I remember the first time I got to really see a pedal steel in action. My band Caution Horse was opening for Wilco at Mississippi Nights, and they were touring with guest steeler, Bob Egan of Blue Rodeo. Bob's rig was stage left and because we were the opener, we were set up in front of their gear, I also being set up stage left. I remember barely having room to move between the monitors in front and the steel behind me, but I'll never forget it. An old looking, brown Sho-Bud pedal steel. I was totally hypnotized! Watching Bob play was like watching a veteran truck driver navigate a rig through the winding hills of the smokey mountains. So fluid and musical, yet rugged and hard. I get the same feeling looking at a pedal steel guitar, as when I look at a classic truck, or an old appliance from the '50s. A mix of old school mechanical function, with the visual lines of classic style, true kinetic art!
Ever since then I always took note of pedal steel players, but it would be almost a decade later before I got the chance to sit behind one for my first test drive. My in laws had a family gathering in northwest, Mo and a college friend of my father in law brought his pedal steel and banjo for an impromptu jam. I inquired about his pedal steel, and he let me sit at it and taught me some basics. From there I was hooked! A few months later he loaned me one of his steels to learn on and I began the journey of playing pedal steel guitar.
Playing pedal steel is complicated and requires a lot of muscle memory. You will spend years honing your skills if you decide to go down this rabbit hole. But, the basics are relatively easy to understand, especially if you have a decent knowledge of guitar or other stringed instruments. It doesn't take long to start playing basic chords and inversions with those chords. Pedal steel can really add dimension and character to a song and works great as a pad instrument on recordings, much like an organ. It's a valuable instrument to have in your arsenal wether you are mixing things up on the band stand or recording.
The first step is acquiring a steel. Steel guitars typical come in two basic designs. The double neck or D-10, and the single neck or S-10. The S-10 neck is usually tuned to E9th chromatic, while the D-10 is tuned to E9th on one neck and C6th on the other. My recommendation is to look for an S-10. E9th tuning will get you were you want to go and if you decided to take up C6th, you can always shop for a D-10 down the road. Plus, the S-10 is lighter and takes up less real-estate on stage. You will also see SD-10 steels which are a double neck frame with a single neck and a pad on it. The pad is there to basically allow you to rest your arms while you play. This feature, while nice, is not really necessary so I would stick with the S-10, which will be the most bang for your buck. One compromise to having E9th and C6th on a single neck guitar is to look at S-12 Universal guitars, which are a combination of both tunings with 12 strings.
You always get more for your money when you buy used and there are a ton of great steels out there. Just make sure the steel is functioning as it should. It can be hard to find someone that can work on a pedal steel properly, but the steelguitarforum is a great way to connect with experts, and also a good place to find a used steel. Typically, E9th pedal steel comes in what they call Emmons or Day set up. Day set up is just an inverted version of Emmons set up, meaning the pedals and levers are basically backwards or in reverse as far as what strings they change pitch. I recommend starting with Emmons set up, only because there is more instructional material out there for it. Both use the E9th tuning and have three pedals and four knee levers. You may run across student model steels that have Three pedals and one or two knee levers. My recommendation is to get a steel with at least two knee levers, one to raise and one to lower your E's. Along with the steel, you'll also need a bar, some finger picks, a volume pedal, and an amp that has some clean headroom. I usually use my Longbeard Tritone combo, which is 20 watts with a single 12" speaker, but I do have a rack mounted, 100watt, Pearce G1 for larger gigs. You may also look at a pack-a-seat seat, but it's not a necessity.
Once you have your steel and accessories, you are ready to get started! Let's begin with tuning, then some basic moves. Tuning can seem a daunting task, but really isn't that bad. Plus, pedal steel guitars typically stay in tune much better than regular six string guitars. I normally tune my steel at home before a gig or session, then take it apart. When I set up again, it usually is still in tune. Temperature change can have a pretty big effect on tuning, so keep that in mind when transporting it or tuning on a cold stage. The following diagram shows what the tuning is for a standard E9th pedal steel. You may note that some note are a bit flat and others are a bit sharp. This is known as sweetened tuning and will allow to compensate your steel to play in tune better across the neck since you have an equal string length for each string, but different diameters of strings. When tuning, tune your open string first at the key head. Then tune each pedal and lever with a tuning wrench at the changer end of the steel. This is the basic process for stander, all-pull systems. Some steel guitars are push-pull systems,which requires a bit different tuning process. The most common push pull pedal steels are vintage Emmons steel guitars. They can be a bit pricy compared to a lot of all-pull steels out there, but if you happen to land one as your first step, congratulations! Push-pulls are considered some of the best sounding steels available!
Example of one variation of sweetened tuning for E9th pedal steel.
Now that you are in tune, lets look at some basic chord grips and inversions so you can start playing. You should focus on the there floor pedals known as A, B, and C pedal starting from left to right. The only levers we will focus on are the one that raises the Es and the one that lowers the Es, usually found on the left and right of your left leg. Check out the video to under stand grips and playing through a I,IV, V chord progression.
I recommend that you use finger picks and while you should be using a volume pedal, you may want to practice by just keeping your for on it, but not actually manipulating it. You don't want to develop a habit of trying to mute the guitar with the volume pedal.
When playing single note scales, lines, or fills, you will need to pick or palm block the strings. Each has it's own sound, but pick blocking is probably more common for faster playing and, in my opinion, is easier to execute.
I also use a lot of harmonized scales to move from position to position. Here is a video to help make sense of harmonized scales.
Though pedal steel requires some practice to acquire the muscle memory required to execute basic chord and single note movements in time, it really isn't as complicated as it seems in the beginning. I strongly urge you to check out the steelguitarforum.com and youtube to help you learn. I have a lot of downloadable lessons available at onlinelessonvideos.com, as well to help get you started. Good luck!