Pedal Steel Sounds and Non-pedal Steel Guitar

I’ve always had a strong pull to the sound of the pedal steel guitar–in fact, it was sometime in the early 2000s that I purchased my first: a Carter Starter. But it didn’t take me long to realize that it was not an instrument I was easily at home with. After finally selling the CS and ultimately owning several other pedal steels, including an Emmons S-10, I determined that I would end all attempts at playing. I’m sure if I had stuck it out I may have become a serviceable player, but I feel like the decision I made was a sound one.

That has not stopped me from wanting to play like a pedal steel player at times; there are times when nothing but a pedal steel sound will do. When I say pedal steel sound, it goes a lot deeper than just the usual sound of A and B pedal mashing or the knee levers; it’s almost a state of mind in addition to the obvious physical nature. Even the tone is markedly different, so I tend to find ways to achieve a different tone by using my right hand a little differently than I might in a non-pedal setting, even though I am playing non-pedal. Picking closer to the bridge, picking more cleanly and fluidly, employing a lot of blocking, and utilizing the bar to emulate pedal movement, either by slanting chords or doing very quick moves to mimic the sound of a quick push and release of a pedal. I tend to think of Ralph Mooney as an example of the quick push/release sound. I’ve spent quite a bit of time transcribing and absorbing some of my favorite pedal steel tunes and adapting them for non-pedal. It has made a big difference for me.

Ralph Mooney and Mike at the TSGA 2010

Much of the Bakersfield sound has impacted me in this regard: players like Ralph Mooney (my absolute favorite), Tom Brumley, and Leo LeBlanc have informed me in approaching playing non-pedal steel guitar in a faux pedal steel way. Lloyd Green is another player who has impacted me heavily. I don’t know for sure what is going in some of Lloyd’s playing, as he is a complete master of the chromatic strings and just uses a simple pedal/knee lever set-up, but his sound and picking style have left a lasting impression on me. I spent a great amount of time listening to Lloyd’s Big Steel Guitar and figured out quite a few of the tunes, to the best of my ability at the time. One particular favorite is John Henry–Lloyd’s playing is swinging and smoking hot.

One of the conundrums of trying to adapt non-pedal steel for pedal sounds is that it is extremely difficult to get some of the classic sounds without making some kind of sacrifice. When you hear the sound of the A and B pedals raising their respective strings (generally to turn an E chord into an A chord), you may notice that there is a note that stays constant while the notes below it change. This is perhaps the most difficult attribute to sacrifice, since it is an integral part of the sound. I will give an example: if you are tuned to an E tuning with your top 3 strings tuned E B G# (high to low), the A & B pedals would raise B to C# and G# to A. If we were doing this by slanting, we could achieve the 2 changes, but we would end up with either an F# or a G on string 1 (depending on the position of the bar, i.e., using the nose or not). Definitely not what we want, although in the case of the B and C pedals, it’s perfect (B pedal raises the G# to A and C pedal raises the B to C# and the E to F#). I’ve thought long and hard on this and had come up with a few solutions in the past. Let me elaborate:

My first attempt at this was to formulate a tuning which reversed the order of the strings at the top, so that string 1 was a B (usually the 2nd string) and string 2 was a G# (usually string 3), while string 3 was my E string. I have to say, this worked pretty well, as I could either slant to make the change or even do a behind the bar pull (the string gauges had to be meticulously worked out to ensure a perfect pull every time, but depending on where on the neck I was playing, this could present it’s own set of problems because of the varying tension). The real downside was that, apart from achieving that most basic of moves which every beginner pedal player overuses, I had sacrificed the ability to play anything else on an out of whack tuning. I don’t remember entirely what the other strings were tuned to, but I believe strings 4, 5 and 6 gave me half of an A6 tuning (B G# E C# A F#, high to low). It was far too much to get accustomed to with very little in the way of reward.

