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Jerry started his professional music career playing a mid-1930's, single neck, six string, lap steel, manufactured by Rickenbacher Electro. He played this fabulous sounding instrument from around 1937-1938 until 1949.
But more about the guitar a little later. Let's start at the beginning.
Jerry Byrd was a perfectionist. Everything had to be just right or it wasn't good enough. That's why his music is so exceptional. Each of his thousands of performances was the best he could do.
Jerry was not satisfied to merely have a guitar. He wanted the complete package in order to develop "the sound" that was so clear in his mind.
He long recommended a plastic thumb pick and two (2) medium (.018) gage Dunlop metal finger picks for creating "his sound".
Jerry's preferred stainless steel bar was a Dunlop 3/4" by 2 3/4", bullet nose with a recessed butt-end that enabled him to make those rapid bar slants with ease.
Al Stotler had this bar and pick display (picture on left) made.
Al and Jerry were lifetime close friends and Jerry provided him with a number of cherished momentos from his career.
Not satisfied with store-bought packaged strings, Jerry experimented until he found the perfect combination of strings that was able to produce "his sound".
In the early days, Jerry used Spanish Guitar strings distributed by the
Gibson Guitar Co. For strings #1, #2 and #3, he used plain, second guitar
strings and used a plain 3rd string for his fourth string position. This
enabled him to play seamless melody lines without the slightest hint of
"string noise" during his many forward and reverse bar slant positions.
Jerry used flat wound strings for the remaining string requirements.
During recent years, Jerry suggested to Wayne Tanner of Belverde, Texas, that Wayne should give up that plain fourth string in lieu of an appropriate gage wound string.
As did most of us beginning students of steel guitar, Jerry used the popular E7th tuning at the outset of his career. He later utilized the C#min tuning during 1939 while appearing on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. A short time later, he was using almost exclusively, the C6th/A7th tuning that he invented during 1938 and perfected by 1939. Although some have disputed this claim, the proof lies in a recording that Ron Dearth made in his studio of Jerry playing in that tuning on February 19, 1939. Jerry's friend Al Stotler held a copy of that recording until his untimely death.
Jerry was quite the innovator and began using various tunings for the different moods individual songs were demanding.
Tunings to a steel guitar player are much like a carpenter's tools are to a carpenter. Each one provides the right ingredients for a specific task. Here are some examples from the top string (E) down:
Emaj E B G# E B E
C#min E C#G# E B E
C6th E C A G E C
Amaj E C#A E C#A
It was not uncommon to see Jerry retune his guitar several times during his many stage performances, so as to have the best tuning for a particular song. During his lengthy career, Jerry is known to have used more than a dozen different tunings in order to adequately enhance his playing.
By the 1960's, Jerry was using his popular C-Diatonic tuning; one that he had been experimenting with since 1952 but simply had not had sufficient time to to explore fully.
His first commercial use of this new tuning was on Ferlin Husky's record of "Next to Jimmy". This tuning provided Jerry with a more "pedal-like" sound which was more suitable for the days following Webb Pierce's "Slowly".
The C-Diatonic tuning was more ideally suited for an eight string guitar but Jerry eventually eliminated the "D" on the second string and ultimately installed this tuning on his 7-string neck of the Sho-Bud.
Prior to having the Sho-Bud made for him, Jerry did use a 7-string Bakelite with silver panels for quite some time but eventually he experienced intolerable problems with the pickup so replaced it temporarily with a white paneled, 7-string, post war model during 1949, that had the smaller 1 1/4" pickups on it. This would have been while he was working once again in Detroit and playing at the West Fort Tavern.
The original C-Diatonic:
E D C B A G F E D C
Jerry points out that this tuning requires lot's of "muting" with the right hand; but, is quick to state that its not actually necessary provided one knows how to slant the bar properly.
By the late 1970's, after Jerry had started using the double neck Sho-Bud in Hawaii, his strings of preference became "Sho-Buds".
Now, back to Jerry's guitars.
The 1930's Rickenbacher guitar was constructed of Bakelite……a new discovery in those days and
was a form of what we know today as plastic. (Home page photo and below
Bowling balls, radios, jewelry and a host of other items were produced with
this new product.
Many of Jerry's most loyal fans attribute his fabulous early day sound to the Bakelite construction that was combined with a 1 ˝ inch horseshoe magnet pickup. It was the perfect combination and produced, along with Jerry Byrd's fantastic talent, one of the most beautiful sounds ever to be heard from a steel guitar.
