Steel Guitar Forum reaches players world-wide
By MARY JO WINTER / Cloverdale TOWNS Correspondent
Cloverdale’s Bobby Lee originally developed The Pedal Steel Pages website in 1995 to sell his music and distribute information about pedal steel guitars. He added a Forum to the site the following year and, almost overnight, The Steel Guitar Forum became the largest steel guitar information resource in the world.
In 1998, Lee says, an internet search for “pedal guitar” would have only yielded four sites, one of which was his. Of the other three, only one is left. Since its inception, The Steel Guitar Forum has consistently been on the first page of Google.
Like most success stories, though, Lee’s didn’t actually happen overnight.
When he graduated from high school in 1967, the Summer of Love was in full swing. Eager to leave his native Pennsylvania and strike out on his own, Lee packed his bags and headed for San Francisco.
Drawn to the city’s music scene, he immersed himself into the “flower power” movement. He still remembers the first time he heard Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar.
By the early 70’s, influenced by Garcia and country performers like Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and even the Flying Burrito Brothers, Lee, too, was playing pedal steel in the honkytonks on Mission Street.
A few years later, he had become a family man and decided it was time to give up trying to make a living playing steel. He moved his young family to Sonoma County and took a job with Petaluma’s Mesa Boogie building amplifiers. For a while, his performances were pretty much limited to weekend gigs at local bars and social halls.
When the Atari 2600 came out, it became possible to make music on a computer. This inspired Lee to teach himself programming skills. At the time, he had no way of knowing how significantly this pivotal advancement in computer technology would impact his future.
Bulletin Board Communities began to spring up about this time and anyone with a computer and a phone line could join. It was on one of them that Lee spotted the ad for a Computer Programmer, thus beginning his career as a professional Programmer at companies like Time Arts, EScan, Broderbund and Avery Dennison.
Anyone who has ever used PrintMaster or The Print Shop software is familiar with some of Lee’s work. He was the engineering lead for these and several similar consumer software products.
Through it all, pedal steel has always been his first love, though, and he enjoys playing locally at places like Gaia’s Garden in Santa Rosa, Twin Oaks Tavern in Cotati and Vino di Amore in Cloverdale.
He plays with a number of bands in Northern California, including Wine Country Swing, ClusterFolk and Laughing Gravy, which recently presented a tribute concert to the late Gram Parsons at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center. He also sits in with many others
Lee and fellow Cloverdale musician, Oscar Calderon, are teaming up to do an album called Rice & Bean. “Oscar doesn’t play country, so when we get together, we play more R&B, oldies and reggae,” he says.
Rice & Bean will be performing their diverse mix of musical styles live this Friday, Nov. 16, from 8 to 10:30 p.m. in the Vino di Amore Tasting Lounge at 105 N. Cloverdale Blvd.
Lee also gives steel guitar lessons in his home studio. Lessons are one hour long and the cost is $40. To find out more or to schedule a lesson, give him a call at 894- 7399.
“Not every musician, no matter how good they are, will be on stage,” says Lee. “This doesn’t mean they don’t want to keep their hand in, though, so they often take jobs like driving a tour bus or working in a music store. Still others become music teachers.”
There are no annual steel guitar shows or conventions in California, but they are fairly common in the South and Midwest. The oldest and largest is the International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis over Labor Day Weekend.
The nearest one, sponsored by the Southwest Steel Guitar Association, will take place in Phoenix January 17 to 19th and Lee is scheduled to perform. As much as he enjoys being on stage, and in spite all his years of experience, he says he still gets a little nervous playing before his peers.
When he first opened The Steel Guitar Forum in 1997, Lee wasn’t prepared for the site’s overwhelming success. He was receiving a then-unprecedented 70 incoming messages each day and, as a result, the system kept crashing under the load.
Today, the Forum has about 12,000 members from all over the world. The website is also the portal to Lee’s mail order business, which consists of selling items like strings, sheet music, CD’s, LP’s, cassettes and accessories.
The Forum has brought Lee both national and international recognition. Although he has never traveled outside the country, in 2010 he was inducted into the European Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
For many years, most of the world’s steel guitarists were isolated from each other and information about the instrument was hard to find. Thanks to the internet, Bobby Lee and The Steel Guitar Forum, that has now been changed forever.