Tag Archives: Music & Psychology

Greg Leisz – Tonal Personality

Updated on 12/13/17

Greg Leisz is a puppeteer, behind-the-scenes, yet essential to the show.  He knows just what strings to pull, at just the right time.  His pedal steel playing is tasteful, not hasteful.  He has tone down to the bone.

Beautiful volume pedal swells, with sweet sustain, envelope listeners in an ethereal way.  He is the go-to-guy in the business for atmospheric/textural playing.  Not to mention he has chops and can throw in speedy runs with ease.  Although his ability to fit perfectly in a song, is what has made him have a long and successful career.

Smooth, timely, celestial, warm, and rounded are great adjectives to describe his tone.

Greg Leisz Pedal Steel Atmosphere

I still can’t believe how many sessions (great sessions with great artists I should add) Greg has been on throughout the years.  I have a theory that most people in America over the age of 18, have heard Greg’s pedal steel playing at some point in time.  He has been on so many cool, important recording sessions: most people have heard his playing on some song or recording, whether they know it or not.  Greg has also begun producing, and is certainly one of the coolest “studio cats” in the business.

Volume Pedal Swells - Greg Leisz

Albums or songs worth checking out w/ Greg Leisz…

(These are affiliate links)

Please Do Not Let Me Go – Ryan Adams

The Golden Age – Beck

Disfarmer – Bill Frisell

Guitar in the Space Age – Bill Frisell

Check out more Tonal Personalities!

Buddy Emmons’ Characteristics: How They Can Improve your Playing

Updated on 9/27/17

Buddy Emmons has left a deep impression on the musical world, as well as the steel guitar community. He was an amazing player, with chops and ideas that we all wish we had. His playing seemed perfect, and it usually was. But he too was human, and we can all relate to that. Here are some characteristics of Buddy that we can all connect to, and use to improve our selves and our pedal steel playing.


Buddy Emmons had impeccable chops, incredible tone, and ingenuity when it came to the pedal steel guitar; add a smile and laugh to this, and you have “The Big E”. We all admire Buddy’s playing, and consider it to be nearly flawless, but he also made mistakes every once in awhile. That is how we learn and grow as people, and begin to push boundaries in a beneficial way: we make mistakes and learn from them. It seemed that whenever he did this (made a mistake), he accepted this and tried to shake it off quickly and move on: he did this by smiling or laughing at the mistake. To error is human, so when he made an error, he did something every human can enjoy: a good smile and laugh. He also did this when his playing was “on fire” too!

Try it sometime on the bandstand, or in the practice room. Look lively and excited once in a while, and your steel playing may just sound the same. There is current evidence in science that suggests if a person makes their body react in a certain way, it sends signals to the brain to act in the same way: for instance, if you make yourself smile, then your brain will sense this and make you feel happier. Seems like Buddy was onto something there.

Use Your Intuition

Buddy seemed to be an intuitive individual, as we can tell from many of his inventive contributions to the pedal steel guitar. He had a knack for following his instinct, or doing what felt right at that moment, many times with an improvisational approach. His intuitive addition and use of the strings D# and F# (strings 2 & 1) on the E9 neck is now a modern day staple of the 10-string E9 neck tuning. He came up with the three pedal configuration that we now consider standard on any E9 neck pedal steel. Also, did I mention the Emmons and Sho-Bud brand pedal steels that he helped develop, which are still sought after for their ingenious design, taste, and tone?

His intuition is also evident in his creative, improvisational approach to many of his studio sessions, and own personal work. Coming from a jazz background, and favoring the improvisational approach in this regard, Buddy liked to follow his instincts in the music too, and follow it wherever it took him. That’s one reason we love his playing; we never knew where it would take us.

To better follow your intuition at the pedal steel guitar, try not to play licks, songs, or riffs that you have memorized, and can already play over and over. Try to improvise. Step out onto the plank, and dive into the deep waters…try something new – you don’t know where it will take you, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s like life, sometimes you just have to improvise, and that can be the fun in it.

Be A Bookworm

Buddy liked to read, and he was a very thoughtful person. He used to go to libraries just to study jazz-related material and music. Ever wonder how he had such a solid sense of music and the theory behind it? Besides practice, he soaked up literature that he could translate into ideas on his instrument. He studied approaches to music through books, not just listening. He used to read about Einstein, and astronomy too…those atomic particles on Emmons fretboards are a part of his character/signature because he was interested in them. He wanted to know more about many things, as any great inventor does. He gained inspiration not just by listening to music, but also by reading literature, which he translated into inspirational music on the pedal steel.

Buddy Emmons Music Thoery Books

Read more about things that interest you. How can they be applied to your instrument, or playing the pedal steel guitar? Also, be sure to read a music theory book once in a while…they’re not that boring if you relate it to pedal steel playing!

