Main Ax: Fender 400 Pedal Steel Guitar (1974?)

The Sunburst Fender 400 — antique, unique, and not in the least chic. (Developed by Leo Fender and built in the cabled version between 1956-1974.) I’ve told the story elsewhere. Here’s some more notes on my beloved contraption.

Guitar & Case - before Fender 400 pedal steel guitar Fender 400 Pedal Steel Guitar
Fender 400 pedal steel guitar Fender 400 Pedal Steel Guitar Fender 400 pedal steel guitar
Fender 400 Pedal Steel Guitar x Fender 400 Pedal Steel Guitar Fender 400 Pedal Steel Guitar
click for large version

(The pictures were taken right after dis-assembly. The main aspect of restoring the mechanics was cleaning and lubricating. The picture of the springs–row three–show the condition of a part “before.” The changer’s action was very rough and noisy before, and very smooth and quiet after everything was re-assembled. The restored changer is slightly smoother than that of the never dis-assembled first guitar.)

Having taken apart my second Fender 400 eight string pedal guitar for the purpose of restoring its changer, I thought I’d highlight the innards of the changer and a few other parts. I’ve recounted the story elsewhere on the blog, but I didn’t resist the siren song of a ‘400’ when it appeared on craigslist described as “having only been out of its case for months.” It turned out not to be minty or super duper cherry, but was close enough to light use, included a lightly traveled case with the original manual, and had a knee lever. Both my guitars were likely made between 1968-1974. Except for the knee lever, they are identical.

I ended up taking the 2nd guitar apart twice. (On the first go-around I failed to seat one of the tiny springs on the changer’s set screws. ooops.) It’s a straight-forward dis-assembly. You have to keep track of all the parts, and, setting the eight springs for the ‘lowers’ is a pita. But, that’s the sum of the challenge. 1-row-right shows the underneath of the changer with most of the loops removed from exterior fingers. 2-row-left/center shows both parts of the actual changer. The blades pivot to move the chrome inner levers that extend to constitute the bridge and actualize the half or whole step detuning. Both the lower and the upper portions of the changer go in the well in the third pic, row two. 3-row-right shows the cranks that connect the pedals to the cables. The middle picture shows the underside of the changer with the loops attached and the pesky large springs for the lowers. The Fender pedal steel guitar line went through two main iterations, first from long scale to short scale, and then from 8 strings to 10 strings–in both single and double neck models. Ironically, even after the introduction and continual improvement of the modern changers found on competitors’ guitars, Fender continued to produce their obsolete designs for 15 years.

Often described as having mechanicals that are “infernal contraptions,” in fact, Leo Fender’s cabled pedal steels ruled the roost throughout the fifties, until the ‘rodded’ mechanism became both refined and instantly popular around 1960. The cable mechanism is versatile: although each pedal provides but ta pair of single raises or lowers. The set-up can be changed in 5 minutes. On the other hand, this single-raise/lower is also is a constraint compared to the double or triple raise capabilities of modern mechanisms.

However, with a Fender, you also get–on my guitars–the classic jaguar 8-string pick-up, and its so-called re-do of the Bakersfield sound; a reedy treble-bodied timbre. For me, the Fender lends itself to being routed through delays and modulation effects. Although the Fender doesn’t have huge sustain, this can be partially addressed by using a compressor.

Still, great players, including Red Rhodes, Al Perkins, and above all, the iconic cablehead, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, opted at points in their career for the Fender sound, and, heck, advantages. Sneaky Pete spent his entire career tuned into a 1957 Fender 400, albeit a very souped-up one.

The chief advantage I exploit with the fabled contraption is the ability to change tunings. As mentioned previously, this can be accomplished quite quickly because the hook-ups run off pulleys, while the equivalent of a bell crank–the lever-like mechanical piece that transfers the foot pedal motion to the detuning mechanism–is at the end of the connection to the pedal. Actually, the model with the crude add-on knee pedal has a stable tuning: E9 with but one of the standard ‘chromatic’ strings, F#, moved to the top, above the high E, where it remains as out-of-order as it does in the usual, so-called, Nashville E9. However, I have been playing around with tuning the entire copedent down a half step to Eb. This permits the first position open EMajor chord to happen at fret one, where one can slide into it. The other Fender 400 is the experimental platform. I’ve played around with pentatonic tunings, and right now it’s in Dminor with three of the pedals configured to cause this to change into D7. It is not a versatile tuning, (although versatility is not a very appropriate benefit–in my hands.)

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