So what is the pedal steel guitars role in a lot of the stuff you might be likely to be playing on? It's chiefly associated with country music, but it's certainly not limited to that. But let's just for the sake of argument stick to country music for a second, because that's where its role is most clearly defined. It also serves as a perfect illustration of what it's really good at doing.
The pedal steel is called a guitar, but it really has a very different role than a regular guitar. With a regular guitar, you can be part of the rhythm section, you can just strum along and be part of the, you know, really almost part of the drum kit, hanging out with the high hat, especially very friendly with an acoustic guitar, or any kind of strummed instrument.
You don't really strum the pedal steel, it's just not how it works. It's a very declarative instrument, you've got to decide what you're going to play when you going to play it, and you don't want to be playing all the time. You want to make sure not to step on the vocalist, but you also want to try to answer or compliment the things the vocalist is doing.
Another classic use it would be to kick off a song, very common to kick off and end a song, and also to introduce sections within a song in an interesting way. So you could have heard something like . . . vocalist commences here, you get the general idea. Simple intro, one, five, and one, and then back to one, and the singer starts. Okay, so you can just stop right there for awhile, let the singer sing, his generic milament . . . my dog left me, I'm so sad and blue, and now what I'm going to do with this song is up to you baby. So there you see, you're playing between the vocal and the vocal, you're trying to avoid, set him up, set her up for his next moment, get out of his way, but allude to the shape of the song. Especially useful if you're going toward the four chord, for example . . . I'm just sitting here playing this song. Aha, so what did we do there, we just did like a seventh chord, which just wants desperately to go to the four, and it just as sure as could be that you feel the tug, that that's where it wants to go.
So those types of things work really well with pedal steel, taking advantage of changes in chords because it is so perfectly suited at changing chords in a very fluid and fascinating way, that's what the steel works really, really well for. Also ending legs, I mean who hasn't heard . . . there you go, what more could you ask for, right? So the sky's the limit, really. You can play any kind of music, I'd say not confined to country music at all. You can play jazz, you can play swing, you can play the hardest rock you want, it's a polyphonic instrument, it works in every key. There is absolutely no obstacle except your imagination, and really it's timely for it to be heard in other kinds of music because it's a musical instrument on its own and it doesn't need country music as its sole reason for being. Good luck finding your way.