Have Hobbies/Interests

Buddy was interested in boxing, photography, physics, astronomy, music history, and much more. He related to these things personally, and he let these things impact him because they meant something to him. We can see and hear this impact through his pedal steel playing…he made notes punch you in the face like boxing gloves; and used his love of physics to help in the design of a signature fretboard.   Life is music, and music is life: if these are interchangeable, then why not let life’s influences on you show in your music.

Buddy Emmons - Einstein and Astrology Books

Try to think of something you are passionate about besides music and pedal steel, and see how you can apply it to your instrument and playing it. Do you enjoy restoring old cars? Then chances are you’d be great at restoring a vintage pedal steel. Do you enjoy playing golf? How can the physics and technique behind that sport relate to the technical aspects of playing the pedal steel guitar. Put a golf ball on your practice stand for inspiration and ideas.

Buddy was a star, a genius, and an icon to pedal steel players all over the world. He still is. Let’s let his character and human traits influence us to be better players. His playing was inspirational, and so was his spirited character. Keep on picking and smiling everyone!

Read more about Buddy Emmons below…

Buddy Emmons – Tonal Personality

Keep that Emmons mindset and practice…more tips and techniques here:     Practice Tips and Techniques

Rediscovering Emotion in Music

Learning new songs is always a great way to improve your musical knowledge. A better understanding of harmony, melody, song structure, and much more can be utilized by hashing through a tune. However, can studying a tune reveal certain personal characteristics of your playing and the emotions that are attached to it? Absolutely, especially if you are rediscovering a song you enjoyed from a pivotal moment in your life: your late adolescence to early adulthood.

Research in psychology and neuroscience indicate a definite connection between music and memories. But did you know that it also indicates that the music we listen to in our late adolescence and early adulthood holds a stronger power over our emotions than music at other points in our lives? This “nostalgia” may seem like common sense, but what’s interesting is that this emotional connection to the music of these years does not weaken as we age.

It seems that reminiscing about music from these years can bring up autobiographical memories, and reveal a personal emotional power to this music. So as a musician, I can’t help but ask: what does this mean for my instrument and I now?

Practicing Pedal Steel and Rediscovering Songs

I recently started re-listening to many tunes from my late teens and early 20’s, and I undoubtedly feel a deep emotional connection to this music. Memories come flooding back, with occasional goosebumps popping up for notes and sounds that really hit home, or touch my soul. I can’t help but begin singing along to many of these songs, realizing that since I’ve listened to them so many times in my life, I can sing the melody almost perfectly without having to consult sheet music or really listen and study the tune. Basically, I’m realizing that I’ve had many of these songs aurally memorized; they have left a deep imprint on my brain and unconscious. Even though I had never studied these songs musically (I didn’t know the chord changes, the key, the notes of the melody, etc.), I know them in and out – in my mind and heart. What a great tool and aid when practicing my instrument!

Normally, learning a new song requires one to listen to it, examine it, and study it multiple times until it is memorized…this requires practice and time, like learning anything new. However, half the battle has already been won for these tunes from our personal past, as our ears and brain know them deeply. In lieu of this, I decided to start learning some of these songs on my pedal steel, seeing what would come out of it.

I was quickly amazed at how much easier it was to learn a song that I had listened to many times during these years in my life. The melodies are easier to sing and find on the steel, and the chord changes seem harmoniously entwined to my fingers and mind. The rhythms were already close to my heart, as they had been beating on in my body for years just like my heart. The greatest aspect of learning these tunes that I love and cherish: emotions come pouring into the notes and sounds I make on the steel – more easily than ever.

So not only was it increasing my knowledge and understanding of harmony, melodic elements, and rhythmic qualities, I didn’t have to pull up my audio player and listen to the song multiple times like I sometimes do when learning a tune I’ve never heard before. One or two times of listening was plenty… the music was all in my head, memorized by my past self, and full of emotion! Best of all, it was fun learning songs from my past and rediscovering why I loved them then, and still do now (most of them anyways!).

How This Helps From a Practicing Standpoint…

So I’ve begun revisiting and learning songs from my late teens to early 20’s, and I’m finding that they’re really improving my steel playing. Singing the melodies that are ingrained in my mind, and finding these notes on the pedal steel, has been a great way to transcribe and improve the ears. These melodies are easier to translate from my mind to my fingers than many others.

Finding the chords and harmony that underlay these melodies almost seems second nature thanks to the amazing human brain, and I now have a deeper understanding of harmony on a theoretical level and emotional one too. Oh, that’s why that part of the song sounds so cool — they are using changes that really flow well together — no wonder why I always liked this song! I can now use this harmony knowledge for writing and composing my own tunes!

