We asked Jan Visser to organize a couple of interviews in 2009. Jan Visser decided to organize an interview with Canadian player Al Brisco from Colborne, Ontario. Al is a renown player who performs many steel guitar sessions and runs his own steel guitar shop. It turned out to be an interesting interview.


In Canada and the USA Al Brisco is a household name among steel players. He is one of Canada´s most experienced and tasteful players. Besides a few courses he recorded 2 great CD´s: "Pickin´ Up The Dust" in 1994 and more recently "Pickin´ Your Picks". Al owns the largest Canadian steel guitar shop (Steel Guitars of Canada) servicing steel players worldwide. Many Europeans did not know very much about Al until he toured with the famous Canadian country music band "South Mountain" and played on the Dutch "Steeldays 2000". Al has a friendly character and is commonly known as "Canada´s Ambassador of the Pedal Steel Guitar".







J.V.
I noticed that your rear name ends with "co". Which European country are your roots from? Any idea when your ancestors settled in Canada?

A.B.
On my father´s side, the Brisco name goes back to the village Brisco, south of Carlyle, England near the border of Scotland. First found in Cumberland, England, in the parish of Newbiggan, where from time immemorial the Briscos were Lords of the Manor of Birkskeugh (birk meaning birch wood). On my mother´s side, the Reid name (my middle name) goes back to Paisley, Scotland. Both sides of my parent´s ancestors settled in Canada in the mid to later 1800´s.

J.V.
You were born and raised on the family Appledale farm in Northcote, Ontario. Is that near the place where your steel guitar store is located?

A.B.
Northcote, Ontario is 12 km from Renfrew, which is 100 km west of Ottawa, Canada´s capital. Steel Guitars of Canada (SGC) is app. 2½ hours south-west of Renfrew, & 1¼ hours east of Toronto, Ontario.

J.V.
Canada is an enormous country. Besides that Colborne maybe is a not too large community. Do you get many customers visiting your store or do you ship most of your orders?

A.B.
SGC is app. 3000 km from the east coast (Atlantic) & app. 5000 km from the west coast (Pacific). Colborne is a small village of 2000 people, & SGC is app. 5 km from Colborn where we have 4.4 acres in the country. There are only 5 or 6 steel players in our Northumberland County, & since most of my customers are all over the world I ship most of my orders ... small items via the post office & larger items via courier.

J.V.
How many pedal steels, lap steels and dobros do you stock usually?

A.B.
At present I have 24 pedal steels, 9 lap steels, & 6 resonator guitars.

J.V.
The Carter pedal steel guitar is your current personal favorite, I guess. Besides that you have many Fulawka pedal steels in stock. In your biography I read that in the late 70´s you assisted Eddy Fulawka building steels. How is your current relationship with Fulawka?

A.B.
I talked to Eddy a few weeks ago. Outside of the occasional used steel I get on trade, the only Fulawka steels I have in stock are 3 models that I played back in the 1970´s.

J.V.
Is the pedal steel market a growing one in Canada or have annual sales been at the same level over the past few years?

A.B.
I believe my steel market is growing somewhat. The encouraging aspect is that most every week I get an inquiry from a young guitar player looking to get into pedal steel.


Al at Scotty´s Convention.


J.V.
I guess that you still play gigs now and then. Who is handling your business when you are out playing far from home? Is your wife Betty doing that job or do you have a regular assistant?

A.B.
Yes, I try to keep playing gigs ... usually 40 to 50 per year, as it goes hand-in-hand with the steel guitar store. Since Betty has her own job, I have a part-time bookkeeper & machinist who cover for me while I´m away.

J.V.
I read that your first factory-built pedal steel guitar was a Fender 400. Is the Fender you used for your Mooney style instruction DVD that same guitar?

A.B.
Yes, many years ago I made an effort to find my old pedal steels, & yes the Fender 400 is my original guitar that I used on the Mooney style DVD.

J.V.
When I heard you play on the DVD I got goose bumps. You get so close to the old Mooney style and sound, I guess that even old Moon himself is not able anymore to get any closer! You are not the only player who loves to play the old Mooney style. I guess that once you get hooked to that style you stay in love with it forever! Please comment.

