Hilton Pedal; Sight Reading vs. Playing By Ear

Here is an update we received in an email from Keith Hilton:

Starting in 2013 the tone control will be eliminated on both the original standard pedal, and the original low profile pedal. It can be ordered as an optional feature for an added cost of $10.00. Why am I eliminating the tone control? Most of my dealers feel I should have eliminated it years ago, because all it does is take away highs. I know of no pro player who ever uses the tone control on a Hilton pedal. Pro players get their tone with the many controls on their amplifiers. I have not raised the price of my original standard, and original low profile pedal, in 16 years. Every part I buy to build pedals has went up in the last 16 years. Instead of raising prices, I am eliminating the tone control and making it optional for $10.00 extra.

This is Bob Hempker and I’d like to talk about the two primary ways to learn to play music in general and steel guitar in particular. You have a choice between sight reading music and learning to play by ear. You will find people who will champion one way over the other and argue why they think the other way is a waste of time. It’s one of those subjects where if you ask 100 people, you will get 200 opinions.

It’s hard to argue with someone who says that Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Vivaldi would be near impossible to play by ear. It’s also hard to deny the fact that Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Pig Robbins didn’t sight read and all three created beautiful, lasting music.

If your intention is to play in an orchestra, it’s hard to organize something like that by ear. It’s imperative that you sight read. Certain instruments lend themselves better to sight reading than playing by ear. The piano is a great example of this because you have everything laid out in a line.

Sight reading is something you have to do every day. It’s a skill that you have to hone every day. It’s not like riding a bicycle. I think that knowing how to read music is great, but knowing how to read music and being a proficient sight reader are two different things.

Learning theory, harmony and such is vitally important for any instrument or even singing parts with other people. You can’t learn too much on these subjects. The knowledge is infinite. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

Knowing all your different scales, modes and such, where to use them, where not to use them all depends on the type of music you’re playing also. A certain pattern of notes over a certain passage of chords may sound great in one particular song, but not in a different song.

Simple types of music like country music, bluegrass, folk music are based around major and minor triads and many patterns of notes would really sound outside the box. But if that’s what you want, that’s another story all together. Theoretically, nothing is wrong as long as you can explain what you’re playing and why you’re playing it.

Having said that, that doesn’t always mean that what you’re playing is going to be pleasing to the listener’s ear.

I feel that being able to hear intervals and know what notes to play with them to accomplish a certain type of feel in a particular style of music is vitally important. It doesn’t hurt to be able to sight read this stuff if somebody puts it in front of you, but I don’t feel that sight reading is the holy grail of playing music.

Let me explain what I mean by sight reading. What I mean by sight reading is to be ultra proficient. When somebody just sticks a music score in front of you and play it back to them like you’ve played it all your life, then you are a proficient sight reader. And believe me, there are people out there who can do that and do it well.

Being able to read and understand why certain notes are played with other notes is almost a must. We should be able to look at a piece of music and figure out what is meant to be played whether or not we can sit down and sight read it or not.

I’m a terrible sight reader but I do know the two major clefs pretty well and can figure out what’s going on by looking at the sheet of music. But again, I’m not a sight reader.

Back to the original idea, how many people really know how to write and arrange for a pedal steel guitar.

Different situations call for different skills. If you’re in New York or L.A. and you’re called for a studio session, they’ll usually hand you sheet music. If you’re in Nashville, you’ll usually get a chord chart.

As far as someone just learning, I personally would recommend learning the Nashville number system, learning scales, chords, harmony parts such as parallel thirds, communicating with the other instruments in the band and learning to play together as far as who plays the lead part, who plays the harmony part, who plays the third part etc.

Try to develop and ear for intervals so that you’ll be able to pick out a phrase when you hear it. You can go to any music store and by a music theory book. If you sit down and study them, they’re not hard to figure out, but you have to learn where all these notes are on your instrument.

After all, how many arrangers know enough about a steel guitar, the tunings, the range of the instrument, etc., to know how to write and arrange for it?

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