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John Fabian Interview

John Fabian

This interview by Gib Sun took place at the North Tennessee Steel Guitar Superjam, April 1, 2003.

Gib: John, how are you doing tonight?

John: Great Gib! Thanks for having me.

Gib: John, here we are at NTSGA SuperJam 13, and you put the first set on the books. It was great!

John: Thank you very much. I was very glad to be here and very pleased that the club would invite me to be here.

Gib: Certainly our pleasure. As founder, operator and everything else of Carter Steel Guitars, that’s got to be a busy time for you.

John: Business has been very good for us. The people, the customers, the lord; everybody has been very good. We’ve been blessed. My partner, Bud, of course, who’s key. My wife whose very key, without whom we could not even run the business, and it’s been excellent. The response to our product offerings has been very good, especially the Carter Starter, which is sold through dealers only. It has created somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand new steel players in the last two years.

Gib: John, what is the best way to get started in steel guitar?

John: They need to get a pedal steel, and if they can’t get a regular teacher which is sometimes hard to do, a video teacher like Jeff Newman or Joe Wright and several others who are offering that service. That cuts years off of figuring it out that I went through, and I’m sure a lot of the guys went through. I think you will see most of the video teachers moving towards DVD now as apposed to a VHS so you can play it on your computer. It’s a big advantage to have a video teacher to show you the short cuts, where to start, the basics to avoid developing bad habits. You get the benefit of someone who has been playing 20, 30, 40 years in your house. You can take a lesson anytime you want; just plug them in, give them a couple milliwatts of electricity, and away you go.

Gib: You not only knock time off the learning curve, but you don’t waste time having to unlearn some of the bad habit we pick up on our own.

John: That will take place probably 15 or 20 years later when you go upon the hill for one on one instruction with Jeff Newman for a week. Then you have to unlearn the bad stuff before you pour in the new stuff.

Gib: What we are talking about is Jeff Newman will invite you out to his place for intensive sessions. Intensive is the right word; is it not?

John: Brutally intensive! 40 hours with probably the premiere pedal steel guitar teacher in the world. One on one. It’s awesome! I’ve been through it. It changed my way of thinking. I really enjoyed it.

Gib: I first met you at the convention in St. Louis. Carter always has a great booth. All the great players are always there. 

How did you made the move into manufacturing?

JF: I was working out in Silicon Valley as a product manager for disc drive companies. Samsung was the company I was working for at the time, but I’ve worked for Seagate, Maxtor and others. They were going through layoffs, as usual, and moving to New Jersey. I really didn’t want to do that. I really didn’t want to go through job search again, so I called up Bud and said, "I’m coming down to Texas. I want to talk about building steel guitars." Bud Carter is certainly the only person I would ever consider doing this with. We started the company, and it was real interesting the first couple of years. We were in start-up mode for about four years. We would sit around thinking eventually someone will call, eventually someone will buy something.

As far as the booths go, we tried in the early years to have the booths in the rooms with headphones. I always believed in an interactive booth. Since we were factory direct sales from day one on the pro stuff, we needed to bring the store to the people at a show. We went for an interactive booth, and we set it up so people could try out the steels, amps and whatever else there was. One year, a guy named Billy Phelps came into the shop and said, "Hi, I’m Billy Phelps, and I’ve heard a lot about your guitar, and I would like to try one out." That was the start of something really good for us, and I hope Billy as well. He has been with us a long time at shows. He basically runs the booth with his rhythm tracks. Runs like a constant jam session. We have a lot of fun.

Gib: I watched David Spires sit up there for a couple of hours. Fun is what it was all about. You had a huge crowd hanging around. Of course, steel guitar is a mesmerizing instrument.

John: It’s definitely fascinating. It’s addictive, and I guess it’s the most fun you can have with your pants on. *Editors note(Gib is now picking his lower jaw up from the floor.)

Gib: When did you start playing steel?

John: I started playing when I was 30, 31 years old. I had always wanted to play steel. When I was living in New York City, I was playing 6-string guitar. My big inspiration was I was flipping around the channels, and I caught one of the old Wilburn Brothers shows. Hal Rugg was on there. They let the band do something, and the musicianship was awesome. At that time I really didn’t enjoy the rock and roll I was listening to. I was brought up in DooWop days. I really liked that. What Hal Rugg was doing was awesome, and I knew right then that that was the instrument for me. I bought an old lap steel and drilled it so I could put it on a stand. I got a book and tried to play. Bar slants? I just don’t understand this. This doesn’t make any sense at all. I kind of drop that until I moved out to Oklahoma for a while. Then I pickup an MSA at a music store. That was my first guitar. I went to a Jeff Newman seminar in about 6 weeks after I got it. When I was playing, it was like cats mating is what it kind of sounded like. When I went to the Newman seminar, he had 3 knee levers, and I had 2. And I said, "I gotta have 3 knee levers to play with the 3 pedals." So I turned my MSA upside down, looked at it. It had all the parts except I needed the knee lever. I went out and bought a drill, drilled through the end plate, added the parts. That’s how I started. I’ve always had a mechanical talent. It wasn’t a big thing to me at the time. I never knew it would lead to this. I might not have done it, I think. All kidding aside, we have a lot of fun. I really enjoy watching peoples faces when they get their new steel and hearing from them on how they enjoy it. It’s very rewarding. Basically we’re in the business of making people’s dreams come true. That’s kind of how we view it, and it is rewarding to see that.

Gib: John, thank you on behalf of everyone here putting on a great show that first set. Thank you so much for taking the time being with us.

John: Thank you, Gib. I enjoyed it. It’s always a pleasure.

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