A.B.
I learned to play pedal steel in the mid 1960´s by listening to those old Buck Owens LP´s which featured Ralph Mooney. Remember, this was before cassette players, so I had a turn-table that would play at the half-speed of 33 1/3rd, so the licks were slower but in the same key. Then I would put coins on the tone arm to slow it down to be in pitch with the steel guitar.

J.V.
Do you still listen regularly to the old Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and other Capitol-with-Mooney records?

A.B.
Yes, I sell those re-issue Buck Owens CD´s, & I have the Wynn Stewart box set (Bear Family), which I pull out when I need a ´Mooney Fix´.

J.V.
About 35 years ago I obtained a Canadian record by a steel player named Frank Arnett. He was playing a Fender 1000 pedal steel and he had a few Mooney instrumentals on his album. He had a great rendition of Moonshine. Do you remember him?

Al with Ralph Mooney at the 2009 Texas Steel Jamboree.A.B.
I heard about Frank Arnett from a German steel player, Michael Loewenstein, who was a Mooney freak ... where I did hear Frank´s ´Model T´ record on cassette. I know he sure had the Mooney style ´down to a tee´ as we say. Frank was a US radio operator during WW II, moved to Los Angeles in 1960, playing steel & fixing TV´s, amps & guitars. Then in the late 1960´s he built a recording studio in Madison, Tennessee & over the years has played steel for such artists as Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart & Johnny Russell.

J.V.
On your latest CD, Pickin´ your Picks, you did some great Mooney style playing. I guess that the Mooney style parts are all done on the old Fender 400. Ever since I got hold of that CD I have been listening to it many times, especially during the first few weeks! The old Fender sound is very distinctive from the modern, almost stereotyped sounds we heard over the past decade. Don´t you think that using sounds and styles different from the modern ones may be an opportunity to blow new life into the popularity of the pedal steel?

A.B.
Yes, it is surprising how many people like the sound of the old Fender cable guitar, however they are not easy to play. One of the most comments I get from people is that my sound & song selection is ´not the same old thing´ that everyone else is playing.


Al at the Mid-Canada SGC Winnipeg 2003.


J.V.
You did a great job using quite a few different effects on your latest CD, such as a dobro effect, an E-bow and the talking effect. As most of these effects, if not all, are very much suited for use on the pedal steel, would you recommend steel players to use such effects more frequently?

A.B.
Effects are good only when they are used sparingly. I find the ´Dobro simulator´ effect unit to be one of the most useful.

J.V.
Getting back to the old Fender pedal steels. They were ill-famed as real string breakers. The first models (and the one you used on the Mooney style instruction DVD) had a simple non roller bridge next to the changer levers. After a while Fender introduced a roller bridge instead but the string breaking problem remained. I think that this was the reason why many Fender steel players of that time went to an Eb9th- or even a D9th-tuning. Mooney and consequently the Buckaroos all dropped their tunings half a tone. But maybe this had nothing to do with the string breakage problem. Did you use the regular 8-string E9th on the Fender or did you drop your tuning too?

A.B.
In the mid 1960´s I tuned my Fender 400 to a D9th, using a ´High G´ banjo string for the 1st string. (which is a F# using the D9th tuning).

J.V.
Mooney had the raise of his high G# and his lower G# string on 2 different pedals. I think that he did this to reduce breakage of the high G# string as much as possible. Do you share this opinion?

A.B.
Your deduction is a possibility. Since Ralph is credited with adding the high G# to the ´E´ tuning, I would assume he simply put it on a separate pedal, as he did with most of his pulls on the Fender 1000, with the main reason being to make the pedal action easier, as the pedals are quite stiff on these cable guitars.

J.V.
I guess that you have ever met Ralph Mooney in person. Tell me something about it.

A.B.
I get to visit with Ralph when both of us are attending &/or performing at the International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, MO, or The Texas Steel Jamboree in Irving, TX (near Dallas). I had a good chat with Ralph this year (2009) at the Texas show. I also give him a phone call periodically.Al adjusting a PSG.

J.V.
When you built your first pedal steel, who told you to use the E9th tuning and the "regular" setup? Or did you just pick it up by ear?

