How Pedal Steel Guitar Works

Sure, it may look harder to play than a big-rig is to drive, but armed with the right knowledge, it’s completely within the realm of possibility for almost any musician to figure out the basics and start playing pedal steel guitar.

Tune into your local country music radio station at pretty much any time of the day, and you’re bound to hear it: the singing, bell-like wail of the pedal steel guitar. When played well, this can be a beautiful instrument that fits with many styles besides country, including jazz, rock, and rhythm ‘n’ blues. There is even a concerto for pedal steel and orchestra!

Like its grandfather, the Hawaiian steel guitar, the pedal steel is played with a stainless steel bar that slides smoothly up and down the strings to change the pitch. The bar is what gives the instrument its silky, legato tone, but also makes it tricky to play in tune. The pedal steel is rarely, if ever, strummed. Instead, players wear picks on their thumbs, and index and middle fingers of the right hand, which pluck the strings in groups of three, called “grips.”

With a traditional steel guitar, the bar limits the amount of chords and scales you can play; it’s like trying to play a guitar with one finger. The pedal steel solves this problem by adding pedals and knee levers that are controlled with your feet and the sides of your knees.

By using an intricate system of levers and pull rods that bend certain strings, either individually or in combination with others, pedal steel players can access many different chords and scales with little to no movement of the bar. The right foot controls a volume pedal, which gives the instrument a wide palette of dynamic expression. As you can see, every limb is called upon to perform a task when playing the pedal steel, so a fair amount of coordination and dexterity is needed.

There are two main pedal steel configurations: C6 (or Texas) tuning, and E9 (or Nashville) tuning. Many professional instruments have two necks, one for each configuration. Beginner models usually have a single E9 neck with 10 strings, three pedals, and three or four knee levers, like the GFI Expo pictured on the left.

Pedal Steel Diagram

Got pedal steel fever, and want to know more? Check out this quick lesson on how to get started. It’s not as hard as you think!

  1. To start, sit down at a comfortable height behind the steel with your left foot resting lightly near the three pedals, and left your knee in between the two levers. Put your left hand in your lap; we’re going to focus on what you can do with the pedal steel using only your right hand and a few of the pedals and knee levers.
  2. With your right hand, rest your thumb on the eighth string, your index finger on the sixth string, and your middle finger on the fifth string (don’t forget to put on your picks!). In one motion, pluck all three at the same time. If you grabbed the right strings, you should hear a pretty E major chord. This is a common position, or “grip”, so practice finding these three strings.
  3. Next, press pedal one and two (the two pedals furthest to the left) simultaneously, and play the same grip. Now, you have an A chord, or the IV chord of E.
  4. Now, for the tricky bit: rock your left knee to the right, which will push on the lever directly to the right of it. As you activate the lever, allow your left foot to release pedal one while keeping pedal two depressed. Play the same grip with your right hand, and now you have a B7 chord, or the V7 chord in the key of E.
  5. Release the pedal and lever, and hear the chord resolve back the root.

You’ve done it! You played a I-IV-V chord progression without even touching the bar. Once you get the hang of these basics, you’ll be itching to see what else the pedal steel guitar can do!

This article is from our September-October 2010 issue. Click to order!

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