Response to Pedal Steel of the Future

July 25, 2013

This is Bob Hempker and just as I expected, I got a ton of replies to the last newsletter and I wish I had space to print many of them, but unfortunately don’t.

Most of the respondents agree they don’t want to see the steel guitar changed and don’t look forward to it at all. I was surprised however, at how many people are looking forward to it and even had a bigger vision of what could be done than I do.

I want to thank everyone who replied. I love hearing what people think and have to say. Since I can’t print all the replies, I thought this one was very well thought out so here it is.


I tend to disagree with some of your ponderings. Even though everything you mentioned can be done, I doubt it will be successful.

1. If you look at Line 6’s line of Variax guitars, they can do almost everything you mention as far as being able to change tuning electronically on the fly BUT, it is very confusing to hear one note coming from the string acoustically (no matter how softly) and another note coming from your amplifier. Gibson’s robotic tuner system that mechanically retunes the strings with motors is a much better (and probably more successful in the market place) way of doing it.

2. The steel guitar you describe sounds more like a “Guitar Hero” game controller or toy and will be no more successful for creating / playing music.

3. It is more likely that a synthesizer will acquire a very realistic steel guitar voice rather than use a steel guitar to synthesize other instruments.

4. Traditionally organs have always tried to synthesize (or voice) other instruments so it makes sense that a keyboard will remain the preferred method of synthesizing other instruments.

5. Midi output from a steel guitar might be something a steel guitar player would do on a budget in home recording session (as guitarist now do) but don’t use on actual live performances. I suspect that the variable delays in the electronics to detect the pitch and translate it into a midi signal may limit it’s usefulness to mainly recording sessions.

6. Midi sampling still can not duplicate the real instruments dynamics and related nuance sounds. For example, a sampled piano key note can not reproduce the sympathetic vibration of the other strings as that may have the dampers open etc. Ever had a classically trained piano player play a sampled keyboard? It drives them nuts. (Not just the keyboard dynamics, but the sound or note interaction as well!)

I do however see servo motors replacing the mechanical mechanisms replacing all the mechanical levers, rods, etc. being replaced with pots on the pedals and levers feeding a controller that moves small servo motors to pull or push strings as “programmed or tuned”. (Look at your modern automobile gas pedal, chances are it has a potentiometer or encoder on the pedal with an actuator controlling the throttle.) In addition if this technique is applied to the universal 10 string steel guitar (E9, C6, and 12 string type tuning on one neck), like the Delvis brand of steel guitars, it would be light and compact enough for us oldster’s to lug the instrument around.

For steel guitar to make a come back, I think we have to stop trying to compete with guitar players playing flurries of notes as fast as possible. Maybe it is impressive to other steel players to show off how fast you can play, but it doesn’t’ set the instrument apart. If you listen to the classic country tunes you will hear those amazing fills and solos with relatively few notes. Playing as mentioned in the June 20, 2013 re-run of Bobbe’s newsletter.

Incidentally, have you noticed that accordions seem to be making a comeback? Also in the LA area, tubas are one of the most stolen instruments.

Tuba Raids’ Plague Schools in California

Give it some time, the sound of a steel guitar is unique, it will make a comeback, just don’t try and make or play it into something it is not.

Thanks for the newsletters! I appreciate every one of them!


Bob Hempker with a final comment. Accordions and tubas. I hope this doesn’t portend a comeback in oom-pah-pah bands.

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