Basic Theory of the Standard E9th Tuning

by Bobby Lee

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Sometimes it might seem that there are as many ways of tuning a pedal steel as there are pedal steel players. But if you strip the personal touches and enhancements from the guitars of the most players, you'll find a common denominator of 3 pedals and 3 knee levers. In most instructional material, the pedals are called A, B and C, and the knee levers are called D, E and F.

          ---- foot pedals ----   ---- knee levers ----
             "A"   "B"   "C"         "D"   "E"   "F"
    1 F#
    2 D# ---------------------------- D
    3 G# ---------- A
    4 E  ---------------- F# -------------- D# -- F
    5 B  ---- C# -------- C#
    6 G# ---------- A
    7 F#
    8 E  ---------------------------------- D# -- F
    9 D
   10 B  ---- C#

        

This basic arrangement provides multiple inversions of all of the major and minor chords, all of the fundamental country and blues licks, and a healthy assortment of jazz chords. I've been playing for over 20 years, and I'm sure that there are a lot of positions and licks in the basic 3+3 setup that I still don't know.

Most steel players don't strum chords, but they understand where the notes of the chord can be found on their instrument. The close intervals in the tuning make it necessary to skip strings to get the simple triad harmonies. For example, the open position includes all the notes of an E major chord on strings 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10.

Here are the basic pedal positions for chords on the open strings:


         chord     pedals             strings
 
    I    E major   no pedals          3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10
    I7   E7th      knee lever D       2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 10

    ii   F# minor  pedals B + C       3, 4, 5, 6, 7
    iii  G# minor  knee lever E       3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10

    IV   A major   pedals A + B       3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10

    V    B major   knee lever E       1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10
    V7   B7th      knee E + pedal B   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10

    vi   C# minor  pedal A            3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10
    VI   C# major  pedal A + knee F   3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10

   diminished 7th  knee lever F       3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10

        
Of course, all of these positions can be moved up the neck to get the desired chord. In most cases, if you accidentally hit the wrong string you will get a 6th, 7th or 9th chord that extends the chord you were trying to play.

A long time ago, steel players used pedals to simply change tunings. They would play a passage in an E tuning, for example, and then press the pedals to play the next passage in an A tuning. This technique is still useful in blues and old-timey music, where a more primitive sound is desired.

Modern pedal steel playing includes the use of pedals while the strings are sounding and the bar is in motion. For example, the modern player player may pick strings in the I (no pedals) position, then slide up three frets, activating the VI (pedal A + knee F) position during the slide for a smooth transition up to the next inversion of the triad.

Another modern steel technique involves playing complete melodies using pedals instead of moving the bar. If you look carefully at the tuning chart, you can see that almost two full octaves of the E major and A major scales are available at the nut of the guitar. These scales are of course movable up the neck with the bar. The scale "licks" available using pedals at the I and IV positions are a large part of the modern country sound.

I hope this little article has served to demystify the E9th tuning a bit. It's intimidating at first - all those strings, all those pedals and levers - but the theory behind it is really fairly simple. Where a guitarist uses fingers to play notes on different frets, the steel player uses pedals to bring those notes to the barred fret.

As with any instrument, there's the familiar routine: learn your scales, learn your chords, Practice! If you're a good guitarist, chances are you could be a good steel player. It's easier than it looks, and steel players are always in greater demand than lead guitarists. A word of caution, though - once you start making "that sound", you may never look back. This may just be the world's most pleasurable addiction...

Copyright ©1996 by Bobby Lee

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