Playing Hawaiian Music On the E9th Pedal Steel
By David J. Stewart
September 2011 | Updated May 2023
The E9th pedal steel is perfect for playing Hawaiian music...
“Steel guitar is a Hawaiian instrument by birth and what I consider to be the signature sound of Hawaiian music. Having undergone many changes, both physically and musically, in the hundred-plus years of its existence, it is, I will say without hesitation, one of the most difficult instruments to master.” —Jerry Byrd, “It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music,” by Jerry Byrd (1920-2005); © 2003, p. 110.
There are a few things to consider about playing Hawaiian music on the pedal steel. First, here is a video of me trying to play “Beyond The Reef” on the E9th pedal steel so you can see that it can be done. You'll see that I'm using bar slants. I am playing it first in C6th as if it were a lap steel (by lowering the E's to Eb), but then I finish by using the colorful E9th pedal steel... Beyond the Reef 01. The pedal steel brings a vibrant eyebrow-raising sound to standard non-pedal songs. Basically, you're mixing Country and Hawaiian. Of course, this is not traditional Hawaiian music. To sound authentic, you must not let your listener know that you are using pedals. This is accomplished simply by pressing the pedals or knees before picking the strings.
Note that at 2:07 to 2:11 in the preceding video for “Beyond the Reef,” I use “palm harmonics” to play that pretty piece. I start at fret 13 and then move up to fret 15, pressing A and B pedals. In this harmonic technique, I place the palm of my right hand across strings 5,6 and 8 and chime all three notes together. Most steel guitarists only think of chiming one note at a time, but you can chime as many notes as your finger and palm can cover. I often chime strings 3 and 4 together at the end of a song using my 2nd to pinky finger. I've watched Lloyd actually lay his middle finger (it might be his pinky) on strings 3 and 4 to silence them first, and then he chimes them by individually picking them simultaneously with his thumb and forefinger. Cool!
Also, native Hawaiians don't recognize most of the Hawaiian steel guitar favorites that we cherish. Native Hawaiian music features only percussion and chants. It was Hollywood that introduced many of these new songs, such as “Beyond The Reef” and “Lovely Hula Hands” (sang by Elvis, Bing Crosby, Marty Robbins and others). Those are the songs that steel guitarists love to perform.
So there are two things to consider here: one is that you can just lower your 4th and 8th strings to Eb and play the E9th pedal steel neck as if it were a C6th non-pedal steel (you just need to avoid the 9th string, which will produce a sour tone). From strings 10 to 4 you have the C6th tuning (as long as the E's are lowered on strings 4 and 8). Pretty cool huh? And if you depress pedals A and B together, and lower string 8, you have the B11th tuning (you can't lower 4 though, so when I avoid string 4 when 8 is lowered, and vise versa). I'm telling you this so you'll understand that you CAN perform Hawaiian music on your E9th neck.
Perhaps no one better demonstrates what I am saying than my ole friend Leonard T. Zinn. I first heard Leonard back in 1994 at an Indy Gospel Show. Thankfully, I recorded it all and recently burned Leonard's recordings to WAV and MP3 files. Here are the MP3's of ten songs (192kbps). Leonard for as long as I've known him has played a S-10 MSA. In these songs you'll hear some of Leonard's beautiful Hawaiian style, which you can learn from. In particular, Leonard makes superb usage of chord progressions, which few steel guitarists ever learn. Well, here's your chance (I cherish these recordings and I'm sure you will too)...
He Touched Me
It Is No Secret
Jesus Keeps me Singing
When They Ring Those Golden Bell
Nearer My God To Thee
Peace In The Valley
Just A Closer Walk
Where Could I Go But To The Lord
Here's Leonard playing a Hawaiian favorite...
Beyond The Reef - Leonard T. Zinn
Keep in mind that Hawaiian music is a STYLE and not a tuning. With that in mind, I recommend trying to learn the techniques particular to Hawaiian music and then apply them to the E9th. The best way to do this is to listen to lots of Hawaiian music. Leonard Zinn has some albums available, great stuff, where you can hear him performing Hawaiian on the E9th (but you won't hear the pedals). The trick is to press the pedals BEFORE you pick the strings, so you don't hear that famous "twang" in Country music.