And the rhythmic aspects, the pulse, the beat — these came flowing out onto the steel — no metronome required. They were all in my head and memories. I am quickly able to groove on these tunes, knowing how the rhythm flows, feels, and relates to the music and its other elements.

For example, I recently listened to Led Zeppelin’s song “Your Time is Gonna Come”, one that I hadn’t heard since literally being in high school. I was amazed at how much I knew about this song without really knowing it, and after not hearing it for so long. You see back then, I had listened to it many times, and soaked it up with my heart and mind.

I could instantly sing the melody, I could hear Jimmy Page’s guitar parts crystal clear, and I was even surprised to hear a lot of pedal steel on the track — I didn’t even know what a pedal steel was back then! And what a cool organ intro!!

Led Zeppelin Pedal Steel - Your Time is Gonna Come

I then went to the steel’s C6 neck and translated Page’s acoustic guitar part to it. After a few short practice sessions, I could play his rhythm parts on pedal steel – sweet! Best of all, I could get away with singing some of Robert Plant’s vocals while playing the rhythm on pedal steel. And Page’s pedal steel playing – I could hear and identify those parts on the E9 neck just from listening.

On a basic level, I learned the melody of the song, the chord changes, and supplemental parts quicker than ever, and now I could jam some Zeppelin with other musicians if I wanted to! Heck, I could even play Page’s guitar part so that an electric guitar player could branch out and try some new stuff — maybe they could play the pedal steel parts on the song, which would make this a complete instrument role reversal. I love how versatile the pedal steel guitar is.

So next time you’re firing up a tune before practicing, consider revisiting some of those sentimental ones from years past, and you’ll be amazed at not only how much easier these songs are to learn, but also the emotional qualities you’ll be able to pull out of them. Your pedal steel playing will be that much more soulful, and your heart and mind will thank you too. What a great way to rediscover your past, and make something with it now!

If you liked this article, then you may enjoy…

Books that Help with Creativity, Focus, Inspiration, or Thoughtfulness


Using a Growth Mindset to Improve on your Instrument

Practicing an instrument can be challenging, frustrating, and tough; especially in the early stages when our muscle memory hasn’t matured, and our physical dexterity is developing. This shouldn’t be discouraging though, and it should definitely not make you want to practice less!

If anything, we can use the learning process and scientific insights to improve quicker on the instrument, and get more out of our practice. Here’s how understanding your mindset can make practicing more enjoyable…

Use a Growth Mindset instead of a Fixed Mindset

When I first started practicing my instrument, I would avoid challenging myself, mostly because I felt more comfortable playing whatever I could play at the time. This wasn’t by choice, but rather I was doing it unconsciously. I didn’t really know how to seriously practice, or improve on my instrument! I thought that because I was sitting down at my instrument and playing, I was practicing.

Nowadays, if I were to do this, I would consider this as noodling – or just jamming around my instrument doing whatever feels good. Don’t get me wrong, there are benefits to noodling around and discovering new things and ideas…but as with most things, it is better done in moderation.

One can counteract the urge to noodle, by establishing goals and specific challenges that are part of the overall mission. More scientifically put, you can learn to use a growth mindset when practicing.

A growth mindset approaches a learning task knowing that perfection isn’t achieved overnight, or possibly ever for that matter, as we are human. So it establishes specific goals that are more reachable within a certain timeframe and limit, and asks us to push ourselves and do our best to achieve these. The growth mindset cultivates resilience, perseverance, and hard work – even if it’s just five minutes of hard work.

There's always room for improvement with pedal steel!
Billy Knowles’ hard work on restoring a ’96 Emmons LeGrande II – Strayhorn Era

For example, if you know you only have ten minutes to spend practicing a song you’ve been working on, it’d be more beneficial to understand: that you have ten minutes to challenge yourself and improve a little bit on the song (growth mindset), instead of thinking you’ll never be able to perfect this song in the next ten minutes because you don’t have the intelligence or talent (fixed mindset). With the growth mindset, you leave yourself room for hits, misses, and improvements, like a dart player during target practice – you learn quickly and efficiently from your mistakes. With the fixed mindset, you tell yourself that since you can’t hit the bull’s-eye now, you probably never will be able to. You get discouraged, and don’t leave yourself room for improvement, even if it is just for ten minutes. You are more likely to give up.

I learned of this idea, which was truly enlightening to me, through a book written by a Stanford University psychologist named Carol Dweck. She spent many years researching successful athletes, CEOs, teachers, and many others to better understand what made them perform better in the long run — they weren’t just born with it, they had to develop it.

