Buddy Emmons, Virtuoso of the Steel Guitar, Dies at 78
Buddy Emmons, the inventive musician who reimagined and popularized the pedal steel guitar in jazz, country, and western swing bands beginning in the mid-1950s, performing with many of music’s biggest stars, died on July 21 in Hermitage, Tenn., near Nashville. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by the Nashville Musicians Association. The Nashville Medical Examiner’s office said on Thursday that the cause had not yet been determined.
Mr. Emmons, who got his first guitar, a six-string lap steel model, when he was 11, played with many of country music’s biggest acts, including Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys and the Roger Miller band.
He also worked with Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, John Hartford, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger McGuinn, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, John Sebastian, Ricky Skaggs and George Strait and performed on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” broadcasts.
His solo albums included “Steel Guitar Jazz,” recorded in New York in 1963, “Steel Guitar,” “Minors Aloud” and “It’s All in the Swing.”
The electric pedal steel guitar looks nothing like a conventional guitar. Rectangular, it sits on a stand or legs and is equipped with knee levers and foot pedals, which alter the pitch. So does a steel bar, which the guitarist slides over the strings with one hand as he plucks them with the other.
He not only played but also perfected the instrument, designing his own signature model, the Emmons Guitar, and continuing to fiddle with the mechanisms through his Emmons Guitar Company. He had earlier collaborated with Shot Jackson, another guitarist, in 1957 to form Sho-Bud, which was described as the first pedal steel guitar manufacturing company.
Mr. Emmons was “among the most in-demand and influential steel guitarists in the history of country music,” according to The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to Country Music. He was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1981 as, “for a quarter-century, ‘the world’s foremost steel guitarist.’ ”
Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville Musicians Association, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Emmons was “responsible for the mechanical evolution of the instrument.”
“He was developing the instrument as he was developing his own playing style,” Mr. Pomeroy said.
In “Whiskey River (Take My Mind): The True Story of Texas Honky-Tonk” (with Rick Mitchell), the country singer Johnny Bush described Mr. Emmons as “the greatest steel guitar player that ever lived when it comes to touch, technique, tone.”
“If I went to Nashville tomorrow, I’d insist on Buddy Emmons playing steel or I wouldn’t do it,” Mr. Bush wrote.
Buddie Gene Emmons was born in Mishawaka, Ind., near South Bend, on Jan. 27, 1937, the son of Donald and Mary Emmons. His father was a machinist who made Buddy his first steel guitar sliding bars. Buddy was inspired to take up the instrument by listening to Hank Williams’s sideman Don Helms on the Grand Ole Opry radio program, The Encyclopedia of Country Music said.
He began playing with local bands when he was 14, studied at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend, left school at 16 and headed for honky-tonk and strip joints in Calumet City, Ill. In 1956 he moved on to Detroit, where he was recruited by Little Jimmy Dickens to fill in for the ailing Walter Haynes, the pedal steel guitarist for Dickens’s Country Boys. Mr. Emmons was invited to join the band.
He was still a teenager when he first arrived in Nashville. He appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, recorded several singles, including “Buddy’s Boogie,” and contributed to Faron Young’s “Sweet Dreams” and Ray Price’s “Night Life.”
He stopped playing fulltime in 2001 after receiving a diagnosis of repetitive stress injury.
His third wife, Peggy, died in 2007. Survivors include a son, Larry, and four grandchildren.
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