Effective pedal steel technique requires an understanding of the physical components of playing the instrument. The body is used in various ways to get sounds out of the instrument: the left hand/arm is used to control the bar, the right hand is used to block and pick the strings, while both feet and legs are used to manipulate the pedals, levers, and volume pedal. Positioning your steel seat properly can provide a balance and foundation that helps make these various aspects more effortless.
Since so many limbs of the body are used, playing the pedal steel can feel like sitting behind a space ship’s control center. Basically, it can feel like there is a lot going on simultaneously, but it doesn’t have to feel like rocket science. When practicing or performing, it can be very helpful to have a habit of sitting in approximately the same position each time you are behind the steel.
This ensures multiple things:
-The right hand and arm are in a relaxed and similar picking position each time. This can also be a way to ensure you are picking in an area near the pickup that provides a good tonality.
-The left hand and arm are in a comfortable position to freely move up and down the fretboard, and to keep the bar straight.
-The left leg and foot are in a comfortable position to engage the pedals and knee levers.
-The right foot and heel is in a good position to control the volume pedal, with the heel being able to move freely towards the floor and so the ankle can rock the volume pedal up or down.
-You feel centered, balanced, and comfortable when sitting behind the instrument so that you are freer to create music.
-You’re coordinating your hands/arms, eyes, legs/feet, etc. by using repetitive motions when playing so that they become habits and build on each other. You’re building muscle memory.
So what is a good position for the seat to be in? There is no set rule or position, but many players find it helpful to position it in a certain area in relation to the fretboard. I find it very useful to use the 15th fret as a guide.
There are three things that can help one find the same seat position each time:
- Where the center of the seat is in relation to the fretboard.
- How far away the front of the seat is from the body or cabinet of the guitar.
- Where the belly button of the player faces in relation to the guitar.
Using these three factors, here’s a good way to ensure that your seat is positioned in the approximately the same spot each time:
- Find where the middle or center of the seat is, and put it so it is lined up with the 15th fret of the neck closest to it.
- Then, move the seat forward or backward from the beginning of the cabinet so that it is approximately the same length away from the guitar each time. Looking down from above can help with this, and I usually think of having the seat a certain amount of inches away – for me this is about 6 inches.
- Sit down on the seat, and get in your playing position…is your belly button pointing towards the 15th fret, or where you’d like it to be? This can vary for certain players and technique styles, but having the belly button centered (or facing a similar spot each time) can help ensure that you are sitting in the seat the same way each time too.
Different player techniques and different body types will require different positions. So use whatever is comfortable and works best, and this may take some experimenting. Also keep in mind how high the seat is in relation to the ground and steel – it’s helpful to have it so that the arms are parallel to the floor when playing, which can be good for relaxing the wrists too.
The steps outlined above can be a good reference for finding the seat position that works for you! It can be reassuring at gig time to know that you are in the same position at your space ship’s control center; the same position you spent countless hours training in.
For more on technique, check out these pages…