I just bought an EHX 95000 multitrack looper a few weeks ago, and while I don’t utilize a lot of its functions, I just love that it’s like a multitrack recorder that is always on if I come up with a good idea or want to practice over certain changes or grooves. I typically play bass lines with the side of my pinky, so that’s where this came from. It’s got a nice growl to it. Tone is in the pinky indeed!
If you play C6 tuning with an E first string, you know how difficult it can be to play harmony in 3rds on strings 1 and 2 (E and C). This is especially true if you play a longer scale neck, like I do.
The reverse slants required to achieve a minor third interval can be daunting, cumbersome, not easily pitched, and have a distinct whine or ‘meow’, which is in essence almost like a sitar effect where a longer than necessary part of the bar is making contact with a string.
In the short video, you can hear the effectiveness of subtle string pulling to make a more seamless transition than with reverse slants on the adjacent strings 1 and 2 (E and C). This is a trick I use to get a pedal steel-esque sound sometimes when I need to. A volume pedal comes in really handy, too.
This type of exercise needs to be learned in every key using every scale. That seems like a big demand, but it really isn’t if you dedicate a few minutes per day to doing it. It becomes second nature in time.
I don’t want to get too deep into explaining the process, but do your best to make every pull sound in tune and learn to feel the difference in string tension as you move further up the neck.
This tab for the top 2 strings in C6 tuning for an F Major scale, which is what I used in the video. The ‘p’ next to a number indicates a 1/2 step pull.
Originally Posted on April 15, 2011 by Mike Neer
C6 is the perfect tuning for breadboarding, no doubt about it. For those of you who don’t know the term “breadboarding,” it has to do with electronic circuits and how experimenters will use a breadboard as a construction base to create prototypes of circuits. Simply moving wires and jumpers around with solderless connections makes the experimentation much easier. In a past life I spent a lot of time with electronics….
For purposes of this discussion, I will be referring to this version of C6, from low to hi: G A C E G A C E. If you are looking to step outside of the box a bit and play some things that are a bit out of the ordinary for steel guitar, tweaking the C6 can play an important role in helping you achieve the chord qualities you are looking for. The most obvious tweak would be tuning the lowest C (in my tuning, string 6) to C#. This gives you the C6/A7 tuning which, in my opinion is necessary for playing Jazz and even any kind of chord solo work. The importance of the dominant chord in that tuning can’t be stressed enough. Also, contained within the span of strings 4, 5 and 6 is a diminished triad. Crucial.
Another common tweak is to tune string 7 (A) up to Bb for a C13. This eliminates the root for our minor chords, which I feel is pretty important note to have for playing Jazz standards and even some Rock tunes. There are some arrangements I play, though, that are based around this tuning, particularly Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and Yellow Roses.
What if we tweak both the C string and the A string up a half step? I got this little tuning from Billy Hew Len (although he did it with the A6 tuning) and I quickly recognized it as a tuning used by the great Joaquin Murphey. Joaquin used a C6 tuning with a high G string later on, and he would also raise his C and A strings 1/2 step. A good example of this sound can be found on Spade Cooley‘s Dance-A-Rama record. You can hear an example of this tuning (my version with a high E) on this recording of Coconut Grove. It makes use of a lot of altered dominant chords.
There are other places we can tweak the tuning, too: my favorite is to re-tune string 8. I have several variations on it and all of them give me different results. The most common for me is to tune string 8 to F, especially for playing chord melodies. I approach it a little like John Scofield does when he is playing solo–he stabs at individual chord tones just to establish the harmony in the listener’s ears while he plays a melody or improvises on top of it. Sometimes that chord tone will only last for an eighth note. String 8 also serves me well for playing more modern Jazz, such as Herbie Hancock and Eddie Harris, by tuning it down to D. There I have what we call slash chords (a triad over a different bass note), particularly the 11th chord flavor, ie. C/D (C triad over D bass note). A great, nebulous sound.
There are other very useful ways of changing the value of a C6 tuning by changing 1 or 2 strings. For those of you familiar with Speedy West, he occasionally used a tuning (although on a pedal steel) which was called F#9. Essentially what it is is an E6 tuning (low to hi B C# E G# B C# E G#), with the B strings tuned down to A#. If you look at the C6 tuning that I use (with the E string on top), it is the same structure as the E6 tuning down a major third. So, in this case we simply lower our G to F# and voila!: we have D9 tuning.
