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Pedal Steel Guitar Basics: Tuning, Picking, and Playing for the Beginner

The single neck, ten-string version of the pedal steel in the E9 tuning is the configuration most players would learn on. From lowest to highest the strings are generally tuned B, D, E, F#, G#, B, E, G#, Eb, F#. A beginner’s guitar will have three pedals and they’re usually referred to as A, B, and C.

Simply pressing pedal A all the way will raise both Bs to C#, a whole tone raise. Pedal B will raise both G#s a halftone to A. Pedal C operates on two strings as well but this time raising top E to F# and top B to C#. The levers that are operated by the knees perform exactly the same function ie raising or lowering strings.

Move your left knee left and you’ll raise your Es to F, move it to the right and you’ll drop those Es to Eb. The right knee to the right will drop the Eb string to D and if you push it a bit further you’ll get a C#. Right knee left will raise both F#s to G. The pedals are operated with the left foot and the right foot operates a volume pedal. It’s this volume pedal that makes the crying sound so characteristic of the pedal steel possible.

The right hand is equipped with a thumb pick (plastic) and at least one, more likely two and sometimes three finger picks (metal). This hand plucks or picks the notes. The left hand holds a bar, a polished, solid metal cylinder with a rounded end that’s used to stop the strings at various fret positions. The frets are purely notional – the strings never touch them – it’s the bar that shortens and lengthens the strings vibrating length, as opposed to the normal guitar where the player’s finger presses the string down to the fret thus changing its vibrating length.

Now sit down behind the steel, hold the bar lightly in your left hand, the fingers of that hand lightly rest on the strings on the trailing side, providing some damping effect. You place the bar directly over the 3rd fret marker. With your right hand you pluck the G#, B and E strings (very roughly the center string group). If you’ve done all this correctly a very pretty G chord will be heard (the notes will be B, D, G ie an inversion of a G chord).

Now repeat the plucking process, same strings, same fret position but this time press pedals A and B together with your left foot. You’ll hear a C chord. How did this transformation occur? Well the A pedal raised the D to and E, and the B pedal raised the B to a C and the G stayed where it was giving you E, C, G, an inversion of a C chord. The steel player doesn’t think all this through while playing of course. He just keeps trying to get those pretty sounds and, while he’s not the most dynamic person on stage, there’s more going on there than meets the eye.

Glen Pruitt

I’ve been playing the guitar all my life, since I was about eight I guess. I’ve also been a member of four different rock groups throughout the years, so the guitar, rock and good music in general have always been my passion.

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