I did something audacious (or drug addled,) in the summer of 1972. I ordered a Fender 400 pedal steel guitar from DeArango Music in Cleveland Heights, my hometown. I was told I’d have to wait several months. I don’t remember the price, but I vaguely recollect it was about $400. I had saved up and also had the benefit of a graduation gift or two. My best friend Jamie told me that “with your talent you’ll learn how to play it in a year or two.” Such as my talent was at the time, my musical talent was–as yet–unexpressed and tending to nil. (Well, in most respects it still does tend this way.) But he and me had big time cowpie-in-the-sky rock band visions.
As it happened, the Fender never arrived. DeArango may have sold it out from under me. Who knows. I was offered a Sho-Bud Maverick off the floor, a starter pedal steel, and a Fender Twin Reverb amp as a package for a slight bump in price. I jumped on it.
The whole thing was nutty. I bought an OMI dobro a year later. A friend gave me a wreck of a National wooden body acoustic lap guitar. Over the 18 months, before moving to Vermont, I may have logged 250 hours, mostly on the dobro, trying to jumpstart even beginning to learn how to play. (I had at the time ‘higher’ priorities-literally.) The Maverick wouldn’t stay in tune, so it quickly became an object of my disaffection, or, better, rationalizing; and sat in a corner all pretty and ignored.
In 1975, while living in Maine and having exhausted my monies, I sold the maverick and amp for $300. (Oh…just a new white face Twin amp!) I rarely touched the other guitars after that point, and gave both to the fine Vermont musician Michael Corn in 1991.
Then, 30 years later, I hatched another nutty idea. I wanted to fashion some of my distinctive, naive electro world hed music and use as appropriated source the music of north Africa and the Sahel styled into ambient sound worlds. Why? Pentatonic raptures; for me, entrancing and proto-bluez like. Nutty, but absolutely aimed at only my own satisfactions-and, it doesn’t take much.
Needed a guitar, to whack pentatonic vamps on. Then I had a brainstorm: why not steel guitar? I started tracking eBay. Soon enough, I won an auction for a new Fouke Indy Rail. Nice. Open E. Sweet all-aluminum axe.
I have to confess, 4 years later, I have about 1,000 hours into it. Still, I discovered something fantastic: a lap steel is a fine sound device for running through synth patches and effects chains. The IndyRail has terrific sustain and so I started recording my playing, or sound sourcing, and came up with lots of ambient and drone and pentatonic goodness. So much so, that I added a second lap steel, handmade by Allen Melbert, to experiment with straight pentatonic tunings. Now I’ve dedicated a cheapo Rondo lap steel to my crazy fever dream.
Then I began to think of how neat it would be to work a pentatonic tuning on a pedal steel guitar. (…such a charlatan I am!) Only problem was, after a little research, it became clear that a modern 10 string pedal steel guitar in mechanical terms was not going to be amenable to naive experimentation. Student models couldn’t have their set-ups (string and pedal changes,) altered, and professional models could, but they cost a lot of money and even then, changing to exotic set-ups wasn’t, generally, their forte.
Then, much to my surprise, I discovered that the old Fender 400 fit the bill for a ridiculous reason: it’s archaic cable-driven pedal-and-changer mechanism could be changed in minutes. Understand that Fender stopped making this particular “cabled” steel guitar right around the time I ordered it, 1972. Where modern pedal steels are marvels of engineering, the old cable Fenders were known as crude affairs that had retained their simplistic mechanics against the tide of Sho-Buds and Emmons innovations. Most common qualification: the Fenders were clunkers.
But…you…see, this pedal steel that didn’t show up in 1972 was the one steel that fit my feverish requirements. I began to regularly scan eBay. Starting last winter, Fender 400’s seemed to hit the auction block weekly, several hit the buy section of the invaluable Pedal Steel Guitar forum, but I was outbid or the guitar/seller didn’t pass the minimal smell test. I wanted a player, not a project.
Then in May a seeming player hit eBay. I raised my purchase price bar up a bit and placed the winning bid on an in-state 400.
Pedal Steel connected to MacBook; signal chain is: Guitar Rig Mobil I/O through Core Audio to DSP-Quattro Pro, then, via DSP-QP’s virtual board lots of effects, or, directly plugged as a sound source into Native Instruments Absynth. More skinny.
Drove down to southern Ohio and completed the deal. No case. I put the body of the guitar on the back seat and the pedal rack on the floor of my Honda, and smiled all the way on the 3 hour return trip.
Over the last month I experimented with a straight pentatonic tuning in D (D-E-G-A-B-D-E-B) wrangled from the inherited set of strings. Because such a tuning provides the equivalent of a melodic progression up and down the strings at a single fret, it became clear that the pedals weren’t very useful for my purposes, and that my weird vision was, well, weird with respect to the layout of an 8 string pedal steel guitar.
Fortunately there is a world class resource on the web to mine, The Pedal Steel Guitar Forum, and there is also a Fender oriented resource run by the Fender cable steel guy, Jim Sliff. Between the two, I captured a mountain of tuning information. Eventually i settled on a modification by Doggett/Quasar
Firstly, this is a low tuning, with a 0.066 bass string anchoring the tuning in the low B. Fundamentally, this is an E Major tuning, like the lap steel I’ve got the most time on. Also, this tuning gives me one ‘almost’ run of the D pentatonics, some other stuff I’m scoping out.
Yet, in the main, this is major power chord affair with a little bit of E9 flavor on strings 2 to 6. I was pleased that I could remember a few licks and grips from back in my pathetic day; that day now drawn forward into a pathetic, and gratifying present!
As it turned out, and luckily enough, this darn 400 was a player. It stays in tune, has that distinctive Fender sound, and it didn’t need a thing. I gave the changer a Tri-Flow treatment, and wiped the cables with WD40 and that was it.
The only thing I retained from the original circa 1974 steel kit was a pair of Italian woven rivieras that approximate cowboys boots, and, at the same time fit my inordinately long and broad dogs.