Techniques

There are many techniques used on the steel guitar. Some of them are used by other instruments; some of them are exclusive to the steel guitar. The following list does not intend to be exhaustive, but rather serves as a central location to find many of the more commonly performed techniques on the steel guitar. The next section focuses on more advanced techniques.


Right Hand Blocking

The most fundamental of steel guitar techniques is right hand blocking. In order to keep unwanted strings from ringing out too long the right hand must come down on the strings to block the sound. This can be done with the palm, the knuckles, or the fingers. This technique is addressed in detail in the BLOCKING section.


Volume swell

The volume pedal is essential in giving that "crying" sound to the steel guitar. But it is mostly used for simple sustain.

The basic concept, more or less, is to strike the strings with the volume pedal almost all the way off so that the initial string strike is not heard, and then to slowly depress the volume pedal to increase the swell. There is a lot of room for artistic interpretation here. The unique sound of some players can be attributed to how they apply the volume pedal. Your own style will develop as you use it more and more in your playing.


Pedals and levers

Pedals and levers are used to change the pitch of one or more strings. When more than one string is struck, pedals and levers can allow for the strings to be altered in different amounts of pitch. This can also be accomplished with bar slants, though not as accurately.

The pedals/levers can be applied to:

1. Raise one string while keeping the other stationary:

Raise 1

2. Lower one string while keeping the other stationary:

Raise 2

3. Raise one while lowering the other:

Raise 3

4. Raise one while raising the other at a larger or smaller interval:

Raise 4

5. Lower one while lowering the other at a larger or smaller interval:

Raise 5

More on pedal movement can be found in the PEDAL MOVEMENT section.

You can find more info on using the pedals to change two pitchs at once in the DYADS section.


Slides

Slides are used to change the pitch of one or more strings. Slides can either raise or lower the pitch of the sounded strings. Slides are performed by simply placing the bar on the strings over any fret and striking a note. Then moving the bar to either a higher pitch fret or a lower pitch fret.

Slides can be performed to or from an open position as well, but it is a bit more difficult. To slide from an open position, strike the string(s) without the bar and then bring the bar on quickly right at the nut, while making sure to have your left hand ring and pinky come down behind the bar so as to prevent string buzz. To perform a bar slide to an open position, strike the strings with the bar at any fret and the slide the bar off right at the nut position, making sure to always keep the left pinky and ring fingers down on the strings.

More on slides can be found in the SLIDES section.


Pedals plus slides

Sliding while engaging a pedal is performed while striking 2 or more strings at once. Its purpose is to cause a more drastic change in the pitches of the two strings. The five pedal and lever examples above can also be accomplished with pedals and slides.

You can find more info on pedals with slides in the DYADS section.


Vibrato

Vibrato is a quavering of pitch. It is used very frequently in steel guitar playing.

It is accomplished on the steel guitar in three ways:

1. Bar roll. Hold the bar at any fret. Strike the string(s). Roll the bar slightly and quickly back and forth over the fret.

2. Bar slide. Another way to perform a vibrato is to slide the bar back and forth over the fret.

3. String bend. The third way to achieve a vibrato is to apply downward pressure on the strings and release and repeat rapidly. This creates a slight vibrato that rises in pitch and returns to normal pitch.

Each technique produces a slightly different sound and may be appropriate in different circumstances.

Vibratos can be heavy (wide bar movement) or light (narrow movement). Vibratos can be quick or slow. They can speed up or slow down, get wider or narrower. They can be in sync with the tempo or out of sync with the tempo. The speed will vary depending on the tempo of the song and the exact sound you want. In a lot of written music, the musician is at liberty to choose how a vibrato is played. Some play heavy, some play light, etc. It all depends on the artistic tastes of the musician.


Tremolo

Tremolo is the quick repeated striking of a single note. On a steel guitar this is accomplished in 1 of 4 ways:

1. By using the TIM finger-picking system quickly on the same string;
2. By using the pedals to acquire unison notes on two different strings and then alternate picking between them;
3. By using the thumb pick to rapidly alternate pick the string; or
4. By quickly depressing and withdrawing the volume pedal repeatedly after striking the strings.

Tremolos tend to be in sync with the tempo, but sometimes are not. The speed will depend on the tempo of the music and the musician’s own artistic sensibilities.


Trill

A trill is striking a note and then rapidly sounding another note (usually) a semitone or tone above or below the original note. It is played with a fluid legato motion. Because blocking cannot be applied fast enough to get the required effect by playing the notes on the same string, other ways are needed in order to acquire the trill on the steel guitar.

You can either:

1. Use the a pedal to change the pitch of the string rapidly, (though this is not technically a true trill);
2. Find two adjacent strings that have notes that match the intended trill (pedals or levers may be required to make these notes available). And then alternate pick between them.

These same techniques can be used to play acciaccaturas, mordents, and turns. For detailed description of these articulations, check out the ARTICULATION section.


Palm Mute

Palm mutes are more common on regular guitars than steel guitars, but there may be a need for them with steel guitar too. Basically, a palm mute uses the right hand palm to rest on the strings very close to the changer. The strings are then picked or strummed. The resulting effect is a quickly deadened and muffled note. Palm mutes are particularly used for thick-sounding rhythmic passages, but may have other purposes as well.


Advanced Techniques

The following is a list of some more advanced techniques that I have heard steel guitarists use. Some of these are unique to the instrument. All these add flavor and harmonic possibilities to the instrument. This is not an exhaustive list, but includes some commonly used advanced techniques.


