Category Archives: Tonal Personality

EQ Tips & Tricks for Pedal Steel

Ahhh…the pedal steel. Sometimes there’s nothing more delectable than the sound of a well-mixed, sonically pleasing pedal steel in a recording. Add some tasteful playing, good tonality, and a hip song, and listeners are in for a treat. But besides flavorful playing by a solid player, what can make the pedal steel sound even more wonderful on record? Equalize it.

Equalization involves boosting or cutting volume levels at certain frequencies to alter the sound of a signal. Different frequencies affect the sonic space of a recording in their own way, and influencing them with EQ can improve the sound of a recorded instrument or song. With a distinctive timbre and broad frequency range, the pedal steel can often benefit from some EQ in the pre or post-production stages.

EQing during Mixing

Let’s assume the pedal steel player, engineers, and producers did their best to capture a good sound out of the pedal steel during a session…they may have had ideas on what amps to use, mics, tones they were seeking, etc. (Or if recording one’s self at home, a pedal steel player may have similar ideas for capturing the instrument’s sounds.) After the pedal steel has been recorded, the mixing process will begin to look at how the pedal steel sounds by itself, how it sounds in relation to other instruments, and how it will sound in the overall recording. This is a good time to look at how EQ can affect the pedal steel’s sound.

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There are no set rules for mixing pedal steel or EQing it, so these EQ tips contain advice to help a person calibrate and experiment with sounds they want to achieve in the recording. Often, less is more with EQ or other effects, so I usually find myself using EQ as a way to compliment and enhance what already sounds good with the recorded signal. For instance, if the high frequencies of the pedal steel sound great already, then I won’t mess with them (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mentality). However, if the lower end frequencies of the pedal steel sound muddied, boomy, or weird, while the highs sound great, then EQing the low end can make the steel track sound much better – combine this with the already great sounding highs, and we now have a solidly pleasant pedal steel sound that we can move forward with.

EQ Tips & Tricks

After mixing pedal steel numerous times for recordings with bands, singer-songwriters, and solo playing, here are the most common and successful uses I have found for EQ on the pedal steel:

  • Cut between 300 and 400 Hz with a fairly wide Q – This is often a very boomy, muddy, and dense area of the frequency range that can hold a lot of unwanted energy and sound that a listener can live without. Cutting this area usually results in a cleaner steel sound, allowing the mids to sound clearer, and the highs to have more presence. Also, it will give the bass and drums more room to breathe and thrive in the lower end of the frequency spectrum – we don’t want to step on their toes too much, especially if the pedal steel is being utilized more for its higher frequencies in the recording.

Furthermore, if we are playing lower frequencies on our steel (C6 bass notes especially), cutting this 300-400 Hz range can help define and provide “oomph” to these lower notes, and give them more impact on the listener without bogging them down. I often cut the gain pretty aggressively on this adjustment…I’ve found myself cutting anywhere from 3 dB to 9 dB with a fairly wide Q. [Note: this cut works wonders when mixing a drum kit – it will usually clear up the sound of the overall drums in an amazing manner.]

  • Slightly boost 10 kHz and higher with a shelf – This will add more presence to the pedal steel, and allow the highs to “crystallize” and sparkle within the recording. The pedal steel is often known for its higher frequencies, and its ability to “cry” in the upper threshold of the sonic spectrum. This boost can magnify this characteristic of the pedal steel, and allow listeners to indulge in its highs. Don’t overdue it though: a 0.5 to 1.0 db boost is usually plenty with this shelf.
  • Cut 4 kHz with a sharp Q – I often find that when a recorded instrument sounds shrill or irritating in the mids to highs that it can really benefit from a 4K cut. The human ears are pretty sensitive around this frequency range; if a recording has too much going on in this frequency range, then it can often feel like someone is throwing a dart into your ear. That sounds pretty rough, and may be a little exaggerated, but it is often true. My guess is that if a person scrapes their nails on a chalkboard (are your ears hurting yet?), and it is recorded, this recording won’t sound nearly as bad if a 4K cut is added to it. Alright, you get the point.

But for real, with many recordings and recorded instruments, if there is some harshness in the mids to highs, it can often live in the 4 kHz area. This pertains to the pedal steel as well, so let’s fluff up this great sounding instrument and make it feel real comfortable to listeners’ ears by cutting 4K if there is some harshness. I do this with a fairly sharp Q, and usually cut between 1.0 dB to 3.5 dB depending on the severity. I use a sharp Q to be sure not to mess with other important harmonics, tones, or frequencies that are important to the overall sound of the instrument – I don’t want to step on any frequency’s toes if they are adding pleasantness to the sound, especially in the higher frequencies of the pedal steel.

