Jan Visser had a large interview with former wingman of Buck Owens. The steel player who done many sessions. The man who's got his own Branson show. And former owner of ZB Pedal Steels. We talk about Pedal Steel Guitar Player Tom Brumley.


Born in Stella, Missouri on December 11, 1935, as one of the sons of the famous gospel songwriter Albert E. Brumley, it was almost natural that Tom Brumley went to play a musical instrument. Inspired by the sound of steel guitars he heard on the Grand Ole Opry shows, he decided that he wanted to play a steel guitar. After many years of playing a non pedal steel guitar, around the end of 1960 Tom (just married then) got his first real pedal steel guitar. Soon he got a chance to do a session in the Capitol studios in California (with his brother Al). Famous country singer Buck Owens happened to walk in, which 2 years later led to the beginning of the brilliant career of Tom Brumley....Tom not only made his fame with Buck Owens (which started off with his Tom's great solo in "Together Again"), but also with famous rock singer Rick Nelson. For many years Tom's name was synonymous with the ZB guitar. During the past 1½ decade he divided his work between doing a regular playing job on the Brumley Show (together with his brother Albert and with his sons Todd and Tommy) in Branson MO and recording sessions, most notably with Dwight Yoakam, Boxcar Willie, The Desert Rose Band, Sara Evans, Janie Frickie, and many others. In 1992 Tom was inducted in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Jerry Byrd, one of Tom's favourite (non pedal) steel players, always has been famous for his fantastic creativity, playing style and tone. There is no doubt that Tom himself became another "master of touch & tone". Here is an extensive interview with the artist who inspired hundreds (if not thousands) of steel guitar players.







J.V.
How many days a year are you on the Brumley show?

T.B.
About 300.

J.V.
Does the repertoire exclusively exist of gospel material?

T.B.
No, we do lot of the songs that I re-corded with Buck, Rick and some of Dwights and Tom Brumley, Ralph Mooney and Fred Jackothers. We also do a lot of comedy and a lot of my father's gospel songs.

J.V.
How many visitors does the show draw annually (averagely)?

T.B.
Our theatre seats 550 and we average throughout the year about 300 a day.

J.V.
Are there any CD's out of the Brumley "family"?

T.B.
Yes, we have one CD that my son Todd did of 10 of my father's songs and just recorded another one with our quartet, which will be out soon. I also have two steel guitar CD's: "In Time", which I recorded recently and "Tom Cattin" which features 14 instrumentals that I recorded when I was with Buck.

J.V.
Do you play any instrumentals in the show?

T.B.
Yes.

J.V.
I read, that your brother Albert did a gospel recording with Merle Haggard. Did you play on that session, or did Merle use his regular steel player?

T.B.
No, Merle used his band.

J.V.
Considering your age, do you have plans to retire yet?

T.B.
No, as long as it's just fun and doesn't turn into work, I'll just keep playing.

J.V.
How old is your brother Albert? Is there a follow up, when he retires?

T.B.
Al is 67 and no, he doesn't have anyone who will follow in his steps.

J.V.
Are your sons Todd and Tommy still working in the show?

Tom Brumley doing his hall of fame introduction speech

T.B.
Yes, they are and they have turned into fine musicians and they are a real help to me in running the show.

J.V.
How many recording sessions do you do annually (averagely)?

T.B.
I don't do any sessions anymore because I have to travel to Los Angeles and Nashville and they just aren't as much fun as they used to be.

J.V.
Are most of these in the Branson area?

T.B.
I very seldom do any here.

J.V.
Do most producers hire you for your "Tom Brumley sound" or do they simply want to have a good (or the best) steel guitar player from the area?

T.B.
I think most of them hire me because of my style.

J.V.
You play an (Australian?) Anapeg pedal steel guitar. This is quite uncommon, as most famous American players play American brands. What is so special about the Anapeg?

T.B.
It's such a precision built guitar, you just really have to see one to believe what a great guitar it is.

J.V.
How did you come to play this relatively unknown brand?Tom Brumley

T.B.
A friend of mine, Al Perkins, introduced me to this guitar. He got one first and I loved it, so I ordered one. I now have two Anapeg guitars and one lap steel.

