What is a pedal steel guitar?
The pedal steel guitar is a relatively recent development in the guitar family, a direct descendant (or mutation) of the lap steel and is most often a ten stringed instrument. It is supported by legs, set up in a horizontal position with the playing surface facing upward, and played from a sitting position. Strings are plucked with one hand, usually the right hand and usually with the aid of finger and thumb picks. The other hand "frets" notes with the use of a tone bar which is usually made of steel and is the source of the name "steel guitar." Pedals and knee levers are used to change the pitch of the strings which provide more possibilities for chord construction and melody line playing.
The pedal steel guitar has most often been associated with American country and western music in which it was a prominently featured instrument particularly in the 1960's and 1970's. An extremely versatile instrument, its performance has expanded far beyond its country roots, being used for nearly every style of music conceivable. Its use in the future will only be limited by the imagination of present and future players.
How is a pedal steel guitar played?
The pedal steel guitar is like any stringed instrument in that the choice of what pitches the strings are tuned to will allow certain chords and even melodies to be played using the open strings alone. When the bar is used on a steel guitar, a player can now change the pitches of the strings by moving the bar up and down the neck. This allows much more freedom for melody playing, but chords will still be limited to the relative intervals and voicings available within the open strings (though slanting the bar can provide some more options). Pressing a pedal or knee lever changes the open pitch of a string, allowing even more freedom to play melodies and far greater options for chord playing. Using certain pedals and knee levers in combinations adds to this even further. The speed at which a pedal or knee lever is engaged and thus the pitch is changed becomes a manner of musical expression as well, and this ability of the pedal steel to bend notes in a musically expressive manner is an integral part of its unique sound.
Playing the pedal steel really involves almost the entire body. One foot pushes the pedals, one foot controls the volume pedal (and may occasionally push a pedal as well), both knees move levers in multiple directions, one hand controls the bar, the other hand does the picking, the rear end provides a foundation and all of this is controlled by the ears, eyes, and brain (and maybe even a little heart).
How is a pedal steel guitar tuned/set up?
The pedal steel guitar is an evolution of the lap steel. Lap steels can be very expressive instruments but the particular open string tuning will somewhat limit the choice of notes that are available, especially regarding the playing of chords. One direction lap steels took to provide greater musical flexibility was the use of different open tunings on different necks. Three and four neck lap steels were not uncommon and gave players the ability to play music in a wider variety of styles and keys on the same instrument. Players also began to experiment with homemade attachments that could change the pitch of a string and thus the open tuning. Eventually an instrument was designed that would change the pitches of the string through the use of pedals. Early pedal steel tunings were generally variations on the common lap steels tunings. Knee levers were a later innovation and the open string tuning and pitch change choices for the pedals and knee levers has continued to evolve.
Today, most pedal steel guitars are 10-string instruments and open tuned to what is called the E9 tuning, which is based on an E major 9 chord.
(Click here for E9 Tuning Chart)
Notice several pitches are repeated as octaves and there is not a completely linear progression in the different open pitches in the higher register. The choice of the two outside string pitches and their positions assists in certain melody line playing and chord voicings. The two outside strings are often referred to as the "chromatic" strings, even though strictly speaking they are part of the E major scale.
The E9 tuning is most often played using 3 pedals and 4 knee levers and 3 & 4 would be considered "standard," though some variations can include 4 pedals and/or 5 knee levers. The fifth knee lever is usually a vertical knee lever for the left leg which is activated by upward or vertical movement of the knee rather than left or right movement.
Which strings each pedal or knee lever changes in pitch is also fairly standardized, and the GFI factory standard E9 tuning and setup can be found here. The chart or list of the open tuning and what pitch changes the pedals and knee levers make is referred to as a "copedent" in the steel guitar community. In the GFI standard E9 copedent, the functions of pedals 1, 2, and 3 (sometimes also referred to as A, B, and C) in combination with both left leg knee levers are known as the "Emmons" setup, developed by steel guitar great Buddy Emmons. An alternative but less common setup is known as the "Day" setup, developed by another pedal steel great Jimmy Day. On the Day setup, the functions of pedals 1 and 3 (or A and C) are reversed as well as the functions of the two left leg knee levers.
