Getting the bar to the correct position requires a player to move it rather quickly sometimes, as moving to various positions is an important part of bar control. Even though a lot can be played in just one position of the fretboard (especially with the convenience of pedals), a player should keep in mind that steel guitar was born in a tradition of controlling the bar and using it to emit many sounds in many positions. After all, before pedals were added to the steel guitar, a player had to use bar slants, move the bar more frequently, and overall have a deep understanding and control of the bar and how it can manipulate the notes and strings.
To get to the desired position, a player moves the bar horizontally in a rather quick manner, and stops it at the position. This can involve moving it up a fret or back one fret, or a few, or even larger movements of several frets. Seasoned players are even able to move 12 frets or more, accurately, in split seconds. When moving between positions, most of the time a player does not lift or pick the bar up and remove it from the strings. This may yield unwanted tones, and possibly reduce bar accuracy and efficiency. Moving the bar “up” frets means moving it horizontally to the right of the player, while moving it “down” frets means moving it horizontally to the left of the player.
To make these movements between frets, and to practice them, requires a physical exertion of the left arm and shoulder that can be built upon and strengthened. The pedal steel is a physical instrument, and moving the bar between positions is no different. I would say this is one of the most physical techniques involved with steel guitar playing, and working on improving it from the get-go will help a player in the long run. There are various practice exercises that can train a player for controlling the bar, and help them realize the physical and musical aspects to it.
It is a good idea to begin working on smaller movements between fret positions, like one or two frets, then progress to larger ones. It is easier to jump off the shorter diving board at first, and then progress to the high dive. Build accuracy and precision as a foundation, and then grow from there. A player can work on moving one, two, or three frets at a time, up and back the fretboard, then worry about larger movements once this is somewhat under control.
A player should usually lightly dampen, or mute the strings behind the bar (between bar and roller nut) with their left hand’s ring and/or pinky fingers. When moving between positions, it can help to “lighten” the pressure of this dampening even more, so that movement becomes more fluid, and can be quicker and more efficient.
I think of bar control, and the movement between positions, as a very athletic activity. I think of moving between these positions, or frets, as physical lengths or distances — a player can learn what moving the bar three frets entails physically, or any fret length/amount (seven frets for example). This is akin to a basketball player, who knows the difference in physics between shooting a free throw, three-pointer, layup, and anything in between if they want to make shots consistently from any range or distance. They have to practice and work on these different shots often to yield results. We are no different as steel players, and thinking of steel practice as a sport can help some players better relate to technique and the practice of developing it.
If you’re interested in the other ingredients that make up bar control, click below…
Also, check out the Visual Tour of Bar Control…