Again, keep in mind that you have a complete C6th 6-string right there on your E9th neck. By using the E knee to lower strings 4 and 8 a half tone, you have the C6th tuning. On fret one, with the E's lowered you have from the 4th string to the 10th (treble to bass)...
E - C - A - G - E - D# - C
String 9 is the only undesired note. If you carefully avoid the 9th string, you have a complete 6 string C6th tuning. Ninety percent of everything played on the C6th is played on the 1st few strings anyway. With the E's lowered, strings 4 through 8 on your E9th pedal steel neck are the same as strings 1 through 5 on a C6th lap steel. So I generally leave string 10 alone. That way I don't have to worry about the sour note if I hit string 9. It works fine for playing Hawaiian.
Having said that, if you get Jerry Byrd's tabs and instruction course (highly recommended) for C6th from Scotty's Music, then you can play most of it on your E9th pedal steel with the E's lowered. In fact, Jerry recorded many of his Hawaiian songs on a non-pedal Sho-Bud guitar that Shot Jackson custom-built for him in the 1970's. Jerry hated the guitar at first, which he devotes a chapter to in his autobiography (It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music).
In fact, that's the basic premise behind the Universal Tuning, that is, a 12-string hybrid pedal steel guitar that gives you E9th and C6th all in one. I started out learning on a D-10, so I have never gone to Universal, but it is intriguing and tempting.
You can play anything on E9th pedal steel that you can on a C6th lap steel. Just lower the E's. Your C6th tuning is found on fret one of the E9th pedal steel, so actually, with the strings open and the E's lowered you have a B6th on your pedal steel.
Leonard Zinn has recorded some wonderful Hawaiian albums using an S-10 E9th pedal steel. I highly recommend listening to his recordings because he definitely has an authentic Hawaiian style. Here is Leonard playing "Song Of The Islands" on C6th non-pedal steel, where you can hear his great STYLE...
Song Of The Islands - Leonard T. Zinn
Learning the Hawaiian style in my opinion is the key to playing Hawaiian in any tuning.
Here are some tabs on how to play 9th chords on the C6th lap steel. These are C9th chords. You can play these exact same chords on your E9th by lowering the E notes...
The first chord above is a C9th chord and is a somewhat popular tuning for Hawaiian music. Jerry Byrd plays "Moon Of Manakoora" in the D9th tuning (tabs available from Scotty's Music). All you need to do to change your C6th to D9th on a lap steel is lower string 4 from G to F#. On the E9th pedal steel you can do a bar slant to get a D9th chord.
This is why I highly recommend learning to play the C6th lap steel for all pedal steel players. It can all be played right on your E9th pedal steel. Most E9th pedal steel players don't realize that they have everything right in front of them to play authentic Hawaiian music.
Plus you have the benefit of giving the song a country flavor as well. I sometimes like to play the first part of a song using the C6th on my E9th pedal steel (Hawaiian style), and then play it country style using the pedals for the last part. It makes the song more interesting to the audience of listeners. They get to hear Hawaiian and then country.
In my opinion, C6th is much better for Hawaiian music, which is great for E9th pedal steel because you have the C6th and a whole lot more available.
You also have the B11th tuning on the E9th pedal steel, which is very popular for Hawaiian songs (such as Sand, How D' Ya Do, Hana, Mapuana, et cetera). Open fret, by pressing the A and B pedals, you have the B11th tuning on strings 4 through 7. If you lower string 8 when needed, that will give you the 5th string of the B11th tuning. The B11th tuning is (treble to bass)...
E - C# - A - F# - D# - C#
The beautiful thing about having the E9th pedal steel guitar is that you have the C6th, the B11th, the D9th, the E9th and other tunings at your disposal. Most players don't even realize that they've been playing B11th, C6th, A7th, D9th and other tunings for years.
Play The E9th Pedal Steel Without Using Any Knees Or Pedals, Just Like You Would A Lap Steel...
