Inspired by the legends of the steel guitar
Al Brisco does it all
Article & images by Tim Burgess
Cool guy and Cramahe resident, musician, and owner of Steel Guitars of Canada, Al Brisco does it all. He designs, repairs, sells, lectures, teaches and plays incredibly well steel guitars.
A guitarist of renown, he has shared the stage with a lot of great musicians including Gordon Lightfoot, Gordie Tapp, Kris Kristofferson, David Clayton-Thomas, George Hamilton 4th, including a stint as the bandleader for Stompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. With two albums of his own, Al has followed the style of country music American steel guitar legend Ralph Mooney, even cutting a record called ‘Ralph’s Reel’ as a tribute to Mooney.
Growing up in Renfrew, he was introduced to music in high school when he took piano lessons and also played bass guitar in a country band. When the band decided a steel guitar was needed Al picked up the drummer’s Simpson-Sears lap steel guitar and using a photo on an album cover as a guide, manufactured a stand and began playing steel guitar at the age of 19. Al remembers in his final year at high school being asked what he was doing after graduation, to which he answered, “I am going on the road playing music.”
And he did. Al’s musical career took him to many places. Along the way, he became a teacher and has had many magazine articles written about him. “Music was just in me”, he explains. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of support. You can’t put a price on the therapeutic value on doing something you enjoy in your life”.
Al learned from other steel guitar wizards including Buddy Emmons, Buddy Charleton, and Lloyd Green, putting on records of Buck Owens along with Ralph Mooney, sitting down night after night to practice their music over and over.
And his life has been nothing short of incredible, playing in the 1970s with the number one country band in Canada, Johnny Burke and East Wind; then in the 1980’s when he played with the Tommy Hunter Road Band. He still plays today with two bands, Carroll Baker and Freddy Vette And His Rhinestone Plowboys.
Al started his business, Steel Guitars of Canada in 1990 and was inducted into the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1994.
Moving to the Colborne area in 2000 from Mississauga, he runs the only Canadian steel guitar shop and since 2019 has been creating and selling his own name-brand of steel guitars world-wide. It is a full-body instrument requiring the use of knees, feet and both hands with trademark sliding the steel bar that goes up and down the strings giving the guitar its distinctive sound.
Steel guitars have Hawaiian roots and evolved a lot since the early days when they were a unique part of country music. The newer generation has a Jimi Hendrix attitude towards them and this will lead to even more change. Al says, “it is the evolution in music. New kids are taking it to a new level with new music. That is great, a new style, it is such a versatile instrument and has been used in every kind of music and progressed a lot in country music and in folk music.”
When asked what he can offer to inspire upcoming players when they pick up the steel guitar, Al explains,” Music is more done with the heart. (They) want to have the desire to do it. It is not an easy instrument to accomplish. Start out and take it one step at a time and keep progressing. It is a challenge. If it is worthwhile, then it is worth a challenge.”
Al remembers a saying from Ronnie Hawkins, “The big time is around the corner.”
Al keeps his optimism high at all times. Recalling his playing day, Al remembers, “At the end of the night, when the last note died out, and looking over at the rest of the band members with their buttons popping off their shirt, the euphoria of the night was, so wonderful. You look out at the crowd and wondered if anyone would ever experience what we just did, just one time in their life. It doesn’t happen very often, such an extraordinary feeling. A few nights of those feelings make it all worthwhile. This has been a ride”.