Classical Notation for Steel Guitar

The following section contains all the special markings that I will use to write steel guitar music on this website. There hasn't been much standard music written for the pedal steel guitar so some of this is a new way of writing it.

Position Markings

Some sheet music will contain position markings for particular instruments. For example, violin sheet music will include fingering or scale position over certain measures where there may be confusion over how to play a section or phrase.

With steel guitar it may be helpful to mark the bar position under some sections of notes. This can give the player a general idea of where a section of notes is played on the instrument. It also makes reading the music a little easier. Here's how it would look with steel guitar bar markings:

Position Markings

I will not introduce a new position marking until the point at which the position changes.


In some cases, I will put string numbers and pedal names above the notes to help you quickly find the right note:

String and Pedal Markings

In the example above, the 6 means string #6. The B means Pedal B.


If the string and pedal pattern repeats, I will not rewrite it in order to keep the sheet music clean:

Repeat Notation1

Repeat Notation2

These marks should also help to build your sheet music literacy as you eventually read more music that doesn't contain these markings.

Portamento Notation

A "portamento" technique is a slide from one note to another, but, unlike a "glissando," it is smooth so that all the continuous minute pitches are heard between the original note and the last note. Instruments like the piano cannot play portamento, though instruments like the violin and the trombone can. The portamento is the signature technique of the Steel Guitar.

The steel guitar's unique characteristic among other instruments is its ability to play several simultaneous notes with a portamento technique. In some cases that means altering the pitch of different notes at different degrees simultaneously. No other instrument can do this like the pedal steel guitar. As a result special notation should be used to make the music as easy to read as possible.


In my transcriptions, I have used legato slurs to show that the notes are all blended together with a slide or bend ("portamento").

It looks like this:

Legato

The obvious downside to this manner of notating slides and bends is that it would require another type of symbol to indicate non-portamento legato technique.

Legato technique is simply playing two subsequent notes smoothly into each other. Every instrument can perform this technique. On a steel guitar, it would be performed by striking each successive note one after the other with as little silence between the notes as possible. This is obviously different than bending or sliding one note into another ("portamento").

So to differentiate the two, I use the smooth legato slurs like in the image above for portamento, and a dashed legato slur to indicate a traditional legato technique.

Here are the two compared:

Legato Vs. Portamento

I like to use the solid legato line for steel guitar portamento since the portamento technique is found more often than the normal legato technique in steel guitar playing.


Steel Guitar Notation Examples

The following is a list of notation examples of portamento techniques for the pedal steel guitar. Some of these maneuvers cannot be performed on any other instrument other than the pedal steel guitar.

The examples below are some of the more simple and commonly used portamento techniques. Studying these examples will help those who want to learn to write Nashville-style steel guitar music in classical notation.


1.

Portamento Example 1

The G is raised to A. The A is not struck on Beat 2.


2.

Portamento Example 2

The G is raised to A. The A is not struck on Beat 2 while the E is struck.

Notice that there are two sets of rests in the notation above. This is because there are two independent voices.

When 2 or more notes which have different lengths and share the same staff, they are usually written as multiple single voice's (or individual melody lines), including the rests of each voice. In sheet music for other instruments this is the ordinary way to notate many moving melodies on the same staff.

Given the Steel Guitar's unique ability to allow multiple moving melody and harmony lines, this may be the more appropriate notation to use. If you see multiple sets of rests in notation (as seen in the examples below), it means that there are two or more independent voices.


3.

Portamento Example 3

The G is lowered to E. The A is struck on Beat 2.

Notice that these are the same exact notes as in Example 2 above. But they are played differently.


4.

Portamento Example 4

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E is muted before Beat 2. The A is left to ring on Beat 2.


5.

Portamento Example 5

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E is struck again on Beat 2. The A is not struck on Beat 2.


6.

Portamento Example 6

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E rings out across Beat 2. The A is left to ring on Beat 2. They are both muted at Beat 3.


7.

Portamento Example 7

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E rings out across Beat 2 and Beat 3. The A is left to ring on Beat 2 and rings across Beat 3. They are both muted at Beat 4.


8.

Portamento Example 8

The C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The C and E ring out across Beat 2. The A is left to ring on Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.


