April 17, 2018
By: Matt Williams
If you’ve listened to any country, folk, Americana, or rootsy rock ‘n’ roll that’s come out of Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe from the past decade—not to mention multiple and numerous acts who’ve stomped their way through tunes on the stage of Toronto’s most famous honky tonk, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern—there’s a good chance you’ve heard Aaron Goldstein. For quite a while now, he’s been a go-to hired gun for some of Canada’s most celebrated musicians when they’re on the hunt for a pedal steel player. Just a few of his credits include albums and stints with Daniel Romano, Bry Webb, Cowboy Junkies, Lee Harvey Osmond, The Sadies, and The Weather Station, not to mention his own project Espanola. And pedal steel players are few and far between, which has a little to do with how Goldstein got his start.
“I guess I just realized I didn’t know anybody who played that instrument,” Goldstein says over the phone from his Toronto studio, Baldwin Street Sound. “It was really intriguing to me and I couldn’t stop thinking about how I should probably just learn it myself.”
When he first went to university, Goldstein ended up on a major Neil Young kick—specifically Shakey’s early records, excluding his debut. Ben Keith started with Young on 1971’s Harvest, and it was his playing—feel-based, serving the song—that captured Goldstein’s attention. One day, he decided to send an email to Long & McQuade after seeing an ad for a Carter Starter pedal steel, asking if it was possible to come in and check it out, making it clear he wasn’t necessarily going to buy it. They said they had one in Ottawa but could send it down to Toronto no problem. When he got to the shop, the employee was surprised that his intention wasn’t to just walk out with the thing. There was no chance he was going to get to sit down with it in the store. “He was basically like, ‘Nobody in here even knows how to put this together,’” Goldstein says. But they gave him double the time to bring it back, and he brought it home that day.
“When I bought it, this fellow at the counter who was selling it at Long & McQuade gave me a sort of talking to, because he’d just started playing steel guitar himself, but only begun to play lap steel which, on the surface, is a less complicated instrument—fewer strings, none of the pedals. And he was like ‘Son, you’re walking out of here with the most complicated instrument in the western world.’ He’s maybe not wrong. Depends on what you think is complicated, but there’s a lot of subtle physicality to the playing of it.”Goldstein playing his old Sho-Bud with Daniel Romano
The kind of pedal steel sounds most people might be familiar with enough to recognize the instrument—very ambient and smooth—seem wildly simple, but playing the instrument is a full body ordeal. For a right-handed player, their right foot would be working a volume pedal. Their left foot engages pedals that very precisely bend (typically) three different strings. Four knee levers—one on each side of each knee—also bend strings. And their left hand would control the tone bar. Goldstein started drumming in his teens, which helped him hit the ground running with an instrument that also demands that your limbs work independently. Still, if your ear is good, it’s easy to make something that sounds good come out of it quite quickly. “It’s one of those moments to learn, lifetime to master sort of things,” Goldstein says.
Essentially, Goldstein is the product of a Hamilton scene that birthed bands like Arkells, Monster Truck, and Terra Lightfoot, and was home to his own (now defunct) rock ‘n’ roll band Huron. When he started, he jumped on board with every songwriter he could, organically working his way into the fabric of things as an excellent player. Everyone went to see everybody else play, and he’d put on shows at his house, which all provided an encouraging environment for the bands that were involved. He grew up in Toronto, and lives there now, but says he hasn’t found a scene that feels as much like a community as the one he came up within the Hammer.
He’s also quickly gaining a reputation as a killer producer, and his pedal steel playing has informed that side of his work as well. Playing a rare instrument has allowed him to be involved with a lot of different albums, recorded at many different studios, watching a plethora of producers and absorbing nuances. Making a good record requires a deep understanding of dynamic—every sound has its right place and shapes the texture of a song—and playing an instrument that spends a lot of time outside the spotlight has informed Goldstein’s production style.
“Serving the song is so huge as an accompanist of any kind,” he says. “If you’re going through life playing with songwriters and not generally being a songwriter yourself, you learn pretty quickly that you’re all there for a common goal, and that’s to make the song as good as it can be. And if you’re not on board with that, you don’t work very much. So certainly, that’s the mindset I’ve had for many years. It’s the same with production.”
Because pedal steels aren’t the most popular instruments in the music world, they’re often made specifically for players. Goldstein’s is no different. His number one machine is his own specially made Show Pro from Mount Juliet, Tennessee. Typically, a pedal steel will have a pickup wired straight to a jack. Players in recent years have experimented with a second pickup, closer to the headstock, which Goldstein’s has (as well as his name on the front). But one of the biggest issues he’s faced playing pedal steel was that, when the rest of the band could “throw and go”—just throw their equipment on stage and play, while maybe fiddling with their amps during tunes to fix the sound—Goldstein was sitting, which meant he couldn’t do much (or anything) to change what the instrument sounded like.
“I figured the best thing for me would be to have a whole series of tone controls on the neck of the guitar so I can literally just throw and go, and if I’m plugged into some backline [Fender] Twin they gave me, and it’s screaming and really trebly, I can roll off the treble on the deck of the guitar while I’m playing. But also, I can achieve all sorts of other weird sounds that a lot of steel players probably wouldn’t be able to achieve without tweaking the amp quite a bit.”
Although it’s particularly associated with ‘traditional’ sounding music like country, the pedal steel as it’s known today is a real young instrument, finding its form right in the middle of the 20th century. That means a lot of what it can do remains to be explored, and Goldstein is more than happy to be one of the explorers, armed with his own model of the instrument that’s well-suited to experimentation.
“It opens up the sonic world into all sorts of synthy kinda sounds, soundscape stuff. Certainly, if you combine that neck pickup with a delay pedal, and maybe a fuzz. That’s the kinda world I live in—I use pedals and different tonal combinations from this control plate to sorta get what I need.”
“I still sit down and I think to myself, ‘There’s a whole world in this instrument,’” Goldstein says when I ask how his relationship with the pedal steel has developed. “And I’ve only scratched the surface.”