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What do I need to know about learning the pedal steel guitar?
June 10, 2009 6:50 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in learning to play the pedal steel guitar, what do I need to know?

I know absolutely nothing about it, except that I'm told that it is hard to learn, which is one of the reasons that I want to learn to play it. I also love the way it sounds. How much do these things cost? Do they make student models? What are some good models? What will lessons run me? What are some good websites I should be looking at? Any other tips for starting out are welcome, thank you!
posted by MaryDellamorte to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
From my husband:
I bought a used pedal steel for $200 about 10 years ago. But good luck finding a used one. New models of a Carter pedal steel start at $2195 new. But the prices can quickly get steeper. If you want more than a basic setup (3 pedals and one knee lever), get ready to pay $150 more per pedal.

Sho-Bud is the Rolls Royce of pedal steels, and priced accordingly ($3000 and up). Emmons (http://www.emmonsguitar.net) is another good manufacturer, and also quite expensive. Carter is the most reasonably priced manufacturer, and they are the ones where the $2195 quote for a basic model above came from.

I'd suggest starting off with a simple lap steel in order to get familiar with string blocking, damping and slide techniques. There is an awful lot involved with learning to play any type of steel guitar, and you'd save a lot of money by buying a lap steel (usually 6 strings and no pedals). that will give you a good indication as to whether you want to take the next step to pedal steel. It is very difficult to learn. I had about 15 years of slide guitar and lap steel experience, and it took me better than a year to get a basic grasp of how a pedal steel worked.
posted by kellyblah at 7:28 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


The learning curve is STEEP. I know and have played with a number of steel players and I can tell you they're just wired differently.

Carter Starters are 800-900 bucks BTW.
posted by sourwookie at 7:43 PM on June 10, 2009


They tend to come in one of 2 tunings: Em9, which is your "crying lonesome" sound and C6, which is more of a Western swing thing. Pro models will have both "slabs."
posted by sourwookie at 7:45 PM on June 10, 2009


You play with both hands, both knees and both feet. It's very technical and yeah, the learning curve is huge. Some musical experience (guitar, piano) seems like a must.

My brother had a Sho-Bud, and I messed around with it a little. The E9 neck is easier, since it's more like a regular guitar tuning. You CAN get a single-neck one.

My brother took lessons from Red Rhodes, one of the pioneers, but he gave it up. I imagine that if you live in any sort of large city, you can find lessons. Also go to where steel players gig, and you can pick their brains, and maybe sign up for a lesson. Most players who are not rich and famous give lessons, and a lot of the famous ones also do, because it's hard to get rich playing steel.

BTW, a good amp for these is a Fender Twin.
posted by Danf at 8:34 PM on June 10, 2009


My dad is a steel player who taught me a little bit and lent me some instruments to play around with a few years ago. (A single-neck EMCI, and a double-neck MSA.) I decided it wasn't for me in the end, but it was fun to learn a bit about.

There aren't a lot of books to help you learn to play pedal steel, but I can vouch for this book, which is pretty comprehensive. The guy who wrote it founded the international pedal steel players' convention which happens each year in St. Louis. There is also a forum where there's lots of good advice, and sometimes you can find good instruments for sale there, too. The community is pretty small! There aren't a lot of steel players around.

Carter Starters are okay to begin with, but the one I noodled around on at a music store felt pretty flimsy, so I don't know how happy you'd be with one in the long run. A better bet might be a used EMCI or Emmons or MSA if you can find one in good shape. (Those are a few of the main brand names, and they are good; the cadillac-type fancy expensive steel guitar makers I know of are Fulawka and Fessenden.)

An excellent steel player named Bobby Black made some instructional DVDs that my father adores, but I can't find them for sale anywhere online (he probably got them in St. Louis).
posted by bewilderbeast at 9:24 PM on June 10, 2009


For inspiration, I recommend listening to Dave Easley. He is absolutely formidable, and completely changed the way I thought about pedal steel. Try to catch him live if you can, he is a genius at improvisation. http://www.myspace.com/davefeasley
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 10:33 PM on June 10, 2009


I used to have a couple (used Sho-Bud and MSA, both were $400-500 range) and they were a pain to keep tuned, oiled, calibrated, etc. when compared to regular guitars, but they're pretty fun to play. Mine were both ten-string three-pedals and I set them up in E9 with standard pedal controls.

It's honestly pretty easy (or at least it was for me) to tease some pedal-steel-y riffs out of one within a few minutes, if it's set up right and you've got experience playing guitar as it is. The characteristic sound of a pedal steel is one note bending up or down while another note sustains, and it's why a lap steel just doesn't sound the same as a pedal.

The most common pedal setup is to raise the B to C# and the G# to A - along with the open E notes, these give you movement from the I to IV chord without moving the slide, or move from an E major to Esus4, etc. (The E9 tuning gives you an open I, V, and vi chord.)
posted by rubadub at 9:13 AM on June 15, 2009


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