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Jeff McFadden @homemadeguitars
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Y'all, I need a night off.
Ya wanna hear everything I know about the pedal steel guitar? Do you play guitar? We'll start there. -more
2. The way you play notes on a guitar is, you make the strings shorter with your fingers. The lowest note on any string is that string with no fingers on it. If you didh't have a fretboard you'd be playing the harp. Each different note is a different length string.
3. And the way you make pleasing chords is you shorten the various strings to lengths which sound harmonious together. If you play you know the positions, C and D and E, so forth.
4. A long time ago somebody figured out that you could just start out with the strings tuned so they sounded harmonious together without making finger patters. The called it "open tuning." The guitar plays a chord when you strum it open.
5. Then you could just mash all the strings down together at a fret, and have a different letter chord than the open chord. Open C, mash down the strings at the 2nd fret, get a D chord.
6. There's more to it all than that, of course - My stories are long enough, even slightly oversimplified. But anyway...
7. It wasn't far from the open tuning to the place where people figured out that they could take any hard item - beef bone, bottle neck, pocket knife, railroad spike, beer bottle - and lay it across the strings and make them, functionally, shorter. Like mashing them down.
8. One place where that is known to have been discovered was in Hawaii. There is pretty strong evidence it was also happening among black American freedmen. Africans brought much of what is now American music with them when they came here in chains. They never forgot it.
9. So, in the early years, there were two music traditions that used the open chord / rigid object system on guitars, black music and Hawaiian music.
Much music, going back as far as we can trace it, has certain characteristics in common.
10. The scale we call the major scale is a series of "notes" which are, in physics terms, relatively consistent series of high and low pressure waves traveling through the air, and there are commonalities to the numeric ratios of those series of vibrations throughout human histor
11. the waves hit our ears so many times per minute. The note we call A is heard when 440 high pressure - low pressure cycles move our eardrum in one second. A=440.
The names of the notes are arbitrary, to enable us to talk about this stuff, but
12. Another arbitary name system for this same "scale" is do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.
You know the song, probably.
OK, lets look back at our guitar neck now.
Each fret shortens the string by the smallest interval common in music in one common tradition, "Western."
13. Other traditions, particularly in Asia, subdivide a note into smaller intervals, what we call "microtones," but even in those traditions, the same intervals that are found on the guitar neck are significant to the music.
All over the world, for reasons nobody knows,
14. many different and discrete groups of human beings settled on these same sound divisions for what we now call music.
Of course, all humans came from Africa, and it is entirely possible that we had already settled on these soundscapes before the first dispersal.
15. Yeah, I know. This is about the pedal steel guitar. I'm strayed, but I'm not lost. I'm explaining some background.
--real brief break, BRB
16. The point of all this foregoing is, if your guitar is tuned to an open chord, and you're going to play music, you've gotta lay this hunk of steel or whatever on *exactly* the right place on the neck, and these places are inherently pretty far apart.
17. There are 7 notes in our scale, plus the repeat of the first at exactly twice the vibration speed.
Strings vibrate, they push and pull on the air, we hear sounds, maybe music.
In older scales there were just 5 inique notes plus the repeat. We still use these scales.
18. The "Pentatonic" five note scale will play about 99% of rock and roll, church hymns, country and western music, and some symphonies.
The extra two notes are handy, though.
19. There are three notes in the scale, just three, that make up most music.
They are called the root note, the dominant note, and the sub-dominant note.
They got these names because humans seem to be wired to respond to the in recognizable ways.
20. A song always ends on the root. If you're a musician and somebody says This is in G, then G is the root note and the song will end on it.
It might or might not start on in.
We are wired to want "resolution" in our music. A song picks us up from where we were,
21. And it carries us through the universe, and then it puts us back down where it found us.
That final step, that is the resolution. The song ends. It ends on its root.
22. And where it goes when it picks you up, is it travels up through the dominant note, a d the sub-dominant note, and back and forth.
But we have more than 3 notes.
The notes are like people. Some get along better than others.