I am currently beginning another book–this time on creating block chord arrangements or chord melodies. I will be using my C6 tuning for the basis of the entire book, but I will also be sharing some of my secret tweaks. I am really looking forward to the challenge of teaching this!
In the meantime, I hope you continue to explore and have fun and always remember that lurking somewhere inside of you is you! Let’s give him every opportunity to find his voice on the steel guitar. Always play with the curiosity of a child.
All for now.
It has been quite some time since I’ve posted any new ideas or content on this blog. I have been meaning to do more, but music has been the sole outlet of my creativity and spare time in the last year or more, which is a good thing! But I’ve got so many things on my mind I want to write about. First of all, thank you for making Steelonious such a success! If you haven’t heard it yet, check it out. The CD has been so well received and there is a lot of steel guitar on it.
With this posting, I wanted to share a little something from Steelonious, which I released in 2016. In case you’re not familiar with it, it was a program of Thelonious Monk melodies arranged as Instrumental/Pop/Jazz tunes in varying contexts, all reflecting the steel guitar–its history and its possibilities. Basically, I connected the dots of things I love. In this particular arrangement, I used techniques I learned from studying the playing of Sol Hoopii and also a lot of 60s pedal steel guitar. The choice of groove reflects my passion for New Orleans music, and I borrowed some chord changes from a Bruce Hornsby/Christian McBride/Jack DeJohnette version of this tune that kills me. The original song form is a 12 Bar Blues, which on occasion is how we perform it. But what I really wanted was to get some of that funky country type picking in this tune, especially the solo. I’ve always been a fan of the music of Little Feat and maybe that is reflected here.
One of the things I discovered about Sol Hoopii’s playing years ago was his use of open strings as passing tones. Sometimes they are chromatic, sometimes just scale tones, but they lend a rhythmic articulation in times when the line really begs for it. Dobro players are no doubt aware of this technique. But I’ve found that one the most difficult aspects of playing steel guitar is to play chromatic lines that are more than just two or three notes–the articulation really tends to be a crap shoot and sometimes you need it to be clean and popping. So, I’ve adapted this technique into my playing and this arrangement of Straight, No Chaser is one of my most successful uses of it.
I changed the key of the tune from Bb to A to accommodate the idea, then I just worked on it and worked on it until it developed into something cohesive and right. It is really not difficult to play, but takes a lot of practice to play it consistently. There is a lot of pick blocking going on, which I just tend to do unconsciously now. The tuning here is C6 and 6 string C6 will work just fine, as you really only use strings 2 through 5 (C-E).
Here is a little video which demonstrates how I believe Sol Hoopii played this tune, specifically on his earlier acoustic recordings in the A Major tuning.
One of the devices that Sol used most frequently is open strings–in this case, in bars 3 and 4 of the head, Sol utilizes a slide to G# on string 4, followed by open string 3 (A), for a nice bluesy lick. Have a look for yourself.
It is often a topic of conversation among newer players of the difficulties in getting used to wearing fingerpicks. For some players, it is nearly impossible to get comfortable with these new appendages. For me, it was a little different.
When I started becoming serious about playing, I was playing a National tricone. It was a matter of necessity for me to use picks, and because I was playing in an acoustic group with the instruments mic’d, I preferred a stiffer pick (.025 mm). When I switched over to playing electric steel, I no longer felt comfortable with that heavy gauge pick, and experimented with the lighter .013, .015 and .018 gauges. The .013 appealed to me, so I shaped the picks to follow the natural shape of my finger tips. This resulted in some very nice tone–very rich. The problem, I discovered much later, was that in order for me to pick the strings, I needed to get my fingers down deeper to the strings. This hindered my ability to play fast, clean lines, and my fingers would mistakenly hit the wrong strings often. I couldn’t live with this, because regardless of how hard I worked at it, I couldn’t overcome the sloppiness.
Recently, in continuing my lifelong quest of improving my picking hand, I have discovered some things that have proven significant towards this end. I have begun using slightly heavier picks (.018) and I have shaped them so that they extend approximately 1/4″ from the tips of my fingers, and this extension is decidedly straighter than the previous “curled with the finger” shape.
What this has allowed me to do is to execute rolls and other intricate picking patterns with greater ease, and to allow me to use a technique of locking my hands in a way that everything above the metacarpal bones is firmly locked in place, allowing greater control of the fingers. This is something that I have experimented with and concluded that it really does work.
