Buddy Emmons: The Master of Jazz and Country Guitar

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As lovers of music, we often come across legends whose talent and influence are undeniable, but whose names may not be as familiar to us as they deserve to be. In the world of jazz and country music, one such figure is Buddy Emmons. Emmons was a master of the guitar, with a skill and style that set him apart from his contemporaries. His contributions to music, from developing the pedal steel guitar to playing with country greats and collaborating with jazz artists, are immeasurable. In this article, we’ll delve into the fascinating life of Buddy Emmons, exploring his childhood, early career, and lasting legacy in the world of music.

Early Life and Career

Early Life And Career
As Buddy Emmons came to be known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, it’s worth taking a look into his early life and career path. Born on January 27, 1937, in Mishawaka, Indiana, Emmons had his first experience with music at the young age of five, playing lap steel guitar alongside his older brother, Little Roy Wiggins. However, Emmons would go on to establish himself as a virtuoso on the pedal steel guitar, making significant contributions to both country and jazz music. Let’s delve into his journey from a young boy in Indiana to becoming a master of the guitar and collaborating with some of the biggest names in music. For a related story on the evolution of the electric guitar within country music, check out our previous article.


Growing up in Indiana, Buddy Emmons was exposed to music early on in his childhood. His parents were both talented musicians who played in the local band. Emmons’ father played the guitar and his mother played piano, so music was always a part of his life. Emmons showed an early interest in music and would often watch his parents play.

As a child, Emmons was fascinated with the sounds of the steel guitar, which he first heard on the radio. He was drawn to the smooth, sliding sound of the instrument and became determined to learn how to play it. Even at a young age, Emmons showed an intense passion for music and an unwavering dedication to his craft.

To fuel his passion for the steel guitar, Emmons would often listen to recordings of the instrument and practice for hours on end. His hard work paid off when he was eventually able to play his first song on the steel guitar. This was a pivotal moment in Emmons’ life and marked the beginning of his career as a professional musician.

Emmons’ childhood experiences and early exposure to music would set the foundation for his career as a trailblazing musician. He would go on to develop the pedal steel guitar, becoming one of the most influential figures in both jazz and country music.

Speedy West was another pedal steel guitarist who made significant contributions to country music during the same era.

Learning to Play Guitar

Buddy Emmons showed an early interest in music, and unlike many other country guitarists at the time, he did not begin playing by listening to the radio. Instead, the young Emmons learned to play guitar by ear after his father brought one home from a pawnshop when he was 11 years old.

Emmons grew up in a musical family and was surrounded by a variety of styles, including country, bluegrass, and swing music. His uncle, a professional steel guitarist, gave Emmons his first lessons and helped him develop his technique. At the age of 14, Emmons began playing in local bands and became known for his exceptional talent and his ability to play a variety of styles.

In his early career, Emmons found inspiration in the music of Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Don Rich. He studied their playing techniques and incorporated them into his own style. He also developed a love for jazz music and began incorporating it into his playing.

Emmons’ rise to fame was in part due to his innovative approach to the pedal steel guitar. He experimented with different tunings and pedal combinations, which allowed him to play complex melodies with a level of speed and accuracy that was unheard of at the time.

To further enhance his skills, Emmons moved to Nashville in the early 1950s, where he began working as a session musician. He quickly became a sought-after player and worked with some of the biggest names in country and western swing music.

Jerry Reed, who was a fellow guitarist and friend of Emmons, once recalled, “Buddy was one of those innovators in the world of guitar who really went beyond the normal boundaries of what most of us could even imagine.”

Emmons’ contribution to jazz and country music cannot be overstated. His unique style and innovative techniques paved the way for future generations of guitarists, including Clarence White and Jerry Garcia.

Buddy Emmons was a self-taught guitar player who learned to play by ear at a young age. He drew inspiration from a variety of styles, including country, bluegrass, and jazz. Emmons became known for his exceptional talent and his innovative approach to the pedal steel guitar. His contributions to the world of music continue to inspire and influence musicians to this day.

