Buddy Emmons

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Buddy Emmons
Birth name Buddy Gene Emmons[1]
Born (1937-01-27)January 27, 1937
Mishawaka, Indiana, United States
Died July 21, 2015(2015-07-21) (aged 78)
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Genres Country, jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, guitar, dobro, bass guitar
Years active 1952–2015
Labels Flying Fish, Mercury
Associated acts Little Jimmy Dickens, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb, John Hartford, The Everly Brothers, many others

Buddy Gene Emmons (January 27, 1937 – July 21, 2015) was an American musician who is widely regarded as the world's foremost pedal steel guitarist of his day.[2] He was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1980.[3] His primary genre was American country music, but he also performed bebop jazz, big band swing, and Western swing. He recorded with artists including Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Ernest Tubb, John Hartford, Ray Price, Judy Collins, and Ray Charles.

Emmons made major physical changes to the steel guitar, adding two additional strings and an additional pedal — changes which have been adopted as standard in the modern-day instrument.[4]

Childhood and early musical career[edit]

Emmons was born in Mishawaka, Indiana. When he was 11 years old, his father bought him a 6-string lap steel guitar and arranged for lessons at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend, Indiana, which Buddy dutifully attended for about a year. Buddy then began figuring out on his own how to play the country music that he heard on the radio. Buddy has said that Jerry Byrd and Herb Remington were among his first major musical influences.[5] By age 15, Buddy's playing had progressed considerably and his parents bought him a triple-neck Fender "Stringmaster" steel guitar, and he began performing with local bands in South Bend such as The Choctaw Cowboys.[5] Bored with high school, he left at age 16 and moved with a childhood friend to Calumet City, Illinois, where he was soon hired by Stony Calhoun to play in his band. At 17, he moved to Detroit to play with Casey Clark.[5] During his stint with Clark, Buddy purchased a Bigsby steel guitar with pedals similar to the pedal steel guitar that Bud Isaacs had used on the Webb Pierce hit song "Slowly". (The pedals on a pedal steel guitar allow the player to change the pitch of one or more strings while playing the instrument. A separate volume pedal is also used, compensating for the attack and decay of the strings for a smooth, constant or creative near-constant volume.)

1955: Little Jimmy Dickens[edit]

The next year, Little Jimmy Dickens heard Emmons playing with Casey Clark and offered him a job with his band, so at the age of 18, in July, 1955, Emmons moved to Nashville. Dickens' band was then considered one of the hottest bands in country music, with complex arrangements and fast twin guitar harmonies.[6] Dickens arranged for his band to record several instrumentals on Columbia Records under the name, The Country Boys. The first tunes recorded included three of Emmons' originals, two of which, "Raising the Dickens" and "Buddie's Boogie", quickly became a steel guitar standards.[5]

In 1956, Dickens dissolved his band to perform as a solo act, and later that year Emmons and Shot Jackson formed the Sho-Bud ("SHOt-BUDdy") Company to design and build pedal steel guitars. Meanwhile, Emmons began doing recording sessions in Nashville - one of his first studio sessions resulted in Faron Young's hit version of "Sweet Dreams".[7]

In late 1956, Emmons contributed a major innovation to the evolution of the pedal steel guitar by splitting the function of the two pedals that changed the pitch of several strings from a tonic chord to a sub-dominant chord. This "split-pedal" setup is now the standard pedal arrangement in the E9 tuning, since it allows greater musical flexibility than the earlier pedal setup pioneered by Bud Isaacs. Emmons recalls that he first used this split-pedal innovation on Ernest Tubb's "Half A Mind (to Leave You)".[8]

1957: Ernest Tubb & The Texas Troubadours[edit]

In 1957, Emmons (by then nicknamed the "Big E" for both his 6-foot height and musical prowess) joined Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours.[9] His first recording with Tubb, "Half A Mind (to Leave You)", quickly became a hit record, and has since become a classic country standard. In 1958, Emmons quit Tubb's band and moved to California. Eight months later, he returned to Nashville and rejoined the Texas Troubadours as the lead guitar player for the next five months, at which point he returned to the pedal steel guitar chair in the band.[7]

1962: Ray Price & The Cherokee Cowboys[edit]

