Achieving Success

 Achieving Success Learning the Steel Guitar!

Learning to play steel guitar is, by many accounts, a monumental task. All the pedals, strings and knee levers seem overwhelming.  Who can remember all that and play music at the same time?

Unfortunately, the instrument can also seem overwhelming to some who have been playing for years.  If you've ever felt your playing has stagnated, been in a rut or lost its passion, you've hit the same intimidating wall a beginner experiences.  And believe it or not, the cause for both situations is the same.   I believe what you should strive for is a logical learning system you can use to simplify how your mind thinks about playing steel.

In my many years of teaching, I've discovered the most successful approach to learning can be conveyed using only three words.  When you understand the true meaning of those words, they will reveal the secrets to success.

In specific order of importance those words are:


Each of us has a general understanding of the true meaning and value of persistence and patience, however, grasping the true meaning of perception is much more difficult to understand and comprehend. The dictionary defines perception as:

  • a mental image
  • a level of consciousness
  • an awareness of the elements, and
  • an interpretation of a physical sensation

Each of these elements applies to learning steel guitar. Once you learn how, they will show you the most efficient and least time consuming way to learn.

Mental imaging is in part, understanding how everything must work as a single thought process. Yet a pedal steel player has to think about how to use the feet, knees and hands.  Then you have to think about the chords of a specific song, the song's structure, etc.  These are all separate physical and mental determinations that must be mentally managed and constantly pre-planned. How then can mental imaging be a single thought process?

This seeming contradiction is one of the barriers to the learning process. Most people mistakenly, and in most cases unknowingly, assume their minds constantly make separate decisions for their feet, knees and hands. But, on a conscious level at least, that's not how our minds work. Every day we perform complex tasks which we consider as being simple without thinking of the separate thought processes necessary to complete our intentions.

For example, most people find the complexities of driving to be easy; the reason is simple.  Before we ever get in the drivers seat, we already have the perception that turning the wheel to the left or right will turn the car, pushing the gas pedal will make it go faster, letting off the pedal will make it slow down and applying the brakes will make it stop.  With all these skills programmed in because of previous perception, all one need do is focus on the environment surrounding us at all times, and in so doing we can successfully maneuver thousands of pounds of machinery moving many feet per second successfully in traffic.

Just imagine having to make an emergency stop upon which your life may possibly depend, and before doing so having to take the time to look down and find the brake pedal.  The truth of the matter is, most every day there are those of us who are risking our life and the lives of others, that our foot will find the brake pedal when needed.  The principles that taught you so easily how to drive, can teach you how to play by utilizing the same perception of intuitiveness relative to steel guitar.

When approaching a stop sign we automatically let off the gas pedal and slowly begin applying the brakes as necessary to come to a smooth stop.  Was that a conscious thought . . . no, we simply completed the task by being focused relative to our intentions while applying the principles of perception.   Try to imagine the many different components of mental calculations and physical applications necessary to issue the command to simply stop at the stop sign; it will astound you.

Isnít it logical that being aware of the organizational plans, musical circumstances and physical applications relative to steel guitar will allow you to play your steel guitar in musical traffic?  After all, isn't that how we so easily learned something as complex as driving?

Another great example of perception is a baseball outfielder.  The instant the bat makes contact with the ball, the outfielder immediately begins running toward the place where the flight of the ball will ultimately make contact with the ground. This in itself is an amazing ability, for to complete such a task the mind must manage all physical motor skills (the complexity of which is monumental), and in addition it must make all the analytical decisions concerning the angle, speed and trajectory of the ball. After all these tasks are accomplished with the perception of one task, the ball will come down into the pocket of the glove. Although most everyone has this ability to varying extents, few know how they do it.  The truth be known, it was acquired by applying all the definitions of the word perception.  

Even though the ball will ultimately make contact with the glove, how futile would it be to watch the pocket of the glove while running toward the ball?   A silly analogy?  Perhaps . . . but this is something a steel player is doing when he or she is playing and not focused on the single thought perception.

Without perception of how the mind manages physical motor skills which allow the outfielder to race toward the ball while calculating the speed, angle and trajectory, it would not be possible to accomplish the single task of catching the ball in flight, nor could the challenge of successfully learning and playing steel guitar be accomplished without a similar single focused perception.