J.V.
Your Anapeg has a keyless tuner. The advantage of this is, that the instrument stays in tune very well. However, with most keyless tuners it is a bug to put on new strings. Playing in the same location each day (like you do on the Brumley show) has the advantage that you can take your time replacing strings at regular intervals before they break. On the other hand most short bodied guitars have a less good sound than guitars with a standard length. What is your opinion?

T.B.
First place, it doesn't break strings. I never have to replace one until I replace the whole set, which is once a week. As far as the sound is concerned, I think it's the best I've ever had.

J.V.
Does the Anapeg get you the unorthodox sound you have been making during the past few years, is it the special equipment you use, is it the way you adjust your equipment or is it simply a different way of playing?

T.B.
My technique, I think, has more to do with it than my equipment.

J.V.
What type of pickup is on the Anapeg?

T.B.
Noel Anstead, who builds the Anapeg, winds his own pickups.

J.V.
I know that you have been experimenting with several amplifiers during the past decade. What is your favourite equipment at present?Tom Brumley

T.B.
I have a 1964 and 1965 Fender Twin Reverbs with JBL's and two '59 reissue Bassman's. I also have the original Fender Bassman that I used on "Together Again". These are my favourite amps.

J.V.
Is the Anapeg the only pedal steel you play regularly or do you still often use your Mullen?

T.B.
I still use the Mullen occasionally, and my Z.B., but my main guitar is the Anapeg.

J.V.
What made you get away so far from that old ZB sound?

T.B.
I think my sound and me are mellowing with age.

J.V.
Do you still have a few of your old ZB's?

T.B.
Yes, I have 5 Z.B.'s, including the one I used on the Carnegie Hall album.

J.V.
You have been using many different ZB's during your career. I guess you did not change so many times because of wearing them out. Was it just fun to have a new guitar from time to time or was it mainly for endorsing the ZB?


Tom Brumley playing a Mullen PSG.


T.B.
It was mainly for endorsing the Z.B. or because I wanted some changes in the pedal set-up.

J.V.
If I am right, you have been the head of the ZB Company on and off. One time in Bakersfield, California, a short time in Phoenix, Arizona, and later on in Austin, Texas. How many years were between the time you quit buying and selling the ZB until Basil Smith restarted the company?

T.B.
I had the Z.B. Guitar Co. from 1969 to 1985. I sold it to Basil Smith in 1985.

J.V.
As far as I know, Basil was the last one to build ZB guitars. He was sadly killed in a car Tom Brumleyaccident, while having a massive heart attack. Did anyone pick up the manufacturing again since then or was this the end of the ZB history?

T.B.
Well, after his death, his wife sold everything. I guess that's the end of Z.B.

J.V.
Does Al Perkins still play his ZB?

T.B.
He still has his ZB, but like me, his main guitar is the Anapeg.

J.V.
Who originated the 11-string tuning? Was it Zane Beck? I know of Bobby Garrett playing an 11-string pedal steel guitar in the late 60's.

T.B.
I don't know who originated it, but I ordered my first one in 1965 because I wanted an E string on the bottom of the E9th tuning.

J.V.
I know, that the tuning you use, enables you to make wide spread 9th-chords and Maj.9th-chords like one does on the C6th tuning. Do you use it that way?

T.B.
Yes, I do. That's one reason I put it on.

J.V.
Did you use your low E-string often when playing with Buck Owens and with Ricky Nelson?

Tom at the Oklahoma SG Convention

T.B.
Yes, if you listen to the Carnegie Hall album you can hear me playing Don Rich licks in the background while he was singing harmony with Buck. That's the main reason I put the 11th string on.

J.V.
You are one of a few to use an extra (floor) pedal on the E9th tuning. Your first pedal is a little mysterious to many players. Please mention a few examples where you use that pedal.

T.B.
On the song "In Time", on the "In Time" album, I used it extensively. That pedal raises 10 and 7 a whole tone.

J.V.
Looking at old tuning charts, there is a little obscurity about your pedal set up. Some charts put the E-D# lowering on the LKR lever and the E-F raise on the LKL. Other charts put it the other way around. Which were right?

T.B.
E-D# on the LKR is right. E-F raise on LKL is right. >>

J.V.
Also some charts showed an F#-G raise on your RKRF lever, while others showed F#-G#. Which were right?

T.B.
F#-G is right.

J.V.
What is the function of your LKLF lever?

T.B.
Raises the 4th string, E to F#.