My second attempt was to just use a straight E tuning with strings 1, 2 and 3 tuned E B G#. What I did was use string pulls behind the bar–strings 2 and 3 to be precise–and I worked out string gauges to accommodate this. It worked nicely, although there is always the danger of not getting the pull precisely in tune like the pedals would. I still use this on occasion, but not as much since I have managed another way.

The third and most successful attempt, by far, has been a new tuning I formulated about 2 days before a recent recording session. I was playing on a Country recording that really had a 50s/60s sound and all I could hear in my head was some Lloyd Green and Tom Brumley-type sounds. I figured out that the only way for me to really get the A/B pedal sound was to actually put the whole triad on top. So, for an E tuning with a high G#, the A/B pedals would render high A E and C# from G# E and B. I knew that I could make this work, but only if my right hand was coordinated enough to grab the triads quickly and cleanly. I worked hard on it for the 2 days prior and, while I would have liked more time to become comfortable on the tuning like I subsequently have become, it worked on the session.

The tuning is spelled, from high to low:

(high)A (.011)
E (.014)
C# (.017)
(high) G# (.011)
E (.014)
D (.018)
B (.022)
G# (.026w)

This is still evolving–in fact, since the time I wrote this article 2 days ago, this has already undergone changes. I have just gotten enough confidence to use the D in the 6th string position and it really gives me some other wonderful options. Again, it is of the utmost importance that I play carefully with the right hand, so with enough practice (which I’ll admit, I don’t really have enough time for) it should come together. Palm blocking is extremely important in the triad playing, but pick blocking is what I use mostly for the single note stuff, unless I am looking for a more staccato sound.

It is not incredibly exciting to look at, but after having played it quite a bit, I can really get some interesting things happening on the first 3 strings, as well as being able to move through the inversions pretty easily. Also, I really love the tone. I play this tuning on the 3rd neck of my Fender Custom T-8. I have found that on the 3 or 4 gigs I’ve used the guitar on since, I spend a lot of time on that neck. I’m not sure what to call the tuning, as I’d rather give it a name rather than a spelling-based name. If you can think of anything interesting let me know….

With regard to playing this tuning and in this style, I find myself using the volume pedal for ballads only and straight picking with no volume pedal on the up-tempo numbers. I incorporate a bit more staccato-type picking with tight blocking, just because I love the way it sounds. Listen to some 60s era Lloyd Green and you’ll hear what inspires me, whether on his own recordings or with Johnny Paycheck or Charley Pride.

I would like to post up some samples of this tuning and I will as time allows. Until then, have fun playing and always keep an open mind. Yes, it is good and beneficial to focus and stay regimented, but at some point you may need to use your creativity. Just look at how inventive and creative Jerry Byrd was with his arrangements–much of the things he’d done hadn’t been done before or since. Necessity is the mother of invention, and with non-pedal steel guitar you may find yourself in that position. It’s important to note that pedal steel playing has evolved significantly and the harmonic choices available today are staggering, but for those classic sounds a little can go a long way. The less thinking we have to do, the more we can concentrate on our feel and expression. These things should never be overlooked.

All the best for a great holiday season.

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2 Responses to Pedal Steel Sounds and Non-pedal Steel Guitar

  1. Russ says:

    Ive been a pedal steel player for three years and although I have learned a lot I feel that the pedals are not going to work out for me , im not hearing the music I want to hear while suffering through the headaches trying to learn the pedals and knee levers so what im doing is getting back to simplicity with an 8 string non pedal , rather than spending years trying to get pedal and knee lever movements trained in my head and body im going to let my hands do the talking with the bar in my left hand and my right hand picking techniques on the non pedal, I understand and agree with your writings here , smooth and positive playing technique along with heart felt need to play beautiful is what im after, I don’t care about impressing others with how many pedals I push I want to impress with my sound and that’s what I want to hear in my music.

  2. Andrew Watson says:

    I am a beginner on the lap steel and I really enjoy reading the posts on your site. This topic was something I have been wondering about and I was glad to read your thoughts.
    Thanks for the site!

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