Steel Guitar Questions

With the all the great knowledge and experience in the steel guitar community, we thought it would be great to ask a few experts their opinions on a few common questions people might have who are interested in picking up the steel guitar. Thanks to everyone who contributed! Here's the questions they answered:

  1. What are the basic steel guitar types, and is there a particular type I should start with?
  2. How difficult is it to learn the steel guitar? Would you recommend it as a first instrument?
  3. Do I need to take lessons or are there ways for me to learn on my own?
  4. What are some good songs to learn or good places to get started for beginners?
  5. What kind of bar and picks should I use?
  6. What other essential equipment do I need and should I get it new or used?
  7. How can I network with other steel guitar players?
  8. Were there any methods or things you did that helped the learning process of playing steel guitars?
  9. What is your favorite thing about steel guitars?
  10. Additional tips or words of wisdom.

 

1. What are the basic steel guitar types, and is there a particular type I should start with?

Bobby Lee

First, you have the 6 string lap steel. If you already play guitar, this will get you used to the idea of playing one laid flat.  A lot of people play rock and blues on lap steel, but it's also a good instrument for vintage country and Hawaiian sounds.

Next is the multi-neck console.  These were popular in the 40's and 50's, and are mostly used to play country, swing and Hawaiian music from that era. If you're not into old music, you probably shouldn't even think about getting one of these.

Then we come to pedal steel guitars.  The pedals change the tuning while you play, making the string-bending sound that is heard very often in country music.  Since the 1960's, almost all pedal steels have had 10 or more strings.  The 10-string E9th tuning is the standard.  Some players have 12 strings to extend the low range of the instrument.

Lastly, we have double-neck pedal steels.  These usually have two 10-string necks, one in the standard E9th tuning and the other in C6th.  The C6th tuning has a lower range, and its pedals are configured for jazz chords.

Mike Perlowin

Most people start with a single neck E9 tuning with 3 pedals and at least 3 knee levers. More knee levers are desirable, but not necessary for a beginner. I would stay away from student models, even those with 3 or 4 knee levers. Better to get a professional grade one. Even a used pro guitar is better than a student model.

Jerry Knapper

 The types of steel guitars goes back to the singles string instrument made in Hawaii years ago, were they used a bar and/or a bow. From acoustic lap steels to electrified guitars and solid body electric guitars with 3, 6, 8, 10 and 12 strings the steel has come a long way. Modern lap steels have fluctuated from 6,8, 10 and 12 strings with the 6 and 8 being the most popular as used in a wide variety of music. The evolution of lap steels to pedal steels has changed the industry immensely. It has eliminated the need for excessive bar movement, created a different sound and adapted itself to everything from Hawaiian to Jazz to Pop to Country music. If I were starting from the beginning I would want a 12 string pedal steel with 7 to 8 pedals and 5 knee levers and a knowledgeable instructor to tell or show me what to do with it.

Ernie Renn

There are pedal and lap steel guitars. Most of the steel guitar you hear on the radio is of the pedal variety. 

Get the best guitar you can afford. If you're getting a pedal guitar make sure it has a standard tuning and common pedal configuration. Instruction methods aren't all the same, but most use a basic set up. 

Larry Bell

Steel guitars (defined as stringed instruments, usually without frets, played with a steel bar) can be acoustic or electric and pedal or nonpedal.

Examples of acoustic/nonpedal: Wiessenborn (acoustic guitar designed for slide playing), Resophonic (like the Dobro or other 'guitars with a hubcap in the middle' -- also known as a resonator)

Examples of acoustic/pedal:  'The Pedabro' (check out http://paul-franklin.com/?page_id=23) -- a pedal steel with a Dobro resonator played by Paul Franklin and others -- listen to 'Forever and Ever Amen' -- Randy Travis)  It has no pickup and is usually close-miked to amplify the sound.  Paul also plays an acoustic pedal steel he calls 'The Box'.  Examples of those instruments can be found on the Dire Straits album 'On the Night'.  Neither instrument was ever produced in large numbers.

Examples of electric/nonpedal:  Lap steels with one or more necks, Console steels (on legs) with one or more necks

Examples of electric/pedal:  Pedal steels with one or more necks.  They often have both floor pedals and knee levers.  Knee levers have the advantage of being combined more easily with pedals than two nonadjacent pedals.  Pressing Pedal 1 and Pedal 3 simultaneously requires two feet; pressing a knee lever and any pedal together does not.

THIS IS IMPORTANT:  Beginning players always have a sound they love in their head.  Whichever category above makes that sound is what that person should learn first. 

If bluegrass is your thing, listen to Jerry Douglas and his teachers Mike Auldridge and Josh Graves and get yourself a Dobro or other brand of resophonic guitar.  

If current country music is your thing, you will hear mostly pedal steel and some lap steel.  Listen to Paul Franklin, Dan Dugmore, Gary Morse, Russ Pahl, and all the wonderful Nashville session musicians and buy a 10-string single neck pedal steel tuned to the E9 Nashville tuning with AT LEAST 3 pedals and 4 knee levers.  With that you can play 99% of what you hear on country radio.

If you enjoy the old Hank Sr. style, a nonpedal guitar -- either lap or console -- with one or two necks will serve you well  C6 is the 'bread and butter' tuning, but E7 or E13 is a good complement to C6 if you get a double neck.  8 strings is recommended.  This setup is also good for western swing or even for jazz (if you know what you're doing).

