Category Archives: The Modern Steel Player

Sonic Territory: The Volume and Delay Pedal

There are several distinguishable things that give the pedal steel its unique timbre and sonic voice: the volume pedal, the bar, and its hot signal are a few of them. Understanding how these elements work together really is the key to appreciating the voice of the instrument. Spice it up with a little delay and a good bit of reverb, and you’ve got a sound that is luscious, celestial, and intriguing.

One of the main things that originally drew me to the pedal steel guitar was its ability to produce ethereal, reverberant sounds. The sonic space it was occupying within recordings I listened to was a niche that not many instruments could fill. From my recording/mixing experience, I knew it was possible to cast recorded instruments into this sonic space with the use of EFX, but not many could produce that sound instantly from the playing of the instrument: the pedal steel has these sonic qualities in the pre-production stages.

Pedal Steel Reverb and Delay

Before I ever knew what a pedal steel was, I understood the power of how a volume pedal and delay pedal could work together; guitarist Tim Reynolds blew my mind with his approach to using these pedals on the live album Live at Luther College by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds. He was running a volume pedal into a delay pedal, with the delay set for feeding back and repeating at least a few times. By swelling into the notes with the volume pedal, and taking away the pick attack of them, the delay pedal would take over and send the sounds soaring into the atmosphere. I had never heard anything like it, and it was a new sonic territory that I had never noticed before.

I was a beginning guitar player at the time, in high school, and eager to learn this new trick. The first step was to purchase a volume pedal and delay pedal: of course I ended up choosing the volume pedal and delay pedal that I believe Tim Reynolds used in his rig on that recording. It was an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and a Boss DD6 digital delay pedal. The next step was dialing in some settings on the delay pedal, experimenting with the volume pedal’s action when playing, and trying to use my ear to mimic his sound effects. With curiosity and intrigue, it didn’t take long to find my voice with this technique.

Once in college, and jamming with any musicians I could find, I wasn’t shy of employing this technique. It became a staple of my playing, and I loved adding the sound to my first recordings and mixes that I was involved with. I listen back to demos and EPs I collaborated on, and it is interesting to hear the creative sparks flowing through the volume and delay pedals.

Rock and Roll Lap Steel on a Pedal Steel Amp

Around this time, I started hearing sounds in recordings I admired that were strangely familiar and intriguing to me. I was drawn to these new sounds, and how they impacted the song and recording, even if it was in the subtlest of ways. I was hearing them in Ryan Adams’s material (who I had just discovered), as well as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. On a whim, I did a little digging and discovered the pedal steel guitar was the culprit in these recordings…I decided to purchase my first pedal steel at this time, right when I graduated college.

I quickly learned how challenging playing the instrument is: anyone who has sat behind a pedal steel for the first time knows this feeling. However, I felt an odd sense of comfort playing it, even though I had no idea what I was doing initially. It was comforting because I had my handy volume pedal that I had already used many times before, and with some reverb thrown in, I essentially had my delay sound. I was able to jump right in, with less fear, because it was a vehicle that could deliver the sonic characteristics I knew and loved. I immediately started playing it within a band of friends, and adding whatever I could to the music, despite having a lack of technique and understanding of the tuning.

Oddly enough, a musician I was playing with at the time, who knew I was fresh on pedal steel, listened to an old recording of mine that I played guitar on. He said, “I thought you weren’t playing pedal steel on this recording.” I replied, “I’m not, I played guitar on it.” He looked perplexed, but then we both looked at each other bewildered and understood: I had been creating the sounds of the pedal steel for years before I ever knew what one was – just by manipulating the volume and delay pedals for my guitar.

PedalStand

Eventually, I learned that to become proficient on the pedal steel, I would have to truly learn the playing techniques involved with it, as well as the theory and history behind the instrument. This took years and a lot of practice, but it was eased by the knowledge of how a volume pedal can affect the sound of notes played, especially with some reverberation and delay.

