Pete Steinberg Interview - Part 1
By Bob Felten and Tami Michelle

Appeared in the AFG Sound Hole - Issue 19 (Fall 2005- editor: Bob Felten)

AFG interviews the funny, controversial, and always outspoken Pete Steinberg.

Bob: The first time I heard you play was long before I joined the AFG. You played different than any one else I had heard up until that time. That was at Papa Garos, in Redondo Beach, California.

Pete: That was a great little place. I liked that place.

Bob: I knew the owner a bit. He invited me to play on Tami Michelle's pro night, and the first person I heard was you. Years later, Tami and I joined the AFG, and we discovered you were a member too. A lot of the members bring in different styles to the club, but there's sort of a standard Nashville Sound a lot of the players have, the Chet Atkins country picking style, like Bob Saxton and Gary Lambert.

Pete: Icons are what they are without a doubt.

Bob: But then there's your style. How would you describe what's different about what you do?

Pete: Well it's because I'm just an unsuccessful thief. I would love to be able to play like Gary or Bob, they're gods of mine. What's happened at the AFG for me is what's happened all my life. Before I ever played a guitar, I was 15 years old, and I heard Mississippi John Hurt play "Stagger Lee," and I thought "Oh man, I gotta get a guitar and learn to play." It was in Sedona, Arizona, I was in High School. When I got down to Mexico when I was 16, I picked up a little guitar for $6.30 and started to learn how to play. I always tried to imitate those first guys I heard, those old Mississippi country blues guys like Furry Lewis. I learned slide guitar from Son House, which I was always really proud of. That's where I learned to play bottleneck guitar. Reverend Gary Davis was a man with stunning ability. I went to New York when I was 17 and I met Mississippi John Hurt in a place called Folk City. I shook hands with him and I felt like I was shaking hands with Jesus Christ. In fact I think if Jesus had been standing there next to John I would have picked John and shook his hand instead any day. He was a great guy, a wonderful man. Lightning Hopkins, another just wonderful guy. And when I hear the Nashville stuff: Chet and certainly Jerry Reed who does exactly what I wish I could be doing, I hear a lot of that blues music in there, a lot of it. What I would describe myself as doing is I'm trying to play like these guys but I'm not succeeding at it, I'm not making the cut. I'm trying to play like Gary Lambert. Gary will play something and I'll say "Man I want to go home and play that." - but I can't, I just can't do it. Bob Saxton is astounding, he can play anything. And both these guys are wonderful, they'll show you anything. I admire the hell out of both of them, and I try to play like them but I can't. So I end up wedding that Mississippi Delta style to that Kentucky style. I'm sort-of a poor man's John Hurt and a poor-man's Merle Travis. I can't play like them really, but it gives me a lot of blues in what I play. I can't get away from it, a lot of Jimmy Reed type rhythm.

Bob: Would you say your music is more like ragtime than Nashville?

Pete: People say that. You might be able to say it, if you look at what ragtime really is. Ragtime is a certain musical time - which I describe as 2/4 bass over a 4/4 treble, so the bass is played in half time. If you listen to Blind Drake play "Police Dog Blues," that tune is ragtime and that's what makes it swing and jump. You don’t hear much of that because most people can't play it, it's really hard. That's why we don't hear a lot of this Fingerstyle stuff, it's just plain hard to play. You don’t hear a lot of Gary Lamberts because there aren't a lot of Gary Lamberts, there's just Gary and a handful of others. When I went back to Nashville to the Chet Convention I was as happy hanging around Gary and Bob as anybody. There are stunning guys out there, but we need to realize what gems we’ve got in our midst. When Gary and Bob are sitting in the hall playing, don't come up and chat. Sit down and listen to them. Take it in. Get everything you can, while you can. I used to make the mistake of stopping Gary and asking "How do you do that?" I don’t do that anymore. Now I just listen as hard as I can, and try to catch him at the end of the tune. I find it works better that way. Jerry Reed is real mix of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi sounds, and that’s what I've always wanted to be. I've always tried really hard to be that. Mix together all of that stuff, Scott Joplin, Scrapper Blackwell. You don't hear much of that at the AFG, but that's what I bring, that's what I got.

Bob: You also have a lot of humorous songs. A lot of those are originals. Do you do any that are covers?

