Hal Merrill

About the Pedal Steel Guitar

ABOUT THE STEEL GUITAR

I will provide a very brief history here and follow with a more detailed description on how the steel guitar works. There is elsewhere a great deal of published literature on steel guitar history.

The steel guitar was invented in Hawaii in the late nineteenth century, and was better known at the time as a Hawaiian guitar. There remains some uncertainty as to who the actual inventor was. The early steel guitars were simply traditional Spanish guitars with the strings raised off of the fret board, and were played with various types of “bars” made of various materials including steel, hence the name “steel guitar”.

The steel guitar was introduced into the (U.S.) mainland music scene in the early 1900’s and soon found it’s way into jazz. One of the first great recordings of jazz being played on steel guitar happened in Chicago in 1935 with Bob Dunn recording the song “Taking Off” with Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies. This was the first recording of electrified steel guitar, and proved beyond a doubt that the steel guitar was in its own right a sophisticated musical instrument, capable of playing complex jazz harmonies just like the horn section. In fact, on this recording, if you weren’t listening closely, you might mistake Bob’s playing for a one or two trumpets.

There have been many extremely talented steel guitarists who have played jazz music on the instrument since then.  Many of them have influenced my playing.  They are too numerous to mention by name for fear of leaving someone out. 

As the steel guitar evolved, musically, the need developed to provide more tunings to accommodate the complex chord voicings used in jazz music. So to alleviate the need for triple, or even quadruple neck steel guitars, pedals were introduced in the 1950’s.

Hence the name, pedal steel guitar.

 

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The steel guitar is very similar to the standard, or ‘normal” electric guitar, except that there are no frets. The string vibrates just like that on a guitar, and the magnetic signal is received by the electric “pickup” and transferred electrically to an amplifier of some sort. The string will be tuned to a certain pitch, say middle “C” for example. This pitch is adjusted by a tuning mechanism that increases or decreases tension on the string (otherwise referred to as “tuning up”).

Tuning keys:

So when the string is plucked, you will get that “C” note coming from the guitar.

The steel bar is used by placing it on the on the string, over the fret board, at certain points to produce other desired notes. What is happening here is that the length of the part of the string that is vibrating is being shortened, therefore raising the pitch of the sound when the string is played, or “plucked”.

The strings are usually played with finger picks on the right hand and the steel bar held with the left hand on the fretboard.

This is very similar to what a guitar player is doing when placing the hands on various positions on the frets of the guitar. The only difference is that with the guitar, the frets are all there on the neck of the guitar, and when the finger presses the string, the string touches the fret, essentially shortening the length of the string that vibrates. With steel guitar, the bar IS the fret, and the player is moving it

SO WHAT DO THE PEDALS DO?

I thought you would never ask. The short answer is that the pedals are used alter the pitch of individual strings to allow the player to produce a wider variety of chords on the instrument. A more detailed explanation follows.

Generally, steel guitars are tuned to a basic major chord, most commonly C major or E major. By the way, a chord is a group of two or more notes played simultaneously or in quick succession. The major chords mentioned here actually will have a minimum of three notes. Simple major chord tunings would be fine as long as all you wanted was major chords, and this is actually sufficient in some types of music. But as mentioned earlier players were searching for ways to produce a larger variety of chords without having three separate guitars.

So the introduction of pedals commenced. The pedal is a mechanical device that is pressed by the left foot of the player, that ever so slightly reduces or increases the tension on an individual string or on two or more strings. The foot pedal is connected to a steel rod that extends up to a crank underneath the body of the guitar. The crank in turn has a bracket connected to it that pulls another steel rod which extends to the bell crank at the end . The combination of crank and bracket is called the pulling mechanism.

Pedals:

Pulling mechanism:

 

Bell crank, showing strings and guitar pickup:

It might seem a little complicated when I describe it, but it’s actually not any more complicated than a saxophone or a piano. The saxophone has all sorts of valves and spring controlled levers that open and close these valves. So there you have it.

The effect of the pedals is, then to change that C Major chord to a C minor chord, or any other variation of. You can see that the possibilities are endless, since the pedals can be changed to any configuration the player wants.

FOR THE MORE MUSICALLY INCLINED

The tuning I play on, and that most jazz steel guitarists play on, is a C6 tuning. The notes, starting at the highest pitch (toward the front of the guitar), are G, E, C, A, G, E, C, A, F, and C. There are 10 strings, and the third string mentioned is middle C.

So if you know any basic music theory, you can see that you have an A minor chord with an F in the bass. This, in effect, comprises an F major 9th chord. This is where the magic begins.

A few of the common pedal applications are then as follows:

1. Lower E to Eb. This provides C minor, A minor 7 flat 5, and F 7/9 at the open position.

2. Lower 5th string 5 to F sharp, and raise 10 string C to D. This provides a D seventh or D ninth.

If you know anything about jazz music theory, then you can see the possibility of a II-V-I chord combination, the most common chord progression in jazz, sitting right there. You have the A minor 7 (open position), the D7 (open position) and a G major 7 (at the second fret).

The standard C6 pedal set-up is a work of genius with it’s simplicity and yet it’s effectiveness. Allegedly the late Jimmy Day was primarily responsible for putting the initial pedal changes on the C6 tuning. I’ve been playing for over 30 years and in my playing rarely use any but these original changes, even with the complex jazz chords that I play.

I hope this provides an adequate explanation of how the pedal steel guitar works, and hope to see you at one of our gigs.

Hal Merrill