Tight nylon nuts
The nylon nuts are designed to be somewhat hard to turn so that they will stay in place once they are adjusted. However, some can be harder to turn than others and can usually be loosened a bit by turning the nylon nut up and down the length of the thread on the pull rod a few times. If it is still too hard to turn, you can remove the nut completely and add a drop or two of oil like Tri-Flow or 3 in 1 oil to the threads of the pull rod and then replace the nut. A toothpick works well as a way to apply the oil.
Noise or squeaks in the linkage when pedals or knee levers are engaged
There will always be some noise made by the mechanical linkage as the pedals and knee levers are engaged. Pedal steel guitars are not designed to be acoustic instruments, so unless the noise is somehow getting into the electric signal path, it is generally not considered a problem. However, as the various parts settle in, occasionally a squeak or creak can develop in a moving part that doesn't enter the signal path but can still be annoying or distracting. Tracking down exactly where the noise is coming from can be tricky, but once found, a drop or two of oil (again, Tri-Flow or 3 in 1 oil) or even a dab of most any type of grease, will usually work. Use the minimum amount necessary to silence the noise as excessive oil or grease will attract dirt and other contaminants that can cause problems later. We recommend not using WD-40 for any noise type issues as it tends to get sticky or gummy over time and can inhibit the proper movement of parts.
Buzzing nut rollers
Occasionally due to slight machining variation there can be a bit of extra space between a nut roller and the side walls of the nut housing which can result in a buzzing sound when the string is plucked. This is usually more noticeable on the middle 4 strings that have the longest string length beyond the nut and less break over the nut. Sometimes lifting the string off of the roller and slightly rotating the roller may fix the buzz. If not, a drop or two of oil (3 in 1 oil or motor oil) between the side of the roller and housing will stop the buzzing.
Mica or laminate starting to detach
Occasionally the mica or laminate can start to detach from the frame rails or pedal board, for a variety of reasons. The glue we use to attach the laminate at the factory is a commercial rubber contact adhesive specifically formulated for laminates and not readily available to the pedal steel player. We have heard of others having success re-gluing laminate using other contact cements or even super glues. However we would recommend using a spray adhesive called Super-77 which is made by 3M and usually available in most hardware stores. You can prop the end of the loose mica up off of the rail or pedal board with a small piece of toothpick to expose the area needed to be sprayed. Mask adjacent areas with tape to keep the glue overspray to a minimum. Coat both parts with a fairly generous spraying and then let the glue dry till you can touch it without it sticking to your finger. Remove the prop and firmly press the mica back onto the rail or pedal board. If you have a way of carefully clamping the pieces together, that will help as well. Naphtha works very well as a cleaner for the glue and won't hurt the finish on the frame or laminate.
One of the first lessons a pedal steel guitar player will learn is that the pedal steel guitar is not a perfect string pulling machine. One that could be designed in such a manner would likely be far too heavy and far too expensive for most players to want to get involved with. It takes somewhere around 30 pounds of pressure to get each open string up to pitch so there are approximately 300 pounds of force a 10 string instrument must handle just to tune the open strings. Raising the pitch of one or more strings adds to this and simply moving the pedals and knee levers exerts additional pressure on the instrument, especially if excessive force is used at the stop points. Creating a musical instrument sturdy enough to handle those kinds of forces and still light enough to transport relatively easily is a definite design challenge. This is the nature of pedal steel guitars and thus there are a few tuning (or detuning) challenges that all pedal steel players must deal with. Electronic tuners can reveal the extent of some of these issues, but the final authority on how to deal with them and whether they have been sufficiently managed should be the player's ear. Being able to hear and recognize slight variations in pitches, intervals and chords is a musical skill that is essential for players of variable pitch instruments like the pedal steel guitar to develop.
It is safe to say the state of the art in pedal steel guitars today is mechanically superior compared to when it was first developed, yet steel players of that earliest era were still able to make beautiful music that was in tune. They had no electronic tuners either, so any tuning issue you may encounter has already been successfully dealt with by other players. You can do it too! With that said, here are a few of the more common tuning issues facing pedal steel players:
Tuning problems due to no slack in the linkage
You may find yourself in the situation where once the open string is tuned and you then tune the pulls with the nylon nuts, you find the open pitch has changed. That is likely due to the slack being tuned out of those pull(s). There should always be a little bit of slack in the mechanical linkage to allow free movement of the nylon nuts for tuning and for temperature and humidity changes. You should be able to wiggle one of the bell cranks of any pedal or knee lever back and forth slightly, which will tell you there is some needed free space between the nylon nut and the changer finger before the nut begins to move the finger. Without the slack, the changer fingers may not be returning completely to their starting open pitch or neutral position and may even be partially engaged when the pedal or knee lever is released. This makes proper tuning next to impossible but is easy to fix as long as the travel of the pedal or knee lever hasn't been changed. Simply back off the nylon nut until it doesn't affect the changer finger at all when the pedal or knee lever is engaged. Tune the open string to its proper pitch. Then turn the nylon nut back in until it changes the pitch of the string the appropriate amount.