Jerry indicates that with all of the television shows he was appearing on, and with their very hot studio lighting, the Bakelite guitar's inability to stay in tune was a primary reason for looking for another guitar. He was also having some serious "pick-up" problems with his seven string Bakelite so that was the final blow.
This guitar (left) is now on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, along with the old Volu-Tone amplifier he used at that time. A lifelong friend of Jerry's personally delivered these two items to the Hall of Fame in order to insure their safety. These have been refurbished at least once by Jerry's and my good friend down in Bulverde, Texas, Gentleman-Wayne Tanner. Shortly prior to Jerry's passing, he revealed to me that he sure did miss that little Ric and would truly have enjoyed having it back as they'd gone so far together.
Jerry has mentioned that "this little guitar" was the reason for him leaving home at such an early age. His family gave him the ultimatum of returning the guitar "or else". Jerry did just that, "the or else part of it", and left home to become one of the world's greatest steel guitarists. His guestimate on the value of this guitar today is approximately $25,000; at least in Japan.
During the 1950's, Jerry Byrd upgraded to a seven string, pre-war model of the same Rickenbacher Bakelite steel guitar. He was playing this fine instrument while on WLW Radio in Cincinnati, Ohio, and recorded his popular Decca album "Hi-Fi Guitar" using this guitar.
This album/CD has since been remixed, just prior to Jerry's passing, and is now labeled "Hi-Fi STEEL Guitar" and can be acquired thro' Scotty's Music in St. Louis, Mo. (Photo Jerry's Life and to the right) Jerry says that these guitars are now collector's items.
One of Jerry's many signature affects is often referred to as a "doo-wah" or "train whistle" sound featured on several popular Hank Williams records. He also used this sound but on a single string only......on a Mercury record by Rex Allen and Judy Perkins entitled "Tag Along" as well as Cowboy Copas' King Record "SORRY".
Quite the innovator, Jerry used to perform a popular little feature while on WLW Radio where the announcer would ask Jerry questions and Jerry would respond with near voice-like answers, again, using the guitar's tone control knob to create the affect. To accomplish this, Jerry used a 500 Meg, audio taper "pot".
For his foot pedal, which was rigged to function in exactly the opposite direction of all manufactured volume control foot pedals, Jerry used an audio taper, Type A-B, 0.25 Meg "pot".
During 1952-1953, Jerry used a Trot-More Guitar shown here on the left. It was made of Magnesium and not subject to the radical temperature extremes often encountered in a TV studio.
This guitar was made especially for Jerry and he had hoped to market them along with a complete line of amplifiers, etc. Unfortunately, this business deal fell through.
Just before Jerry's death, he told me that this guitar, while being used extensively by him, was never used on any of his records. He used it regularly on the popular WSM Radio Show "Two Guitars" featuring Chet Atkins and Jerry Byrd.
Since Jerry's passing, I have been provided a hand written letter from Jerry to another fan back during the 1950's wherein Jerry states he had indeed been using this guitar on records of various artists. I guess you'll have to decide the real story.
He also used other people's guitars from time to time but was never satisfied with "the sound" as it didn't sound like Jerry Byrd. For a short time he played an Excel steel. He removed the top string making it a seven string guitar rather than eight. He played it only in Japan. This instrument was ultimately given to his good friend Casey Olson.
Rickenbacher ultimately produced a Jerry Byrd model, single neck, stand alone
guitar which he used for a number of years and on various records. He was
using this a lot during 1964. (below right)
Around March, 1965, Jerry was actively playing a brand new custom, single neck, Fender Steel Guitar, built to his rigid specifications; a long scale neck; different string spacing; the rewinding of the pickup to reduce the high treble tone that he never really cared for. (below left)
Jerry used this guitar on the Bobby Lord, hour long TV Show, five days per week and elsewhere. It was also used on a number of Jerry's records, including his album "Satin Strings". This one-of-a-kind Fender and a seven string Rickenbacher Bakelite were both used on this album. Jerry says "the Fender gave me a new sound, that I felt I needed at that time". It is the only custom steel guitar made by Fender for a non-Fender, instrumental recording artist.......and Jerry now wishes he'd kept it as it is surely a collectors' item.
Jerry has used a number of various instruments during his career, including a 1920's National Resonator (this can be seen on several of Marty Robbin's Video's dubbed "The Drifter" ) and an old, 1930's Rickenbacher Fry Pan. These were used on selected songs based on Jerry's desire to achieve "a certain sound" to go with the lyrics and melody.
Jerry's long time favorite was a double neck, non-pedal, Sho-Bud made for him by (the late) Shot Jackson, Nashville, TN., in about 1965-1966. This guitar was built to the exacting standards established by Jerry. The pickups were wound to Jerry's specifications and one neck was a seven string; the other neck, was an eight string.
