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Tipping The Scales

Updated: May 13, 2020


The difference between a pedal steel and guitar has to surface for students to realize a one-size-fits-all approach is not necessarily the best way to learn the neck for all stringed instruments, especially triadic tuned ones like the pedal steel.

This is my analysis based from my studies.

The way a guitar is played and how they are tuned allows players the ability to run scales and scale patterns a full three octaves, allowing complete access to the full neck of the guitar. The most important advantage they have is using 4 digits to note any single string. A guitarist has easy access to multiple notes on any string, but that’s not true on steel guitars. The steel is a triadic based tuning which does not allow the same result.

In trying to emulate the guitars scale approach for learning, I ran out of fretboard due to the instrument’s tuning. I was also frustrated because the gaps between positions are too wide compared to guitars. Like it, or not, I had to accept that the steel is a “one-fingered” approach to playing music due to using a bar for “fingerings”.  After about five years of scale frustration, I was not any closer to my musical goals. I discovered that learning scales did not bring about the same result as a guitarist gets from the scale approach to learning.

The type of speed a guitarist (or pianist) could achieve by using multiple digits was going to be a major problem for me using a bar. I even tried putting frets on a steel, but then I realized I loved the steel sound the way it was, I just needed a path to get the music in my head out to the strings.

The steel’s tunings do not even allow us to invert chord voicings for most chord types. Musically, I need as much harmony as possible, so I had to choose what purpose a pedal serves. My pedals were designed to add more triadic options to help me narrow the chordal gap of possibilities, but unfortunately they did not (in most cases) provide more scale access. Playing scales on steel were incomplete and extremely difficult to pull off compared to guitarists. The bottom line was that I was still no closer to knowing where the music lays on the fretboard. I knew there had to be a better way musically, and changing how I viewed the fretboard is when I discovered the true improvisational advantages of the pedal steel guitar.


Now let’s talk about music and music improvisation. Guitarists like Eric Johnson, Mike Stern, Alan Holdsworth, essentially all of the great Jazz and Fusion players are able drop the sound of scales from their vocabulary when improvising. So did keyboardists like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and saxophonists like John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Branford Marsalis and so on. I learned through a Jazz-loving friend about what they were doing musically and I learned about intervallic/triadic improvisation. My scale years were wasted because I assumed a one-size-fits-all approach to learning the fretboard would get me there. In fact, due to the tuning I had to learn the neck a different way to find where all of the sweet notes are for intervallic improvisations. Most of Buddy’s licks can be analyzed as triadic/intervallic. Oddly, that insight bypassed me until this door opened. Finding a new way to view music improvisations and the neck of the steel was crucial to the way I now play.

A light bulb went on for me: I had been learning something that does not provide usable access to the music I wanted to play. Look at the head to Chick’s “Got A Match” or “Spain.” Both are fast tunes and are almost pure triadic ideas sprinkled with a few scale notes to connect the triads. As I started looking at all of the other genres I realized I would have been better off skipping all of the stuff I had to leave behind anyway. It became very clear to me that learning where all the intervallic/triadic possibilities are located and how to apply the approach note method to connect them within in each chord type was my shortest path to musicality. It was an eye opener and a new way to think about the instrument that actually works.

Listen to Buddy’s intro on “Kicks To Boot” (at 2:36 in above video) all triads, very musical, and very easy to play fast. The steel’s tuning is advantageous to the more modern approaches to improvisations. When they do use the sound of scales, it’s usually just a few notes weaving in and out… not the three octaves players are taught in scale books. For me it came down to the simplest resolution: Why not learn the fretboard knowing where everything is found that relates to the two basic triads for chord construction…major & minor? Learn how to connect those positions and the sky is the limit. – Paul

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