Anyone who has lost themselves in the opening tracks of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon knows the power of the volume pedal and its ability to push into the swamps of celestial reverberation. Especially when used with a pedal steel, whose bar can slide in and out of notes and provide vibrato like the human voice. When utilized, the pedal steel guitar truly can scream and cry.


Listen to these albums for sonic ideas that stem from the volume pedal and the use of reverb and/or delay:

Live at Luther College – Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds

Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd

Cold Roses – Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

Love is Hell – Ryan Adams

Guitar in the Space Age! – Bill Frisell


For more on delay, reverb, and EFX click below:

Gear and EFX – Pedal Steel

Creating Your Own Drone Track

Drones are magnificent. They allow a pedal steel player to practice many things: intonation, ear training, creating soundscapes, and having fun while practicing. They are such a great practice tool that they should be as common as metronomes are to musicians.

Here’s a great way to create your own drones while practicing, and/or to create a “soundscape” with them:

(You will need to have a delay pedal with looping capabilities, or a loop pedal. Short loop times are OK.)

  • Have your delay/loop pedal present in your signal chain, and easy to access during your practice session.
  • Have your steel tuned up, preferably to Equal Temperament (A=440Hz) so that when you produce your drone it will be accurate to the frequencies on the bandstand – a keyboard or bass player for example.
  • Choose a pitch that you would like to be your drone: I find using a lower register note to be more pleasing to the ears, and will often use a bass note from the C6 neck.
    • Your chosen pitch should be a note that can be found on an open string on the pedal steel…this is because we know it’s in-tune since we just tuned, and because placing the bar down to create a pitch won’t guarantee that the pitch is accurate like the tuner can.
    • For example: Use the open 10th string on the C6 neck for a C drone, or the open 8th string on the E9 neck for an E drone.
  • To engage the drone/loop process, pluck the chosen string with a medium force. Do this with the volume pedal in the off position, then slowly increase the volume to where it is barely audible. Once it is slightly audible, engage the loop/delay pedal and very slowly increase the volume with the volume pedal so that it sustains the note with a slow, slight increase in volume level. After a few seconds or so, slowly diminish the sustain and volume pedal level so that it approaches the original barely audible level when you first activated the loop. Complete the loop on your loop/delay pedal around this time with your pedal.
  • If done correctly, the looped note will create a drone-like repeating tone. By hiding the attack in the beginning, slightly/slowly fluctuating the volume level during, then returning to the original level at the end of the loop – the loop will have a slight pulse to it, without being interrupted by a weird transition when the loop repeats. Best of all, it will repeat automatically until you’ve had enough. Use your loop/delay pedal’s level knob to shift the drone’s volume to taste.

DittoLooperPedal

Creating a drone like this using your steel has many positives:

-You don’t need to use an audio player or search for drone tone files to use for practice – your amp will do just fine!

-You can practice volume pedal control, as well as using your effects pedals, to gain confidence on these units while making the drone.

-You can create a soundscape to solo over with different scales and tonalities (practicing scales this way is a lot of fun and gives the player an ability to hear how the scale tones relate to the root note and each other).

-You can impress your friends.

-You can get psychedelic and begin a song on the bandstand this way – the band members and audience may wonder where in the world that sound is coming from. Or, if you ever play solo, you can use this to spice up your set a bit, or maybe fill in some sonic space. Ever played Wild Mountain Thyme with a D drone note in the background? Try it, it sounds pretty cool.

-You now have more uses for your effects pedals so that they aren’t just floor furniture.

I hope this article helps players out, and provides a fun framework for practicing. I will add some audio examples of drones I created in this manner soon. Thanks for reading, and keep on practicing!


For more info on using drone tracks, check out this article…

Improve Your Intonation – Practicing Music with Drones

Videos with Casey James

Check out these videos of my music and pedal steel playing! The rhythm tracks were recorded on the pedal steel too. Hope you enjoy them!!!





Here’s a video with the talented and beautiful singer-songwriter Karly Driftwood…  jamming on one of her new tunes!

