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Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups
Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups

how hard is playing a pedal steel in reality?

Discussion in 'Other Guitars, other instruments' started by eddiewagner, May 23, 2006.

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  1. hwy145

    hwy145 Tele-Afflicted

    Nov 11, 2010
    Well, a lot of this is not quite true! There is a lot that can be done with a little. If one goes at PSG without any information, it is going to be frustrating. I'm having a blast, and feeling more and more comfortable with the basic principals ever day!
    I'm 39, and I expect to be mildly proficient very soon...I'd say in my early 60's. Just kidding! I have no timetable, I love the instrument, so why not? I've got the rest of my life to learn it.

  2. popthree

    popthree Poster Extraordinaire

    Much harder than playing one in fantasy at which im quite adept

  3. dieselten

    dieselten TDPRI Member

    Nov 14, 2005
    For the sake of simplicity I'll keep this post confined to the E9th tuning.

    Before doing anything else, do the research on what a decent pedal-steel will cost, and avoid student models. They are too limited and will frustrate you into giving up. Buy a good professional steel. A single-neck 10-string with three pedals and four knee-levers is the basic minimum, 4 pedals and 5 knee-levers is better and more in line with the current E9th copedants. (Copedant: "chord-pedal arrangement". Basically a diagram showing the tuning of the strings, string-gauges, and what changes to the string each pedal or knee-lever makes.) A pro-level steel will play easy, be easy to tune and set up, stay in tune and will not frustrate you into giving up. Also, it has great re-sale value if you do decide to sell. You'll also need a proper pedal-steel volume-pedal with a 500KOhm pot in it, and an amplifier that plays clean right to maximum distortion required or welcome in any way!! Tube amps can be re-biassed to be clean to the top, solid-state amps specially for steel are made by Fender (Steel King) and Peavey (Nashville personal favourite). Then get a book called "Pedal Steel Guitar" by Winnie Winston and Bill Keith, or some of the Jeff Newman instructional material, and get to grips (literally) with your steel.

    First, learn the major chord grips across the fretboard as well as along its length. Learn the inversions and how many frets, pedals and knee-levers are used to go from one inversion to the next - and how many frets lie between the inversions. After a while you will see there is a logic to it, and there are a series of "pockets" in which an entire song can be played with minimal bar-movement. The pedal-steel is the ultimate "inversion machine".

    Then learn the minor chords, and how to get them with pedals only and a combination of pedals and knee-levers. Then look for the 7th and major 7th chords, then the 9ths, augmented and diminished chords. Learn the pedal/lever combinations which create them. Work out ways of smoothly transitioning between them using combinations of pedals, knee-levers and bar-slides. Don't neglect a passing-chord either, they can add something quite out of all proportion to the short period of time they are played before resolving to the next chord.

    Now look for ways to play a chord progression staying at the same fret for all three chords (I-IV-V), then play the same progression moving the tone-bar no more than three frets. Then find ways of moving from the I chord to the IV chord and the V chord using a combination of pedals, bar-slides and knee-lever moves. Remember as you do the volume-pedal isn't there to hide mistakes, it's there to enable you to mix yourself in and out of the music. Learn to be co-ordinated, smooth and fluid.

    Once you have the three string grips down (triads) start looking at what can be done using just two strings (diads), a technique very useful for backup. Let another instrument in the band put in the missing third note, because it will. A commonly-used two-string grip is strings 8 and 5 (the 1st and 5th note of a major chord) and this can give a very powerful tone when used for backup playing. Any combination of strings which gives this 1st and 5th note pattern is useful, it just depends on whether you want a low-voiced sound or a higher-voiced sound. That often depends on the voice of the them to sound good and don't ever drown them out.

    "You bought the whole guitar, play the whole guitar" was said by the legendary John Hughey. Don't be afraid to venture above the eighteenth fret into what steel-players fondly refer to as "Hugheyland". John Hughey made this his speciality and it is an integral part of his unique sound. The tone up here is piercing, laden with emotion. The penalty is extremely unforgiving intonation and a need to listen very hard to make sure you have the tone-bar placed precisely where it needs to be and are playing with just enough vibrato. In "Hugheyland" a pedal-steel can literally cry.