There is no one way to wear picks, but it is advisable to always consider where you are in your playing path and how simple changes in things like picks can have a significant impact on your playing and sound. I will admit, I thought my tone suffered a bit when I made the change, but I have learned to compensate by using thicker gauge picks and by picking with a little more velocity.
There are some things about playing steel guitar that, unless you have the privilege of being near seasoned players and getting their insights, you are on your own to discover. For me, it always seemed as if achieving great right hand technique was an uphill battle. The inconsistency is frustrating and, while continual practice will yield positive results, I always seemed to hit a wall. In trying to create longer lines, I realized that I would need to refine my technique and, surprisingly, one of the greatest sources for inspiration appeared in a piano book. I will make no bones about saying that I think of my steel as a “lap piano” at times–this term is attributed to George Van Eps–and I want my passages to have the same clarity, lightness and dexterity as a pianist. George Kochevitsky’s book, The Art of Piano Playing, just really opened my mind to taking control of the situation. As he illustrates, for a century or more after the arrival of the piano forte, players still did not have the technique necessary to get the most from it–they were still relying on the finger technique from the days of harpsichord.
I have to say, I do enjoy playing without picks, but I can’t execute much of what I play without them. I will also add that I have ordered a set of Alaska Piks and I’m looking forward to giving those a try. Will report back on that….
While cleaning out my studio/library, I came across these cool chord charts that were published back in the 1940s. A friend of mine had given me these photocopies years ago, and I thought I would share them with the world before they are lost forever.
These charts can be very useful for each of these tunings, which are F#9, C# Minor, E7 and B11. The charts cover chords created with a straight bar, as well as with slants and in combination with open strings. Very good tools to get you inside the tunings. Once you are in, you will discover you own chords.
The first chord folio is for F#9 tuning (used by Dick McIntire and Bernie Kaai, who lent his name and image to this booklet). F#9 tuning is essentially C# Minor tuning, but with strings 5 and 6 tuned differently (E C# G# E A# F#, from treble to bass).
(Click on each image to enlarge).
The next set of chord charts comes from an unknown source, but note that each page has the Fator’s name on it–Fator is a name affiliated with Dickerson steel guitars, as the owner of the company was Gaston Fator.
Note that the C# Minor tuning actually resembles E13–essentially, the E7 tuning with the second string raised to C#. The C# Minor tuning (Sol Hoopii) is spelled: E C# G# E B E
I hope you find these charts useful.
Spending time lately investigating and memorizing the myriad slants available in C6-based tunings, especially C13, and I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of musical geometry.
There are many other hidden secrets in this tuning and I aim to find and use all of them!
Back in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to have a guitar lesson with Mike Stern. I would also see him play fairly regularly and have a talk over a cup of coffee (Sheridan Square Diner (r.i.p.) ). Mike recommended a book to me by a guitarist whose name I had only seen in Guitar Player magazine, but had never heard. The book was called the George Van Eps Method for Guitar and it was published way back in the 1930s. I bought the book and did the first few pages of exercises. In reading George’s words in the forward, I understood that the book was not only a way of learning triad shapes in all inversions on all string sets, but also as a way of developing an independence in the digits to enable single note playing over sustained chords. This was a hallmark of George’s style, which was developed as a young tenor banjo player (his father, Fred, was one of the instrument’s great virtuosos).
I revisited the Van Eps method pretty heavily around 2000, as I was playing a lot of acoustic archtop guitar. Now I had heard George and was profoundly inspired by his playing. I can hear where Mike Stern utilizes some of the concepts he learned from the book, particularly when he is playing a pedal note and moving the chords around underneath. Anyway, years later it occurred to me that working through inversions of the triads in a Van Eps-ian manner might be a fruitful exercise. I continue to utilize it daily.
If you have a lap steel tuned to C6, you can find the triads within. This would also work for any other tuning, as well. You will have to make your own adjustments to the tab that I’ve laid out. I highly recommend mastering exercises #1 and 2 in every key before moving on to the triad inversions. There are other techniques involved in the inversions that will need to be addressed.
This page of exercises was written quickly by hand while the idea was fresh. Please pardon the sloppiness of it.
Here is a quick video demonstration of the concept. Note that I do not lift the bar off the strings, but simply block, using either method (palm or pick). Pick blocking is particularly useful in arpeggiating the triads. Practice these slowly and cleanly.