If your budget is limited, a used instrument may be a good option.  Be sure to have any used instrument inspected by someone who knows what to look for.  There are several entry level / student model pedal steels out there.  GFI, ZumSteel, and other manufacturers make single 10's that are less expensive than the professional models.  GET A PRO LEVEL INSTRUMENT IF YOU CAN AFFORD IT.  It will be easier to sell and will retain its value better.  It may not seem so when you buy a new guitar, but few active steel players I know are playing the first guitar they ever owned.

Dan Burnham

As many know there are lap steels, console steels-with legs, and then there are pedal steels.  There is much debate regarding which one to start with.  All of the old school players started out on lap and worked into the pedal steel guitar.  I don’t think there is a disadvantage to starting with lap steel or even dobro for that matter to learn the basics regarding right and left hand technique.

To advance on the first part of the questions there are 8 string, 10 string, 12 string, and 14 string pedal steel guitars.  Many of the players that have been playing 10 string pedal steel for years will discourage young players from even looking at 12 string or 14 string steel guitars, because they (the guys that have been playing 10 string) are terrified of the additional 2 strings in the case of the 12 string and 4 additional strings in the case of the 14 string pedal steel.  These recommendations are based out of their own fears of dealing with the additional strings.  I currently play 14 string and I can go back and forth from it to a 10 string no problem.  The late Bill Stroud, previous owner of BJS bars was a great friend and encouragement to me.  He was the one to encourage me not to listen to the older players regarding play 10 string only.  As he put it, “A stick shift is a stick shift” regardless whether it is a 3 speed, or 5 speed car or a 13 speed diesel truck.  The number of strings on the pedal steel guitar can be viewed the same way. 

So what determines which type of steel I get regarding the number of strings? 

A. What type of sound are you looking for?  Do you just want to do commercial country or old standard country music?  If that is the case 10 string E9 with Buddy Emmon’s copedant or Jimmy Day’s will fit the bill starting out.   If you want to play commercial western swing, you would consider a D10 with standard E9 & C6.  For me I have never wanted to sound like the standards.

B. What player do you most want to emulate or play like? That makes a big difference in your choice.  For me I loved Zane Beck’s sound so I got a 12 string with 5 knees and 4 floors with Zane Beck’s tuning on it.  After 4 years I was intrigued by Julian Tharpe so I had Don Fritsche build me a 14 string with 10 pedals and 6 knee levers just like Julian’s.

Don Sulesky

There are several types related to the steel guitar. You have the dobro which is a resophonic guitar played with a bar and picks mostly played in Bluegrass bands. Then there is what is called the lap steel or non-pedal guitar which can have anywhere from a single neck of 6 to 14 strings or as many as 4 necks all tuned differently.

Through the evolution of the lap steel guitar you have what most of us play today called the Pedal Steel Guitar. Here again you can have one or two necks on the guitar which is on legs, has floor pedals and knee levers to manipulate the pitch of the strings

There are three main types of tuning on the pedal steel guitar. The E9th tuning is the most popular and used mainly for Country music. Next you have the C6th neck on the double neck Steel Guitars which is used mainly for Jazz, Texas Swing, Hawaiian and many other forms of music. A third type which has come into use is the Universal Pedal Steel which has an extended tuning of several types with 12 to 14 strings. I’m sure there are other forms of the steel guitar, but these are the most common in use today.  Which type to start with? My preference is the Pedal Steel Guitar, but then it comes to what kind of music you want to play that will depend on the type of steel you pick.

Lionel Wendling

When you begin the steel guitar, the first main problem you will run into is the tuning, so you need to buy an instrument in good shape mechanically. Compared to a guitar which gets better with age, a steel guitar will be like a car having more and more problems as it ages. The newest and the less played instrument you can find will be your safest bet to start with.

 

2. How difficult is it to learn the steel guitar? Would you recommend it as a first instrument?

Bobby Lee

I've been told that it's harder than most instruments, but I think it's a lot easier than violin or cello.

Most steel guitarists start on standard guitar.  It's hard to learn steel guitar if you don't have a background in guitar or piano. A basic understanding of chords helps a lot.

Mike Perlowin

VERY!! The steel has a very steep learning curve. Be forewarned.

2-a. Would you recommend it as a first instrument?

Generally speaking, no. I recommend somebody play the guitar or piano first. However there are some people who immediately take to the steel, so there is no single “one size fits all” answer.

Jerry Knapper

I think the steel guitar is an easy instrument to play. One can take a lap steel and by just playing 3 to 4 bar positions chord and sing a song. To play melodies, the pedal steel is one of the easiest instruments to learn because all one has to do is learn 4 groups, basic bar positions and what the pedals do and one can play a scale and/or any simple song. All music is based on specific music theory and the piano keyboard is the basic instrument used to show the steps of a scale. However, the application to a guitar or steel guitar is not that difficult.

Ernie Renn

It's difficult and you need to want to do it. I've been playing steel since the late 60's and learn new things all the time.

As a first instrument, without some sort of previous musical knowledge, it would be fairly difficult.

Larry Bell

Compared to a piano, it is more difficult for most players. I have also known some pretty good guitarists who have pulled their hair out over pedal steel.  I would put steel guitar on par with violin in difficulty.  

I have known excellent players who don't play any other instrument, but those who understand how music works definitely learn faster.  Banjo players tend to have an easier time with using fingerpicks and guitarists identify with the E9 tuning because fret positions are the same -- E open; G on fret 3; C on fret 8 (for example).  I know of guitarists (Fred Newell, Sid Hudson & others), keyboard players (Mike Smith, Big Jim Murphy who also played sax), Dobro players (Mike Auldridge and others), and players of most every instrument you can name who are also excellent steel players.