  • Don’t give away your Grandma’s secret recipe, but boosting 20 kHz can really spice up the meal – So, you may be asking: “I thought humans can only hear sounds within the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz range?” Well there is some truth to this, but that doesn’t mean sonic energy doesn’t live outside of this range…just ask dogs, many of them can hear well beyond 20,000 Hz. Well, besides that we want man’s best friend to enjoy the sound of our pedal steels, there is also another reason to boost here: it can really add some air, lucidity, and sparkle to the sound.

This boost is like adding presence to the sound, but at an even higher elevation, at a place where clouds mist into snow-capped peaks and angels wave huge feathers to provide a nice relaxing breeze for whomever finds themselves in this 20K and beyond oasis. OK, back to earth (can you tell I really like this EQ trick?). This tip was taught to me by a Grammy-winning mastering engineer, and I am forever grateful. It is very hard to hear the difference between before and after this boost, but it is there and with critical ears it can be found, just give it some time. I usually boost 0.5 dB here, and enjoy how fluffy it makes the instrument sound, especially since the pedal steel enjoys frolicking in the high frequencies.

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A/B Testing: Reap your Rewards

A great way to see/hear these EQ tips in action is to use the bypass button on your EQ plug-in, and A/B (compare before and after) the added equalization. For instance, take the 4K cut mentioned earlier…listen to the pedal steel as it originally sounded. Next, add in the cut on your EQ. Now take a listen…notice any difference? Maybe, maybe not…well go ahead and hit the bypass button on your plug-in to see what it sounded like without EQ again. Now add the EQ into it again by releasing the bypass button. Try to listen for any subtle changes in the sound of the instrument with and without the EQ.

It may take a few or several comparisons, but chances are you’ll notice some differences and whether or not they improve the sound. Try closing your eyes, if you’re having trouble hearing the differences. Or try clicking the bypass button with your eyes closed a random amount of times, then click it again, and see what sounds better to your ears…then once you have which one you think sounds better, open your eyes and see if it’s the one with EQ on it. This may help you narrow down whether or not the EQ is actually helping the overall sound.

These EQ tips are just suggestions if one isn’t completely happy with the sound they’re hearing with the recording…there are often times when the recorded signal sounds great already and will hold up beautifully on its own. However, experimenting with these tips can be a great way to learn the effect different frequencies can have on the ears. It can also be a great way to better understand the sound of the pedal steel, and how EQing it can affect it. Also, these EQ tricks can be used on amplifiers and EQ pedals at a gig, in the practice room, or on that snow-capped oasis land mentioned earlier. Enjoy the experimenting, and I hope you get closer to the sound you desire!


Check out these tonal personalities for sonic inspiration…

Cindy Cashdollar

Greg Leisz

Buddy Emmons

Lloyd Green

Greg Leisz – Tonal Personality

Updated on 12/13/17

Greg Leisz is a puppeteer, behind-the-scenes, yet essential to the show.  He knows just what strings to pull, at just the right time.  His pedal steel playing is tasteful, not hasteful.  He has tone down to the bone.

Beautiful volume pedal swells, with sweet sustain, envelope listeners in an ethereal way.  He is the go-to-guy in the business for atmospheric/textural playing.  Not to mention he has chops and can throw in speedy runs with ease.  Although his ability to fit perfectly in a song, is what has made him have a long and successful career.

Smooth, timely, celestial, warm, and rounded are great adjectives to describe his tone.

Greg Leisz Pedal Steel Atmosphere

I still can’t believe how many sessions (great sessions with great artists I should add) Greg has been on throughout the years.  I have a theory that most people in America over the age of 18, have heard Greg’s pedal steel playing at some point in time.  He has been on so many cool, important recording sessions: most people have heard his playing on some song or recording, whether they know it or not.  Greg has also begun producing, and is certainly one of the coolest “studio cats” in the business.

Volume Pedal Swells - Greg Leisz

Albums or songs worth checking out w/ Greg Leisz…

(These are affiliate links)

Please Do Not Let Me Go – Ryan Adams

The Golden Age – Beck

Disfarmer – Bill Frisell

Guitar in the Space Age – Bill Frisell


Check out more Tonal Personalities!

