In 2012, Nathan Golub had been playing the pedal steel guitar for four years, methodically learning new techniques, tricks and licks. A veteran of bluegrass and rock acts, he had joined a country-rock band with the instrument in tow. Every time he felt his playing had adequately advanced, he would buy a more complicated, hulking version.
But when his first child, Meyer, was born that year, Golub elected to become a stay-at-home dad, at least for a while. He suddenly had a lot of spare time to study the country music staple. He soon realized, however, he couldn't plug the 20-string electric beast through a powerful amplifier in a 750-square-foot home—at least if he wanted his son to sleep.
Instead, Golub returned to the acoustic guitar, rediscovering a previously abandoned interest in fingerpicking. The move linked well with the lifestyle change.
"Being home with my son during that time, my world was really small. We were in this tiny house. If I went anywhere, it was around the neighborhood. The mindset was very insular," says Golub. "It was really nice, because I like being alone to think about things. Getting into those tunings, I found things that resonated with me, musically and personally."
The break from pedal steel proved doubly productive. Golub is now not only an area mainstay of that instrument but also a solo instrumentalist writing captivating, intimate numbers for a lone guitar and occasional effects. For someone who spends so much time supporting other people with a contraption as ornate as pedal steel, Golub has found the simplicity of the individual approach to be empowering.
"How little do I need to play a gig? At first, I had an amp, a pick-up, even a delay pedal to give it some atmosphere. But then I thought, 'What if I took that away?'" he says. "That still appeals to me."
LOCATION: The spare bedroom of his home in DurhamAGE: 35
KNOWN FOR: A former bluegrass band frontman, Golub is now one of the area's in-demand session players for pedal steel accents and a promising new entrant in the field of solo guitar instrumentalists.INFLUENCES: Bluegrass pickers, blues players, the fingerpicking, Hot Tuna-loving hippies of Florida, where he was raised; pedal steel masters like Weldon Myrick and Mike "Cookie" Jones; modern acoustic masters like the fabled John Fahey and the young Steve Gunn.
HEAR & SEE: Between sessions and shows as a sideman and soloist, Golub maintains a busy musical schedule. You can hear him backing the Mountain Goats on the new Beat the Champ or supporting Michael Rank on Stag's albums. But his most regular gig comes in support of country crooner John Howie Jr. in The Rosewood Bluff. His pedal steel whinnies and moans. Still, it's his recent solo work that's earning Golub newfound attention. Last year's excellent Ellerbee River Blues offered an introductory study of contemplative instrumentals, and he's already followed it up with a split with Durham's Wood Ear this year.Listen to Nathan Golub's Slender Spindle
1974 EMMONS DOUBLE-NECK PEDAL STEEL: When Golub bought this instrument, his fifth pedal steel in eight years, he had to air it out, as it was stained and caked with nicotine. Since being built in Burlington by pedal steel iconoclast Buddy Emmons, two legendary country players, Weldon Myrick and Mike "Cookie" Jones, owned the monster. (Barbara Mandrell played it, too.) Though the instrument has two necks of 10 strings each, eight foot pedals and four knee levers, Golub sticks mostly with the front neck—tuned to "E9," which produces the brighter sound more familiar from country music—and the pedals and levers that shorten or stretch its strings. He eventually hopes to get to the other 10 strings in the "C6" tuning, but he says he's still working to master his chosen half. "It's such an involved instrument," Golub says, "and there are so many mechanics. It's almost more like a machine than an instrument."
TUNING & TUNING IN: With 10 strings per neck, tuning the pedal steel can be quite the task, especially in hectic onstage moments. But Golub has learned to take his time, because it prepares him better for the set itself. "When I started, I would tune it all to a tuning pedal. But now I use the pedal to just get my E note, and then I tune the rest by ear. I have to play the thing by ear anyway, so it's a good way to get in the right headspace and pay attention. Instead of standing up and looking around and playing guitar, I have to look at the instrument the whole time and be really aware of what is going on around me. The process of tuning up helps me get in that state."
FINGER PICKS AND BAR: "Using these correctly is a technique unto itself. I was familiar with finger picks from playing guitar, so that helped when I started playing pedal steel. These are weird, vintage picks a banjo-playing friend gave me. I like the way they feel. With bars, there are different weights and sizes. This is on the heavier side. The more mass will equal a heavier tone."
1957 GIBSON LG1 vs MARTIN D28: "When I was in a bluegrass band, I was playing a big Martin D28. But when I started getting into fingerpicking, I realized there was too much sound coming out. I needed a small-body guitar. The LG0 and the LG1 were considered student models. The bracing inside the guitar is "ladder bracing," meaning it goes straight across. "X bracing" allows for a lot more overtones, more sparkle and more sustains. Ladder bracing is less of all of that; it's more plunky. It's a really different sound for acoustic guitar, more like a classical guitar. I can hear the individual notes better. With this guitar, as the sound dies out, there's more space. Without those overtones, I find myself compensating, because there's less information in each note."
LIMITED-EDITION AMPLIFIER: "Pedal steel amplifiers are designed to be crushingly loud. This amp can get really loud and not sound abrasive. There's a rack-mounted preamp built by Brad Sarno, a pedal steel player. This other pedal steel player, TC Furlong, makes these cabinets. They built a few of these, so that the cabinet has space for the preamp. The preamp is a tube preamp, but if your volume pedal is always at 70 percent, you're going to need a lot more boost. The power amp, which boosts that signal, is solid-state. You get the warm tube-amp feeling, and then the solid-state component comes on quickly."
VOLUME PEDAL: "It's a really beautiful aspect of the sound. When I first started, I thought you keep the volume all the way open and then bring it down to create the volume swells people associate with this instrument. It took me a long time to learn that what the pros do is create the illusion of a consistent volume. When they attack the string, that's the loudest part. If you think about the volume pedal being about 70 percent, you back it up to 60 when you hit the string. As the note decays, you open it up, so that it sounds like the volume is the same, even as the note disappears. I pay more attention to that, in some ways, than musical concepts. For the most part, I play simple musical concepts. But having an appropriate tone for the song I'm playing—and the quality being really nice—is something I think about a lot."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Parenting interrupted"