    The word LISTEN cannot be stressed enough. Listen to the message in the lyric, listen to the emotion in the song, then play what reinforces that emotion and helps the vocalist to get that story across to the listener. If you can't think of anything to play then don't play! A steel-guitar is like the condiments you add to a great meal. Just a little is usually enough. If you overdo it, the whole thing is spoiled.

    Listen particularly to the country music that came out of Nashville from the 60s to the 90s. You'll hear the three greatest Nashville session steel-players on backup; Lloyd Green, Hal Rugg and Weldon Myrick. Listen to the licks they played and when, and how, they played them. Learn those licks and add them to your "bag of licks" ready for instant replay. As you learn these licks you'll begin to appreciate the subtle intricacy of the pedal-steel, and you'll start to develop a feeling for what needs to be played and what doesn't.

    Develop your own distinctive sound. Find something in your technique that you can make into your signature. It may be single-string work like Ralph Mooney. It may be the economy or phrasing and fluidity of Lloyd Green. It may be the bouncing palm-blocking of Hal Rugg or Weldon Myrick. You may model your style on the great Tom Brumley, or the sheer simplicity of Jimmy Day. But remember matter how much you try to play steel like your favourite pedal-steel player, the best you will ever do is to sound like yourself. Get used to it, but always play with as much heart and emotion as you can physically put into the instrument.

    Bandwidth is precious so I'll leave it at that, but hopefully those who are curious enough to read a dredged-up thread now have a better idea of what it takes to play pedal-steel. A while ago I posted the following on the Steel Guitar Forum (a truly great resource!). It sums up how I approach playing steel.

    1. Play as little as possible, as tastefully as you can.

    2. Listen to the music; it has an emotional connection to the audience. Help the song make that connection.

    3. When the singer gets up on stage, he or she owns the stage and they own the song. Help them to sound good.

    4. If you can't think of anything to play, lay out for as many bars as it takes until you can do something that has meaning. Don't be too busy.

    5. Your amplifier Gain-Knob controls volume, your volume-pedal controls "expression".

    6. Be a good and true servant of the music.

    7. Always keep a small thimble either on your steel or in your pack-a-seat or gear-bag. It'll be handy for carrying your ego home after a gig!

    8. Accept that when you play, you sound like you; not Lloyd Green, not Hughey, not Rugg, not'll only ever sound like you, so learn to like the way you sound when you play well.

    9. You will never be famous. The best you can hope for is to be useful.
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2012

  4. Fred Garvin

    Fred Garvin Tele-Meister

    Jun 18, 2005
    This clip has some good visuals.


  5. StringMusic

    StringMusic NEW MEMBER!

    Dec 5, 2012
    It's complicated...

    A typical professional D-10 8X4 pedal steel (Double Neck 10 strings per neck with 8 foot pedals and 4 knee levers) is a complicated, intriguing, and potentially beautifully versatile instrument. The musical range is about 5 octaves on clusters of sweetened tuned chromatic strings ranging in gauges from .09 to.72 none of which are attached to a free form wangger bar for dive bombing or shaking, left hand technique is entirely different than a fretted instrument where the fingers, dance, shake, stretch and hammer on or pull off. With a pedal steel you slide, roll, wiggle, shake, bounce, hammer on, pull off, chime, chime with bar slide and many other complimentary moves. Right hand technique is similar enough, depending on your choice of picks, number of picks and position of the picking hand.

    I believe the most difficult concept to master is the changing of pitch pallets available with the use of the foot pedals and knee levers - it also provides the characteristic sound and the appeal of the instrument as it glides, apparently effortlessly from one note to the next. Transitioning between chords with what I would learn on guitar as chord melody playing is the basis of most the lyrical and smoothest sounds that you hear on pedal steel. Speed can easily be obtained as most steel players use three picking surfaces - thumb first & second fingers some add the ring finger but this usually just confuses the routine.