A.B.
A local singer named Jack Burant from Renfrew, Ontario had seen the E9th copedent in a ´Country Song Round-up´ magazine & had attempted to make a single neck pedal steel. I would drowl over the pictures of the Fender 400 & 1000 brochures at the local music store, and since I had no money to purchase a factory-made pedal steel I proceded to build one. My Sho-Pal evolved by obtaining to cheap (department store) 6 steel lap steels, & then using a picture of Pete Drake´s Sho-Bud on the front of a Starday LP, I went to the hardware store & purchased plywood for the body, pipes & fittings for the legs, etc. Jack had figured out how to make a pull-only single finger & bell crank, so there we were in the chicken coop on the Burant farm in the middle of winter (very cold) in 1963 welding these primitive parts to put on the front neck of my Sho-Pal. It was a nightmare trying to keep this guitar in tune, however it got me started, & I still have it in my collection.

J.V.
Were you familiar with Bud Isaacs around those days?

A.B.
No, I never really knew about Bud Isaac in those days.


on Stage.


J.V.
Where did you learn how to mute the strings or did you find out about it yourself just naturally? Or did you have a totally wrong start and - like many - had to adjust your technique later on?

A.B.
I think I learned the right hand technique from copying Ralph Mooney´s style. I never really concentrated on it & it just came from imitating his sound. I must also give credit to Lloyd Green, as I started to emulate his style in the late 1960´s which probably influenced my right hand technique more than anyone else.

J.V.
Please tell me something about your favorite gear.

A.B.
Even after 15 years I still find the Carter pedal steel as my favorite ... as they sound good, are comfortable & play in tune. The Premium Edged Neck & ´new´ Alumitone pickup are great enhancements. I also enjoy the Evans RE200 amp for its light weight (11.5 kg), plus the tight sound of the 10" speaker.

J.V.
In Europe it is not very common to become a professional musician. Is it because many Canadians have a more pioneer like spirit that you decided to make music your career?

A.B.
I think it was more a situation of ´timing´ & luck, as I went right out of high-school into playing music 6 nights per week in clubs with a road band, & continued to do so until Al at Scotty´s Convention.the early 1980´s, when I met Betty & started working at Cosmo Music in Richmond Hill, Ontario until 1990. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to make a living playing music while improving my playing skills. It is not the same in today´s world as times have changed, & therefore the new players today do not have this chance to play every night & get paid for it.

J.V.
How did you get involved in session work? Were there some well-known studios in your area or was it because there were not many good pedal steel guitarists in Canada at that time?

A.B.
While playing a Saturday matinee at The Belvedere Club in London, Ontario with ´The Sons of The Saddle´ in the late 1960´s, one of Canada´s big name country music singer/producer´s named Gary Buck (now deceased) came in to hear us. Upon hearing me play he asked if I be interested in doing some sessions. One of the first sessions I did with him was for a Canadian singer/songwriter named Dick Damron, where we cut the hit tune ´Countryfied´. Some years later I also cut the tune with George Hamilton IV. I did a lot of session work (mostly in Toronto) between the late 1960´s through the 1970´s.

J.V.
When you went to play on the road with several - sometimes famous artists or bands you had to do a lot of travelling. From schedules in music papers I know that many artists had to play on the west coast and head for the east coast next day. I guess that you had to travel a lot too. Wasn´t that terribly exhausting?

A.B.
We were lucky to have a lot of work within our province of Ontario within 3 to 6 hour drives. When we did western or eastern tours we usually tried to play several engagements within the same geographic location for at least 3 to 4 weeks at a time.

J.V.
In my opinion around the late 60´s early 70´s the pedal steel became quite popular in rock music under the influence of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Commander Cody and quite a few others. Is this the type of music you played with Ronnie Hawkins or was it just his and your own rock style?

A.B.
Of the groups you mentioned above I was really only into the Poco group with Rusty Young on steel. While playing with Ronnie Hawkins I adapted the pedal steel to his rock-a-billy style, & especially the slide guitar sound of Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers. As Duane played on some of Ronnie´s recordings, I tried to copy his style & sound using a fuzz tone on the pedal steel.