Mental visualization of perception or watching the fretboard is like watching the ball, and any refocus while playing steel guitar is similar to an outfielder watching the glove while running toward the ball. This analogy validates that focusing on the ball in flight while watching only the ball allows all components of conscious thought relative to perception to work the way the mind must function to achieve success when engaged in a complex process. Many things we do every day may appear simple until closely scrutinized.

I have found these principles without question apply to successfully learning and playing the steel guitar.  The mind will accept programming if itís done with a perception predicated on a logical foundation.  If the mind is distracted by anything, a mental disconnect occurs for an instant and makes it necessary to mentally reboot.  When refocused, the mind must then make the determination as to where the chord progression and tempo of the song has progressed. Looking at anything other than the fretboard, which I refer to as the instrument control panel, has the potential of disconnecting the mind from the playing process, again, just as an outfielder would be disconnected were they to watch their glove while running toward the ball.

There are, of course, exceptions to most everything. We have all observed great players who seldom look at their instrument when playing. Fortunately for us, steel guitar has the advantage of being one of the most visual instruments in existence because the control panel is in front of us totally exposed.  Those who play instruments which are not as visual must rely on a mental engagement in which they are actually visualizing their instrument and the resulting perception. Mental visualization of perception explains those who play with their eyes closed or seem to be focused . . . somewhere out there while performing. This can, of course, be done while playing steel guitar as well, but make no mistake, the focus and perception are ever present and there's no doubt the visual focus inherent with steel guitar can be used to great advantage.

Achieving success in learning steel guitar equates to a perception and an organizational plan based on total logic which enables the mind to view the entire playing process as doing only one thing, and that one thing is playing.

The application of logic allows the mind to accept and organize vast amounts of information very quickly and is an intricate part of perception which can dramatically shorten your road to success while learning to play steel guitar.  If logic is not applied, the mind reverts to scattered rote memorization brought on by having conscious thoughts about too many things unrelated to an organizational plan with a true perception foundation.

Not having an organizational plan and relying on memorization deflects the mind from doing what it does best, detracts from the natural channeling power of the mind, and therefore becomes counter productive to the organizational process necessary for the ultimate goal of perception. 

The following are a few of the critical elements of perception as related to steel guitar for which a proficient and experienced player/teacher can define the specifics:

  1. Find a logically based specific direction to ensure all physical alignment with the guitar is consistent.  Without consistent alignment, the sight parallax between the eyes and the bar-fret relationship will continuously provide a different perspective of positioning which negatively affects the overall feel of the instrument.  Without an overall feel,  consistency is compromised, and in some instances eliminated. The right hand will never find a home, the feet will not consistently locate specific pedals as needed and the mind will continually disconnect from the analytical process while trying to search for the feel.  In so doing the mind short circuits the critical aspect of musical mental flow as defined within the word "perception."
  2. Be sure all playing procedures are correct and applied to total logic and perception.  Determine the most comfortable sitting position behind the guitar ( I recommend considering the 15th fret), how close to the guitar you should sit, how to configure the right hand, determine if it's best to play with your little finger tucked under or sticking out, how deep to wear the finger picks, how to create the proper angle on the finger picks which best fits your playing angle, where to place the thumb relative to the index finger, how to slightly manipulate your right arm so as to ensure consistent pick angles, consider the perceived advantages or disadvantages of using three finger picks and how to hold the bar so it can best be controlled and used to dampen specific strings. 
  3. Exercise extreme diligence when searching for a very clear and precise logically formulated organizational plan. To identify such a plan, find one that uses mathematical applications which will identify chord positioning and ultimately promote the use of mathematical formulas.  Amazingly, understanding and applying only six mathematical formulas will provide the secret to playing most any song. 
  4. Make all mathematical calculations on the fretboard relative to bar positioning by reading left to right and envision all frets from the 12th fret as looping to the left starting at the roller bridge then again reading from left to right from behind the bar while using the fret numbers and markers as points of reference. The perception then becomes that of a circle in that it is unending.
  5. Achieve a single thought perspective of the hands. While looking slightly to the right of the bar, visualize where the root string is located and its parallel line relative to the fret markers. Doing so will provide a starting point perception of alignment which integrates the right hand into the left and creates the perception of oneness.
  6. To achieve a single thought relative to the mathematical process, the eye identifies the chord, and the mind engages the organizational plan and instantly sends command for the physical response the chord itself being the single point of focus.
  7. A perfect example of perception is considering what most refer too as the volume pedal.  Naming it a volume pedal insinuates the mind set that it is used to control the volume, however if it is perceived as an expression pedal, it immediately changes the perception of its function and allows manipulation improvement without conscious thought.
  8. Learn the principals of establishing a smooth and consistent mental flow.  To do so one must pre-plan that which they are going to play. From the very beginning of any song, the mind must have already planned at least two seconds ahead of that which you actually have intentions of playing.  I consider this as consistent mental flow wherein the mind should be ahead by a minimum of two seconds until the song ends. The farther you learn to think ahead, the better you will play because you are providing the mind more time to make all analytical decisions and to send commands for the physical response. The desired results being achieved, the mind would have maintained that same distance throughout the song while continually preplanning the physical response, which then became a smooth flow of music.