This guitar, shown above left, has been gifted to a cherished and close friend, "Scotty" of Scotty's Music, Inc., in St. Louis, Missouri, whom we all know for his contributions to the steel guitar and the kind of music we all love.
During October, 2004, Scotty visited Jerry at his home and after a pleasant visit, they dropped by Harry's Music in order to have the Sho-Bud guitar and Fender amp, prepared for shipping to St.Louis. Scotty reports the guitar arrived in excellent condition however, sadly to say, the amp's cabinet was badly damaged in transit.
Fed Ex picked up the damaged amp for inspection where upon they decided not to honor the "claim" and instead of turning over the damaged goods to Scotty, Fed Ex shipped it back to Honolulu. The folks at Harry's Music are now confident additional damage has been done to the amp. Fed Ex required Scotty to file an additional claim, however this time, as a "lost shipment".
As of December 26th, 2004, Scotty still had not heard back from FedEx. What a terrible situation..........for an amp that made such beautiful music for so many years. Sad, sad, sad.
Scotty assures us that the foot volume pedal, Jerry's picks and bar, along with some other souvenirs.......did make it back to St.Louis safely, as Scotty had placed them in his suitcase.
When it comes to amplifiers:
Jerry over the years has used a variety of amplifiers, namely Volu-Tone. and Rickenbacher.
Jerry selected the Volu-Tone amp as he'd heard that his idol Dick McIntire used such an amp. His best recollection at this time is that the amp had an 8 inch speaker and five tubes. He also remembers that if he pushed the volume too much, it would blow out the speaker cone. Jerry admits that this was a once in a life-time "match-up" for beautiful "Byrd" sound. No other instrument combination could ever equal it.
During 1959, Jerry was using a Rickenbacher M-15 exclusively; this unit had a 15 inch speaker.
By 1968, Jerry was using a Twin Fender Vibro-Verb with 15 inch speaker which he still had during 2003.
On occasion, Jerry has played through the amps of other musicians during recording sessions, even a Magnatone. Jerry has long used a Music Man amp in his teaching studio at Harry's Music, Honolulu, Hi. Jerry has used an older Fender model, Twin reverb amp for the last many years.
For those of you that are curious, Jerry used to use a drummer's stool while he was busily performing on television in Nashville; sorta half sitting and half standing, as he put it. He really didn't start standing to play until after he'd moved to the islands and was playing his Sho-Bud double neck regularly. Even after that, if he was playing his Fry Pan, he'd sit to play otherwise he'd stand with the Sho-Bud........even on recording sessions.
For some of you Rickenbacher "collectors".....be advised that Jerry sold a "mint condition" Bakelite in about 1997 for some $3,500. So, if you've paid less than that, feel very fortunate. He felt that in Japan, that same Rick would likely have brought about $6,000.
PERSONAL COMMENTS from Jerry Byrd:
Thanks to Jerry's brother Jack Byrd, I've received the following comments from Jerry Byrd, some things he felt all aspiring steel guitar players should want to make note of.
When Jerry started recording (his first solo in 1949), "it was a time before there was reverb - we had no reverb, no tracking - no digital - no nothing. They stuck a microphone in your amplifier speaker, leaned it over the back of a chair up into your amp and you played the sound that was in the guitar and that was it."
"Couldn't change anything and it went on the recording medium the same way - before they even had tape - so whatever went on there was what came out of the amplifier speaker - no doctoring like they can do now."
"On the mix down now they can change everything, pitch, tone, everything but back then, you took what came through that speaker and that was it".
"So, I think Skip is going to have to explain all that - that all you're going to hear is pure unadulterated playing, nothing could be jazzed or doctored up or altered in anyway. When the light went on you had to play until it went off. Somebody messes up, you have to go back and start at the beginning. Now, they can splice in, they can put in two or one note, take out two or one note, do all kinds of things, change pitch, change the tone."
"We had to play it from the beginning to the end back then and we had to do four songs in three hours. These were new songs, none of us ever heard before, that's why they recorded them. They were new good songs at the time."
"So you had to create something of your own, but they will never understand that probably. You can explain it, but they will never understand the difficulty factor it was. Many of the songs Ray will put on there, I will have no recall of, at all".
"I don't remember three fourths of the recordings I did, they are a blur. Many people don't realize I was trying to make a living then. I got $41.25 for each session, three hours work per session, and if they sold a million, we got nothing. So, a lot of the records Skip will be putting up, are beyond my recall."
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Steel Guitar: Jerry Byrd