Jerry Byrd's “ADMIRABLE BYRD” album is all E9th and can be played directly on the E9th pedal steel, note for note. Here's Jerry's E9th tuning (from high to low: E, B, G#, F#, E, D, B, G#). Jerry usually uses a G# on string 8, but on some songs, like “It Is No Secret,” he switches strings 7 and 8 (i.e., G# on string 7, and B on string 8). Sometimes Jerry also uses an E note on string 8, but everything he performs on the album “Admirable Byrd” uses the tuning specified above, with a G# on string 8.
If you get the tabs for "SAND" in B11th, you can play it on your E9th pedal steel, you just need to remember that the top E note (string four) needs to be E, and your bottom E (string eight) needs to be Eb. So you can't really strum the B11th tuning, but you can play a song like "SAND" which doesn't require a full strum. Of course, if you don't lower your 4th string like Jimmy Day and Lloyd Green, then you have a perfect B11th tuning with pedals A and B down. You also have the C# note on string 10 to complete the B11th (but again, you must avoid that sour note on the 9th string).
This all relates to playing Hawaiian music on the E9th. There's really no such thing as playing Hawaiian music in the E9th tuning on a pedal steel (unless you don't touch the pedals or the knees). By using the pedals and knees you are using the C6th, B11th, A7th and other tunings to obtain your sounds. So my point is why not learn those particular tunings and play it on your steel? In particular, I'd stick to C6th to avoid being overwhelmed at first. C6th is the way to go.
Jerry Byrd often said that the C6th is the most versatile of all the tunings. He may have changed his opinion in latter years with his diatonic tuning (which is nothing less than genius, but that's a different story and strictly non-pedal steel guitar). The tuning is (treble to bass)...
E - C - B - A - G - F - E (Jerry's experimental Diatonic tuning)
Danny Boy is awesome in Jerry's diatonic tuning. But going back to the C6th, Jerry Byrd used the C6th throughout his career, as did others.
Don't be afraid to learn the C6th, because you've been playing it on C6th all along, every time you lower your E's. The thing that you need to learn is how to play lap steel tabs on it. Here is an example, my tabs in C6th for “Beyond the Reef”...
Beyond the Reef Tabs using C#
Beyond the Reef Tabs using Bb
I'm grateful to God that I've been blessed to play steel guitar since 1992. What a beautiful, majestic and challenging instrument! I've never heard anyone teach this, but the best way to learn the C6th pedal steel is to first learn lap steel. I had a hard time comprehending the C6th pedal steel at first.
Whereas you can play an entire song on one fret on the E9th pedal steel (having the entire chromatic scale available); you cannot do that on C6th because you need to move the bar to obtain a chromatic scale (12 notes of an octave). C6th is a different mindset. Some of the older players who began on C6th lap steel had a hard time learning the E9th pedal steel years later, because it is a different mindset. They're both beautiful tunings.
Like many players, I relied on tablature and memorized tabs to play a C6th song on pedal steel. You can move beyond that if you'll take up C6th lap steel. It will open the eyes of your understanding. Plus, you'll have a new skill on lap steel, which you can carry under your arm and is very lightweight. Lap steel is awesome and you can play so much. Most beginners to lap steel are not aware that Jerry Byrd wrote an instruction course and that many tabs are available. Jerry's instruction course and tabs are awesome.
I didn't take up lap steel until I started having neck problems (peripheral neuropathy) in 2004. When I learned the basic C6th and the need for bar slants to obtain the different chords, it became clear as day why the C6th pedal steel was designed the way it is (but that's a different subject).
I recommend buying some of Jerry Byrd's Hawaiian albums and pick some songs that you would like to learn. Then request a list of Jerry Byrd tabs from Scotty's music and see if C6th tabs are available for the song you like. Jerry tabbed out hundreds of individual songs. Then learn to play it on your E9th pedal steel (with the E's lowered to give you C6th).
Keep in mind that authentic Hawaiian steel guitar does not use pedals and so it's important to be careful to avoid the "twang" distinctive to country music. You simply press the pedals first to obtain your desired chord, and then pick or rake the strings.
