There is a better way. With this simple technique, you can use an alternate tuning to turn your regular six-string guitar into a convincing facsimile of a steel guitar.
Understanding Steel Tuning
If you've gotten your toe wet with alternate tunings on standard six-string guitars, you've probably found that some of the most common ones are based on major triads (ex: open-E, open-G, open-D). Some six-string lap steel players are content to use similar, if not identical, triad-based tunings. This is fairly common when the lap steel is utilized in rock or blues.
However, to get the characteristic sound we associate with steel guitars, we need to examine the tunings used in their natural habitat of country and western swing music. Players of lap, table, and pedal steel guitars in these styles tend to favor more harmonically rich open tunings. Instead of a plain E-triads, you will more often encounter E6, E7, and E9 open tunings.
For ambition's sake, let's try and tackle the most full-bodied of these examples, the E9 tuning. A common E9 tuning occurs on the eight-string table steel guitar (from low to high): E-G#-B-D-F#-G#-B-E.
Modifying for a Standard Six-String
When we look at the western swing E9 tuning used on 8 string table steel guitars (E-G#-B-D-F#-G#-B-E), we see the 5 unique pitches of a dominant E9 chord: E, G#, B, D, F#. The remaining 3 strings are used to double the root (E), third (G#), and fifth (B) of the chord at different octaves. By eliminating two of these doublings, we can condense this tuning down to six strings.
But which doublings are we to dismiss? At first glance, it would seem like the best solution is to eliminate the lower octave B and the higher octave G# from the 8-string E9 tuning (E-G#-D-F#-B-E). That way, only 2 strings from standard tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E) are detuned, just by a half-step.
On closer inspection though, this solution ignores what is maybe the most characteristic sound of the E9 tuning on the 8-string table steel guitar - the dissonance created by the adjacent F# and G# strings. Surely, this is not what we want to do. This would be like altering your grandmother's award-winning chili recipe by removing her secret ingredient (Which is probably nutmeg. It's always nutmeg). So if we instead eliminate the higher octave B and lower octave G# (E-B-D-F#-G#-E), this steel-defining sonority is retained.
Applying the Six-String E9 Tuning(Note: Using a slide is recommended for all of the following examples to further mimic the steel guitar sound.)
As with triad-based open tunings, playing across all six strings at any fret using the E9 tuning will give you a well-defined chord. Specifically, a dominant 9th chord. Therefore, the quickest way to integrate this tuning into your playing is using it on chord progressions consisting entirely of dominant 7th chords (ex. 1). The most common will be the 12-bar blues.
Unfortunately for this tuning (and fortunately for the sake of music), very few chord progressions will lend themselves to using dominant 9th chords exclusively. For the remaining examples, we will work with a I-vi-IV-V7 chord progression in the key of C (C-Am-F-G7).
The G7 chord can be replaced by a G9, but the remaining chords will need different solutions. If we play the C9 chord at the 8th fret, we get the following spelling from top to bottom: C-G-Bb-D-E-C. In order to eliminate the dominant tonality from this chord, the Bb needs to be removed. The simplest way to do this is to play only the top 3 strings of the 8th fret C9 chord (D-E-C), creating a cluster voicing of a Cadd2. The same can be done at the 1st fret for our F chord (G-A-F).
The only chord left to deal with is the Am. Luckily for us, the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings of this tuning are B, D, and F#, respectively. This spells a B minor triad. By playing these strings at the 10th fret, you have your Am chord (ex 2).
While these voicings will work for the progression, the large jump from the 10th fret Am chord to the 1st fret Fadd2 chord renders it fairly unmusical. If we instead replace the 1st fret Fadd2 chord with a double stop at the 10th fret on the 5th and 4th strings (A and C, the 3rd and 5th of an F chord) and throw in some approach tones, we will have smoother voice leading (ex. 3).
Taking things a step further, just as a double stop on the 5th and 4th strings gave us an interval of a minor 3rd, a double stop on the 4th and 3rd strings gives us an interval of a major 3rd. By utilizing this information, we can find other ways to play these chords (or fractions of these chords) to create even smoother voice leading (ex 4).
These examples merely scratch the surface of the possibilities presented by the E9 tuning. I encourage you to discover more and more chord voicings, experiment over different chord progressions, and utilize more advanced slide guitar techniques. For instance, by fretting behind the slide, you can increase your number of possible chord voicings, as well as replicate the pedal steel guitar's ability to detune individual strings whilst playing.
About the author:
Charlie Button is a musician, producer, and educator from Upstate NY. His name has appeared in such music publications as Pitchfork, MySpace Artist of the Day, Dead End Hip Hop, All About Jazz, and more. Visit Charlie's website for private and group Skype guitar lessons, as well as to sign up for his newsletter that contains free video lessons and articles such as this one.