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

Rediscovering Emotion in Music

Learning new songs is always a great way to improve your musical knowledge. A better understanding of harmony, melody, song structure, and much more can be utilized by hashing through a tune. However, can studying a tune reveal certain personal characteristics of your playing and the emotions that are attached to it? Absolutely, especially if you are rediscovering a song you enjoyed from a pivotal moment in your life: your late adolescence to early adulthood.

Research in psychology and neuroscience indicate a definite connection between music and memories. But did you know that it also indicates that the music we listen to in our late adolescence and early adulthood holds a stronger power over our emotions than music at other points in our lives? This “nostalgia” may seem like common sense, but what’s interesting is that this emotional connection to the music of these years does not weaken as we age.

It seems that reminiscing about music from these years can bring up autobiographical memories, and reveal a personal emotional power to this music. So as a musician, I can’t help but ask: what does this mean for my instrument and I now?

Practicing Pedal Steel and Rediscovering Songs

I recently started re-listening to many tunes from my late teens and early 20’s, and I undoubtedly feel a deep emotional connection to this music. Memories come flooding back, with occasional goosebumps popping up for notes and sounds that really hit home, or touch my soul. I can’t help but begin singing along to many of these songs, realizing that since I’ve listened to them so many times in my life, I can sing the melody almost perfectly without having to consult sheet music or really listen and study the tune. Basically, I’m realizing that I’ve had many of these songs aurally memorized; they have left a deep imprint on my brain and unconscious. Even though I had never studied these songs musically (I didn’t know the chord changes, the key, the notes of the melody, etc.), I know them in and out – in my mind and heart. What a great tool and aid when practicing my instrument!

Normally, learning a new song requires one to listen to it, examine it, and study it multiple times until it is memorized…this requires practice and time, like learning anything new. However, half the battle has already been won for these tunes from our personal past, as our ears and brain know them deeply. In lieu of this, I decided to start learning some of these songs on my pedal steel, seeing what would come out of it.

I was quickly amazed at how much easier it was to learn a song that I had listened to many times during these years in my life. The melodies are easier to sing and find on the steel, and the chord changes seem harmoniously entwined to my fingers and mind. The rhythms were already close to my heart, as they had been beating on in my body for years just like my heart. The greatest aspect of learning these tunes that I love and cherish: emotions come pouring into the notes and sounds I make on the steel – more easily than ever.

So not only was it increasing my knowledge and understanding of harmony, melodic elements, and rhythmic qualities, I didn’t have to pull up my audio player and listen to the song multiple times like I sometimes do when learning a tune I’ve never heard before. One or two times of listening was plenty… the music was all in my head, memorized by my past self, and full of emotion! Best of all, it was fun learning songs from my past and rediscovering why I loved them then, and still do now (most of them anyways!).

How This Helps From a Practicing Standpoint…

So I’ve begun revisiting and learning songs from my late teens to early 20’s, and I’m finding that they’re really improving my steel playing. Singing the melodies that are ingrained in my mind, and finding these notes on the pedal steel, has been a great way to transcribe and improve the ears. These melodies are easier to translate from my mind to my fingers than many others.

Finding the chords and harmony that underlay these melodies almost seems second nature thanks to the amazing human brain, and I now have a deeper understanding of harmony on a theoretical level and emotional one too. Oh, that’s why that part of the song sounds so cool — they are using changes that really flow well together — no wonder why I always liked this song! I can now use this harmony knowledge for writing and composing my own tunes!

And the rhythmic aspects, the pulse, the beat — these came flowing out onto the steel — no metronome required. They were all in my head and memories. I am quickly able to groove on these tunes, knowing how the rhythm flows, feels, and relates to the music and its other elements.

For example, I recently listened to Led Zeppelin’s song “Your Time is Gonna Come”, one that I hadn’t heard since literally being in high school. I was amazed at how much I knew about this song without really knowing it, and after not hearing it for so long. You see back then, I had listened to it many times, and soaked it up with my heart and mind.

I could instantly sing the melody, I could hear Jimmy Page’s guitar parts crystal clear, and I was even surprised to hear a lot of pedal steel on the track — I didn’t even know what a pedal steel was back then! And what a cool organ intro!!

