Picking notes on the pedal steel guitar requires a player to use their right hand for blocking strings that aren’t intended to be heard. Blocking is similar to muting or dampening strings on a six-string guitar, except it is done with the picking hand. It is called right hand blocking because usually steel guitar players pick and block with their right hand.
Because the pedal steel guitar constantly incorporates the use of a bar, and the glissandos and slides associated with sliding it, a player must block any strings that aren’t being played; or they will “ring” out with unintended sounds and tonalities. Right hand blocking can be very difficult at first, especially since the pedal steel guitar has at least 10 strings, and only a couple or few of these strings are usually played at a time. Proper right hand blocking technique enables a steel guitar player to selectively mute or play any string combination at any time. This is tough. If practiced correctly and patiently though, it is a feat that can be conquered in much quicker time than expected. This can open many other doors to steel guitar playing, and allow a player to explore other technical areas of playing the instrument.
There are two common methods to right hand blocking: palm blocking, and pick blocking. There are numerous players who have adopted both techniques (or a hybrid of both), since they both have been proven effective and have their own advantages. I use a hybrid of both, and it gets me through most playing situations. I rarely think of the two techniques as separate anymore: I usually try to block whatever strings need to be blocked in the most intuitive, efficient way possible. This usually doesn’t involve me thinking “should I be pick blocking here, or palm blocking?” Really, it’s usually me asking “how can I block these strings, while still keeping my picking hand comfortable and relaxed?”
Having your right hand relaxed and in a good position will be important from the get-go (I will refer to our right picking hand/fingers as “right hand” from here on out). This can be tough in the beginning stages: I remember that during my first couple of years learning pedal steel, my right hand felt like a monstrous, wound-up, and clumsy beast’s claw – that had no business being on a pedal steel. After working very hard on right hand technique over the years, it now feels more like a graceful, dancing ballerina: believe it or not. It is always relaxed, and comfortable doing its job; I rarely even notice it is there. I still have to work daily on exercises, and keeping my chops up, to have it this way – but it’s much less tedious and tiring. I actually enjoy practicing right hand blocking exercises, and picking in general, much more than most others areas of technique – it’s usually the first thing I tackle in my practice sessions, just because I find it relaxing now. If you would’ve asked me about this back in the “monster claw” days, I would’ve never believed you: it felt the opposite, like it could never relax and do what it was intended to do.
Note: I will be adding detailed pictures, tablature, and audio samples soon. These will help in the actual playing process of learning the technique.