In 1962, he left Tubb to join Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, replacing his long-time friend, steel-guitarist Jimmy Day. His first recording with Price in September, 1962, produced the hit song, "You Took Her Off My Hands". On this song Emmons used another of his major steel guitar innovations- adding two "chromatic" strings (F# and D#) to the E9th tuning. These "chromatic strings" have since become part of the standard 10-string pedal steel guitar tuning.[10]

His playing over the next several years with Price set the benchmark for sophisticated and tasteful steel guitar accompaniment on many of Price's hits. His unique moving counterpoint intro on "Touch My Heart" and his jazz-based bluesy intro and solo on "Night Life" established Emmons as one of the most innovative musicians in Nashville.[10] Price soon appointed Emmons to be his bandleader, and Emmons created many of the arrangements on Price's recordings over the next several years.[11]

After trying without success to get Shot Jackson interested in his new guitar design ideas, Emmons left Sho-Bud in 1963 and formed a new guitar manufacturing company, the Emmons Guitar Company.[8] The Emmons steel guitar soon became the instrument of choice for many professional steel guitarists, and the early Emmons steel guitars with Emmons' original "push/pull" pitch-changer design are highly sought-after instruments today—due to their outstanding tone and durability.

Another musical milestone was Emmons' Steel Guitar Jazz album, recorded in New York City in 1963. The first jazz album featuring a steel guitar and recorded with established jazz session-players, it received praise from Downbeat, the highly respected jazz magazine.[7]

As Lloyd Green, a highly in-demand studio steel guitarist said of Emmons in 1977, "He's not an ordinary guy. In my opinion, Buddy Emmons is probably the most intelligent and talented musician who's ever played the instrument. He's like Picasso or Michelangelo. That might be laying it on a little thick, but he's just flawless in his playing. Nobody is the composite player he is. He was the first modern great steel player and nobody's surpassed him yet. Emmons just, by God, came along and sounded like a 1977 steel player when he came here in 1955."[7]

Emmons' son, Larry, from his first marriage, later became a professional musician, playing bass with Ernest Tubb. According to a 1965 interview, Emmons and his second wife, Gigi "have two children, Buddie Gene and Tami."[9] Emmons continued to record and tour with Price until 1967,[11] and, between tours with Price, did recording session work with many Nashville artists such as George Jones and Melba Montgomery. Emmons left the Cherokee Cowboys largely due to his disenchantment with Price's growing interest in performing pop-style country with string orchestrations. [12][13]

1967: Moving to California and Roger Miller[edit]

Meanwhile, he began living the fast life. "I spent most of my time with a drink in my hand. I just liked to have fun." Life in the fast lane brought Emmons a second divorce, problems with booze and pills, tax problems, and fewer recording sessions. "I couldn't get work for one thing," he says candidly. "My wildness had peaked. I guess everybody had caught my act. I missed sessions, and I was having troubles at home with my second wife."[7]

In 1967, he married his third wife Peggy, who brought twin girls, Debbie and Diana, from her first marriage. Emmons credited Peggy with calming his wild streak. "It was the way she handled things when I first met her. When I got in one of my stages she knew how to handle it - and very quietly, too, which I wasn't used to."[citation needed] Meanwhile, Emmons' long-time friend, songwriter Roger Miller, offered him a job in his band in California. Emmons moved to Los Angeles, playing bass in Roger Miller's band and doing studio work on pedal steel. His first recording session in L.A. was on Judy Collins' classic "Someday Soon".[citation needed] He soon began recording with artists such as The Carpenters, Nancy Sinatra, Gram Parsons, John Sebastian and Ray Charles, as well as recording jingles, commercials, and movie soundtracks for Henry Mancini.[citation needed]

1974: Return to Nashville[edit]

Emmons returned with Peggy to Nashville in 1974, where he quickly resumed studio work with artists such as Mel Tillis, Donna Fargo, Duane Eddy and Charlie Walker.[12] Beginning in 1974, Emmons became a regularly featured performer at the annual International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, and was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1981.[3]

In 1976, Emmons recorded a highly regarded tribute to the great Western Swing artist Bob Wills, on which he sang lead vocal and played steel guitar. He continued to do session work throughout the 1980s and 1990s with artists such as John Hartford, George Strait, Gene Watson and Ricky Skaggs.[12]

1977: Redneck Jazz Explosion[edit]

In 1977, Emmons teamed with Danny Gatton for occasional gigs, and then in 1978 they toured as the band Redneck Jazz Explosion. On New Year's Eve 1978, they recorded the album Redneck Jazz live at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C.