Moving to Nashville

Moving to Nashville

In the early 1950s, Buddy Emmons moved to Nashville, Tennessee, which at the time was a center for country music. There, he began playing the pedal steel guitar for numerous country music stars, including Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, and Ray Price. The move to Nashville proved to be a pivotal point in Emmons’ career, as it helped him gain a foothold in the music industry and establish himself as a sought-after musician.

During his early years in Nashville, Emmons became a member of one of the most popular country music touring bands of the time, Jimmy Dickens’ Country Boys. The band’s high-energy performances and catchy tunes often featured Emmons’ pedal steel guitar playing, which helped to establish him as a rising star in the country music scene.

Emmons also began to establish connections with other musicians in Nashville, including Chet Atkins, who was himself a legendary electric guitarist and producer. Atkins recognized Emmons’ musical talent and helped to promote his music and talents to a larger audience.

The move to Nashville was a huge turning point in Buddy Emmons’ career. It allowed him to connect with some of the biggest names in country music, perform with popular touring bands, and establish himself as a rising star in the music industry. His contributions to the pedal steel guitar and country music as a whole would continue to impact the genre for years to come.

Contributions to Jazz and Country Music

Contributions To Jazz And Country Music
The world of music owes a great deal to artists who have pushed boundaries and forged new paths, all while staying true to their roots. One such artist who has left an indelible mark on both jazz and country music is Buddy Emmons. This guitar virtuoso contributed extensively to the genres during his lifetime, and his innovations and techniques continue to influence contemporary artists. From the pedal steel guitar to his collaborations with musical legends, Emmons’ impact is both lasting and impressive. In this section, we will explore Emmons’ incredible contributions that have helped shape jazz and country music into what we know today. We’ll delve into his developments in the pedal steel guitar, his memorable collaborations with jazz greats, and his influence on the genre as a trailblazer in innovative techniques, among other things. So, if you are ready to learn more about Buddy Emmons’ remarkable contributions to jazz and country music, let’s dive in.

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Developing the Pedal Steel Guitar

Buddy Emmons was not only a talented musician, but also an inventor. In fact, he played a key role in developing the pedal steel guitar, which became his signature instrument. This instrument has revolutionized country music and has even been used in jazz and other genres.

Emmons started developing the pedal steel guitar while he was still a teenager. He took an interest in the instrument after hearing it played by Jerry Byrd, a popular steel guitarist at the time. Emmons started experimenting with the instrument and found ways to improve its tone and playability. He made several modifications to the guitar, including adding pedals that allowed for greater control over the instrument’s sound.

These modifications allowed Emmons to create new sounds and techniques that had never been heard before. He was able to produce a crying, singing tone that became a hallmark of his playing style. With the pedal steel guitar, Emmons was able to capture the emotions of a song and convey them through his playing.

Emmons’ innovations did not go unnoticed in the music industry. Other musicians began to take notice of his unique sound and started using pedal steel guitars in their own music. Today, the pedal steel guitar is an important instrument in country music and has even been used in jazz and rock.

Buddy Emmons’ contributions to the development of the pedal steel guitar have had a lasting impact on music. He has inspired countless musicians and his legacy continues to live on. If you want to learn more about innovative country guitar playing, check out Don Rich’s legacy or Jerry Reed’s innovations in country guitar. Clarence White’s electric guitar innovations have also had a major impact on bluegrass music, you can read more about it here.

Playing with Country Legends

One of Buddy Emmons’ defining accomplishments was playing alongside some of the biggest names in country music history. Here are just a few of the country legends Emmons shared the stage with:

  • Ray Price: Emmons joined Price’s backing band, the Cherokee Cowboys, in the early 1960s. His signature sound added a new dimension to Price’s honky-tonk style, and he remained with the band for over a decade, contributing to some of Price’s most beloved recordings.
  • Ernest Tubb: Emmons was a regular member of Tubb’s band, The Texas Troubadours, throughout the 1960s. He was instrumental in crafting the band’s unique sound, which blended Tubb’s traditional country with Emmons’ jazz-influenced pedal steel guitar playing.
  • Willie Nelson: Emmons and Nelson first crossed paths in the 1960s, and they quickly formed a close bond. Emmons worked on several of Nelson’s classic albums, including “Phases and Stages” and “Red Headed Stranger.”
  • George Strait: Emmons played on several of Strait’s early recordings, including his debut album “Strait Country.” Emmons’ skillful playing added a touch of elegance to Strait’s laid-back, traditional style.

