Fender 400 Tuning Revisited

For my iconoclastic sound designer’s esoteric purposes, a pedal steel guitar is a platform and not a hideously complex testbed for figuring out how to manipulate a prolific set of changes.

The basic operation is simple: pedals allow the player to change the tuning of a string in the midst of, or right before, or after, or during a movement of the bar from fret to fret.

Here, the great player and friend of the pedal steel Mickey Adams, offers beginner’s lesson that shows in two minutes what I’m describing.

He’s using a modern two 10-string neck pedal steel guitar, and, likely the total number of tuning changes on the E-9th neck, the so-called country and western neck, numbers at least fourteen. My guess is the number is very roughly the number of pedals, three on the floor and four on the knees, times two.

My two Fender 400’s are antiques and the string changes are driven by a dependable, slow-responding, archaic mechanism consisting of four cables attached to four pedals. Leo Fender and his team figured this particular mechanism out sometime in the mid-fifties. Although it remained the mechanism underneath Fender steels until 1974, it was mechanically obsolete by around 1960.

Two changes per cable allow me eight changes in all. Unlike modern pedal steel guitars, I can change the overall tuning in fifteen minutes, rather than in an hour or more. This has made me, for lack of a better term, ‘a tuning slut.’

This month I decided to normalize my tunings. This means deciding once and for all to keep the poor man’s E9 on one guitar, and do a modified B6th on the other. (B6th was the tuning my favorite steel master, Sneaky Pete Klienow utilized, also on a Fender 8-string guitar.)

Eight changes isn’t enough to support full modern tunings, yet, after some consulting with the helpful crew on the Fender Steel Forum, I made some decisions, and now am all over this:


I look at my tunings as a sixteen-string guitar. In this way the intervals, irrespective of the key, may be analyzed at every fret. For example, the A pedal on the B6th is used to get a Major chord at every fret. A big chunk of any scale is hidden in this ‘sixteen string’ way of looking at a tuning. The B6th is very close to the E9th, with the same suspended chords, as-it-were, right under foot.

Experimental tunings now move over to two of the lap steels.

2 thoughts on “Fender 400 Tuning Revisited”

  1. Hey, thanks for the kudos; every little bit helps the Fender Steel Forum get exposure, since as an underfunded, guerilla-steel site (actually NON funded) with no direct URL ya’ gotta REALLY wanna find it!

    A couple steel copedent ( tuning) notes –

    The “Sneaky” copedent you show has one error that could drive one nuts (of course, it drives most “real” steel players…count me out of that category – nuts anyway!): your middle change on the third pedal belongs on the second pedal. It’s the other half of the “I-toIV” chord change when combined with the first pedal.

    Second – I have a completely insane 10-string version adapted to a “normal” 3+4 (3 pedals, 4 knee levers) layout that ebb and Paul Redmond (plus help from GFI and Bobbe Seymour) that got me real close to the Sneaky sound on a GFI Ultra (no doubt also due to GFI’s Gene Fields having worked at Fender…and my now owning one of Sneaky’s two one-pound, 1 1/4″ diameter bars). Flip me an email for a copy, and also for a cheater’s way to mount effects on a 400.

    Greetings from The Cable World Headquarters,

    Jim aka Cablehead aka Silverface

  2. Jim, my variation on the Sneaky co-ped was worked out on your Fender Forum, and worked out with some forgiving help. I can see the efficacy of your suggestion, and the correctness with respect to Sneaky Pete, but the error is, to me, a feature!

    This tuning affords 2 major chords in open position, B & E(a), the I & IV, key of B; V at fret 2. …on up the neck. For my unhinged purposes, this tuning affords pedaling, into various suspended chordal combinations; the classical E9 a&b on b&c; also to, in open, B7 with the b pedal. On and on.

    The way I look at it, given 8 strings, you have 4 notes in the open tuning, and if you change the same two strings on each pedal, four more notes. That’s a small complement of notes at each fret. One of the attractive limitations of the Fender 400 is that it isn’t really a chord machine compared with what you can load into a 10 string, double or triple, 4/5k guitar. This encourages single note and two string grips–it would seem. The way I look at it is even less studied: to me, I want to know what the available notes are in three combinations:

    one: open/A pedal &/or B pedal
    two: open/B pedal &/or C pedal
    three: open/D pedal

    3 positions

    Looking at the guitar as a 12 string, means to me to consider anew the various clusters of notes; six unique notes, a lot of possible combinations for 3 at-a-time at every fret, and bottom line this is looking at the array of intervals.

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