With a slide of the steel bar down the guitar fret, the jam was in full swing.
Sharon Denney nimbly worked her fingers over the strings of one of her steel guitars. The Whiteland resident simultaneously pressed pedals below the long, boxy instrument.
The unique form and construction of the instrument makes for a sound that echoes and reverberates with melody. And when you get six or seven of them together to jam, the cacophony can be angelic, at least to its fans.
The twangy sound of the pedal steel guitar is ingrained in the traditional sounds of country, bluegrass and Hawaiian music. To help keep the music alive, the Indy Steel Guitar Club has formed to devote itself to practicing, playing and expanding the exposure the steel guitar receives.
“Some clubs focus on education. We just want to get together and play,” Denney said. “Everyone plays it different. When you get together, you can pick up different things from people, how to do this or how to do that.”
The steel guitar was created in Hawaii in the late 1800s, converted from a Spanish guitar to raise the strings up off the fretboard. Electric versions allowed for pedals so players could make different sound effects.
“It has strings like a regular guitar, but instead of pushing the strings down with your fingers, you use a steel bar,” Denney said. “Then the pedals cause it to slide from one note to another. It’s not abrupt.”
Denney started playing in the 1970s, when she took lessons from an Indianapolis studio run by the Harlan Brothers. The brothers developed a steel guitar called the Multi-Kord, one of the first steel guitars.
Over the course of three years, she learned the intricacies of the instrument, how to work the pedals and slide the strings to make its fluid trademark sounds. By the time she was a teenager, she was a teacher for the Harlan Brothers.
“Everybody was playing it down there, and I thought it sounded pretty,” she said. “That was my first instrument.”
Shortly after, she joined the Indy Steel Guitar Club. The club was founded in the mid-1980s by Amos Arthur, owner of Fountain Square staple Arthur’s Music Store.
The store is still one of the few in Indiana that sells steel guitars. Whenever customers buy one, the store pays for the buyer’s first year’s dues with the club.
“That’s a a valuable important thing because pedal steel could be like blacksmithing. It could just go by the wayside if there aren’t people who know it,” said owner Linda Osborne, Arthur’s daughter. “If we can help them gain more knowledge and keep more interest and be around people who know it, it helps them and the club.”
Jerry Fessenden, one of Denney’s friends, is one of the country’s premier craftsmen of pedal steel guitars. His guitars have been used by players such as Eddie Gossien, who plays steel for country star Daryl Worley’s steeler, as well as Toby Keith’s steel guitar player, Josh Bertrand.
Robert Randolph, a breakout steel guitar player who has headlined Bonnaroo and played before tens of thousands of people, uses Fessenden’s guitars.
The steel guitar community is one that is small but tight-knit, Fassenden said.
“It reaches out to a broad range of people. It crosses distance. I’m friends with people all over the country that play. You just get to know these people from all parts of the U.S. and the world,” he said.
That community is on display at the Indy Steel Guitar Club.
While the club came together, it was an opportunity to practice songs, try out new techniques and jam a little bit. About 50 people belong to the club, ranging from professional musicians to amateurs from Terre Haute, Evansville and Marion.
They conduct yearly concerts to help bring in money for the club, as well as spread the word of steel guitar playing. This year’s concert will be hosted by the Greenwood American Legion and feature national recording artist Doug Jernigan.
Fessenden also will be one of 11 guests playing that night.
“Steel guitar clubs are a real way to keep this music going. This one has been here for years and years,” he said.