Left Hand Blocking

Sometimes, neither the palm, the knuckles, nor the fingers of the right hand will allow you to block the strings properly during difficult fingering passages. In this case, it is possible to use left hand blocking to control the duration of the struck notes. The technique is performed by striking the necessary strings, and then bringing the left hand thumb down in front of the bar to block the notes that need to be blocked. This can also be done, though it is more difficult, with the left hand index finger. In both cases, some strings can be blocked while others are left to ring. This allows for maximum control over which strings are heard or not heard. And it allows for strumming all strings while muting some with the left hand.


Left Hand Harmonics

To perform a left hand harmonic, take the bar off the strings and hold the side of your left pinky at the 5th, 7th, 12th, 19th, or 24th frets. Then pick the string with your right hand and immediately remove your left hand.

The harmonics yield different notes depending on where they are played.

The harmonic at fret 12 is in unison with the note at the 12th fret.
The harmonic at frets 5 and 24 are an octave higher that the note at the 12th fret.
The harmonic at frets 7 and 19 are a fifth higher than the note at the 12th fret.

So if you strike an E on String four at the 12th fret,
the 12th fret Harmonic is an E in Unison with the barred E,
the 5th and 24th fret harmonic is an E an octave above the one at fret 12,
and the 7 and 19 harmonic is the B note above the 12th fret E.


Pinch Harmonics

The problem with left hand harmonics is that you can only get harmonic notes that are derived from the open E9 tuning. In order to play harmonics in other keys, pinch harmonics are required.

Pinch harmonics can be created using the right hand palm, knuckles, fingers, or the thumb pick.

1. Place the bar at any fret.
2. Then, using either the right hand palm, knuckles, fingers, or the thumb pick, fret the strings 5, 7, 12, 19, or 24 frets away from the bar position.
3. Then strike the string(s) and remove the right hand immediately. The resulting pitch should be a ringing harmonic that is an octave, a twelfth, or two octaves above the barred note.

For example, place the bar at fret 3, then bring your right hand pinky knuckle down on 8th string at fret 15. Pick the string with your right hand thumb and then immediately remove your right hand pinky from the strings.

The note at fret 3 is a G note. The harmonic at the 15th fret is a G one octave above that.

If you put your pinky at frets 10 or 22 instead. The resulting note would be a D note that is a 12th interval (a fifth plus an octave) higher than the G note at the bar position.

You can also use the knuckle, the fingers, or the thumb pick, for controlled pinch harmonics. So if you want to play a harmonic note on one string and an ordinary note on another. Just use any of these three methods to fret the necessary string(s) to obtain the harmonic.


Arpeggio Scraping

Arpeggio scraping allows you to play arpeggios very quickly. There are two ways to accomplish this task on the steel guitar.

One is to strum the strings upward with the thumb pick and use the left thumb to immediately mute each string after it is struck. Going in reverse (strumming back towards you with the thumb pick) is not as feasible however.

The second method for arpeggio scrapes requires both strumming and blocking with the right hand.

Strum the strings away from you, have the small knuckle of the pinky tucked under your right hand, and use it to block each individual string immediately after it is picked. This takes some practice at first. Ultimately, it is a question of getting the angle between your thumb pick and your pinky just right so that, once kept steady, all the strings ring out and are immediately blocked right before the next string is sounded.

Going in reverse is a little different. Use the index finger pick to sound the strings, scraping each one coming back toward you. Meanwhile use the tip of the pinky finger to block the string immediately after it is sounded. Again, your right hand position, once in the correct angle, will stay pretty stiff through this maneuver.

This, by the way, will only work on arpeggios where the notes are found on adjacent strings. When there are one or more strings that are not part of the chord you want to play, you can use left hand finger blocking to exclude the unwanted notes.


Pull-offs and Hammer-ons

Pull-offs and hammer-ons are used often in normal guitar playing, but not as much in steel guitar playing. Because the strings are not fretted, it is only possible to perform this technique at the open position.

To perform a pull-off, for example, bar the strings at fret 3, then strike string 4, then pull the bar towards you and let the new note at the open position of string 4 ring out.

To perform a hammer-on, strike string 4 at the open position, then bring the bar on at fret 3. Remember to bring your left hand pinky and ring finger down behind the bar to avoid string buzz.

Because, the technique relies on the use of the open position, many songs which use this technique are either in the key of E major, E minor, or A Major. One of the more famous pieces that uses this technique is "The Steel Guitar Rag".


Bar Tapping

The bar can be used to tap the strings in a similar way to finger tapping on a regular guitar. Just pick up the bar and use the bar tip to tap down and quickly lift up at the desired fret. Alternate pick between the open note and the barred note(s). This will result in a droning sound. In order to eliminate string buzz, make sure at least one finger tip is coming down on the string behind the bar.


Crash Bar

This technique requires use of a tone knob or tone pedal. With the tone on the thickest side, use the left hand to crash the bar on the strings then crank the tone to the thin side. Listen to Speedy West, Noel Boggs, and Buddy Merrill for an example of this technique.


Behind the Bar Strums

To perform this technique, lift the left hand fingers behind the bar off the strings and use the right hand to pick or strum the strings. If the bar is at a harmonic fret (5, 7, 12, 19, 24, etc.) you will hear a ghost like whisper of a note. If the bar is any other fret, you will hear a dead, non-ringing note.


Pick Scrapes

Pick scrapes are also used on regular guitar playing. Take the edge of the thumb pick or finger picks and scrape them horizontally across the wound strings. The left hand can be used to mute, create a harmonic, or shorten the strings while the right hand is scraping, allowing for a wider variety of sounds.


Bar Depression String Bends

This technique works better on thicker gauge strings and in particular on the back neck of the double neck steel guitar (usually tuned to C6). Place the bar at any fret, strike the strings, and then use downward pressure to bend the string(s). The thickest string on the back neck (.54 gauge) can be bent up a major third or more.


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