Buddy Emmons, Shot Jackson and the Birth of the Sho-Bud Steel Guitar.by Buddy Emmons
In 1955 at the age of eighteen, I moved from Detroit to Nashville to become a member of the Little Jimmy Dickens band. I was playing a Bigsby pedal steel, manufactured at a rate of one per month with a two year waiting period. By 1956 the inside neck of my triple neck Bigsby had become a place to experiment with bass string tunings, 16 string tunings in octaves, and steel guitar tunings in general. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, another steel guitar player by the name of Shot Jackson was watching the different stages of my experimentation.
My formal introduction to Shot was at a WSM radio show called The Friday Night Frolic. After telling me he had been observing my "wild ideas", as he put it, Shot asked if I'd be interested in helping him design a steel guitar around a pedal mechanism he had in mind. He saw the Bigsby backlog as a window of opportunity and a chance to offer an alternative that would satisfy the demand for a pedal steel. Shot handed me a piece of polished aluminum with a funny looking curly Q on the tail end and said, "This is the keyhead, what do you think?" I thought it was a long way from a pedal steel but I also thought it was pretty neat looking so I told him so and accepted his offer.
We started in Shot's garage with Shot doing the layout, assembly, and mounting of the pedal mechanism. My job was to build and finish the cabinets. The Stratosphere Guitar Company wound the first pickups, shipped them to us, and we housed them in red fiberglass covers. After a few months, Shot integrated the mechanics of a sewing machine bobbin into a pickup winder of his own. His single coil design is still a popular choice among some steel players today including myself.
A wood neck insert was used between the keyhead and changer head to avoid tuning problems associated with a one-piece aluminum neck. We used bird's eye maple for the cabinet with a decorative wood inlay around the edge to give it a slimmer appearance. The twenty-five inch scale fret board and a keyhead without rollers gave sustain and tonal quality unmatched by any other guitar. There were a lot of "squeaky" noises coming from the strings pulling across the bare aluminum slots in the keyhead but who cared? It was a pedal steel guitar.
We sold our first Sho-Bud, an eight string single neck, to Don Warden, steel guitarist for Porter Waggoner. Don sang in Porter's trio, so his pedal rods were lengthened to allow him to play and sing from a standing position. Among the first double neck players were Sonny Curtis, Ben Keith, George Edwards, Jimmy Day, and myself. In the latter part of 1957 I went to work with Ernest Tubb to have a playing job and to showcase the new guitar to potential customers on the road.
The pedal tuning in early 1957 was E, B, G#, F#, D, B, G#, and E. If there were no specific requests for the number of pedals or changes, the guitar was assembled with whatever setup I was using at the time. The original E to A triad pedal change pulled the two strings with one pedal. In the latter part of 1957, I assigned the B and G# string to pedals one and two to increase the melodic and harmonic potential of the tuning. To the best of my recollection, the first recording I used the split pedals on was Ernest Tubb's "Half A Mind".
By 1959, we had moved Sho-Bud to a building on Nesbitt lane in Madison Tennessee. Ira Louvin of the Louvin Brothers was hired to repair acoustic instruments and perform custom inlay work using abalone and different types of exotic wood. Zane Beck, founder of the ZB guitar also worked at the Nesbitt Lane location. From there, Shot moved the business downtown to Broadway a few doors from Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, making it the best of both worlds for musicians.
Between the years 1957 and 1959, Jimmy Day added an E to the middle of the tuning and Ralph Mooney added a high G#. We experienced a lot of string breakage with the G# so we reduced the twenty-five inch scale to twenty-four and a half inches. In 1964, after the Sho-Bud progressed to ten strings per neck, I added an F# and D# to the tuning to have diatonic notes that would further extend the melodic possibilities. I used the tuning with a Sho-Bud for the first time on a song called "You Took Her Off My Hands" from the Ray Price "Burning Memories" album.
A footnote regarding the diatonic tuning evolution: We were on the road three weeks prior to Ray's scheduled recording date when the idea came to me. The linkage in Shot's pedal system was permanently welded, making the ninth and tenth string positions the only choice for the F# and D# notes. This required the thumb and finger to alternate from the front to the back of the tuning for the diatonic effect, which was awkward at best. It was an interesting sound but the difficulty involved in using it gave me thoughts of trashing the idea. Then I started seeing the two strings on the guitars of some serious players around town. I smiled and thought to myself how ironic it would be to quit using it and become dated by my own creation. It was then that I asked Shot to reconfigure the undercarriage of my Sho-Bud so the diatonic notes would be in the first and second string positions for easier access.
I left the Sho-Bud Company in the early sixties after having designed my own pedal steel but Shot and I remained close friends throughout the years. I would drop by the Broadway location to visit Shot from time to time and the first thing he would ask in front of his Sho-Buddies was, "Hey, Hame Jaw, are you still playing Brand X?"
Shot Jackson had the talent and experience to build a pedal steel and make it a success on his own. I'm grateful that he chose not to. The fact that the Sho-Bud guitar is still around and still the favorite of many steel guitarists is a lasting tribute to his contribution and our combined efforts. He had an idea, ran with it, and made a difference.
this article © 1999 Buddy Emmons