Playing Single Note Style On Steel Guitar

By David J. Stewart

David Stewart playing steel guitar       One of the most beautiful styles of playing the Hawaiian steel guitar is by playing single note style (or "solo" I call it). To me this is the purest form of steel guitar there is, and the most beautiful.

It's a style that's perfect for gospel songs on the steel guitar. I play WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS in this style. Here's the MP3 backing track if you'd like to have it, and here's the Band-in-a-Box file. Also, here's a video if you'd like to watch me play this timeless song. Jesus is precious!

My favorite is John W. Peterson and his orchestra. The album is called TWILIGHT MELODIES and I have an original copy...

1. In the Sweet By and By
2. Follow, I Will Follow Thee
3. Down in the Valley
4. Have I Done My Best for Jesus?
5. Near the Cross
6. So Send I You
7. He Whispered, Peace Be Still
8. My Sins are Gone
9. Jesus Led Me All the Way
10. Then I Met the Saviour
11 When Love Shines In
12 When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Playing one note can be more expressive, heart-warming and effective than playing a handful of notes. This is because playing a single note doesn't sound cluttered. It speaks simplicity to the listener.

Vibrato is VERY important when playing single notes in a slow song, to add life to each note played. It is the expression of one's heart to others. Tone ultimately boils down to what the listener is hearing.

A Word About Palm Harmonics

Also, adding some harmonics every-so-often is an important part of playing any slower steel guitar song, which adds a personal touch. Listen to this wonderful recording by John W. Peterson playing THEN I MET THE SAVIOUR. You can hear him play a palm harmonic note several times throughout the song. Follow your heart and ears and you'll feel where to play harmonics. Palm harmonics sound best in my opinion. Finger harmonics are brighter, but have less substance to the chime.

After awhile playing palm harmonics will become natural and you'll know exactly when to play them, as your ears will tell you. Most players avoid palm harmonics because they are challenging at first to learn, but I guarantee you that you'll be so glad you kept at it once you get proficient at them. No matter how bad you are at picking harmonics, keep at it. Make sure that you're right hand is not curled up; but rather, more straight across the fret. It's won't be perfectly straight, but straight enough.

If you're having trouble getting good harmonics, try to straighten your right picking hand a bit when you go to chime. You'd be surprised how just readjusting your picking hand can make a big difference. The bottom line is that if you're not obtaining good harmonics, you're doing something incorrectly. Once you identify what it is, you'll be playing nice harmonics. Study your playing until it is what you want it to be.

Harmonics are most often played as single notes. Thus, for harmonics and playing single-note style as well, it is essential that you learn your scales.

Here's an absolutely heart-touching version of NOW IS THE HOUR (also called the Maori Farewell Song. It's also very similar in melody to the timeless gospel song, CLEANSE ME I PRAY). You can hear the beauty of playing single note steel guitar in the intro of the song, and at certain places throughout the song.

At 3:21 in the song at the end, you can hear the steel guitar tuning, which is clearly C6th. I listen in a song for when the steel players rakes across the strings, so I know his tuning. Other than that it can be tricky, because you don't know if the player is doing a bar slant or not usually. After you've been playing for a while, you'll recognize tunings from experience, just by the chords used and overall sound.

You don't have to always choose either single-notes verses multiple notes, you can simply play single-note style during part of a song. One of the prettiest things you can play with a single note is to pick the note and then slide up 12-frets (an octave). You'll hear this piece used in Sponge Bob a lot. Pick string 2 open (no bar) and then slide up (beginning as close to the nut as possible) to fret 12. Use plenty of vibrato when you reach fret 12. It's just on one string, but it has "that" Hawaiian sound.

Notice too that the steel player has his reverb turned way up, which is a great effect for SOME songs. Using a lot of reverb makes the steel guitar sound like it's way in the background, which is advantageous when playing back-up behind a singer.

Sol Hoopii and many of the old-timey steel guitarists used the single note style of playing, as did Bud Tutmarc (1924-2006) on dozens of gospel albums that he recorded. Bud used the C# minor tuning on all of his recordings (treble to bass: E - C# - G# - E - B - E ). This is also the same tuning that Sol Hoopii frequently used.

Bud Tutmarc's Sacred Steel

Here's a video of me playing HIS NAME IS WONDERFUL in single note style...

Here's me playing HIS NAME IS WONDERFUL with a new effect that YouTube offers freely, called "Old-fashioned" which gives your video that old timey-look. If you have a YouTube account, go into "My Videos" and find the video that you want to apply the effect to, then select "Edit." Now you can select "Effects" and pick your effect. There's some other nice effects too.

With single-note playing and YouTube's old-fashioned effect, you can record yourself as if playing from the 1930's and share your songs with others...

God bless and enjoy!

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.”