Knee levers can have letter designations as well, though what letter corresponds to what lever is not particularly consistent amongst all steel players and teachers, though the specific functions of the pedals designated A, B, and C are pretty well universally agreed upon.
Pedal steel players who are performers of American country music use the E9 tuning almost exclusively. The tuning is versatile enough to be useful for really any style of music but the typical country style of pedal steel playing is what it has been most associated with.
The next most common 10-string tuning used on a pedal steel guitar is called the C6 tuning.
(Click here for C6 Tuning Chart)
This tuning is based on the C major 6 chord. The characteristic voicings it offers tend to be used for styles of music like jazz, western swing and blues, though like the E9, it is capable of being used in most any style of music. You will almost always find the C6 as the second neck of double neck 10 string pedal steel (or D-10), with the other neck being the E9. Typically on a D-10 the outside neck, or neck furthest from the player, is the E9 and the inside neck is the C6. On the factory standard GFI C6 setup, there are 5 pedals that are used (for a total of 8 on a D-10) and the RL knee lever, shared by the E9 neck, is also used for a C6 pull. Some players will add C6-specific knee levers for more options. Another common C6 variation is to tune the first string to a D, which would be between string 2 and 3 in pitch and affords similar advantages as the outside two "chromatic" strings of the E9.
A more recent development and far less commonly-utilized pedal steel string guitar tuning is the 12 string "Universal" tuning, which is an attempt to combine elements of the E9 and C6 into one "universal" tuning. The specifics of the universal copedents are not quite as standardized as the E9 or C6 but usually will utilize 7 pedals and 5 knee levers.
Less common still is the 12-string "Extended E9" tuning, which is basically the 10-string E9 tuning and setup with 2 extra bass strings. There are additional pedal steel tunings and setups developed and used in specific musical styles like the "Sacred Steel" tunings, and there are a few players that use other variations like 14-string pedal steels and 8-string pedal steels.
Choosing a pedal steel guitar
Choosing a pedal steel guitar is similar to choosing a particular brand or model of any other musical instrument or most anything else we may want to buy. A certain product will be expected to perform a certain function, and there will usually be some slight variation in that function between brands or between different models of a particular brand.
Musical instruments are designed to produce certain sounds, and most musicians will choose their instrument based on their perception of the quality of the sound or "tone" produced and how it "feels" to physically play it. Though usually a secondary consideration, musical instruments will also be designed to look a certain way and that factor usually also plays a role in instrument choice, especially regarding color options. Weight is often a consideration in pedal steel choice as they can be relatively heavy instruments, especially double necks. Other more pedal steel specific considerations may include the design of the instrument itself and how that relates to its stability, how well it handles detuning issues, the feel of the pedal and knee lever movement, how it responds across the entire range of playable notes, and the pickup choices. Other important considerations would be regarding the manufacturing company and/or dealer itself, how long it has been in business, its reputation for service, and the type and length of warranty coverage.
Student Model or Professional Model?
The answer to this question will mostly depend on how serious you think you will be about learning pedal steel and the budget you have to work with. If you are new to playing a musical instrument, are moderately interested in seeing first hand what pedal steel is about, will likely be playing for your own enjoyment at home or have a limited budget, an entry-level instrument like the GFI Student Model might be a good choice for you.
Entry-level steels are generally limited in the types of tunings and setups they will do and how those may be changed, if at all. There will also likely be some other aspects of design or component choices that help keep the cost down, and they are often lighter in weight than comparable professional models. However, entry-level pedal steels can provide excellent musical value for the money, and this is especially true of the GFI Student Model. It has the same basic tone environment as our Pro models, uses the same pickup, and most of the mechanical linkage parts are the same. The main difference between the GFI Student and Pro models is the changer design. The Pro Models utilize a triple finger, "all pull" changer mechanism and the Student Model utilizes a single finger, "pull release" changer. The tuning procedures between the two changer designs are also somewhat different. With the single finger Student Model changer, lowers can only be accomplished on right moving knee levers, which limits its capabilities to the standard E9 tuning with the "Emmons" setup.
Someone with more serious aspirations on pedal steel may want to dive into a professional level instrument right straight away, saving the likely step of upgrading from an entry-level steel later, and take advantage of the more sophisticated design elements.