Emmons’ contributions to these artists’ music cannot be overstated. He helped to shape the sound of country music in the 1960s and 1970s, and his approach to the pedal steel guitar influenced generations of players to come. Emmons’ work with these legends cemented his status as one of the most innovative and sought-after musicians of his time.

Collaborations with Jazz Artists

Buddy Emmons’ musical versatility allowed him to collaborate with various jazz artists throughout his career. He was not only recognized in the country music scene but also in the jazz community. Emmons was sought after as a skilled guitarist and related musician, and his collaborations with jazz artists were symphonies of their own.

One of Emmons’ most memorable collaborations was with the legendary jazz pianist, Erroll Garner. Emmons played on Garner’s album “The Most Happy Piano,” released in 1961. Garner’s piano and Emmons’ pedal steel guitar blended together perfectly in a series of upbeat jazz pieces. Their most popular piece was “Mambo Garner,” which showcased Emmons’ versatility on the steel guitar as he effortlessly went from country runs to bebop bedlam.

Emmons also worked with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli on his album “Looking At You” in 1983. The collaboration produced a beautiful collection of improvisational jazz music, with Emmons’ steel guitar creating a wistful and mesmerizing sound to match Grappelli’s lilting and enchanting violin.

In another collaboration, Emmons worked with jazz pianist Bob James on his album “Foxie” in 1979. This album was a departure from James’ usual smooth jazz sound, as he incorporated Emmons’ pedal steel guitar into the mix. The result was a fusion of jazz, country, and funk, with Emmons’ playing giving a sparkle and a shine that lifted every track to memorable heights.

Emmons’ innovative techniques in playing the pedal steel guitar made him one of the pioneers in the jazz and country genres. His ability to play jazz as well as country music made him an exceptional musician, sought after by musicians in both genres. Emmons was, as jazz pianist and composer Michel Camilo said, “the Yo-Yo Ma of the steel guitar.”

Table of Buddy Emmons’ Collaborations with Jazz Artists:

Artist Album Name Year Released Notable Track
Erroll Garner The Most Happy Piano 1961 “Mambo Garner”
Stéphane Grappelli Looking At You 1983 “Looking At You”
Bob James Foxie 1979 “Foxie”

Emmons’ collaborations with jazz musicians have left an indelible mark on the world of jazz, showcasing his talents as not only a country musician but a jazz virtuoso. His collaborations with other world-class musicians produced some of the most memorable and exciting jazz music of the time.

Innovative Techniques

Buddy Emmons was known for his innovative techniques on the pedal steel guitar. He revolutionized the instrument and expanded its capabilities, influencing many musicians who came after him.

One of Emmons’ signature techniques was the use of volume swells, achieved by manipulating the volume pedal on his instrument. This allowed him to create a smooth and seamless sound, similar to a violin or cello. He also utilized unusual chord progressions, incorporating jazzy chords and progressions into traditional country music.

Emmons was also known for his use of voice-leading, a technique in which the notes in a melody move in a smooth and logical way from one chord to the next. This gave his playing a sense of fluidity and motion, and allowed him to create complex arrangements on the fly.

Additionally, Emmons developed a technique known as multi-neck playing, in which he used two or more pedal steel guitars with different tunings to create a fuller and more complex sound. He also experimented with alternate tunings, using open tunings and other unconventional tunings to achieve unique sounds and textures.

Emmons’ innovative techniques have had a lasting impact on the pedal steel guitar and the music world at large. Many musicians have been inspired by his playing and have sought to emulate his unique sound and style. Emmons’ legacy continues to live on today, and his contributions to the world of music will never be forgotten.

