Lap steel guitarist Sterling Koch talks about the truth of blues, Kim Simmonds and Campbell Brothers

"I think the creativity is what I miss. Everything today is so pre-fabricated, pre-packaged, market tested and made for commercials to sell other products. The blues will always exist."

Sterling Koch: The Ruler of Slide

Sterling Koch is a nationally recognized lap steel guitarist who is a touring and recording artist. Sterling specializes in playing Chicago style blues in a contemporary style on the lap steel guitar. He has recorded 5 solo albums of steel guitar music including: “Slide Ruler,” “Steel Guitar Blues,” “Steelin’ Home” and “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” and his new fifth, "Let It Slide" (2013) was recorded with his touring band, featuring Gene Babula (bass) and John Goba (drums), and contains the single "Mercury Blues." His previous release titled "Slide Ruler" featured bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chet McCracken (Doobie Brothers).

The band performs a solid mix of classic-rocking, blues/rock music containing both original and cover songs featuring the soaring, slide guitar sounds of Sterling’s lap steel guitar. He has had the support of the legendary steel guitarist Calvin Cooke when first starting on steel guitar and now can claim "steelers" Darick Campbell (The Campbell Brothers), Aubrey Ghent and Freddie Roulette as friends and mentors.

Sterling has performed at many US known venues including The Bitter End, Kenny’s Castaways and Cornelia Street Café (all in New York City), the well known blues nightclubs Stanhope House and Bubba Mac’s Blues Shack (both in New Jersey) as well as outdoor events including Daytona Bike Week 2005, several Harley-Davidson Open Houses, Gathering Of The Tribes and more. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

I learned that I don’t have all the answers, personally, professionally, musically. It’s all a continual learning process for me. I like Willie Dixon’s saying “The blues is truth.“ I think that really sums it all up and why I love the blues.

How do you describe Sterling Koch sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is rooted in Chicago style, post war, slide guitar blues but has a rock sensibility to it from my upbringing in rock music. I’ve always loved the blues from my first purchase of Muddy Waters “Fathers and Sons” album to my friend introducing me to the Allman Brothers “Live At The Fillmore East.” I was always taken with the sound of the slide though at first I had no idea how that sound was being made. From Duane Allman to Hendrix to Trower to SRV then backwards to Albert King, Muddy and BB King and finally my personal “holy grail” Elmore James. Hearing Elmore’s playing was life changing for me.

The fifth album, "Let It Slide" is as it started out? Or has this changed and are you pointing in a new direction?

I think “Let It Slide” is more a progression rather than a change of direction. If you start from my “Steel Guitar Blues” album to “Slide Ruler” to “Let It Slide” you will see the same style of music but I think I’m just continuing to make a better quality of music. From my guitar playing to my vocals to production quality I think everything has progressively improved.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I always like to think that right now is the best time of my life. I never like to look back and I tend to like to press on. The best moment of my career was probably the opportunity to work with Tommy Shannon and Chet McCracken on my “Slide Ruler” album. The worst was probably all the way back to 1984 and my signing with Ebony Records from the UK. I was a blues rock musician signed to a heavy metal label and of course it just didn’t work out.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think people like to see truth in their music. You can listen to a lot of the pre-packaged music that’s out there today but eventually people will always come back to real music and the blues is real. The blues is truth.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Sometime back around 1985 I went to The Stanhope House nightclub in Stanhope, New jersey to see Savoy Brown. I was introduced to Kim Simmonds who asked me to come up and sit in on the band’s encore of “Going Down.” He loaned me one of his guitars, plugged me in to one of his Marshall amps and gave me a couple of solo spots in the song. It was incredible as Kim has always been one of my guitar heroes and to meet him and to find what a kind and generous person he is was definitely uplifting for me,.

My most memorable gig was from 1988 or ‘89 we were playing a club in Allentown on a slow Tuesday night when the owner of the club came flying in the front door with a sort of entourage of people, The people were rushed to the downstairs lounge to see the area’s “hot new band.” Well, they only stayed down there about 5 minutes as apparently the group of people was not impressed with the band and so they came back up to the bar across from the room we were playing in. As it turned out we could see the people and it turned out to be the band Warrant. This was just at the time “Cherry Pie” had hit and the band was the biggest thing of the day. Well, while we were playing they must have liked what they heard as one by one they came over to  hear us. They started requesting songs, first some Hendrix (of course we knew all that) then some ZZ Top. When they asked us to do “Waiting For The Bus” we did it and then we went seamlessly into “Jesus Just Left Chicago” which blew them away. After we finished that song their singer Jani Lane came up and asked if he could sing a song with us and asked if we could do “Tush.” Of course we could and did and during my guitar solo Jani was pouring Tequila shots down my bass player’s throat. VERY memorable.

Do you remember anything fun from opening act for Savoy Brown, Rick Derringer and Blackfoot?

Well, as I stated above I was just so impressed with Kim Simmonds’ humility and gentlemanly manner. He had no problem with me playing his guitar or using his amp. He was and still is a great guy.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting many of the Sacred Steel guitarists has been extremely important to my development on the lap steel. Getting to talk to both Darick and Chuck Campbell was an awesome experience. The best advice was from my father and it was simply to never give up. You can’t lose the game if you keep playing.

Which memory from Tommy Shannon and Chet McCracken makes you smile?

Well, both Chet and Tommy were terrific guys to work with. As well known and accomplished as they are they were both down to earth and only wanted to help make the “Slide Ruler” album the best it could be. My favorite memory is of Tommy talking with me on the phone from the studio where he was laying down bass tracks for the album and asking me was this okay? Did you like that? I mean, there’s a legendary bassist of the blues asking ME if it was okay. Great memory.

From the musical point of view what are the difference between the lap steel and (normal) guitar?

Well, of course the lap steel is played on the lap using a slide called a “tone bar” and usually using a thumb pick and finger picks. My approach to the lap steel, coming from the conventional guitar, is more guitar-like than most which I think gives me a bit of a unique sound on the instrument.

Do you know why the sound of slide is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of slide?

The sound of the slide is connected to the blues because of the wailing, weepy, sad sound that the slide can emit to express emotion. However from listening to the Sacred Steel guys I am able to coax shrieks of joy from the slide as well. The secret of slide is intonation as there are no frets to use to play notes and there are so many micro-tones available between the notes. Phil Campbell of the Campbell Brothers likes to say "The steel guitar is a great instrument. It can do precision work or, in the wrong hands, it can do damage."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

I think the creativity is what I miss. Everything today is so pre-fabricated, pre-packaged, market tested and made for commercials to sell other products. The blues will always exist. As long as there are people to sing about their troubles or getting over those troubles there will be blues music.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

My hopes are that the current music model continues and the “big” record companies become irrelevant. My fear is that BMI and ASCAP as an enforcement mechanism of those “big” record companies are making it more difficult for musicians like myself to perform in night clubs, etc. by imposing their outrageous performing rights fees on night clubs and bars thereby forcing them to either discontinue having music or putting them out of business altogether.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Where, would be Chicago. Time? Somewhere in the 50s, to sit in and see a recording session of a classic blues song at the Chess Studios in Chicago would be quite a learning experience.

Sterling Koch - official website

Photo and Album's Design by Niki Moser

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