Knowledge of the structure of music and hand/eye coordination are important skills that all musicians share.  To really understand how to PLAY steel guitar and not just copy others one must have some (formal or informal) understanding of music theory and chord progressions.  It is nice, but not critical to know what a Dom7#9 chord is and how to play one in any key.  Knowing the name is less important than knowing how it SOUNDS and how it's USED.

Dan Burnham

That depends on each person.  Everybody learns at a different pace.  Here is an even great question?  If the person can’t hear chord changes or melody, have an idea where they go, he or she will never be able to play pedal steel. You have to have some musical ability in order to play any kind of musical instrument. There I have said what a lot of builders won’t say. Some people are naturally gifted and have musical talent and some do not. The do not’s should consider something else. Having said that, back to the question how difficult is it to learn the steel guitar? It can be overwhelming at first, especially if you don’t have a teacher. You can learn from courses if you have the aptitude to comprehend what is being taught, but many players struggle at the beginning especially learning to read tablature written out.

I have mixed emotions regarding recommending it as a first instrument. Why? A musician plays the way he thinks. (Example) I studied Music Education at the University of Tennessee at Martin and at Murray State University where I studied trumpet and piano.  From having done that I naturally hear melodies and see chord changes in my mind on the piano.  Anything I hear I translate it to the piano so if I hear a “Riff” I can simply go to the piano and play it.  Now in that process, if I hear a lick that Buddy Emmons played and I want to learn it, I will see the pattern on the piano, in my head and go work it out on the steel.  In this example, I see everything in piano and translate it over to the steel.  If I could see it in terms of steel I could play it immediately, but unfortunately I don’t. So that is where I have the mixed emotions, if someone started out on pedal steel first I believe they would see the patterns in terms of steel instead the other instrument. That doesn’t mean that they can’t learn the steel that means there would be a transition process. Bud Carter once told me tune your steel the way you think. There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.

Don Sulesky

The Pedal Steel Guitar is considered one of the most difficult instruments to master. It can take many years to be proficient, but some who have a good ear and nibble fingers and good body control can learn to play simple chords in a few weeks of dedication to practicing. Many who try give up or go to the lap steel which has come back into vogue the last few years because it doesn’t use pedals so that you don’t need to have the leg and knee coordination needed to play it.                                  

As far as a first instrument, “I say why not”. If you are willing to put the time and effort to learn it, then go for it. But take my advice; the Pedal Steel Guitar can be addictive. Ask anyone who plays it. Many of the older players today were once guitar, banjo, fiddle or piano players etc. who have moved on to the pedal steel. Then there are some who just could not handle what is needed to play the pedal steel guitar.

Lionel Wendling

The steel guitar is an instrument like any other, not any harder. If you practice properly and regularly you will progress...When you start the main problem will be to find an instrument (not too expensive if possible...) and a teacher nearby. You usually do not find a teacher at your local music school. Learning with videos is a plus but nothing replaces a teacher.

 

3. Do I need to take lessons or are there ways for me to learn on my own?

Bobby Lee

There's no substitute for a good teacher. Most instructional material teaches you how to play specific songs, but it can't keep you from developing bad habits in your technique. A good teacher can show you how to use your hands to get total control over the strings, how to get the best tone, etc.. He can also help you get the guitar adjusted properly to fit your body, and make simple mechanical adjustments that tend to drive beginners crazy.

Mike Perlowin

Lessons help, as do audio and video courses and books. The best thing is to get into a band as soon as possible.

Jerry Knapper

It depends on how one defines lessons. Today, one can watch the illustrations on YouTube and learn quite a bit in lieu of expensive lessons. However, I have always thought it was wise to get advice from a good teacher.  

Ernie Renn

If you can find lessons in your area they can help a great deal in getting off the ground. You don't really 'need' them. The only lessons I had was asking players how to play things. Watch other players you admire very closely. They likely have and use the proper techniques you'll need to know. If you have questions: ask. Most players will help you out if they can. 

Larry Bell

Yes and Yes. Taking lessons from a live person allows you to ask YOUR questions and observe in person to avoid developing bad habits.  Being able to see someone play and interact with them to understand WHY they do something is easily worth the price of lessons.  However, I don't recommend ONLY taking regular lessons and do recommend learning from more than one teacher.  There are many sources out there to learn, some of them free.  On the internet there are several sources -- use Google and YouTube search.  You'll be surprised at how much material is available for little or no money.  Many courses deal with learning songs and licks and some are available to teach specific techniques.  A teacher or experienced player can help you select learning material.

Dan Burnham

I started out on my own.  I already had a good musical back ground so understanding chord changes and melodies came easy for me.  The BEST course I have ever purchased was written by Dewitt Scott titled, “E9 Backup Pedal Steel Guitar.”  That course helped me learn to play fills and turn arounds on pedal steel guitar.  Taking lessons are great if you have a good teacher. There’s a lot of tablature out there for pedal steel that I used when I started, and there is even more today.

Don Sulesky

If lessons are available I would at least take 2 or 3 so that someone with experience can set you on the right path to learning the steel guitar, whichever style you want to tackle. There are many books out there today which were not available when I started to learn in the early 70’s. I sell one which is very popular and I have sold hundreds of copies of this course called the EZ E9th Course, www.donzpedalsteel.com for more information.

Lionel Wendling

It's always better to take lessons 

 

4. What are some good songs to learn or good places to get started for beginners?

Bobby Lee

Play the songs you like. Find the chords to your favorite songs, and figure out ways to slide between them.  Play with your friends. 