Al and Steve at Scotties.


J.V.
Even to this day I think that this period was the golden era for the pedal steel guitar. And indeed, many new effects, like a Leslie organ speaker and a fuzz tone, were used on the pedal steel. Sneaky Pete Kleinow used a distinctive tuning and a sometimes guitar-like style and mixed the more traditional country steel guitar style with pure rock. Unfortunately this golden era lasted only a few years. I read that among the many notables you backed up during that period you played with Frank Zappa, who maybe was as far from country music as one can get. Tell me something about it.

A.B.
While playing with Ronnie Hawkins I used a 130 Leslie speaker (retro-fitted with a JBL D-130 & a 110 watt EV horn driver), with the Leslie controls clipped onto the right-hand legs of the pedal steel, one switch to control the Slow (choral) & Fast speed of the Leslie, while with the other switch I could choose between using the amp speaker, the Leslie speaker, or both at the same time. While playing a house gig at The Al Brisco and Steve Piticco.Nickelodeon with Ronnie in Toronto, many famous singers & musicians would drop in to sit-in with our band. One evening Frank Zappa sat in with us, & after hearing me play, he asked me to move to California to play with him. I decided not to make the move ... who knows where that would have led me?

J.V.
I guess that the E9th tuning is your most used one. During the country rock period many players used the C6th tuning as it is more suited to play classic rock and blues chord combinations. Did you use a lot of C6th yourself? Do or did you play much western swing or jazz?

A.B.
Yes, I am mainly an E9th player which is the tuning I used for the rock & blues music. I play some western swing (& would love to play more if the band or gig demanded it), but do not profess to play jazz.

J.V.
Your biography tells that you were instrumental in starting the Steel Guitar Club Of Canada in 1979. You are still very active in operating this Club. I guess they have a periodic magazine. Are you doing a lot of writing for it? Tell me something about the Club and the magazine, which are quite unknown in Europe.

A.B.
The Steel Guitar Club of Canada was conceived by Al Gain & myself after attending Scotty´s I.S.G.C. in St. Louis in 1979. I operated SGCC from its inception till I left Cosmo Music in 1990, at which time I changed the operation to Steel Guitars of Canada, becoming a retail operation offering a large variety of items for steel & resonator guitar players. I now publish a yearly newsletter/catalog which is available in .pdf format from my web site at www.steelguitarcanada.com for which I do all the writing.

J.V.
Since we can get a lot of information from the internet, doesn´t the magazine have a hard time to keep sufficient subscribers?

A.B.
We found that we could only attract app. 300 subscribers, even back in the late 1980´s before the advent of the internet, hence we decided to make the change.

J.V.
Does the Club organize Conventions? Tell me something about the regular players. Do you have players from the USA, Japan and Europe now and then?

A.B.
In the 1980´s we held several steel guitar conventions which were underwritten by Cosmo Music. Currently we hold a ´Steel Guitar Pickin´ Party´ on our property on a Saturday in the latter part of July ... for this year it is July 25, 2009. Along with some of our name Canadian players such as Bob Taillefer & Steve Smith, etc., we do have occassional players from the USA. This ´Pickin´ Party´ features a house band in the center of a tent surrounded by 20 to 30 steel players, where each player will take a turn playing a verse or chorus & then pass it on to the next player.

J.V.
You played Scotty´s International Steel Guitar Convention regularly since 1982. Although you are a very experienced player don´t such occasions scare the hell out of you?

A.B.
Yes, it is always nerve wracking. I remember asking Buddy Emmons in the 1980´s when he was playing one of our conventions ... "Buddy, I don´t know about you, but I get very nervous when playing Scotty´s convention". Buddy´s answer was ... "Multiply your state of nervousness by 10 times, & you have mine".


Al Brisco PSG Seminar Vasa Finland 2008.


J.V.
Do you sometimes give private lessons or are you just teaching in seminars? What is the most important part of your teaching? Playing technique, harmonic insight or just melodies and licks?

A.B.
Yes, I give private lessons as well as seminars. I try to teach the Nashville Number System, (as it is so good for understanding basic scales & chord structures), & how they are incorporated into melodies & licks. Of course I try to teach the right & left hand as well as the volume pedal techniques.

