Montpelier man's pedal worth its mettleJ.C. Myers/Times Argus
Jerry Fessenden of Montpelier works on one of his pedal steel guitars.
MONTPELIER — Jerry Fessenden feels that he was born for the pedal steel guitar.
"It was something about the way my mother carried me in the womb," said the 62-year-old musician and instrument builder.
His mother must have heard a lot of country music during those nine months. Fessenden's instruments can be found in Texas honkey tonks, in Nashville recording studios and on the Grand Ole Opry stage. He is also an accomplished pedal steel guitar player who has toured extensively throughout the Southwest.
Some of the world's most prominent pedal steel guitar players use Fessenden instruments: Dean Parks, who recorded with the rock band Steely Dan and '60s rockers David Crosby and Graham Nash; Robert Randolph, the pedal steel phenomenon who recently performed at the music industry's Grammy awards; and Tommy White, the staff pedal steel player at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.,, who has also played with country star Vince Gill.
Fessenden builds his pedal steel guitars in a tiny shop next to the modest Montpelier ranch house he shares with his girlfriend. Fessenden, born and brought up in Hampden, Maine, has lived in Montpelier since 1995.
Derived from the Hawaiian steel guitar, the pedal steel is a difficult instrument to play. According to Fessenden, it's also difficult to build, and to sell.
The Web site "Pedal Steel Pages" lists 28 builders of pedal steel guitars. Fessenden thinks that this is probably a comprehensive list. All of them are built in the United States, most of them in the Southwest. "Besides me, the closest pedal steel maker to Vermont is in North Carolina," he said.
Fessenden said the world of pedal steel players and makers is a very small collegial one, where most of the builders also play the instrument, and everybody knows everybody.
Fessenden builds his instruments two or three at a time, making 24 to 36 instruments in a year. "Most of the builders make less than 30 instruments a year," he said. He constructs his instruments to achieve a certain type of tone. "What makes my instruments special," he said "is the thickness and quality of the wood." He said musicians choose a certain pedal steel guitar because they prefer its particular tone. "It's like the way an acoustic guitar player would choose a Martin or a Taylor guitar for its tone," he added.
Turning the table-like instrument over reveals a matrix of rods, cams, levers, aluminum clips and shafts, all packed into a lacquered wooden box. The top side of the box is mounted with aluminum "fret boards" that look like wide 10- and 12-string guitar necks.
Fessenden said that he used to have all the parts cast in aluminum, but now he has some of them machined, and machines others himself. "The machinists that make my parts are pedal steel players themselves" he said. "They know what I need, and sometimes advise me on how to make things better."
Fessenden's instruments sell for $3,600 to $5,200 apiece. He also sells parts to eight other pedal steel makers, and holds a patent on a "clipless rod puller" that he invented. "I also do a lot of repairs when the instruments get older," he said. "I fix the guitar any time it breaks; basically forever."
According to Fessenden, the pedal steel guitar, a long-time staple instrument of country music, had its heyday in the '70s and '80s when rock-and-rollers like Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, Pure Prairie League and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began to use the instrument as a regular part of their acts.
"Now the studios in Nashville only use the same five or six session musicians for every country hit," he said, "and they only use short 'licks' instead of the long solos that used to be part of the music."
Another reason for the instrument's limited and shrinking popularity is that it is notoriously difficult to play, requiring the musician to use both hands, both feet and both knees. Pedal steel player Michael Perlowin wrote in an essay on the instrument saying that, "clearly this is a very complicated instrument to learn. It does not conform to the most basic rules of how stringed instruments work, but within its own convoluted logic it does make sense. It has its own logic that doesn't relate to any other instrument."
More than most, Fessenden knows that logic well. He knows he will not get rich building pedal steel guitars, but he plans to continue building and playing anyway. He proudly shows off pictures of himself at the Grand Ole Opry standing next to country stars Lee Ann Rimes and Vince Gill. "You don't make a real big living, but you don't die of starvation," said Fessenden with a rare grin, adding, "When this business dries up, so do I."MORE IN News
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