An Approach in Learning to Play Steel Guitar

Steel Guitar

It seems that there are two approaches that a steel guitar student can take to learn to play the steel guitar. One way is to learn all songs and licks using tablature and have very limited knowledge of music theory. The other method would be to learn more about music theory, especially how chords are constructed and rely minimally on tablature. If a player relies entirely on tablature then probably that person won’t be able to play an unfamiliar song or be able to compose a song without help. On the other hand, if a person knows scales and how chords are constructed along with which pedal or knee lever to push to make up a chord, then that person should be able to eventually many songs easier. Sight reading of sheet music is not necessary.With ear training, a person should be able to tell which chord is being played. If a person wants to learn by tablature then read no further but lots of memory work will be required trying to remember the tab for all the songs that a person wants to learn. If you want to learn a bit about music theory and not have to remember tab, then read on.

What nobody tells you about intervals and chords.

There are two basic building blocks for melody and chords. The distance between two notes is called an interval. Chords are made up of intervals. Some chords are stable and some are not stable. These are also called consonant and dissonant chords. Consonance: This is the normal range of tone combinations accepted as implying stability during a given period. Dissonance refers to any sound outside this range. Many attempts have been made to link consonant with pleasant, smooth, stable, beautiful, and dissonant with unpleasant, grating unstable and ugly. These may prove meaningful in a particular context, but generalizations to a broader context. Dissonance: This is recognized as the prime element creating movement in harmony. When the ear recognizes a certain harmony as unstable within the given musical context, it “demands” that this instability or tension be rectified by resolution to a stable harmony. Without dissonance, music would be hopelessly static. The historical development of music can be seen as the exploration of different approaches to the treatment of dissonance so that the musical flow is an ordered alternation of tension and relaxation. In other words, stable chords want to stay where they are and unstable chords want to resolve to a stable chord. It’s that simple!. Some chords are more ‘stable’ than others. ‘Unstable’ chords and triads want to resolve to more stable ones. The most ‘stable’ chord will be the tonic chord and so any sequence ending with the tonic chord will seem to have reached a ‘completion’ while those ending on other chords will seem still to be unresolved. When chords change from one to the next, the term progression is used. Stable (consonant) chords attract unstable (dissonant) chords. When a less-stable chord “progresses” toward a more-stable chord, the term resolution is used. The dissonance-consonance (unstable-stable) concept in the music of the West is the result of five-hundred years of cultural conditioning. A series of successive chords in time is known as a chord progression. There are many more dissonant chords than onsonant chords.

If you look at the piano keys, you will find that the there are 13 keys which keep repeating themselves. A set of these 13 notes is an octave and is called the chromatic scale. Useful scales are derived from picking certain parts of this chromatic scale like Major, Minor scales, etc. Different sets of the chromatic scales are used to make up scales for different keys. You may have noticed that for every key on the piano that the note pattern changes. Not so on the steel guitar. The pattern remains the same when you change keys. All you have to do is change the fret location. For example, on one string, each fret is an interval of the chromatic scale. From a home position or starting position, the major scale notes would be +2 frets, +2 frets, +1 fret, +2 frets, + 2 frets,+ 2 frets and finally, +1 fret to an octave above the starting point along one string. This is the same as saying do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and do.

Many musicians including the Nashville studio musicians use the numbers 1 to 8 which is again the same thing, only it is easier to understand because the numbers stay the same no matter what the key is. Numbers 9 to 13 for notes above the first octave are also included which is just a continuation of the first octave. Find the major scale notes across the strings also.

THINK INTERVALS. The same thing happens when you play a scale across the strings. The pattern is the same for every scale of any key. Starting out on your guitar, learn the key names A to G on all the fret positions for the tuning that is being used. Know the key letter name at the starting fret with no pedals or knee levers applied for the major scale. This sometimes referred to as the home or zero fret position. The home fret is 99% of the time the same as the key or ending fret of the song. After identifying the home position, then find the other places where you can get the same chord by applying pedals and knee levers and make a mental picture of this pattern. Learn where the root notes are for the chords on the E9th neck.

On the C6th neck, learn the scales with the root note on the 7th string, then the 8th string and the 9th string. Learn the chord and the scale around the chord. When proficient at knowing all the chord positions, visualize all the positions as a knitting pattern. To change from one chord to another, move the complete pattern to the new position with the home position as the new chord central location and note that the pattern has not changed, only the location of the pattern. Apply pedals/ knee levers and see how the scale note and chords are affected. Learn what, why and when passing chords are used. Learn chord substitution. This is a lifetime of learning.