Mike Perlowin

There are a million songs. The place to get started is the Steel Guitar Forum. http://www.steelguitarforum.com/ This is THE place for newbies to ask questions.

Jerry Knapper

This is entirely up to the individuals taste. It makes no sense to teach someone a spiritual song if they want to play in bars and clubs, and it doesn't make sense to teach a singer to play complete songs, nor a instrumentalist to play accompaniment. The most ideal thing is keep the songs simple, limiting them to 3 and no more than 4 chord structure.

Ernie Renn

Any basic tune that you already know how it goes. Knowing the melody to a tune will put you way ahead for learning the ins and outs of playing a tune. When in doubt, standards work well. Try to hear live music that uses steel guitar. When you get comfortable enough with playing phrases and chords, find an impromptu jam to be part of. Actual experience playing is far better than anything. Being under pressure can be a good motivator to learn. 

Larry Bell

DO NOT OBSESS OVER SONGS.  Be patient and celebrate the SMALL STEPS.  Learn to play a single note beautifully.  Play any note at the 3rd fret -- listen to how each string sounds.  Don't worry about what it IS until you can play it properly.  Play the note with the nose of the bar over the string, your left hand flattened behind it and pick with authority with your thumbpick.  When you play string 3, your bar should not cover strings 1 and 2.  LEARN TO PLAY SINGLE NOTES WITH THE NOSE OF THE BAR.  When you play the 6th string your bar should not cover 1-5.  Realize that one of the main elements of good technique is often referred to as 'bar tracking'  -- covering only the necessary strings with the bar and moving the bar IN AND OUT, not just UP AND DOWN.  This keeps the player from having to constantly mute unwanted notes that accidentally sound just from contact with the bar.  Watch YouTube videos of pro steel players -- THEY ALL USE BAR TRACKING to play cleanly

Once you can play single notes convincingly begin working on locating chords.  Try this link:  http://jmlmusic.ca/_misc/Pedal%20Steel%20Guitar%20E9%20Fretboard%20Reference%20_DRAFT5.pdf  (There are other chord directories for E9 pedal steel on the internet. Search 'pedal steel chord finder' on Google.)  

Learn how songs WORK first. If you can find the proper chords to play behind the melody, solo, or fills, you will have an easier time understanding where the 'good notes' are. I suggest as a first step to learning any song to learn to play chords in rhythm at the tempo of the song.  Use a chord finder such as the one in the previous paragraph.  Play 3 note chords, taking note of which string combinations ('grips') sound best.  This is info you will use and build upon as long as you play the instrument.

For pedal steel the second step is to learn the same chords in another position. There are three main positions for major chords and three for minor chords on E9 pedal steel.  LEARN THEM and learn how to move between them while playing common chord progressions.  Just learning to play a song note for note from tablature is not as valuable a learning experience than studying the SONG, understanding where the chords that accompany the song are found on the neck, and then you can learn the melody in a musical context that will help you learn songs easier in the future.

Instead of measuring progress by how many songs you can play, also be aware that it's important to learn technique, musical logic, and knowledge of where chords and scales are found in all keys are skills that you will not necessarily learn by simply learning a bunch of songs.  You should always know what key you are playing in and what strings, pedals, levers will produce the proper chords to accompany the song.

Dan Burnham

All of the Gospel songs and early Country would be great for beginners. Gospel songs like Amazing Grace, Victory in Jesus, Sweet Hour of Prayer are all good songs to learn to play melody, for fills I would recommend songs like A Way to Survive, For the Good Times.

Don Sulesky

You will want to start off with songs you know. This will be of great help to you because you will know the melody. Simple songs such as Amazing Grace, Mansion on the Hill, Please Release Me, Born to Lose or several of Hank Williams old tunes with 3 chords are a good place to start.         The Steel Guitar Forum on the internet has a wealth of information where new players and old seasoned players exchange ideas and tips.

Lionel Wendling

Play what you like, as you can play anything on the steel you decide what you want to play. At first of course make it simple.

 

5. What kind of bar and picks should I use?

Bobby Lee

The most common pedal steel bar is 7/8" in diameter.  Try that first.  If it feels too light, too heavy or just plain awkward in your hand, try something else.  There is no "one size fits all".

I use a Zookie thumb pick and National finger picks.  My hand is used to that.  I don't have any recommendation for beginners other than to try everything you can and stick with what feels best.

Mike Perlowin

The real question is what size bar should I use, and the answer is whatever feels most comfortable to you. It’s totally subjective. I use Dunlop .025 picks, but again, this is totally a matter of personal preference. They all work.

Jerry Knapper

Whatever is affordable. Usually a plastic thumb pick works better than a metal thumb pick and usually metal finger picks work the best. This for the best tone. The brand is immaterial, as long as they are comfortable and stay on the finger. Bars should be comfortable to the hand and easily moved. Too heavy a bar may offer a better tone at first, but not teach one to use down pressure for tone. Also a heavy bar usually causes one to swing the bar between frets instead of moving it correctly over a fret. Too small or light a bar can cause buzzing sounds and unstable movement.

Ernie Renn

Normally, I use a BJS bar. I lightly sprained my wrist a while back and have been using a hollow one for the past year. I still use National finger picks. I don't have many of them left, so I have a box of Kyser picks that I bent to my fingers and have in waiting. For thumb picks I use anything with a fairly small blade and snuggly fits on my thumb. I used to use the blue Herco ones, but old ones hard to find. The new ones I find get warm and loose pretty quick. I think the ones I'm using at the moment are John Pearse and have a white Fred Kelly Slick Pick laying on the guitar, too.