Like most any other purchase, there will be no right or wrong choice but the one that you decide is best for you. A little research should be in order to help you make your best choice and with musical instruments in particular, physically trying out a potential purchase is highly recommended if you are able to do so.
Obviously the strings play a major role in the sound and performance of pedal steel guitars. There are a number of different brands of pedal steel guitar strings available in a variety of gauges and materials.
The strings will have one end that is securely wrapped around a small bushing or cylinder, usually made of brass. That end of the string is usually referred to as the "ball end" and the bushing or "ball" is hooked through the changer finger of a GFI pedal steel through slots. The other end is either inserted through a hole in the key post and then wrapped around the post to secure it or secured by a screw on the GFI keyless tuning system. The keys (or keyless tuning knobs) are rotated to increase the tension of the string and bring it to its desired open pitch.
On the pedal steel guitar, strings can be referred to by pitch, gauge, or number. The strings on a 10-string are numbered from 1 to 10, starting with the outside strings or those furthest from the player and increasing in number as the gauge or diameter increases. String diameter is more often referred to as the "gauge" of the string, with the larger diameters or gauges producing the lower pitches. The diameter or gauge is expressed as a three place decimal which will be the actual diameter of the string in inches.
The gauge of a string affects how the string responds to being bent and stretched as the pedals and knee levers change its pitch. Generally, a smaller gauge string will need more movement of the pedal or knee lever, or "travel," to reach the same relative pitch change. For example, on the GFI standard E9 tuning, string 3 is a .011 gauge string tuned to G# and string 6 is a .022 gauge string tuned to G# one octave below string 3. Pedal 2 is set up to raise both of those strings a half tone to A. When set up properly both strings should start to change pitch and arrive at A as close to the same time as possible. So if we want one pedal to make the two strings start and stop changing at the same time and we know the smaller .011 will need more travel to get to its pitch than the .022, we use a different leverage ratio in the linkage to balance the pulls.
For the wound strings, the diameter of the core string will determine the travel needed to get to pitch rather than the overall diameter. Again from the E9 tuning, string 6 is usually a plain .022 and string 7 a wound .026. The .026 wound string with its small core wire will require more travel reach the same relative pitch change than the plain .022 even though its overall diameter is larger.
Altering the string gauges can have an adverse effect on how the pedals and knee levers are able to change the string's pitches since the pedals and knee levers will be set at the factory to travel a certain distance to precisely change the pitches of certain gauge strings.
The larger strings, especially the plain strings, can be more susceptible to various detuning issues and some players may experiment with wound strings of the same gauge to help alleviate those issues. They must be aware that even though they may be the same overall gauge or diameter, the wound string will require significantly more travel to accomplish the same pitch changes and so will require an increase adjustment in the travel of the pedal or knee lever to accommodate it. GFI uses the .022 plain string as standard since most players seem to prefer its sound to the wound .022.
String material is the factor that will most affect the way the string sounds. String material and its variations really refer the material used as the cover wrap on wound strings as the plain strings and cores of the wound strings are all plain steel, usually with a tin coating. The most common cover materials favored by pedal steel players are either stainless steel or nickel though there are some other alloys available. Stainless steel is generally brighter sounding than nickel, more resistant to corrosion and will therefore tend to stay brighter sounding longer. There are also a few variations on how the cover may be shaped that can affect the sound. Some strings are round wound meaning the cover string is completely round and this type provides the brightest sound. The cover string can be flat wound or half wound where the resulting wrapped string surface is flattened either completely or partially. Those styles are usually favored in a desire to minimize excess bar or finger noise and will be overall less bright sounding than the round wound cover. The choice of string material is a matter of a player's personal preference and the type of sound they are trying to achieve.
On GFI pedal steel guitars, basically the strings are tuned to their open pitches using the tuning keys or keyless knobs, and the pedal and knee lever changes are fine tuned using the nylon nuts, accessible through the window at the changer end of the guitar (The Student Models have a slightly more involved tuning procedure).