Many professional athletes and champions understand this part of the learning process on a deep level. They work everyday on the tiny kinks in their armor, until one day they’ve spent so much time on the fine details and understanding/perceiving them that they have “perfected” it. At least it appears that they’ve perfected it, but the champion knows that they’re just getting started and there’s always room for improvement!

Rider A Dog - He Loves The Sun
Embrace the learning process!

So embrace this room for improvement, actually get a kick out of it! Challenge yourself and grow. Lace up, gear up, or whatever – be a warrior on your instrument and pick your battles wisely!

Don’t just play the same riffs, licks, or scales over and over again, study and foster them through challenging experiments and trials. Be a mad scientist with experiments that you know will often fail!

Grow something from the ground up with your practice tribulations, and be sure to water it every once in a while. It may just blossom into something no one’s ever seen before!

The book mentioned in this article is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (affiliate link).  The idea of mindset, and how we can better enjoy the challenges of learning, has been really helpful to me as a musician. It has allowed me to get more enjoyment out of practicing my instrument. It has also helped me become more patient in the learning process, and understand that – like life – sometimes you just need to take things one step at a time!

Check out the practice section for more ideas on practicing and improving on your instrument.

Practice Tips: Improving Your Focus


How long can we truly focus our full attention on something?   How long can we practice our instrument before something distracts us, and knocks us out of focus?  It can be difficult to focus deeply for more than a few minutes at a time (it’s okay, we’re all human!). However, like most things, with practice we can learn to deepen and increase our focus.

After studying other musicians’ practice routines, reading about meditation/focus methods, and staying up to date with neuroscience,  I don’t encourage practicing for more than 15-30 minutes at a time. After this, usually our minds lose focus, our bodies get tired (poor posture is bad for technique), and we start practicing more sloppily.  We begin crystallizing mistakes, or in a less poetic way, we cultivate bad habits.

If you step up to your instrument each time with a deep focus, utilize this focus during your session, and stop practicing when you begin to lose it, your practice efficiency at the instrument will grow.

1978 Marlen Single Neck E9

Here’s a tip to help you gain focus for your practice session: stand near your instrument and fire up a tune on the stereo that you’re in the mood to hear.  This sharpens your ears up a bit.  As you’re listening, do a light 5 minute full-body stretch (like you’d do before a workout at the gym, or playing a sport).  Most songs are around this length of time anyways.  The music gets your ears and mind tuned up, the stretch gets your body warmed up.  Also, the music can often inspire you for your session, and give you ideas to work with.

When the song and stretching are complete, you’ll feel much more focused and ready to practice than right before you did it.  You then feel free to sit down at the instrument, and begin practicing on your goals for that session.

I usually start a 15 minute timer as soon I’m seated and ready to play, and only look down at it when I begin to lose focus or need a breather:  At this point, there is little time on there anyways, so I just buckle down and finish up strong.  Then break time.

Goodrich Pedal Steel Sustain Box

Practice smart, not hard! I benefit much more from a great 15 minute practice session, where my goals are set before I begin, than a 2 hour session of floundering.  For instance, if I know I’m gonna practice four hours one day, then I will split my practice time into 16 separate fifteen-minute sessions, with breaks in between.

Training in intervals is beneficial for your body and your mind.   Also, you’ll have extra time in the day to work on aural exercises, ear training, listening, or other daily activities that will benefit you as a musician.  You can knock some of these things out during your practice breaks if you want.  Also, your technique, posture, and mental dexterity will likely improve too.

Not sure what to practice, click below to learn how to balance your practice repertoire…

Balancing Technique, Scales, & Songs During Practice

More practice ideas and tips…

Practice Ideas and Tips

Buddy Emmons – Tonal Personality

Well, how do you even begin to describe Buddy Emmons’ tonal personality on the pedal steel? You start with Round 1, and hope by Round 10 you’re still in the fight. Buddy Emmons was a heavyweight player: with notes that sting you, make you cry like a baby, but yet are as soothing as an ocean’s breeze. Considered by most the best pedal steel player ever, he graced us with his music, his style, and his smile.

Bubbly, warm, striking, daring, bold, contemplative, and tasteful are but a few adjectives that start to describe his musical personality. It was virtuosic, technical, humble, and warm-hearted. Able to hang with the best musicians in the world, his notes conveyed deep, articulate expressions of pedal steel playing at its best. I like to think of him as the pedal steel version of James Bond: he could do it all, and with style and grace. He could also get down and dirty on some blues when the occasion called for it! He recorded with Ray Charles at a point in his career.

Emmons Practice Station

Albums with Emmons worth checking out…

Live – Buddy Emmons (This is show from 1978 International Steel Guitar Convention)

Steel Guitar Jazz – Buddy Emmons

Also, check out these tracks below if you’ve never heard them.  These are affiliate links.