Technique Description
Volume swells Manipulating the volume pedal to create a smooth sound
Unusual chord progressions Incorporating jazzy chords and progressions into traditional country
Voice-leading Moving notes in a smooth and logical way from one chord to the next
Multi-neck playing Using two or more pedal steel guitars with different tunings
Alternate tunings Using open tunings and unconventional tunings to achieve unique sounds

Impact on Future Musicians

Buddy Emmons’ innovative techniques and contributions to jazz and country music had a significant impact on future musicians. His use of the pedal steel guitar and unique playing style inspired countless artists to incorporate his techniques into their own music. Here are some of the ways his artistry influenced other musicians:

  • Inspiring New Playing Styles: Emmons showed the world what the pedal steel guitar was capable of achieving, inspiring countless artists to explore new playing styles and musical genres.
  • Creating New Techniques: His unique playing techniques on the pedal steel guitar opened up new possibilities for musicians, demonstrating that the instrument was capable of every bit as much complexity as any other instrument.
  • Musicians Across Genres: Emmons’ music transcended genres, and his impact can be felt in everything from country to rock to jazz. Aspiring musicians saw the possibilities that could come from expanding their horizons and blending various genres.
  • Revitalizing the Pedal Steel Guitar: Buddy Emmons’ contributions and innovations revitalized the pedal steel guitar and pushed it into new territory. His use of the instrument showcased its versatility, inspiring other artists to take up the pedal steel guitar and explore its full potential.
  • Expanding the Country Music Sound: Emmons’ collaborations with country icons like Willie Nelson, Ray Price, and George Strait broadened the scope and sound of country music, opening the door for generations of country artists to come.

Buddy Emmons’ impact on future musicians cannot be overstated. By pushing the pedal steel guitar to its limits, he expanded its sound and capabilities, inspiring countless musicians to follow in his footsteps and expand the possibilities of their own instruments.

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Personal Life and Legacy

As much as Buddy Emmons had an impact on the music industry, there is much to be said about the man behind the guitar. Throughout his illustrious career, Emmons had his share of personal struggles and triumphs that played a significant role not only in his music but also in his legacy. From his family and relationships to his later career and the honors he received, his life and legacy continue to inspire and captivate fans of all genres to this day. Let’s delve deeper into the personal life and legacy of this master musician.

Family and Relationships

Buddy Emmons was born in the small town of Mishawaka, Indiana, into a family with a strong musical background. His parents were both musicians, and his father played guitar for a western swing band. Emmons was the youngest of four children, and all of them were encouraged to pursue music.

Throughout his career, Emmons had two wives and children from both marriages. His first marriage was to Peggy Emmons, who was also a musician. Together, they had two daughters named Christy and Vicki. However, the marriage ended in divorce.

Emmons then married his second wife, Peggy Ruth, with whom he had two children, a son named Brett and a daughter named Jennifer. The couple remained married until Emmons passed away in 2015.

While Emmons’ personal life may have been troubled at times, his talent and dedication to music never wavered. He is remembered as a true innovator in the world of jazz and country guitar, and his contributions to the music industry continue to influence and inspire musicians to this day.

Later Career and Honors

After years of success and trailblazing in the music industry, Buddy Emmons continued to make significant contributions to both jazz and country music in his later career. He continued to play and record with various artists, cementing his reputation as a master of the guitar.

In recognition of his contributions to music, Buddy Emmons was honored with numerous awards and accolades throughout his career. Here are some of the highlights:

Award Year
Nashville Music Award for Best Instrumentalist 1973
Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance 1975
International Guitar Hall of Fame Inductee 1991
Steel Guitar Hall of Fame Inductee 1993
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Inductee 2019

These awards reflect the immense impact that Buddy Emmons had on the world of music as a whole, especially in the genres of jazz and country.

Despite his passing in 2015, Buddy Emmons’ legacy continues to live on through the music of countless musicians who have been inspired by his innovative techniques and unparalleled skill on the guitar. It is a testament to his lasting impact and his status as a pioneering figure in the world of music.

Legacy in Music

Buddy Emmons is recognized as a trailblazer in both jazz and country music, revolutionizing the use of the pedal steel guitar and inspiring generations of musicians to come.

