Updated: Aug 23, 2020
The Musician’s Honey-Do List
1a) Learn to hear intervals well enough to ID them within the key signature. Do this to rid yourself of the guessing game.
1b) Memorize all of your strings interval values to have instant recall of them (pedals up and down).
2) Memorize how the pedals and knee levers alter the tuning’s intervals.
PEDALS UP (Open)
For example, on E9th neck the 4th string (E) is the root. Activate the lever that raises the 4th string a 1/2 tone. In the open position, the lever changes the root (E) into a b9 (F) interval on the 4th string.
Also In the open position, I could choose to play the strongest intervals of the b9 chord which are (3 b7 b9). In general, you can omit the root of a four-note chord as someone else in the band (usually the bass player) will likely be playing it.
Now I can get the b7 (on string 9) the 3rd (on string 6) and the b9 (on string 4 raised 1/2 with the lever).
PEDALS DOWN With A&B pedals down, you are essentially changing the E9 tuning to an A6 tuning. The 4th string is now the 5th interval of an A major chord. Raise the 4th string with that same lever a 1/2 tone and it becomes a #5 interval for the A major chordal center (with A&B pedals down). So now with a 1 3 #5 (which is the augmented interval formula) in the pedals down position, I can play an easy-to-find augmented chord on string groups 1 2 3 and 4, as long as the pedals and knee is activated.
The above examples are why I preach everyone should memorize the formulas for chords. Learn how to invert the interval math for as many chords as possible. When someone shows you a chord, immediately find out if you can invert the intervals in that position or at other frets. This provides you with different sounds within the same chord.
INVERSIONS The pedal steel often can not invert every chord type like a piano can, so you’ll need to learn as many inversions as you can find. That is what makes Lloyd Green so unique . . . he goes through this inversion process to the nth degree with every harmony he finds. Challenge yourselves. You can invert, it’s just math. (1 3 5 becomes 3 5 1 becomes 5 1 3) and then it repeats.
3) Memorize and know the definition for all musical mathematical terms. Up a 3rd, down a 4th and so on which are essentially the distances between major scale intervals, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13. In the Major Scale, all intervals are two frets apart except between 3 and 4 and between 7 and 1. Those are 1 fret apart. You must memorize this formula.
You should be able to hear the intervals and sing them out loud. This is essential Musicianship 101, it cannot be ignored and it is the key to everything in Music. I realize it may be new to those who learned pedal steel via other methods, but we’re all in this together to change all of that!
(Tip: Subtract the number 7 from intervals 8 9 10 11 12 & 13) to find the same note value an octave below.)
4) Everyone should know how to perform rhythmic articulations like Legato, Staccato, etc. Learn and understand as many rhythm terms as possible, including various popular “feels” like waltzes, shuffles, straight eights, bossa nova, etc.
SPELLING BEE (ma7b5#9)
5) Musicians are expected to be able to name every chord they play when asked. If anyone does not know exactly what they are playing, it’s time to put in the work.
Analyze each chord to the key its alteration is based
Use the interval math to sort the name out
Depending on the bass note, chords can have multiple names ( C major over A = Amin7th etc.)
TALK THE TALK
I hope I live long enough to hear all steelers talk as guitarists and pianists converse. “I loved Buddy’s voicing on the D11 in that arrangement”, instead of “I wonder if that is tabbed?”
On charts calling for more specific voicings I will often see “No 3rds” written next to a chord on the chart. I also see some voicings written in intervals.. This is done when session leaders or arrangers want to hear a close harmony for a chord cluster sound. If you see “5 7 8” instead of a Cmaj7 chord, would you know what to play?
Those days are already here.
Back in the 90’s I faced such charts in the studio when I had the honor of recording with progressive Pop/Rock artists like Mark Knopfler and Sting who would both relate a specific voicing using intervals.
I heard questions like this: “Can you put the 7th next to the 1 in the bottom and the 5th on top?” Thanks to being taught my intervals and studying chord theory, I not only knew what they were asking, but I knew how to immediately find it on the fretboard. It was not just my playing ability that sealed the gigs, it was also being able to totally communicate and understand the requests from those arranging the music.
We can play at a higher technical level, but unless we can communicate at a higher level, many doors could close. My dream is to see everyone reach for their gold. From my experience, sometimes…in fact, most times… we are given the task with immediacy. You must know this material and you must know it cold.
When prompted, the great Maurice Anderson could give us hundreds of variations for re-harmonizing a typical chord progression. That was in his wheelhouse because he knew the interval language of harmony…. so could Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, Curly Chalker, Tommy White, Terry Crisp, Hal Rugg and so on.
On all instruments, most musicians have become more schooled in this area. I urge everyone to learn this stuff so in those band situations you will be viewed as an equal to their expertise. The good news is that almost all of this stuff can be learned away from the guitar.
While it may be unfamiliar, this is not difficult. It takes about the same amount of time and dedication as learning the multiplication tables did…..I can confirm that the benefits are astronomical! I have enjoyed learning from the pianist, the guitarist, the horn players etc because they can all teach me phrases and harmony from their instruments while I apply their lessons directly to my strings. The common thread is communicating using musical terms.