When practicing, it can be useful to have visual tools to use as aids. The following is a blank fretboard diagram for the E9 or C6 neck that can be used to create scale patterns, chord shapes, riffs, and more.
Feel free to print this out, and use a pencil/pen to mark in whatever you’d like! Click on the image for an enlarged view, then the magnifying glass for a zoomed-in view.
Refer to the following posts for ideas on how to use this diagram…
Having a comfortable, confident right hand picking technique can go a long ways for a pedal steel player. Right hand picking and string blocking are perhaps the most elusive techniques to new and seasoned players alike. However, by using the ring finger as an anchor, a player can overcome many picking obstacles and become triumphant in the choppy seas of right hand technique.
Most players use a thumb pick, and fingerpicks for the index and middle fingers, leaving the ring and pinky fingers free to roam. Many players extend their pinky out when picking, while others tuck it under their ring finger…there is no right or wrong way; whatever is comfortable and works best for the player. This leaves the ring finger: and using this finger as a positional anchor can tie everything together for the right hand.
Check out the photo gallery at the bottom of the page to see photos of the ring finger anchor in action.
What is meant by positional anchor, when referring to the ring finger? This means resting it in between two strings, or on top of a string, so that the picking fingers below are in the correct position to pick their intended strings in a comfortable manner.
Accurately switching between string grips, and picking the intended notes can be challenging. However, if we train our ring finger to land on top of the strings we want it to, while keeping the thumb, index, and middle fingers in a consistent position relative to the ring finger, we can confidently attack the strings with accuracy.
For example, if we are going to play strings 6 & 5 with our index and middle fingers, then resting the ring finger on string 4 (and it may touch string 3 too – it can comfortably rest between strings 3 & 4) can provide a foundation for the picking fingers. These fingers should now be in the proper position and angle, huddled over the strings ready to pick, dampen, or release from the strings. Basically, they will be in a position to attack the strings, mute them (pick blocking), or release from them after they’ve been picked or muted.
If a player wants to do the same thing, but on a different string grouping, then it is just a matter of shifting the foundation forward or backward to different string numbers. For instance, if a player wants to pick strings 6, 5, & 4 on the E9 neck (a classic grip indeed), then they can rest their ring finger on the 3rd string. Again, resting it on this 3rd string implies that it may touch the 2nd string too, or can be thought of as resting in between the 3rd and 2nd strings.
A major benefit of the ring finger anchor is that it will mute whatever string(s) it rests upon, providing aid to the blocking process. If the pinky finger is extended as well, then most of the higher strings will be blocked. For blocking, this leaves the player free to focus on properly muting the lower strings that aren’t being picked: often by using the palm, or the side of the hand.
Buddy Emmons was an advocate of using the ring finger to mute string(s): knowing that it could rest on the string, and mute the string at the same time.
If a player can train the ring finger to land in the correct spot each time, and train the other fingers to remain in the same comfortable position/shape relative to the ring finger, then they have a reliable system for placing the fingers in any position they want to pick and block the strings. There is more consistency, and less trial-and-error for moving between picking positions and string groupings.
There can be many advantages to using the ring finger as an anchor:
-It allows the overall hand to relax more, which can make it easier to pick comfortably, faster, and more accurately.
-It helps mute more strings for blocking.
-It allows the thumb, index, and middle fingers to position more consistently with each other…they will be more “tight-knit” as a group and will move and work better together. Better yet, they won’t roam as much from each other, and will be more accurate and consistent in picking their intended strings.
-It can help with speed picking, chord grips, and many other picking options.
-It can save time and energy when practicing right hand technique, and allow a player more time to focus on other aspects of playing like bar control, scale routines, or learning tunes.
So as a player embarks on the seas of pedal steel discovery, they should keep in mind that a strong anchor is always nice to have: to keep from drifting into the rough seas of abysmal right hand technique.
Photo Gallery of the Ring Finger Anchor (click to enlarge):
For more on right hand technique visit the following page:
Learning how to play the pedal steel guitar can be fun, rewarding, and worthwhile. The process of learning, and the challenges involved with this intricate instrument, are part the journey. Using strategies that can make practicing more efficient and beneficial, a player can improve their playing with enjoyable outcomes.
Here are some practice strategies that I have found useful when learning this instrument:
There is so much involved with learning to play music and an instrument that it can feel like climbing a mountain…but mountains are climbed one step at a time. The same idea can be applied to practicing pedal steel. Breaking down the material and techniques that need to be learned into “chunks” can provide more focus to attain important goals.
If a player’s goal is to spend a little time each day working on technique, scales, and tunes, then finding a good exercise to work on for each of these categories is important. There are multiple aspects of technique that are important to learn, plenty of scales, and thousands of tunes. It can feel overwhelming to think about how much there is to learn, so choosing one area out of each category to focus on for practice sessions can provide direction, focus, and the time necessary to truly learn: after all, the key to learning is repetition.