Also in 1977, Buddy played steel guitar and resonator/dobro on Christian singer Don Francisco's album "Forgiven". This album was recorded in Nashville.

1990s: The Everly Brothers[edit]

In 1990, Emmons and Ray Pennington formed the Swing Shift Band, and began producing a highly regarded series of CDs that included Big Band Swing, Western Swing, and original country songs. Emmons began touring with The Everly Brothers in 1991, which continued until about 2001. Emmons discontinued doing regular session work around 1998 to tour with The Everly's.[8]

Emmons' zealous practice schedule caught up with him around 2001. He began suffering from a painful repetitive motion injury to his right thumb and wrist, which caused him to stop playing for over a year.[14] Though fully recovered, Emmons chose not to return to regular recording session work, but did record with some artists he had known for many years, such as Ray Price, Johnny Bush, and Willie Nelson. He continued to perform at steel guitar shows, and occasionally on American Public Media's A Prairie Home Companion, until his death.

Emmons has three granddaughters, Crystal, Nikia, (who died in 2004) and Brittany, and two grandsons, Levon and Buddie III. Emmons' wife Peggy often accompanied him to steel guitar shows and conventions, and helped Buddy meet fans and sell recordings and videos. She died unexpectedly on December 19, 2007.

Emmons died of a heart attack in Nashville, Tennessee on July 21, 2015.[1][15]

Selected recordings[edit]

  • Buddy Emmons, Buddy Emmons (Emmons Guitar Company) [Often referred to as "The Black Album"]
  • Steel Guitar Jazz, Buddy Emmons (as "Buddie Emmons"), 1963 (Mercury)
  • Touch My Heart/Burning Memories, Ray Price (Audium/Sony)
  • Steel Guitar, Buddy Emmons (Flying Fish Records)
  • Swinging Our Way, Buddy Emmons & Ray Pennington (Step One Records)
  • Minors Aloud, Buddy Emmons & Lenny Breau (Flying Fish Records)
  • Buddy Emmons Sings Bob Wills, Buddy Emmons (Flying Fish Records)


  1. ^ a b http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/buddy-emmons-innovator-on-pedal-steel-guitar-dies-at-78/2015/08/03/20623fca-3958-11e5-9c2d-ed991d848c48_story.html
  2. ^ Betts, Stephen L. (July 30, 2015). "Steel Guitar Great Buddy Emmons Dies". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. ISSN 0035-791X. OCLC 693532152. Retrieved 20 January 2017. 
  3. ^ a b "The Steel Guitar Hall Of Fame". Scottysmusic.com. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  4. ^ Hurt, Edd (July 30, 2015). "Remembering Steel Guitar Innovator Buddy Emmons". Nashville Scene. SouthComm. 
  5. ^ a b c d Liner notes to "Steel Guitar Jazz/Four Wheel Drive" (Steel Guitar Record Club #5), written by Tom Bradshaw and Melvin Gregory.
  6. ^ https://web.archive.org/web/20070707112017/http://www.countrymusichalloffame.com/site/inductees.aspx?cid=115. Archived from the original on July 7, 2007. Retrieved August 2, 2008.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ a b c d e "Country Music Article 78". Buddyemmons.com. 1955-07-04. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  8. ^ a b c "Ask Buddy!". Buddyemmons.com. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  9. ^ a b "1965 CSR article". Buddyemmons.com. 1937-01-27. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  10. ^ a b "What Other People Are Saying About Buddy". Buddyemmons.com. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  11. ^ a b Liner notes to "Ray Price and The Cherokee Cowboys (Columbia BCD 15843 JK) written by Rich Kienzle.
  12. ^ a b c "Buddy Emmons Credits - ARTISTdirect Music". Artistdirect.com. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  13. ^ All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music - Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  14. ^ "Buddyemmons.Com!". Buddyemmons.Com!. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 
  15. ^ "Buddy Emmons, Steel Guitar Legend, Dies at 78". Billboard.com. 1937-01-27. Retrieved 2015-07-30. 

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