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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pedal Steel - Truck Lab

posted by on July 19 at 11:43 AM

Lgnd592.jpgThe pedal steel guitar is a bitch to play. Players are heady, a combination of trucker and scientist.

The sound of the pedal steel swells in and colors. It implies country, back roads, and voodoo on the swamp. The cross-ties of its presence in a song are ominous and possessed and pretty as a rose. 18-wheelers with their ears on roll all night. Glissando the interstate notes are drawn. Breaker breaker, steady the rig and spit the sunrise down.

Today, pedal steel man, Kevin Suggs, is with us to break it down.

Heís played his pedal steel for the Shins, Brandi Carlile, Rocky Votolato, Luke Temple, and ThorNton Creek. He also plays in a band called Evangeline, which will be at Tractor Tavern on August 10th. They swirl it perty.

Kevin says:

Iíve been playing this freaky thing for over ten years now. When I bought my first steel I had no clue how it worked. I had to get a book to show me how to tune it and get some tips on playing. It took me quite some time to play anything resembling music. It was very frustrating. Pedal steel is a different beast.

10 strings, 3 pedals, and 3 knee levers. The tuning I use is E9. It isnít an open tuning. You canít just strum all the strings and have it be a pretty chord. You have to be very selective as to which strings you hit or it sounds like ass, and because there are no frets you really have to use your ear for intonation.

Mr. Suggs:


The pedal steel guitar uses a metal slide to stop the strings, rather than fingers on strings. The pedal steel is mounted horizontally on a stand. The strings face up towards the player. Itís plucked with fingerpicks mostly. The pedals are used to change the pitch of its strings while being played.

Origins of its technique stem from Hawaii in the late 1800ís. There was a different kind of trucker back then.

Kevin continues:

The pedals and knee levers raise or lower certain strings by an exact increment. Usually, a whole step. Sort of like a whammy bar that only works on certain strings and has a stop at a preset point.

If you place the bar at the third fret and pick the correct strings you get a G chord. Makes sense right? Now if you push the first two pedals down it brings it up to a C chord. That makes sense as well. If you push those pedals in a slow and graceful way it really sounds cool and people think you know what you are doing.

Minor chords are a little tricky. If you want a C minor, you move the bar a half step up from the C chord, pull your foot off the two pedals, and kick the right knee lever on your left leg side. It can get to be a right brain / left brain train wreck sometimes.

The volume pedal that you work with your right foot is a beautiful thing. It allows you to strike the string with the volume off and then swell into the note. This is a big factor in giving the instrument that weeping sound. It can also be used to help hide sloppy playing and I really like that feature.

Iíve always loved country music but never really sat down and studied the classic country pedal steel players. I made up my own licks and stuff. Pedal steel isnít just for country music of course. I play in a lot of rock groups, and have played on a lot of records by non-country artists. I think the steel is very versatile in that way. It works well in lots of places.

I hear that Bon Jovi just added a steel player to his group and that kind of pisses me off. Thatís just going too far.

I play an MSA. They are a top name in steels. Some other good names are Sho-Bud, Emmons, BMI, Sierra (made in Portland), and Carter.

Kevin also plays with Kristen Ward tomorrow, Friday, July 20th at Tractor Tavern.

Heíll have his 18 wheeler parked outside the show. Itís easy to park on Ballard Avenue.

RSS icon Comments


And don't forget Amateur Radio Operator. That Kevin is a busy man!

Thanks for this piece. I am always in awe watching an even remotely competent pedal steel player; my brain hurts just thinking about all those strings and pedals and switches and such.

Posted by Levislade | July 19, 2007 12:17 PM

From what I've read about flying helicopters, playing pedal steel is very similar.

Forget the 18 wheeler, Kevin, you're into helicopters now.

Could Kevin fly a helicopter and play his pedal steel at the same time? That, is the question. I mean, I drum and drive all the time.

Posted by trent moorman | July 19, 2007 12:23 PM

Hands down, the greatest instrument in the world.

Best steel guitar solo ever? Easy: Red Rhodes from Michael Nesmith's First National Band on the song "Wax Minute." Here's an mp3 -- the solo kicks in at the 2:20 part and will tickle, dazzle, then melt your brain.

Posted by Jason Josephes | July 19, 2007 12:25 PM

My ultimate dream is to be able to play a pedal steel.

Posted by Kim Hayden | July 19, 2007 12:28 PM

Nice, Jason. Dude is gettin it.

Posted by trent moorman | July 19, 2007 12:38 PM

Sacred steel anyone? this is some of my favorite lap steel music. Go to

These videos bring much joy

Posted by meal | July 19, 2007 1:07 PM

There's a pedal steel lord in town named Dan Tyack.

He's got some Sacred Steel connection.

He gets it and doesn't stop gettin it. He paid his dues in Nashville and everything.

Posted by trent moorman | July 19, 2007 1:15 PM

Yeah , Jason. That is sweet. I like how he makes it sound like the organ during the hammond solo. Great tone. I need to check out more of Nesmith's stuff. He was one of the OG's of Alt Country.

Posted by K Suggs | July 19, 2007 1:31 PM

I got a student model sho bud pedal steel and I've had it for about five years now...the hardest damn instrument I've ever laid my hands on, also one of the coolest sounding. I like the E9 tuning too although I've messed around quite a bit with the C6 as well. Also I don't use the fingerpicks, just doesn't work for me.