I’ve also created a little clip showing how to utilized the triads on strings 1-3 in A6 tuning. This works so well that I’m almost tempted to switch to A6!
Henry Bogdan is one of the few players of the modern era who has embraced the National Tricone resonator as his main instrument. His playing with The Moonlighters was particularly influential (especially to myself) in the resurgence of traditional string bands featuring ukulele and steel guitar, and with the Moonlighters he recorded several CDs. He also performed and recorded with Hazmat Modine, a unique NYC band led by the eclectic and multi-talented Wade Schuman. However, Henry is best known for his career as bassist for the band Helmet, an influential alternative metal band, all through the 1990s. These days, Henry resides in the Portland area, where he has been involved with a band called The Midnight Serenaders, continuing the marriage of his Hawaiian stylings with their Jazz Age swing.
Henry told me that after all these years of playing his Tricone, he was putting it away to pursue his latest passion, the Puerto Rican Tres, which is a stringed instrument with 9 strings in 3 courses. So, if you are in the Portland area, don’t miss the opportunity to see Henry perform with his Tricone while you can.
Mike: I’ve noticed the phenomenon of musicians who’d previously played Rock music and Punk gravitating toward Roots music.
Henry: Yeah, it’s really true. I kind of saw it as somewhat of a synchronicity to the end of…for me it was the end of Punk. It was the end of the road. I didn’t see that there was any other direction to go.
M: I figured that people who are playing “cutting edge” stuff already, they’re really at the precipice and you have to wonder “where do you go from there?” It must be exhausting to be at that point and constantly be trying to move forward all the time. At some point, it almost seems inevitable that people are going to begin to look backward….
H: Yeah, to get more substance. It just gets sort of totally diluted and you’re not doing anything if you’re trying to be modern and unique and not sound or play like anyone else before you. I always felt the idea was to be unique and not do anything traditional. For Helmet, it just seemed like it was the end of the road and it was up to the next generation to combine their influences and do something new.
Most of my friends continued on with Rock, but I did know a lot of people who were just putting down their instruments and not playing at all. That’s when I met Bliss (Blood) with the Moonlighters and I knew what I wanted to do was create kind of a traditional Hawaiian-sounding band. I didn’t see myself as a “jazzer” and she was coming from a Rock state of mind and not from going to Jazz school or that sort of thing.
M: So, what was your introduction to Hawaiian music?
H: I would say first off that I’ve always been interested in steel guitar, from my mid-teens hearing it in Rock bands like Neil Young, the Eagles—a lot of stuff like that was popular here in Portland and on the west coast. The first time I got to see one up close was actually when this Gospel/Southern-Rock band played at my high school. There was a guy playing a Sho-Bud and I just totally flipped and I went up and I talked to him for a while after the gig. It just seemed like such a cool instrument—very magical looking.
M: Did he show you how it worked or explain it to you?
H: I can’t remember, but he probably said that there’s pedals and knee levers and all these kinds of gadgets. It was pedal steel that I heard first. Then a few years later I got pretty devoted to Punk and Underground music and I thought steel would be a good instrument to mess around with in that format. So, first I bought a lap steel at a pawn shop—Dickerson, pearloid model that I wish I still had—but I couldn’t get anything out of it because I didn’t know any tunings. It just sounded like Blues guitar kind of stuff.
M: I think we all kind of go through that same experience. You were a bass player at the time?
H: No, I didn’t even touch the bass until a good 10 years later, but I’d always played guitar. From age 10 I took guitar lessons—I took 5 years of Classical guitar lessons all through high school. I pretty much knew I wanted to play music, ideally, in a professional setting.
So, I couldn’t get anything out of my lap steel, and then I bought a single neck pedal steel. Still I didn’t know the tunings—it was probably an E9 guitar. I borrowed a Sneaky Pete Kleinow book from the library here that had some tunings and basic technique, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure it out, but I played it in a band on a couple of songs, just getting sound effects, like picking behind the bar. I wasn’t really interested in any hardcore Country music until a few years later.
Anyway, so I put the pedal steel in storage and moved to New York. Subsequently the steel was stolen. I ended up not doing anything in New York for about 5 years, just trying to break into the Underground scene until I answered an ad in the Village Voice for this band that needed a bass player (Helmet). I happened to have a bass, so I thought, “What the hell? Everyone played guitar—I might as well try to break in as a bassist.” I really enjoyed the bass, certainly in that context.