Slack in strings
New strings that are not "stretched in" can cause tuning problems. With new strings we recommend pressing the string around the playing side of the radius of the changer and the nut to help form the string. It is also recommended to stretch the strings by lightly pulling them upward a few times in the middle of the string, retuning and repeating as necessary until the tuning stabilizes. This will help settle in the new strings and take up the slack in the windings around the key posts. Defects in the string manufacturing process can cause tuning/detuning issues; sometimes a new string or different brand may solve a problem.
One of the detuning issues pedal steel guitars will show is when pressing a pedal you might notice that some strings that are not being pulled may slightly drop in pitch. This effect is commonly known in the pedal steel community as "cabinet drop" and is due to the change in the forces or stresses in the instrument when a pedal or knee lever is engaged, which can then affect the open tuning of strings not being pulled. All pedal steel guitars will exhibit this to some extent, though some will show it more than others, and the way a pedal steel is designed and constructed can help minimize it. GFI pedal steels have a number of design elements related to addressing this issue.
Another tuning anomaly seemingly peculiar to the all pull, scissor-type changer finger system connected by rivets (used on GFI professional models and most other pedal steel brands) is when a string that is being lowered will return slightly sharp of its open tuned pitch. This seems to be more noticeable on larger gauge strings like the .022 plain string commonly used as the 6th string of the E9 tuning. This phenomenon is known in pedal steel community as "hysteresis," and while that may not be an accurate use of that particular word, most steel players will know what that term refers to amongst each other. Some players opt for a slightly lighter gauge string or even a wound string in place of the plain string to help minimize this phenomenon.
Equal Temperament vs. Just Intonation
There are also tuning issues a player will face that are related to equal temperament tuning vs. just intonation tuning. This is not unique to the pedal steel and very basically boils down to certain intervals may sound in or out of tune depending on which method one chooses to use and is especially relevant in the context of chord voicings and sounding in tune when playing with other instruments. Here are links to Wikipedia articles on Equal Temperament and Just Intonation for further reading.
The design and construction of the pedal steel itself certainly have some bearing on some tuning/detuning issues and we feel the GFI design features help minimize these as well or better than any other brand available. Still, no pedal steel guitar is perfect in this regard and there are various methods employed by pedal steel players to deal with tuning issues.
The pedal steel itself can have a "compensator" added, which is an extra pull to slightly change the pitch of a string that may be altered by detuning. However, slight strategic bar movement or even bar slanting is most often employed by the player to stay in tune. Additionally, certain strings and/or pulls can be tuned slightly flat or sharp to help compensate for various tuning issues. There are some who advocate the use of charts that recommend tuning certain strings and pulls a very specific amount sharp or flat. While every steel player most likely will end up employing similar principles to different degrees, there are far too many variables for any one particular chart to work for all players. Differences in design, construction methods and materials will prevent steels of different brands from responding in exactly the same manner, and there can even be slight variations between two steels of the same model and manufacturer. Players may make different choices regarding string brands, gauges or material. No two players will have the exact same touch and technique, which gives everyone their unique musical voice, but also means a particular player's bar pressure, bar slant, vibrato, plucking pressure, string blocking, pedal and knee lever pressure, etc., will all affect whether the playing sounds in tune or not.
On top of all this, there is no universal consensus on what exactly "in tune" is either, especially among pedal steel players. Depending on the circumstances, there is generally a small gray area around a particular pitch that can still sound acceptably in tune, though the range and limits of that gray area can be somewhat subjective. A certain interval tuned slightly sharp may be the answer to a particular issue for one player, while another may find that same choice grating and utterly unacceptable. Playing a pedal steel guitar in tune is sometimes a matter of artistic choice and is a skill all pedal steel players will constantly strive to improve upon.
This is an issue all pedal steel players have to deal with. As a pedal or knee lever is engaged to raise or lower a string, the corresponding changer finger rotates and bends the string by either stretching or relaxing it to its new pitch. The act of bending the string actually hardens the metal and makes it more brittle. Continued bending will eventually cause it to break, a condition known as metal fatigue. So strings have a limited number of times they can be bent by the changer before they will break. Generally speaking, the smaller gauge strings will be susceptible to this more quickly, especially the .011 gauge string commonly used as the third string on the E9 tuning. Larger strings will usually last longer and the player may need or want to change those strings before they break because of a loss of brightness or tone due to the accumulation of dirt, oil from the skin, bar wear, etc.
Where a string breaks can be a clue as to what caused it. A break at the top of the changer is usually an indication of metal fatigue and simply the end of the useful life of the string. A break in the mounting slot of the changer finger could be the result of a small burr or sharp edge. Likewise, a break at the key end can possibly indicate a small burr or sharp edge in the hole of the key post. A fine sandpaper (600 grit or finer) can be used to smooth out any sharp edges that are found.
When installing a new .011 gauge string, we recommend leaving around 6 inches of string length beyond the post and wrapping the excess length to ensure the end of the string that will be slightly moving as the pitch is changed will be away from the key post hole. Some players will use a slightly larger gauge to help with breakage, like a .012 gauge for the E9 third string for example, though that will usually also result in a slightly different tone or sound for that string. Some players find some brands more or less susceptible to breakage and it's possible a certain run or batch of strings will not be quite up to the quality standard they should be and may cause tuning issues or break before they should.