    Much has been written about intonation. It all starts with tuning, a sweetened tuning is used - unlike a piano which uses tempered tuning, a steel guitar mathematically is tuned to an open chord with some add chromatics. The challenge for the steel guitarist is to clearly hear his instrument fully and also hear the other chromatic and rhythmic instruments. Tuning the pedals and knee levers is essential, as is depressing these levers the same amount each time they are employed, not to mention the half pedal use of the #1 pedal (A pedal) on a standard Nashville E9th neck or the fact that some players use the Jimmy Day pedal set up which reverses the first 3 pedals... always fun to sit down at one of those without knowing that it is a Jimmy Day setup...thanks for the experience Cubby! I repeatedly remind guitar players and band leaders that I HAVE to hear my guitar clearly to play in tune as the instrument truly has an infinite number of micro tones.

    After you get your pedal steel, don't buy a cheap will never get the sound you are looking for and no one will ever give you what you paid for it - buy a professional quality instrument from a reputable dealer that takes pride and gives you assurances of service. My favorite is Bobbe Seymour @ Steel Guitar Nashville and have bought 4 guitars from him in the last 6 years. There are others, probably as good - but I have not bought guitars from them.

    Then once you get your guitar and play with some recordings to the point you are ready get a jam band to set in with and try out your new musical wings. If you have the affinity for playing steel,you will constantly be improving, I do every time I play even though I don't always go forward...I learn. For the last six years I have played over 100+ shows a year, typically 3 sets of one hour, I double on lap steel to keep the sound interesting. I played in the 70s for 10 years and set the instrument aside while following a career path in technology, At 54 I picked it up again and have spent the last seven years learning, ear training, deciphering licks, learning parts, adjusting to LOUD Guitarists, screaming vocalists, and drunken crowds and bandmates. I enjoyed learning the steel again and just last week resigned from the band to take a break and figure out what I wanted to do...which is to play some really beautiful music on the pedal steel. May you follow your dreams and make some beautiful music.
    P Thought likes this.

  6. StringMusic

    StringMusic NEW MEMBER!

    Dec 5, 2012
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2012

  7. Larry F

    Larry F Doctor of Teleocity Vendor Member

    Nov 5, 2006
    Iowa City, IA
    I'd say that knowing your chords and keys is super-critical. It appears that when you are hold down the bar, the pedals/levers are moving individual strings up or down by half or whole step. I might have this completely wrong. But if this is how it works, you've got to know where all of your notes are and how you can get to them. This is my understanding, which might be completely off bases. I'm basing my knowledge on Guitar Player articles and interviews in the 60s-70s. I love how the pedal steel players in bands look like very serious, no nonsense, super-smart older guys in a world all their own. I loved reading about how Sneaky Pete Kleinow once checked himself into the emergency room when he found out he was dosed with acid. He hated the hippie element. Good luck. You'll need it.

    Hey, it looks like StringMusic above is just the kind of guy I was talking about. Hats off to you, sir!

  8. Fendrcaster

    Fendrcaster Tele-Afflicted

    Keep in mind what StringMusic said about the Jimmy Day setup. If you become proficient on the pedal steel, don't expect to sit in on another steeler's rig like you would a six string. If you took ten PS players and looked at their setups, they could all be different, assigning different strings to the pedals and knee levers.

  9. Larry F

    Larry F Doctor of Teleocity Vendor Member

    Nov 5, 2006
    Iowa City, IA
    20 years ago, a group of Chinese performers played a show at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. One fellow had a pedal steel guitar with a long-handled vibrato bar, like a Bigsby but much longer. He mainly used it for comedic sounds of a cow mooing, etc. It was unexpected to me.

  10. cowboytwang

    cowboytwang Poster Extraordinaire

    Jul 28, 2003
    Sonoran Desert
    It's the 6 6 6 Steel thread!!!

    A resurrection of a 6 month resurrection of a 6 year old thread started in '06!

