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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Does anyone know what the best affordable option for a case to use for a single neck pedal steel guitar? My pedal steel didn’t come with a case when I bought it and since I live in Europe I don’t think looking for a specialized or original case would be useful.

Right now it seems like getting some kind of keyboard case that fits the dimensions of it would be the best option but perhaps there are some potential complications I might not be thinking about. I’ve never transported this thing since I bought it.

Anyone who knows about good, cheap cases that could fit 91x15x20 cm plus a bit more, not just for steel guitar but in general, feel free to respond.

A number of people are using the SKB 3614 case. It kind of depends on the steel dimensions.
There is a company that will make a custom gig bag for your axe… prices are pretty reasonable.

https://studioslips.com/

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Since I saw this thread popping here:

I always loved the sound of pedal steel guitar, but never really got one. (I play left handed and live in Europe)

I’d recommend looking into B-Benders for electric guitars. It gets you at least into this territory.

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A few years back I got heavily into some of the 60’s country rock crossover bands like the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, etc and went through a huge spell of trying my hardest to basically ape Clarence White. I got B-Bender installed in my Tele even. It’s a great sound, it kinda sounds like steel but it is it’s own thing too. More recently, last few years, I started playing lapsteel, and that’s a whole other beast. But I’m finally feeling decent on it. I’m not really trying to do much country stuff on it now, but more Lanois style things… I find it blends beautifully with the synths.
When I started playing I borrowed my friend’s 50’s Supro, and it was very nice, had that pickup that Ry Cooder puts in his Strats. I ended up getting a lap from Amazon when I had to give that back, it’s an SX, and honestly it sounds pretty great. Only thing I did was replace the pickup with Dynasonic style pickup from Guitarfetish.

I started with C6, and I’ve moved to a diatonic variation of that tuning… CEGBDF. I’m finding I really like this.

I’ve actually been considering a single neck pedal steel as well now, but it will probably be while because of these modular purchases getting in the way. Ha.

@NiklasKramer @909one There’s quite a bit you can do on lapsteel to emulate pedals, such as slants and bends. A slant is when you turn the bar a diagonal position to get a different harmonic relationship. A bend is a string pull just like on a guitar, the technique is a bit different though, as you’re bending against the bar rather than a fret.

Playing more than two notes and doing a slant can be really difficult at first but the farther two strings are from eachother, the less you have to slant. So for example a really nice sounding C6 slant is moving the high C string along with the low E strings (if you’re playing in C) with both on 7, a slant where C hits 9 and E stays on 8, same for 11 and 10, no slant on 12, then 13/14 and 15/16 the same way. Very pretty harmonization pattern. Common in Hawaiian music.

With bends you can do something very close to a pedal steel lick. Playing a minor chord and moving the 5th up a semitone works really well. It’s also how I turn minors into majors on lapsteel by pulling the 3rd up.

Edit: it’s worth mentioning that these techniques don’t sound exactly like pedals. Pedals have a mechanical sound to them that’s pretty different from a bend. It can fill the same role in a lick was my point.
Some expert pedal steel players still use slants on pedal steel, as they’re smoother sounding than using the pedals in the same context. It’s a very good technique to learn.

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I’ve not messed around with slants too much yet. It’s something I need to investigate.
I was also considering the idea of adding palm levers to my lapsteel. Duesenberg makes one that looks really nice. Double bender system, it even fits on a Tele or Strat.

I would say that the Duesenberg doodad is designed more for telecasters and the like than steel. The bridge is lower and has those adjustable saddles electric guitars often have. If you look at their own lapsteel models, the bender looks to be a different model, slightly taller with a simple bar for a bridge.

I reckon it wouldn’t be unplayable to install on a steel guitar but it might be awkward unless raised, perhaps.

I think the tuning you play would be pretty useful with doing string pulls though. The highest string up a semitone would be a minor chord and you could pull the B to C for melodic touches. Most of what these string benders give you is the leverage to pull a string up a whole step, halfsteps are still relatively easy to pull to.

Hi, I know how to google of course.
Yet, if anyone knows of links/lessons online for learning lapsteel that they’ve found especially helpful – I’d be grateful for tips. :pray:
I started out experimenting with C6-tuning on a cheap lapsteel last year, but I definitely need to put in more hours to get some sense of patterns and how to play over chords etc.

Are you talking about doing a bend behind the bar while playing?
I’ve trying to doing that a little but its hard to get used to. Any good resources/tutorials on how to do that online that you know of?

Yeah, the Duesenberg does look like it would be slightly lower, if it was, I was just going to make a base for it to rest on, I could also just buy a new nut to lower the overall string action as well. I mentioned above the steel I have is super low budget, so I don’t really mind modifying it.

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Well this is helpful.


I use a dobro style slide, I think that’s why I have trouble doing this. I use two fingers to hold onto it. If I had this sort of slide I’d only need one to hold it and i could better fulcrum my fingers to get the bends.

I don’t know why the guy uses his thumb like that but it’s totally possible to do with a dobro tonebar. You can pull the whole bar back with the bend to use your whole arm as leverage if you need to.

The real crux is that the instinct is to slightly push the string down, disconnecting it from the bar and muting it. You need to hook your finger slightly under it to pull it against the bar, this allows it to keep ringing.

Bullet slides are better for slants though, I find doing reverse slants nearly impossible with a dobro tonebar.

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I remember watching some videos from this channel when I was starting out:


There is the Steel Guitar Forum as well, although I find it’s mostly biased towards pedal steel rather than lapsteel or dobro (which might also be something to look into, basically every dobro technique applies to electric as well).
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