J.V.
Tell me something about Cosmo Music. Most European players do not know anything about it.

A.B.
Cosmo Music is a music store in Richmond Hill, Ontario where I worked from 1980 to 1990, into which I took my steel guitar business with the understanding that I could take it with me if I left the company ... which I did. I am still friends with the owners & staff & they have just opened one of the most modern & unique music stores in the world.

J.V.
I read that you assist your wife Betty in "other business partnerships, including establishing their Complimentary/Alternative Health Care Business". Please comment.

A.B.
Betty is currently working in sales for Futuremed, a ´wound care product´ company, with her territory being eastern Ontario, so it keeps her within a 1 to 3 hour drive from her accounts. At one time we were involved in Alternative Health Care, but have stepped aside as we are both too busy with our respective businesses.

J.V.
Already in the beginning of the 80´s several well-known players, Paul Franklin being one of them, vented the opinion "that the pedal steel guitar would not survive, if everyone Al concerting in a moving bus.would be playing the same stereotyped things over and over again". Despite the many efforts to show the versatility of the pedal steel by playing rock, jazz, classical and even new age music, most people at least outside the USA and Canada only know the instrument from country music. Most European people even do not know what a pedal steel guitar is. Most of the time hearing the intro of "Teach your Children" or "Top of the World" suddenly makes the listener realize that he or she is familiar with the sound of the instrument (but did not know the name of it). Isn´t this frustrating? I mean the development of the instrument dates from more than 70 years ago and the country pedals were invented around 55 years ago.

A.B.
I consider the steel guitar as kind of a Love/Hate instrument ... either you love it or hate it, combined with the fact that it is expensive to get involved, contributes to the fact that most music stores do not stock them or have any staff that know anything about them. Perhaps if more pedal steelers were ´showmen´ on the level with Robert Randolf, etc., it might enhance the visibility of the pedal steel guitar.

J.V.
What is your opinion about a Universal tuning? Wouldn´t it be one way to get away from many stereotypes? Or do you think that the pedal steel will be always loved primarily by country music fans?


Al concerting in a bus.


A.B.
I highly recommend the Universal tuning to new players who do not have a D-10 history. Hopefully the future pedal steel players will take the instrument into new markets, while it will still always be loved by country music fans.

J.V.
In the Netherlands the lap steel regained much popularity during the last few years. But most new players are using it as a toy. They use G, A or E tunings, not allowing themselves any "colored" chord or even quick single string runs. And most of them use their self-taught playing technique. In this way they get not on purpose - as far from country or Hawaiian music sounds as they can get (although many new players are not even aware of the fact that a lap steel ever was used in these types of music). Of course many steel fanatics may think that this is a sad development. However, this way the lap steel is no longer a "stereotyped" instrument. The pedal steel is a chord instrument and an effects instrument. Do you think that we will ever see the pedal steel go the same way as the lap steel did recently?

A.B.
I hope so.

J.V.
Are you planning new projects in the near future? Is there anything you want to add to this interview?

A.B.
I am planning on bringing out a new DVD instruction course, primarily directed towards the Beginner to Intermediate player, covering such aspects as set-up, installing strings, tuning, minor adjustments, the Nashville Number System, etc. I Thank You for the opportunity to address your questions, & hopefully our paths will cross again in the near future. Keep Steelin´ ... Al Brisco

J.V.
Thank you very much for your answers Al. I wish you and Betty a good health and much success with your careers.


Interview by Jan Visser. May.2009.

Photographs courtesy of:
Michael G. Scott, Jim Harrison and Al Brisco.


DISCOGRAPHY

LP's/CD's

  • Pickin´ Up The Dust, instrumental CD 1994
  • Pickin´ Your Picks, instrumental CD 2007


BOOKS/DVD's

  • Pedal Steeling, Tab & CD - a Beginner´s E9th course
  • Pickin´ Up The Dust, Tab Book w/RT CD - Instruction course for all 10 tunes from the CD
  • The Bakersfield Sound - Ralph Mooney Style, DVD w/Tablature - Video instruction course co-produced with Joey Ace in 2006