Few things are as soothing to my soul as a fine bit of steel guitar woven into a solid rock song. Blame it on its country-western connotation, but the steel guitar’s familiar croon is as American as cutoff jean shorts and just as comforting. (What? I can’t be the only one who likes to slip into a nice pair of jorts at the end of a long day.)
It’s no coincidence that some of my favorite songs of all time feature steel guitar. Have a listen, and enjoy the many ways in which the versatile instrument can make you incredibly happy. (How’s it do it? No one knows.)
“Tiny Dancer” – Elton John
You can’t go wrong leading off with Elton John (unless it’s “Bennie and the Jets,” but that’s a discussion for another day). This sweet song, despite its Bernie Taupin-penned lyrics, wouldn’t have half its character without that gorgeous steel guitar winding through it. Just try not to feel good while listening to this song, I dare you.
“Running on Empty” – Jackson Browne
Non-Jackson Browne fans will recognize this song immediately from the Forrest Gump soundtrack, where it accompanies Forrest’s famous aimless cross-country run. To me, though, it’s just a sterling example of the lyrics and composition that make Jackson Browne my favorite songwriter. The steel guitar reinforces this as a true road song and imparts that country-western restlessness like nothing else can.
“Sleep Walk” – Santo and Johnny
Okay, you got me: this song is cheating, kind of. It’s an instrumental, and it barely passes for rock and roll even by 1959 standards. I couldn’t leave it off this list, though, because it’s pretty much one of the most beautiful things anyone’s ever done with any instrument, period. Beachy, nostalgic, and bittersweet, “Sleep Walk” is a two-minute-and-twenty-three-second testament to the steel guitar’s raw emotive power.
“Peaceful Easy Feeling” – The Eagles
“Peaceful Easy Feeling” is the desert’s answer to “Sleep Walk,” give or take about thirteen years. I love early Eagles, and this song is exactly why. The title says it all, really. It’s the inexplicable sense of comfort and security that somehow trumps the chaos of new love’s uncertainty, even when it’s over before it’s begun. We’ve all been there, and that steel guitar sounds like it has been, too.
“Teach Your Children” – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Would you believe that’s Jerry Garcia on steel guitar in this jam? Legend (or, in this case, Wikipedia) has it that Jerry bartered his steel guitar skillz on this recording for lessons in singing harmony from CSNY — the masters themselves! – for him and his band, the…Thankful Head? Their name escapes me. Anyway, this song’s prominent steel guitar is the perfect complement to CSNY’s thoughtful lyrics and masterful harmonies.
“Tangerine” – Led Zeppelin
I consider “Tangerine” to be the ultimate rock and roll steel guitar masterpiece. Dreamy, wistful, and haunting, the song has the uncanny ability to make me feel like I’ve just awakened from a great nap on a beautiful day, even when I’m sweating in traffic or just sweating in general. The steel guitar lays down an absolutely perfect countermelody to the gentle, earnest vocal. “Tangerine” demonstrates just how lovely the marriage of rock and roll and steel guitar can be.
BONUS! – “Afternoon Delight” – Starland Vocal Band
Okay, so there’s not a whole lot of steel guitar in this song, and it’s not even close to being in the same league as any of the previous songs on this list. But you need — NEED! — to watch this video. Kids, this is what TV used to look like back when we still let fuggos get famous. I certainly don’t expect all musicians (or anyone, really) to be knockouts, but there’s just no getting around how truly unfortunate looking people could be in the ’70s. Also, please bear in mind that, as the video tells us, Starland Vocal Band won the Best New Artist Grammy award in 1977. What the video doesn’t tell us is that they beat out a bunch of no-names for that honor, as well as a little band called Boston. Seriously.
I’ve thought about composing this list for some time, and I’m terrified that I’ve left off one of my favorites. Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments and I’ll determine if I can forgive myself.