J.V.
I read that you got your first pedal steel around the end of 1960. Considering, that you did your first sessions with Buck in 1963, you must have been practicing a lot. It is almost unbelievable, that a player learns to master his instrument so well in such a short time and besides that becomes a true stylist. Did this all come naturally or did you spend many hours of practicing?

T.B.
Actually, I put a pedal on the triple neck Fender in 1954, and then I got a Fender 1000 in 1960.

J.V.
What happened to Jay MacDonald (your predecessor) after he left the Buckaroos, or did you loose track?

T.B.
After he left Buck he became a black jack dealer at a casino in Las Vegas. That was the last I ever heard of him.

J.V.
One time you wrote, that on your first live gig with Buck you used an old Fender, Buck had for you. The guitar turned out to be in bad shape: some strings were ripped off, one pedal was broken. Do you believe that this was actually the steel guitar of Jay MacDonald's?

T.B.
Yes, it was Jay's guitar. It had only two working pedals on the guitar. That's the guitar I used on "Together Again".

J.V.
The Fender 1000 you used on the first studio sessions with Buck, was this the first model (with a roller bridge, which caused a lot of string breakage)?

T.B.
All the Fender 1000's had a lot of string breakage.

J.V.
Is it true, that the Buckaroos were tuned half a tone down, so the steel player would have less string breakage on the high G#?

T.B.
We were tuned down half a tone because Buck felt it would give us a little different sound. Not for the benefit of the steel, although it did help the string breakage and as well as making the pedal action easier.

J.V.
Ralph Mooney is generally credited for being the first to put a high G# on the E9th pedal guitar tuning. But Don Helms (and maybe also Little Roy Wiggins by then) had it already on their non-pedal guitars. In my opinion Helms and Wiggins were responsible for the "appeal", which made the later E9th pedal guitar tuning so popular (outside the Isaacs pedal effect of course). Helms and Wiggins both were idols of yours. I guess you had a few conversations with Mooney now and then. Please, give comments on the high G#-string matter.

T.B.
Ralph and I have had lots of conservations, but not about that! I don't know who's responsible for that.

J.V.
Do you remember the 8-string tuning you used with your first sessions with Buck? Did you have a high F# on the outside or was it straight G#, E, B and so on?

T.B.
My tuning began with G#.

Tom Brumley at the Texas Steel Jamboree

J.V.
How did you learn about the E9th pedal guitar tuning anyway? I mean: Fender did not deliver their guitars with a "Nashville" set up.

T.B.
I learned about it from Bud Isaacs. I met him right after "Slowly", the record he cut with Webb Pierce, and he let me play his guitar. That's the same night I put the first pedal on my guitar. A friend and I worked all night and finally got it working about noon the next day.

J.V.
In old Buck Owens songs such as "Close up the honky tonks", "You're welcome anytime" and "This ol' heart", you had a very thin sound, while in "Bud's bounce" your sound was more like Mooney's. Was it simply the adjustment of your equipment or was this the sound of the Fender when you put the neck selector switch in the middle position? (If you remember all that. After all this is almost 40 years ago!).

T.B.
No, they gave me a new Fender 1000. I didn't like it at all because they changed the pickups. I also used the Fender Bandmaster Amp on those recordings, which was a thinner sound. Shortly after that, is when I met Zane Beck and switched to Z.B.

J.V.
Did you choose the thin sound on purpose to get away from the Mooney sound? Or was it Ken Nelson's idea
(or Buck's)?

T.B.
Just the guitar.

J.V.
With Buck you used both the smooth ballad style and a more fast picking style that may have been your rendition of the "West Coast" style. About the latter: did Buck want you to do it that way or was it just your way to play fast licks?

T.B.
Buck never ever asked me to play any certain way. I was free to play what I wanted.

J.V.
I do not know if you remember the song "Understand your man", sung by Doyle Holly. In that song you used a dobro-like sound. Did you mute your strings by using a special (softer) bar or did you use the muting device (if present) of your Fender steel?

T.B.
You know, I don't remember what I did. But, I think I just used a plastic comb.

J.V.
In an old interview I read, that you found it hard sometimes to fit in Buck Owens' music. Tom Brumley playing the Anapec, Atlanta 1997Or did you simply get tired of doing the "Together again" lick over and over again in similar songs? Nevertheless you became famous by what you did with Buck. Please give your comments.