@playpedalsteel blessed my kitchen and a new song with pedal steel

A video posted by Karly Driftwood (@karlydriftwood) on

 

 

Getting the Most out of your Steel Guitar Forum Experience

The Steel Guitar Forum is an invaluable asset to steel guitarists, enthusiasts, and to the instrument itself. It is a fountain of knowledge; and for an instrument with such a steep learning curve, we should all be enjoying a drink from this fountain. Full of advice, details, experience, intelligence, players, and so much more, The Steel Guitar Forum is a truly phenomenal community.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks for browsing the forum, which have helped me improve as a pedal steel player. The Steel Guitar Forum allows a player to process useful steel guitar information in the brain, then take it to the instrument and translate it into music. This is a valuable system that all steel guitar players can benefit from using: and with today’s technology you can utilize it from pretty much anywhere, at anytime.

There is a wealth of information on the forum: years and years of great discussion, caring advice, and intelligent players add up to form a community that is unparalleled compared to many other instruments. If you are a steel guitar player, chances are that any other steel player you’ll ever meet in your life will be kind and generous to you for sharing a passion in this magnificent instrument. This is important because encouragement is the backbone for this instrument; due to its difficulty and rarity. The steel guitar is like an endangered species: it is rare, low in numbers, yet important to the environment. Luckily for us, no one wants to see any kind of rare, endangered species die! Especially other musicians, who will graciously invite a steel guitarist onto the bandstand in hopes of being spotted with such an atypical animal.

As steel players, we’re similar to gold dust; every little bit counts, and it all adds up over time. There’s still gold to be found in the world, and thanks to the Steel Guitar Forum, we have a map to help us discover it.

Pedal Steel Foot Pedals and Steel Guitar Forum Love

Here are some tips for maximizing your time on The Steel Guitar Forum, and utilizing the information contained within it:

Use The Search Function:

Even after browsing the forum for years, I still to this day discover helpful information from many years past. There are so many variables involved with playing or learning about this instrument, that the top page of most recent discussions is unlikely to hold all the answers you are seeking. Treat the search function like you would when searching for anything else on Google: be specific with your search wording, and try to find a more exact answer or topic regarding your question. Are you wondering how to shape your fingerpicks, so that they’re comfortable and properly adjusted for good right hand technique? Then don’t just type in fingerpicks. Type in: shaping fingerpicks to be more comfortable. These searches will both yield good results, but they will be different results, and the search more adjusted to your needs will get you on your way more efficiently.

Find All Posts By A Member:

How many other places in the world have such incredible, world-class, legendary musicians posting their advice for free to other aspiring players? I mean really: Steel Guitar Hall of Famers, professional players, road warriors, and many other players who have years and years of expertise and experience, all sharing their knowledge because they want to be generous. This is too good to be true. We’ve even had “The Big E” grace us with plenty of posts: 1470 to be exact, all from one of the greatest players to ever grace the earth. You can read all of them on the forum, and they’re all thoughtful and helpful, just as he was as a person. This would be like Jimi Hendrix having posted a lot of advice to many guitar players on a forum! The guitar players would’ve freaked out!!!

Many other great players, and legendary ones, have posted and continue to do so on the forum. Do yourself a favor: read more of the posts from players and people who make an impact on you. Just like you listen to music selectively, do the same when considering advice and players to listen to on the Forum. Most of the advice is helpful, but some of it will be more helpful to you personally as a player/person. Are you interested in restoring a 1970’s pedal steel from a particular builder/manufacturer, and there weren’t many designed with this style and different mechanisms? Chances are, there is a particular forum member(s) who has been working on these steels for over thirty years, and is the best person on earth to give you helpful advice and feedback on your project. You can search for their particular posts too to gain more insight into their expertise.

To find all posts by a member:

-Go to a topic or thread that this member has posted on (or search for one).

-Click on that member’s profile button at the bottom of their post.