Technique is everything in Hawaiian music. For example: sliding up an octave is a distinctive Hawaiian sound. With your E's lowered, pick or rake across strings 8 through 4 at fret 3, letting the notes ring, and then slowly slide up an octave to fret 15. This is the most popular sound in Hawaiian music.
Here's another version of "Beyond The reef" on E9th pedal steel. You can hear the classic Hawaiian octave slide which I am referring to at the end...
Beyond The Reef 03
Another great Hawaiian technique is to mute the strings at the bridge. You don't want your hand on the bridge, but just before the bridge. Here is an example of muting sounds like at 2:00 in the video. This technique can be used on pedal steel too. I am playing in the A6th tuning here, which is the same as C6th with a high G (just 3 half tones lower)...
I have enjoyed learning to play lap steel so much, and it has greatly helped me to understand the pedal steel. I couldn't figure out for years how Lloyd Green (I love Lloyd and Jerry Byrd, they are my musical heroes) obtained a G note on the 6th string by doing a forward bar slant. I tried and tried and it never sounded right. I just couldn't figure it out and it was so frustrating.
When I bought Jerry Byrd's steel guitar instruction course from Scotty, Jerry showed the way to do a forward bar slant to play a diminished and augmented chord on the C6th. There's a drawing in the book showing the bar tip positioned exactly BETWEEN the two strings. That blew me away because I couldn't understand that technique for so long. I couldn't grasp that concept until I actually saw it. I had been slanting my bar across string 4 only, so string 5 was flat and sounded terrible. You have to place the bar directly in the middle of the strings, so that the tip of the bar rests between the strings. You can see and hear me play this chord at 3 seconds into the following video, doing a forward bar slant. I love this chord and use it quite a bit now in my style...
Example of Dominant 7th Chord using forward bar slant
E9th pedal steel is perfect for Hawaiian playing, it's just a matter of learning some basic Hawaiian techniques. There are many different styles that can be played and that's what I recommend, that is, focusing on the techniques of the Hawaiian style.
Vibrato is another important technique and a distinctive characteristic of Hawaiian music. Here I play "Near The Cross" in the Hawaiian style, using simple single notes with a lot of vibrato. You could play this easily on the E9th pedal steel guitar...
Near The Cross
Bud Tutmarc's style was characterized by mostly single note playing on the C#minor7th lap steel tuning.
Lots of reverb is a distinctive characteristic of certain Hawaiian songs, such as "Moon of Manakoora" and "Bali Hai," producing a dreamy effect to the song. In other songs, like "Lovely Hula Hands," too much reverb would ruin the song.
Harmonics are an important aspect of playing Hawaiian music in any tuning. Some songs like, "Kewalo Chimes," are performed completely with natural harmonics. "Natural" meaning that you chime the open strings at frets 5,7,12,19 or 24. It is easier to chime frets 5 and 7 by picking slightly closer to the bridge.
The volume pedal is also important, VERY important to learn. Jerry Byrd mastered the technique of picking a string with the volume pedal backed off, and then he would slide up into a note while raising the volume. Here's a perfect example of this technique from the song "Sophisticated Hula." This may seem difficult to do, but it simply requires getting the "feel" for it. A lot of techniques are more felt than anything. All jerry is doing is picking the note before pressing down the volume pedal, and he slides up into the note at the same time. This is a Hawaiian technique that can be used on the E9th pedal steel (as well as any steel guitar)...
Example of using volume pedal for Hawaiian technique
Hawaiian guitar is a unique style that once learned is like riding a bicycle, that is, you'll never forget how to do it. The steel guitar is profoundly simple, yet takes a lifetime to master. I've just scratched the surface and have so much more to learn. I love the challenge. After playing steel guitar for decades, I'm more of a student today than ever before.
I don't claim to be an expert, just an amateur that's still hungry to learn and share what I learn with others. God bless.
Take someone to the islands today with your music!
If all you have is music, you have nothing! You need Jesus Christ as your personal Savior to truly be prosperous in life. You may be the poorest man in the world materialistically, but if you have received Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God; believing on His name to forgive your sins, then you are a rich soul indeed!
John 20:31, “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”