I recommend choosing an exercise for each category and working on it for a few weeks before moving on to the next goal. For technique, this may mean focusing on bar control by doing a 15 minute exercise centered around this each day. For scales, working on the major scale and the Mixolydian scale each practice session may be more beneficial than trying to learn every scale/mode at once. For tunes, working on the verse over and over again until you have it down may be more beneficial than noodling between every section without truly getting them down.
After three weeks of practicing one particular thing each day, a player will see significant gains in that area. This is a good time to move on to another exercise, and begin building a new foundation. These foundations can provide good leverage for climbing the pedal steel mountain.
The more a player can successfully complete their playing objective (i.e. hitting a right note, or playing a lick accurately up-to-speed) the easier it will be to repeat this. So when practicing it is important to try to repeat successful results more often than unsuccessful ones.
If a player completes a picking exercise successfully three out of four times, then they are building a habit of playing it accurately more often than not. Doing this more and more often, until it can be done successfully 9 out of 10 times, will build consistency of success.
If they are only completing it successfully one out of five times, then they may find it beneficial to alter their practice routine so that more successes can be made more of the time. This may mean slowing the metronome down a bit until one can play it successfully more often, then speed it up slowly until the same can be done at the next speed.
Once a player can successfully repeat something over and over again accurately, it is a good time to move on to something more challenging and push for growth instead of being stagnant. If a player can’t repeat something successfully more often than not, then it is a good time to change some variables to make it easier to. After all, you have to crawl before you can walk.
It is important to practice smart, not harder. A player may be able to make just as many gains from practicing efficiently for 10 minutes, than inefficiently for 2 hours. During your practice session, ask yourself: am I focused enough right now to truly be productive on the task at hand? If not, is it because your fingers are tired, or are you distracted by your friend’s text messages, or maybe you’re hungry cause you haven’t eaten yet today?
Know your limits, and if you begin making more mistakes than earlier in the practice session, then it may be a good idea to take a break. (Mistakes are OK!, but just make sure you aren’t making more of them because your practice session has lost its steam.) When you notice you need a break, here are some things that can help refresh you: go for a walk, do a quick stretch, eat a granola bar, listen to a couple of inspiring songs, or maybe just take some deep breaths. Effective practice builds good playing habits, and getting in the habit of practicing effectively is making the best of both worlds.
Remember that practicing and learning requires making mistakes, so make the most of learning from them and have fun! Understanding how to practice effectively, and how to improve one’s playing, can be rewarding and can yield significant gains. Using these strategies can give a player more ideas on how to do this.
It can be very beneficial to warmup at the beginning of your playing or practice session. Since the pedal steel is such a physical instrument, it is very similar to playing a sport in that it requires certain movements/exertions to achieve certain goals.
Warming up (stretches, exercises, drills, etc.) is almost standard for any sport, and for pedal steel playing it can be very helpful to do the same. A basketball player may shoot some hoops from various positions on the court to warmup; a pedal steel player could work on various “shots” or “techniques” on their instrument to warmup too.
By focusing a little time on technique, a player can calibrate their playing by rehearsing certain movements and motions. This can also help focus the mind for playing. Here is a great exercise to warmup your left foot and pedal technique for playing sessions, while also building strong playing habits…
Spend 5-10 minutes on this warmup exercise. It focuses on slow pedal movements to gain maximum control and precision with one’s left foot. It will isolate the A, B, and C pedals, allowing one to work on these individual movements and foot positioning too.
Here’s how the exercise works:
If you engage the A pedal on the E9 neck, which raises our pitch two half steps on strings 5+10, and fret the bar at fret position 1, you have a D note on these strings. Now slowly disengage the pedal, while sliding up two frets and you have the same note since you disengaged the pedal and moved the bar up two half steps simultaneously. Since these are the same notes, if you gradually slide between these two positions (engaged 1st fret, disengaged 3rd fret) while gradually (dis)engaging the pedal, you shouldn’t hear a change in pitch. This is easier to do quickly! But can you do it super slow, and avoid microtones?!!!
Here’s the trick:
If you do this process and move the bar real slowly from the 1st fret position (engaged pedal) up towards the 3rd fret position (disengaged pedal) – but only move the bar super slow, and you want to keep the pitch constant — your foot will need to engage/disengage the pedal just as slow as the bar moves, until you reach your destination. By doing these movements at a very slow speed, a player can really crystallize their foot technique and muscle memory, while strengthening the muscles used.
This exercise can also be effective in warming up with the B and C pedals…
For the B pedal – do the same process but use the 3rd string. The 2nd fret position will have the pedal engaged, while the 3rd fret position will have it disengaged.
