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Steel Crazy

(after all these beers)

Article from Making Music, March 1987

just how do country persons get the twanging yee-hah screech of the pedal steel

The Steel Guitar is a much maligned instrument says David Etheridge. Well he would, since he's been talking to veteran steeler Pete Wilsher.

For the aspiring player who is currently at home on guitar, the first thing to do is describe the difference between the pedal steel and yer average six string geetar. The story of its origin may almost be true. Over to Pete:

"A long time ago, a Spanish guitar was left on the Hawaiian islands, and the neck warped so badly in the sun that it was unplayable. After it had hung around for a while, some guy got the bright idea of tuning it to a chord and running a polished bone along the strings. It gave that sort of drifting sound, rather like the sound of the trade winds through the trees, and the Hawaiian guitar was born. It was laid on the lap because it was easier to play that way.

"Nowaday's it's a piece of polished mild steel instead of the bone. (That's where the name steel guitar comes from.) During the time of the first world war, when Americans came to the islands in large numbers, they put forward the idea of legs on the instrument, and playing it with a steel. When electric guitars became fashionable, they put a pickup on it. An early version of the electric steel guitar was the legendary lap-held Rickenbacker "frying pan". Two styles of playing came from this — the people who wanted to play Hawaiian songs and standards, and those who tuned it a different way who wanted to play country music.

"The former came to be called Hawaiian guitarists, and the latter, who played what was verging on early rock 'n' roll in those days, were called steel guitarists: it's the same instrument, just the style that's different."

When were pedals added?

"This came, really, because the tuning of just a major chord enabled you, if you just plucked two or three strings, to get parts of chords. People thought: 'Wouldn't it be nice to get more complex chords out of this thing?', so a steel guitar was developed with eight strings on it which was tuned to a major 6th chord. If you take your thinking on from that, it's also a minor 7th; (eg C, E, G, A - C6: A, C, E, G, - Am7), and this leads in part to things like 9ths.

"Then someone else had an idea of putting a little lever near the tuning heads on a couple of strings so that it would drop them from a major 3rd to a minor 3rd. Then the idea came that instead of having levers that are difficult to operate while you're playing, why not put the levers at the other end by the bridge and give each string a separate lever-shaped bridge of its own, then put cables in to be worked from pedals. I think the first ones were built using old printing machine pedals, or sewing machine pedals. They could be set up according to the tuning and how the individual player wanted them to be used. Later on, the cables were replaced by adjustable rods.

"Over the years, two tunings came to be used, and still are to this day. One is the E9 chromatic tuning, the other is the C6. The pedals pull the various levers, which on the E9 tuning produce the very bendy country rock sounds, and on the C6 tuning will drop bass notes and such to provide some really nice complex chords."

Were the levers just for semitone drops?

"Semitone and tone, in fact. The way that the lever works is that there's a little bolt touching the very end of the lever (the bolt goes through the body of the guitar). You can set it to return either to half a tone or a full tone, depending on how far you pull the bolt out. There is a limit as to how far you can go without string breakage, however.

"In the early days you could only raise the pitch of the strings, and then they would return to normal. Some engineers got the bright idea of using individual little cams on each of the string levers so that these days you have a split in the lever: one side will raise the pitch, one side will lower it. These days you can connect your rods to either a raising or lowering lever."

What are the tunings on the pedal steel?

"The E9 and C6 tunings are both used on the massive double neck pedal steels that you may have seen in photographs. The best known ones are made by Fender. Running from top to bottom, or as the player would view it, furthest to nearest, the E9 is as follows: Fsharp, Eflat, Gsharp (high), E, B, Gsharp, Fsharp, E, D and B.

"The C6: C, E, G, A, C, E, G, A, F, C. So you can see that each neck has 10 strings. The tunings are fairly standard on twin neck instruments, and, generally speaking, you set the pedals so that two or three pedals operate on each neck. Individual players will attach the other pedals to any string to get whichever pull is desired — it's very much a matter of personal taste and playing style.

"I must point out here that you always use one foot on a volume pedal — you can cover two pedals on the instrument with the other foot. In addition you also have knee operated pedals, and I've got a palm operated pedal as well on mine, and my knee pedals are operated by both knees, sideways. I've even got a knee pedal that operates upwards as well, in order to get as many changes as possible. I've even heard of players with wrist operated pedals, and I suppose navel operated pedals would be quite good.

"As you progress up the fingerboard with your steel, your thinking starts to become quite difficult because you have to visualise constantly in your mind what the instrument's tuned to, and what the pedals do to it as you're going along. It seems complicated first of all, but once you get used to it, it's not so difficult.

"Now to technique — firstly, the steel bar that you have in your left hand has to be of a comfortable weight for you, and you really don't know what that is until you've been playing for a while. Your right hand usually has a thumbpick, and on fingers one, two and three there are metal fingerpicks. I always found fingerpicks very clumsy, although I learnt the Chet Atkins/Merle Travis style of picking years ago, so I'm quite familiar with a thumbpick.

"For a guitarist to suddenly take on pedal steel guitar is a little stranger than he might imagine, especially if he's not used to having a thumbpick on. If you hold it with the other finger, by clasping the thumb and the first finger together while you're wearing the thing, you actually show a little point of the thumbpick to the string, which is the same as using a plectrum anyway. I use a thumbpick for both guitar playing and steel guitar. I don't use fingerpicks, because I once actually fired one into the audience by drawing it back accidentally against the string like a bow and arrow. The resulting punch-up was memorable, particularly as the guy whose neck it struck had no idea that it was a fingerpick from my direction — I grew my nails instead and ever since then I've just used the thumb-pick and the nails on my first three fingers.

"There are many people who have specific ideas about what is the set technique to play the instrument, but I think that rigidity in any area is not good — for example, on guitar it's very easy to make short notes go pop, pop, pop, pop. On steel guitar, it's very difficult to stop it. Once you pluck the string, it tends to ring. The only ways to stop it are to take the bar off the string, which goes 'clatter' as you do it, or as you pick the string, block it with the palm of the hand, like a mini karate chop.

"You have to angle your right fist with the chopping part of your hand in a certain position, and bend the fingers over to play the notes so that you're capable of blocking what you've picked. Apart from that, you get a pain in your right ankle from slipping from one pedal to another, and pains in both wrists because of the odd angle, but once these muscles are developed, it's fine."

What would the prospective player need to look for when choosing such an instrument, and what might he or she expect to pay for one?

"It does depend on a person's finances — they are certainly dearer than secondhand guitars. I would suggest to anybody who is going to learn to play the steel guitar to pick up, if possible, a secondhand American steel guitar perhaps 15 years old, as long as it's in reasonable working order.

"You can pick up an American 10 string pedal steel guitar from between £200-£300.

"Be on the look out for certain parts of the mechanism which might be jammed up, either through lack of use or because it was a model in development stage, abandoned as unsatisfactory. A lot of people have bought things that virtually have to be stripped down and rebuilt like a car. A can of WD40 in the right places has helped. The mechanism must be free: in other words, each of the levers should be able to be sprung back by hand, or by a screwdriver if the instrument's tuned properly."

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Mar 1987

Feature by David Etheridge

Previous article in this issue:

> Synth Sense

Next article in this issue:

> Demology

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