T.B.
I was raised up listening to Jerry Byrd and other steel players on the Grand Old Opry. Buck's music was different than what I was used to and I guess that made me play differently.

J.V.
Were the Buckaroos a real team, or was it Buck and Don & the rest of the Buckaroos?

T.B.
No, Buck treated us all the same and we were a team! We all got along great.

J.V.
Around 1968 Buck's music was really stretching out. This certainly was not inspiring to you. Was this one of the reasons you left the Buckaroos?

T.B.
No, I left the Buckaroos because I was tired of travelling and I had other things I wanted to do.

J.V.
Was not it a terrible shock when Don Rich was killed in a motor accident? You were no longer a member of the Buckaroos when that happened. Did you attend the funeral? (If no comments, it is fine with me).

T.B.
It was really a shock to hear about Don! I didn't attend the funeral because I was in Hawaii with Rick Nelson at the time. Don was a great friend and actually lived across the street from me.

J.V.
Don was a great musician. Was he inspiring to you?


Tom Brumley


T.B.
Absolutely! I've heard a lot of players try to sound like Don Rich, but I never heard Don try to play like anyone else but Don.

J.V.
You must have met several famous steel players in the Capitol studios: Ralph Mooney, Norm Hamlet, Bobby Garrett and maybe even Curly Chalker. Did you exchange ideas?

T.B.
They were all friends of mine but the only one I really exchanged ideas with was Bobby Garrett. He showed me a lot of licks I used on some of Buck's records.

J.V.
Did you do any sessions with other Capitol artists when you were a "Buckaroo", or did not Buck allow for that?

T.B.
No, we only recorded with Buck during that time.

J.V.
When Dwight Yoakam brought Buck Owens back to recording and reintroduced part of Tom Brumley playing the Anapecthe Bakersfield sound, it was almost natural that he hired you to do the steel playing. Did you play any sessions with Buck since then?

T.B.
No.

J.V.
From when to when did you play with Rick Nelson?

T.B.
1969-1979.

J.V.
How became Rick interested in you as a steel man? After all, his music was totally different from Buck Owens' music.

T.B.
Rick said he had always liked steel and was familiar with me and called me to do the "Live At The Troubadour" album. I loved his music and what he was doing and I stayed for 10 years.

J.V.
Why did you leave Rick's band?

T.B.
He began working a lot more days than I wanted to be gone and I had other opportunities I wanted to do.

J.V.
Another highlight of your career, I think, was being a member of the "Desert Rose Band" with Chris Hillman. Were you an actual member or was it just the recording session and a short tour?

T.B.
I was an actual member and recorded and toured with them for three years.

J.V.
When Jay Dee Maness and John Jorgenson left the "Desert Rose Band", the band lost Tom Brumleythe most important part of their unique sound (outside the singing part of course). Did you try to fit in the original sound or did Chris Hillman want you to do your own thing?

T.B.
Chris just let me do my own thing. They were a bunch of great guys and great musicians and I really enjoyed playing with them.

J.V.
Please, mention some artists you have done sessions with in the past decade.

T.B.
Dwight Yoakam, Martina McBride, Desert Rose Band, Steve Wariner, Glen Campbell, Patty Loveless, Merle Haggard, Sara Evans, Rosie Flores, Chris Isaacs.

J.V.
A few years ago you recorded your wonderful "In time" CD. Did you have a special meaning with that title?

T.B.
People would ask me when I was going to do an album and I would tell them: in time. When I finished it, I thought that would be an appropriate name for it.

J.V.
Was it your own idea to record a CD or were you approached by a producer?

T.B.
No, I did this on my own. I got Vic Clay to help me produce it, he was a big help.

J.V.
Did the CD sell satisfactory?

T.B.
Yes and its still selling. My big market is the (Brumley) show.

J.V.
Did you get any negative comments on doing so little Buck Owens material or on using the lap steel?

T.B.
No, not to my knowledge.

J.V.
Are you planning to do any more solo projects?

T.B.
Yes, I'm working on another one right now.

J.V.
Do you know about any plans to reissue the Pacific Steel Co. album as a CD?

T.B.
No, I don't.

J.V.
Do you still use a double neck guitar now and then, or is your 11-string single neck "universal" enough to fill your musical needs?

T.B.
No, I only use my 11 string and my lap steel. I can get all the C6th sounds I want out of my E9th tuning.