It was right around the middle of the Helmet career, probably early ‘90s, that I got more interested in traditional Country and Western Swing music. I’ve always had one foot in the Country door, in some sense, but I was getting into more traditional stuff like Buck Owens, George Jones, Ernest Tubb…basically as a diversion to what I was doing in Rock—you know, super-macho, tough guy, tattoos. It was kind of stupid at a certain point and what I liked about Country music was that it wasn’t so concerned with being modern or cutting edge. It just had a certain relaxed soul to it and it was good-natured.
M: Yeah, and it’s also a humble—even if it’s not completely sincere in its humility it still has that humbleness to it.
H: I agree and I certainly appreciated that coming from a super Agro world of Rock which I didn’t always identify with. It was fun playing the music, because it was very physical, kind of like sports.
I saw Junior Brown’s first gig in New York at the Lone Star and he totally blew me away.
M: I think I was at that show, too.
H: It was just phenomenal. He was the first guy I’d ever seen play lap steel and he had “that sound” which turned out to be the 6th chord. So, I pulled the lap steel from under my bed and looked in the Village Voice the next day and found this guy David Hamburger. Have you had any contact with him?
M: No, although I’d certainly heard his name and I had some friends who played in a band with him, but I heard he moved down to Austin.
H: Yeah. I started taking some lessons with him and he set me up with G6 tuning and he was also the one—at the time I was mostly interested in Honky Tonk and Western Swing—but he said, “If you really want to devote yourself to lap steel, you should check out Hawaiian music.” Like most people, I never thought of Hawaiian music at all—I thought it was all just like Don Ho. So, I just bought some CDs and at the time I was buying everything that I could that had any kind of non-pedal steel on it. I called up Scotty’s Music and got Jerry Byrd’s “Steel Guitar Hawaiian Style” and the 2 Sol Hoopii CDs, but it was the Jerry Byrd that was the life-changer for me.
M: I was kind of like you in that I probably bought 30-40 CDs and LPs a month from the age of 18 to 30—that’s all I did, was buy music. It was like I was always searching for something that I knew was out there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I could feel when I was getting closer and closer to it, though. I probably bought most of the same CDs as you—the Sol Hoopii, etc. I had that long before I really got interested in playing.
When I finally got interested in playing, there were almost no resources, except for the occasional book, which didn’t tell the whole story. I can tell you one thing, though—I knew right away that it was some serious shit! It became apparent in the beginning that it was serious and I don’t think I had what it took at the time to devote myself to it.
H: I would agree that it is some serious shit! For me, it was like when I first was discovering Punk and Underground: there was this whole world of great players and great tunes and great singers and it was deep. It had a lot of substance. I would also have to point out that it had a lot more steel guitar than the Country stuff. Even still to this day I want to hear Joaquin Murphey playing through the entire song—I don’t want to hear just one little break. You know, that’s what kind of the drag of that music and what’s so great about the Hawaiian music. It’s there behind the vocals, there during the solo, intros and outros.
M: There is a real art to the backing in Hawaiian music and also they’re playing in a smaller group.
H: Yeah, I would love to hear Joaquin in a smaller band. I would say that from the beginning it was the electric steel, Jerry Byrd in particular, and a year later I got more interested in the acoustic stuff. I listened to that Jerry Byrd CD over and over when I was still in Helmet, and I would take my lap steel on tour and just mess with it on the bus. I got Jerry’s book (Instruction Course For Steel Guitar) and was messing with tunings just trying to play something that sounded like music.
M: Did you get through the whole book?
H: Oh my God, no. I would say I didn’t even scratch the surface. I bought all the books that there were, but I’m not a book guy. I totally just play by ear. I don’t even know what chord I’m on or necessarily what key I’m in unless it’s written next to the song title on the set list. [laughs] I’ve always thought of it as, “Where’s my I? I is on the 3rd fret, there’s my IV and V” and I have my little boxes—my riff boxes—and I have my little gimmicks, my octaves and playing thirds and whatnot. I totally play by ear and at this point it’s a huge drawback. I wish I could go back and start over from scratch by learning scales and sharps and flats….
M: Do you know any of this with regards to the guitar?