Larry Bell

Within limits it's a matter of personal preference.  I use BJS chrome plated bars and Dunlop picks, but other brands can work fine.  I believe that stainless steel strings work better with a chromed steel bar like the BJS.  Nickel steel strings work fine with stainless or chromed bars.  The BJS is expensive but that brand is among the most popular with pro players.  You will find a few players who don't use fingerpicks, but the vast majority of steel guitar music you hear will be played with a steel bar -- chromed or stainless -- and metal fingerpicks such as Jim Dunlop or National brand.  For Dobro/resophonic the Stevens steel bar style, also made by Dunlop and Shubb, are the most popular among the pros.

Dan Burnham

I prefer BJS Bars. For me, their finish provides a better grip, fill and control. Regarding picks I like Perfect Touch, and Nationals.

Don Sulesky

This is up for grabs because all players have their own preference. It also depends on whether you play a Dobro, non-pedal steel or a pedal steel guitar. There are many brands to choose from for bars and picks. Many players use a 3/4” or 15/16” diameter bar. My personal bars are made by James Burden of “Bullet Bars”. I use Dunlop & National finger picks and exchange them from time to time. Thumb picks are a personal choice of steel players and there are many brands to choose from.

Lionel Wendling

For the bar use the standard bars that everybody uses. For the picks you have to find what fits you the best and that might take a little time. You have to use hard metal picks and a thumb pick.

 

6. What other essential equipment do I need and should I get it new or used?

Bobby Lee

A good volume pedal that's designed for steel.  I prefer the Goodrich pot pedal because they are simple.  Volume pedals made for guitar have the jacks in the wrong place, have a strange taper and aren't designed for continuous use.

Mike Perlowin

An amp, and a volume pedal, preferably one that’s made for steel and not guitar or keyboards. The amp should have reverb. Used stuff is OK if it works. I have some stuff I bought new and some used.

Jerry Knapper

Buy whatever is affordable. A person with the will and desire to play a steel, no matter what kind, will make music from any piece of stringed instrument. Sure, a decently designed steel, especially a pedal steel, prevents many of the problems one may have with tuning, so one should not just by a piece of junk, but there are a lot of good used steels on the market and many are even home made.

Ernie Renn

Obviously a volume pedal and an amp. Used is fine at first. At some point it's good to try a few things and see what suits you best. There are lots of varieties of volume pedals and even more so with amps. Find which ones you like the best and can afford. You'll also need an amplifier. As with the pedal try a few to see what suits you best and get the best you can afford. The better the quality the longer it'll last and the greater the resale value. BUT get something YOU like the sound of. 

Larry Bell

The minimum for pedal steel is:

Guitar --  a 10 string pedal steel with 3 pedals and 3 or 4 knee levers

Picks and Bar -- see above

Volume Pedal -- the Hilton and Telonics pedals are the Cadillac and Mercedes and are the best for those who have the money.  Goodrich pedals are a mid-priced alternative. Still $200 or so new, but less than half the price of Hilton and Telonics.  Remember that a pedal designed for standard guitar (like some Dunlop or Ernie Ball pedals) may be too tall to fit under your guitar with your foot on the pedal.  Also remember that the input/output jacks should be on the right side of the pedal.

Amplifier - for a practice amp, most any decent guitar amp is fine.  For playing with a band, an amp designed for steel guitar is better.  Peavey has made several models of steel amp.  The original Session 400 is one of my personal favorites. Although it hasn't been made for decades, there are always used Peavey steel amps available.  I have owned the Session 400, Session 500, Nashville 112, Nashville 400, Vegas 400 and all were excellent high power solid state amps. I like tube amps and, when I started playing in the 70s the Fender Twin was the industry standard.  A Deluxe Reverb is a bit underpowered for gigs, IMHO.  If you are playing country music, a Marshall or other amp designed for distortion is not a good idea.  Most steel amps use a 15" speaker, but 12s are also sometimes used.

Effects -- most steel players use reverb -- often only amp reverb.  Reverb can soften your sound but can also take away from the attack and crispness of the sound if too much is used.  Delay can also be used with taste and discretion.  Other effects (chorus, distortion, flanger, etc.) can be cool, but not for beginners.  I RECOMMEND THAT BEGINNERS PRACTICE WITH NO EFFECTS.  Veterans will figure out themselves how much is too much, but if you sound like you're at the bottom of a cave you will lose all note projection and clarity.

Cables -- a 3' cable to connect the guitar to the volume pedal and a 10' cable from the volume pedal to the amplifier.

For pedal steel, a seat that is the appropriate height is very important.  The Pak-a-Seat was originated in the 1960s by Duane Marrs at Sho-Bud.  It is the proper height and provides storage for picks, bars, cables, and other stuff.

Dan Burnham

Invest in a good steel seat, a good volume pedal, a good amp, a Peterson flip tuner, and good cables.  Playing steel can be an expensive venture, like many other players I’m not made of money so I had to save to get what I wanted.  Remember you get what you pay for.

Don Sulesky

You will need to purchase an amplifier. The volume pedal is a necessary item which should be on your list of equipment. New or used depends on your budget. You can get pedals such as the Goodrich which uses a potentiometer. It is a very popular pedal with many players today. Many players also use the Hilton pedal. More expensive, but in the long run you are not changing the potentiometer when it gets noisy. You will need several guitar chords of different lengths. You will need a short chord from the guitar to the pedal and a longer one from the pedal to the amplifier.

