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Introduction To Pedal Steel Country Guitar

May 6, 2008
The pedal steel guitar tunings currently in common use hinder the acceptance of the instrument in musical forms other than American "Country" music. An alternate tuning based on the natural C scale is proposed and explained.


The pedal steel guitar is a truly amazing musical instrument. It is one of the few instruments that can easily produce any note in the micro-tonal spectrum. Many musical instruments are limited to the notes of the twelve tone musical scale of the piano keyboard. Some instruments can produce notes that fall in between those tones as special effects ("bending" a note), but few can produce those "in-between" notes as easily and predictably as a fretless stringed instrument.

Like the violin, the pedal steel places the precise pitch of each note in the hand of the performer. But even the violin cannot produce full micro-tuned chords - it is limited to two-note harmony (the "double stop") by the curvature of its bridge. The pedal steel has no such limitation. The full potential of the pedal steel includes chordal music subtleties that cannot be performed on any other single instrument.

Why, then, is this remarkable instrument largely ignored by the international music community? The answer lies in the musical tastes of the Americans who invented the pedal steel and pushed the mechanical technology to its current advanced state, and in the large American subculture that appropriated certain pedal steel effects for its own music, called "country" or "country and western".

By and large, the best pedal steel guitarists in the world are the professional players of country music. This de facto association is one factor that works to the detriment of general acceptance of the instrument, but it is not the only factor. The tuning of the instrument makes it very easy to play American country music at the expense of most other musical forms.

The Technical Limitation

The standard E9th or "Nashville" tuning used on most pedal steels today is specifically designed for the country and western genre. This tuning spans an octave in the space of 5 strings. Pedals and knee levers are engaged to produce the remaining notes of a standard diatonic scale. Scale-based runs that include glisses or "bends" to get from one note of the scale to the next are a characteristic effect used in country music. Specifically, the whole tone bend is an effect that is used to excess. It is a recognizable ingredient of the "country sound", even to a casual listener.

Avoiding the whole tone bend effect is a major performance challenge for anyone playing the Nashville tuning. Even for the intermediate level player, fast scale-based melody work remains difficult. Some written passages seem to be beyond the capabilities of the instrument, especially if note bends are not to be permitted. In theory, the pedal steel guitarist should be able to play the right hand part of any piano piece. In practice, the Nashville tuning compromises that ideal.

An Historic Parallel

The pedal steel is a direct ancestor of the Hawaiian electric steel guitar. During its most popular period (the 1930's through the 1950's) the Hawaiian guitar progressed from primitive major chord tunings to tunings based on jazz or swing chords. The sound of those advanced chordal tunings became part of the stereotyping of the instrument in Hawaiian and "western" (as in "country and western") music.

In the 1960's Jerry Byrd, an acknowledged master of the instrument, was approached with a project of difficult Japanese pop music. To accomplish the required degree of melodic expression, Byrd chose to use a scale-based, rather than chord-based, tuning. He called this 7-string tuning a "C Diatonic".

The Japanese album, later released in the USA by the Steel Guitar Record Club, was called Steel Guitar Romantic World. The music profoundly broke the Hawaiian steel guitar stereotype. It did not hint at any Hawaiian or "western" music flavor, because it did not use the characteristic major 6th and dominant 9th chords of those styles.

Within Jerry Byrd's C Diatonic tuning, the next melody or harmony note is usually within easy reach from the fret of the current note. This means that the placement of glisses in the melody can be determined by the arranger or performer, rather than by limitations imposed by the tuning of the instument. In skilled hands, the resultant effect can be a striking departure from the "old timey" flavor most listeners expect from the Hawaiian electric steel guitar.
About the Author
E Walker is the founder of Planet of Rock. If you love country or contemporary music, download country karaoke mp3? tracks at our site. We have the best karaoke country song for singing or guitar playing.
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