J.V.
Do you use both palm blocking and pick blocking or did you stick with palm blocking only?

T.B.
I only use palm blocking.

J.V.
You did a few C6th (pedal steel guitar) solos on older recordings. What is your affinity with that (pedal steel guitar) tuning? After all you are a fantastic C6th player on the lap steel.

T.B.
I really don't have much interest in the C6th pedal tuning. My favourite sound of the C6th is that of Jerry Byrd.

J.V.
Jerry Byrd was (and probably still is) one of your great idols. Is it the love for his style of playing that made you pick up the lap steel more and more again?

Tom Brumley, Shot Jackson, Bud Isaacs

T.B.
Yes. I just love what Jerry played on the old 7 string Rickenbacher. What a sound!!

J.V.
Do you only play a C6th tuning on your lap steel or do you also use other tunings? Personally I am still amazed by what Jerry did with the E9th tuning on his lap steel.

T.B.
I'm only playing C6th on lap steel, but like you, I'm amazed by what he played on the E9th tuning.

J.V.
Do you also play Hawaiian style music on your pedal steel guitar?

T.B.
Very little.

J.V.
Personally I think, that it is a pity that the pedal steel guitar is being used so little in Hawaiian music. The cause for this maybe is, that many people want to keep that music as "pure" as possible (whatever one means by that). I my country we have many non-pedal Hawaiian steel guitar players. I am trying to convince some of them, that maybe eventually the interest for their music will die if everyone sticks to the old style. Please, give your comments.

T.B.
I don't think so. I think it depends on how good you play.

J.V.
I am sure, that you have met Jerry Byrd a few times. What went through your mind, talking to your long time hero?

T.B.
In 1964 I was playing the Capital Record party in Nashville with Buck. Jerry walked up after the show and was telling me how much he liked my work on "Together Again". Tom Brumley and many Hall Of Fame membersWhat a way to meet your hero! Here he was complimenting me and I had always wanted to tell him how great he was and what an inspiration he'd been for me and was the reason I began playing steel guitar. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

J.V.
You are a very good dobro player also. Which tuning(s) do you use?

T.B.
No, I'm not! In fact, I don't even play it anymore. When I did, I used a straight A and G tuning.

J.V.
You come from a very musical family. Do you sing? Do you play other instruments than steel guitars?

T.B.
No, when I first started playing with my brothers I played upright bass, but I've played only steel ever since.

J.V.
I read that you never gave steel guitar lessons. Did you ever think of putting some of your material on tablature (outside the Buckaroo material)?

T.B.
Yes, I have. Maybe someday I'll get it done.

J.V.
How many times have you been playing at Scotty's International Steel Guitar Convention?

T.B.
I've played it every year that I could, since he started.

J.V.
Are not you nervous at such events?

T.B.
A little at first. If things go good, I get over it. If not, it gets worse.

J.V.
Do you perform at steel guitar festivals now and then, outside Scotty's Convention?

T.B.
Yes, I do a few every year. Scotty and I put one here in Branson at our theatre the first week in February.

J.V.
You have been playing on steel guitar festivals in England and in Norway. Did any Dutch steel guitar organisation invite you to play on one of their future festivals?

"Scotty" DeWitt Scott, Tom Brumley and Bill Myrick

T.B.
I can't remember if they have or not, but I would certainly enjoy doing one.

J.V.
You are married 41 years to Rolene. How many children and grandchildren do you have?

T.B.
We have three children. Tommy has 3 children, Todd has 5 children, and Tracie has 1 cat and 1 dog.

J.V.
Does any of your children or grandchildren play steel guitar?

T.B.
Not yet, but they are still small. I have one grandson that is interested.

J.V.
Do you believe that one universal (whatever that may be) tuning will eventually replace the double neck steel guitar?

T.B.
No, I don't think so.

J.V.
Well Tom. This certainly was a huge interview. It sure was a great honour to me to do an interview with my long time idol! Thank you very much for your many answers. I wish you and Rolene a long and happy life. Trudy and I have never met you personally, but we are looking forward to it!


Interview by Jan Visser. February 2002.

Photographs courtesy of:
Fred Jack, Bill Myrick, Bob Farlow, Tom Brumley, Tom Bradshaw & "Scotty" DeWitt Scott.

DISCOGRAPHY