The sound of the pedal steel is closely associated with country music but there’s a rich history of pedal steel use in other musical forms, too. From David Gilmour’s use of pedal steel on tracks like “One of These Days” and “The Great Gig in the Sky” to The Bangles’ use of the instrument on their latest album Sweetheart of the Radio or alternative country rockers Leader Cheetah on their Lotus Skies album, the pedal steel can add a lyrical, sunny vibe to almost any track.
As explained in A.R. Duchossoir’s book Gibson Electric Steel Guitars (read an excerpt here), Gibson has a history of pedal steel production, with several classic models introduced in the 1950s. The Electraharp and Multiharp models featured between one and three necks and Gibson pickups. Some models even had original PAF humbucking pickups, and it’s rare to find one with its original electronics today, given the high prices commanded by liberated PAFs on the vintage market.
But these original instruments are hard to find, and even if you can track down a pristine example, there’s a bit of a steep learning curve in playing one: the coordination between hands and feet required to pull off pedal steel technique can feel a little unusual to a player who is used to conventional guitar styles. So in the spirit of our recent article on mimicking a 12-string guitar, here are some tips for faking your way through a pedal steel part.
The first thing you need to lock in is a pedal steel-like guitar tone. There are several elements that need to come together to achieve this. There’s no single element that can make your guitar sound like a pedal steel, but a specific signal chain will definitely get you in the ballpark. Start with your guitar’s bridge pickup – preferably a low-output model, if you wish to be faithful to original-style pedal steel tones. Plug your guitar into a compressor pedal to smooth out some of the edges and emulate the enhanced sustain of a true pedal steel. If a compressor is not available to you, you could try increasing the midrange and reducing either the presence or treble (but not both) on your amplifier. This will give you a bright but not brittle sound. Next, plug into a volume pedal. Many such pedals offer the option of setting minimum and maximum volumes, and if this is the case with your pedal, set it for absolute silence when the pedal is in its heel-down position. Finally, spring reverb – or a good emulation of it – is essential for the classic pedal steel sound.
Pedal Steels are almost never tuned the same way as a guitar. So if you’re going for a pedal steel sound, it’s best to use an altered tuning. One of the most popular is C6, which is most commonly configured as C-E-G-A-C-E. E9 tuning is also very popular on 10-string pedal steel guitars: corresponding six-string tunings are E6 (E-G-B-C-E-G) and E7 (B-D-E-G-B-E). For more conventional guitar tunings, try Open E (E-B-E-G-B-E), Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D) and Open D (D-A-D-F-A-D).
Here’s where the illusion really becomes complete. Obviously, for truly authentic-sounding pedal steel emulations, you’ll need to use a slide (unless your name is Jeff Beck and you can wrangle any sound out of a guitar with just your bare fingers and a cool haircut). But if you’re used to regular blues slide guitar styles, you’ll need to adopt some new skills for fake pedal steel. For starters, you know your wild, tremulous vibrato? Drop it! That’s not to say that pedal steel players don’t play with wide vibrato from time to time. But part of what defines the pedal steel style is the tendency to slide into and then hold, rather than shake, a note or chord. Pick with your fingers and use the volume pedal in sync with the slide for a particularly pedal steel-like effect, but don’t just floor the pedal at the top of every sweep: leave yourself somewhere to go for those moments when you really need to emphasize a melody or chord.
Pedal steel players often use a technique called slanting which involves holding the slide on an angle across two strings, rather than simply barring two strings at the exact same location. On a conventional guitar this equates to angling the slide so that it covers two separate fret locations – for example, angling the slide so that it is over the tenth fret on the G string and the ninth fret on the B. Guitarist Brett Garsed is a great example of a conventional guitarist who employs this technique to achieve slide guitar sounds which are a little different from the conventional blues-based style.
A final element to complete the illusion is to mimic the effect of the pedals and knee levers of a pedal steel guitar, which can be used to raise and lower the pitch of certain strings. This can be difficult to do on a conventional guitar, but depending on the design of your guitar you may be able to perform a behind-the-nut or behind-the-bridge bend to affect the tuning of a sustained note.
To hear another approach to pedal steel mimicry, check out these great Arlen Roth videos:
The Pedal-Steel Effect “Block” Chord Bend
The Tri-Tone Theory Applied to "Pedal Steel" Bends