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Post new topic Ben Keith’s style
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Author Topic:  Ben Keith’s style
James Lewis


From:
Texas, USA
Post  Posted 27 Apr 2019 1:58 pm    
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Hello, I’ve been playing steel for a couple weeks now and am working on the usual stuff - blocking, changes, the volume pedal, general technique, etc.

I got into steel largely because of Ben Keith’s work with Neil Young. I really like his haunting, minimal style.

At home I’m playing through a GFI Expo X1 4+3 through a blackface non-Reverb Princeton and a Celestion Blue. I use my fingers in lieu of finger picks. Sometimes I run it through a tape delay for fun but I’m trying not to fall into the effects trap. Just sticking to a volume pedal for now!

I’ve noticed that he likes to use simple single or two note lines in just the right spot. When he does it it sounds nice and fat. When I do it it sounds hollow, like it’s missing something, though triads sound really good on my rig.

I realize there might be subtle changes I can make with my home setup to get closer to his sound, but I’m not really worried about that right now. What I would like to know is if there are specific techniques or lessons I can work on to get my single notes sounding fuller. I realize that to a large extent this comes with time, but I just want to make sure I don’t lose focus on how to make a bigger sound with less, say with picking technique or something.

I’d also like to know if anyone had noticed any other idiosyncrasies in Ben’s style that I should listen for, especially im regards to why and when he picks the notes he picks.

Thanks in advance!
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Brian Hollands


From:
Franklin, North Carolina, USA
Post  Posted 27 Apr 2019 2:50 pm    
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You'll need some reverb
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Donny Hinson


From:
Glen Burnie, Md. U.S.A.
Post  Posted 27 Apr 2019 4:55 pm    
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Picking farther from the bridge will make the sounds fuller - try picking between 6" and 8" from the bridge. In addition, thicker picks, and picks with more rounded tips, will add to the fullness of the notes. On the electrical side, to get a fuller sound, don't use lo-cap cables like the George-L's. (They're designed for maximum highs.) Sometimes an (inexpensive) longer cable between the guitar and pedal will also help to tame the highs. Turning down the mids may help too.

Sorry...dumb me. I just noticed you're using a Princeton amp!? Generally, that won't cut it for pedal steel - too little power and very little in the way of tone sculpting capability. (Pedal steelers normally use fairly powerful amps.)
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James Lewis


From:
Texas, USA
Post  Posted 27 Apr 2019 8:54 pm    
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The Princeton rig is just for my living room. I’ve got a Kendrick tweed Twin and an old Super Reverb I can hook up to some cabs with Altec speakers in the practice space, but I’m not really worried about messing with that stuff until I progress a little more at home.

Brian Hollands wrote:
You'll need some reverb


Good call!
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Henry Nagle


From:
Santa Rosa, California
Post  Posted 28 Apr 2019 4:19 am    
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Ben Keith is one of my favorite players too. His playing has always been an inspiration to me, even before I started playing steel.

I agree with the others that a little reverb can really help. Especially if you're playing on your own at home. Maybe it's a crutch. I've learned to be ok with that.

I don't use picks either. I do wish I could play both ways. I just never put in the work. You get a clarity and attack with picks that is really difficult to get consistently with your fingers alone. That said, I think picking with fingers sounds fine, and "pick" blocking - muting notes with your fingertips as you play, came pretty naturally for me without picks. I think the biggest pitfall to look out for when not using picks is that the low end can be percussive sounding and muddy up your attack and tone. The pads of your fingers give an unappealing thump that picks don't. I try to keep the bass turned down on my amp, just to the point where the useless low end "thud" goes away. If you are able to record yourself, do so and listen for that frequency in your tone.

Adding to what Donny said, I would experiment with where you are picking relative to the bridge. Just play one long note over and over again, adjusting where you pick the string and the angle and attitude that you pick it with. Listen to whether vibrato is sounding good or not. Listen to the way the sustain deteriorates as you change your attack. Don't be afraid to slow way down and listen to nuances. I'm sure Ben would approve Smile

I'm not too familiar with GFI guitars. Does yours have a humbucking pickup? I never had much luck getting a good clear tone with a humbucker. I have a friend who uses picks and he sounds great with a humbucker. The picks bring out that clear singing tone. It helps that he's an excellent player. I find a single coil pickup gets me closer to my desired tone.

If you have any opportunities to try out other guitars, go for it. I was fortunate to start with a good ZB Custom pedal steel. I didn't realize how lucky I was. I spent a lot of years and a lot of nice guitars trying to recapture that sound. All good experiences, but I still think a ZB has the best tone for me. Ben Keith played an old Emmons. I had an Emmons for a minute and I could not get a good sound. Clearly that is my own issue. ZBs and Sho~Buds seem to suit me best. I've tried some more modern guitars too.. Williams, Fessenden, Kline. None of them sounded bad, but I had to work harder to get the tone I was after. Tone remains a joyful mystery for me, but I'm happy with what I have now.

Regarding Ben Keith's style, I'm sure you've noticed that on Neil Young's recordings he seems to only appear when his notes lift the song somehow. He'll sit out until the tension of the song is ready for him, and then he'll play something beautiful, and usually very simple. Much of Young's music lends itself to this dramatic and measured approach. My other favorite player is Ralph Mooney, and that guy could play heavily throughout a song and sound gorgeous the entire time. He wouldn't have done that on Harvest though. Moon and Keith both had a great feel for finding the pocket and the tension in a song, and staying true to it. Always listen for opportunities to not play. I remember breaking a string mid-song. As I hurried to replace it and get back to playing, I couldn't help but notice that the band was sounding really good without me. I still struggle to hear when to not play. I'll never be Ben Keith, but I'm closer when I shut up for a minute.

Oh, one more thing - on an old Fender amp the #2 input has a lower gain. I find this input works much much better for pedal steel guitar. Steel pickups tend to be relatively hot and the lower gain gives you a bit more headroom. It actually thins your attack, but it gives your sustain more room to bloom, and that is usually where the sweetness is, I believe. I think this can be especially important when you're playing without picks.


Last edited by Henry Nagle on 28 Apr 2019 4:38 am; edited 1 time in total
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Tim Sheinman


From:
Brighton, UK
Post  Posted 28 Apr 2019 4:35 am    
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Hi James, would you consider putting up a little video of your playing so we can give you some more concrete feedback? Something simple shot on a phone would be fine.
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John Goux


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 24 May 2019 8:18 pm    
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Congrats on sticking by your guns using your fingers.
For more definition on the thumb, you could also try small thumb picks with fingers. The skin on the side of your thumb is still usable for muting.
And since you are playing a lot of single lines, try a flatpick with fingers.
You will need to adjust your rig for more definition.

This is not the traditional way to play pedal steel. Don’t be put off by forum traditionalists.
Ben has to deal with Neal’s wall of distortion. (On electric tunes). I am sure he arrived at his style after much experimentation.

Have fun. John
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Fred Treece


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 25 May 2019 11:15 am    
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Ben Keith was a great musician, but he also was a gifted record producer. When you have that ear, for knowing how each part of a song fits together and where it is supposed to sit in the mix for maximum effect, the result will make it seem like the part can be played no other way, and with no other tone. I don’t think this type of idiosyncrasy can be taught or explained, it can only be experienced.
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