Lionel Wendling

A volume pedal is essential right away. Used or new will do it.

 

7. How can I network with other steel guitar players?

Bobby Lee

Join The Steel Guitar Forum - http://steelguitarforum.com - it's the largest community of steel guitarists in the world.

Mike Perlowin

Again, the steel guitar forum.

Jerry Knapper

Join a local steel guitar club. If one doesn't exist, do like I did and start one. Don't be a smarty about your skills. As you humbly and sincerely approach a learned steel player they usually will help you.

Ernie Renn

I suppose via Facebook, email and I've heard that a few players are using Skype for lessons. 

Larry Bell

Three words:  STEEL GUITAR FORUM http://www.steelguitarforum.com

Bobby Lee, of Santa Rosa, California, has hosted the Forum since 1996.  There are 13,243 members (today:  7/9/2013) from around the world.  Do yourself a favor and become the next member.  There are members who are among the elite pro players (Paul Franklin, Buddy Emmons, Mike Johnson, Steve Hinson -- all Nashville guys you hear on records), veteran local and regional players, beginners and non-player enthusiasts from every continent except Antarctica.

The Forum has sections for Pedal Steel, Nonpedal Steel, Items for Sale, and many other topics.  If you are looking for a used steel guitar or amp -- or any other music related item, Buy/Sell on the Forum is a great place to start.

Members may send each other private messages and engage in (often rather animated) discussions or just enjoy and learn from others' discussions.  You can be as visible or invisible as you wish.  Full membership is $5.  Best deal on the internet.

Dan Burnham

Steel Guitar Forum www.steelguitarforum.com it cost $5.00 for a lifetime membership.  Worth every penny!  The downside to the forum is  you will find some guys on there that will speak with authority with no experience to back up their statements.  You will find that with any forum but overall it’s excellent.

Don Sulesky

Check out your area where you live for a steel guitar club. Almost every state in the USA has some type of steel guitar club. There are steel clubs in the UK as well. The Steel Guitar Forum on the internet is a great place to share and learn about the steel guitar. A search on the internet for online steel guitar sites is another option.

Lionel Wendling

With internet to connect with other players is really easy: steel guitar forums, home pages etc...

 

8. Were there any methods or things you did that helped the learning process of playing steel guitars?

Bobby Lee

I made my own fretboard charts to learn where the notes and chords are.  You don't learn anything from staring at someone else's charts. The act of drawing a fretboard chart yourself helps you to see the recurring patterns.

Mike Perlowin

I was already a working musician when I took up the steel. I mostly played the guitar, and gradually worked the steel in on a few tunes at first, then a few more, till I played steel on almost everything.

Jerry Knapper

When I started, Freeman Cowgar had written some beginner books which I used to get started. I also used some books and records that DeWitt Scott put out. In 1989 I wrote, "Beginner basics for the steel guitar". Now there are several steel learning books on the market.

Ernie Renn

Three things: Practice, Practice, Practice. Sounds kinda corny and cliché, but it's so very true. The more you refine your playing with practice the better you 'should' get. 

Larry Bell

I was a pretty good guitarist when I began playing pedal steel at age 24.  I knew what it should sound like and had studied music theory pretty thoroughly.  I played steel 'on paper' for months before I bought one.  I knew exactly what to do.  Once I brought one home on a Wednesday, I played about half and half guitar and steel for two or three club gigs that weekend -- and pretty regularly thereafter with very few weekends off.  After a month or so I left my standard guitar at home and started thinking of myself as a steel player.  Don't get me wrong -- I SOUNDED TERRIBLE, but, thanks to the patience of my bandmates, my learning process was more a matter of honing skills rather than developing them.  

I have had three formal steel guitar lessons in my life.  The first was with Danny Dunn, a Nashville player who had just come off the road with Charley Pride.  The take-home message was a revelation:  how to play major chords in three different fret positions.  GMajor chords live at the 3rd fret with no pedals; at the 6th fret with the A pedal and the knee lever that raises 4 and 8 to F; and at the 10th fret with A+B pedals.  Same strings work for all three positions so you can play strings 8,6,5 at the third fret to get a GMaj chord with G on the bottom.  If you play 6,5,4 you get the same G chord with B on top.  (remember, a GMaj chord = G B D == the 1st 3rd and 5th notes of the G scale) That is called an INVERSION.  You can invert once more by playing 5,4,3 = D G B. The top note keeps getting higher...

NOW... here's what Danny taught me.

You can do the same thing using pedal and knee lever changes and you can slide the bar between positions. Play 8,6,5 at the 3rd fret, then slide to the 6th fret, engaging the A pedal and the E to F knee lever -- it's the same as if you played 6,5,4!  Slide to the 10th fret and let off the E to F lever and engage the B pedal along with the A. That's the inversion with B on top -- same as 5,4,3 at the 3rd fret. THERE ARE MORE licks and ideas coming from that concept than most any other I can think of on E9.  It is the FIRST EPIPHANY. LEARN IT THOROUGHLY. Learn it going up, going down, playing all 3 notes at once or making a pattern of single notes. Use any of the strings that comprise a major chord == i.e., 10, 8, 6, 5, 4 == any combination of those notes are in a major chord. 10 and 5, 8 and 4, and 6 and 3 are each an octave apart.

My next couple of lessons were a few years later -- just at the right time to put me on the right track to being able to play uptempo stuff cleanly and precisely.  My last 2 lessons were with Mike Smith who was the steel guitarist in Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers.  You're probably not ready for that stuff yet.