    Think I'll go play a while on my C6 neck!
    P Thought likes this.

  11. T Prior

    T Prior Poster Extraordinaire

    Mar 17, 2003
    Charlotte NC
    Ok, I'll play ( and I do, for over 40 years)

    Very long, perhaps a good read for a prospect... free lesson !

    It's not that it is difficult, it is different...

    first, the misconceptions...

    variable tunings
    knee levers and pedals are strange
    you gotta be crazy


    We, as players generally stay within the same tunings, E9th and C6th
    E9th being the most common . Almost ALL written instruction is for these tunings, sure a few alter the tunings but that is not the typical. Student Steels are built with the E9th tuning, Pro E9th Guitars from all the builders have the same tunings , we do not re-invent tunings..the early Pioneers already did that..60 years ago...Yes, pulls have been added to the root tuning. but the root tuning is secure. is the catch all...

    IF you are a player that understands minimal music theory, the relative chord positions, 1,2 4,5, 7ths, 9ths etc...I don't mean you think you do..YOU DO....Then you will have a very easy time understanding the Pedal Steel Fretboard. It is layed out for relative chord positions. Knee levers and Pedals move notes + or - to accommodate these relative changes( called pulls ) note; A Pull can raise a note or lower a note.

    If you do not play your current Instrument with an understanding of relative theory, even in the most simplistic sense, it will be a long hard road. The Pedal steel is an Instrument built on relative theoretical positions. You either know them, or don't..or you have to learn this.

    This is the #1 stumbling block for prospect players, the theory of music, not the Instrument or the physicals of it all.

    truth, lets talk E 9th

    The Pedal steel 10 string tuning is made up of string grips (string combinations) , we generally play three strings at a time..Strings 10,8,6, then 8,6,5, then 6,5,4 then 5,4,3...these are the root string grips...all the same root chord, but different triads.

    Now play any of those grips and mash Pedal are at the relative minor

    Mash Pedal B, you are at the relative SUS chord

    mash Pedal A and B together go right from the 1 chord to the 4 chord.

    The knee levers offer similar relative positions, when using knee levers in conjunction with pedals ( never awkward positions) you can have substitutions.

    Think of the guitar neck, your fingers add notes to chords to build variants and substitutions, that's what Pedals or knee levers do..You play substitutions up the neck, that's what Pedals and Knee levers do not use 3 Floor Pedals and 5 knee levers at the same time...Typical 1 ped and 1 knee or two peds and 1 knee.

    Awkward? Sure..for awhile...

    The most annoying thing about the Pedal Steel, early on, is using your right foot ( volume pedal) left foot for Pedals and either your left or right knee for Knee elvers your left hand for bar control and your right hand for picking , all at the same time....yes..this is gonna be bad for about 6 months...the cats will run away..maybe even a few wives...

    Soo..if you are a newbie..remove the volume pedal, place your right foot on a small piece of 2 x 4...come back to the foot pedal in a month or two..forget pick blocking, just concentrate on playing the strings and the various grips. Stop trying to be Buddy Emmons on the 1st day...

    FREE practice routine

    Practice picking the above mentioned string grips at each bar/fret location. This allows you to start to control the bar( left hand) and develop the right hand to grab the different string grips at will. Plus you ears will hear if you are on pitch. Do this from the zero fret to the 12th fret then back down to zero again.

    then repeat it with the A Pedal mashed

    Then repeat it with both the A and B Pedals mashed...

    You ears should also now hear the various TONES from the different string grips as well, ear training is occurring...

    By doing the above routine for 30 days ( 10 minutes a day) you will conquer many facets of this incredible Instrument, but you have to put in the time. If you are trying to learn songs and by-pass the basic rudiments you will have a very long hard road...

    What will happen is you will become a very stale 3 string 2 pedal player who plays the exact same 1 to 4 chord lick for the next 20 will be a carrying around a 3 pedal,5 knee lever guitar and have no clue what all that stuff is for...

    And, there is no such thing as..all you need is 2 or 3 pedals and 1 or 2 knee levers...