9.

Portamento Example 9

The G is struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The C and E are struck on Beat 2 while the A is left to ring from the pre-bend strike. They are all muted at Beat 3.


10.

Portamento Example 10

The C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is lowered to B and left to ring on Beat 2. The E is raised to F and left to ring on Beat 2. The G rings out across Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.


11.

Portamento Example 11

The C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is lowered to B on Beat 2 and left to ring. The E is raised to F on Beat 2 and left to ring. The G is raised to A and left to ring. The B and F are muted at Beat 3. The A is muted at Beat 4.


12.

Portamento Example 12

C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is lowered to B on Beat 2 and left to ring. The E is raised to F on Beat 2 and left to ring. The G is raised to A and left to ring. The D is struck on Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.


13.

Portamento Example 13

C and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is left to ring for 2 beats. The G is raised to A and left to ring. The E is struck on Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.

Notice that there are three sets of rests on this staff. This is because there are three independently moving voices in this example.


14.

Portamento Example 14

C and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is left to ring for four beats. The G is raised to A on Beat 2 and let ring for 3 beats. The E is struck on Beat 2. The E is muted at Beat 3. The C and A ring until the end of the measure.

Note that there also are 3 voices in Example 14.


15.

Portamento Example 15

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. They are struck again right before Beat 3 and raised to F and A and on Beat 3 and are muted at Beat 4.


These last few examples show that ties can be used to carry over altered notes across the next Beat(s). Remember that ties are different from slurs because they connect the same notes across beats or measures. Slurs connect different notes played smoothly into each other.


16.

Portamento Example 16

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. They are raised to F and A halfway between Beats 2 and 3 and left to ring to the end of the measure.


17.

Portamento Example 17

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. They are struck again on Beat 2. They are raised to F and A halfway between Beats 2 and 3 and let ring to the end of the measure.


18.

Portamento Example 18

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. They are struck again on Beat 2. They are raised to F and A a third of the way between Beats 2 and 3 then lowered back to E and G two thirds of the way between Beats 2 and 3 and let ring to the end of the measure.


19.

Portamento Example 19

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. They are struck again on Beat 2. They are raised to F and A a fourth of the way between Beats 2 and 3 then lowered back to E and G halfway between Beats 2 and 3 and let ring to the end of the measure.


Striking After Bending or Sliding

If you want to indicate that a note is struck after a bend or slide you can add a unison note (same note twice) to the staff. Below are some examples showing that notes are struck again after the slide or bend to them.


1.

Portamento Example 1

The G is raised to A. The A is struck on Beat 2.


2.

Portamento Example 2

The G is raised to A. The A is struck on Beat 2 along with the E below it.


3.

Portamento Example 3

The G is lowered to E. The A is struck on Beat 2 along with the E below it.


4.

Portamento Example 4

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E is muted before Beat 2. The A is struck on Beat 2.


5.

Portamento Example 5

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E is struck again on Beat 2. The A is struck on Beat 2.


6.

Portamento Example 6

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E rings out across Beat 2. The A is struck on Beat 2. They are both muted at Beat 3.


7.

Portamento Example 7

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The E rings out across Beat 2 and Beat 3. The A is struck on Beat 2 and rings across Beat 3. They are both muted at Beat 4.


8.

Portamento Example 8

The C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The C and E ring out across Beat 2. The A is struck on Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.


9.

Portamento Example 9

The G is struck on Beat 1. The G is raised to A. The C, E and A are all struck on Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.


10.

Portamento Example 10

The C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is lowered to B on Beat 2 and struck. The E is raised to F on Beat 2 and struck. The G rings out across Beat 2. They are all muted at Beat 3.


11.

Portamento Example 11

The C, E, and G are struck on Beat 1. The C is lowered to B on Beat 2 and struck. The E is raised to F on Beat 2 and struck. The G is raised to A and struck. The B and F are muted at Beat 3. The A is muted at Beat 4.


12.

Portamento Example 15

The E and G are struck on Beat 1. They are struck again right before Beat 3 and raised to F and A and struck again on Beat 3.


These are some of the examples I can think of. There are of course several thousand more ways to use the portamento technique on the steel guitar, but these should give you an idea of what the notation will look like.

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