This was my musical journey, coming from a solid musical background.  It can be more challenging if you have to learn all that stuff AND the steel guitar, but I know many who only play steel guitar -- and do it very well.

Dan Burnham

For learning licks you will need to get some computer software like “Best Practice” that allows you to slow down licks in order to learn them.  It is free, and allows the user to slow down the licks in order to learn them.  Band in a Box, is excellent for creating tracks to play along with.

Don Sulesky

When I took up the pedal steel in the early 70’s I found a Winnie Winston book on the pedal steel guitar. I read it from cover to cover to get a feel for the pedal steel and how it works. I had at this time been playing guitar for about 15 years so I understood chord structure and could sight read music. This I felt was an advantage for me because I could hear the different chords as I progressed on the pedal steel.

It is not necessary to know how to read music to play the pedal steel because most all the learning books today use what is known as tab. It shows you where to place your fingers to play the strings on the steel and when to use the pedals to change the pitch of a string or combination of strings to make chords.                                                                                                                                             I spent many hours writing out chord charts. I found by writing them out I could see how the chords were constructed and that I could find the same chord in many places on the steel. This worked well for me and I suggest this also to my students.

With the pace today, many of my students just want to learn songs. This is all well and good to some degree because it keeps them interested in the steel. Although I do find this to be a block in their learning the steel to its fullest . Most can play a song but cannot sit and play with others. The most fun there can be for a player is to sit in with a band or friends and jam.

Lionel Wendling

As I started music with classical music I used the classical approach to learn: techniques (scales, fingering, metronome, etc...) regular practicing (it is better to practice a little bit every day than 2 hours one day) learn an instrumental, listen the steel guitar albums, pick out steel guitar licks from albums without a tab (use your ear).

 

9. What is your favorite thing about steel guitars?

Bobby Lee

Having total control over the pitch of every note. 

Mike Perlowin

I love the sheer complexity of it. I also love the fact that as a guitar player, I’m one of a hundred billion, but as a steel player, I am somewhat unique.

Jerry Knapper

Sound. Music is the expression of the heart and emotion. I can get that from a regular guitar or a piano or several other instruments, but the pedal steel almost enables me to speak, like the clarinet did for Benny Goodman.

Ernie Renn

The sound and the feeling it creates is amazing. 

Dan Burnham

Everything, the way it sounds and feels!

Don Sulesky

Without question, “The Sound”, it is like nothing else in this world. It has no limit to what you can play on it. In the hands of such masters as Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, Paul Franklin and the late John Hughey among others the sound of this magical instrument fills the air.

Lionel Wendling

The pedal steel guitar is the only instrument that lowers a note and raises another one without picking. If you catch that you will open your mind, your ears and become a real steel player...

 

10. Additional tips or words of wisdom.

Bobby Lee

Don't think of the steel guitar as a country sound effect.  It's much more than that.  You can play any kind of music on a steel guitar.  The electronic effects that are available today expand the steel guitarist's music palette.  I especially like using Leslie effects for organ sounds, distortion and phase shifing for rock slide parts, and wah for reggae and R&B lead lines.

Also, don't think that the tuning limits you to a specific style.  E9th is best known for country flavors, but I've heard plenty of jazz, rock and even Hawaiian music on E9th.  Jerry Garcia played E9th steel with the Grateful Dead.  Music is made of notes, and all of the notes are there in any tuning.

Mike Perlowin

Once again, check out the steel guitar forum. You will find the answers to every possible question there.

Jerry Knapper

I started on a Sho-Bud Maverick with three pedals and one knee. Had I started with 3 pedals and 3 or 4 knees I could have learned faster. Now days, I tell people if they are just starting on a steel, consider a 12 string with at least 3 pedals and 5 knees or 7 or 8 pedals and 5 knees. In doing so, you have few limitations, and can still start out simple. It is more difficult to learn on a 6 or 10 string and then jump to a 12 than developing a feel for it immediately.

Also, learn to play single note scales and group scales and practice them over and over again to develop a feel for the instrument. Do this while watching TV or some other thing going on so you can learn it in the subconscious brain instead of just the conscious part of thought.

Unless you are going to play with someone immediately, don't be too concerned with the tone you get. Let that develop. A lot of the great tones you hear come from a person's fingers, not the amp, or even the steel.

All modern steels are good. There are very few bad ones if any. Buy that which is affordable and attempt to develop your own style as you hear it in your head.

Ernie Renn

As I said earlier, practice, practice, practice! Watch and listen to a variety of players. Take your favorite traits of each player and add it to your arsenal. Then combine all the traits into what and/or how you want to play. 

Something Speedy West once told me. I told him I was intimidated by Buddy Emmons. He said that I needed to remember that I was the only person who plays the way I do. Nobody else plays exactly like you. (I told him, like anybody would want to). 

Also, An e-mail I sent to Buddy one night when a light went on in my head. I wrote:

"This may sound stupid to you, but: I just realized you are "THE" Buddy Emmons.  The same guy that I've been trying to play like for an untold amount of years.  The same guy that designed, IMHO, the best damned steel guitar, yet.  The same guy that played with Dickens, ET and Price. I mean I knew that you were you, but something just clicked in my head. Sometimes, it just floors me.  Also, I wonder why it is, when I e-mail you, I can say just about anything and when I'm there in person, I get tongue-tied.  I'm at a loss."

He replied: "I don't know what to say Ernie. All I can suggest is that you gather your wits and treat me as you would any other great person." I still laugh every time I think about it.