Pete: I met Pat Donohue in Nashville and I traded him a Scapper Blackwell lick for his song "Would You Like to Play the Guitar?" We all envy Pat for having written that because it's the guitar player's National Anthem. If I had been in the same room with him I'd have thought about murdering him to take it as my own, it's that good. It's a wonderful song, and Pat's just a great player and a wonderful songwriter, and I like to perform that a lot. Humor is very important. When you’re playing, you’re entertaining the audience. It doesn't mean you have to be funny, but be interesting - peak they're curiosity, poke fun at some of the silly-ass notions that we have. I think it was Mark Twain that said "Nothing will destroy an absurd belief so thoroughly as humor." I really enjoy those songs and I love getting a laugh. I like it when a guy can really dazzle me with a little finger work and make me laugh. Merle Travis did that a lot, he had a wonderful sense of humor. John Hurt, Gary Davis, all these guys had a real rural sense of humor, a little sarcastic - always poking fun at you a little bit, and telling a few tall tales. I used to dog Merle whenever I could. I think that man would have lived another ten years if I hadn't pestered him to death. What I enjoyed as much as his music was just the man.

When I was a kid I grew up in Santa Monica, CA., but I spent a lot of time in Rouge River Oregon with my uncle. I worked on a farm every summer up there. All my life I thought I would end up splitting my time between a farm and a saw mill, and that seemed fine to me. I went to a private High School in Sedona Arizona, which was a viscously insane right-wing town filled with John Birch Societies and now ironically enough it's filled with feather-headed new age crystal-throbbing porpoise-hugging marine-mammal-talking chai-drinking… it's just gone completely the other 180 degrees since then. I've never had much use for either of those groups, frankly.

(Editor's note: here Pete talks extensively about his Mom (who immigrated from Scotland), his father (a Germain Jew who escaped to Russia, then escaped again to the U.S.) and Grandfather, Uncle and family - their working-class politics, history, and philosophy. There isn't space to print it all here, but when we put this interview on the AFG website, we will include this section - in which Pete relates his upbringing to his philosophy of life and music. He concludes with the following statement.)

Pete: My Dad had to land on Omaha Beach to stop the Nazis. I don't have to do that. I just have to open my mouth, or sing a song, and say something. We can all cherish this wonderful music, and put it to work, keep it alive, make people laugh. Delight people. Give them a vision of what something could be that's bigger than anything ever imagined. Hearing Gary Lambert is one of the most inspiring things to me. It just goes through me like a bolt. That man's using his ability and imagination to make a better world.

Bob: How does that all relate, and how did you happen to get into music?

Pete: Whenever I meet people I always ask where they're from, what their backgrounds are about because I think it all has to get into whatever it is their doing. Their work and their lives aren't really separate. I used to ask Bukka White how he came to be who he was. John Hurt, I always asked them "Where are you from? How did you grow up?" - what their beliefs were about. What was it like being in the South? I heard this music first from John Hurt. He played Fingerstyle, alternating bass guitar. He played tunes like "Stagger Lee," "Casey Jones," and all these old, old tunes - things from the 19'th century. I just adored them, his versions of them, his humor that went with it. The whole sense that he created when he played changed the environment. Somehow it resonated with me, and I just felt myself to be a kindred spirit with those guys. This was all before I started playing guitar.

Bob: Then how did you learn how to play?

Pete: Learning how to play was just dumb luck, like so many things in my life. Nothing I planned ever worked. When I was a kid I used to listen to 50's rock and roll on the radio, Chuck Berry, etc. Also I used to listen to an old blues station when they had BB King. I used to pick these up on a radio that I built as a little boy. It had the tubes out all bare, and I used to scorch myself on them. Then I heard Jimmy Reed when I was 12 years old. He was a black guitarist and the best harmonica player I had ever heard. For all you Fingerstyle guitarists out there, you pick up a Jimmy Reed CD and listen to how Jimmy Reed sings against the rhythm. Also listen how he plays his harmonica lines. If you can play your guitar like that, buddy you're in the door. We could all stand to learn from that. The way I hear a lot of guys playing, they all love Chet (and who doesn't?) - but we gotta look out because we're playing these things a little square. One thing you hear with Chet, and especially with Jerry, that guy can swing. That man's rhythm, where he puts his notes against what he's playing is just stunning. Even if that kind of music is not your cup of tea, it's a great thing to hear. I'm always glad I listened to that early on and got that sense of rhythm. If you listen to the Rolling Stones you'll get this straight boom, boom, boom 4/4 time. If you listen to Jimmy Reed you'll hear a heart beat. Ba dump, ba dump, ba dump, like an Indian beating a drum. It's a heartbeat, not straight 4/4 time. It's not slamming away on a guitar and trying frantically to put a statement out, it's this easy flow. It's just before or just after the beat.