H: No, I don’t at all. I mean I had theory back in high school when I was studying Classical guitar but Classical guitar is very impractical to playing Pop music. You don’t learn how to read chord charts—it was kind of a mistake. I wish I was more interested in Jazz at the time—it would have been much more practical, even in the Rock world.
M: I have to say, I’ve enjoyed your playing on the Moonlighters recordings and I would say they inspired me. When I bought my Tricone, I said to my wife, “OK, honey, I promise I’m going to go out and find a gig” and it just so happens that I found the only gig in existence. So I want to thank you for that. [laughs]
H: No problem and thanks for saying that. It was a lot of fun working on that stuff. Bliss turned me on to more of the Jazz side of things and I was probably the Hawaiian side of things.
M: Let’s face it, how many other bands were out there playing that kind of music?
H: Well, there a band called the Do Hos…they kind of disappeared. But, yeah, there really weren’t any people doing that and that was kind of fortunate for us–certainly fortunate for me. [laughs]
M: A good thing about the band was that there was original music. I’ve always felt that Bliss is an excellent lyricist.
H: Oh, yeah, she’s a great lyric writer.
M: I always thought the band had a solid foundation in the traditional sounds and, yet, it was always reaching forward….
H: Maybe some of our other influences sometimes can’t help but come out. Bliss really was the one into doing original music and it was a good thing for the band and probably opened some doors that we probably wouldn’t have had if we were just aping the old shit, which I probably would have been fine with also.
M: You were involved with some other projects while you were in New York, too….
H: Oh yeah, when the Moonlighters started I was also playing with Howard Fishman. We started playing in the subways in Brooklyn. And I was playing weekly with Greg Garing and his Alphabet City Opry. That was actually the first situation where I was playing steel guitar—slightly pre-Moonlighters. That was a weekly gig for about a year. I quit to rehearse and work on tunes, instead of just playing tunes that I’d never heard before. It was fun playing with Greg, but he would just say, “This is in C, follow me.”
M: I have to admit, that’s what I live for. You did some stuff with Wade Schuman and Hazmat Modine, too….
H: I did some gigs with them and recorded some songs on their first CD.
At this time I was planning on moving to Hawaii…I was hoping to get some lessons with Jerry Byrd. That was sort of my dream at the time but once I got to Portland I had read that Jerry was sick and had stopped playing and I ended up getting some gigs with The Yes Yes Boys in Seattle and I would take the train up to Seattle a few times a month for about 3 or 4 months. Del Rey is truly amazing–a great player. I think a few months later Jerry died. He was most of the reason I was headed to Hawaii—even though I probably wouldn’t have hooked with him, I could have taken some lessons with Alan Akaka or John Ely. I didn’t really have any work skills once I left New York and the thought of working at Hertz Rental Car for minimum wage, trying to afford a studio apartment in Honolulu….
Someone on the Steel Guitar Forum posted a link to this great solo by Buddy Emmons on John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind.” I’d never heard it before, but it knocked me out, so I sat down with it and transcribed it before bed. Took me an hour or so–it’s mostly just eighth notes, which makes it a little easier.
Anyway, it is a C6 pedal steel performance, but I transcribed it for C6 with a re-entrant D 1st string, which is what I believe is Buddy’s tuning, so it is D E C A G E C A F C (high to low). There is nothing played below the 8th string and I couldn’t detect any pedals, although they may be there, I just don’t know what they do. The few notes on the 1st string could easily be moved to the E string, so if you are playing C6 (E high) you can pull it off (a little harder, though).
Here is the solo:
And here is the transcription:
Here are a few tips for those who are learning to play the steel guitar. Some of them may seem obvious; some of them not so much.
1. Don’t be discouraged by the difficulty of getting your chord grips together (meaning your picking hand).
Do practice your grips, even in a non-musical fashion. For instance, practice grabbing a chord shape and then moving it from one string set to another, like this:
Things like this take time to master, but the more you practice, the easier it will become. Spend 5 to 10 minutes/day just on grips, not worrying that it doesn’t sound musical.
2. Don’t slide into everything (glissando).
Do use glissando sparingly, selecting the right time for maximum effect. Do practice moving the bar vertically along the neck using a staccato approach in order to gain more control of your sound. To do this, you will need to incorporate pick blocking. Also, the bar doesn’t leave the strings with this approach–it is completely reliant on your right hand.
