• Improve your bending accuracy.
• Develop a better sense of intervals.
• Create pedal steel-inspired licks in the style of Brent Mason and Johnny Hiland.
The beauty of country music is that it features such diverse instrumentation. I’ve played rock and metal for many years, and have been totally obsessed with guitars and technique. But when I switch over to country-land, my guitar playing draws more influences from other instrumentalists I meet. I’m more likely to sit down and pick the brain of a pianist or a fiddle player than worry about how fast I can sweep pick. And when it comes to sounding unique, it’s hard to top the pedal steel.
With its roots in traditional lap-style Hawaiian guitar playing, the lap steel sound was hugely popular in the United States in the 1920s. The limitations of this instrument are evident to anyone who has played slide guitar in an open tuning—you’re hemmed in by the tonality of your tuning. If you’re tuned to a G6 chord, for example, it’s frustratingly difficult to play a Gm7. It occurred to some clever minds that with the inclusion of mechanical foot levers it would be possible to change the pitch of the strings as you play. Over the years this was expanded upon to the point where modern pedal steels might have two 10-string necks, eight pedals, and four knee levers! This results in a mind-boggling number of possible setups. In steel parlance, a setup is called a copedent.
I’d say it’s absolutely essential to go and listen to some Buddy Emmons at this point. The best place to start would be Danny Gatton’s Redneck Jazz Explosion album, although Emmons also has a variety of amazing solo albums. For a quick taste, watch this video of Emmons playing Ray Price’s “Night Life,” a country standard cowritten by Willie Nelson.
Introduced in 1967, the Parsons/White B-Bender offered a way to bend a string on the guitar using a mechanical pulley that’s activated by a lever attached to the top strap button. Over the years many great engineers have come up with systems to allow this, from the clever design of Joe Glaser to the Hipshot retrofit designs made famous by players like Will Ray. This has been used to great effect by some amazing guitar players over the years, but it’s still only half of what’s possible on a pedal steel. I (perhaps foolishly) recently purchased a pedal steel and even at the absolute beginner stage I’m already able to send multiple strings in different directions—something we guitarists just can’t do, but some have come close. In the early eighties Phil Baugh was using a pedal-based system and that tradition continues today. Just check out the video below for a more modern take on this technology.