There are two other (out of a possible 7, remember)
23. two other notes that play nice with the root note. Those are the 3rd note of the scale and the 5th note in the scale.
This principle applies to the sub-dominant note (4th, 6th, 8th) and the dominant note, (5th, 7th, 2nd)
And then there are minor chords and so forth -
24. But we're far enough down this side alley -
If you look at a guitar neck, and pretend that no bar on the neck at all is your root chord, then the sub-dominant chord is at the 5th fret and the dominant chord is at the 7th fret
On that pic, counting up from the tuning key end, the sub is at the first white marker and the dominant at the second red marker.
If there were no pedals, if that were a lap steel, that would be the drill: start on whatever the root fret is, move bar up 5 frets, 7 frets, 10 frets
You can see me doing that in this video:
27. (I'm thinking I've *never* done a thread without screwing up the numbering)
The problem that one encounters as one attempts to gain proficiency on the non-pedal, lap, steel guitar is that moving the bar that far, fast enough, and stopping it
28. At exactly the right spot at exactly the right time - the laws of physics, inertia and time-distance relationships, get in your way. Many sour notes creep in.
If you play within your limitations there aren't *too many* sour notes.
What fun is that?
29. So, back in the 1950's a smallish group - a conspiracy, I believe it were - of the very best steel guitar players said, If we could make some of the strings on this guitar change notes with pedals, we could play the root, dominant, and sub-dominant chords,
30. plus the necessary minor chords, you could play entire songs of the time - honored 1,4,5 blues rock-and-roll country church song progressions *without ever moving the bar.*
Magic.
We can beat inertia and time itself, just by pulling a few strings tighter or letting them loose
31. Actually, to have the most flexibility to work out all the possible notes for a huge majority of songs you move the bar up and back over a range of just 2 frets, in combination with stepping on pedals or groups of pedals.
33. You don't need to work very hard to move a bar 2 frets very quickly if need be.
Way easier than 7 or 10.
Guitar players, this part's for you:
34. You've got 10 strings on a pedal steel. From the highest note down, with no pedals down and no bar, it goes like this:
F# D# G# E G# B F# E D B
1. 2. 3 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.
So you've got an E chord on 8, 6, 5, or 6, 5, 4, or 5, 4, 3
OK, now if you step on 2 pedals at once, the notes change on the G# strings and on the B strings. And now as if by magic, those same groupings of strings all play A chords. The 4 chord, or sub-dominant.
In E the chords are E, A, B.
36. So now you've got your 1 and 4 chords at wherever fret you laid your bar, and you haven't moved it yet.
Now you move it up two frets to get a 5, or dominant chord.
Move back down 2 frets to resolve.
There are a few other chords that would go in any but the simplest songs.
37. You can get almost all of them within the same 2 fret zone by stepping on the A pedal, or the A and B pedals, or just the B pedal, or the B and C pedals, or (surprise) just the C pedal.
38. People are pretty good with our feet. We drive multi-pedal cars, we ride motorcycles and shift gears with our feet. So these guys got together and said, let's take all that effort that is going into our arms, and distribute some of it to our feet.
39. You know that steel guitar sound, that whining glissando from chord to chord?
That was a freebie. It took some time, after these geniuses invented this instrument, before one of them started using the soaring slow changes that are so characteristic of the pedal steel.
39. The way they accomplish this is with levers, pull rods, and rounded bars to hook the strings to. The pedal steel guitar of today is a refinement of, but not technologically much different, from the Sho-Buds that Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons developed.
40. So the glory of the pedal steel is that one can make tolerable music on it quite quickly. I will think it would be an easier first instrument than a conventional 6 string guitar. I remember learning to make chords on an acoustic guitar... Definitely easier than that.
41. They're heavy. You have to break them down, set them up, legs and pedals and rods oh my - but I've never had and instrument I enjoyed more.
I said that about the lap steel too.
I have played a bunch of stuff. Of it all I love the pedal steel most. Harp rates high too.
42. That's all I know about the pedal steel guitar.
I don't have any recent recordings, and I just started it in March this year, so...
G'nite, y'all
--jeff out
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