The mind must be managed so as to provide a smooth flow of information based on all acquired principles of perception relative to organization, otherwise the mind cannot make the determinations fast enough to issue the command to the physical extremities in time to execute the playing procedures necessary to create the specific musical intent. When the mind falls behind by getting too close to what is actually being played, it provides the potential for becoming mentally disconnected, and the result is, all physical movements become void of thought process. Our hands, feet and knees, are simply servants of the mind, therefore they must receive a constant and timely flow of information. When the power of perception is in place, you will experience the reward of achieving learning success.

The preceding few elements of perception will provide a basis of insight, or perception if you will, which I'm confident will validate what I have found to be true as a result of my years of teaching.

You may ask a great player about the things I have discussed, and some will possibly say, "I don't think about any of those things . . . I just play."  Logic dictates it is not possible for anyone to successfully learn and play without perception which follows a natural path programmed into the minds of each of us.  The reason they might reply as I have expressed is because they have not identified their perception on a conscious level, therefore their ability to perform is being accessed by the subconscious. However, I have experienced when the subconscious is brought to the conscious level, the results of accelerated progress can be astounding. Everyone who excels and succeeds at whatever they do must have perception.

I have observed some who sit down to their guitar and listen to their hands play without a focused thought process. As their hands begin playing ďsomething,Ē they hope a sound or lick will magically emerge.  If they're lucky enough to find something they like, they must do it over and over in an attempt to program the conditioned reflex while hoping the mind will memorize it and have the ability to recall it when needed. Trying to learn using this approach is all too common and totally opposes the way the mind works.

Organization, not memorization, is one of the answers to achieving success learning steel guitar.  Expecting the mind to memorize countless sounds and licks without an organizational plan, is an exercise in futility and has the potential to extend the road to success out of the lifetime for many.  Most will find themselves in a playing rut, and in too many instances, they lose their desire out of frustration and quit playing.

In contrast, those who have a perception and an organization plan have the ability to identify the chord progression relative to distances as well as substitution and passing chord possibilities so as to provide flawless chord transitions and a smooth musical flow. 

The mind cannot be expected to memorize hundreds of songs and licks, and even if it had the capability (which it doesnít), it would not know where, when or how to use them, which in itself is a result of not having a perception.  The truth is each song has something in common with the other, and when an organizational plan is applied with perception, it becomes apparent. When organized, different chord progressions and key centers make no difference.  After all, when using the musical number system, there are only seven numbers.

Itís never too late to begin enjoying playing as never before. The journey of learning can be enjoyable and rewarding, just as reaching the destination of achieving your dreams of success. Your personal journey can begin simply with the realization that input without perception is negative input. Immediately start the search for organizational procedures to discover the power of your mind.  Always remember, circumventing the power of the mind is not compatible with the true definition of perception.

I hope my thoughts will help others by providing a direction for those not aware of the power of perception which, when applied, will allow a greatly accelerated learning process and provide a lifetime of enjoyment playing the steel guitar.

I believe the mind is by far the most powerful and amazing creation in our universe. Continually exploring and expanding its awesome power is God's will, His gift to each of us, and opens the door to inner peace, happiness and success.


Copyright (C) 2004 by Maurice "Reece" Anderson, all rights reserved.