mercury based Smash label. He played on many Nashville country/pop sessions for the likes of Don Gibson, The Everly Brothers and Marty Robbins. Pete had a pop Top 30 hit, “Forever” in 1964 (credited to “Pete Drake and his Talking Steel Guitar”), and recorded albums of country covers, his own tunes and experimental styles like his “talking guitar”. More often his trademark mellow toned steel guitar was used to strengthen albums by other artists.
He played on many crossover country/pop hits such as Lynn Anderson’s (I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden, Charlie Rich’s Behind Closed Doors, and Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. He became a cult name in the modern rock era by playing on sessions for Bob Dylan ( John Wesley Harding , Nashville Skyline & Self Portrait)), Ringo Starr (Beaucoups Of Blues, produced by Pete) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass)
Nashville pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake is truly a phenomenon. Not only has he been the man behind hundreds of country music hits, but through his recordings with Elvis Presley, George Harrison and Bob Dylan, is singlehandedly responsible for opening the entire pop and rock field to the sounds of the pedal steel.
Pete was born in Georgia forty years ago, but it wasn’t until he was eighteen that he began playing steel guitar. Like so many before and since, Drake was inspired by the sounds of Jerry Byrd at the Grand Ole Opry. Pete then spotted a lap steel guitar in an Atlanta pawn shop, saved his money and bought it for the vast sum of $38.00.
What kind was it?
A Supro; a little, single-neck like you hold in your lap. I tried to play like Jerry Byrd. I guess most of the steel players today started off the same way. He has really been fantastically influential. So I fooled around with that thing for six months or a year, and got a chance to do a couple of fill-in things on an Atlanta TV station when somebody’d be sick.
Did you have any formal training on steel?
I took one lesson, but I’d get records and sit around playing to them. That’s how I really got started. This was around ’49 or ’50. Then when Bud Isaacs came out with a pedal guitar on “Slowly” by Webb Pierce, that shocked everybody, wondering how he got that sound. I guess I was the first one around Atlanta to get a pedal guitar: I had one pedal on a four-neck steel. It really looked funny. I made it myself, and it was huge, really too big to carry on the road or anything. I was playing in clubs all around Atlanta, then right after that I formed my first band.
What kind of group was that?
I had some pretty big stars working with me back then: Jerry Reed, Joe South, Doug Kershaw was playing fiddle, Roger Miller was playing fiddle with me, and country singer Jack Greene was playing drums. And we got fired because we weren’t any good! I was on television in Atlanta for three and a half years, but we kind of wore ourselves out, so I decided to move to Nashville.
Roger Miller had come on to Nashville, and I had a brother there, Jack, who played bass with Ernest Tubb for 24 years. Jack died last year. At first Jack didn’t want me to come, because the steel guitar was kind of dead then, in 1959. Everybody was trying to go pop. They was putting strings and horns on Webb Pierce records, and nobody was using steel guitar. So I starved to death the first year and a half. Then I worked with Don Gibson a while, then Marty Robbins.
When did you begin getting record session work?
I guess what really got me in was the “Pete Drake style” on the C6th tuning. When I first came up here everybody thought it was square, so I quit playing like that and started playing like everybody else. Then one night on the Opry, just for kicks, I went back to my own style for one tune behind Carl and Pearl Butler. Roy Drusky was on Decca then, and he come up to me and said, “Hey, you’ve come up with a new style. I’m recording tomorrow, and I want you with me.” So I cut this session with him, and the word kind of got out that I had this new style (actually, it was the same thing I’d been playing for years in Atlanta, but it was new in Nashville). That month I did 24 sessions, and it’s been like that ever since. That was in the middle of 1960, and that first record was “I Don’t Believe You Love Me Any More,” a number one record. Then I recorded “Before This Day Ends” with George Hamilton, and it, too, became number one. I just couldn’t do anything wrong there for a long time.
How did your “Talking Guitar” thing come about?
Well, everybody wanted this style of mine, but I sort of got tired of it. I’d say, “Hey, let me try and come up with something new,” and they’d say, “Naw, I want you to do what you did on So-and-so’s record.” Now, I’d been trying to make something for people who couldn’t talk, who’d lost their voice. I had some neighbors who were deaf and dumb, and I thought it would be nice if they could talk. So I saw this old Kay Kayser movie, and Alvino Rey was playing the talking guitar. I thought, “Man, if he can make a guitar talk, surely I can make people talk.” So I worked on it for about five years, and it was so simple that I went all around it, you know, like we usually do.
How did the talking guitar work?
You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier. I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal chords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.
When did you first use it on records?
