IAIN Sloan remembers looking at his new eBay purchase, a pedal steel guitar, and wondering how on earth it worked. It was a twin-necked affair, complicated by the addition of pedals and levers.

He’d been blown away by the adventurous work of two of the pedal steel's best-known exponents, Bruce Kaphan and B.J.Cole.

“Their sound wasn’t what I’d associated with the instrument,” he says. “I’d had a hankering to buy one and eventually, at the end of 2006, bought one from eBay. There was no instruction manual, the instrument was in bits. I’d never seen one up-close before. I somehow managed to put it together but had to Google to find out how to tune it. We only had dial-up internet, so it wasn’t a case of going on YouTube for instructional videos. Without exaggeration, I sat behind it for the first three to six months, and just stared at it.”

In time, he mastered the pedal steel – no easy task, it has to be said – and now, just over a decade later, 48-year-old Sloan and his pedal steel have worked all over Britain, and in Europe and North America too.

The father of two, who lives in Queensferry, makes part of his living as a gun-for-hire, in the studio and on the road. He has worked regularly with Blue Rose Code (Ross Wilson), Peter Bruntnell, Findlay Napier, Norrie McCulloch and My Darling Clementine, and has done live, studio, radio and TV sessions with Zervas & Pepper, Julie Fowlis, Fiona Kennedy and Yola Carter. He has guested with the hard-rock outfit, the Quireboys, and has played with the veteran Scots prog-rock band Abel Ganz at two prestigious festivals in the genre – Rosfest, in Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, and Terra Incognita, in Quebec.

To add to his armoury he also plays guitar and bass, and does backing vocals. And when he isn’t behind the wheel of his car, bound for another venue with another band, he is also one-fifth of the Edinburgh-based Americana specialists, The Wynntown Marshals. On top of it all, he has the everyday domestic concerns of an ordinary father-of-two: school runs, childcare, doing the housework. “Feeding the rabbits, too,” he says.

Like many others in his position, Sloan concedes that being a session musician isn’t exactly a sure-fire way of getting rich, especially as he has chosen such a “niche” instrument. After some gigs he might not get home until the early hours, when the children have long been put to bed. But he does it because he loves music; and his words are an interesting insight into life as a session player.

“There are two schools of pedal steel players, though some people would probably disagree with me,” he begins. “There’s an older breed who like country & western and really excel at more ‘trad’ country stuff. They tend to be in their sixties and beyond, and there are more of them in Scotland. Then there’s a ‘younger’ generation, like myself, like Stuart Nisbet, who's worked with Justin Currie and The Proclaimers and is incredibly busy. There's Dave McGowan, who plays pedal steel in addition to his day job playing guitar and keyboards in Teenage Fanclub and bass in Belle and Sebastian. But there aren’t too many beyond that.

“One of the things that might make my name come to someone’s mind is that I don’t play overly country-style steel. I’d like to think people come to me because I’m doing something that is not 'trad' country. There are people who do that kind of thing far better than I ever could. With Blue Rose Code, for example, I do virtually nothing that you'd term 'country pedal steel'.

“Possibly another reason that I’m getting busier is that pedal steel is a luxury that you can over-use. If you use it on every song on an album, it loses its impact and appeal for me. This also applies to gigs. If someone asks me to play steel at a gig, I can do that. But I also play guitar, and sing. At Celtic Connections with Ross last year I actually played bass, because he needed that instrument more than anything else. In other words, if someone doesn’t need me on steel for half of the setlist, I can play guitar – six-string, 12-string, acoustic, electric - and add some backing vocals too.”

He may, then, be a pedal steel player of note, but he concedes that he’s not an innovator. “People like Kaphan and Cole, Greg Leisz and Eric Heywood, these guys take pedal steel somewhere else. They’re not trying to replicate a honky-tonk style.” It can be a formidably hard instrument to master, though. “One of my Wynntown colleagues once sat down behind a pedal steel for 30 seconds. He told himself, ‘I’m never going to get my head around this’, and he stood up and walked away. And I’ve known people who have bought or borrowed one, or had a shot at one, and said, ‘No way. I don’t have the time or patience to learn all of this.’