At first it can be difficult to tell which nylon nut to turn for the pedal or knee lever you are tuning, but if you watch the nuts move as you move or wiggle the pedal or knee lever you should be able to see which ones to turn. The nylon nuts can be turned with a specifically made wrench (a new wrench is included with every new GFI pedal steel) or a 3/16" socket. Turning a nylon nut into the guitar (clockwise if you are facing the nut looking through the changer window) will make that pull do more of whatever it is doing, that is if the nylon nut is raising a string, turning it in will make it raise more and turning it out will make it raise less. Likewise with a nylon nut that is lowering a string, turning the nut into the guitar will make it lower more, turning it out, lower less.
The Pro "All Pull" Changer
On the GFI Pro Model's "all pull" changer, for each string there are three fingers that are connected which end up moving the string and changing its pitch. The first is a stainless steel finger that the ball end of the string is hooked through and rides over. The other two are stamped steel fingers that are riveted together, one for raises and one for lowers that the pull rods go through and the nylon nuts push. Due to the way the three fingers are connected and pivot, the same motion direction of the pull rods can accomplish both raises and lowers, or “all” of the changer fingers are “pulled” by the pull rods to change pitch.
All of the open pitches are tuned by the keys (or keyless knobs) and all of the raises and lowers are fine tuned with the nylon nuts as the pedal or knee lever is engaged.
The Student Model "Pull Release" Changer
The GFI Student Model follows the same basic tuning procedure as the Pro Models though the procedure for a string that is lowered is a little more involved. Since that procedure is not quite as straightforward or intuitive, a tuning chart is included with every new Student Model that goes over the specific tuning procedure.
Here is a more in depth explanation of what is going on mechanically as we tune the Student Model:
The Student Model changer is a single finger “pull release” system and this single finger (per string) has to accomplish both the raises and the lowers, unlike the Pro changer that has a three finger mechanism (per string) to do the same job. The single finger can only move in one direction to raise the pitch of a string and the opposite direction to lower the pitch.
Strings that will only be raised or not changed in pitch at all by a pedal or knee lever are tuned to their open pitch using the keys. The resulting string tension forces the changer fingers to stop against the back side of the hole routed in the wood body that the changer mechanism is mounted through. The back side of the hole functions as a stop that keeps the fingers from moving in that direction and allows us to increase the string tension as we tune it to pitch.
When a raise is activated by a pedal or knee lever, the mechanical linkage ends up pulling the nylon nut which in turn pushes the end of the changer finger away from the stop of the back side of the hole and toward the keys. As the one end of the finger is being moved by the nylon nut, the other end that the string ball is hooked through is simultaneously rotating around an axle which results in the string stretching and raising in pitch. The amount the pitch is raised by a pedal or knee lever is fine tuned with the nylon nut. When the raise is released, the finger returns to rest at its open pitch or neutral position against the stop of the back side of the wood hole.
Since the changer fingers can only move one direction to raise and the opposite direction to lower, on the strings that we want to lower, the finger is set so that its open pitch or neutral point is partially engaged or raised. This then gives the finger room to move backward and lower the string’s pitch before the its motion is stopped by the back side of the wood hole. For example, strings 4 & 8 (normally tuned open to E an octave apart) would be open tuned to D# with the fingers at rest against the wood changer hole. Then those strings are additionally set with a half tone raise from a D# to an E by moving and fixing the fingers. This results in a raised neutral position, allowing room for the fingers to move backward and lower the half tone back to D#.
So on the Student Model when you tune the strings that lower, the procedure is to engage the lowering knee lever which releases the finger from its open pitch or raised neutral point back to the stop against the side of the wood hole. Then tune the open string with the keys to the pitch that it should be lowering to (which would be D# for strings 4 & 8). When you then release the lowering lever, spring tension actually raises the strings to what would be the normal open pitch or raised neutral position (E for 4 & 8). That raised open pitch is fine tuned by using the appropriate red colored nylon nuts.
The E's are also raised a half tone to F by the LL and those raises are simply tuned with the nylon nuts with the LL engaged like the other raises.
The tuning principle is the same for the lowers of string 2 & 9 by the RR. With the RR engaged and held in place, strings 2 and 9 are tuned to their lowered pitch of C# using the keys. The RR is then released and the open pitch of string 2, which is a D#, is tuned using the appropriate red colored nylon nut, and likewise string 9 is tuned to its open pitch of D using the appropriate red colored nylon nut.