    If this was true then guitar players only need 4 strings..not 6...

    Can guitar players play on 4 strings ? Sure probably but they know whats missing...Pedal Steel players who only play on 2 peds and 1 or 2 knees do not know what they are missing...Whats missing is music and creativity...

    I am a teacher, I charge $60/ lesson, a lesson can be 30 minutes of 3 hours depending on what the student can accomplish...I guarantee if you are in my studio, in 15 minutes you will go home with a totally positive attitude !

    I don't claim to know it all...there are certainly mobs of players who can smoke me..BUT...I do understand the fretboard and when I hear songs on the radio or CD' that have Steel on them I know where the music is coming from on the fretboard and I have a very good idea of how to capture it.

    Pedal Steel is a great Instrument, go get one !

    P Thought likes this.

  12. tele salivas

    tele salivas Poster Extraordinaire

    Sep 5, 2008
    the first week, a rearrangement of your motor memory is necessary, but once you start loosening those wires, it starts to get fun very quickly. after i learned the intro's to couple songs and some basic chords and the major grips, i knew this thing was not any more difficult than anything else challenging. it's like a musical backhoe!


  13. jmiles

    jmiles Friend of Leo's

    Nov 29, 2003
    Interesting thread! PSG was my "bread and butter" for many years. Started on a Shobud D-10 in '71. Switched to a Kline 12 string Uni in about '83. Needed those low strings for comping in a small band. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have started on a Universal. But that's a constantly discussed subject on other forums, and is just my opinion.
    The first two strings were boggling my mind, and I couldn't think straight because of them. A friend had a friend who taught, so I signed up. First thing he asked me to do was play something on his Tele. I put on my picks and played Doc Watson's "Ticklin' The Strings" I had been fingerpicking since I started on 5-string in 1959. But,,,, this gave my teacher a good grasp on where I was technically. Right hand would be no problem. Then he handed me the bar, and had me play a chromatic scale on one string. Again, no problem as I have(had) very good pitch.
    Then he handed me the Tele again, and said, "Forget about the steel's first two strings for a few minutes. Play an E chord at the 4th fret." I did. The steel's 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th strings are that E chord on guitar. He proceeded to show me on 6-string what every pedal and lever on the steel did. Light bulbs went off like crazy!
    Then he started teaching me "The Orange Blossom Special" using all the pedals and levers(2) associated with the E9th neck. I practiced about 4 hours a day. When I went in for my 3rd lesson, I could play the tune, fast. He told me he had a gig for me. A "request band." About 300 songs on 3X5 cards, and I didn't know any of them. Heck, I had just quit a Zappa style band! Had to fly by the seat of my pants, but I knew what everything did, and could relate it to my 6-string playing/soloing.
    So,,,, your current guitar skills can be a big asset in learning PSG.
    Do you have reasonable musical/theoretical knowledge?
    Can you already fingerpick well?
    Do you have good pitch? (This is essential, because of parallax)
    Are you dedicated to learning PSG?
    Those things can be a huge advantage!

    As an addendum; Within 6 weeks, I constructed two more knee levers, so my guitar could do what I heard in my head. Also, I "zone out" when I play PSG. I'm never certain what the next notes are gonna be until they sorta happen. Nothing is ever the same twice. Makes it more fun for me.

    Attached Files:

  14. Viceroy

    Viceroy Tele-Meister

    Feb 20, 2008
    Silver Spring, MD
    I had a very sweet Sho-Bud "The Professional" for a few years. It was a dream come true to have it! I found it difficult to get off the ground. There are lots of excellent self-teaching materials out there and the steel guitar forum has access to great arrangements in tablature form of all kinds of tunes that are great to get you going.

    I stumbled at the earliest obstacles and never got it going, really. The right hand was pretty tricky for me. Like anything, you just need to practice, practice, practice. "Pick blocking" was something that I did not get the hang of. That seems to be the essential technique especially if you want to play all those really fast single-note lines like you hear the real hotshots out of Nashville playing.