With Roger Miller. He had a record called “Lock, Stock And Teardrops,” on RCA Victor, but it didn’t hit. Then I used it on Jim Reeves’ “I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand.” I really thought I’d used the gimmick up by the time Shelby Singleton and Jerry Kennedy of Mercury Records wanted to record me. I had already recorded for Starday [a Mercury label] some straight steel things like “For Pete’s Sake,” but I went ahead and cut a song called “Forever” on the talking thing. It came out, and for about two months didn’t do a thing; then, all of a sudden, it cut loose and sold a million. So then I was known as the “Talking Steel Guitar Man,” and did several albums for Smash, which is a subsidiary of Mercury.
Do you still use the Talking Guitar?
Now I’m back into producing a lot of records, and not using it much. I’ve been so busy recording everybody else, I haven’t had time to record myself.
Tell us about your experiences getting into the pop field with the pedal steel.
You know, the steel wasn’t accepted in pop music until I had cut with people like Elvis Presley and Joan Baez. But the kids, themselves, didn’t accept it until I cut with Bob Dylan. After that I guess they figured steel was all right. I did the John Wesley Harding album, then Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait. Bob Dylan really helped me an awful lot. I mean, by having me play on those records he just opened the door for the pedal steel guitar, because then everybody wanted to use one. I was getting calls from all over the world. One day my secretary buzzed me and said, “George Harrison wants you on the phone.” And I said, “Well, where’s he from?” She said, “London.” And I said: “Well, what company’s he with?” She said, “The Beatles.” The name, you know, just didn’t ring any bells-well, I’m just a hillbilly, you know (laughter). Anyway, I ended up going to London for a week where we did the album All Things Must Pass.
Is that how Ringo came into it?
Ringo Starr asked me to produce him, so I told him I would if he’d come to Nashville, so he did and cut a country album which was really fantastic. It was good for Nashville, and, you know, I really wanted Nashville to get credit for it. Those guys, Ringo and George Harrison, really dig country music. And they’re fine people, too, just out of sight.
What kind of instrument do you play now?
Since I came to Nashville I have been playing Sho-Bud guitars and Standel amplifiers. I have some Sho-Bud amps, too. I’ve got four different guitars that I use with different artists. I try to change my sound around so it doesn’t seem like the same musicians on each record. I was looking in the trades the other day, and found that I was on 59 of the top 75 records in “Billboard.”
How about different tunings?
Yeah, I change a little. All my guitars have a little bit different pedals, enough to keep me confused. I, and just about everybody in Nashville, use basically the E9th with the chromatic strings and the C6th with a high G string. But everybody has their own pedal setups. I’ve got one pedal I call my Tammy Wynette pedal that I use with her; and I cut a hit with Johnny Rodriguez recently, “Pass Me By,” so I got me a Johnny Rodriguez pedal, too (laughter). If something hits big I try to save that for that particular artist.
Is your equipment modified?
My amps are just stock. As for my steels, I get Shot Jackson [of Sho-Bud in Nashville] to fix them up for me. If I want to raise or lower a string, I’ll go to him and say, “Can you do this?,” and he’ll say, “No,” then go ahead and do it. We did my Tammy Wynette pedal that way: I showed him how we could make it work with open strings, so he fixed it, and it was the most beautiful sound I every heard. So the next day we cut “I Don’t Wanna Play House” with Tammy, and it became a number one record.
You mentioned Jerry Byrd as a great inspiration, Whom else do you enjoy?
Well, there’s so many of them now, Lordy. I look at it kind of differently: There’s the recording musician and the everyday picker. They’re really not the same. A guy that’s really great on a show may not be any good at all on a session, or vice versa. For recording, I think Lloyd Green, Weldon Myrick, Bill West and Ben Keith are fantastic. They know how to come up with that little extra lick that you need to make a song. Hal Rugg is also a good recording steel man. For really technical playing, Buddy Emmons is a fantastic musician. Curley Chalker is my favorite jazz steel player, but in the studio I’d have to go with the commercial thing because I’m trying to make a dollar.
You know, you can play over country people’s heads, and I don’t think they’re ready for the jazz thing. I mean I like to listen to it, but it’s “musicians’ music,” and musicians don’t buy records (laughter).
What do you think is the future of the steel guitar and country music?
Right now something is happening that I’ve wanted to happen for a long time: Music’s coming together. It’s not country music, it’s not pop music, it’s music. Somebody said there’s only two kinds of music-good and bad. I like a little bit of it all.
Pete produced albums for hundreds of musicians, and founded Stop Records and First Generation Records. In 1970 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Walkway of Stars and the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1987
He lost a 3 year battle with emphysema on July 29, 1988 at the age of 56.