The first night I spoke with J. Tom Hnatow was at a chilly Santa Cruz gig for These United States. We fell into a geeky, rapturous chat about the role of pedal steel in the rock setting, praising Jerry Garcia’s gorgeous work with David Crosby and reaching further out to the likes of Michael Nesmith’s steel foil Red Rhodes. And at one point, he said, his eyes a little dreamy but also serious, “It’s gotta have emotion, and you can’t mess with that too much.” It’s a line that’s stuck with me in the intervening years we’ve floated in each other’s circles, an off-handed revelation of the foundation of Hnatow’s style and character.
Whether he’s holding a six-string electric, seated behind his pedal steel or working any number of other instruments like banjo or piano, Hnatow pulses with rightness, his lines always clean, relevant, and just the right length. He sometimes reminds one of the studio cutters that Steely Dan employed in the 70s, except Tom is more congenial, less studied, and free of any cold technician vibe. His eyes tell you how hard he’s listening and figuring out what’s needed AND what isn’t. His solos sting, catching your attention fast and then zipping off well before they’ve outstayed their welcome, the beauty of brevity apparent but also an uncommon poetry that gets done in choice syllables what others needs stanzas to accomplish. Where one most finds Hnatow is in the great texture he brings to songs – a commenter in choice whispers and asides that makes the music fuller.
Whether dishing out newfangled rolling thunder with TUS, chirping appealingly in The Mynabirds, chipping in with pals Vandaveer, or spilling some silver at a studio session, Hnatow is a thickening agent and the rare guitarist that very rarely steps into the spotlight but always has a potent impact.
Here’s what Hnatow had to say in DI’s ongoing survey of guitarists.
- Favorite effects pedal? Why?
- For guitar, I love my Full-Drive 2. It’s such a versatile gain pedal, and nearly transparent – it never overpowers the tone of the amp.
For steel, I use my Holy Grail all the time…having it within arm’s reach means I can tweak my ‘verb settings as necessary.
- Tastiest guitarist — i.e. not just soloing but also overall playing — currently working six-strings?
- I love guitarists like Ry Cooder and Marc Ribot – guys who tastefully and seamlessly blend into whatever song and style they’re playing. My favorite players are like lighting designers…they never get in the way or steal the show, but they always add color and shape to whatever is going on.
- A guitar solo I never get tired of listening to is…
- Paul Brainard’s solo on M. Ward’s (aptly named) “Paul’s Song” is just a model of perfect, lovely steel playing. [Editor’s Note: Brainard has been knocking DI out for years with his playing with Richmond Fontaine.]
Also, Ralph Mooney’s solo on this version of “A Couple More Years”. Everything pedal steel should be.
- Preferred brand of axe? Why?
- For guitars, I play Epiphones. I have two Sheraton IIs that I take on the road. They’re far cheaper than Gibsons, but you can find some killer sounding guitars – and with the money you’ve saved, you can afford to tweak them to your heart’s content. I added custom pickups, locking tuners, and a Bigsby to both of mine.
I only have one pedal steel – my Derby SD-10. It’s not a very sexy steel, but its built like a tank, plays great, stays in tune, and can withstand the beatings and batterings serious indie-rock touring throws its way.
- AC/DC, The Beatles, Radiohead or The Byrds – which one gives you the biggest guitar boner? What makes them SO sweet?
- I have had discussions, in mock-seriousness, with my Beatles-adoring friends, where I posit that AC/DC are the greatest “rock” band of all time. Sometimes, I catch myself actually believing it. There is an almost zen-like purity to what they do.
- One lesser known guitarist folks should check out is…
- I’m sure your readers know him, but I’m shocked that more people don’t know Jerry Joseph. Every time I’ve played with him I’m amazed at what a constantly creative player he is. [Editor’s Note: The Impound will add a hearty “Amen!” to Hnatow’s praise for Joseph’s shredder skills]
Joe Novelli is my favorite current steel player – he plays a cross between a lap and a pedal steel. His tone and phrasing are absolutely impeccable. He is also one of the handsomest men I know.
I’ve also been playing with banjo and guitar ace Phillips Saylor here in North Carolina. In terms of substance and style and general attitude, he’s the closest thing to John Fahey I know…only far friendlier.
- What aspect of being a guitarist always makes you happy?
- Being able to add something to a great song – to expand on it, to fill it up and flesh it out, to poke and prod it…to be a part of it, in some small way.