    The E9 neck (the one in front on a dbl-neck guitar) is pretty easy to play basic stuff on. It is very consonant sounding, it is the classic country "crying in your beer" steel guitar tuning and by simply working the A, B and C pedals, you can play a lot without ever having to move the bar. It's almost like an autoharp for the really basic stuff. It gets much more complicated from there.

    The C6 neck, or the one in the back on dbl-neck guitars, I found harder to get going. The 6th chord tuning almost allows you to never play a wrong note if your bar is on the correct fret! There are many more pedals and levers for the C6 and you can get about as complex with harmony as you can stand with it!

    I play jazz with a friend, he started off with pedal but got tired of all the tuning and adjustments, the setup time and the weight and just started playing C6 lap steel, which he is much happier doing. Not as much lush and complex jazz harmony and especially lacking on dominant harmony, but not a bad way to go. He does not miss all the headaches associated with schlepping and setting up a pedal steel.

    I eventually sold the Sho-Bud a few years ago since I was not playing it and I needed the money. I wish I still had it and even more, I wish that I had invested more of my time in playing it while I still owned it!

  15. DrumBob

    DrumBob -------------------------

    Jul 23, 2009
    Highland Lakes, NJ
    When I was in Nashville years ago, a gentleman attending the same trade show, showed me two licks on the PSG. I was mesmerized and sat there and played those two licks for about a half hour. I probably drove everyone around me crazy. I never pursued the instrument, but would like to give it a try again someday. I figure with my experience playing lap steel, guitar and drums, I might have the coordination to handle the pedals and levers.

  16. StrangerNY

    StrangerNY Tele-Afflicted

    I've been playing mine for about 15 years. I know more now than when I started, but I still have a long, long way to go.

    I always tell people it's like trying to fly a helicopter.

    - D

  17. idjster

    idjster Friend of Leo's Ad Free + Supporter

    Good luck with that. I'm seeing responses here that just reinforce what I feared about learning pedal steel. My local guitar store of choice always has a display of various models and I'm always intrigued by them, and then frightened by them. I've watched skilled people play them and have decided to give up before I start. Mind you, now that retirement is coming and I'll have way more time...?


  18. jguitarman

    jguitarman Tele-Afflicted

    Oct 14, 2003
    No CA
    Great thread. I have wanted to play pedal steel for many years so a few weeks ago I bought a Magnum Pro Select 10 string and am learning from square one. I got the Mel Bay DVD, Anyone Can Play E9 Pedal Steel Guitar and that has been a big help. I'm looking for another DVD if anyone has a suggestion for a beginner.
    I frequent the steelguitarforum a lot as well as youtube for tips though I haven't yet joined the forum. I think I'll have a succesful go at it since I've played guitar for 47 years and have a decent understanding of theory and harmony. The right hand dampening is a trick but it's coming along.
    Thanks to those of you who posted your advice above. I'm having fun checking out your websites and such.

  19. eddiewagner

    eddiewagner Poster Extraordinaire

    Nov 6, 2005
    that made my day. too cool! thanks a lot for posting. madame cashdollar is an awesome picker.

  20. hotraman

    hotraman Tele-Holic

    Mar 17, 2007
    Camas, WA
    Great comments on a resurrected thread!

    I don't think I can add anything more, but to affirm what was written in the latest posts.

    I am blessed to be ale to play a wide variety of instruments ( performing and teaching)
    They include:
    Guitar, mandolin, banjos, uke, keys and voice.

    Pedal steel is the one instrument I went out and had to get lessons. From blocking to tuning tips, it was a challenge. But I am at a place where I am not embarrassed to play out in public. The Texas swing genre is something I need to work on, I am more of a rock- Americana player.

    But I love the tone of pedal steel... Nothing else like it.

    I recommend spending a bit more and get a pro model. I found a used Rittenberry SD 10. And joined the steel guitar forum , great place to learn all things pedal steel.

    Last thing .. Go to a jam. Portland Oregon has a great pedal steel community .. Lots of helpful advice.

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