“Paul Franklin is one of the absolute masters of the pedal steel,” Chris Shiflett says during the opening of Walking the Floor‘s newest episode. “When I asked him to name some of the artists he’s played with over the years, he said it would be easier to name the artists he hasn’t played with instead.”
An all-star instrumentalist, Franklin grew up in Detroit, raised on the soul music blasting forth from the local radio station and the country records that filled the family household. It was his father who pushed him to learn the pedal steel, even going so far as to build his son’s first two instruments. Franklin began gigging at 11 years old and joined the local musicians’ union as a teenager, becoming the city’s only unionized pedal-steel player. That led to studio gigs in the Motor City, which paved the way for him to relocate to Nashville during the 1970s. Since then, he’s become the most celebrated pedal-steel guitarist in a city renowned for its world-class players, backing up everyone from Merle Haggard to Megadeth.
This week’s installment of Walking the Floor dives deep into the tricks of the steel trade, with Shiflett (an accomplished guitarist in his own right) encouraging his interview subject to geek out over gear, string gauges and other particulars. As always, we’re premiering the episode below, along with a list of highlights.
As an adolescent, Franklin was already landing top-shelf gigs.
Franklin practiced his instrument by playing along to the radio, mimicking every steel lick he heard. Later, when country artists came through town and needed a pick-up band, he found himself landing the job. “I backed Johnny Paycheck at 11,” he remembers. “I got embraced by all the old guard [of local musicians] because … I could play what was on the radio. Back in those days, artists like Johnny Paycheck, Jean Shepard, and Billy Walker didn’t have their own bands. They’d come to the area, and they’d have pickup bands.” A veteran of those pick-up bands at a young age, Franklin racked up hours of stage time while other boys his age were finishing their math homework.
The secret to playing pedal-steel guitar like Franklin? Don’t focus so much on the pedals.
“The left hand: that’s my primary focus,” says Franklin, who began learning to play the instrument via the Hawaiian-inspired “Oahu method,” which was popular during the Fifties and Sixties. His teacher focused on the basics, giving Franklin enough background – from interval training to general steel mechanics – to continue teaching himself on the days between lessons. He’d originally come into those lessons hoping to learn some Buck Owens hits, but, “She said, ‘Honey, no,'” he remembers. “‘I’m going to teach you what you need to learn.’ It’s not what I wanted, but what I needed.”
The secret to his tone is all in the strings.
Franklin prefers using thicker-gauged strings on his pedal steel, to give the instrument some body. While many players prefer stainless steel strings, he uses nickel instead. “The instrument is brittle to begin with,” he explains, “so you want everything you add to it to be [something] that warms it up. Then you can get the twangy edge if you need it, because that’s just EQ.”
Nashville was inordinately friendly and laidback during the 1970s, when Franklin first moved to town.
“It was more about the music, and less about the corporate thing,” he says of the town, which has doubled as his home for nearly 50 years. “Once you knew somebody, if they knew you weren’t going to disrupt the [recording] session, you could walk in off the street and watch the session … It was a small town in that sense.”
He’s longtime friends with Vince Gill, dating back to the earliest days of the singer’s career.
“I met Vince when he was in Pure Prairie League,” recalls Franklin, who released the 2013 duets album Bakersfield with Gill. “We hit it off. He played me some demos he was doing. He was kind of wandering – he liked Nashville and wasn’t sure if he was going to head that way.” Several years later, Franklin was asked to join Gill in the studio to record some demos. That led to a proper album session, as well as a request to join Gill on the road. Franklin, who’d already established himself as one of Nashville’s go-to steel sidemen, turned down the touring offer. “I was afraid to leave town, afraid of losing my work,” he admits. Even so, the two eventually did hit the road together, with the Western swing supergroup the Time Jumpers, as well as in support of their Bakersfield project.