Steel Guitar help!

Just saw some posts on newly acquired steel guitar that inspired this. Instead of taking up space in another thread, here it is!

I have a growing interest in steel guitar. I think some really exciting sounds and expressivity can come from this instrument. But where to begin? Is there any thing that players would recommend for a first model?

Thanks so much!

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@lowellgoss might have some tips for us.

I have been investigating making a DIY-excessively-augmented table-top slide guitar lately, and was discussing it with the guitar tech at the local music big box shop. He recommended that, if I already had a normal electric guitar, the cheapest-easiest path to testing out a steel/slide guitar is to buy a slide nut riser, like this:

https://www.stewmac.com/Materials_and_Supplies/Nuts_and_Saddles/Slide_Guitar_Extension_Nut.html

This plus a glass slide came in at around 15-20 euro, and indeed, the guitar tech was right: it’s a super quick shortcut to slide vibes, without having to worry about making a big investment.

It’s not a perfect replacement, as lap steel guitars typically have a shorter scale than a standard electric, but it’s a good start.

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If it was my posts you’re referring to then I’m glad you found them inspiring :blush::blush::blush:

I’ve been playing steel guitar for a few years now and while I’m self-taught and I haven’t played many guitars at all to compare, I hope I can at least bring a few tips or observations:

It’s an instrument family, not really a singular instrument. Dobro and pedal steel have pretty different techniques for example. I’d recommend researching different types of steel guitar as they all sound and play differently and there’s a lot of beautiful music out there with steel guitar in it. I started with an electric lapsteel and I think it’s perhaps the easiest and definitely the cheapest to start with.

Lapsteel guitars are (or at least can be) a lot less complex than Spanish guitars to manufacture. You don’t have frets to deal with and intonation is done by the player manually with the bar, so cheap budget steel guitars are a lot more playable than you might expect. It’s a good way to see if the instrument is for you or not.
Things to watch out for are machine heads and electronics but if you only want an instrument to practice on, these are great.

If you want a good lapsteel I’d look for a used vintage one. Pricing and availability depend a lot on where you live (North America is king when it comes to steel guitar in general) but if you look around you can surely get one for a good price.

The lapsteel I have is a Peavey Powerslide, which was kind of a mistake in retrospect as it’s made out of some type of glass fiber, giving it very little sustain. I also have very little use for its humbucker mode.

If you’re coming from a guitar background, the only technique that translates is the right hand if you play fingerstyle. The “guitar” in the name is more historical than descriptive though it seems to have led to a lot of guitarists playing steel with little or no practice or understanding of the instrument as well as quite a bit of online content that teaches what at least in my opinion is bad technique (even moreso than my personal bad habits). Just please be wary about some YouTube tutorials, especially ones that tell you to play with a plectrum or do it “in the style of” someone who’s known for playing another instrument.

I seriously recommend you get a real steel or tonebar. Things like guitar slides or other objects often don’t have the the weight to produce a nice sustain and don’t press down on the strings as easily.
There are different styles of steel that are good for different styles of playing and I can’t make a strong recommendation either way. I like the grip of a dobro-style tonebar but I can see the benefit of a cylindrical steel for things like slants. I like a rounded tip because they don’t snag when transitioning between strings as easily.

Tune however you want but conventional tunings such as C6 for the instrument are really useful and beautiful. I stubbornly started out tuning to a repeating minor chord (ACEACE) but realized just how much I was missing by not just adding the extra G for occasional major chords, 6th or 7th chords.
It’s really fun to experiment with any kind of tuning though.

If you’re more looking for a pedal steel sound, you can still approximate it with techniques such as bending strings or bar slants. It’s not even close to what a pedal steel can do but it’s far less of a money/time investment. If you want advice specifically for pedal steel, @Pineyb gave me a lot of needed pointers.
I still appreciate all the time I put into learning lapsteel before going to pedal steel. It would have been overwhelming having to learn the basic techniques on top of all the complexity to do with the pedals and knee-levers.

I also recommend a volume pedal. It’s not necessary at all for lapsteel but it’s so beautiful and expressive. For steel guitar what you need is one with an extremely light action. You’re playing sitting down so you have less weight to exercise on the pedal and there are a lot of volume pedal techniques specific to steel guitar that require a swift foot. It takes a while to learn but I love using it.

I hope at least some of that was useful. I don’t consider myself an authority (anyone who feel they know more, please pitch in) but I’ve been playing for about half a decade now and have at least acquired some type of perspective on some of these things, as insular as it may be.

…and have fun! :blush:

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I’ve been playing pedal steel since the late 1970s. I’ll be happy to answer questions about getting started here. There is also a lot of information on the Steel Guitar Forum… although it can be confusing for beginners as there are many conflicting viewpoints on technique, tuning, and gear. Kinda like MW for steel guitar.:grin:

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I do have a question about E9, actually!

My guitar seems be set up differently from most E9 charts I see in that the knee levers that control the E to F and E to D# are LKL and RKL respectively, rather than LKL and LKR. Does this have any advantages at all or am I missing out on some useful chords or licks by keeping this configuration?

That’s one of those personal preference things. There are advantages and disadvantages for each setup. Buddy Emmons went with Both E changes on the left

Quoting Buddy on his choice:

It’s wasting a spot for a lever, wasting a knee. We would never engage both E’s at the same time so put them on ONE leg . Use the OTHER knee for another alternative pull which may be used in conjunction with either of the E’s. One leg/knee = 3 or 4 pedals and 3 levers, RKL, LKL and VK.

Paul Franklin splits the changes like you have. Most folks with the split change like the smooth transition from the D# to the F that you get with the split.

It is also a common practice to lower the Es on right knee if you play 12 string Universal tuning. It frees up the left leg to use the C6 pedals. I play Uni, but still keep both changes on the left knee.

I also frequently use the left knee going right to lower Es while simultaneously lowering the 6th string G# to F# on the right knee going left for an alternate V chord at the no pedals root position.
I.e. using strings 45&6 at the 3rd fret
No pedals = a G major chord
A+B pedals = C major
No pedals + LKR & RKL = D major

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Also, eBow on a lap steel is my not-at-all-secret secret weapon. It’s lovely…

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