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Table of Contents

The Ankle

Part I

We never give enough credit where credit is due. We hear the characteristic sound of the E9th tuning and we think how beautiful it is to listen to. We give credit to the maker of our steel, the brand of strings, the fancy gadgets, the new amp, the rack case to put all those gadgets into, the list is endless. But if we happen to stop and think, part of the beauty of the steel lies right at your feet. Well, not actually at your feet but close.

The ankle? Not a very catchy title but to truly play the steel, you need to concentrate on the abilities of your ankle. As you learn those smooth slides and glides on your steel, you will have to be able to mix in the movements of your ankle. I speak about the ankle instead of the foot because of the rocking motion that has to take place. To help develop my ankle, I had to decide on the basics. There are four basic foot/ankle positions. Below is a written description of them. Try to visualize them in your mind as they would look on your A & B pedals.

1. No pedals. Foot above Pedal A & B ready to push either one. The length of the foot is split down the middle. The outside of the foot is over the A pedal. The inside of the foot is over the B pedal.

2. Outside rock. The A pedal is pressed by rocking the outside half of your foot onto the pedal. The inside half of the foot is over the B pedal ready to play it. You are turning your ankle to allow only half of your foot to touch the outside pedal.

3. Inside rock. The B pedal is pressed by rocking to the inside half of your foot. It is the exact opposite of the outside rock. The ankle must move the other way to allow only half of the foot to be on a pedal.

4. Both pedals down. Both A & B pedal are pressed. The ankle is straight.

Now that we've read about the four basic positions lets look at some graphics to help you visualize them.

Set at your steel and work on teaching your ankle the four basic positions. You need to know them but you usually get this practice while you're working on some specific lick. Step back from all those fancy licks and isolate your ankle and go thru these basic positions. You need to know each of the basic positions before you can take the next step. That involves moving from position to position. When you get better at this you'll be able to float across the pedals to play those fancy licks. Video #4 covers this in detail.

Part II

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Continuing our thinking about the left ankle and how it must work on the pedals, we must remember part 1 and the four basic ankle positions. After working on the positions separately, the next trick is to work on them in combinations. The key to the ankle is being able to move from position to position smoothly. You should be able to float your foot across the pedals. A nice slow ballad, takes nice smooth ankle rocking movements.

The four basic pedal positions are:

  • No pedals
  • Outside rock
  • Inside rock
  • Both pedals down
Working on these individually, you can develop strength in your left ankle. This is required to play those smooth licks. The next section we start to combine the moves. We start with the simplest and then get more involved as we build up the coordination. You should also work on flexibility. You have to have a certain range of motion in your ankle to perform the necessary moves.

Here we see three open circles that represent your A, B, and C pedals. To the left we see our first six movements that we need to teach our ankle.

These moves are the simplest ones that you can make with your ankle. Slowly start training your ankle to do these moves. The best way is to learn things slow and then increase your speed as your profieciency starts to improve. I go into this theory with more detail in my book, MY Approach to Pedal Steel. Remember, work slowly and put the music into your hands and feet. The time you spend woodshedding will show up down the road in your playing. Don't give up, work hard.

Part III

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Moving from position to position. That's the important thing to remember when you practice your E9th tuning. Those great sounds are lying right at your feet. All you need to do is work them into shape so lets continue with some more position to position moves.
I've stressed that movement is the thing that has to be learned by the muscles in your ankle. To help get your playing skills into shape, you can work on these moves without worrying about a lick.

Just set at your guitar and make your foot do the movements. Don't even think about nothing but the move. You should also do this with your right hand and left hand movements but for now just the left foot gets the work out. This isolation of movement will help to build your proficiency at playing a steel guitar. When you think of only one thing and concentrate on that, all the other things don't get it the way. In the end you have to combine a lot of moves to play a lick but we know we can get there faster by looking at the little parts and putting them back together.
Notice that all of the above position movements start with the pedals down and end up with a pedal or pedals down. These are ones that are really hard and should be given a lot of concentration. The hardest ones are: B pedal to A pedal and A pedal to B pedal. Another exercise is to try and play a lick with each of the pedal moves. Let the movement of the pedal help you find a lick. You need to know what strings each pedal uses to do this.

Part IV

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When you work on the ankle movements apart from the right and left hand moves, you can help train them to make the moves you need. Every lick is a group of movement and you need your ankle to play music. When I speak of training your ankle, I'm talking about approaching it like an athlete. The better condition you're in, the better results you will have in your playing. As your ankle gets better you should start to feel your feet floating over the pedals. Not just mashing them, but actually think about playing music with your ankle.

This next group of exercises will be more involved than the previous pages. Now we will add complex movements together. Once again, we are concentrating on just the ankle. You can work on putting everything together at a later date, but isolate all the movements when you first learn them.

Above are some advanced movements that you need to develop. The solid bar between each pedal symbol tells you that a string would be bending if you were picking one. For now just worry about the movement.

The smooth motion of your ankle is the important thing for you to concentrate on. Isolate the motion and work on it slowly. These are movements that will be used in the heat of battle so why not go on ahead and work them out now, before you have an audience of other musicians watching over your shoulder.

When you look at tablature thats in a publication, look further and learn to isolate each of the individual moves. There is the left hand, right hand, knee levers, and pedals. All of these have to combine to play a lick. You need to give them each their own merit. Dedicate practice time to each component and then put them all together. The advantages will show up in your playing abilities if you stick to your program.

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