When I got my first guitar at age 16, my buddy Fred Dortort (who is still my life-long friend) had a sister who showed him how to play "Freight Train." She taught Fred a little finger picking pattern, and he showed me the pattern. It was just dumb luck. I didn't ask to see it, he just showed it to me. And I still teach "Freight Train" to people just the way he taught it to me, sittin' on the dirt in Arizona. He got me to play "Freight Train” that afternoon, and that's an important thing. How did I learn to play? I didn’t worry about getting it perfect. I worried about getting it on the fingerboard - some version of it first. You'll clean it up and make it swing and rock and put in all kinds of nuances later, but get it on the guitar. Know what you're moving through. What are the chords I'm playing through? What's going on with my thumb? You gotta watch that thumb at first, make sure it plays that alternating bass, or a moving or walking bass part. How did I learn to play? Slowly. I had a lot of support, a community of people who were playing this way. I was just old enough to catch the tail-end of Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White, Son House, Furry Lewis, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowel, and Skip James.

Bob: Those guys were actually there?

Pete: They were there. I was at a club called the Ash Grove in Hollywood. I'd go there to see them. I'd save my money all week, and at first I'd walk 9 miles from Santa Monica to Hollywood, because I couldn't afford the bus fare and still get into the club. Then I wouldn't come home. I'd spend the night out in the park, and the next day I'd get up and into the club. It opened up at 2 in the afternoon, these guys would be in there, and I'd go back with my guitar, sit around, and try to pick their brains. I'd pester the hell out of them, the same I do with Gary and Bob today. I'm no better today than I was then. I'd watch these guys, and get what I could from them. I'd just be in this environment with guys who played like that. That's why I feel sorry for kids today, there isn't that environment anymore. I finally got a little motor bike and I could ride over there. I saw Merle Travis for the first time at that club. I was with my buddy Fred, I paid my $2 to get into the club, and I heard this guy playing - I believe it was "Nine Pound Hammer." I left Fred at the door to get the change, and I ran inside to hear Merle, I couldn't believe one guy could be playing all that. He was just stunning. Every time I could see Merle I would go. I asked him to show me stuff, and he always would, but I could never do it. Later I finally got to the point where I thought maybe I can do some of that hotter type guitar. If you make that decision and commitment, I'll be dammed if a bunch of stuff doesn’t start coming your way. Everybody thinks it's some kind of fancy New Age synchronicity thing. It's not. It's something that's always there you can avail yourself of. One of the things that happened is AFG member Chuck Smolsky was sitting at McCabes playing a Chet tune. I said "Wow that's great, what is that?" He said it was "Camptown Meeting." I asked him where he learned it, he said "I belong to this association, the AFG. You ought to come down there some time." I did, and it was one of the luckiest times in my life. I met JD Roberts down there. He's another guy who was just wonderful to me.

Then in 1999, I entered a Southwestern Fingerstyle competition in Tucson Arizona. I put four tunes together, got 'em down razor good, and I played with a really fast, clean left hand. I just played really good that day, better than I had ever played in my life. I guess some really good guys didn't show up, so I got lucky and won!

After winning that competition, I qualified for Winfield (a national contest). Two months later, just before I was going to go to Winfield, I cut off my fingers on a table saw. Not all the way, but just through the palm side, right through the bones and the front tendons. I cut my index finger down like a chisel. I cut the ends off my ring and little finger, and split my thumb in two on my left hand. I was pretty much finished. Period. That was it, and I was never going to play again.

(Editor's note - in the upcoming part 2 of the Pete Steinberg interview, Pete describes his struggle to regain his guitar playing ability. The support of his family, friends, and fellow AFG members inspired him not only to play again, but to make music his full-time career.)

2000 - Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists