General Information / FAQ
1. Is that an electric cheese slicer or WHAT? How does it work?
Although it may look strange to the uninitiated, the modern pedal steel guitar is the result of innovations created by several generations of engineers, mechanics, and tinkerers (who's to say which group made the most impact?). The challenge was to take a 2x4 with strings stretched across it (a "lap steel") and change the pitch of individual strings by pressing a pedal. Early models used cables, solid rods, and various mechanisms hooked to the bridge to rock forward and backward to loosen or tighten the string. The rod-actuated mechanism won out and virtually all modern pedal steels use what is called an "all pull" changer with a rod that extends out the endplate with a threaded nylon nut for fine tuning.
2. How many strings do pedal steels have? How are they tuned?
Pedal steels come in several brands and configurations. Most modern pedal steels have 10 strings, with either one or two necks. The two most popular tunings are E9 and C6 and each has a characteristic use and sound. You may also see single neck 11, 12, and 14-string pedal steels, some of which feature a "universal" tuning intended to combine the features of the 9th and 6th tunings into a single tuning. There are also double-neck 12-string pedal steels that add strings to the bottom and/or top of the standard E9 and C6 tunings. The E9/B6 universal tuning is a popular example of a universal tuning -- This page explains how it creates sounds typical of both the E9 and C6 tunings.
3. Where did the idea come from? When?
Pedal steel is based on the acoustic guitar which was played using a penknife or other metallic object (hence "STEEL") to slide up and down the string to raise or lower a note. Acoustic blues, bluegrass, western, and traditional Hawaiian music share the heritage from which we get such different styles as bottleneck guitar, resophonic (like the Dobro or National brands), and slack-key guitar. In the early 1950's, players became dissatisfied with the limitation that a "straight bar" imposes on the instrument. Some players would actually "pull" the strings behind the bar with their left hand to raise a single string. There were also many "slant bar" positions used to help get chords that were impossible otherwise. Early steel guitar makers such as Shot Jackson and his crew at Sho-Bud in Nashville, Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby plus a BUNCH of other contributors cranked out design-after-design until the modern changer mechanism was born. The debut of the modern pedal steel came in 1952 when Bud Isaacs recorded a song called "Slowly" with Webb Pierce. The rest, as they say, is HISTORY.
4. What is the best brand?
Whatever brand YOU PLAY. All modern pedal steel guitars are solidly built and each has its own characteristic tone, features, and feel. As in most industries, the major players endorse their favorites and some have built or helped build a brand of their own.