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.