Led Zeppelin Pedal Steel - Your Time is Gonna Come

I then went to the steel’s C6 neck and translated Page’s acoustic guitar part to it. After a few short practice sessions, I could play his rhythm parts on pedal steel – sweet! Best of all, I could get away with singing some of Robert Plant’s vocals while playing the rhythm on pedal steel. And Page’s pedal steel playing – I could hear and identify those parts on the E9 neck just from listening.

On a basic level, I learned the melody of the song, the chord changes, and supplemental parts quicker than ever, and now I could jam some Zeppelin with other musicians if I wanted to! Heck, I could even play Page’s guitar part so that an electric guitar player could branch out and try some new stuff — maybe they could play the pedal steel parts on the song, which would make this a complete instrument role reversal. I love how versatile the pedal steel guitar is.

So next time you’re firing up a tune before practicing, consider revisiting some of those sentimental ones from years past, and you’ll be amazed at not only how much easier these songs are to learn, but also the emotional qualities you’ll be able to pull out of them. Your pedal steel playing will be that much more soulful, and your heart and mind will thank you too. What a great way to rediscover your past, and make something with it now!


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Cindy Cashdollar – Tonal Personality

Cindy Cashdollar has a tone that combines the beautiful leaves of an autumn day with the peaceful, serene snowflakes of a winter’s snow.  It is timeless, wise, and reflective.  Even though she doesn’t play pedal steel often (lap steel is her go-to for steel), her playing represents C6 in a thoughtful way, and every pedal steel player can respect that.  She is a great steel guitar player.

Her playing is timely, welcoming, engaging, and bold.  She is a warrior, and I enjoy knowing she is on the scene and sparkling in the airwaves.  She was one of the first steel players I ever heard, playing very hip stuff on Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ Cold Roses.  I was traveling through Europe at the time, and her steel playing undoubtedly left a deep impression in my mind and soul.  It made me want to discover the steel sound.

She’s had a very active career, and continues to do so.  Many greats have sought her accompaniment.  Check out her playing, she is based out of Austin, TX.


Cindy Cashdollar - Steel Guitar - Dobro - Steel Guitarist based in Austin, TX

Cashdollar (cool last name!) recordings to check out. These are affiliate links.

Her work with Asleep at the Wheel (a lot of their recordings from 1993 thru 2001)  She said she had to practice a lot on steel to succeed at this gig earlier in her career!

Lloyd Green – Tonal Personality

Lloyd Green’s playing tone is a blazing fire; scorching, yet sharply defined by the outlines of the flames.  His pedal steel playing is fearless, and his tone shows it.   His notes are like sparks in the wind, waiting to ignite everything around it with a bewildering, natural grace.

Mr. Nashville has been on so many sessions, and so many hit songs, that it is unfathomable.  He was truly a man at the right place, at the right time when he settled into Nashville.  The way he knocked out so many great sessions, year after year after year, reminds me of The Wrecking Crew and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  They were stars, and their music changed (and continues to) the world.

I like to think of Lloyd Green as a Navy Seal of pedal steel.  He always has the right tools, at the right time, to get the job done and with full expertise.  His tone is intelligent, beaming, vintage, and phenomenal.

Lloyd Green Pedal Steel Player


Lloyd Green Steel Guitar - Legendary Player

Lloyd Green sessions worth checking out…

Sweetheart of the Rodeo – The Byrds

Many top country hits of 60’s and 70’s!

All of his solo material: a great technical display of pedal steel.

Buddy Emmons – Tonal Personality

Well, how do you even begin to describe Buddy Emmons’ tonal personality on the pedal steel? You start with Round 1, and hope by Round 10 you’re still in the fight. Buddy Emmons was a heavyweight player: with notes that sting you, make you cry like a baby, but yet are as soothing as an ocean’s breeze. Considered by most the best pedal steel player ever, he graced us with his music, his style, and his smile.

Bubbly, warm, striking, daring, bold, contemplative, and tasteful are but a few adjectives that start to describe his musical personality. It was virtuosic, technical, humble, and warm-hearted. Able to hang with the best musicians in the world, his notes conveyed deep, articulate expressions of pedal steel playing at its best. I like to think of him as the pedal steel version of James Bond: he could do it all, and with style and grace. He could also get down and dirty on some blues when the occasion called for it! He recorded with Ray Charles at a point in his career.

Emmons Practice Station

Albums with Emmons worth checking out…

Live – Buddy Emmons (This is show from 1978 International Steel Guitar Convention)

Steel Guitar Jazz – Buddy Emmons


Also, check out these tracks below if you’ve never heard them.  These are affiliate links.