Learning to Play
The image to the right is by Robert Morrow, and is reproduced here by permission. The guitarist is Chris Darrow and this is the cover from his Pacific Arts release "Fretless".
The cool whiny sound that the steel bar makes when slid against a guitar string has one big limitation. You can't make fancy chords (minor, seventh, etc.) without tuning your guitar to a different tuning than the standard guitar tuning. (Actually, I recommend trying to play lap steel using regular guitar tuning once in a while. It may give you a different sound than you would otherwise get!)
All tunings are shown from the bass (lowest) string, which I'll call the sixth string, to the treble (highest) string, which I'll call the first string. Using this system, standard guitar tuning would be represented as:
Certain tunings require that you use a different set of strings than a normal electric or acoustic guitar would use. Bob Quasar has a string gauge chart on his pedal steel web page. Just Strings has a wide variety of lap steel strings available. You'll get a good overview of what is commercially available by visiting this site. GHS Strings has a list of string sets they sell for acoustic slide guitar and electric Hawaiian and pedal steel guitar. Ernie Ball's web site has a list of their pedal steel guitar string sets, both in E9th and C6th ten-string sets. Remove two (or four) strings and you have your lap steel string gauges!
Andy Volk has written an excellent guide to steel guitar tunings. Slide Rules: Tunings for Lap Steel, Bottleneck, Resophonic, and Indian Slide Guitar covers tunings for 6, 8, and 10-string guitars. Designed to fit in your guitar case, Slide Rules includes over 70 of the most popular and useful tunings for acoustic and electric lap steel guitar, bottleneck slide guitar, resophonic guitar, Weissenborn® and Hindustani slide guitar as used by the greatest players of the past and present. The book features tunings and string gauges for Rock, Blues, Country, Hawaiian, Western Swing, Folk, Celtic, Bluegrass, Jazz, Pop, Cajun, Ambient, Classical, Raga and every genre in between.
Presented in an easy-to-read, graphic manner, the strings, notes, and musical intervals for each tuning are shown along with comments about the tuning; its uses, advantages and the players who've used it. A string gauge chart helps you set-up each tuning with the proper gauge strings.
The most common tuning for acoustic steel guitar (Dobro) is open G:
One advantage to this tuning is that you have three sets of strings one octave apart for each note in a major chord. It's easy to play the same thing an octave higher or lower by just moving down (or up) three strings. It's also great for quick hammer-on type playing.
Some people use this tuning tuned up a whole step to open A:
There is also a tuning called low bass A or Hawaiian A:
On electric lap steel guitar, I started out by using open E:
The C6/Am7 Tuning has been mentioned several times by different people. It's tuned as follows:
The advantage to this tuning is you have almost every type of chord interval under the bar without having to slant the bar. C E G is an C major chord, A C E G is an A minor 7th chord, C E G A is a C sixth chord, etc. You can plays sixths up and down the neck without slanting the bar as much as you would in the open E tuning due to the fact that you have two sets of strings situated a sixth apart (the second and fifth strings are a major sixth, the first and fourth strings are a minor fifth).
The disadvantage is that everything you play sounds Hawaiian until you get your act together (or until you join a Hawaiian band). Once you learn how to play the right combination of strings (and more importantly, how to stay away from certain strings), you can play many different styles. Because the bottom strings are tuned much higher than normal, many people use a combination of fifth and/or fourth strings (in other words, lighter gauge strings) in the bottom three strings. This is the tuning that DeWitt "Scotty" Scott uses in his Basic C6th Nonpedal Lap Steel Method.
Some people play this tuning with the bottom string tuned to C# rather than C. This makes it a A7 tuning and gives you additional chordal possibilities. I think this tuning works better with eight strings.
Here's a list of some other common tunings. Some of these are from Stacy Phillips' steel guitar methods; others from playing around; others are suggested by other players.
Alternative C6 Tuning:
The three tunings above are variations of the C6 tuning I've described previously. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. Experiment with each to see which one fits your style best.Here's another C6 Tuning:
Keith Cary says of this tuning: I was lucky enough to get a long lesson from Vance Terry about 15 years ago. His pedal steel was set up at a club somewhere so I brought one of my spare 6-strings for him to play on. (I only had 6-strings at the time) It was tuned E-G-A-C-E-G. He said that if he only had six strings that's the way he's tune it. He was amazing with those six strings, making fat jazz chords look so effortless. It has that nice 1-3-5 Dobro thing happening on top, giving just a little more space if you want to avoid the 6th. It's always felt too strange to me to not have the root or fifth as the top string.