-In their Total Posts category, click “Find all posts by …”

The Steel Guitar Forum - Foot Pedal Work Picture

Have Fun, Be Positive, and Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

Most importantly, have fun while you’re on the forum. Also, try to be as positive and helpful as you can if you’re posting. I quickly leave topics that become negative in energy, or contain people bashing one another. Criticism and opinions are important on forums, but usually only if they are constructive and helpful.

Also, with so many experienced and intelligent veteran players on the Forum, I know it can be intimidating for newer players to reach out and make posts about questions they may have. I know this because I was once like this. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about learning the instrument, as most members on there enjoy helping others pick up the steel guitar.


After all, getting more people to learn and play this instrument is the only way for our species to survive. Maybe if more people begin playing steel guitar, and we take them under our wing, we won’t end up like the Dodo birds.

Share the steel guitar love/knowledge, and thanks to b0b and everyone involved for making The Steel Guitar Forum such a great community to be a part of!

Playing Bass/Chords and Melody at the Same Time – Flying Solo

In 2014, on a humid summer morning in North Carolina, I sat in my bedroom wondering if I’d ever be able to play something decent with my C6 neck. I had just gotten this new tuning/neck a few months earlier; I had been a single neck E9 player up until then, and had been playing pedal steel for about four years.

After taking a sip of black, light-roast coffee, I remembered that YouTube holds certain treasures of pedal steel past. I decided to browse for C6 learning material, and hold steady to avoid the pitfalls of viral videos. The dew of morning, mixed with YouTube search results, brought forth various videos labeled Bobbe Seymour. The name sounded familiar from the Steel Guitar Forum, and he had a smile on his face, so I decided to check the videos out (not literally like you used to check out videos from BlockBuster).

Bobbe had a lot of videos on C6, so I sipped away on my coffee, and watched most of them: with a steady eye on my C6 neck to make sure it wouldn’t bite me. I barely had any control over this C6 beast I had adopted, and had only been lightly toying around with Buddy Emmons’ Pocket Corner when playing. I could understand why players stuck with having only an E9 dog in the fight.

Pedal Steel Dog - Jackie
When I was first learning the C6 neck, it was frustrating. I felt like Jackie does here: a little frustrated, but patient in the hopes of being able to be able to reach the neck.

But Bobbe made it look easy on those videos, even assuring that the neck was more intuitive or easy than the E9 neck. That was a relief. I felt good with my playing on the E9 neck, like I could let it off the leash wherever. I had to keep it within a certain range, or it’d run away, but still.

What really caught my attention was the chords he was playing, by just raking or strumming a bunch of strings in a row, without having to make funky right hand grips. It was like a magic trick, and here was Bobbe showing me how to do it on the World Wide Web, and he was from Nashville, TN, or what seemed to me to be the Pedal Steel Capital of the World.

He was a pro, in Pedal Steel City, with some great chops in these videos I was soaking up. I watched in awe as he played a bass line with his thumb (“patting his thumb”is what he was calling it), and played a melody at the same time. It sounded folky and jazzy to me, like Leo Kottke meets Ry Cooder; I liked it. The coffee was hitting me, time to practice and take advantage of the stimulation.

Drinking Coffee and Playing Pedal Steel

I wasn’t able to let the C6 off the leash that day, but I was able to tinker with the idea, and a few of the chords Bobbe suggested. I decided I still wasn’t passionate about the C6 neck, and didn’t do much with it for awhile.

A year later I got into listening to some really soulful music, more specifically bottleneck slide cats from back in the day, a few gospel outfits from way back when, and Aretha Franklin with King Curtis. I was also researching the history of the steel guitar, and Hawaiin music at this time. A new day, a new cup of coffee in hand, I was astounded to learn of a connection between steel guitar and slide guitar in America’s history. It almost seemed like the two branched off from one another at a fork in the road of time.

