Playing in tune with the guitar player

The sad fact is that you’re never gonna get a steel guitar in tune, with itself or with other instruments, A 440 notwithstanding.

Guitar PlayerExperienced musicians can usually play in tune with each other pretty well. But if you’re just starting to play in live situations you might be intimidated when you play something and it sounds out of tune with the band, especially the guitar player. WTF you wonder? Everybody’s got an electronic tuner and we’re all tuned to A 440.

The sad fact is that you’re never gonna get a steel guitar in tune, with itself or with other instruments, A 440 notwithstanding. Some string/pedal combinations are gonna sound OK, but others aren’t, and when you combine this fact with a beginning player’s nascent left and right hand technique the resulting sound may be less than optimal. Maybe not even actually musical.

Anybody in the band can play out of tune, but let’s pick on the guitar player’s sorry ass here, because he’s usually the one who creates the most dissonance with a steel guitar.

Your open E string may match perfectly with the guitar player’s open E, but when you play, say, an E chord, pedals down, at the 7th fret it might not sound in tune with whatever inversion of an E chord he’s playing. Hmm, you wonder, I’d better check my tuning. Well, it’s not always your fault; guitar players play out of tune because they put too much or too little pressure on the strings as they play in various positions up and down the neck, and it’s even worse when they use light gauge strings. They unintentionally bend their strings out of tune, so you can’t necessarily trust them as a reference for the tonal center. And most of them play too many notes, anyway.

If you’re an experienced player with some street cred, sometimes you can just establish your own tonal center with the rest of the band by playing with a lot of authority and forcing the guitar player to get with you, turn down, lay out, or just sound bad.

As you go down the steel guitar road of life these tuning issues will gradually be mitigated if you practice a lot and play a lot of gigs with better musicians and your technique and your ear develop and you learn to slant the bar slightly in certain positions and to avoid other positions altogether. But it’s a long road, with lots of stop signs, potholes and construction sites.

Author: Cal Sharp

Nashville pedal steel guitarist for over 30 years. Credits include Stonewall Jackson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Red Sovine, Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Johnny Russell, George Fox, Vern Gosdin, Del Reeves, Gilley's, the Palomino Club and a few others. Retired from the road, playing sessions and clubs locally. I also develop websites, like this one and other music-related sites. Contact me if you need a website. Email: cal at caligraphics dot net or fill out the contact form.

8 thoughts on “Playing in tune with the guitar player”

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