3. Don’t get stuck in root, or straight bar positions (i.e., for playing in C major, sticking to the 12th fret).
Do find other positions or zones or pockets to play in. For example, you can get a C major sound (minus the root) by playing in G position (7th fret, C6 tuning). This serves as CMaj9. For playing singles notes, we can easily find our way through the C major scale in 7th position:
Do learn how to play a scale in every position, meaning beginning with any scale tone anywhere on the neck. Here’s another very useful example:
Do practice this in every key (including natural, harmonic and melodic minor) beginning on any note of the scale. Yes, I know it is a lot of work, but in order to gain freedom on the instrument, particularly from clichés, this is the kind of work that needs to be done. Spend 1/2 hour/day on this for several months until you are confident you can break it out easily and without hesitation.
4. Don’t forget that there are many ways to achieve something that doesn’t look feasible at first glance.
Do remember to investigate all options by thinking about slants (no matter how extreme they may seem) and behind the string bar string pulls. Here is an example of a I – IV – V progression with voice leading (note the tuning is C6/A7):
Notice how you can play 2 different inversions of the I-IV-V progression and keep the chords in a relatively small fretboard range.
5. Don’t let vibrato be an afterthought.
Do learn to be conscious of your use (or non-use) of vibrato, making conscious decisions on how you want it to enhance your phrase ahead of time. Don’t wait until the last moment to throw a quick shake on a note–it tends to sound feeble and nervous. Be confident and strong in your playing! Commit….
6. Don’t underestimate the value of major and minor triads. They have many more uses than just the obvious.
Do learn as many inversions of your major and minor triads as you can possibly find, everywhere on the neck. The major and minor triads can serve as altered dominant chords as well as extended harmonies of major and minor chords. Sometimes we overlook the simplicity of a simple triad while searching for something bigger, such as G13b9; if you are knowledgeable in harmony and music theory, it should be easy for you to spell this chord out:
G B D F Ab E (we skip the 11th degree, C). Looking at these 6 notes, what triads do we find? Obviously G, but what else? There is a B diminished triad, as well as D diminished. But we also have an E major triad. The E maj triad provides the M3, b9 and 13 of our chord. Perfect choice for G13b9. Need something for an A7 chord functioning as a V7 or VI7 in a turnaround? Try a Bbmin triad (Bb Db F) instead. Those notes spell b9, M3 and #5, a nice altered dominant sound. See what I’m getting at?…which leads me to….
7. Don’t shy away from learning basic music theory and harmony: they are your friends.
Do get acquainted with them because they open up doors and make it much easier for you to make music that’s outside of the box. It is always good to have choices.
8. Don’t use your wrist to make slants!
Do try to get used to guiding the bar with your fingers. Do make sure you are using the right bar. There have been endless discussions about whether a Stevens bar or Bullet bar or any other number of bars is right–I won’t go there. I will say that whatever bar you choose, make sure it is the right length and make sure you learn to manipulate it with your fingers, not your wrist.
9. Don’t let your playing sound monotone.
Do open it up and use your picking hand and bar to convey expression. Sometimes a nice strum of a chord with your thumb, or a wide bar shiver (ala Curly Chalker) can keep your playing from sounding monotonous and lifeless. Jerry Byrd was called the Master of Touch and Tone for good reason: he was always conscious of his expression and you could really get a feeling from his playing the way that you could from a singer or violinist. Harmonics are another great way to make it work.
10. Don’t get hung up by bad picking habits.
Do focus on making your digits work as a unit. There is quite a bit of work involved in getting a strong right picking hand. There are definitely picking patterns which you can work with on a daily basis to get your right hand under control. Joe Wright has a video called “Secrets Of The Wright Hand” which may help you to improve your picking technique. The video has no musical content, but Joe works you through a number of picking moves.
11. Don’t pick too hard. “What is too hard?”, you ask. Well, it’s when your strings are flapping out of control, sharp in pitch, and your fingerpicks are getting tangled up in the strings. Relax!
Do play in a relaxed, controlled manner. There is a lot to be said for a picker who has great chops, whether or not he/she decides to put them on display. The one thing every great picker has is poise and control. Comes with practice, nothing more. For those of us coming from a resonator background, this can be quite a revelation. The picking styles are quite different for both instruments (and so is the bar technique for that matter). Many people believe that the players who can really play both resonator and electric steel extremely well are rare birds. They’re probably right!
Hope this gives you something to think about. Time to run!