What intrigued me about the slide players, besides selling their souls for better musical skills, was how they had to entertain audiences and parties with just their guitar, slide, and voice: just themselves. Slide-playing is hard enough, but playing bass notes and singing with it: man, these guys were really ahead of the game back in the 1900s. A thought popped into my head about Bobbe’s advice on patting, and using the technique to entertain with just a pedal steel, and no supporting instrumentation. Maybe pedal steel players could entertain audiences with just their pedal steel, like the slide players used to in the Delta.

I went home that day and dug out a tab for “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin, remembering how I always wished I could play it on guitar. I recalled that it had a repeating bass line, was in a somewhat open tuning, and was catchy. I wouldn’t mind practicing this for awhile.

I soon realized I’d have to make my own arrangement, to make it fit with C6 pedal steel, and add a melody part since Robert Plant wasn’t accompanying me.  This was going to take some time. But I started slow, and eventually could hear the potential for decency if I stuck with it.

Pedal Steel Turtle Race - Slow and Steady
Slow but steady wins the race. You can always hang out in your “practice shell”, while you work out kinks in your playing.

A few months later, I was able to get it sounding decent at a very slow speed, and was tinkering with other ideas/arrangements, like Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Blue Sky” and “Is There Anybody Out There?”. This was sounding cool, and I was keeping in touch with my high school classic rock years.  I kept the technique in mind during my practice sessions, and developed a slight independency with my middle finger from the thumb’s “patting.”


Fast forward a half year, and here we are today: stuck right in between the future and the past, again.  I am so glad I stuck with Bobbe’s advice about chord patting, and playing melodies simulataneously. So I decided to record this technique today!

I recorded these in my home, at my practice area, in a little over half an hour.  The audio mixing took more time, and energy.  The tracks were improvised/composed on the spot. What I mean by this: I did a few takes in a certain key, playing around through some chord changes in a pocket, and by the third take it had developed into something. This third take is what you’re usually hearing; the first take I just hit record with a key/position in mind. Sometimes I get something good on the first or second takes though.

I am using my thumb and middle finger only for 95% of what you hear.  I play the bass parts with my thumb, the melody with my middle finger, and use the index finger to beef up a voicing when it needs it.  It’s fun playing most of this with just two fingers, who would’ve thought?

East Asheville Skyline
Flying solo is tough on pedal steel guitar.

I am playing along with a click track set to 87 BPM, with no accents (1/4 time).  Also, I am patting my right toes, within my right shoe on my volume pedal, along with the click track. For more about this method, read my article “Tapping Your Toes to Keep Time”. This helps me keep time with my thumb, since there is no drummer or bass player with me.

I included the click track for one of these samples, so you can hear how my bass playing w/ thumb usually lands on the quarter notes to keep a steady rhythm for the listener. That is the goal, to keep a driving pulse (thumb/bass) for the melody to sing over, when we are playing without a rhythm section or accompaniment.

I included some drone tracks too, to give some extra listening options/flavor. You can hear the potential for adding other instruments to this mix when you hear the click and drone with them.

Here are the samples of these chord-melodies:

Considering I first tried Bobbe’s thumb patting method a year ago, and practiced it a little bit over time, he was right. It isn’t as hard as it looks. Sure, it’s a work in progress, but I’m gonna keep with it and develop it over time.  It’s not too shabby, for being improvised on the spot.  If I can make the same gains I made this past year, next year, I’ll be a happy camper.  Thanks Bobbe, these recordings are dedicated to you.

Bobbe Seymour Steel Guitar

With click and drone for “Deep Forest”…


So far using this technique, I have worked out my own arrangements of these chord melodies on the C6 neck:

“Going to California” – Led Zeppelin

“Is There Anybody Out There?” – Pink Floyd

“Goobye Blue Sky” – Pink Floyd

“Sea of Love” – Jill Andrews and Langhorne Slim

“Mad World” – Gary Jules


Jackie - Christmas Pedal Steel Dog
Jackie looks much more content and relaxed in this picture.

Thanks for reading and listening, and check The Steel World for more pedal steel buzz.

You can find some of Bobbe’s videos here, and on YouTube.