One of the limiting factors of the student model pull release changer is that the backward motion needed to lower a string can only be accomplished by a right moving knee lever, meaning any lowering has to be done on the LR or the RR which limits it to the "Emmons" setup of the E9 tuning.
Besides the pedal steel itself, there are a few things new pedal steel players will need. Some are absolutely necessary, others not as much. There really are no right or wrong answers when choosing accessory brands/models/materials, etc., that is always a matter of personal preference. If you are able, you may want to do some experimenting in that regard and while you may seek out the advice of others on such things it's always best to decide on what sounds, feels, or works best for you.
Bar - This is an absolute necessity. You can't play any notes other than the open strings without one. Most are made from either chrome-plated or polished, stainless steel, though there are some made from other materials like ceramic. There are a variety of brands, diameters, weights, and lengths available.
Picks - The vast majority of players use finger picks, though there are a few who do not. Most will use a thumb pick and 2 or 3 finger picks. Picks are made in varying sizes and thicknesses, with thumb picks generally made of plastic and not adjustable while finger picks are usually made of metal and are able to be bent to fit.
Seat - Also a necessity. There are storage seats made specifically for pedal steel players, which have an inner compartment to store gear and legs that fold up for transport. Some players use a drum throne for a seat, some use keyboard benches or you can use a chair or really anything else you can get stably seated on. Keep in mind the height of whatever seat you choose will have some bearing on how you are able to reach the pedals and knee levers and how your arms and hands align with the top of the guitar.
Amplifier - While you can hear a bit of what's going on if you play a pedal steel unamplified, they are not intended to be acoustic instruments, and you will need an amplifier of some sort to hear the sounds the instrument was designed to produce. There are amplifiers designed and made specifically for pedal steels, and those are what the vast majority of players use. However, most any amplifier/speaker configuration will work, including those designed for standard guitar, keyboard or even bass, though they will produce a different sound or tone. You will also need an instrument cord to connect the guitar to the amp.
Volume pedal - The vast majority of players would consider this a necessity and an essential component to the pedal steel "sound," though you are able to play the instrument without one. It is used to control variations in attack and overall volume as well as to sustain notes. There are volume pedals designed specifically for pedal steel players that tend to have a lower profile to allow the leg to fit under the guitar as the foot remains on the pedal. They will also have the input/output jacks on the side of the pedal, as most players will situate their volume pedal close to the pedal board, making jacks at the front of the pedal impractical. There are also brackets some use that will attach the volume pedal to the pedal board to keep it in a consistent position.
Tuner - Fine tuning a pedal steel guitar can be a skill in itself. Due to the many variables that can affect whether a pedal steel sounds in tune or not, a specific tuning procedure can vary from player to player. An electronic tuner will provide a common reference point between instruments and show exactly how close a played pitch is to a particular reference point, but much of the fine tuning of the pedal steel guitar, especially the blending of certain intervals and the decision of whether you are playing "in tune" with other instruments will need to be judged by your ear. Hearing and recognizing slight variations in pitch is a skill that all pedal steel players need to develop. With experience, players will likely find they consistently tend to tune certain strings and/or pulls a little flat or sharp to compensate for their individual playing style, and the mechanics of their instrument and still allows them to sound "in tune." A tuner can be a very useful tool as the individual's method of tuning is established and can even be necessary if you find yourself in a particular playing situation where tuning by ear is not possible. The bottom line is you will want to have a tuner, but your ear needs to have the final say.
Effects - Most players will use some effects like reverb or delay, though again, you are certainly able to play the guitar without them. The types of effects used generally reflect the style of music being played.
Instructor/Instructional Material - Not really an accessory per se, but highly recommended for new pedal steel players especially ones new to musical performance in general. While pedal steel is a relatively small niche market/community especially when compared to the world of the standard 6 string guitar, it is pretty widespread across the US and many other countries. It's possible you may have an instructor not too far away and taking lessons from someone would be our most highly recommended way of learning to play. There is a large amount of pre-produced instructional material available as well, like CDs DVDs, online tutorials, etc., and a new player that is motivated can certainly learn a lot that way too.