Em or G6 tuning:
Lance Ashdown writes about this tuning:
This tuning was suggested by Pieter Verkuylen, who says about it:
The above tuning gives you three chords - C major (G C E G), E minor 7 ( E G B D) and G major (G G B D).Hidde Hanenburg's open Gsus2 Tuning:
Note that in this tuning, the sixth string is tuned higher than the fifth string, one whole note below the fourth string.William Leavitt's new tuning from Steel Guitar World:
This tuning gives you a C# diminished chord, a G minor chord, and a C major chord, among others. It's a very interesting tuning for jazzier tunes. More information on this tuning, including tab for a series of jazz standards, can be obtained from Mike Ihde (firstname.lastname@example.org).David Hamburger's G11 tuning from the July 1996 Guitar Player magazine:
Bob Brozman wrote me recently with some additional modal tunings that look like a lot of fun. If you are playing solo lap steel, you should definitely experiment with these tunings. Check out Bob's recent article in Guitar Player magazine.
Eight String TuningsAdditional strings on your guitar means even greater tuning potential. With the additional strings, you can minimize the number of slants you have to play to get your guitar to match the song's harmonies. Here are some suggested tunings for eight-string steel guitars.
This is a very popular tuning, used by Herb Remington among others. I'm using this currently on my Fender Deluxe 8 and find it very useful; it's similar to the open A tuning discussed above, but with the added 6th note (F#) allowing use of minor chords and sixth intervals.
This is an extension of the C6/Am7 tuning listed above in the six string tunings. The addition of an A to the bass and a G to the treble seems to center this tuning around A rather than around C, as on the six string version.
E13 Tuning: (as used by Leon McAuliffe)
Bob says, "I'm using this tuning currently on my eight-string Fender Deluxe. This tuning allows me to play sixths up and down a scale with practically no slanting."Andrew Waegel's A major/minor 7th tuning:
Bobby Black's C6/A7 tuning:
According to Cartwright Thompson, "I got this one from Bobby Black, he said he got it from Joaquin Murphey. The cool thing here is that the bottom B string is tuned an octave higher (1/2 step below the second string). So you have the Jerry Byrd C6/A7 on the top 7, but you can grab the bottom string for a very pretty major 7th, and you get a nice "strummable" A9th chord on the bottom 5 strings."
Bob Quasar's D13 tuning:
Michael McClellan's G13 tuning:
Michael McClellan writes:
John Coltrane got me into it! This does wild things to "Sand" (the Hawaiian instrumental), "Misty" (Errol Gardner's classic), some polkas, and many country beer-drinkers. I pull a string behind the steel with my left hand ring finger, and can get some of the pedal-steel effects while still keeping the Dobro® purity. Using this trick, I can make a weird part of tlhe 13th into a normal major chord. The G13 gives me inversions of a 7th, a 9th, a 6th, a Major 7th, an 11th, and a minor. It gives a real 13th, from root to treble, which the other 13ths don't. When you end a song on this chord, folk sit up and listen!
Pete Grant's D tuning:
This tuning has the second and third notes of the D scale on the top two strings. Pete wrote this about it on the Steel Guitar Forum:
When I had National Reso-Phonic build me an 8-string Model D, it was for the express purpose of allowing me to play Irish traditional music in a more competent manner. After trying all kinds of tunings, I came up with D tuning with a 2 and a 3 of the scale on top. It turned out to be just what I'd been looking for.
A Good Question About TuningZak Watson wrote me, asking the following:
In the numerous tunings you cite on your page, I assume that when the sixth string is tuned to C, that is down from what would be standard on a normal (ie non steel) guitar. Am I correct? I also am assuming (since you made reference to alternate stringings) that all the other strings are, as a rule tuned up from what would be standard. I guess what I'm trying to get at is: Is there a rule of thumb for whether to tune my strings up or down to achieve all of the different alternate tunings?
It really depends on the tuning whether you tune the string up or down. For example, if standard guitar tuning from low to high string is E A D G B E, to tune to open E tuning, you'd tune the A string up to B, the D string up to E, and the G string up to G#.
For C6 tuning the way I've been playing it, you would tune the E string up to C, the A string up to E, the D string up to G, the G string up to A, the B string up to C, and leave the high E string alone.
If you're using regular gauge guitar strings, you risk snapping your lower strings. In the C6 tuning mentioned above, I have used Ernie Ball Power Slinky strings (.11 top string to .48 bottom), but usually use a custom set of single strings based on Bob Quasar's string gauge chart.
If you use a regular set of guitar strings and want to play in a differently voiced C6 tuning, I would leave the low E string as it is, tune the A down to G, tune the D down to C, tune the G up to A, tune the B up to C, and leave the high E string as it is.
I hope this makes sense. Buy some inexpensive strings (I like the Ernie Ball strings for this purpose) and have at it. The good thing about experimenting with tunings on a lap steel is you cannot make the neck go out of adjustment by tuning the strings too high. (I won't guarantee the same thing with acoustic steel guitars!) I've even played in open G, but instead of G B D G B D, I've tuned to G D G B D G (like open E tuning, but three steps higher).
If you have questions, suggestions for improvements, or additional information, please let me know.