Sloan once had less than a week’s notice before filling in for the pedal steel player at a Glasgow gig by the Quireboys. “I was told I’d just need to do my homework and turn up for the soundcheck. I thought I would go and play two songs, as there was nothing on the set-list for me for four or five songs. I got up to leave but Spike, the singer, said, ‘Hey, where are you going? Just stay here – have a jam!’ And I said, ‘Have a jam? I don’t know many of your songs.’ But I stayed put, and got stuck in.”

He takes out his phone to show photographs of his Rosfest trip with Abel Ganz. “An incredible experience, the trip of a lifetime,” he says. As it happens, there are videos on YouTube of the gig, with Sloan and his pedal steel, stage right.

Now and again, diary conflicts can arise, but Sloan says he never lets down the musician he has committed himself to. There’s a rueful smile as he recalls how he and bass player Danny Williams were contentedly looking forward to a week-long tour with Peter Bruntnell last year. Long before it materialised, both he and Williams were asked by separate other musicians if they could make the Cambridge Folk Festival. Sloan’s invitation came from his friend, Ross Wilson. “We both had to say no, of course. And, as it turned out, Ross played that gig with the legendary double-bass player Danny Thompson, who’s played with everyone from John Martyn to Richard Thompson. How cool would that have been, to have played with Ross and Danny Thompson at Cambridge? But you have to be professional about these things. Of course we’d never dream of letting Peter down. And I love his music, of course, which always helps.

“I also do my homework. You have to be professional about it. You could turn up for some gigs and just busk it, but I would rather be prepared. A lot of people have asked me, ‘You’ve played the Queens Hall [in Edinburgh], you’ve played on Virgin Radio, you’ve sat close to Bob Harris and Ricky Ross doing BBC radio sessions, you’ve played the Hogmanay show on BBC Alba – do you ever get nervous’?

“There’s always a little bit of excitement when you go on stage, but I think nerves are normally borne of a lack of confidence that comes from not knowing what you’re doing. If you’ve done your prep, the nerves are almost done with. Because I’m not working during the day, when the kids are at school I get the steel set up and put on the CDs of people I’m going to be playing with, and scribble some notes. In the car I’ll listen to their music. If you get the songs in your head you can work out what the pedal steel should be doing at any point. Then, when you sit down on stage, you know where the song is going. If you get lost at any point, you can pause to take stock because you know there’s a chorus coming along, because you’ve done your homework.

“So I turn up to gigs, I try not to be obnoxious - and this is difficult for me,” he smiles, “because I am opinionated. Someone who has played with lots of bands once told me, ‘The best advice is to keep your head below the parapet'. If there’s band politics going on, it’s not your job to get involved in it. You come in, you do your job, you have fun without worrying whether the tour is making money, how much [band] merch[andise] has been sold on the night. And there’s someone else who tells you what time to turn up for the soundcheck.

“Having done all that for the Marshals, and to persist in doing that – that’s the bit of being in a band that slowly kills you.” He laughs again. “It eats away at you, because you’re constantly chasing folk for responses about gigs or airplay or column inches. Whereas, with the likes of Ross, he’ll phone me up and ask if I’m free in three weeks’ time for a gig in Falkirk, or if I’m free for something like a Hogmanay gig. And that’s how it works, and it’s lovely. Because you get to actually just play, and that’s why you got into this in the first place – I got into it because I love playing music, and you get to hang out with all of these lovely, talented people. I think I’ve been lucky. And really - I am grateful.”

Iain Sloan plays with Blue Rose Code at Falkirk Town Hall tonight and appears at the Quay Sessions with the Wynntown Marshals on BBC Radio Scotland on February 22. https://www.facebook.com/WynntownSteelCo/