Posted by dan | July 19, 2007 1:33 PM

Hats off to anyone who plays pedal steel. I have long argued that it is the most complicated instrument on nearly any stage, requiring finese and coordination.

Plus, there are few instruments that literally define the sound of a genre, while also being able to operate outside of it.

Posted by Powerpop-Gary | July 19, 2007 1:59 PM

So is this a cousin of the dobro and did the dobro come from Hawaii or West VA? Mountain mamma? Tante

Posted by tante | July 19, 2007 2:25 PM

Oh, and nearly all of my favorite pedal steel players are (or were) operating in the Western Swing genre.

Twangy country dudes playing hillbilly music crossed with big band jazz is a winning combination. Long live Billy Jack Wills, I say!

Posted by Powerpop-Gary | July 19, 2007 2:31 PM

Yeah Dan, The C6 tuning is cool. The MSA I just got is a double neck so I now have that tuning to mess with. As for the finger picks they where the hardest part about learning to play the steel for me. I'd go for one string and hit three. I took them off at first but then realized that the metal on metal action has a lot to do with the tone you get.

Posted by K Suggs | July 19, 2007 2:58 PM

Well put, Trent. You are the Daddy.

Pedal steel players are the sheriffs of music.

I'm spitting right now.

Posted by Monty | July 19, 2007 3:13 PM

No Monty, Trent is the Sheriff.

Well ok, and pedal steel players too. And Roscoe P. Coltrain. But I could so see Trent in some shit kickers.

You ever seen Trent spin things on his finger? He can spin anything. Kind of freaky.

You know if it were back in the day, Trent could have handled the steel, as in guns, real well.

Posted by D | July 19, 2007 4:06 PM

Thanks for mentioning ThorNton Creek. (Any spelling is fine!)

Another pedal monster in town, in addition to Kevin and Dan Tyack, is Bob Knetzger of The Swains. I was lucky enough to play with him in another band for a short while. Just playing near him taught me how little I knew about music!

tante@11: There's some steel guitar history at and

Posted by Don of ThorNton Creek | July 19, 2007 5:33 PM

Whenever I hear a song with pedal steel it immediately gets my attention. Few sounds define a song like that sound.

And while the Chuck Campbells and Robert Randolphs blow me away with their rockin blues jams, I am even more impressed with the dude who can get it to roll in and roll out with just the right country flair - as Kevin describes - nice and smooth, to give a song backbone and character.

Don't know the players, but the following acts come to mind: Don Williams, Gram Parsons, The Byrds, Whiskeytown, Joe Henry and dozens of others. Be sure to check out Some Broken Hearts Never Mend by Don Williams.

Posted by JD | July 19, 2007 7:30 PM

Holy cow. That is one hell of a solo... Thanks!

Posted by wow | July 19, 2007 7:50 PM

check out chris zasche. he plays a mean pedal steel with tim seeley, the maldives, drew victor, widower, and a million other bands.

Posted by bass as in fish | July 19, 2007 8:37 PM

Worthy instrument to be in resurgence and seeing it more and more around town. Great, and sometimes haunting ambient sound. Three more bands who I seem to recall seeing lately graced with the presence of steel...Red Jacket Mine, Downpilot, and Pickwick.

Prefaced with a "conflict of interest" disclaimer (I play in the band), but hell, why not give more thanks to Kevin here for adding steel to one our tracks. We made the 11th hour decision to have steel on our song "Evergreens." Kevin took free reign on the the raw tracks and it turned out great. Completely changed the character of the song.

If curious, the track is on our myspace page (shameless tangential self promotion):

Posted by dp | July 20, 2007 10:20 AM

Cool article!

I'm playing down at the High Dive tonight (Saturday July 12th), and I might show a Sacred Steel move or two.

Posted by Dan Tyack | July 21, 2007 1:51 PM

Powerpop Murphy mentioned his favorite steel guys were from western swing bands. He should go ahead and mentioned Joaquin Murphy from Spade Cooley's band.
Jason Josephes gave us his top steel guitar performace on MP-3, and instead of clashing with Jason about his choice..after buying ton's of steel music the last year, Tom Morrell's How THe West Was Won Volume 4 Pterodactyl Tales, is just the most stunning gorgeous steel album I have ever heard, it's way in your face with the kind of fat steel that plays very jazzy hip versions of classic material, and his guest guitarist is easily on the same level. This is gold. His other volumes don't sound like this one. Volume 4, baby, and let me know what you think. (Yes, I have lots of Speedy West) Andre in S.F.

Posted by ANDRE | August 1, 2007 10:26 AM

Speaking of steel guitar, it's been really interestingto hear Tom Waits Orphans set of 3 CD's, especially the Bawler's CD, which I have copied and usually play in my weekend car trips, along with now, some Spade Cooley, the soundtrack to Angel-A, and some Rhino 50's singers stuff, and some Joey DeFrancesco and Pat Martino.Tom has added a steel player to many of the cuts on the Bawlers disc, and it's lovely, muted stuff. This second disc on the Orphans set is easily the best CD of last year...stunning songs, beautiful arrangements, and very deeply satisfying. Widows grove on this is probably the deepest song Tom and his wife have ever written.

Posted by ANDRE | August 1, 2007 10:36 AM

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