Impact on Country Music Impact on Jazz Music
Emmons’ inventive use of the pedal steel guitar transformed the sound of country music in the 1950s and 1960s. His contributions to country music earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as numerous awards for his playing and songwriting. Emmons played on hundreds of recordings, including those of legendary country artists like Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, and Willie Nelson. Emmons’ mastery of the pedal steel guitar made him a sought-after collaborator in the jazz world as well. He played with jazz legends such as John Hartford and Stephane Grappelli, and his playing can be heard on a number of jazz recordings. Emmons’ influence on jazz guitarists is still felt today, and his innovative techniques continue to inspire musicians in the genre.
Even outside of country music, Emmons’ influence can be felt in the wider music industry. Many contemporary musicians cite him as an influence, including The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Wilco’s Nels Cline. His signature guitar model, the Sho-Bud, continues to be manufactured and sold to this day. Emmons’ impact on the development of the pedal steel guitar cannot be overstated. He helped to transform an obscure instrument and turned it into a staple of both jazz and country music. His legacy lives on through his recordings and through the countless musicians he inspired over the course of his career.

Emmons’ influence and impact on both country and jazz music is undeniable. His innovative use of the pedal steel guitar forever changed the sound of both genres, and his legacy will continue to inspire future generations of musicians.


After exploring the life and contributions of Buddy Emmons, it’s clear that he was a true master of jazz and country guitar. From his early beginnings in Indiana to his influential career in Nashville and beyond, Emmons left an indelible mark on the music industry that continues to inspire musicians to this day.

Through his innovative use of the pedal steel guitar, Emmons developed a distinct sound that seamlessly blended elements of jazz and country music together. His collaborations with country legends such as Ernest Tubb and Ray Price, as well as jazz greats like jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, showed his musical versatility and willingness to break down genre barriers.

Emmons’ impact on future musicians cannot be overstated, as his groundbreaking techniques and contributions to music theory continue to pave the way for aspiring guitarists and instrumentalists all over the world.

Despite his numerous accolades and honors, including induction into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Emmons remained humble and dedicated to his craft until his passing in 2015.

Today, his legacy lives on through his recordings, collaborations, and influence on countless musicians who have been inspired by his work. As the music industry continues to evolve, Buddy Emmons’ contributions to jazz and country music remain a testament to his skill, dedication, and passion for his craft.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Buddy Emmons known for?

Buddy Emmons is known for being a master of both jazz and country guitar, as well as for his contributions to the development of the pedal steel guitar.

What were some of Buddy Emmons’ innovative techniques?

Buddy Emmons developed numerous innovative techniques for playing the pedal steel guitar, such as the use of bending strings, playing harmonics, and using volume swells.

Who did Buddy Emmons collaborate with in the jazz world?

Buddy Emmons collaborated with many jazz artists, including pianist George Shearing, saxophonist John Coltrane, and guitarist Herb Ellis.

What impact did Buddy Emmons have on future musicians?

Buddy Emmons inspired countless future musicians with his pioneering work on the pedal steel guitar, and helped to establish its place as a versatile and essential instrument in both jazz and country music.

What contributions did Buddy Emmons make to the development of the pedal steel guitar?

Buddy Emmons developed numerous innovations for playing the pedal steel guitar, including the use of pedals and knee levers to change the instrument’s pitch, and the use of multiple necks and pickups to achieve a wide range of sounds.

What country legends did Buddy Emmons play with?

Buddy Emmons played with many of the biggest names in country music, including Ray Price, Roger Miller, and Ernest Tubb.

What led Buddy Emmons to move to Nashville?

After achieving success in his hometown of Mishawaka, Indiana, Buddy Emmons moved to Nashville in search of new opportunities in the music industry.

What honors was Buddy Emmons awarded later in his career?

Buddy Emmons was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame during his later career, and was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

What was Buddy Emmons’ legacy in music?

Buddy Emmons left a lasting legacy in music through his contributions to the development of the pedal steel guitar and his innovative techniques, as well as through his collaborations with some of the biggest names in both jazz and country music.

What is the significance of Buddy Emmons’ work for future generations of musicians?

Buddy Emmons’ pioneering work on the pedal steel guitar helped to establish it as a versatile and essential instrument in both jazz and country music, paving the way for future generations of musicians to explore its rich potential.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

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