One final note: A friend asked me for a few tips to help his playing. He had been playing for about two years. I told him a few things he could do, ending with the suggestion to go to a jam session or two. He said he was chicken to do that. I said why you know a bunch of tunes? He said, "What if they play a song in a different key than I know it in?" I told him if he knew a song in D and they played it in C to move it two frets lower. If it was in E then two frets higher. To transpose. He replied, "You can do that?" I told him you certainly could. It was like a blind man seeing for the first time...

Dan Burnham

Playing steel is a marriage.  You get out of it what you put into it.  The more time you spend with it the better you get.  There is no such thing as cheating seat time behind it.  It is a love hate relationship.  Most days, she “my steel is a girl, lol Daisy May” kicks my butt, but it’s when you finally master the lick you have been working on, that is the reward of the effort, that is when you love it.

Don Sulesky

If you decide you want to learn to play the steel or any of its formats it will take hours of dedication. In the long run it will give you back more joy than you have ever known. It is a great way to lessen stress, meet others who have the same likes as you and have fun. Find a teacher if you can to learn the basics.

No matter what your skill level when learning get out there and jam with others. If you find friends who are willing to let you join their band, give it a go. You will only get better with practice, practice and more practice. Write out chords charts even though you may have some already at hands. Seeing the chords as you write them down is a great way to remember them. I still do it after 40 years of playing. You will never know all there is to playing the pedal steel. One of many  reasons it is such a fantastic and addictive instrument.

Keep Pickin’, Don Sulesky

Lionel Wendling

For me the steel guitar is a full time job instrument able to play any kind of music. It is not (for me) only a "cliché" of country music (which does not mean that I don't like to play country music). Just play the steel in the music you like.

 

Contributors

Jerry Knapper

I started playing steel in 1976. I loved the long crescendos that guys like John Hughey did. I also loved the emotion one could put into the music played on a steel. In 1987 I became a Regional Sales Manager for St. Louis Music. This took me into stores throughout Arkansas and Oklahoma. I soon noticed that not many had steel guitars in their stores. I noted those that did. In 1989 I had cancer and while laid up I wrote a beginners book, since I could not find one simplified enough to teach from. Shortly thereafter, after the Oklahoma Steel Guitar Club folded, Doyle Huff and I decided to arouse an interest in starting the Oklahoma Steel Guitar Association, which exists to this day. After I moved to Tahlequah, OK, I started another club there. Eight or nine years later I started the Arklahoma Steel Guitar club with some friends in the Roland, OK, Ft. Smith, Ar area which I am still a part of. I retired in 2010, but had several years where I referred many students and club members to places to people to buy their steel guitar. After retiring, I bought up the Boen Steel Guitar company and built some laps steels and have reconditioned many pedal steel for different players. It is no longer a business, but a hobby to promote the steel guitar and its music and help inspire new players.

 

Dan Burham

You can learn more about Dan from the following sites:

www.danburnham.com – my personal site giving the reader information about me and my music.  You will find interesting information about Julian Tharpe and my new tuning called the Juni10.

www.beckmusicalinstruments.com – I work for BMI in sales.  I have been with them for 13 years.

www.vintagevibeaudio.com – Our newest project.  This AMP will blow your mind. 

 

Don Sulesky President, Florida Steel Guitar Club

Don has been a member of the  Pedal Steel Guitar Association out of Floral Park, NY for nearly 40 years and has had several of his Steel Guitar Tabs of complete songs and licks published in the PSGA Newsletter. In 2003 he received the prestigious "2003 Appreciation Award" from the Pedal Steel Guitar Association for his many years of contributions to furthering the Pedal Steel Guitar and its teachings.

He started playing guitar in 1958 and played the R&R songs of that era and moved on to Folk music in the 60's, then to the Country Rock of the Eagles ,the Marshal Tucker Band and to Willie, Waylon and Merle Haggard in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s he worked with bands doing weddings and banquets as lead singer and guitarist in his home state of Massachusetts.

In recent years in Florida he has played Guitar, Dobro, Pedal Steel, Bass and Mandolin and vocals in the “Country Travelers Band” in which they covered Traditional Country, Bluegrass, Canadian and Cajun Music. He is the Steel Guitar player for the "Back Porch Band" and "Country Sunshine Band" covering Classis Country Music. On occasion, he also sat in with the local Jazz Society Bands and played Pedal Steel with them. He also played several gigs with a local Hawaiian Band.

His main influences in steel are Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons, Rusty Young, Ralph Mooney, Herb Remington, Paul Franklin, Joe Wright, Herby Wallace, John Hughey  and of course, Jeff Newman in which he attended seven of his seminars in the 1990's.

His four CDs, "Bummin' Around" ,"Takin' Life Easy", "Shenandoah" and " Favorite Requests" are presently featured on Mike Gross'  Swingin' West Radio Show, KSEY out of Seymour, Texas and pod-cast on his web site www.swinginwest.com , and on  the worldwide web and Internet radio stations in Europe.

He now has several instructional E9th Tab Manuals for sale and has several students on steel and guitar which keeps him busy when he is not playing with the bands and  the Florida Steel Guitar Club of which his is the residing president.

Both his CD’s and Steel Guitar Instructional Material can be had by contacting him thru his email or his web site. Email is, dsulesky@tampabay.rr.com   web site is, www.donzpedalsteel.com

Information of time and place for the Florida Steel Guitar Club Jams can be found on the club’s web page. www.floridasteelguitarclub.com