For the C pedal – do the same process but use the 4th string. The 1st fret position will have the pedal engaged, while the 3rd fret position will have the pedal disengaged. This movement is very similar to the A pedal’s warmup mentioned above.
This chart can help visually display these movements, and can be a great practice tool (click for larger view)…
Also, a great way to warmup the left foot and ankle is to work on “rocking” motions: a very important technique for using the A and B pedals simultaneously on the E9 neck. I find the following movement to be very efficient in warming up the foot/ankle for this reason…
Starting with only the B pedal engaged, and using strings 5+6 at the fifth fret, pick this string grouping then slowly slide the bar up one fret while releasing the B pedal, and engaging the A pedal. This will require the ankle to make a larger movement, by requiring it to rock towards the A pedal, and avoid engaging the B pedal once it arrives at the A pedal engaged position.
The following diagram (click for larger view) helps visually display this exercise/movement:
Notice how on the 6th string, our pitch will not change after the disengagement of the B pedal and the slide up one fret…just like the previous exercises. A player should hear almost no change with this note, and try to avoid hearing microtones to keep it smooth. The 5th string and A pedal movement will produce a change in pitch/note and should be audibly smooth as well.
This movement is challenging, but gives a player the capability of hitting the A pedal by itself, the B pedal by itself, and building the muscles commonly used for rocking on/off the A pedal with the B pedal engaged. It is a move that can be found in Buddy Emmons’ “Blue Jade,” and can be used in many variations when playing pedal steel.
For more info related to the foot pedals, check these pages out…
Having a strong foundation in rhythm can help a pedal steel player’s musicality. Using a metronome is one of the best ways to build a player’s rhythmic skills, and can go a long ways on and off the bandstand.
Here are some ideas and tips for practicing with a metronome…
Most of my practice with a metronome involves using it at a slow tempo. This allows me to really calibrate my attack on the strings with the beats of the metronome. I am usually in the 55-75 BPM range, often in the 60’s. By calibrating my attack, what I mean is I try to hear sonically if I’m slightly ahead of the beat, right on top of it, or playing behind it.
These three modes of attack can allow one to have more options rhythmically when playing with others. Playing ahead of the beat, without rushing it, can help drive certain parts of songs and give them more flare. Playing on top of the beat is more common, and entails playing on time with the music surrounding you — you’ll be in time without accentuating the time too much and drawing attention away from the lyrics or song. Playing behind the beat can be fun too, and add more tail end to the percussive attacks of other instruments, without losing timing. When doing this, your attack on the strings will very minutely follow the immediate sound of the beat.
This is a good trick for working on your timing, and can help when learning jazz rhythms too. Set your metronome real slow (I usually set it between 40 and 60 BPM). Then allow the beats you hear on the metronome to act as beats 2 and 4 of the measure (4/4 meter), and beats 1 and 3 will be in between these and inaudible on the metronome. Basically, you are using the metronome only for beats 2 and 4, while allowing your brain and mind to hear and interpret beats 1 and 3 on your own. When you do this, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of when the snare drum usually hits, and you’ll be able to accentuate beats 2 and 4 more within your playing. Having to fill in 1 and 3 on your own will give you practice and understanding of the function of these beats too. After all, you are the one “making” these beats happen in your mind. For more practice ideas and exercises, switch it up: have the metronome only sound beats for 1 and 3, while you interpret 2 and 4 on your own.
-Get a good timbre
Finding a nice, pleasant sounding metronome is important for getting the most out of your practice. After all, who wants to continuously listen to a repeating noise that is annoying sounding It’s like playing with a drummer: it is much more enjoyable to play with one that sounds good, than one that doesn’t, ha!?
I recommend downloading multiple metronome apps that are free on your phone, then experimenting with them to see which one sounds best to you. Also, I recommend the app called DrumGenius. It has a great selection of drum loops in many music styles, which all sound great. It is a great way to practice rhythm, while adding a more realistic aspect to your session – with a good sound system it can feel like you are practicing with a drummer. This can really help when you get on the bandstand.
-Using with a drone
When practicing scales, intervals, arpeggios, etc. it is often very beneficial to have a drone track in the background. Try to use a metronome when practicing with a drone, as this will be beneficial in many ways: improving intonation, solidifying your timing, training your ears, making your practice more musical, etc. For more on practicing with a drone, check out these articles:
I hope these tips and ideas on using a metronome help players get more out of their practice time. Often, the best way to calibrate one’s timing on and off the instrument is to practice with a metronome.
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.
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.
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…
Learning the fretboard can be a great way to improve one’s playing. It is important to learn various playing positions, scale patterns, note names, and more. Here’s a visual tool to help with memorizing notes on the C6 fretboard:
This diagram displays all of the notes that are on the C6 neck. Click on the diagram for an enlarged view.
A free online resource for discovering pedal steel guitar.