Two teenage boys walk into Steel Guitars of North County in Oceanside, scan the assortment of vintage oddities arranged on the walls, do a quick appraisal of the pack of 50-somethings trying them out, turn on their heels, and exit the store.
“Happens a lot,” owner Jim Palenscar says of the kids who find his shop and confront instruments not of rock and roll but what Texas musician Bugs Henderson calls the sit-down guitar.
“They come in and say, ‘What’s this all about?’ and turn around to leave, and I say, ‘Let’s talk.’ As a result, we’ve gotten some converts.”
Steel guitars come in lap steel and pedal steel, and aside from having strings and fretted necks, they bear no resemblance to conventional guitars. Both are relics from another time, devilishly hard to learn, and possessed of a curious sound that immediately says country music.
“Steel guitar,” Palenscar says, “you hear it, you know it.”
Steel guitarists are as rare as their instruments, and the steel-guitar shops that serve them are a distinct minority. “Blackie Taylor has a shop in Riverside, and that’s the only other shop in California that I know of,” Palenscar says. “It’s such an underground type of thing that nobody wants to admit playing one.”
Palenscar says he got the lap-steel bug in high school after hearing David Lindley and Sneaky Pete Kleinow backing Jackson Browne. “Especially on ‘Take It Easy’ on the Everyman album. It was Sneaky Pete playing an old Fender pedal-steel guitar through a phase shifter. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.” Palenscar has played ever since, appearing with a band called the Steamers for nearly 30 years.
A veterinarian by trade, he opened the guitar store’s doors five years ago after being diagnosed with asthma.
“The doctor told me I shouldn’t be around dogs and cats anymore, so I hung out at my house for about a year.” Boredom set in. “I told my wife, I gotta find something to do. She said that I could start by cleaning up the living room. I had steel guitars and amplifiers everywhere.”
On Saturday, May 22, from 11 a.m. till 4 p.m., Palenscar will open his shop to guitar collector Barney Roach, who plans to host his First Annual San Diego Vintage Lap Steel Guitar Show there, featuring displays of old steel guitars and performances by local lap players Jack Butler, Adrian Demain, and Robin Henkel.
“Steel guitar,” says Roach, “you hear it every day and don’t know it. It’s all over [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon. And,” he says, “it’s in the soundtrack for SpongeBob.”